Interview: Director James McTeigue on Survivor and Netflix’s Sense8

Filmmaker James McTeigue had the good fortune of cutting his chops doing second unit and assistant directing for the Wachowskis on movies like “The Matrix Trilogy” and Speed Racer before going out on his own with the adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta.

Since then, he directed Ninja Assassin and The Raven and he’s back with Survivor, a tense political action thriller starring Milla Jovovich as Kate Abbott, an agent of the UK government in charge of deciding who is allowed Visas into the country. When she runs afoul of a couple of unscrupulous individuals, she finds herself framed for a terrorist bombing and on the run, not only from her agency but also an assassin known as the Watchmaker, played by Pierce Brosnan in a rare bad guy role, as she tries to find out the truth.

Since making Survivor, McTeigue has also reunited with the Wachowskis to help direct their upcoming Netflix series “Sense8,” which they created with J. Michael Straczynski, and which will debut on Netflix on Friday, June 5. got on the phone with McTeigue earlier this week to talk to him both mostly about Survivor, but we also talked about “Sense8” and the chances of him directing a superhero movie (since his name has come up a couple of times over the years for a few projects). I first heard about “Survivor” when I spoke to Pierce Brosnan sometime last year, and he mentioned it, but I didn’t even know you directed it at that point. He just said “I was in Serbia making ‘Survivor.’”

James McTeigue: Yeah, some of those films, I keep on the down low, right? But no, it depends. I mean, yeah, sometimes, films really get out there, and other times, it usually gets when you’ve got a studio behind you, it’s pretty in your face.

CS: I imagine it’s different than when you’re doing stuff with the Wachowskis, because it’s hard to keep things a secret when everyone’s always looking for everything. But it’s nice when that doesn’t happen and you can see a movie without knowing everything about it.

McTeigue: There’s always that sort of audience expectation, too, and I think audiences like to know what movies are now. That’s the other crazy thing. I think they’re more in tune or they’re more appreciative if they know almost everything about the movie before they go in. I mean, I think sometimes, you can see some trailers and stuff now, too. Sometimes you get the whole film. I think gone are the days of the mysterious trailer, right?

jamesmcteiguesurvivor1bCS: Obviously, “The Raven” was a while ago. Was this something which was already coming together when you got on board as a director or was it something you were on board very early before anyone was attached?

McTeigue: After “The Raven,” I was immediately going to do this film called “Message from the King,” which didn’t eventually in the end go through. So then after that, I started “Survivor” actually, and that started with a little bit of a different cast. Then, we had a pause in the preproduction, then Milla and Pierce came on and we got going again, so that was good. I think they’re the right people for the roles, too, so I was kind of happy the way it eventually came together.

CS: So basically you were already on board before anyone else was attached to it.

McTeigue: Yeah, correct. It first came to me through Irwin Winkler and my agent Scott Greenberg there at CAA. They sent me the script, asked me if I’d be interested in it. I thought it was like a good, taut thriller in the old version of those movies like “The Three Days of the Condor” or “Marathon Man.” The central character was in some jeopardy for something that they didn’t do and are trying to find out what was the greater issue behind what was going on. That’s sort of what got me interested in it, but I guess what really got me interested in it (is that) those films usually have male characters in the lead, and I was interested that this had a female lead character.

CS: It feels a bit like a throwback movie in a good way, because there is a slower build that allows you to meet the character and then it kind of takes off, which is similar to those movies you mentioned.

McTeigue: I think that that was also what was interesting to me. I think the audience expectation nowadays is that everything has to happen all at once. I sort of like the slight misdirect at the start. You think you’re in one movie and then it turns out to be something else completely. Then, yeah, I like how it builds slowly and then it all starts to unravel after that, so it has a more considered pace. Not to say that it’s slow, because I think the movie sort of really hums along and it’s not particularly long, you know? It’s just around the 90-minute mark. So, yeah, I like that about movies. I think you can have everything. I mean, I think you can have like the huge action films that give you everything at once, and then there’s space in the market for these kind of films as well.

