Leaving a powerful impression on the people around you, particularly with the captivating combination of intense action stunts and quick wit, can be a clever and creative way to prove your talent in thriving in high adrenaline and death-defying situations. The main actors of the new independent action crime comedy, ‘Drive Hard,’ John Cusack and Thomas Jane, formed a natural chemistry together on screen as they infused their characters with the necessary street smarts to outrun the police who are chasing them in gripping car chases. The movie’s co-writer and director, Brian Trenchard-Smith, who has helmed numerous action films throughout his 40-year career, utilized his experience to interlace natural humor into the thrilling stunts featured in his latest movie.
‘Drive Hard’ follows Peter Roberts (Jane), a beginners’ driving instructor, as he meets his new client, Simon Keller (Cusack), for the first time. But instead of getting into the driver’s seat himself, Simon orders Peter to take them to a building, where he says he needs to go inside for five minutes. But when he comes running out with a briefcase, he’s exchanging gun fire with security guards. Simon orders Peter to quickly drive away, as police begin searching for them.
Peter tries to disassociate himself from the situation, but quickly rejoins his new accomplice in the car when he begins getting shot at by officers. Simon, who’s a seemingly seasoned criminal who just stole $9 million, forces his new partner to help him get away by being his driver, against Peter’s better judgment. The only way the two can then survive is to drive faster than the numerous people who are chasing after them to get the money back.Th
Trenchard-Smith generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Drive Hard’ over the phone. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how he encouraged Cusack and Jane to improv while they were filming the action comedy, as the two actors not only had a good chemistry together on the set, but were also able to infuse their characters with their distinct humor and personalities; how shooting the movie independently on a shorter shooting schedule allowed him to infuse the story with quirky, off-beat moments that he may not have had the opportunity to do if the comedy was a big studio film; and how directing action films since the beginning of his career in the 1970s, including ‘The Man From Hong Kong’ and ‘Stunt Rock,’ has taught him how to stage action sequences safely, but with impact.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the script for the action crime comedy, ‘Drive Hard,’ with Brigitte Jean Allen, Chad Law and Evan Law. How did you come together to pen the screenplay for the film, and what was the overall process like working together?
Brian Trenchard-Smith (BTS): The script was originally written to be set in America, as a vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme. When Jean-Claude moved onto something else, we were advised there was a narrow window of availability for John Cusack. If we could get it together in time, and get the script to a point where he would accept it, then it would be all systems a go.
So I went to John’s house and discussed the script with him. We then retooled the story and reset it in Queensland, Australia. We fit the script for his screen persona, and the kind of character he would want to play, rather than the way Jean-Claude Van Damme would have played it.
So it was a total page one rewrite, and I had to do that myself, in a hurry. So basically three weeks later, we had a script that John liked, and a co-star in Thomas Jane. Then three weeks after that, we were shooting.
SY: Speaking of John and Thomas, what was the process of directing them both, once you actually began shooting the movie? Were you able to have any rehearsal time with them before you began filming?
BTS: it’s a wonderful experience to watch two masters of their craft spark off each other. I could sense their chemistry from the first moment they were on set together, and they just took to the material immediately.
I encouraged a certain amount of improvisation, and that gave them more freedom to stretch themselves. A great actor is a great detective, and will look through the text and find information they could decorate their character with, in other ways. We were also looking for laughs to mix with the action.
I also wanted to reflect some of John’s politics in the film, because he has a distinct world view. It’s best summed up as, “The game’s rigged,” and I wanted him to have an opportunity to express that. Like in the scene in the reception area, he gets a chance to do that. It’s perfectly consistent with his character, who’s this enigmatic avenger, but his target is a crooked bank. But of course, there are no crooked banks-that’s just a myth. (laughs)
But we had some fun with it. There is one scene where John completely improvised, and I added a few lines to it after he first did it. So we had a lot of fun, which I think is important when you’re making an action comedy. The cast and crew should enjoy themselves, and should have some creative freedom.
SY: Speaking of improvising, do you feel that allowing the actors to offer suggestions on their characters’ dialogue and action adds an extra creativity to the film? What was the process of mixing the improv with how the scenes were written in the script?
