This past weekend, the action-thriller Taken, starring Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace, was the #1 movie in the country, and it also became the top opening U.S. release for French action producer Luc Besson. The day before the movie opened, ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with the film’s director Pierre Morel, who previously directed the futuristic action flick District B13. He graciously took some time off from the post-production on his next movie From Paris With Love, starring John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, to talk to us, so we thought CS readers who’ve seen the movie might be interested in learning more about how the movie came together.
ComingSoon.net: So last time I talked to you was when you were in New York promoting “District B13” which I guess was three years ago? Pierre Morel: Actually, it was four years ago. The release in France was way earlier than in the States, but we shot it four years ago. It was almost a year delay between the French release and the American release of both movies.
CS: That’s kind of strange. Is it hard revisiting movies that you’ve already finished and moved on from each time? Morel: Yeah, well, it’s weird. I’ve already moved on and shot another movie which I’m editing now and “Taken” is only being released now, so it’s weird, but it’s good.
CS: Did you go back and rewatch this movie so that you’re able to answer questions about it? Morel: I know it, it’s okay. Actually, I saw it recently and kind of liked it. I was here for a screening and I really had fun… as usual, there were a few things you would change, you know (chuckles)…
CS: You’ve done three movies written by Luc Besson at this point and you’ve worked with him for so long. What’s the process for him coming to you and saying, “Can you direct this script?” How does that work these days? Morel: You’re right. With Luc, I have such a long relationship, as a camera person, and as a D.P. and as a straight helper for him for some of the shows he did, I D.P.’ed some of his commercials. He knew I was willing to direct so the first time, for “District B13,” he just offered me the script. “I know you want to try to direct.” He knew I knew all the guys in “B13” so he said, “Do you want to read the script? And if you like it, just come back to me and shoot.” And I liked it. That was as simple as that. And then for “Taken,” it was like a few years later, and he actually pitched me the story. Just one day, we were having dinner at a restaurant, just having a casual chat, and he just pitched me the movie and I loved it, and a year later, when it was financed and they knew we could do it, he said, “Do you still like it? Do you want to do it?” I said, “Yes, of course” right away, and I knew that it was going to be Liam Neeson, and he’s one of my favorite actors so I said immediately “Yes, yes, yes!” And that was mostly it. Once you get to work with Luc, we just read the script together, we make a few notes, we make a few changes if needed and from there on, you’re free to go. I haven’t seen Luc at all on my set and I’ve never had a producer breathing down my neck through the whole process. I haven’t seen him at all. It’s very comfortable actually.
CS: Does he have a lot of ideas and treatments in different stages? I mean, did he just have an idea and then developed it into a script once you came on board or does he have a lot of finished scripts? Morel: Actually, no, it’s just the script, and then you just do whatever you want. I didn’t even have to pitch him where I was going to shoot it. He just trusted me from scratch, which is amazing and it may sound weird compared to an American production process, but that’s the way we work together. He just trusts me and we just have a general conversation about what the overall things should be, and that’s it. It’s very, very short. It’s not a long process of discussing how to do things; it’s really a generic thing and it’s very fast.
CS: You mentioned that he already had Liam in mind for the lead role, so was there anything else that appealed to you about the story? Morel: I liked this kind of script, it’s very simple, and it’s also something that appeals to everybody I think. I am a father myself, a younger father, but I am a father, and I know the only thing that everybody would prize is that if someone touches your kids, you will violently react immediately. Not everybody has the skills of a secret agent, of course (laughs) but I think everybody can share the feeling and the horror of having your kid being abducted. That’s something that really appealed to me immediately. I guess that’s what first attracted me to the movie, even before knowing Liam was going to do it. That’s basically it, then once I knew that Liam was going to be in it and we discussed and shared ideas with Liam, he told me that he was willing to do as much action himself than he could. He happened to do 99% of the action. I thought it was very interesting, too, because from the experience of “B13,” I knew that having the cast do all the action and the stunts themselves changes the look of the movie. It’s not like having the cast do the close-ups and then have stunt guys do everything else. As Liam was really willing to invest himself as much as he could into the real action, I thought it was going to be even stronger.
CS: I first heard about this movie about two years ago when I was interviewing Luc for “Arthur and the Invisibles” and he mentioned you were doing this. Whenever anyone hears about this movie, they always seem surprised that Liam is doing action, even though he’s done it for a long time. People seem to remember him more for his dramatic work, so why do you think Liam can do both so effectively, not just be a great actor but also be convincing when doing action? Morel: That’s amazing, too, and that was a great surprise. I don’t know why but he wanted to invest himself very much. We knew how much he was able to do of course in terms of the acting and the dramatic part, but him having been boxing and doing a lot of sports, he’s really taking care of himself, and he really wanted to learn. We took months to train him and all through the movie, he’d been training and working hard, and that was part of the process of making the movie. The first time I met Liam actually to discuss the project, that was something that we approached right away, and that’s something he immediately said, “Yes, I want to do it.” He’s never really done an action movie before. The only thing you recall was doing some light saber thing against a green screen against tennis balls on “Star Wars” which wasn’t something he really liked, because it wasn’t real. He wanted to try doing something with the real guys.
