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Action Packed: Boaz Yakin on Safe and Batman Beyond

The director of Jason Statham's latest talks impressionistic action, his Punisher movie and the Batman Beyond film that could have been.

 

Safe gives Jason Statham another opportunity to fight and kick ass, but action fans will notice a few differences. Luke Wright (Satham) blows a fixed fight and the Russian gangsters kill his wife. Homeless and ready to give up on life, Wright sees a little girl running from some kidnappers, and steps in to protect her. The setup is breezed through with only quick bullet points of *fixed fight, *wife dead, *suicidal, and the action unfolds in specific camera angles using a lot of mirror reflections. Writer/director Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Remember the Titans) was available for a phone chat last week so we discussed his venture into action cinema, plus a little tidbit on the Batman Beyond project to which he was attached over a decade ago.

 

CraveOnline: How did the opportunity to write and direct an action movie like Safe happen?

Boaz Yakin: Well, I had been in a much more independent film headspace for a while. I had been doing some producing, like I had produced the Hostel films that my friend Eli Roth directed. I actually wrote and financed and produced and directed my own film. I put my life savings into my own film, this movie called Death in Love that played in Sundance with Jacqueline Bisset and Josh Lucas. It was a very personal, dark, kind of experimental little film. After that I was in a space where I was really feeling like I needed to get back into the world of making films that someone might actually go and see. I kind of was trying to tap back into some of the energy and feelings that I had when I first started out in the film business. You know, I started in the business in the late ‘80s when I was very, very young. I probably sold my first script when I was 19 years old and they were action films at the time. I really came into the business writing action films. I never directed one but I wrote a lot of them and I felt like I wanted to recapture some of that energy, see if I could find some of that energy. That’s what sort of teed me off into writing Safe.

 

With The Rookie and The Punisher, were those action movies for hire, so the needs of a Clint Eastwood vehicle or the needs of a then Marvel comic book movie?

No, those were spec scripts. The spec script that Scott Spiegel and I wrote for The Rookie was something we cooked up at home and Charlie Sheen got interested in the script and brought it to Clint, so it was our thing. In fact, it was very altered I have to say so I can’t really vouch for the final product, but I brought the idea of doing a Punisher film to New World at the time. They had never even heard of it. No one was making comic book movies at the time. I brought it to them and I wrote a script basically off of my own ideas that I brought to them. They changed it quite a bit. I wrote something that was a lot closer to the comics but they were concerned it was too comic bookish at times. A few months later, Batman came out.

 

Was Frank Castle living in the sewer in your version?

He was living in the sewer. He had the skull on his shirt and the Punisher I wrote was very much a sort of Frank Miller punisher from the Daredevil comics sort of mixed in with that first series, the Mike Zeck series that they did. It was a very kind of pure comic bookish kind of character and it got altered quite a bit, but I brought the idea to them. So I was actually coming up with action stuff myself and selling it to studios and to people. I did that for about three or four years and then I actually left the business for a while. I went and lived in Paris and wrote a novel, and was actually brought back into the business by my friend Lawrence Bender who produced Safe by encouraging me to write something more personal and interesting that I might be able to direct. That’s how my first film came about.

 

That was Fresh?

Yeah, that was Fresh.

 

In what ways was Safe the action movie you always wanted to see?

Honestly, Fred, I don't know if it’s something I’ve always wanted. It’s sort of what I was feeling at the time. I’ve always felt that seeing people direct action, action’s a very technical thing to do. It’s very technical. It’s very detail oriented. For me, it’s not on the surface as appealing as just working with some actors or finding some interesting editing structures or whatever it is. So to direct something that action packed, I really wanted to find an emotional hook that I could identify with so that it didn’t feel like directing traffic but it felt like there was a purpose behind what was going on. I guess having gone through, to be honest with you, many, many years of intense depression and often suicidal tendencies, and being on the other end of it right now and for the last few years I would say, the idea of this guy who basically felt that there was no real reason for him to keep living, he was just sort of putting one foot in front of the other and waiting for something to happen to make him reconnect with life, was someone I could really identify with. I think we see a lot of action films, the motivations are someone’s wife got killed or someone’s partner got killed. It’s always this very personal relationship that informs a character, either for revenge or saving someone. I was like, wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to get all that same emotion into a story about someone having a random meeting with somebody that they never met before, a chance encounter that just snaps you back into life? That’s what appealed to me about the story, the idea of trying to make a moment in time feel built up to and strong enough so that it justified what normally you would need to create family, friendship relationship types for in order to make everything work. Does that make any sense?

 

Yes, and wow, that’s a lot deeper than I imagined.

