In seven years, director Jaume Collet-Serra has released four films with Liam Neeson as his leading man. Following a string of horror themed films to kick off his feature film making career, this Spanish born filmmaker has moved onto masterminding tense and confined thrillers that leave audiences gasping, be it from a plane ride in Non-Stop or in a confrontation with a freakishly persistent shark in The Shallows.
The Commuter, which comes to theaters on Friday, is Collet-Serra’s latest collaboration with Neeson. We spoke with the director about filming in claustrophobic settings, adapting scripts to the screen, and the work that went into making this film stand apart from Non-Stop, the second feature collaboration between Collet-Serra and Neeson.
Den of Geek: Now, I don’t want to say this has become your MO at this point, but we have at least three films from you know where you’re operating in very confined or specific environments—a train, a plane, a rock in the ocean—would you say these are welcome challenges that you enjoy working your way through?
Jaume Collet-Serra: Yeah, obviously it is something that you could guess that I do on purpose. It is not like the scripts just come looking for me; I go looking for those scripts. If you look at the original script for Non-Stop—even or the original script for The Commuter—there are scenes that cut away from the train. I don’t do that. I personally change the movie so they only happen in one environment. I feel that is important; these movies are very much about a point of view. You follow one character and you know what that character knows, and it is fun to see him solve it. To me, it is almost like cutting away to other characters, cutting away to other scenes, is a cheat to me. I feel like those movies benefit confined spaces, so I do it on purpose.
I saw that you mentioned that when you first read the script that you automatically saw the comparisons between this film and Non-Stop. So was it a bigger challenge this time around to make the films feel fresh and independent of each other?
I see them as very different movies, but with a similar experience, and while the experience is similar, I think that is okay. You want to see Liam Neeson solve some sort of a mystery, racing against a time clock of some sort, with a wide range of characters—because I think that is one of the things they have in common. Whether is it on a plane or a train; that is where you can get a little slice of life from different people in different socio-economic backgrounds. That is where they come together. So those are similarities. The script for The Commuter was written after Non-Stop came out, and I think the writers may have been aware of Non-Stop, so they already tried to make it quite different.
Now me and Liam, we always try to surprise ourselves and try to surprise the audience, so we try to do things differently. For instance, in Non-Stop, the communication between person to person is done exclusively through text, which we show onscreen. With The Commuter, it is all mainly on the phone, all shown on screen with no text. It is with things like that, where we were aware we couldn’t do that again.
What I really enjoyed was—as a New Yorker, yet someone who really doesn’t ride Metro North that much—it really felt like you were at those specific stations and the train seemed very genuine.
Yeah, it was obviously a very conscious effort. We could have picked any city in the world to set it in. We picked New York, even though the movie was shot in London. So we could have easily picked a commuter train in London. Obviously it would have been just as pretty, but we picked New York specifically for the look of the train. Having that old metallic feel, something that has been through a lot, more than other trains—that sort of reflects Liam’s character as well. He’s 60, he’s done his job, and people are giving him an expiration date, you know? I never felt the movie would be right in a more modern train. Obviously in New York, in this short commute over the span of an hour and a half, you have this variety of people that I don’t think you have anywhere else in the world. So, for those two reasons, we picked New York, and that specific line.
Of course, this is now your fourth film with Liam, so you must have a very well put together working relationship. How is it working with him now, as the relationship has progressed and matured?
Obviously it has changed; I would say it changed in Non-Stop, with Unknown being the first collaboration. There you are just learning about each other’s energies and what not, but when we did Non-Stop, that is when I think we really came together, and it’s been a great experience ever since. Because I know him and he knows me, we are able to be freer in a way. For me, personally it means to take more risks visually, and stuff like that, where I can plan complicated shots ahead of time, knowing that he will make it work, even if it is something very, very specific.
Sometimes, if you don’t know the actor and it is a type of scene, some actors might feel a little intimidated. Like if I say, “Listen, we’re going to do these five scenes together as one shot.” That is actually something we did in Non-Stop. Once you know a person and once you know he would be game for that, you can already plan ahead. In this particular movie, I put a 16mm macro lens, one centimeter away from his eye. That is very intimidating for anybody. If I’m doing something like that with someone I don’t know, I wonder if you can build this visual language where I widen the lenses throughout the movie to end up on this wide angle on his eye, like I do when he is listening to the phone and his family is getting threatened. I knew he would be okay with that, because this is our fourth movie together.
Let’s finally talk about the other people on the train though. You have a lot of amazing, well-known character actors throughout the whole movie. I did notice though that a lot of them, while they’re known to a lot of people for many things, many of them are known worldwide in recent years for doing television series. Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad, Elizabeth McGovern of Downton Abbey, Dean-Charles Chapman of Game of Thrones, etc. Was there a specific idea to put these well-known faces as the faces to remember on the train?
Not really. I mean, we are in London and I was just looking for great actors in London that could play American and that could be diverse, and that anyone could relate to. I’m not a TV watcher; I’ve never seen any of the shows you’ve mentioned. Honestly, I can only watch movies and so it really has nothing to do with the TV.
Of course we had casting directors who know their stuff and got us these great actors. They all did come in for a reading. In regards to his son, I think we saw about 10 other kids, Dean just got the part.
Now for your screenplay writers [Bryon Willinger and Philip de Blasi], I guess you can say they have a hot hand right now. They have a lot of scripts out there currently in development, but in essence this is the first feature people are going to see that was penned by them. Do you feel that you have some sort of obligation to help them through this process?
Usually, when I come onboard, I kind of develop the script with my own writers. So we get the script from the original writers and we develop it from there. We really adapt it to what we want to do. Naturally, it is great to come up with the original idea, and take it as far as we can. Then, we have to adapt it to the situation of the film, the budget, the cast, and all types of things. So usually I take it from there, from everybody’s hands, and I own it.
So would you say that the character of Michael was a lot different from the original script?
Now, I don’t mean to keep bringing up Non-Stop, but was it something where the character was originally more like an alcoholic and you thought, “We have to change it.”
No, nothing that had to do with similarities in this case. In the original script, they sent it out casting the widest net, so I don’t remember specifically now, but I think in the original script, the character was 35-years-old. It was quite different, the whole backstory and who the character was, was quite different. It’s not better or worse; when you write a movie like this, with an original idea, you have to have a skeleton there that people can adapt.
What about the action sensibility of the film?
It was more… I made it with less action. The original script had the movie leaving the train. There were care chases and a lot of other aspects. There were kidnappers and people with masks entering other people’s houses. It was a very different.
I want to let you go, I’m sure you have a lot of people to talk to, but I was wondering—for a long time your name was the one that was going to be attached to directing the second Suicide Squad movie. Now we’ve come through a gauntlet of seeing a lot of comic book films or big budget movies parting with directors who were specifically hired for their unique visions. So I am wondering about when it does come time for one of those projects to fall into your lap, do you have a set of rules that you want to follow if you’re going to agree to do one of these films?
I mean, vision is more than just where to put the camera, right? It depends on what the movie is about, the tone, and everything else. I am really comfortable doing the movies that I have been making. I get a lot of creative freedom and I get to work with my friends. So I am very happy… and other people can be happy doing other movies.
The Commuter opens on January 12.