New York born writer/director Boaz Yakin first broke into the movie business writing scripts for action movies The Punisher and The Rookie before winning acclaim for his directorial debut Fresh (which won him the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival) and helming one of the best received sports films in Remember the Titans.
Now after a lengthy time away from action movies Yakin returns with Safe, a high octane action thriller that stars Jason Statham as an ex-cage fighter with a shady past who helps a young math prodigy (Catherine Chan) escape the clutches of the Triads, the Russian mob and a corrupt NYPD who all want a secret code in her head.
Yakin spoke to Matt’s Movie Reviews about making Safe, working with Jason Statham, and his work on the original Punisher movie during a time when comic books films were a risky endeavour.
Enjoy! (Warning: Mild spoilers ahead)
You previously written action scripts, but Safe is the first time you directed action movie. What made you decide that it was time to direct an action film?
Honestly, I had been in independent film world for a while. I had produced, financed, written and directed my own film, a very dark, personal, painful little exercise called in Death in Love that I like very much and it’s quite the interesting film. But it’s also not a film that a lot of people will ever get to see.
I was sort of in a position where I realised I needed to make a film that might reach more people, and also allow me to flex some directorial muscle in an arena that I hadn’t in a while. When I broke into the film business quite a long time ago in the 80s, I broke in writing action films and I decided to see…I was like “Hey Boaz. Can you write one of those things like you wrote back when you were a kid?”, and I kind of tried to recapture some of that energy.
The action scenes are fast and brutal. How much time was given to choreographing those scenes?
Well, you know…I can’t be specific with how much time for each one because it was different, but I will tell you that we had a very tight and punishing schedule. A very daunting schedule for a film that had as much action as this film does in it.
I had the benefit of working with some of the top people in the business, this collective called 87-11 that do some of the biggest films that you’ve seen and they were a bit (laughs) shocked and appalled of how much action we were going to have to do in the time that we had. So that meant I had to be incredibly specific about my shot structure and the things we were trying to capture, and it did lead to some really creative choices in terms to how to shoot scenes.
For instance in that scene where Mei (Catherine Chan) gets kidnapped out of the car, you know when they get rammed by the Russian’s car and get kidnapped…that’s a scene that properly you were going to have to cover from a lot of different angles, and so on…you will need to shoot for three days. I had barely a day to shoot it, so I came up with the idea of shooting it all from the inside of the car and seeing what happens in the mirror, and through the windows, and never leaving the car during the scene.
We ended up shooting it in three very involved shots, rather than a hundred shots. So I think the challenges led to creative choices very often.
"I wanted the film to have that kind of intense, hand held, you-were-there energy of the movies of the 70s like The Seven Ups, The Warriors and The French Connection...but I didn’t want it to feel so shaky and hand held that you get nauseous from it."
Action filmmaking these days is dominated by the shaky cam, but you do some really interesting things with the shaky cam which takes it to another level. What was your philosophy when approaching it?
Well, I wanted the film to have that kind of intense, hand held, you-were-there energy of the movies of the 70s like The Seven Ups, The Warriors and The French Connection, but with a nod to contemporary style of filmmaking. But I didn’t want it to feel so shaky and hand held that you get nauseous from it.
I find as brilliantly as they are executed, some of the stuff from the Bourne Identity films and so on, goes so far in that direction that I have a hard time focusing on what’s happening that it becomes almost completely impressionistic. So I wanted to find a balance that somehow gave it energy but at the same time keep it grounded, so you know what you’re watching.
In Safe you play around with a lot of action conventions. The ending definitely surprised me. Was it fun playing with people’s expectations?
Yeah. I think given the fact that a straight forward kind of action film…I tried to find ways to tell the story that weren’t always what you’d expect. I think that the film has kind of a chaotic, improvisational energy that I like and I hopefully some people like and connect to, you know?
