Having an extensive background in, and knowledge of, a particular subject often allows you to naturally progress further into the business, especially as you set out to achieve your goals. But there can also be times of heightened emotion when you look to your mentors and colleagues for guidance and support in realizing your dreams. Not only is that the case with the main protagonist, an infiltration expert who’s dependent on her supporters to reclaim her freedom and protect her life, in the action thriller, ‘Momentum,’ but also with the movie’s helmer, Stephen Campanelli. The filmmaker, who has also been working as a camera operator on diverse movies since the mid-1980s, relied on his frequent collaborators, including Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, to help advise him on how to make the transition into directing his first feature film.
‘Momentum’ will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, after it premiered earlier this year at Fantasia Fest, and it was released in select domestic theaters, as well as on On Demand and iTunes by Starz Digital, last month. The action thriller follows Alex (Olga Kurylenko), an infiltration expert with a secret past, as she accidentally reveals her identity during what should have been a routine bank heist in Cape Town, South Africa. She quickly finds herself mixed up in a government conspiracy and entangled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a master assassin, Mr. Washington (James Purefoy), and his team of killers, who are secretly working for a U.S. Senator (Morgan Freeman). Armed with her own set of lethal skills, Alex looks to exact revenge for her murdered friends while uncovering the truth.
Campanelli generously took the time to talk about making his feature film directorial debut on ‘Momentum’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the helmer discussed how he was drawn to make screenwriters Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan’s script the first one he directed, as he loves female-driven action movies, and wanted to expand the heroic nature of the relatable protagonist, who’s still contending with her past pain as she determinedly sets out to defeat her enemies; how he collaborated with the action thriller’s actors, especially Kurylenko, Purefoy and Freeman, once they arrived on the set in South Africa, in order to build their characters’ backstories and motivations; and how working as a camera operator, especially on films that Eastwood has directed, before he began helming ‘Momentum,’ helped him prepare to become a filmmaker, especially when it came to taking the best approach to working with the actors and the crew.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the action thriller, ‘Momentum,’ which was co-written by Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan. What was it about Adam and Debra’s screenplay that convinced you to helm the film?
Stephen Campanelli (SC): Well, when I first read the script, I liked the basic part of the story. I love female-driven, heroine action movies, and think we need more of them. I also loved the frailty of the character. I saw the potential in the character and film, and what they could be, and wanted to improve them.
That’s how I basically got the job. I told one of the producers, “I like the script, but I want to make it better.” I told him my ideas, and he said, “Okay, you’ve got the job.” It was so much fun to make the film that much better. It’s a lot of fun for audiences to watch, as it’s a 90-minute non-stop action thriller.
SY: Speaking of the fact that the action thriller’s main character is a woman, why do you feel it’s important to feature a female protagonist like Alex fight her male counterparts and defend the world from their greed and self-indulgent motivations?
SC: I do think it’s important, but I don’t want to say it’s a new genre. But it is one that’s becoming more and more common. I don’t think it’s just a gender story; it’s also about throwing an ordinary person into an extraordinary situation. The story shows someone who normally wouldn’t be in this type of situation rising to the occasion.
The great thing about Olga’s character, Alex, is that she’s going into an ordinary bank heist that she’s normally so good at, but then all hell breaks loose. She wasn’t expecting this whole complication, which is what I like about the script and character. Alex has to deal with the police and a corrupt hitman chasing her. When she’s trust into this situation, she decides to take matters into her own hands. As they’re taking out her team, she’s determined to get her revenge in the end. I like that aspect of the character coming back and getting revenge, no matter what the cost.
SY: Like you mentioned, Olga Kurylenko plays Alex Faraday, an infiltration expert who accidentally reveals her identity during what should have been a routine heist. She then quickly finds herself mixed up in a government conspiracy with a master assassin, Mr. Washington, who’s played by James Purefoy, and the Senator he works for, who’s portrayed by Morgan Freeman. What was the casting process like for the main actors, including Olga, James and Morgan?
SC: I previously worked with Olga on the movie ‘Seven Psychopaths,’ during which I fell in love with her as an actress, since she’s such a fantastic performer. She’s so beautiful, and also has a wonderful heart and soul. We got along so well on that film that I thought, when I direct, I want to find a role for her.
So when I read the script for ‘Momentum,’ I thought she would be perfect for the role of Alex. She’s so expressive and talented. She’s also very physical-she’s done a lot of dancing in her past, and she did a lot of her own stunts on the film.
Then with James, I have seen a lot of his previous work, particularly in the ‘Rome’ television series. When I then saw him on ‘The Following’ with Kevin Bacon, I thought, he’s my bad guy. He acts so charming, and you can’t believe you’re cheering for him. But that’s his great skill-he can be charming while also becoming an evil person. Since he has that trait, I thought that he was perfect for Mr. Washington.
I’ve also worked on three other movies with Morgan Freeman, and we bonded. I told him I wanted to direct. He said to me, “If there’s a role for me, let me know-I’d love to help you out.” That’s basically what happened after I read the role of the U.S. Senator.
SY: Once Olga and the supporting actors were cast, were you able to rehearse the action sequences and emotional arcs of their characters before you began filming?
SC: Well, Olga arrived in South Africa first, since she has the biggest role in the film. I greeted her the first night she arrived, after she checked into her hotel, and we went out to dinner. I wanted to make her at ease, and tell her my ideas, and also ask her about her ideas. We collaborated on our thoughts, and we were on the same page, which was nice. We then worked for about two or three weeks on some issues that we both had, and tried to make them better, as well as make her character stronger.
