Interview: Director Jonathan Mostow Discusses Breakdown Special Edition Blu-ray

The 1997 suspense thriller Breakdown has finally made its way to Blu-ray via a jam-packed new collector’s edition boasting an all-new commentary with director Jonathan Mostow and star Kurt Russell, a generous array of special features, and a gorgeous new digital transfer of the film.

To commemorate the event, ComingSoon’s Jeff Ames sat down with Mostow to discuss the making of Breakdown, his experience working with Kurt Russell, and other odds and ends about the production.

Here’s the film’s plot synopsis: “A man and his wife are driving cross-country from Mass. to San Diego when their new car mysteriously breaks down. A truck driver stops and assists them by taking his wife to the nearest diner to phone for help but in reality is kidnapping her, causing her husband to track down his wife and the kidnapper himself.”

Breakdown stars Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan, J.T. Walsh (in his final role), M.C. Gainey, Jack Noseworthy, and Rex Lin.

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Jeff Ames: How did this project initially come together and what drew you to it?

Jonathan Mostow: [Laughs] Well, all movies seem to have a weird road to happening. I had been developing with these producers a movie based on a Stephen King short story called Trucks. We scouted some locations out in the desert, and it had these big eighteen-wheeler trucks in it, and then for contractual reasons that movie fell apart. I was like, “Oh man! I was ready to go shoot that film! How can I remedy this situation?” Well, I knew about these locations in the desert. I had trucks in my head and I just sort of dreamt up this story out of nothing. I wrote the script very quickly and brought it back to the producers.

I just came up with this idea out of thin air. You know, what’s a movie I can shoot in the desert that has a truck in it? It’s a completely ass backwards way of coming up with a film, but in reality, I don’t think I would’ve come up with this film had I not been in that circumstance. Even though Breakdown has nothing to do with the Stephen King story, I will forever owe a gratitude to Mr. King.

I always got a lot of Steven Spielberg’s Duel vibes from Breakdown. Were there films that you intentionally patterned the plot after?

I guess there are filmmakers that consciously think of other films while they’re making theirs, but I don’t know how to do that. What is true is that I was heavily influenced by the thriller films of the 70s. I loved the vibe, feel and pace of those films, including Duel – although Duel was not a theatrical release, it was a made for television movie. Growing up and seeing Duel and watching Alfred Hitchcock films — there were other films in the 70s that had that suspenseful drive where a couple would be driving through the desert and get pulled over by a crooked Sheriff who would imprison them in a basement or something.  I don’t even remember the name of those films, but I think in aggregate they were informative to my own tastes and instincts, and then when you marry that to my general paranoia, that’s where this came from.

I lived in Los Angeles and sometimes with friends I would drive to Las Vegas, which is like a five or six hour drive through the desert; and as you’re driving you always see some old trailer or cabin about a half mile off the road and you wonder, “Who lives there?” Most people would just say it’s a house on the side of the road, but my brain is wondering what horrible thing is going on over there? And that’s what led to the story of Breakdown.

Considering the gestation of this project, did you imagine that Kurt Russell would jump aboard this film?

No, that was a dream come true, because Kurt I had met on another that had also fell apart – a film called The Game that David Fincher eventually directed. Originally, I was going to direct that film and I wanted Kurt for the lead role; and that’s where I met him. I had a fantastic meeting with him. So, a couple of years later, when I came up with the idea for Breakdown, I knew in my mind he was the guy. So, when we got him, I knew in that moment that if I didn’t screw it up, we would have a movie that would really work.

How much direction does an actor like Kurt Russell require? Because one of the things that makes his character so appealing is just how normal of a guy he is until he has to go above and beyond to save his wife.

That’s a great question, and I find that with truly great actors – and Kurt is one of the great actors of all time – the great thing is, if you could listen in on the conversations between Kurt and I — and there were many — it would sound like two writers talking to each other because we always talked to each other in terms of character, moment-to-moment what was going through the character’s mind, what the character was thinking, what the character’s objectives were.

