Interview: Alex Cross Director Rob Cohen

Although Tyler Perry’s title character in Alex Cross has been featured on the big screen before, portrayed by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, Rob Cohen’s latest seeks to deliver a take on the character more true to James Patterson’s bestselling novels.

Based on the 2006 publication, “Cross”, the film follows Perry as a top-of-his-field homicide detective and criminal psychologist who may have finally met his match with the arrival of a brutally violent serial killer known only as Picasso (Matthew Fox). Emotionless and unrelenting, Picasso strikes with expert precision and a penchant for torture. Working alongside fellow officers Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) and Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols), Cross must race to catch Picasso before the hunter becomes the hunted and Picasso’s moves become sadistically personal. sat down with Cohen, the director behind the films that launched franchises like xXx and The Fast and the Furious to talk about the dual reinvention of the Cross character and of Perry as an action star. He also talks about a number of projects still on the table, including a found footage action film, a based-on-fact Isaac Newton detective tale and a proposed remake of The Monster Squad, the original version of which he produced. What was your earliest familiarity with James Patterson?

Rob Cohen:
When I saw Gary Fleder’s film with Morgan [Freeman] back in 1997 or so, I got the book of “Kiss the Girls” because I’m always interested in how directors adapt books. I’ve made a lot of books into movies in my career. I know what I do, but I’m always open to learn. So when I read the book, the impression I got was, “Wait a minute! Alex Cross is a younger guy who’s big and athletic and he’s got a best friend who’s big and athletic. The’re real in-your-face characters. They’re not gentlemen.” I thought, “Wow! I wasn’t expected that!” I thought I was going to be reading a book where I would picture Morgan Freeman as the lead. I guess at that time that, if you’re not going to have Denzel [Washington], [there’s] Morgan. He’s a great actor, but he can’t do anything. He’s not going to be an action star. I remembered that and when I saw Tyler Perry a year before I even heard about a new “Alex Cross.” I got invited to see “Madea’s Family Reunion” when it was a theatre piece. Before he made it a movie. I went backstage to meet him and I was stunned by how big he was. He could see that I was shocked. I said, “You know what I was thinking? I was thinking you could be an action star.” He laughed and said, “Find me a ‘xXx’ or something.” We parted and I didn’t think too much beyond until Bill Block called me on Martin Luther King’s birthday. He said, “New ‘Alex Cross.'” I said, “Great, but you know the book? It’s not Morgan again is it?” He said, “No, we’re actually talking to Tyler Perry.” I said, “That’s a great idea! I met that guy. He can be an action star.” We jumped down to Atlanta and wrapped it all up that week.

CS: Did you find that, once you began directing Tyler as an action star that it came to him very naturally?

Very naturally. I mean, thing about Tyler Perry that you know from the first time you meet him: when he puts his mind to something, he’s going to do it. He’s not putting his mind half on things. He doesn’t do anything halfway. I saw that when we went to Atlanta to re-meet him and I really had no doubt. When all the trolls started writing, “Ew, what about this actor. Not him! Why him?” I knew to just bide my time and not react because the proof will be there when we show the film. He surpassed even my high expectations for him.

CS: This is a project that, once he was cast, moved very fast. Is there an energy to that that appeals to you as a director?

Tremendously. Movies at studios get developed to death. It’s mind-boggling. There’s a point where it’s right to put this thing in front of the camera and everybody is ready. Then they go on and go on and go on. Little by little they sand off all the edges and remove all the things that make it provocative. They take down by committee. There’s always somebody else’s notes or some territory or some foreign body that doesn’t like this or home video doesn’t like that. They get away from telling the story and turn it into a product that has got to fit all these end users. That’s their business but it’s very frustrating because the better version of the movie is ready earlier most of the time.

CS: As interesting as it is to see Tyler Perry in the lead, Matthew Fox as the villain is a surprise just in terms of how physically different he looks.

I couldn’t have been blessed with a better cast. Matthew was so dedicated. He was doing a play in London so all of our prep work was done by e-mail. That’s a very interesting way to force you to write what you’re saying and how to see the character. Not to just say, “Well, he’s kind of this and that.” So the first thing I wrote to him when he asked how I saw Picasso was, “He sees himself as a surgeon who cuts away necrotic tissue but who doesn’t use anesthesia.” He has a positive view and believes that whoever these people need killed need killing. They’re just cut out. If he can make it painful, he’s more than happy because he’s fascinated by pain. His own as well as others. So we started going back and forth and we talked about his efficiency and how he doesn’t have a spare move and doesn’t have a spare word. We began to talk about weight and how this guy has no indulgence. He’s absolutely a soldier. I got him a nutritionist and a trainer while he was in London doing the play. He came back from doing the play in June and we started just after 4th of July. Even when we sent wardrobe people to him to fit him for his clothes and stuff, he wouldn’t allow any photos. He said, “I’m going to show you Picasso and you can guide me from there.” When he came to Cleveland and he walked in in a tight t-shirt, I went “Holy f–k!” That’s all I could say. I thought, “Wow, you took all that to heart.” From that point on, it was just focusing that thing that he had already transformed himself into.

