In 3 Days to Kill, Kevin Costner plays Ethan Renner, a retired CIA assassin who heads to Paris to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) after learning that he is ill and has just months to live. But once there, Renner is pulled back into service by an enigmatic and seductive agency operative (Amber Heard) who wants him to take out one more enemy – and offers him a chance to get well as part of the deal.
The film is written by French action specialist Luc Besson (The Professional) and directed by McG, the American filmmaker who graduated from music videos to features in 2000 with Charlie’s Angels. Since then, McG has made five more films, including a Charlie’s Angels sequel, We Are Marshall and the controversial Terminator Salvation. He also came close in the early 2000s to directing a Superman film based on a script by J.J. Abrams, but dropped off the project when his fear of flying prevented him from traveling to Australia to shoot the movie there.
Since then, McG has continued to direct and produce through his Wonderland production company, home of TV shows like Supernatural, Human Target and Chuck along with all his films. 3 Days to Kill marks his first time making a movie in another country, and Den Of Geek sat down with the director to discuss shooting in Paris, working with Kevin Costner and his thoughts on the direction of the Terminator and Superman franchises today.
Den of Geek: This movie has a lot of charm to it, but this material could easily become generic if you had taken it in the wrong direction.
McG: Man I tried to stay away from that, because that would be the only reason to do the picture, you know. Thematically there are themes that have been explored. It’s not like I’m making Her and the guy falls in love with his operating system. That’s never been done, you know, which is terribly original and wonderful. But on this one, I mean, for me it was about capturing humanity but making it exciting in an in-camera kind of way, in that Frankenheimer way. Have some humor that you wouldn’t expect but ultimately have heart and say, “Wow, I’m really kind of moved by this bicycle moment where a father’s teaching his daughter how to ride a bike…I wasn’t expecting that from a Luc Besson-Relativity-Eurocorp-McG offering.” Hopefully we did it, man.
What jumped out at you when you were first given the script?
Well I’m a fan of Luc’s. I mean I saw Leon/The Professional as a seminal movie for me. It just kind of f**ked me up. I just really, really loved that film. It was so smart and so well done and I love Oldman, Natalie Portman’s performance, and everything about that movie. So there was that and then I was sort of circling at the same time that Kevin was circling it. I just thought that that was an interesting challenge and just an incredible opportunity to work with a guy who’s won the Academy Award as a filmmaker, and just try to make some discoveries along the way and just embrace that challenge. He’s a strong guy, man. And that’s basically it: the material coming from Luc, the idea of working with Kevin, shooting a picture in Paris as such a decidedly American filmmaker – you added that up and it seemed like a big challenge with a lot of room to go wrong, but I liked that sort of edge of your seat thrill. It keeps you sharp. So I dove in.
What are the differences and similarities in the European and American approach to action thrillers?
I think there’s a higher tolerance in Europe for films being a little more elliptical and not so clearly spelled out. Like when we test movies in America people want to know everything. They want to know what’s he dying of, what are they looking for, what’s gonna happen if you don’t capture the bad guy. Everything is so literal and I like that, but I also am a huge fan of international cinema. I think that was a good influence for me to go over there and work with a guy like Thierry Arbogast as a DP, who’s won three Caesars — the French Academy Awards. He’s very artistic and soft spoken and slight and such a sort of poet with shaping light and the way that he goes about his business. It’s very different and it permeates every element of the filmmaking process. So the aesthetic of the French, living in so much beauty, living in so much history, being on a set where everybody’s speaking French, nobody even speaks English except for me and Costner — it was very different in that regard and I hope the film benefits for it. And it speaks to the character because this guy’s a fish out of water and he’s trying to find his way. He’s a stranger in a strange land.
What were the pros and cons of shooting in location in Paris?
Well, a huge pro is just the inherent production design and the ability to feature Paris as a character. Look at that one scene where he’s standing on a bridge and he’s eating some sushi. He just saw a child being born. And the camera just sort of pans around to reveal the Eiffel tower. I mean that’s all in camera. It’s so beautiful it looks fake. Like there’s no way this can even exist. And it speaks to what the character’s going through right there. He’s just a guy out there, you know, having a bite to eat just blown away by the twists and turns of life. And the environment supported that feeling for me so much that those were some of the advantages of shooting in Paris. Disadvantages are just, you know, Kevin’s a big movie star — so we had a lot of people kind of gathering around the set and had to manage the crowds. That sort of thing. But the French crew was, I think, a huge, huge advantage because they’re very subtle and very delicate and very sophisticated just in their daily life approach. And I think that I was the beneficiary for that because I can be a bit of a heavy hand and decidedly American klutz.
You’re no first-timer, but can it still be intimidating to work with someone like Costner, who’s an Oscar-winning director and has starred in so many classic films?
I’m just wired strangely because I wasn’t intimidated by that. And I’m a really weird person, you know, with my own anxiety disorders and some strange s**t going on. I mean I was afraid to fly and it got me thrown off the Superman movie when I didn’t fly down to Australia. But when it comes to stuff like this — I wasn’t intimidated when my first movie was Charlie’s Angels and that was a big movie to tackle for a first time guy. I’m not intimidated to work with Costner because I just feel confident that I can look him in the eye and say, “This is what I think we should be doing and this is the way I’d like to do it.” And then at that point I start to listen and he’s got his point of view and I’m there for a reason. I want to listen to Kevin Costner and be the beneficiary of his organic story sense and his ability to understand his audience and his innate understanding of story and everything that goes with the filmmaking process. So I told him what I think we should do. Oftentimes he was on the same page. A couple of times he had some different ideas and we just partnered on it. I tried to emulate what I would imagine the Coen brothers dynamic would be, you know. They listen and talk and hopefully take it to a higher level as a function of that dialogue between the two of them. I don’t know those guys that well but that’s what I want to believe happens on their set. I made a decision early on to partner with Kevin so it felt good.
