chuckrrusseI Am Wrath revolves around unemployed engineer Stanley Hill (John Travolta), who witnesses the brutal murder of his wife Vivian (Rebecca De Mornay) after she is attacked by thugs in a parking garage. Racked with guilt, Stanley is haunted by the image of Vivian dying and when Detective Gibson (Sam Trammell) and other corrupt police officers are unable to bring the killers to justice, Stanley turns to his old friend Dennis (Christopher Meloni) and takes matters into his own hands…

We spoke to director Chuck Russell, the talented man behind A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Mask, Eraser and The Scorpion King. We discussed everything from John Travolta’s love affair with musicals to Hollywood’s love affair with CGI. We also delve into Freddy Krueger, The Mask and Dwayne Johnson’s hulking physique.

THN: I Am Wrath is a great revenge thriller and a great action film. What was it that influenced you when deciding to return to this genre?

Russell: It’s all John Travolta’s fault actually! [Laughs] I met him at the end of 2014 and we instantly hit it off. He’s such an iconic actor and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with him. So then we had a dinner meeting in Mexico while he was shooting a western film. At that point we began to talk about I Am Wrath and he got really excited about it. Then I got a call in 2015 and found out that John had actually made time in his schedule for the film. It was quite a short prep purely because we were both so ready to make this film.


THN: John Travolta is clearly enjoying himself in the film and delivers a brilliant performance as a result. He also has a wonderful on screen chemistry with Christopher Meloni. Can you tell me what their relationship was like on set?

Russell: Well it’s interesting because the casting of Meloni actually came quite late in the production. From the beginning I said that I really wanted to bring in some dark humour with this film, as well a bit of buddy chemistry. It’s about these two great friends that have been apart for years when danger finally brings them back together. So, the relationship between Stanley [Travolta] and Dennis [Meloni] is the key to bringing the audience into this story. That’s how we wanted to create jeopardy in this film, because we wanted the audience to care about these characters. We needed real chemistry between these actors, in order to create suspense for the audience.

One of the things that seperates I Am Wrath from other films of the same genre is the humour and dark comradery between these two killers. In fact, there were a number of people suggested for the role of Dennis. But after watching Meloni quite a bit I realised that he’s got a dangerous edge, but he’s also fantastic with comedy. So I instantly thought he would be the perfect guy to cast. Then I spoke to John and not only were they good friends in real life, but John had also taught him how to fly! So that meant that there was already a real relationship between them. There are few times as a director that you hear one name get such a unanimously positive response, but everybody wanted Chris for this film.

THN: It sounds like you had a great time working together. Would you be interested in working with either Travolta or Meloni again on another production?

Russell: I’d be very interested! [Laughs] I’d like to do a musical with John at some point. At this point in his career I think there are definitely some appropriate roles for him. We had a lot of laughs about the fact that he is in two or three of the top grossing musicals at the box office. I kept on joking that we should have put some songs in the film! Although, I do think of The Mask as my musical and I think I may revisit that at some point. That film was definitely a secret musical.

THN: As someone who grew up in the nineties, The Mask is actually a huge childhood favourite of mine.

Russell: Thank you! I’m very proud of it.

THN: You obviously have a passion for dark comedy. How much influence did your vision contribute to the final product? And how much did you rely on the comic books for inspiration?

Russell: The Mask was originally a very, very dark comic book which had begun to draw my attention in the early nineties. At the time this type of comic was called ‘splatterpunk’, which was a violent movement within the horror genre. Then New Line Cinema happened to purchase the rights to the comic book, without any idea that I was interested in it. I was very interested in the visuals and I knew that I wanted to create a new horror series at the time. I had already brought New Line some success with the third Nightmare on Elm Street film. So then they came back to me and we started to look at adapting The Mask as a new Horror series. Like a lot of comics the plot was thin enough to be interpreted, but the style was so cool and I absolutely loved that Zoot suit.

For me though, Jim Carrey was my biggest inspiration. I just said to the studio ‘we have to get this guy Jim Carrey for the role and make this a comedy!’ At that point New Line thought I was off my rocker and then I didn’t hear back from them for about a year. When they eventually came back to me they said ‘tell me how this story about a guy, a girl and a dog in a night club will work’. So then I completely changed the script and adapted it into a comedy rather than horror. Fortunately for me Bob Shaye, the founder of New Line, allowed me to do something very different and original at the time. I’m not bragging [Laughs] I’m just saying that it’s always hard. In fact, audiences don’t know how hard it is for Film makers to create something truly original. On paper The Mask was quite difficult for people to understand how it would all work.

THN: Carrey and Travolta are both gifted at comedy and drama. Do you naturally gravitate towards actors who are versatile in both genres?