CS: Casting Pierce as The Watchmaker was an interesting choice, because it’s very rare for him to play the bad guy in a movie. I can’t think of anything really that would play someone who was literally an assassin completely, just their motivation is to kill people and that’s it.

McTeigue: Yeah, well, you know what? I think there’s also a little bit of “Day of the Jackal” in that, too, probably the older one rather than the newer one, where you don’t have much back story on the guy, but they’re sent to do a task. I think that he has played the complexity of that character without you having to know reams of backstory on them, but you just knew that there was something about them, something that had set them on this trajectory, and that’s what they did. I thought there was also a certain sort of fatigue that he had, which was kind of good, you know? I think he was great at his job, but did he want to keep doing it day-in and day-out? Then he comes up against this foil, who sort of makes everything a little harder for him than he’s used to. I think that Pierce played that resignation pretty well. It is a different role for him, and I think he sort of relished that a bit.

CS: Political thrillers are generally more interesting post-9/11, because there are people are trying to get into the country and everyone’s worried about terrorism. Even 14 years later, that’s still very much in the consciousness of people and there are concerns about who we are letting into the country. Who might be a terrorist that we don’t know about yet? Was that something you looking to explore?

McTeigue: Yes, look, the politics of all that stuff interests me. I guess I touched on it a decent amount in “V for Vendetta” even thought that film was sort of nine years ago now. I think there is that sort of threat that is still out there. The other thing I was interested in is all the threats or the perceived threats, I should say, to the U.S. isn’t sort of Islamic terrorism. I think I was interested in — without it being a spoiler–alluding to what the greater idea behind this threat of terrorism was, because a lot of that actually did happen after 9/11, if you look into some of the stock market stuff that happened, without being too conspiracy theorist about it. I think that there is this sort of larger threat to the country that’s multi-strand, I guess. I think that’s worth an exploration. I was also interested in how you stop it. Does the burden fall on the U.S. or does it fall on arms of the embassies that are in foreign countries, who ultimately give visas to let people into the country?

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CS: Most of the characters in the movie seemed to have an easier time getting into the United States than they did the UK, which is kind of scary.

McTeigue: Obviously, I made the film in the U.K. and I’ve made other films in the U.K., and I think just by its very nature, Europe and by default the U.K. and them opening in the EU, like, the borders are a little more porous, right? There’s many more countries that you can exit into before you ever get to the U.K. I think that they are constantly worried about that in the U.K., but sort of are a little helpless to stop it. I think it exists in both countries, but I think if what you’re saying is that it’s easier to get into the U.K., and then by default, get to the U.S.? I think it is, actually. I think that is a reality.

CS: I remember Pierce mentioned you shot in Serbia, although there’s obviously locations in New York and London. How long were you shooting in New York for?

McTeigue: No, the majority of the film was actually in London, to tell you the truth. Then, I did some studio stuff, actually in Sofia, Bulgaria. That’s where I did some of the studio stuff. Then yeah, we went to New York and we shot plates from the actual building that all the climax of the film happens on. The majority of the location shooting, like all the location London stuff you see is actual London locations. That’s where we did all that. Then, yeah, just some of the studio stuff was in Sofia. That was also part of the attraction. What I wanted to do in London was not just show the normal tourist sites that everyone expects to see when you see a London movie, so I was interested in shooting in a lot of places that you might know, like you might know Hyde Park or you might know Kings Cross and all those areas, but I took a different aspect on those. I shot in and around SoHo a lot, because what I wanted to do was make where the U.S. Embassy was and where she would run to and the parts of the city that she could get to be believable.

CS: I don’t like when they shoot New York movies and it’s really obvious that it’s not possible geographically.

McTeigue: Yeah, they walk out of a store in Harlem, but end up in Greenwich Street in Tribeca or something like that.

CS: How have things been going with this “Sense8” show? The Netflix thing is really interesting to me because it feels like you can do stuff on the scale of the movie, but still have the episodic aspect of television, but then it’s all available at once, so you can actually just watch it as a 13-hour movie in some ways. You were just doing one or two episodes of that?