I don't know that that all comes across even in the sense that hey, it’s an action movie and I was aware that I wasn’t making another independent film. I also think one of the things that’s interesting to me is often when people are really desperate and a certain type of person is just looking for a reason to grab onto life again, and he finds a cause, those people can become pretty frightening. You can become pretty frightening when you just find a cause and will basically then be single minded and compulsively single minded in achieving that. Jason Statham’s character finds this cause and then essentially tears New York City apart in this single minded kind of frenzy to make sure that that happens. It’s not a movie where I go into this whole moral question of what is it like to latch onto causes that aren’t necessarily inwardly created but come from the outside, whether that’s good or not good. F*** this, I’m making an action film. But in order to give myself as a creative person what I needed in order to get through it and make it interesting and emotional in some way, I had to find those things in the story.

 

Did that also help you get economically through the setup of how he blew a fixed fight, found his wife dead, etc.? It probably took us longer to discuss his motivation than it took you to show it in the film.

I wanted to create almost an impressionistic action movie, pardon if this sounds pretentious. We’re all aware of the tropes of the genre. We understand the mechanics in a way how these things work. I wanted to sort of hit the right notes but accumulate them in a way that sort of built up to the right symphony when all the action started happening, but I didn’t want to drag it out. I feel like we understand the emotion that he goes through when he comes home and finds his wife dead. Do we need the two extra scenes of them running around the kitchen and throwing food at each other? Or whatever it is you always see in these movies, these scenes that you just know are there, you’re sitting there watching like, “Oh God, I guess that’s that model and this is her first part because she’s going to die in one scene and they didn’t get a really good actress for it.”

 

And those make you feel less connected because that’s a fake movie marriage.

Yeah, there’s something about those things where you’re like God, I know why this is here. I know why it’s here and it’s being drawn out and yet I know why it’s here. So I felt like why not just really hit all the emotions hard, this girl being taken from her home. You don’t ever have to meet her mother. You don’t have to see her at home picking up her schoolbag and tossing an orange. When you see a little girl and someone says, “Do you want us to go kill your mother?” we all understand what that feels like. You don’t have to see it all. It’s not what the story’s about. It’s about what the characters are feeling. It’s an experiment. I wanted to see if I could build emotion through these sort of shorthand tropes that still built up to a place where you could feel something without getting heavily into everything. Now that’s going to work for some people and it’s not going to work for others who feel like, “Oh, I needed more character development.” But that was the experiment I was playing with.

 

I hope audiences realize that’s effective and they don’t need everything explained to them.

I think certain types of film lovers are different in some ways than general audiences. The Raid did it. It’s interesting, I saw it of course when Safe was already finished and about to come out, but they took it to an almost even further extent where it was like “guy praying, good guy. Other guy shooting people in the head, bad guy. Okay, let’s go.” You were under the impression that that was just like let’s pick out a few key things to show and let it go, filling in a lot less than Safe did. It was interesting how, especially by people who are film lovers and area really familiar with the genre, how much that was embraced.

 

Did thinking about the technical side of action lead you to some of the more creative moments like the guy getting hit by the car on both sides, seeing it in the rearview mirror, those things we haven’t seen before?

Other than loving to play with mirrors and points of view in general, and trying to find clever ways to show action that maybe haven’t quite been seen before, I think part of it is frankly when you’re working with a tight budget an schedule the way I was, very tight for a movie like this. I know that you hung out with J.J. Perry over at Actionfest, he works with a guy called Chad Stahelski who runs 87eleven. Chad, when we were setting up the production, Chad was like, “I don't know how you’re going to do all this action in the time that you have. I just don’t see how you’re going to do it.” When we were halfway through the film, I’m really proud of this, Chad said, “You are doing twice as much action in half the time of the last three films that we did.” I think part of that is first of all, those guys are incredible pros so when you can communicate with them in a very specific way, they’ve done things that you would be trying to figure out how to do for a week. They’ve done them so many times that it’s such a great shorthand, you have people that just know how to deliver. But to them, if you can give them specific ideas and a real point of view about how you want to do the action, they get excited and they come up with really interesting, innovative ways to do things. For me, with these things that you’re talking about, it’s like okay, I have one day to shoot a scene of a girl getting kidnapped out of a car with a Russian car crashing into the window and a shootout in the street. I have one day to shoot a scene that essentially you need about three days to shoot. Well, what’s important to me in this scene? It’s actually more important for me to feel connected to the characters in the car and how they’re experiencing this than to show a bunch of extra running around shooting each other with guns. Now if you’ve got tons of money and you want to blow sh** up real good, then that’s what you go do. When you’re making a film that relies on its story and its visceral connection to the characters, you find ways to express that. So actually that kidnapping scene is shot in three shots. They’re somewhat complex, but once you nail them you can do them all day. It both adds to the creativity and allows you to do things in a way that gets it done.

