Clive Owen and director Michael Davis on the set of Shoot 'Em Up.
So how does a filmmaker who, by his own admission, has previously written and directed “five super low-budget, straight-to-DVD films” get to make an insanely frenetic, over-the-top action movie with Clive Owen, Monica Bellucci and Paul Giamatti? As
Shoot 'Em Up auteur Michael Davis recently explained to Fandango in an exclusive interview, it required some ingenious supporting materials and a studio executive’s leap of faith.
Fandango: How did New Line Cinema allow you to direct this film?
Michael Davis: New Line was the first place we went and they loved the script. But they had no idea about the 15 minutes of hand-drawn animation footage that we had created [to show what ten of the big action set-pieces in the film would look like]. They hadn’t expected it, they could see exactly how the action was going to be done.
They showed the animation to [Co-Chairman and Co-CEO] Bob Shaye, who is a bit of a maverick himself. He started John Waters’ career and he’s the guy that said OK to P.T. Anderson directing Boogie Nights. Another studio might have bought the script and spent a long time developing it, but it was really Bob who said, ‘I want this in production by the end of the year.’ Once he said he wanted to make it, the movie was greenlit, I was able to direct it and everything fell into place.
Fandango: The stunts in this film are incredible. How much of the stunt work did Clive Owen do himself?
Davis: Clive did about 90% of the stunts. When he is repelling down the center of [a loft building] stairwell, shooting everybody on each floor level staircase, we hung him in this thing called ‘The Descender,’ which took him floor level to 50 feet high and then dropped him. We dropped him over and over and over again.
I wanted this sort of John Woo pose where Clive’s body is flying through the air as he’s shooting downwards. It was near the end of the production and the producer was saying, ‘That’s kind of dangerous. We’ve been so lucky so far. Let’s not have him do it.’ Clive overheard and said, ‘No, I’m going to do this. I want to do this.’
And it took about ten times to get this classic pose right, and Clive just kept doing it and doing it and falling into the pads. For the skydiving scene, we hung him on wires for four or five days.
Clive was in incredible shape. He worked out well before the movie, knowing that his body was going to be put in these weird, awkward situations. He was a total pleasure to work with, a total trouper. And to be honest, he’s just a badass in real life as well.
Q: When Clive is being chased by the bad guys, you have him acting like Bugs Bunny, constantly chewing carrots and saying, “What’s up, Doc?” Tell us about the origin of the film’s comic relief.
Davis: I gave Clive the carrot initially because they’re good for the eyes and therefore good for the shooting. Instead of smoking cigarettes or being an alcoholic and drinking all the time, I liked the idea of an action hero doing something healthy. It was kind of funny, the cracking of the carrot. And once you start with that, it solved one of my tenets, which is to make the main character have a quirk. And I like having a quirk that is portable, that you can constantly refer back to and it pays dividends.
So then when I was writing the script and thinking about the carrot thing, I thought “now let’s do something with it.” Well of course Clive’s character is going to want to say, ‘What’s up doc?’ I think a guy with a gun and a carrot saying that is great.
The ‘Wascally Wabit’ line came after I had cast [co-star] Paul Giamatti, because I like to picture him in some scenes as an Elmer Fudd-like menace. Obviously Paul’s character is way more capable than Elmer Fudd, but I think he had the same loveable frustration at being foiled by Clive’s Mr. Smith character.
Fandango: As the bad guy, Mr. Hertz, Giamatti is memorable, perhaps one of the few actors to approximate the performance of Alan Rickman in Die Hard. How close is Giamatti’s performance to the character as written?
Davis: First of all, I would say that’s the ultimate compliment, because Rickman did such a great job in that movie. His villain is sort of a bar that everybody is challenged to jump over. And I was hoping that I could at least equal Rickman by getting Paul.
I had seen Paul Giamatti play all these characters with low self-esteem and who get dumped on. I knew that Paul probably had this inner energy that would be great in the opposite: dumping on other people. He finally gets to be “the abuser”, rather than “the abused.” You give him this big Desert Eagle gun and a whole other side of his personality came out.
When we cast Paul, It was the first time in my career that I had gone up to an actor and said, ‘Look, I don’t want to tell you what to do here, as I’m lucky to have you in this role. I’ve already gotten to do so much of what I want this movie to be. I got Clive Owen, I came up with all the gunfights, I wrote the script and now I am directing it – and so I would like you to create something that you would want to do. And he said, ‘Oh my God, this is an actor’s dream!’
And so when Paul came to the first table read, he had this voice that sounded like a psychotic undertaker. It was a cadence and a rhythm that I had not heard in a Paul Giamatti performance. It was a little bit faster and he hung on certain words longer than I had ever heard. It was fantastic; he was scary and he was funny and he was riveting, you couldn’t stop watching and listening to him. And I thought to myself, ‘I did the right thing by letting this actor create the character.’
Fandango: Shoot 'Em Up must have already given you some newfound traction with the studios. What do you think your next project will be?
Davis: I’ve been getting big action scripts for probably a year now, and yes, I will keep my eyes and opinions open about doing somebody else’s script. But you know, I’ve written and directed six movies now, which is a real high. You get to create from the ground up.
So I’m writing a new script that is definitely in the Shoot 'Em Up arena, another crazy, hard-R, wild action piece that I would love to do next. I would love to be the guy that has the artistic credibility and the box office track record that the studios say, ‘Hey, Michael, what do you want to do next?’ But it all depends on what happens in the next few weeks.
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