CS: I did like that you kept the movie so realistic, but I wanted to ask about the fighting style. We’ve seen so much martial arts in these movies and you used Parkour in your last movie. Did you try to develop the fighting style specifically for Liam’s physicality? Morel: Of course, of course. I wanted to make this movie as realistic as possible, and I think if I had to have Liam do some Chinese walk on ceiling thing, it would be ridiculous, so we found this style of fighting which is a mix of different real self-defense army things that would suit his character. The agent that he’s supposed to be, he just goes for the essentials. He’s not fighting for the fun of making nice shots. He’s just there to kill people, so we wanted to make it very, very fast, very realistic, very aggressive and have moves that a guy of his age would be able to do and would look real. There’s no way he was going to do some Jackie Chan stuff or some Jet Li stuff, so we really planned and choreographed the fights accordingly to his very specific point of view and his capacity.
CS: I also wanted to ask about the casting of Maggie Grace. I’ve met her a few times and she’s definitely playing a lot younger than her normal age. Can you talk about casting her and how she found that energy to play his teen daughter? Morel: Maggie? Oh, yeah. It was love at first sight. We had an audition with lots of different girls at Fox before we started, and she was one of the very first ones. I almost didn’t give her any direction for the first trial and she just nailed it. What she did the first time was what she did on the movie, she was amazing. There were no questions asked. We had like ten girls that day, and immediately, it had to be Maggie. She was just perfect right away.
CS: I thought this was one of Luc’s best scripts in a long time and I think it’s surprising that there’s a good 20 minutes of establishing the characters at the beginning. Usually, a movie like this, you’d want to get into the action right away and not spend the time. Can you talk about the importance of the first 20 minutes in establishing the character and his relationships and why that’s important to do that in a movie like this? Morel: I think it’s very important, you’re right. I think the first act, the happy family L.A-lifestyle part it’s not long, but it takes a long time before the action starts, but I think it’s nice because it’s even more surprising. When you start a movie with something like that and then all of a sudden, everything goes wrong and then the effect is even stronger. It was nice to describe him not as an action guy–although we know what skills he has in that little scene with the pop singer–but we wanted to have him more described as a loving father and a cool guy, and not a guy who wants to be in the action again. He’s just forced into action again. I think it’s interesting because then when he releases the power, the effect is even more appealing and stronger.
CS: Absolutely. I think another thing that makes the movie feel very real is that it’s set in the world of sex trafficking, which is a very hot topic and we know it’s happening a lot in the world because it’s discussed on the news all the time with women disappearing. Did you do a lot of research into that world or did Luc and Mark (his co-writer) do that beforehand? Morel: Once I got the script, I did some research, too. I did some more research. I don’t think that the situations are exactly right and real, but it relates to real situations like the fact that for instance the Albanian Mafia is really ruling most of the prostitution in Europe now. They’ve taken over most of the prostitution in London, where the Russians where before. They rule a lot of what is going on in Paris and London and the Eastern countries, in Germany, they take care of this and they really do abduct girls. They don’t usually abduct tourist girls like the way in this movie, but they bring along tens of thousands of young girls every year, who just disappear from where they are, their families, their villages. It’s a huge traffic and these girls you just find back in the streets of London or throughout Europe. It’s something that really is a huge phenomenon. By doing a genre movie, which is not supposed to make people think, it’s also interesting that in this case, it will educate the audience of what’s really going on.
CS: With the movie having played in so many countries, has it gotten any backlash from the Albanian community or do they know this is going on and don’t want to publicize it.? Morel: No, there’s no comment on that. The Albanian community itself is a very quiet community even in Paris. There is an Albanian community, which is mostly made of very nice people, and they just work and function in society, and the mobsters and Mafia are a very small part, and those guys are very, very discreet. You’re never going to know where they are.
CS: You didn’t have any trouble with them even while shooting? Morel: No, not at all.
