The Foreigner’s Martin Campbell on Working with Jackie Chan

Interview: The Foreigner’s Martin Campbell on working with Jackie Chan

This Friday sees the release of Martin Campbell‘s first feature film effort since 2011’s Green Lantern. The filmmaker has found himself the man behind reinventing characters for audiences on more than one occasion and his latest directing effort sees him reinventing actors for the big screen by putting the light-hearted Jackie Chan in a gritty and dark revenge thriller. spoke with Campbell about The Foreigner, working with Chan, and reuniting with Pierce Brosnan for the upcoming film. In kind of a rare move, you were brought on to direct this after Jackie Chan was already in talks, so what was that process of like of getting involved with a star already attached?

Martin Campbell: In all honesty, what happened was I was on another movie and that movie went down because the company went bankrupt. I came off that and then got a call from STX to, there was a director already on this movie who had sort of left, so they asked me if I would be interested to do it.

CS: Was any part of that discussion, “you’re making a Jackie Chan movie but he’s not playing Jackie Chan.”

Campbell: He was kind of considering it, but at that point he hadn’t signed on. That wouldn’t come until I had to do two trips to China to meet him and talk to him about it. Just to sort of get him to sign. It was a bit of a jump for him, clearly the character is something he’s never played before, so he had to consider that. I had to do two trips and after that he came on board.

CS: What sort of direction do you give Jackie in playing a role like that? He obviously can handle himself in the physical scenes, but what about the heavier character moments?

Campbell: We managed to rehearse some of this stuff and really, since it’s a story of loss and grief, it was just getting him into a state of mind where that’s what he’s feeling, that’s all going inside his head. That’s the main thing. I wanted him to be very still through all this stuff, which he is, so everything is really conveyed through his eyes and his expression and his performance and we really just let that tell the story. Keep him very simple was the way to do (that). Keep him simple in terms of just a character, if you know what I mean.

CS: I’m also curious given how extensive both you and Jackie’s careers have been, what was something that working with him taught you about filmmaking?

Campbell: Obviously, the action speaks for itself. He had one of his own stunt arrangers who was excellent, a guy called Han, and just his dedication. What was extraordinary, there is no ego with Jackie. He’s an absolute team player, always punctual, always on time, very generous, I presume you’ve met him, have you?

CS: I have not unfortunately, but I would like to.

Campbell: Well, you know often there’s always something about an actor that you can sort of rail against, but with Jackie there is none. He’s 100% genuine, and his dedication to the work is extraordinary. I say very generous and I really mean that in the best sense of the word, and a true professional. I’ve worked with actors who could be difficult, that can be a bit of a struggle, but not so with Jackie. Patience is something he taught me. He had a lot to overcome (in the movie), he hadn’t done an American film as it were for a long, long time, and you lose the language. The thing is you speak Mandarin for that length of time, and it’s been a long time since he’d done Rush Hour, so his English was not great. But he’d really got stuck in and learned the stuff, I had to do very little looping with him. It’s all sort of original sound, or 98% of it is, and he really immersed himself in the character.

CS: On the other side of it being a role Jackie hasn’t played, was it your idea to bring in Pierce into the film also playing a role people aren’t used to seeing him in?

Campbell: Yeah, I’ll put it this way, like always with actors you have a list of four or five who are possibles, and obviously the reason for that is some are unavailable, some may not want to do the part, for whatever reason, but Pierce was top of the list quite frankly. First of all he is Irish, he talked in a Northern Irish accent, which if you look at Gerry Adams for example, who is the head of the Sinn Féin political party in the Irish government. Pierce talks exactly like him, he’s almost a replica, even for his looks and so forth to Gerry Adams. It was a great role for Pierce in the sense that I saw that character as tragic rather than a villain as such. That’s what interested me about it. Pierce sort of grabbed it by the balls and really went with it, and I think he pulls it off terrifically well.


CS: You’ve been involved in a lot of these movies that have been reinventions of actors or characters, be it GoldenEye or Casino Royale or even Mask of Zorro. Do these things keep happening by accident or do you like taking the formula for a person or a franchise and shifting it to new ground?

