The man who brought us TOMB RAIDER, CON AIR and THE EXPENDABLES 2 is this week bringing us the latest Jason Statham vehicle, WILD CARD. The film is a modern retelling of the 1986 Burt Reynolds film HEAT which in turn is based on a novel by William Goldman. Nick Wild, played by Jason Statham, runs a personal security agency in Las Vegas. He is desperate to escape Vegas’ clutches but his gambling addiction is making that hard to do. After helping out a female friend he finds himself on the wrong side of the local mob and has to leave, or die trying.
The production sees Statham and West re-team for the third time, having previously worked together on both THE MECHANIC and THE EXPENDABLES 2. Although known for his big Hollywood action flicks, West is actually British and started out directing commercials and worked on several high profile BBC shows including Bleak House.
We sat down with Simon to find out all about WILD CARD, the importance of a test audience, and whether we’ll ever get a sequel to CON AIR.
THN: How did you get involved with WILD CARD?
SIMON WEST: Well it’s through Jason actually. The first film I did with him was THE MECHANIC and we got on well while we were filming that, and then he brought up this project. He bought the rights to it, I don’t know how many years before. It was a passion project for him. I read it and I thought ‘It’s a thirty years old script, it may be a bit dated’ so I actually declined it. Then we met up again on EXPENDABLES 2 and it came up again so I thought I’ll give it another go. I read it and actually, probably because in the meantime I’d done a couple of big action things, I actually really liked it the second time I read it. It was very character driven and it was intimate and it was all about the troubles of the character. Even though Jason, who can obviously fight and all that, but really its about his problems and his angst and how he can’t get out of Vegas. I’d also been to Vegas in the meantime and I’d seen this part of Vegas the grubby side which is still there. Even though they rebuild the strip part every couple of years, and its all big and shiny and swanky, two or three blocks down the road it hasn’t changed since the fifties. So all these little apartment blocks and motels and car lots are all still there and these sort of characters are still there. So I said I’d love to do it. Then we started working on the script, trying to work out whether we wanted to change stuff, write out things and such, and a few months went past playing around with it. In the end we thought ‘you know what, the script is fine as it is’, going back to how it was originally. I actually shot the original script as written thirty years ago by William Goldman. There’s no technology in it, there’s nothing in it really that dates it and, as I said, Vegas and these people still exist.
You’ve worked with Jason a number of times now, how’s he to work with?
He’s great. The more you work with someone, the better you get to know them. You get a shorthand in how you talk to each other. You don’t have to beat around the bush as much, you know each others strengths and weaknesses and have a taste of each other and what they are going to like. It just becomes very relaxed. That’s why I suppose when directors and actors do get along they end up working a lot together because it means you can just focus on the work rather than learning a new person. You do better work because all that stuff is behind you. We get on very well and have a good working relationship. I come from a more drama background and he’s come from the action background and he has a lot of skills and knowledge from that stuff as well, so he’s very involved in all the fight choreography and the action; I know how to shoot it and also worked with him a lot on the character. I started at the BBC and worked on ‘classic’ BBC dramas and worked with people like Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears, and Dickensian stuff like Bleak House. I know that side of it and he’s come up more in front of the camera, he’s sort of learned his trade in front of the camera and is now much more interested in the acting part than the action part. That’s why he loved this project because he gets to show off what he can do acting wise, there’s lots of dialogue, there’s not tons of action, but he’s still that tough guy character. It’s more of a dramatic role.
He can do dramatic films really well, one of my favourites is a film he did a number of years ago called LONDON (track it down folks). There are no fight sequences at all. its more of a play, so I’ve been following his career since then and it is nice to see him sink his teeth into something.
Yes films like that, he can do that and it doesn’t get noticed. What’s good about this for him is it is an American film that will show an American audience that he can act. He gets much wider exposure, it’s not that he couldn’t act before, he just didn’t have the Hollywood vehicle to show the American audience that he could do it.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as a director on set?
On this there wasn’t – this is actually one of the easiest ones I’ve done because it was written thirty years ago. Most of the time now films are never finished being written, or the script is very basic. You sign onto them because it’s “ready to go” and the script may not be in good condition but its a world you like, and characters you like so you try and fix the script as much as possible during prep and also even shooting its being rewritten. It’s a very stressful and tiring and difficult to predict how its going to turn out when you’re constantly rewriting something as you’re shooting. Whereas with this, that was written thirty years ago, it’s set in stone and its so much easier to plan. It’s so much easier to cast because you can go out to actors like Stanley Tucci, Sofia Vergara and Anne Heche and say ‘here’s the part’ and they say ‘it’s great, it’s really well written, I want to do it’. Most of the time you’re casting you go out and say, ‘well here’s the character sketch and this is rough, but this is what I’m going to do to fix it. If you’ll bear with me while I fix it’, and they go ‘well’ and if it’s a really big actor in demand they have to take you on faith that you’ll fix it which is tricky sometimes, but this one was all there on paper.
There are some dark situations and scenes in the film, Holly’s revenge being the most severe. How did you go about shooting those scenes and what was done to try and lighten the mood between takes? I imagine it was quite draining on the cast, what did you do to elevate the tension?
