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My First Genre Movie: Taylor Hackford on Parker

The director of Ray talks about making his first action thriller.

Say what you will about Taylor Hackford, but he's never directed the same movie twice. He's the filmmaker behind such disparate films as Ray (which earned him an Academy Award nomination), The Devil's Advocate, Dolores Claiborne and An Officer and a Gentlemen. This Friday, he's releasing his first-ever action movie, Parker, based on the best-selling novels by Donald Westlake (as "Richard Stark"), about a criminal with a very specific set of rules.

The film stars Jason Statham, Michael Chiklis, Jennifer Lopez and Patti LuPone, and I got to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Hackford about the unique challenges presented by the novel he adapted, Flashfire, how he picks all these very different movies, and the film's difficult story structure, which almost translates to that rare two-act movie structure.
 

CraveOnline: I feel like I never have any idea what kind of movie you’re into. You take any two Taylor Hackford movies, put them together, tell someone they’re directed by the same guy, they’d be like, “What?” What do you look for in new movies? Because Parker took me by surprise.

Taylor Hackford: Well, it is. It’s my first genre movie.
 

Well, this genre anyway.

This genre. Well, film noir is… I guess you could call it a genre, but it’s not… Listen, for me, I look at every film as an adventure. I don’t want to do the same thing twice. It’s not something that appeals to me. I look at every film you go into like you’re going to ride down this river, these rapids, and see a lot of new territory, and hopefully absorb it. It makes you grow. Why would you want to go down the same street over and over again? Now, some people would say, “I do it because I get better and better, and know all the elements.” For me, I’m restless, and I like the idea of trying different things.
 

So you see Parker as more of a film noir than a crime thriller or action movie?

No! I don’t. I see Against All Odds as a film noir, shot in the sun. I said that. But I don’t even call that a genre picture because that, in and of itself, you know film noir is kind of romantic. Parker I think is a genre movie, it’s a crime genre movie with a lot of action, and that’s what it was. That’s what I went into. I don’t mind saying I’m a big fan of that genre, when it’s done well. That’s what interested me.
 

When you enter a new genre, do you want to look at other films that inspired you in that genre, or are you trying to do entirely your own thing?

I am a fan of those films. I have been there. I saw Point Blank when it first came out. I read Donald Westlake. I read Richard Stark. They happen to be the same person, but that process… which, by the way, Westlake said,  “I want this style to be totally different from anything else I’ve done. Stark.” That’s why he named the character “Richard Stark.” And “Richard” was after Richard Whitmark, by the way, which he loved.
 

I didn’t know that.

How about that? So anyway, the idea of this was, hey, I dig it, I understand it’s a literary character, and I understand it’s sparse. Some people said use narration, I said, “Over my dead body.” When filmmakers use narration, to me it’s a failure. Unless it fits a certain kind of thing…
 

It can be done right, but it’s really hard.

It’s really hard, but the challenge with Parker, when you know the books and you know the films, is that he doesn’t reveal himself in words. He doesn’t. He’s Mr. Hard Silent Man. And at the same time, when you read the books, you know he’s constantly thinking. He’s totally analyzing when he walks in a room, or preparing for a heist, he looks at every character there. When he acts, he acts with purpose. Sometimes you don’t understand why he’s acting for two or three scenes, and that’s an interesting challenge as a filmmaker, because the audience doesn’t want to be left behind. But I loved it. I loved the idea of doing something visual, doing something where you’re able to communicate to an audience who this guy is, and why he is the way he is, and why he acts the way he does. And at the same time do it totally visually. So that was the challenge.
 

I think the tricky thing with doing a Parker movie, because we’ve had so many different attempts thus far, is taking this guy who has a very flexible morality, and making him likable without taking the edge off of him.

I think that this is, to me, who Parker is: Parker is a professional thief. He wants to steal as much money as humanly possible, and he doesn’t have an ounce of remorse about it, okay? At the same time, he’s a professional with a set of rules. I don’t mean to say that it’s a code of ethics. I think that’s too easy, because that sounds like a knight. He’s got a set of rules that he operates by, and it’s pragmatic rules because he’s smart.
 

These are rules that will keep him out of jail.

Yeah! Exactly! When he goes into a heist, he’s not a psychopathic killer. He’ll kill, if he has to, but he will never go in, jumping out and say, “I want to hurt people,” because he knows that if he does, the law enforcement is going to gang up and come after him. Instead he goes in, he’s pragmatic, he says, very clearly he says this throughout, “Don’t do this. I’ve got a gun on you. If you do what I say you come out of this just fine, and this will be it.” If he has an authority about him, then people kind of trust that. So when he does it, he ends up, by doing what he needs to do, getting out and so on. The problem is that not everybody follows those rules, and if he’s doing a job with someone else, and they violate those rules, this is the thing that’s interesting about Parker to me: he can’t abide by that. Even if the smartest thing would be [to] lick your wounds, walk away, it’s too dangerous to go after these guys, he can’t help himself and he does it. So he oftentimes doesn’t do the smartest thing, but the fact that he has a certain integrity you have to admire. So why is he attractive? You may abhor what he does, but you also say that the guy’s got a certain integrity that is pretty rare these days. Everybody’s compromising; this guy doesn’t compromise.
 