Campbell: (Laughs) To be honest it’s more by accident! In this case I don’t who the hell I would have got if it hadn’t been Jackie Chan. In fact, I honestly don’t think the movie would have been made. There were times where we thought, “If Jackie is unavailable….” You go through the list of Chinese actors who it quite clearly has to be, you can’t have someone playing Chinese that’s not Chinese, or Jackie’s case Hong Kong, but he was the only choice. I did wonder whether he would be able to actually do it, since we’re so used to Jackie doing what he does so marvelously well. Then I watched, what was it… oh god what am I thinking of, the movie with the kid? What was the movie he did… The Karate Kid! He’s rather marvelous in that. It’s a straight role and a rather moving role and I thought he was terrific in it. That was the film that made me realize that he would absolutely be able to do it.

CS: On the flip side of that, we’re at a point now where some of the things you yourself have rebooted or remade are on the cusp of being rebooted again. Is that a weird place to be in for you personally?

Campbell: I know, God knows, everything sequalizes and they’re rebooting stuff. At some point that’s got to implode. Obviously the big studio movies, the Star Wars, all of the Marvel stuff, I kind of get that because the studios need to have something for their bottom line. They clearly rely on that. They don’t get DVD sales anymore, that market is gone. I sort of get all that, and they’re rebooting this stuff for financial reasons basically, in other words they will always keep doing what they know best or what they believe actually works, of course that will come back to bite them in the ass after all. Some of these sequels just have not worked and people are tired of them, they’re fed up with them, and the cost of these things is enormous, so the risks are greater. It’s always so difficult now to find an original movie or something that you haven’t seen, something not a spin-off or a sequel to or whatever. The industry never used to be like that, of course, but it’s very disheartening I have to say.

CS: I liked your approach to this material in The Foreigner by not shying away from the impact that terror attacks have on the victims and the people near them, because it would have been very easy to just show explosions and obscure everything with fog to go for a PG-13 rating.

Campbell: We decided very early on this wasn’t PG-13 and the language gets pretty ripe at certain times, and the violence itself equally has to be pretty violent. So for the first time in my career we never discussed a PG-13 ever. It was always assumed it was going to be R. Sometimes these studios they’ll agree to that, then at the last second they’ll say, “Can we do a PG?” Suddenly they flip on a dime, that’s happened before. You then get into a fight. It’s interesting in China by the way, they have no censorship, there is none. So a five-year old can go listen to this movie with all those swear words and everything. They dub it in Mandarin but they also have Mandarin subtitles, so it’s quite alarming when you hear all this with a five-year old kid listening to all this stuff.

CS: You also have a few action scenes that are actually built more around stealth. What are the key differences in crafting an action scene built around silence and not triggering noise as opposed to explosions and gun fire?

Campbell: I know, the point is that the most abused element in films, I think, is silence. What happens now is they layer all this stuff with music. Of course you have to have it with I guess action movies and stuff like that, but so many movies now are telling you what’s going to happen and the explosions are huge and massive and digital. We only had one digital explosion in this movie and that was the airport and that was because we couldn’t blow up at the airport, otherwise I would have done it. Everything else is real. The bus is all real, the barn is real, all those explosions are real. Just the way you lead up to these things, rather than a whole lot of clamor, it’s all played in silence. When Jackie is at the farm and you see him creeping around it’s all silence… Even the opening, unfortunately of course the trailers have to give it all away, the idea was when his daughter gets out of the boutique and Jackie crunches into the other guy’s car and you think this is going to be a real argument and they’re going to get into a punch out, the next second the bomb goes off.

CS: That actually pivots into my final question. Cliff Martinez did the music for the film and I found myself really tuning into his music during some of the more intense action scenes. Can you talk about working with him to craft the music for the film?

Campbell: He’s great, he’s a really good composer. First of all it had to be contemporary, that was the whole feel of the music, number 1. So of course, Cliff as you know did Drive, so he’s a very good composer. We sat down and went through it and talked about trying to do it so the music didn’t in any way tell us what was happening in the scene when we can already see what’s happening in the scene, which so often film music does and kind of blows it. Also, he’s sort of unique, he has surprise in his scores that he does. I was very pleased with what he did, I have to say.