Rob Cohen became Mr. Action in the ‘00s after The Fast and the Furious became a mega success. He’d done Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Dragonheart and Daylight but nothing on the level of xXx, Stealth and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. So his reboot of James Patterson’s criminal profiler series is true to form, full of action. We sat with Cohen in Los Angeles before the theatrical release to talk about his latest film, and go down memory lane about his first film and musical collaboration with the great Jim Steinman! Alex Cross is on DVD and Blu-ray February 5.
CraveOnline: The movies Tyler Perry directs have these wild tonal shifts, and he can do it because he’s working in the extremes of comedy and drama. Were you ever tempted to do something that drastic for his audience?
Rob Cohen: No, because it’s not what I do and it’s not what Alex Cross is about. Alex Cross has a journey because he starts as one guy and he ends as another, but I wanted to have a consistent tone through the drama.
Were you looking for more action to add to it and were they added to the script?
Yeah, that was one of the things. I felt that the cop procedural name your “CSI” city and you’ve seen every plot and every clue and every this and that, so I wanted to keep the police procedural to a minimum and make it a battle of wills and a battle of intellect and surround that with a number of suspense action scenes. Of course that was stressful with the $23 million budget.
Were those scenes in the script?
No, no, they were all added.
So the shootout, the glass breaking…
Were the water stunts part of the script?
No. None of it was there. I added all of that when I came on board.
How did you get over the Morgan Freeman factor?
It never came up. When I was approached by Jim Patterson and Bill Block of QED, they were already in discussions with Tyler but I had met Tyler a year earlier. I had half kidded with him that he could be an action star. I was not prepared for how big he was, tall and broad. So I jumped on that and I said, “That’s a perfect idea because there’ll be a lot of curiosity about whether he can do it or not” but having worked with Richard Pryor back in the ‘70s, I know if you can do comedy, you can do drama, and Tyler can do drama. I’m positive.
When was the last time you worked with a budget this small?
A long time ago. Maybe back to The Skulls, but The Skulls’ budget was $14.5 million but it was $14.5 million in 2000. So 12 years ago, I’m thinking it’s probably damn close to what would be $23 million today. It’s been 12 years since I had to wrestle with that budget but it was a very creative experience. It forces you to really know your values for the film because you don’t have anything extra. You can’t just shoot it and say, “Well, maybe I’ll keep it, maybe I won’t.” You have to make that decision before you step on that set. Almost literally, other than one scene with Pop Pop, a second scene with Pop Pop, everything we shot is in the film.
Did you embrace the handheld aesthetic that’s become popular in the last few years?
Mildly. I didn’t overdo that. I like a much more lyric camera but I like the camera to be moving all the time. I’m not sure I buy the Paul Greengrass shakycam. I had to do a little bit of it in that fight in the Michigan Theater because Tyler had to fight Matthew’s stunt double and Matthew had to fight Tyler’s stunt double because it was far too violent to have two actors. In fact, the one time when I could not get away with hiding that trick, Tyler clocked Matthew a good one and it was a pretty Madame Tussaud moment where everyone was like [frozen]. And Matt is so strong that he took the hit to the forehead and kind of rocked, and then he got himself back together.
If he worked on “Lost,” doing TV I’d imagine you can’t avoid having accidents like that.
No, but you can minimize it and I had a good stunt double, both of them by that time in the production. Tyler did all his own stunts up to and including that and Matthew did every single one of his.
He told us he did the water.
He did the water and he’s claustrophobic. That was a big thing and he did the wire, 80 feet hanging there.
And the MMA fight?
He did the MMA fight, every stitch of that.
I was surprised to see the camera go handheld at all in one of your movies, but it seemed like you may have been paying homage to something that’s just a reality of films together, but not overdoing it.
Yeah, I made a conscious choice to shoot Picasso a lot handheld because I felt that we needed a little jitteriness in his world at all times, a restlessness. But for Cross, I used wide angle lenses until [SPOILER just in case you don’t already know Alex Cross’s backstory] was killed. Then I started going long and sucking up him and Tommy and eliminating the sense of the environment as much as possible so that you were much more here with him. But that’s subtle stuff that maybe you get, maybe you don’t get. Handheld has got its uses but when you see certain films it’s overused.
I think it’s a shame that it’s become the common aesthetic, so it’s rare when films like Looper have shots so composed.
Well, that’s a good thing to have the courage to go against the tide. That’s one of the things that gives a director longevity.
And that’s originally what handheld was. Then it became the norm.
One shot that really impressed me is you’re on the roof with Picasso during his phone call to Alex. The camera gets right in on his face. How close were you actually and where did you want his eye line?
Well, he does look into the camera on that one line. On the end of that speech, he says, “If you had just kept your mouth shut…” looking off, and then I had him look right on, “you wouldn’t be feeling any pain at all.” I wanted him to turn his eyes on the audience because I felt that would give a visceral reaction.
Was there a part of you that always wanted to shoot MMA?
Oh yeah. I had developed a whole MMA movie at Warner Brothers that never got made. When you develop a movie, you do a lot of thinking about how you would shoot it and how you would get it to feel real and give the audience the experience and so on.
Was that before Never Back Down and Warrior?
Mm-hmm, that was like 7-8 years ago.