It depends on the actors actually. Some actors take it very seriously and are in the moment, Dominik (Garcia-Lorido), who plays Holly, is an actress who takes it very seriously. She is much more in the role, she’s believing herself and there’s people like Milo (Ventimiglia) who plays the heavy, who is using his artifice and skill to be that person. So he can click in and out of the character much more easily. It’s less emotional for him. Whereas for Dominik it’s much more emotional. So for her it was quite harrowing. She’s also so empathetic that because he’s meant to be so distressed she’s starting to sympathise with him. I’m having to say ‘You can’t sympathise with him’ but because she’s a nice person and he’s doing such a great performance the human in her is coming out and going ‘Oh my God I need to be nice to him’ and I’m saying ‘No, he’s only acting. It’s just Milo, he’s just pretending to be distressed. You’ve gotta really be mean to him.’ It depends on the actor how they do it but it was stressful and in one of the incarnations of the script, we were worried if this was enough for modern audiences, this tension and there was a version of the script where she did actually cut his dick off. You read it first time and go ‘Oh my God this is going to be so shocking’ but then after reading it and leaving it a few weeks you realise that takes over the film. The film is then about that moment and what happens after that is so huge and catastrophic it stops the rest of the story coming through. So we backed off and went back to how it is in the original script and book where she’s just threatening and traumatises him that way. I think it works better, you get the tension.
Implied violence always seems to be more effective and sends more of a message than actual violence. Having it go to that extreme would have detracted from it and made it all a little too over the top and cartoony.
A lot of films now are very violent in that way, in terms following through and seeing everything, that they just desensitise you a bit. You don’t follow the story as much or you switch off completely as you can’t believe its real.
It was tough for me as a female to watch that scene so I imagine they’ll be some shifting in the seats from the male audience when they see it.
Yeah that is the hard part, when you can see its all fake. Its very hard to put yourself into the audience’s perspective. believing stuff and with the characters. That’s why you almost have to be with the audience, and that’s why we do test screenings with 500 people. You test what their reaction is because you can’t predict it. Some might be fine with it, others might faint. You never know so you have to test it. I haven’t seen it with a paying audience yet, just with a test audience.
It was announced recently that there are plans to reboot TOMB RAIDER.
Yeah, I hear that one a lot, is it up again?
Yes. For me Angelina was the absolute perfect person for that role, I think the plan now it for a younger incarnation of the character. Would you have anyone in mind?
Well the reason I chose Angelina was that she was a bit dangerous. At that time she had done GIRL, INTERRUPTED and had a lot of baggage press around her of being this quite crazy and dark and troubled and interesting, I thought, actress. When I cast her no one wanted her for the original. The studio were against it, the producers were against it, I had to really fight for her to be in it because they thought she is trouble. Now of course she’s a different person but at that time she was dangerous and problematic and too dark for it, and that’s why I liked her. For me that sort of character, if you’re going to make them interesting, you know a female adventurer, for Gods sake make them interesting, a bit dark and troubled and not a cartoon. I don’t know who the young troublemaker whose out there – it couldn’t be Lindsay Lohan. But you want someone whose like ‘Oh my God she’s going to be trouble.’ I would cast someone the producers and the studios were really scared of. That they were worried about whether she would turn up having shaved her head, somebody that would make everybody nervous. Find that person who makes people nervous and worried that the whole things going to fall apart, otherwise its too corporate and Lara Croft should be dangerous.
It was also recently announced that you will be working with Henry Cavill on STRATTON, how’s that going?
Great. It’s what I’m doing now. It’s a new sort of British action hero. We’ve got Bond, which is great, but it’s in a stratospheric level, a huge thing, this is more small scale and more realistic. It’s about special boat service (agent) which is like the SAS but more secretive and they would say cooler probably. It’s all set in London I’ve been looking for a while for a UK based, a British action guy and there’s not many. There’s Jason but he’s actually more international. He’s American or European, more worldwide and he plays international characters in a way even though he’s British. I wanted to have a character who was actually British and Henry Cavill is perfect, he’s 6″2, built, handsome, very intelligent, he’s obviously Superman but this is much grittier and more realistic. Again it’s a chance for him to do something different to the squeaky clean Superman. It’s quite a bit darker, he’s a special forces guy, so he does things that are quite questionable. Even though they are for the right reasons, the methods are harsh.
Any more plans for CON AIR in space?
CON AIR in space? Nah, I think space is too (done), everyone likes space now, I’m more interested in CON AIR the musical.
Yeah a big tough musical, Billy Elliott meets Stomp!
CON AIR in space though could combine up with MACHETE whose ended up there, some sort of MACHETE/CON AIR crossover…
Yeah that’s true. I’m up for anything. Whatever it is it has to be very different and weird, it can not be they just turn around the corner and their all there again, especially as most of them died in the first one. Steve Buscemi would be alive, and I suppose in this day and age the studio would say they cloned them, so they’re all back again but they are clones, and they’re twice as big.
Why you’d clone convicts…
Maybe they’re now meant to be like super soldiers.
You don’t want to think about it too much. But yeah they (the government) are using them for their own purposes. They’ll come up with something, some ridiculous premise.
WILD CARD is released in cinemas across the UK from Friday 20th March.