Russell: Well, I think that there is a common thread between the people that we call ‘stars’ and ‘icons’. There are certain actors who just bring a magical fascination to whichever role they play, whether it is in a comedy or a drama. These people create likeable characters, but they also have a crucial element of danger to them. This is the reason it has always been easy for John Travolta to play villainous characters. He has an incredible ability to reach down into his personal life and bring out anger, love and humour in any role. He just goes for it. He does the things you hear about in acting classes all the time, he reaches down inside and gives a part of himself to the role. I mean, look at Get Shorty! So, I can personally tell you that John takes it very seriously and does not take his job lightly.

In my opinion, the comedy that both John and Jim [Carrey] perform also has a little bit of danger to it. This goes for a lot of other actors that I haven’t worked with as well, such as Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson defined that type of actor, with his remarkable ability to transform from a straight character, to a very comedic character. Both of which, have a slightly scary and dangerous aspect to them. So if you want a comparison between John Travolta and Jim Carrey, they both bring something to a film that is such an art form it is completely indefinable. You just can’t take your eyes off them when they are on screen. I’ve loved working with both of them, especially because Jim was at the beginning of his cinematic career and John is now at a later point in his career.


THN: Is it slightly surreal, knowing that you helped launch Jim Carrey’s entire career?

Russell: It’s funny you say that actually, because people always forget about Cameron Diaz! Cameron was brand new and had literally never acted before. Plus from a studio point of view at the time, Jim was a risk to cast in a lead role. So that was very difficult! New Line wanted me to cast some big comedians from the 80’s and 90’s. But I had seen Jim on In Living Colour and doing stand up in LA, so I instantly knew he was a phenomenon.

THN: Filmmakers often find it difficult to have their voice heard in Hollywood and are rarely able to create something unique and original. Do you look at 20th Century Fox’ Deadpool and see elements of what you achieved with The Mask?

Russell: Absolutely! Absolutely. I particularly enjoyed that film and I’m a huge Ryan Reynolds fan, so I’m happy to finally see him with a home run hit. I studied film at college and I didn’t see anything like The Mask or Deadpool. But I knew that I wanted to infuse the energy of a silent film into the physical comedy of a modern film. There’s an old saying that ‘we all stand on the shoulders of giants’ and that’s completely true. I had some inspiration from Buster Keaton and the other silent film greats. If you look at the physical energy from them it’s actually quite mind bending. So an athletic comedian like Jim Carrey really shares that.

When I made The Mask I wanted to make a film that didn’t require language and would translate through it’s physical comedy. So what I’m getting at is…Deadpool was more physical and more hyperactive than my film. Ryan really pulled off that surreal character that I like to think of as the ‘Bugs Bunny’ character. I love the idea of this surreal larger than life character that is smarter, faster and weirder than you. Kudos to Ryan and Tim Miller because I thought that the film was very original and it took kinetic cinema to the next level.

THN: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is remembered as an iconic slasher film. How does it feel looking back at the film as your directorial debut?

Russell: Elm Street 3 stands as something that seems to have affected horror fans hugely. Before that film I had previously been an assistant director and I had also done a lot of writing. But at that time I was fearless with imagery and I was allowed to do an R-rated film, which is something directors always have trouble with when it comes to darker material. I think part of the reason it is remembered so well is because it came before CGI. The imagery in that film is more resonant and really gets in your head, so I’m very proud of that as a first film. Sometimes I think that maybe I should be a little more crazier nowadays, like I was with my first film [Laughs].


THN: The film essentially revitalised the entire Freddy Krueger franchise in 1987. What was it like following the second film in the series as a newcomer to Hollywood?

Russell: What people don’t remember is that the second Elm Street was not a fan favourite and it also didn’t perform very well financially. I honestly think that was because it didn’t follow the rules of the first film. There were rules within this fantasy that Wes Craven brilliantly conceived in the original. I remember I heard through the grapevine that Wes was making the third film, and that it was about a ghost in a dream. At first I thought ‘that wont work! they’re two separate genres’ [Laughs].

The first Elm Street was such a fresh idea and it absolutely blew me away. But the second one didn’t have Wes involved and I think it suffered as a result of that. With the third one Wes and his writing partner Bruce Wagner already had a script before I came onboard. Then me and Frank Darabont did some re-writes. We thought ‘why can’t we make this film wilder and much more fun that the first one’. I realised that the heart of it was these adolescent kids. These 15/16 year old kids who are just at that age when you start to realise that bad things happen in the world. Of course, none of the adults believe the kids about Freddy so going to them always makes things worse in these films.

Dream Warriors really took us more into the dreamscape of this world. It’s funny actually because the first script I ever had produced in 1984 was called Dreamscape. So with Elm Street we really wanted to explore this dream world and how it applied to each characters personality. The results speak for themselves because I still think it’s one of my better films! [Laughs]. As I said earlier, I think part of that is because there is no crude CGI. It’s all physical effects and they do tend to remain pretty scary.