You just couldn’t convince the studio it was a real thing?
Do you have the option on Alex Cross 2?
I don’t have any option. I’m sort of constructed in to first refusal to direct it. The options belong to Jim.
Do you know what the next book would be?
No, I swear to you we haven’t talked about it. I mean, I think everybody’s just waiting, holding your breath to see how this one does.
How close are we to xXx 3?
You know, I’m just waiting for Vin to get his head out of doing back-to-back Fasts, to sit down and really get him to focus on doing xXx 3D. That’s what I called it because we’re going to shoot it in 3D. I wanted to do an action film in 3D.
Would you have things come out of the screen?
Not the James Cameron style.
No, I would not do the convergence point safe. I would take more chances. I shot some Coca-Cola commercials in 3D and had a lot of fun with the Y axis. It was good.
You have a plan for how Xander Cage is alive again?
That’s not still in development.
Did you always have that as a backup when you shot that little short for the DVD where his double gets killed?
Well, I was so mad at Vin at that time but yes, I always felt that that was like an oddity and that we would want to bring him back and give him a backstory.
I wouldn’t put it past Xander Cage to tattoo that xXx on a dummy.
Yeah, and get away. That would be something we would show.
Do you know what his next adventure will be?
Mm hmm, yeah, he’s up against a brother and sister, twins who are doing terrible things.
Have there been new X Game stunts that you can incorporate?
Yeah, we did all new extreme sports things. I don't know if you saw my Verizon wingsuit commercial. It was pretty successful.
I haven’t watched commercials in 10 years.
Right, you’re all time shifting. Well, YouTube “Verizon [FIOS] wingsuit.” I was preparing the climax of xXx 3D to be a wingsuit sequence, an actual fight, a physical fight in the air at terminal velocity. So that commercial was a warmup.
So you can still do it.
You didn’t use it up in that commercial?
With Fast and the Furious, you’d said you didn’t know how to reintroduce that world for a sequel, so what do you think of the direction they’ve gone in making it more Oceans 11y?
I’m sad about that. I think it’s far afield from what we started out to do. They finally listened to me and put all the original cast back in. I don't know why they deviated from that.
I think Vin didn’t want to do the second one either, right?
Well, I didn’t want to do the second one because the script was so horrible. I think Vin didn’t want to do it because the script was horrible and they wouldn’t pay him what he felt he wanted. So they sailed Paul alone and it just wasn’t the same. Singleton is not me and didn’t have the love of it that I had. He just was doing it. Then they went even further afield with Tokyo Drift but at the end of Tokyo Drift, Vin makes a cameo and when they saw how audience reacted to that, they decided number four better have Vin in it. Then five and six, they’re now bank robbers or heist people. But, you know, it’s still kicking and working 12 years later so I gotta take pride in that.
Are you surprised you became such an action guy, because your first film, A Small Circle of Friends was a very intimate character drama?
You know, life takes you on a journey. In the ’80s I started directing “Miami Vice” for Michael Mann and that put me back on the map as a director. And then I started doing other action series. Then I was directing the action units on my own films that I was producing, like Bird on a Wire or The Hard Way which had huge second units. Then I did Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story that had I think both character and action stuff. So you kind of evolve and that’s one of the things I love about Cross is it’s a movie that has strong performances. It had to have strong performances but it has its good share of suspense action as well.
You hired Jim Steinman for the music to Small Circle of Friends. When that score became “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” were you gratified by that?
Well, it saddened me because it was all there in my first film. The music was there and it just was ill timing on so many levels. I was glad Steiny got to use it again in his own way for his success but every time I hear “Turn around bright eyes,” I go back to the movie.
He does that a lot. All of the Meat Loaf songs have existed in some form before too.
Yes, well you know, he and I did summer stock theater together and that’s where we got to know each other. Music that he wrote for the summer stock theater in 1967 are on the Meat Loaf albums. Jim has a very big talent but he doesn’t like to write. It’s hard for him to write so he tends to recycle in very interesting ways.
I love it but I would love to hear more music from him. I don’t know what he’s doing now.
I don’t either. I lost touch.
Did you ever hear his demos for the Batman musical?
They’re amazing. It’s the last new music I think I’ve heard from Jim Steinman. They’re on his website.
Oh, I should look him up. He’s a very good guy and last I knew he was living in upstate New York with like 14 cats.
Nothing wrong with cats.
No, but I mean he was living with a lot of cats. He’s an eccentric. He’s different.
What are some of your go-to movies?
I always like to put on any Steven Spielberg movie before I direct because he has a lot of technical courage and it gives me courage because I go, “I can do that.” Very fluid moving the camera and very clever with his choreography. I much admire him and I like Nolan.
Are you doing 1950?
We are still trying to piece together the money. We thought we had it all out of Korea and then as things happen in the indie world, one piece fell out and the other piece fell out. It’s something I’m very devoted to and we’re still trying to reassemble it.
Would that take you back to the Small Circle of Friends mode where it’s a historical period drama?
Yeah, but it’s a war film too. The difference is it’s about a woman at war, Marguerite Higgins, the first female combat journalist, so it’s told through her eyes as opposed to the Platoon or Private Ryan approach. But it is a drama love story about her and this lieutenant whose unit she’s following.
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.