For instance…it’s not really a revenge picture, right? One of the main bad guys who is involved in killing the main characters wife is essentially disposed of in the very first action scene of the film. Then there is the other people who are responsible for it who never get punished for it in anyway (laughs).
It’s like…the characters who you expect build up as your main villains don’t turn out to be your main villains, and people that you’re not really paying attention to end up being more important than you thought. I am sure there are some people who see that as chaotic and maybe that’s fine on some level, but for me it was more fun than just kind of lining up your ducks and knocking them down one by one.
Jason Statham has become the tough guy action man of the last decade. What was it like working with him?
It was great! Jason is very, very detailed oriented. Very, very specific about what works for him, how to accomplish it and he brings so much to the table. What was fun for us in this one was that we weren’t re-inventing the wheel for Jason in terms of what his character was like, but we were just adding some colours to it.
I mean, he got to show some moments of vulnerability, some moments of pain, some moments of hysteria that he hasn’t really been exploring lately in his roles and sort of add them to a part that feels very comfortable for him and fits him like a glove. So that was a fun process.
What made you confident that Jason could play those different colours and a different type of emotional range that he’s not really used to?
Well, you know I think if you look at Jason’s films you see that he’s got it. He’s a very powerful and very accomplished kind of actor…he’s what they call a natural. He’s not a trained actor. He’s someone that’s gaining more and more experience, and I actually think that he’s a much better actor than people give him credit for, or that he even gives himself credit for.
I think he plays similar characters and I think he does a lot of action films, so that it’s easy to dismiss his natural abilities. But I think that if you look at what he does and how he does it, it’s actually a lot harder to do then what people realise.
"(Jason) is a very powerful and very accomplished kind of actor…He’s someone that’s gaining more and more experience, and I actually think that he’s a much better actor than people give him credit for, or that he even gives himself credit for." - Boaz Yakin
Another actor you worked with in Safe is James Hong.
The legendary James Hong!
I’ve been a fan of his since I saw Big Trouble in Little China. What was it like working with him and what was the first movie you remember seeing him in?
Well I don’t remember which one would have been the first. I remember him from Blade Runner, from Big Trouble in Little China, from a number of films he done in the 60s…what was really important to me was that in terms of the little girls story, the delirious almost like bad fairy-tale quality…kidnapped and brought to this new place, kind of feeling important and enjoying it and at the same time the feeling is lost and the film is heightened.
I think it might confuse some people in that these days films are either so heightened, like a superhero film or something like that, and this film is set in a grittier environment, but it is actually a bit like a feverish scary tale of New York in the 1970s posed on today’s New York.
James Hong needed to be the evil grandfather looming over the whole story, and he needed to have an iconic and legendary quality about him, and who would have been better?
Action movies these days are dominated by comic book movies. You wrote the first Punisher movie that starred Dolph Lundgren…
It was heavily re-written, so it’s hard for me to claim, you know? My name is the sole name on the credit and it was my idea to make the film. At the time no one even knew about the comic in the film world. But the final product was not one that reflected the script I wrote, necessarily.
Well as someone who was and that was kind of championing comic books films back when comic book movies were such a rarity, what has changed between then and now where there seems to be a comic book movie a month?
Yeah, it’s interesting. When I suggested The Punisher character and we developed it and I wrote the first script, it was actually a very comic book-ish movie and was very much like the comic books. The producers actually made…The Punisher has a skull on his shirt and all this kind of stuff, and the producers took away may of the elements that made the character who he was because at the time they said “it’s too comic book-y”. And I was like “but it’s a comic book!”
At the time people weren’t doing comic books, so they thought that would limit it. They took away all of those things in it, and of course a few months later or a year later Tim Burton came out with that Batman film (laughs) and the comic book film became huge. But it was just a little bit ahead of that curve when we came up with doing that.
If you were given a chance, would you do another Punisher film?
I think that ship has sailed! (laughs) They’ve tried a few versions of The Punisher and none of them have worked, right?
So I don’t know man. He hasn’t had the best of luck in the cinema.