CS: It seems like these cat and mouse games are fun for a director because you’re essentially doing an Alex Cross movie cut against a Picasso movie and then having them cross over at the end.

Yeah. It, to me, was the chess game between these two that gave it a roller coaster effect of great tension and an engine. If you’re just bringing down a bad guy, that’s like “CSI.” Your bad guy is basically reshaping the eponymous character through these mind games and through the experiences he’s giving this guy to the point that, when they’re fighting in the Michigan theatre ceiling, it’s hard to tell which guy is which is terms of rage, hatred and anger. You realize that the man, Cross, who picked up his mom and said, “I’m happy, Mom. I’m happy.” That man and the man who emerges from the Michigan theater are very different men.

CS: You’re putting your lead through some pretty brutal things. Is there a risk of doing it in a way that makes audiences feel too upset?

You can. You can numb the audience with too much of anything. Too much noise. Too much action. Too much romance. Today’s audiences, in my opinion, need a constant change of stimulation. Part of the thing that you try to resist is making the film ADD. You can get too concerned that audiences won’t ride with anything for too long. But I feel that this one has a pretty good rhythm of intensity and character and back to intensity. But if you go to a point that’s too dark — and there are many movies that have made that mistake — you can lose the audience because they just don’t want to suffer that much. If they like the main guy, they don’t want to see that much.

CS: Because Alex Cross is a character that appears in quite a few books, are you looking at this coming on as a film franchise?

I truly hope so. We’re in a place in the business where, because marketing costs are huge, the simplest marketing assignment is to market a sequel. You’ve got a predisposed audience. They know to go the minute you say “Taken 2” and they have their expectations, which have to be managed. But they know what it is. It’s like my “The Fast and the Furious”, the first one, was ahead of the game. It was a big, big hit. But it was ahead of the cultural curve. It took some bad sequels to finally get back on track and to a place where the international audience caught up with the idea.

CS: You must be very proud of how well that franchise is doing.

I’m very proud of it. When you create something and ten, eleven years later it’s still going. In the movie business, that’s [impressive]. I mean, we’re not James Bond. We’re not 50. But eleven or twelve years since the first one and more being made as we speak, it’s something I have a lot of pleasure and pride in.

CS: So when projects come your way now, what is it that gets you excited?

That it’s different than what I’ve done before. Different arena. Different genre. And I do tend to look for certain things. I’m much more inclined to do a movie that has sequel potential.

CS: What’s going on with the “Monster Squad” remake?

It’s sitting at Paramount. It’s a great script. I’ve been kicking them. Michael Bay has been kicking them. They don’t roll over. [The original] is one of the best things I’ve ever produced and I wanted to direct it. I don’t understand it. I’m hoping that one day we just get a call that they’ve finally seen the light of day.

CS: That seems like one of the craziest things about Hollywood. That you really can just get a call one day that a project is moving forward.

Yeah. It happens all the time. They get onto something and they go, “The biggest audience we can get is young males between 12 and 16. What do you have that’s for young males between 12 and 16?” Somebody says, “‘Monster Squad’! Let’s do it! Let’s do ‘Monster Squad’!” It’s that crazy.

CS: What is next for you?

A number of things that are all in various stages of almost being ready. I have something as different from me as a found footage film from Jason Blum, who did ‘Paranormal Activity.’ I said to him, “Let’s do a multimedia found footage action film.” We evolved this story and the script just came in. I think it’s really very good. So there’s that movie, which would be a micro-budget movie. Then I’m developing for Gene Kirkwood, the guy who produced “Rocky,” this story about Isaac Newton, but a story that no one knows. Isaac Newton was a detective at the latter part of his life. He worked for the royal mint as warden of the mint and master of the royal mint. His job was to track down counterfeiters. So I’ve got this great physicist tracking down the worst counterfeiter ever, this guy William Chaloner. It’s all real and we’re using physics and things to motivate the action.

(Photo Credit: Brian To /


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