We had a really unique situation which was, immediately before we shot Breakdown, Kurt was shooting the sequel to Escape from New York called Escape from LA. It was like four months of night shooting. Kurt said to me, “Look, I’m shooting five days a week at night; and on the weekends, I have to stay up, because otherwise it’s just too punishing physically to shift back to a day schedule. So, if you’re willing to come over on Saturday and Sunday nights around dinner time and stay awake as long as you can stay awake, we’ll just go through the script.” So, every weekend I would just go to Kurt’s house for months and stay up until three or four in the morning, and we would just sit in this quiet house — everyone else was asleep — and just, moment-by-moment, go through the script. So, by the time Kurt showed up on set for Breakdown, we knew exactly what we wanted out of every scene.

It was rare that we would shoot more than a few takes of any shot. Occasionally I would go to Kurt with a different idea, but after every take, we would always ask, “Did this accomplish what we discussed?”

One of Kurt’s great geniuses is that he’s able to completely emotionally immerse himself in a dramatic moment and then step out of it and look at it objectively as though it were another actor that did that. He was very analytical about his own performance. He’s a one-of-a-kind genius when it comes to acting.

One of my favorite moments in the film is the torture-by-duct tape bit where Jeff finally takes control or gets the upper hand. Who came up with that moment? Was it always in the script?

That was in the script, so I guess I came up with the idea. There’s another scene where he turns the tables on J.T. Walsh’s character later in the film — audiences would literally cheer at those moments — and when Kurt and I were doing the commentary track for this new Blu-ray, Kurt said something very true, he said, “I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie where the movie star is completely back on his heels for so long before he’s able to make any kind of difference.” The [Jeff] character is constantly trying to do something, but he keeps getting checkmated. You don’t usually see that. Usually, the movie star is back on their heels for a bit but then they launch into action mode. In Breakdown, the audience is so empathetic to Kurt’s plight. So, when he’s finally able to successfully fight back, his actions provoked a real guttural response from audiences.

Yeah, I think the same could be said of the decision to allow Amy to drop the truck on J.T. Walsh at the end of the film, which gave her a little retribution after all she had been through.

That was something that wasn’t in the script. In the script, Kurt was the one who did that. On the day we were filming, Kurt and Kathleen were having a conversation and she was complaining to Kurt that women in these movies always have to be saved, and they never get to do anything. Keep in mind, this is over two decades before the #MeToo movement. So, Kurt was like, “Why don’t you deliver the final blow to J.T.’s character?” And they asked me if that moment could go to Kathleen, and a light just went off in my head, like, “Oh my God, what a great idea!”

I never like films that glorify violence. The movie has an intentionally muted final beat where it’s satisfying, but hopefully, it’s not … it’s like what it feels like when you wake up from a nightmare. You wake up and you’re like, “Okay, I’m okay.” No one wakes up from a nightmare and goes, “Yay, I’m fine!” It’s a more somber experience.

What can fans expect from this new Blu-ray release?

I think the commentary with Kurt will be interesting to people. I was entertained by listening to Kurt when I was sitting next to him. Paramount really went all out on this. People always ask me where the Blu-ray of Breakdown was, and when I finally got the call last year from the studio, they told me not only were they going to release the film on Blu-ray, but they were going to do this whole, over-the-top special release with behind-the-scenes documentaries and commentaries — this is not recycled stuff. It’s all new stuff special to the Blu-ray.

I’ve also put an alternate opening on the Blu-ray that I never really wanted to have in the film, but that’s a long story you’ll understand when watching the bonus feature. It’s also a great transfer of the film as well. I’m very appreciative to Paramount for going all out with this. Fans will appreciate it, and hopefully, people who never saw the film the first time around will get a chance to see it with the kind of picture and sound I always hoped it would have.


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