CS: You shot movies for Luc before and for some of his other directors. Did you want this to be shot very differently from those other movies? It definitely has a very different look from other movies we’ve seen you shoot. Was it important for you to give this movie that different look? Morel: Definitely, definitely. Once again, just the same thing as the fights and the situations, I wanted it to really look real, so the lights are gritty. It doesn’t look like it’s really lit. It looks like very natural light and we shot in the Paris streets almost without adding much of anything. We wanted to keep that realistic look, and that was something we discussed with the DP and I didn’t want it to look like a postcardish Paris at all. I wanted it to look gritty and real and dark, and yet, there is no way this movie could look nicer.
CS: You worked on this new movie with the same DP also, so is that going to go in a different direction as well? Morel: Yeah, we’re working with the same DP Michel Abramowicz, and we found another look that’s quite different. It’s probably a bit more sophisticated, because the situations are different, too. It’s a buddy movie. It’s an action-comedy, so it cannot be as dark. Actually, I don’t want to pitch it to you, but it starts as a comedy, a buddy movie, and then it slowly evolves into a darker situation, but the beginning is kind of funny.
CS: I wanted to ask about the violence in “Taken.” We talked about the realistic settings and how real you made it, and I was kind of surprised you were able to get a PG-13 for this, even though I’ve talked to people who’ve seen the original European cut and it’s much more graphic. This is still very violent, and I wanted to know how you managed to keep that intensity but also appease the ratings board. Morel: Ah, well. Actually, the European version if put before the MPAA would have been a hard R and there was no way we would release it as an R, so the cut I hope you will see some day… it will be on the DVD for the unrated version.
CS: I was really surprised how violent the movie was, even though you don’t really show anything, and it’s really effective. Morel: The editor I work with, we like to cut things like that. We replaced some of the visual violence with some sound (effects), and it’s very fast-paced, too, so things you don’t see because the fast pace of the movie makes you imagine what it’s going to be and how violent it is actually. We really worked that. Once I knew that I had to do two cuts, I wanted to keep the same violence. It’s a dirty job. It cannot be nice. It’s going for the essentials, and he’s fighting people who are just the worst evil people ever, so it had to be violent. It had to be dirty. We tried to keep as much as we could in the PG-13 cut, because although it had to be PG-13, I think that if you make it too nice of a movie then you lose the essence of it. When you see the other cut, then you’ll see that the impact is very different.
CS: Hopefully the DVD will have both versions. One of the problems with the movie coming out so late in the United States, a lot of people saw the movie online or via important DVD. Is there some hope that this movie you’re working on might get released at the same time here as everywhere else? Is there any way you can control that or is that just the way the system works? Morel: Well, we would have loved this to be released way earlier, of course. It’s almost a year later and it’s been downloaded all over the world and people have different copies. I think it’s one of the most illegally downloaded movies this year, but there’s no way you can control that so far. Just time did it’s work unfortunately. I wish it was released way earlier but because of the process of recutting the movie to make it PG-13, we actually spent a lot of time there until we got the agreement, and it took us a few months. Then by that time, it was not the time to release it.
CS: I think it’ll still work out, because even though it’s been available, I know a lot of people who still want to see it in theater with an audience, because it’s such a good audience movie. Morel: I hope, I hope. I’m so far away that I see it from a distance. I don’t know how the buzz or tracking is, but it sounds to be pretty good, and I hope it will be.
CS: Once you finish this new movie “From Paris With Love”, do you have any inclinations to do something separate from Luc? You two have such a good relationship, I guess you’ll always be able to make movies together, but do you feel like breaking away and developing something on your own from scratch? Morel: I will. This relationship with Luc that I have, I obviously would love to keep. I think probably the next movie I do will not be with Luc. It will be other production and there’s different plans going on there, nothing’s settled. There are some productions in France and some in the States. Nothing has been completely signed yet, so I can’t really tell you anymore. I like the relationship I have with Luc, so even if I go away, I might come back.
CS: The last time I talked to you for “District B13”, the Parkour thing was still a very new thing and part of the underground, but it’s really exploded and we’re seeing it in more and more movies, and it’s everywhere now. Morel: It’s fun to me, because every movie we’ve seen since “B13” that’s been wildly known, there’s Parkour. The James Bond “Casino Royale” thing was of course the most relevant one but then everywhere, you see guys jumping from one building to another. It’s almost like every action piece has that kind of action now, everything–Bollywood, extreme movies or spy– every movie I see, there’s a piece of Parkour in it now. Yeah, everybody makes these. The last “Bourne,” he jumps from windows and jumps from building to building.
CS: Do you think you’ll ever do more with those guys from “B13” or use them on some other movie you make? Morel: You know what? I was not available and I didn’t want to do it myself, but they just shot a sequel to it, so it’s going to open in France a couple weeks from now. A guy called Patrick Alessandrin (directed it), who was not a big action director. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I heard it’s really good, so I look forward to seeing it actually. I really want to see what they did with it!