Interview with Jaume Collet-Serra and Joel Silver on Non-Stop

We spoke with the director and producer of Non-Stop on the challenges of filming a picture based on one flight.

Fear of flying is nothing new. In today’s world though, that fear is driven by the unknown backgrounds of fellow passengers. “Who is that guy over there nervously shaking his leg? Does he not like to fly, or is he about to jump up with an AK-47 secretly stowed in the lining of the set infront of him?” 

If that’s the situation you find yourself in, at least you now have an armed air marshall on-board to handle things with ease, right? What is that air marshall was a shady character himself? The passengers in the film Non-Stop are left to deal with such a scenario when they don’t know if they can trust their own air marshall in a time of distress, even if he is Liam Neeson.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra and legendary producer Joel Silver were in NYC recently to supply some answers about bringing this high flying thriller to the big screen.

What was it about the subject matter that piqued your interest?

JC: For me it was the concept. Also the challenge of shooting an entire movie in one set. I think it’s very interesting for a director that enjoys thrillers and mysteries like I do to have the challenge to do that, and so that was the main reason for me, the concept, the air marshal world and also, you know, being afraid of flying just a little bit, and so, I thought that the fragility of the environment, a plane going from New York to London just in the middle of the ocean, if something goes wrong, it could become a very scary place, but I didn’t want to make a movie that was all in your face, hijacking terrorists. I wanted to make a mystery in that environment.

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The fight scenes in such close quarters were very impressive. Could you talk about how those were choreographed?

JC: Everything was taken from very reality based conversations with air marshals and the techniques that they use in these scenarios that they dream of, that haven’t happened yet. And so after that research, we sort of discovered that they have a different fighting technique. They have to use more pressure points and little twisting of the hands and things that we show in the movie as ways to subdue passengers, mostly from alcohol related problems. But they have those techniques and Liam is a huge guy. He’s 6’ 4” and for me it just seemed, maybe because I like challenges, a great place to have him fight in a bathroom and it was a challenge for him and for Anson Mount. They both rehearsed for many weeks that fight. What’s not very obvious is that every shot on that fight, the camera is static. It doesn’t move. Everything is done through editing and if you watch it again, you’ll notice there’s over 70 cuts in it and that the fight was shot completely out of order. They never did the whole fight in order because, as you know in films, you have to follow whatever is lit, so we took one wall out, lighting in one direction and we shot all the shots of the fight in that direction and we put that wall back and you pull another wall and you shoot all the shots, so the fight is shot completely out of order for the convenience of the crew and the lighting. So that fight never actually happened. It’s all edited that way.

JS: And to talk to his prowess as a director, there were a lot of times four people in that bathroom because what he did is he did a mirror image of the bathroom, took the mirror out, and so the actors who you were looking at through the mirror, but there was no mirror and then he had two other actors who were kind of facing the actors that were in the mirror. There were four people in there to get that to work, so it was even tighter than it looks. [Laughs]

What were the dimensions of the bathroom you built it?

JC: Pretty accurate to a normal toilet.

Actual size?

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JC: Yeah, the only advantage is that we could take two walls out, we could take the mirror out and we could take a hole in another place, in another wall. It was an incredible pain in the ass. [Laughs]It took the whole day to shoot the scene, basically to shoot 40 seconds.

Can you talk about using technology against us? I was really interested in how the text messages appeared on the screen and was wondering how you directed Liam to react to something he wasn’t seeing like that.

JC: The technology thing, again, if you go back to the whole idea that I like thrillers and mysteries, watching the old Hitchcock movies or any movies that you have one character up against some extraordinary circumstance, you always have this scene where he needs to get to a phone to deliver the information and nowadays, there are phones everywhere and there is Google, so you cannot have that scene anymore because usually people have access to phones and all that information, so you always have to use that information against the character. You cannot use it like back in the day as a way out, but now you have to complicate his life through technology and so that’s what I tried to do. Obviously, there are two ways in this movie that it becomes complicated; one because the bad guy communicates through technology to him and another because in a very logical way, the passengers, by trying to communicate to the exterior, complicate things for him. So that, to me, that was an interesting way to use technology.

And the second question, if I hadn’t put the texts on screen, there would have been 150 shots of a phone in the movie. Also we wanted to give personality to the bad guy and then he has to become his own entity and that’s when the texts sort of evolve. In the beginning they’re very static and then they start to move and they become more three-dimensional and all of that. Now, in directing Liam, there were entire minutes where you are on a close-up of Liam and I’m just there talking to him and he memorizes some of the texts and I sometimes tell him what the texts are and now write and now do this. If you see the dailies of it, it makes no sense at all [laughs], but I just need to get the different reactions. And, you know, most importantly, I think that with Liam, when you have a close-up of him, he just gives you everything in such a subtle way, and something that I usually do in that circumstance, I’m there with him. It’s impossible to see the subtleties in a monitor. You have to look at him directly because if not, it’s like, ‘What? You didn’t give me anything.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. It’s in the dailies.’ [Laughs]

Did anyone get hurt doing the bathroom fight scene?

