After teaming with Liam Neeson on Unknown and Non-Stop, director Jaume Collet-Sera is back in action with the actor for a third go in the action-thriller Run All Night. In the March 13 release, Neeson plays an ex-mob hitman haunted by his murders, with a son (Joel Kinnaman) who resents him. When the son witnesses a murder committed by the son of Neeson’s old boss (Ed Harris), it leads them into a maelstrom of violence until the sun comes up.
We sat down for an exclusive chat with Collet-Serra to discuss doing two films back-to-back, freeing his camera and the size of Liam Neeson’s… well, you know. He also gives us the lowdown on his live-action Akira remake, his Sniper Elite film at Sony and why he’s not interested in making a DC superhero movie.
ComingSoon.net: I live in Brooklyn and was pleased your movie looked like Brooklyn and not Vancouver.
Jaume Collet-Serra: Oh yeah! We love shooting in New York. It’s fantastic, there’s no city like it. We shot everywhere, we shot Queens, Manhattan. We cheated here or there.
CS: But not Canada cheated!
Collet-Serra: Not Canada cheated. We were lucky with the weather. If you shoot before Christmas usually you’re pretty good. We tried to use real locations after shooting “Non-Stop” where we built everything. I was very keen on shooting this movie for real. We shot in anamorphic, which made things even more difficult. Sometimes we were in tight closets trying to get distance with the camera and get everything in focus. It was a fun movie.
CS: In Non-Stop you made a conscious choice to not really leave the plane except for one instance, but here you had the freedom to literally fly your camera (via CGI aids) through Manhattan and Brooklyn. Was there a sense of exhilaration in being untethered after your last movie?
Collet-Serra: Yes. Inside the plane any shot was very difficult, moving seats and the extras and whatnot, even though we had the best crew. Here the scene where Joel Kinnaman is jumping from backyard to backyard we were just able to have one cable cam and do a couple different lenses and we shot that scene in like an hour-and-a-half, no other coverage other than the cable cam. Things like that you cannot use inside of a plane. To be able to use those tools and be so fast and efficient it was really great. A lot of cranes, because the studio said to be sure we can see New York.
CS: We see ALL of New York, we see it from space. As for Irish mob stories they’re kind of a genre within themselves. Were there certain clichés or stereotypes you were trying to avoid or twist?
Collet-Serra: The reality is that those guys are probably dead or in witness protection. There’s not a lot of people that moved on from The Westies. We wanted to imagine that there’s maybe one or two, and maybe those two are Ed Harris and Liam, and I really wanted to make sure that Ed Harris’ character was someone who had moved on, not really but at least in his mind. He wasn’t killing people anymore. The mind of a mobster, at least in my imagination, sees the world as all mobsters, doing things on the edge. They see themselves as that, or classier than new mobsters that are emerging. What would have happened if some of these guys got to this level today? How would they live? The Liam Neeson character, Jimmy, its pretty obvious he’s a guy who has no world, or the world doesn’t care about him anymore, and he was already insignificant, most importantly to his own family. The purpose of this movie was to give this guy one last opportunity to not only save his son’s life, as we have seen in many other Liam Neeson movies, but to actually earn the right to be part of his life. That’s what’s different from what you might see in other movies where family members are… taken. (laughs) For me it was a movie about fathers and sons, a very manly movie. There’s only one or two female characters. It’s about children paying for the sins of the fathers. I had a lot of themes that are common in Westerns, things like that. It was very interesting on that level, as movies I’ve done before with Liam had strong concepts that kind of got in the way of character development. In one he doesn’t know who he is, and in the other there’s a bomb on the plane so you’re not going to see him talk about… and nobody knows anybody. In this one you saw his world, you saw his best friend, you saw his family so you got to learn who he is and then root for his physical and emotional redemption.
CS: You mentioned that this was a manly movie, and there are literally whole websites devoted to speculating on how big Liam Neeson’s member is.
Collet-Serra: You think we solved it?
CS: One joke is it’s so big when he unzips his fly it needs an intermission.
Collet-Serra: (laughs) That’s funny.
CS: Was that joke with him as Santa talking about his junk a little wink at that phenomenon?