James arrived next, and worked on the same things. We had never worked together before, so it was a new meet-and-greet for us. We got along really well.
We really worked on the interrogation scene for a few weeks before we shot it, so that we could make the dialogue better and stronger. We also wanted to make his character do a bit of exposition on Olga’s character. We decided that he would share that part of Alex with the audience, as we originally didn’t have a lot of background on her.
We also wanted the viewers to find out why Alex didn’t kill all of the witnesses during the bank heist scene in the beginning of the film. I love when movies don’t spoon feed the audience all of the background information right at the beginning of the story. They’ll eventually get answers later on in the film, after they ask all of these questions about her history.
So we were very collaborative on the set. Every morning, we would talk about what I was planning on doing. We went that way most of the time, but if they had a really great idea that was better than what I had, I’d say, “Let’s do that.”
Like I said earlier, I had previously worked with Morgan on three other movies, so I was very comfortable around him, and vice versa. We had a great day of shooting with him. He’s such an amazing actor, he gets all of his lines right on the first take. So I can get a lot of coverage, and we were able to get a good portion of his dialogue shot in one day.
Morgan had a couple of notes on his character. But he really trusted me, and didn’t really question anything I had, in terms of my direction. It was a great honor for me to get to work with him as a director.
SY: ‘Momentum’ marks your feature film directorial debut. How did being a new director influence the way you approached the overall production of such an action-driven thriller?
SC: Well, choosing a high-octane action thriller like ‘Momentum’ for my first directorial effort probably wasn’t the best decision. (laughs) But I have always jumped in feet first and see what happens. I don’t give up easily, as I’m very stubborn that way, and I’m a perfectionist.
So I thought, if I’m going to direct a movie, let’s go big. Making this movie was a big undertaking, as we shot it in 36 days. There’s a lot of action and location changes.
I think being on set in the camera department for 30 years really helped prepare me to become a director. I think there are some really talented directors out there, but a lot of them don’t have a lot of set experience. So they don’t know what it takes to run, and be on, a set, as well as what the crew needs to do for, and with, them. So I think my crew experience really helped everyone give 100 percent, and made it a project for all of us.
Working (as a camera operator for films) Clint Eastwood (has directed) for 20 years has been the best tool in the world. I learned everything, in terms of directing, acting and telling the story, from him. Those aspects are his forte. He gave me a lot of tips, particularly about working with the actors and the treatment of the crew, before I left to direct my movie.
A lot of directors don’t involve the crew as much as they should, and those are the people who are making the movie for them. So the more directors get the crew involved, the better the movie will be.
So working as a camera operator, especially with Clint, definitely helped prepare me to move into directing. I felt very confident, and I owe it all to having worked for so many years on the crew.
SY: Like you mentioned, before you signed on to helm ‘Momentum,’ you worked in the camera department for 30 years. How did your experience in the camera department throughout your career influence the way you approached working with the action thriller’s cinematographer, Glen MacPherson, and the way you wanted to film its action sequences?
SC: Yes, coming from the camera world, I definitely knew the lenses and cameras I wanted and needed, and how I wanted the overall movie to look. Glen is one of my childhood friends, and we have worked together over the years.
So when I decided that I wanted to direct many years ago, I told him, “You’re going to shoot my first movie for me.” He said, “Yes, of course.” Luckily, he was available to work on the film when we were scheduled to shoot, as he’s very talented and busy. So we were close friends who were making a big action movie together.
One thing that he found out about me on the set was that I wanted to set up all of the cameras, which is something most directors don’t do. I did that because I knew what I wanted to include visually in the film. So he said, “Okay, I’ll just do the lighting.”
But he also had good suggestions, if my idea wasn’t the greatest. He would interject and say, “I think you should do this instead,” and I would say, “Good idea.” But most of the time, I knew what lenses and camera I wanted to use, and where I wanted to put it.
I also had a very good South African crew, and they were also very fantastic about suggesting ideas and shots. As we got to know each other better, I let them set up more and more of the shots.
Glen actually went back to South Africa to shoot the last ‘Resident Evil’ movie, and he’s using the exact same camera (that he used on ‘Momentum’). I wanted a really great camera crew for ‘Momentum.’ I was lucky to get one with Glen and the rest of the crew.
SY: Speaking of the fact that the film’s story focuses on the chase between Alex and Mr. Washington throughout Cape Town, what was the process of finding, and shooting, in the multiple locations throughout the South African city?
SC: Well, I previously worked in Cape Town six years ago, when I was the camera operator on Clint’s film, ‘Invictus.’ I fell in love with the city and the people. It’s a really beautiful and photographable city.
When I found out that ‘Momentum’ was a South African movie, we decided to film it there. It was originally supposed to take place in a U.S. city. But I thought that if we were going to shoot the film in South Africa, we’ll have to spend a fortune to change things, because they drive on the other side of the road, and all the signs are different. So I decided to embrace the city of Cape Town.
Since there’s a diamond heist in the film, it makes sense that it takes place in South Africa, since it’s rich in diamonds. It would make sense that these international jewel thieves would go to Cape Town to steal these diamonds.
So the producers and I decided to set the story in Cape Town, especially since it’s also an international city that many people know about. So the city became a part of the story, and we set out to show the audience how beautiful it is. We also wanted to show that some of the locations we found are also gritty, which also naturally became a part of the film’s story.
Written by: Karen Benardello