JC: No, I mean it was so well choreographed, but also Liam has Mark Vanselow who is his stunt double and coordinator who’s there with him, pushing him. Liam does all of his fights, like entirely. He loves it. He rehearsed after 18 hours of shooting or whatever, he still goes and rehearses for the fight, so he loves it, but it’s all about the comfort of how close can my head get to your head, or that was a fake or that was a miss and so it’s the comfort of him without cutting. Like, do it again a bit closer, do it again a bit closer until it gets very close, but no, you work with professional people and, thank god, nothing happens usually.

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What were the challenges of shooting in JFK?

JC: Just the time, time of moving the equipment through security. We shot the exterior first, which was easy, you know, because it’s just a normal shooting day, but then we had to wait three hours to walk all the equipment and all the people and everybody in a gate that we had sort of locked, so it was a very long day. It was like a 16-hour day. We knew that that was gonna happen, but there were three hours in the middle of the day that you couldn’t do anything because every single piece of equipment had to go through and everybody had to take their shoes off and the whole thing.

I understand the script was well done when you first received it. How much rewriting did you have to do?

JC: We changed quite a bit of it.

JS: The first draft we got, it was a spec script and it was the concept, which was not really kind of worked out yet, and the person that pushed it along the most is Liam because we have a relationship. We said, ‘This just came in. What are you thinking?’ We thought he’d say, ‘It’s interesting.’ He said, ‘We’ve got to make it now,’ and he said, ‘I’ve never seen this before.’ I mean, yes, it has a Murder on the Orient Express kind of vibe to it, which was written in 1935, and he said, ‘But I think we should do this.’ So we got together and started to craft it and work it. It’s shocking to me that Jaume isn’t more regarded. He’s really a very talented guy, and he had great ideas. The idea of the texting was his idea, how to do this, all that stuff and he really shaped it and, together, we ended up with Liam, his idea was Julianne Moore; all these things came about together. Look, the best thing I can say about this movie, there’s a girl at Universal who is in charge of what they call in LA, the Bel Air Circuit, which is what they call the circuit that people who get to see movies, executives or producers in the community, and she had to watch the movie right when we delivered because they hadn’t really seen it yet, and she sat in the room and watched it and then they do a clone of it so they can make more of them, and she called my office and she said, ‘Is this movie even 90 minutes?’ And I called her back and said, ‘It’s an hour and 50.’ So I like the fact that people feel it was so fast and such a drive to it, that made me very happy.

Joel, can you talk about shooting on film versus digital, and how you see the divide between the two progressing in the future?

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JS: Well, I mean, the notion of film versus digital, I’m just going to throw that to my partner here because he has very specific thoughts about it.

JC: I will shoot on film as long as they make it. So far nobody has argued with me about it. To me, it’s not about the quality of the image. To me, it’s about the process. I think that everything changes when it goes through the Mac; it’s cheap. I think people then don’t pay too much importance to the take, if you can do 40 takes. I do three takes and I move on, and if an actor knows that, they will give me three good takes, and that’s the way Liam does it, too. Sometimes we do more takes for technical reasons or if there are children or animals, but if not, we do three takes and we move, and if you are able to do 40 and then erase them or whatever, then it just becomes, I don’t know what it becomes, but it’s not my process, you know? So I think for me, film at least has those boundaries.

How hard is it to work in Hollywood as a Latino?

JC: For me, I moved to Hollywood when I was 18. I never saw it as a disadvantage in any way. Quite the opposite. I think right now producers and studios want to make movies that are more appealing internationally and I think that you have to use your different cultures as an advantage to be able to make those movies.

Mr. Silver, you have a long and distinguished career as a producer of action films. What do you think makes Liam Neeson a particularly strong action star and, at the beginning of his career, did you imagine it would take this turn?

JS: It’s not as if he just became this – he knows his way around a light saber, he was in Star Wars, he was in Batman. He has always had an action element to his career, but it wasn’t until he got on the phone and said to this person, ‘I have a unique skill set and if you don’t give me back my daughter, I’m gonna find you and I’m gonna kill you,’ and when he said that, that gave the audience a view into his psyche that he become an action hero, an action lead. He became somebody that we want to see succeed and do what he wants to do. Look, it’s happening now a lot. Robert Downey Jr. is an actor who was always thought of as a terrific and an incredible actor, but when you put on that Iron Man suit, that combination of the suit and his impression of Tony Stark, that gave the movie resonance and I just did a picture with Sean Penn called The Gunman. These actors who want to put on that mantle of the action hero, they’re game changers. I’ve made a lot of stupid action movies in my life and some, I’m very proud of. Some are pretty stupid, but the reality is, he’s the real deal. You can cut to his face and you can just stay on it. He’s a real deal, and I think that the audience, they root for him and he picks very complicated characters. I mean, this guy, Bill Marks, he’s a troubled guy. You meet him and he’s depressed and he has the history that we don’t really understand and the movie is about redemption, and that already is a unique action movie. I just think that we’re fortunate that guys like Downey and guys like Sean and guys like Liam Neeson want to embrace this medium because for so many years, it was a stupid medium. I think it’s cool that we can take a movie that has very little visual effects. I mean, yes, there’s no plane in the sky, there are no jets, all that stuff is all CGI, but most of this movie is 200 people locked in a set for four months, working through a very complicated story, very complicated characters and taking you guys on a ride that I think is, right now, unusual for movies that are being made today.

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