Did you fly to France?
Oh yeah. All the time, yeah. I’m much better now.
Because I obviously heard about the Superman stories…
Oh yeah. It’s all true. I mean it’s just, you know, it sucked. It was a really, really low point for me but it also got me to — it was kind of like a rock bottom junkie moment, you know, where you go, “I’ve got to sober up or it’s just not gonna happen for me.” I got with these two women at UCLA and I’ve been working on it ever since. And I fly back and forth to Europe now every week. But it’s something I’m always cognizant of and respectful of and I don’t want to fall back into it.
Speaking of Superman, having developed a version of that once and also having worked on the Terminator franchise, what are your thoughts on seeing both of them rebooted now and the direction they’re taking those in?
I think it’s great man. I mean obviously I’m a huge Nolan fan. I’m a huge fan of Zack’s. I love what they got up to with Superman. JJ and I were working on our Superman back then and I screwed it up by not getting on that plane. And, you know, Terminator, I think we had a lot right and we got a few things wrong. I think I ended that film improperly, and then the rights kind of got entangled in some legal mumbo jumbo. Now I’m delighted that they’re rebooting that and I’m hoping that they’re gonna crush that and my hopes are high because I love what Jim Cameron put in motion with this. It’s just an incredible story that’s becoming more and more relevant, you know. I mentioned Her — Her is Terminator in a weird way. Every day that sci-fi nightmare becomes more and more real. So I’m excited by this whole idea of Terminator Genesis and what they’re gonna get up to. I learned a lot from making that movie and I loved working with (Sam) Worthington). loved writing it with Jonah Nolan and, you know, obviously working with (Christian) Bale is second to none. I don’t think I quite satisfied the core to the degree that they’re entitled to be satisfied, but I took my shot and a lot of people enjoy the movie and a lot of people had some qualms with it. So that’s part of it. You put yourself out there and sometimes you get kicked in the head and sometimes you get celebrated.
As for the version of Superman that I was going to direct…little bits and pieces came out with the Singer version and bits and pieces came out in Man of Steel. Not because of me but because of the long history of the character. I mean he’s from Krypton. There are some things that are gonna be in there no matter who’s doing it.
Is there a superhero you would like to tackle now if given the opportunity?
I like Aquaman and I don’t think anybody’s done this kind of story with water. I think that that could be interesting, you know. I mean we’ll see. I’m buddies with the guys at DC. I’m buddies with the guys at Marvel. I think we live in a world where, I mean, how great is Downey as Iron Man and who doesn’t love what Nolan got up to. Are you kidding? It’s some of the highest craft you could imagine. And to be in that genre is amazing. So my hat’s off to those guys. I love what they get up to and it’s just an exciting time.
Going back to 3 Days to Kill, let’s talk about the car chase done for real on the streets.
I’m a huge Frankenheimer fan, and I wanted it to be real and I challenged everybody to shut down these real big boulevards in Paris which is not easily done, you know. It’s hard but they’re very film friendly and they want it to work. So we’ve got cars going 100 miles an hour down these little Parisian streets that are designed for carts and buggies. I think that’s what gave it that just sort of grit and that shock value because metal on metal is — it just can’t be animated properly. We’ve been looking at physics our whole life and you just know how things fall and how things bend and how they tumble. And I just love the challenge of doing the things in camera and not being so reliant upon CG. I love CG like the next guy, but I just wanted to take on that challenge. I thought it worked for Costner and who he is as a character and just sort of like the grit of his sort of next generational Eastwood thing.
The longer you can hold without a cut, the more authentic it becomes. We tried to hold as long as we can in a lot of these shots and, you know, it was just a ballet with all the rehearsal and safety meetings and the risks taken by the drivers, the guys hanging out the windows and that guy falling out of the car. There’s a lot going on there. When you see a guy in between two cars at 80 miles an hour, that’s just radical. I mean I don’t care how professional you are and how much trust you have in the two drivers, there’s no room for error.
And then you’ve got Kevin Costner wanting to do it himself. You have to tell him that maybe that’s not a good idea.
Yeah, he always wants to do everything. I’m like, “Costner, dude, you know, you’ve got to let this guy do it.” He’s just very immersed in the character. He really, really is. I can’t state that clearly enough. He’s just not interested in the trappings and the bulls**t of Hollywood. He’s interested in the craft of filmmaking. He’s just a True Grit kind of guy. I love that and I love the toughness that comes with that and I love the challenge that comes with that. Never once did I have to go get Costner out of his trailer. Costner was standing right there, ready to go, thinking about the movie, thinking about what’s right. When he comes to work, he comes to work. And that’s all I can ask for as a director. He’s the real deal.
Before we go, what are you most excited about that your TV and movie production company Wonderland has coming up?
Well I’m excited that we did Chris Evans’ first movie as a director, 1:30 Train, that he just wrapped. I haven’t seen the movie yet but I’ve seen a bunch of scenes from it. It looks really, really good. I just got back from Berlin and we’re excited about that. We’re chasing this Gus Van Sant movie, Sea of Trees, that I don’t know if we’re gonna get it or not but we’re trying to get more and more elegant material. In the television space, I mean we keep going with Supernatural which is a tremendous source of pride. We just bought this Israeli series, this thing called Allenby, which is very sort of True Detective/The Wire. We’re producing movies, producing television and then the films that I direct. There’s a lot of activity going on over there and we’re trying to get better and better and really improve the quality of what’s coming out of our shop…I’m super proud of the company and we’re just going to try to keep making great television, great films.
3 Days to Kill is out in theaters Friday, February 21.