THN: Practical effects do age better than that CGI sometimes. Technology advances so quickly that special effects can date a lot quicker.

Russell: Not only that but there’s also still a disconnection between CGI and real people. Now that we can see all this CGI blown up on our massive, high definition screens a lot of great special effects look so much different. I was so disappointed the first time I saw The Mask on my big screen because it looks so much less natural. In that film I used CGI to enhance a performance rather than rely on the effects. I think the best film makers understand that rule. In fact, George Miller just did this spectacularly in the latest Mad Max film. He did the opposite to what a lot of modern blockbusters are doing. He used real people as much as possible. If you want to create kinetic action then the best rule is to make the audience care about the stakes behind it. Theres always a safe way to do action, so do it safely and then enhance it with CGI later.

Although having said that, there are some times when you can’t help but use CGI. I learned that lesson when I filmed the alligator sequence in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Eraser. There were some real alligators on the next set over that we could have used, but they were clearly too dangerous for anyone to be around! I felt sorry for the alligators actually, they don’t have the greatest personalities and they didn’t know what was going on [Laughs]. So in that scenario it made sense to use CGI.

THN: The Scorpion King was another big action blockbuster that you directed in the early 2000’s. As a prequel that came before the popularity of spin-off’s and share universes, was there a lot of pressure from the studio to tie the film in to the larger Mummy franchise?

Russell: I was given a lot of freedom and I was quite pleased to have the support of the studio. Studios are wonderful enablers! People complain about the studio system, but there ways of making independent films and there are also ways of making studio films. Having the support of Universal and being able to shoot on the back lot where Ben Hur was filmed, was one of the biggest thrills of my entire life. I was actually given a choice between two different movies Universal wanted to make that year, but I chose The Scorpion King.

I really wanted to work with Dwayne Johnson in a starring role. My favourite thing as a director is to be able to be able spot talent early. I had been tracking Dwayne on my own anyway, because I was a big fan of his work on the WWE wrestling show. I always thought that he was a master of these amazing monologues that he used to give on that show. He was clearly ready to do an action film and I jumped at the chance to work with him. I’ve worked with a lot of action people throughout my career, but Dwayne Johnson was the real thing! He was an absolute champ. He was such a pleasure to work with.

In fact, check out the scene in The Scorpion King where he cuts his way through a burning curtain. No body looks like Dwayne so it was impossible to find a double for him! On top of that no one could lift that sword. It weighed about 20 pounds and the stunt men could not move it at all. Only Dwayne had that strength and grace, so when you see that curtain scene it’s a very carefully staged stunt he actually performed himself. Of course I enhanced the fire using a little bit of CGI, but there was still some real fire on that curtain. Dwayne was absolutely ready to try anything and he took an athletes mentality to the role. He gave it his all and put his heart and soul into the whole thing.


THN: It’s interesting that Dwayne Johnson is another A-list movie star you helped launch into international stardom with his first leading role.

Russell: With both Dwayne and Jim Carey it was so obvious to me that they should be stars for a number of reasons. I just enjoy pop culture! There had not been a fresh new comedian for quite a while before I did The Mask, and there had not been a new action star before Dwayne came along. Studios were searching for the next big action star and I knew Dwayne was perfect.

THN: Finally, can you give me an update on your upcoming adaptation of Arabian Nights and when it’s set to begin shooting?

Russell: Arabian Nights is still a project I intend on shooting and I would assume at this point it will go before cameras in 2017. I have always been interested in international cinema for a number of reasons. Primarily because it’s sharing the dream cross-culturally, which is a miracle. It was a miracle to me that people across the globe seemed to get The Mask. I have a lot of friends in China and Kazakstan now who love that film and it made me very welcome in their countries.

The strength of international cinema is that it’s a small antidote to everything else that’s going on in the world. If we can make positive international films then thats what we should be doing. Even if I make a thriller or horror film I always like to include something positive in the story. The good characters always win in my films and I think that’s important. It’s very easy to make things seem dark and depressing, but I think that creating heroes is a much higher art form. If you can tell an international story with a cast of multiple ethnicities, then you reach more people and send a much better message. This is something I have always done. For example, it was great fun casting Vanessa Williams alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the nineties. It was something no one expected at the time and I think it was one of the reasons the film was such a success.

Arabian Nights is actually an international co-production with China, so I’m hoping to have a number of stars from a number of different countries. But that means it’s going to take a while to get it to the screen. But I’m hoping that 2017 is when things will get going. There are a lot of moving parts to get the film off the ground, but it’s got a really positive message to it. My grandmother told me those stories as a child, so for me they are the core magical adventures.

I Am Wrath is available on Blu-ray and DVD now.