McTeigue: Yeah, so it’s sort of a little different because there’s eight different characters in the series, and we shot in eight different countries. All of the characters interweave, so it’s sort of hard to say that you do two or three episodes because all the stuff that I shot is in all 12 episodes, you know? So it happens at different times in the 12 episodes. I think sort of post-2008, the financial re-correction there is that the independent film sector changed a lot in the way that films were made and it became a lot harder. I think that what’s happened with the episodic TV, and especially at sort of the scale that Netflix does it at has become like the new independent cinema because it really is the domain that leads to try things out now.  It’s not like Netflix gives you an open check book, but they’re really open to trying things and doing storylines that are much different to what you can even attempt in a 90-minute film. Like you so rightly pointed out, if you have 45 or 50-minute episodes, you get long character and story arcs. I think some stories just haven’t been able to be told in 90 minutes or two hours. I think this really opens it up. Obviously, audiences have embraced it and it’s putting interesting shows out there, I mean, besides Netflix, too. There’s a bunch of other cable networks that are starting to do it now, so yeah, it’s great, actually, and it’s great to work on as well. 

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CS: Which country was your section of the show?

McTeigue: I was in Mexico City. I was in Mumbai and I was in Reykjavik. I mean, it was also shot in San Francisco, Chicago, Nairobi, Berlin, Seoul, London, Reykjavik, yeah. So, there’s a bunch of different characters in there in all the countries. Then, the unique thing about it is, the other characters get to visit those other characters in the aforementioned countries. The first couple of episodes sort of get you into the idea and get you all the characters going, and then, it ramps up from there, so stick with it.

CS: By the way, I assume the premise is set up so that they can do more seasons later. I’m always wondering about that, because you can’t just do it as a 13 episode miniseries in some ways. But, have they figured things out, to do more later?

McTeigue: Yeah, there is, and hopefully, we do some more. I guess we’ll put this lot out in the marketplace. It comes out June 5th, so we’ll have to see how it fares, but I think it should go pretty good. It’s pretty great. I’m pretty proud of it.

CS: At one point I think you expressed interest in doing some superhero movie or other for Warner Brothers or DC, and now that seems to be taking off. Is that something you’re still interested in exploring or do you have other things that you’re kind of more focused on now?

McTeigue: I have other things that I’m focused on, but I think those stories ebb and flow. I mean, I met Ryan Reynolds — and that would be, like eight or nine years ago–about “Deadpool.” I see obviously that’s just getting going now, but I think things come up on the radar and then they fall away and then they get wind behind the sails with something. I think part of being in the film business is just being patient sometimes and things just sort of seem to find their own level and connect with the zeitgeist at certain times. Then other times, they don’t. I think you just have to hang in there.

CS: You’re probably the third filmmaker I’ve talked to in the last week who has mentioned the zeitgeist and how it affects the creative process and what they end up doing. I think some people assume that everything in a filmmaker’s career is more calculated than it can possibly be, because that’s impossible.

McTeigue: Yeah, no, not usually. I was just looking at “Tomorrowland,” and I was sort of bemoaning, in some ways, that it’d be great if you can bring out like original sci-fi that people are trying to do. But I think people’s appetite for original sci-fi is limited, and not to bash the drum of how everything needs to be branded in Hollywood, but there’s a certain truth to that I’d have to say.

CS: But then you also have “Mad Max,” which is straight sci-fi that does well among critics and audiences, so you can never figure out how audiences are going to think or decide.

McTeigue: Yeah, but you know, see, I think the thing about “Mad Max” is though, right, like, how different a little bit is, it’s three other films of it, right? There seems to be an entity of people, like if the audience can latch onto something, even though it could be like 25 years old, there’s some sort of an awareness in the marketplace already, the sci-fi seems to do better. If you have something wholly original, the people don’t really know. It becomes more difficult. It’s not to say that you can’t do it, but certainly, the hurdle is there, unfortunately.

Survivor opens in select cities and is available via On Demand platforms starting Friday, May 29, while “Sense8” will be available solely on Netflix starting on Friday, June 5.

(Photo Credit: WENN)


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