BTS: As you can tell, we had very little time (to make this film). I think it’s a very good idea to allow an actor, particularly actors of that stature, to have creative freedom. If you don’t let them do it, you deny yourself the opportunity to include some real gems in the finished film. If what they do doesn’t work, you can cut it out, but you can’t create it if you’ve never shot it.
So we did some improv in a couple scenes, and the one was totally improvised. It all worked within the dry, ironic tone of the overall film. So I don’t think you should make actors turn on a comma in a script, and I don’t believe in that level of directorial control. I think that’s putting an actor in a straight jacket. So I wanted John and Thomas to be free, and reach for a smile here and there by utilizing their basic comedic skills.
SY: Besides co-writing the script for ‘Drive Hard,’ you also directed the movie. Do you prefer working on the scripts for the films you helm, and does writing the script influence the way you approach directing?
BTS: Yes-it becomes a part of your DNA while you’re on the shoot. Going back to your earlier question, we didn’t have rehearsals, as both John and Thomas don’t like to rehearse. They just want to roll the dice.
So sometimes take five would be the best to use, and other times take one would be the best one. You’d think, “Wow, there are some gems in that.” Then we’ll throw in a line from take two or take three, and then go back to take one again, because it had such spontaneity, it was too good to resist.
But we’d sit around a table at night on the set, and in Los Angeles on one occasion, to go over everything. We would go over their ideas of things that would be nice to do, and topics that would be nice to riff on. So we’d do my version, and then we’d expand on that. So it was a free-form film, to a degree. But we did have very disciplined shooting for all the action scenes, because I had to film them safely in 18 days.
SY: How does making a movie independently on such a short shooting schedule influence the way you direct it overall?
BTS: Well, the more money that’s involved in the budget, the more cooks there will be in the kitchen. They obviously have a responsibility to protect their investment.
On the lower-budget level, you can have more of a creative freedom. I have made practically every genre known to man, and I try to be faithful to the audience for each genre. This is an action comedy, but can you thrown in quirky, off-beat moments and personalities? Yes, sure, because that lightens the formula.
Any director would like to have a bigger budget, because that means more shooting days. But even James Cameron would like more shooting days. (laughs) There are never enough days. He puts it well, as he says, “Films are not finished; they’re abandoned.” You do the best you can with 18 days, or 150 days, but you always want that extra day.
SY: What was the process of creating the action sequences and stunts for the film, particularly since it was shot independently? Does making a film independently influence the way you create the action and stunts in a film?
BTS: Well, I have done a lot of action movies and stunt shooting. I have actually been set on fire several times myself, in the days of my foolish youth.
I come from an editorial background, so I therefore know how to give geographic relativity in the action that’s being depicted to the audience. I also know what moments should be covered in close-ups for impact in the action. So there’s a discipline that you learn from experience, and how to stage action sequences safely, but with impact.
Our particular challenge was that we couldn’t afford to damage any of the vehicles. So we had to contrive the stunt of the near-miss, which we did quite well a number of times.
I’ve done battle scenes, space scenes (laughs) and every kind of action scene you can think about. It’s always fun to do a bit of a car chase. It’s about discipline, efficiency and planning.
SY: Like you mentioned, before directing ‘Drive Hard,’ you also directed such action films as 1975’s ‘The Man from Hong Kong’ 1986’s ‘Dead End Drive-In’ and last year’s ‘Absolute Deception.’ What is it about the genre that you’re most drawn to?
BTS: Well, I used to enjoy really going to the cinema for laughs and gasps. I want the audience to experience that, and I want to give the audience laughs and gasps. I’ve managed to do that with quite a few films.
It’s a staple diet of cinema entertainment, going back to the old nickelodeon days. Obviously, films have grown a lot more sophisticated since then.
But the universal currency of the cinema market internationally is action. The genre transcends all language barriers. But I made a film that became the all-time box office champion of Pakistan for four years, between 1978 and 1982. It’s called ‘The Man from Hong Kong,’ and you’ve probably never heard of it. (laughs) But they’ve certainly heard of it in Pakistan. It somehow completely transcended the language barrier. It was shot in English with a Chinese lead (actor), and was filmed in Australia. It just clicked in that particular market.