 

At one point you were attached to a Batman Beyond film. Our readers would be really interested to know what your idea for that was.

Oh gosh, honestly I wish that wasn’t even on my IMDB page. It’s really weird, something you were involved with for a couple of months of your life just stays there. Honestly, it was something that I talked with Warners about at the time. I wrote one draft with a few other writers and kind of stepped off because I realized it wasn’t something I really felt I could do and wanted to do at that time. I wasn’t really emotionally there for it and stepped off. So it was a short moment in time.

 

So it wasn’t your passion to do a Batman film?

No, no. Actually, no. I thought it would be interesting but partway through writing it and being where I was at in my life at the time, I realized that actually it wasn’t something I felt comfortable pursuing. Who knows whether I stayed with it or not whether that film would have ever gotten made or not. Really I can’t say it would have or it wouldn’t have. Darren Aronofsky was developing a Batman movie at the same time as I was.

 

Yeah, Year One.

And that’s not the version they went with either so I really don’t know what the fate of that film would’ve been but I know that at the time I just really felt that that wasn’t a world I could get into at that moment. I kind of had to step off.

 

Well, in Safe, how much does Jason’s inherent fighting style determine what the action moments and fight scenes are going to be?

In terms of the actual fights quite a bit. It didn’t play into the more conceptual things that we talked about, the work in the mirrors and the way the way those things were shot. But when it came to the actual hand to hand fighting, Jason collaborates incredibly closely with the 87eleven guys. You saw the previses. We all talked about the style, those guys prevised, Jason goes, “I like that, I don’t like that.” Then they redo the pre-vis to reflect the discussions. He’s very, very specific when it comes to his physical action and the film definitely reflects that.

 

You’re credited on the screenplay to Now You See Me. Did you write a lot on that?

My friend Edward and I created that. It was our idea, we wrote the original draft and got it set up. I’m an executive producer on it. We got that set up over at Summit and they’re making it right now. They brought on a guy called Ed Solomon and he’s done some rewriting. Honestly, I don’t even know what that script looks like now. I haven’t really seen it so I don't know, I hope it’s good. Yes, that was an original idea of Ed Ricourt and my own.

 

How did the idea of illusionist heists come to you?

Ed came to me with it. It was really Ed’s idea. Ed had this idea about these four magicians who pulled off these heists. At the time he came to me the title was Poof. I said, “Poof, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” I ignored it for a while then Ed was like, “Boaz, listen. This is a really good idea. This is what I’m thinking.” He showed me a few of the pages he’d written and I realized what a cool concept it was and I said, “Yeah, man, let’s do this.” So we wrote it together but I have to credit Ed with the original concept. It’s his idea.

 

Have you heard over the years how Fresh still resonates with people?

I have. I hope I make another film remotely as good some day.

 

Was that a high point experience as well as the outcome?

No, the experience was really tough. I was 28-years-old and I think inclined towards negativity so I didn’t enjoy myself at all. [Laughs] And promised myself I’d never make another film. Now when I look back on it I’m like, “Man, you should’ve enjoyed yourself more. You should’ve had more fun.” But it was a learning process. I’m glad it turned out well.

 

If we can get our readers to watch Death in Love, do you think they’ll like it?

It f***in’ depends who they are. Probably not. It’s a very hard movie to like. I definitely think Death in Love is by far my most interesting film. I don’t necessarily want to qualify it as my best film because I don’t know that it is my best film. But it’s a film made for a million and a half dollars with absolutely no compromise and a very experimental take on how to tell a story. It’s pretty vicious and pretty painful. It’s about the inability of people to overcome their problems and about the failure of family. There’s no light in it. So with that said, if your readers are into exploring something like that, they may get something out of it.

 

So what’s next writing and directing-wise, or will you do more writing jobs?

Well, I’d like to get behind a camera again. I’ve been working on a few scripts and trying to get them set up but it’s always a really uphill battle. The most interesting things that I write, I wrote what I think is a beautiful and kind of unique horror film, very personal, that we’re having a tremendously difficult time raising the money for. I find the things that people are interested in me doing that I manage to get done are often the least challenging in many ways and just the most blatantly commercial that I come up with. The stuff that is more personal and challenging and difficult tends not to get done. So I kind of keep struggling with that so I don't know what the next thing I’m going to do is. I feel like my usual pattern is I’m going to struggle to get the more interesting things off the ground and I’m going to end up just doing something that can get made, and I’m not sure what that is right now.