Jaume Collet-Serra arrived on the scene with the horror film House of Wax, then switched gears to direct Liam Neeson in the action thrillers Unknown and Non-Stop. He reunites with Neeson in his latest flick, Run All Night, which opens Friday.
The Orphan director spoke to EW about his desire to break into other genres; how action stars are born, not made; and why filming a scene in a subway station is easier said than done.
EW: This is your third film with Liam Neeson. What’s it like working with him?
JAUME COLLET-SERRA: Great. He’s obviously an amazing actor but he also loves the action, the fighting aspect of these movies. Not only is our taste in movies very similar, the way that we like to work is very similar. It’s not like we spend hours discussing a lot of stuff, we just go and do it. We’re very efficient professionals and he’s a pleasure to work with.
The cast also includes Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman and Common. Who surprised you most on set?
Well Ed [Harris], it was tough for him because he was doing a Broadway show at the same time so he was doing eight shows a week and then he would show up on his day off to do those scenes. That was really a testament to how professional and how good he is. He’s very charismatic and very intense.
Common, he really owned the role. This is a role that, it was really up to the actor to give it unspoken life if the character doesn’t speak a lot but he really surprised me in that sense. He came in and knew exactly who the guy was and was able to convey that from a physical standpoint. And if you ever met Common, he’s really truly the nicest person in the world—like, literally.
And Joel [Kinnaman], I mean, he is an actor who has a big physical presence but I was very surprised by his generosity in basically showing his vulnerability in the scenes. Actors that maybe are used to just doing a lot of physical stuff are not used to doing that but he was amazing.
What was the most difficult aspect of filming?
We wanted to create our own world but at the same time, still feel that we’re in New York and go to places where other movies don’t go, and show it in a way that other movies don’t. That was the biggest challenge.
The thing is, New York will not stop for you just because you are shooting a movie. So you have moments like in the subway sequence where we had permission to shoot in the subway station but we didn’t have permission to control anything about it. So trains were going and coming with passengers in and out all night, as they normally do. It was frustrating because the shot was perfect and then suddenly the train came in the wrong way or like a thousand people just came into the shot, making it impossible for us to see the actors.
There was a scene in Madison Square Garden, which we actually shot before and after a real game. Before the game, they gave us half an hour to get Liam through the fans and in 30 minutes, the lights were turned off and we were kicked out. At the end of the game, we only had 10 minutes to show the scene in which he goes in and we used the real people coming out, with Liam coming in. So much to the surprise of the people who’ve just seen their team and they’re coming out, they see Liam Neeson walking in the wrong direction. And you can actually see from the film that a few people did double takes.
Your transitions were very interesting. There were quick cuts that would then focus on one element and then pull the audience into the next scene.
We really needed to drive home the idea that this [the movie] was happening in one night and that this was happening in one city, and the best visual way that I thought was this one. So we designed the shots and then we called this company in France called BUF and they came in and took a bunch of still pictures. We shot the beginning and the end of each shot, and they created the middle through pictures and CG. It was just an interesting way to see where things were happening, which is such a hard thing to convey with cuts. Even aerial photography alone is not good enough because you cannot just travel with a helicopter and try to speed it up that way. So we tried to just move transitions. I mean, a lot of people are commenting about it so maybe they were successful.
Seeing your background with horror and action, are there other genres you’d like to explore as well?
I would like to do a movie with every genre. To me, that would be the complete career—do a comedy, musical. Why not? As a director, you start in horror because usually that’s the first opportunity they give you. And then, a natural progression is to go into action. I think I could do well in drama, as well, or science fiction. And one day, maybe I’ll try a comedy and that’ll be the end of my career.
Going back to the action genre, how do you turn someone into an action star?
I don’t think you can turn them into an action star if they’re physically not made for it. You need to be very coordinated, you need be in shape. I mean you can train, but you need certain things and you really need to love it and have a sense of action because you’re not only just performing what somebody tells you, you are part of the process of creating it. You can have an actor be in an action movie but to be a star, what you’re saying is that the audience respects that person and they want that person’s seal of approval on the movie. I’ve seen 20-year-old guys who cannot run. It has to be a natural thing so it’s hard to turn men into stars. I think the star is born.
Who were some of your heroes growing up?
I was very much into Spielberg because I grew up in the late ’70s, early ’80s. But as I started maturing, I really found the Hitchcock movies to be something that I was drawn to because [there] was always a very interesting technical challenge associated with them. The storytelling was relatable for everybody in the audience so he was not only a master of suspense, but the master of storytelling and making movies.
How would you say that reflects in your work?
In Unknown, there was definitely the whole idea of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances that we’ve seen in many feature films. And in Non-Stop, definitely the one location aspect of it and trying to figure out who the culprit is. So in those two movies, definitely there are aspects of Hitchcock. In Run All Night, not so much. But I was also looking to break away from that and do something different.