There’s two dozen, plus, Parker novels. Was the plan always to make Flashfire, or did you have options?

No. I would say… I always develop my own material until I can’t get what I develop made. Ray took me thirteen years to make, and in the meantime, I found a project called Dolores Claiborne that had been developed. I came in and helped it develop, but I got the gig, I couldn’t say I developed that. So this happens in your life, and right now I read this script that John McLaughlin wrote. This script… I want to give him a lot of credit, because to adapt Donald Westlake well, Richard Stark well, is not easy. John McLaughlin did Black Swan. He did Hitchcock, which my wife [Helen Mirren] just did…
 

Good film, by the way. I liked that.

Thank you. I did too. But the thing that’s interesting is that they’re all different, also, and he did a really good job. This script I read, and then I read the book, because I’d read Parker books, but I hadn’t read Flashfire. I said, hey, I like it, I dig what this is, and I went after it, but the idea of saying, where did it come from, I found this and developed this, would be inaccurate. I went through a couple of drafts of the script with John, and I work well with him, and I wanted to put my own take on this, but in reality sometimes you find things and they’re good and you say, “I’ll jump on board.”
 

It was an interesting choice for me, because you could watch the trailers and almost thing that it’s an adaptation of The Hunter [the first Parker novel].

Yeah.
 

Because his teammates betray him, and he goes off to get his cut of the money. Were you worried about the legacy of Parker, or does the fact that this is a Taylor Hackford movie make it new and different?

To me, it’s this: I knew, because there had been so many adaptations of Westlake/Stark, that you’re going to suffer the slings and arrows of criticism. The people who are fans of the book, fans of the character, they’re going to look at this. People who are fans of the movies will look at this, and you have to just sit back and say, okay, I’m going to take my best shot. Hopefully you will like it. If you don’t, so be it. I’m going to go after it. That process is interesting, but there’s no other thing but to go in and say, I’m going to do my version of Parker.

Jason Statham, that’s the other thing. He was sniffing around the project, I said I have to think about it. I can’t just do my version, I need to have an actor to portray that. I have to have an actor who fits what Donald Westlake/Richard Stark did, and I think Jason Statham does. He was an Olympic diver. Those guys are notorious perfectionists. So the idea of saying, okay, I’m going to go this way, what are the other elements that I loved? I loved the characters. I loved the Leslie character. Fantastic character. That was straight out of book. Melander, the Michael Chiklis character, a real pro. A guy who is there, but he’s got one more score. This is his big thing. He’s got to go for it. And then at the same time he’s saddled with this kid who’s the nephew of the mafia. [Melander] needs to fence these jewels and he has to work with somebody who, inevitably, is not like his crew. Not like Wendell Pierce, not like Clifton Collins… pros. And you know what, in the long run? He blows it.
 

You put together a great cast. I love seeing Clifton Collins and Wendell Pierce in anything. But one of the things that’s interesting to me is the amount of time it takes to introduce Jennifer Lopez’s character. It almost feels like it turns Parker into a two-act film.

Yeah.
 

What were your concerns about pacing?

This, again, is adaptation, and I understand the pacing, I understand the problem. Now, inevitably, what happened in the book is that Donald Westlake’s constantly able to jump back and forth. He starts right at the top, you have Parker, and then you’re jumping in [to Leslie’s story], and it’s like, “Why are we here? Why are we at Palm Beach? Who is this character? What is going on?” There is a responsibility you have in a narrative. I did jump back and forth, but I waited quite a while to do it, because I believe an audience has to be on board and understand what the essence is. That, again, people will look at you as a filmmaker and say, “Why did you do this?” and “You’re in control.” It’s a literary work. You’re adapting a literary work, and I think, really, one of the best writers in this genre.

So he did it, and when you think about it, you say, inevitably you’re going to end up in Palm Beach. This film is bookended. He started it at a state fair. In the book it was the Missouri State Fair, I used the granddaddy of them all, the biggest one, the Ohio State Fair. And let me tell you, there are forty, fifty, seventy thousand people a day there, and I was able to convince them to let us go shoot there. I could never afford those extras! That’s for real. But anyway, that’s it, and then at the end you go to Palm Beach. It’s a surprise, because I think people that know the genre are very used to a criminal environment. Those big industrial wastelands, where Nolte and Parker meet with that grain elevator, they expect that. But to end it in Palm Beach, which is the most conspicuously rich place I know of in the United States. They have more clipped ficus there than you’ve ever seen in your life, and that’s great for style, but it’s a surprise. You go from this sort of monochromatic thing at the beginning, and then all of a sudden, boom, you show up there, and it’s pastel buildings. It’s bright blue sky. It’s aqua water. It’s serene, green tropics, and the clothes that people where there and so on.

It’s surprise then, and I think interesting, when you tell a story – I agree, it’s unpredictable – but you tell a story that leads you, and all of a sudden, oh my god, not only are we in an interesting place, but there’s a really interesting character that’s messy. And again, this was the important thing with Jennifer: she’s messy, she’s a failure in her own eyes, she has the ultimate indignity of having to move back in with her mother at 40 years old…
 

Yeah, that’s my fear.

Right! Any woman, anybody will say, oh my god… Especially a domineering woman, but she and Patti LuPone are great.
 


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the co-star of The Trailer Hitch. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.