Collet-Serra: That was in the script. It was before Liam Neeson was cast. AND we did different jokes in different versions. You know how it works, you never know if it’s going to land, so when it comes to jokes we do different versions, try to improvise a little bit. I’m not a comedy director by any means, but Liam is very funny so he improvised a couple of things, but that was the one that was scripted.
CS: Your commitment to making X-number of Liam Neeson thrillers harkens back to the era when you’d see Jimmy Stewart make 5 or 6 Westerns with Anthony Mann.
Collet-Serra: I wish I could do that.
CS: Run All Night is structured identically to a Western, right down to him having the rifle at the end. Was that conscious?
Collet-Serra: Yeah. It’s not that we go and watch those movies, but I think it’s in the back of our brains. It’s an urban Western. Having these two characters and pitting them against each other. Having a showdown at the train tracks with no music, it’s very classic, beautiful anamorphic. It’s a twist on it, but it’s at night, it’s a maze they go through.
CS: And the sound of the rocks as the walk along the tracks is very effective.
Collet-Serra: Definitely. If you compare that to the next showdown, which is very movie-like, you can see how we’re trying to get a bit of both worlds in, and I think in these kind of movies what works tends to be classic but we’re also trying to do things that are new and fresh. Ultimately I’m trying to make a movie that stands on its own. We’re not trying to create a franchise, we’re just trying to tell a story that hopefully people will connect with, especially fathers and sons.
CS: Also like those Mann Westerns it has that moral ambiguity of not necessarily liking the protagonist but certainly understanding his darkness and where he comes from.
Collet-Serra: And being honest and not afraid to do that. Liam is always brave in taking those roles and portraying them in a way that feels honest, and people like Liam. Nowadays, especially in TV, you see a lot of characters who are supposedly not likeable, and people like watching them.
CS: The Don Drapers, the Walter Whites…
Collet-Serra: Don Draper, “House of Cards,” “Fargo.” There’s a lot of fascinating characters. It’s not that people see themselves in it. Liam brings a sort of humanity. It’s not bad for the sake of being bad, you understand why he did what he did and he’s always trying to do better.
CS: It’s been a year since we talked about your plans for Akira. What has happened in the proceeding 365 days?
Collet-Serra: Nothing. I’ve been doing this movie. Right now I’m just gonna take some time off, I’ve done two movies back-to-back and I have a production company I’m trying to get some project together for. It’s very exhausting to do two movies back-to-back and I don’t know what my next project is going to be.
CS: I think this one was already in the can last year but you were still in post.
Collet-Serra: I hadn’t even started post. When I was promoting “Non-Stop” I hadn’t started anything. I did my director’s cut by May and then it’s been a whole process.
CS: You were very forthright and honest about what your take on Akira was going to be, yet a lot of the people who made comments were very negative, almost to the point where they wouldn’t want to see anything less than a frame-by-frame remake.
Collet-Serra: Fans are fans on any type of movie, and they’re very vocal. They have the right to say whatever.
CS: Do you and the Warner Bros. brass take attitudes like that seriously?
Collet-Serra: You’d have to ask them, I just work on a project at a time and I think that if I do “Akira,” if “Akira” gets made, then I get the honor to do it, then it will be the time to talk about it. Right now I haven’t been on the project in two years and don’t have anything interesting to say.
CS: You do have a good relationship with Warners and they have this huge slate of superhero movies they’re developing. Have you at least taken a meeting or two on those?
Collet-Serra: No. I do the movies that I like to do. For me, I’m not a director that just goes chasing the next big thing because it’s good for my career. It’s not like, “Oh, that movie will do this for me!” I do the movies that I know that I can do right, and if not I don’t do them. The same with “Akira,” if I get the honor to do such a movie it’s because I believe I can do it the best possible way. If not I don’t do it.
CS: What makes Sniper Elite more in your wheelhouse?
Collet-Serra: “Sniper Elite” doesn’t have a script. It’s something for me to work with a great writer like Sheldon Turner. There’s a really big idea behind it that we’re developing, so it’s exciting to get in the process so early with such a wealth of source material. That’s what’s exciting, to develop something from the very beginning. And I love action, and I think that movie could bring action to the next level because you’re talking about –from a very realistic point of view- the very best in the world in action.