I use that as an example, because action, as well as horror, are the safest bets. They’ll always sell for something in every territory in the world. So I enjoy the challenge each time, but I’d love more shooting days.
SY: How has your directing style in the action film evolved throughout your career, particularly with the evolution of technology and effects?
BTS: Well, when I made films like ‘Deathcheaters,’ ‘The Man From Hong Kong’ and ‘Stunt Rock,’ stunts were real. There wasn’t CGI at the time. You could make the stunts safer by breaking them down into individual parts, and shooting them one at a time. Then you would string them together. That way they would play as one fluid sequence, and the editing wouldn’t be obvious, and the action plays well and looks death-defying. But each individual part wasn’t death-defying. But that was the old way of doing things.
Now if you want to throw someone up against a wall, you can do motion capture on a stage. You can throw a motion capture artist at great speed against the wall, and have them fall down. Then you can put the actor’s face on the motion capture artist’s body. The process didn’t hurt anybody, but it looked extremely painful.
In the old days, they may have had to wear a jerk harness. If an actor was in a Western, for example, and their character was taking a bullet to the chest, they would be jerked back against a wall, or through a window. There would be a harness under their costume, and a cable that was disguised from the camera’s perspective. Then they would suddenly be jerked back against a wall or through a window, and they would be wearing padding, and that’s the way it used to be done.
Now it can be done a lot safer. But there’s a level of unreality with CG. Somehow you subconsciously know it’s computer generated.
SY: ‘Drive Hard’ is now available VOD, and will be released in theaters on October 3. Are you a fan of watching films On Demand, and why do you think the platform is important for independent movies?
BTS: I think so, as the business is constantly changing. Every three months, the business changes, and it takes you three months to catch up with the last change.
But the cost of a theatrical release on a broad scale is very expensive. There are films that wouldn’t recoup if you spend an absorbent amount of money on prints and ads. So this is a way to retail the film to its target audience, for a much cheaper outlay.
There are people who like to see films on the big screen, and ‘Drive Hard’ looks good on the big screen. If word-of-mouth encourages another section of the audience to see it on the big screen, it would be great. If people tell their friends, “John Cusack and Thomas Jane are in this film. it’s going to be playing at the Landmark and the Grove or wherever, go see it,” that would help. There are some people who still want to see films on the big screen.
But there are homes across America and the world that have Flat Screen TVs that are getting bigger and bigger. So there can be a room in homes that can be described as home cinema, as it has that big screen feeling. So VOD is an ideal way to beam a movie straight into your home the moment it’s released. You don’t have to go pay the babysitter, go to the multiplex, buy the popcorn and pay for parking. Going to the theater is a big investment.
But there are still films, like ‘Drive Hard,’ that are worth seeing in the theater, but audiences can still enjoy it in their own homes. We’ve come a long way since VHS tapes, which you would have to put into the machine, and they would occasionally jam. (laughs)
You have big screen quality and 4K images beamed to your house. So I applaud the development. Anything that can help lower budget films like this one recoup their money for their investors is an ideal venue.
SY: Besides films, you have also directed several television series and television movies, including episodes of ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘Flipper.’ How does shooting a television series compare and contrast to the films you’ve directed? Do you have a preference of one medium over the other?
BTS: Well, I’ve never met a green light I didn’t like. So whenever anyone says, “We want you,” and it’s a movie or a television series, I report for duty. You make episodic television maybe a little bit faster than a low-budget, short schedule movie. But in a way, a television episode is slightly less ambitious than a movie.
But the disciples are the same. You’re dealing with actors you have to help find the truth of the moment. You also have to stage it with production value, and the ability to pace it up in the editing room. To me, directing episodic television is like a seven or eight-day commando raid. But an 18, 20 or 25-day movie is a more measured campaign. Both are fun, and I’m in this business because I believe in the process.
Written by: Karen Benardello