James Watkins burst onto the filmmaking scene in 2008, with his Michael Fassbender-starring thriller Eden Lake. He followed this with more scariness in 2012, helming the big screen version of The Woman In Black with Daniel Radcliffe at its heart.
His latest movie is Bastille Day,a pacey action flick that casts Idris Elba as a CIA agent and Richard Madden as a morally murky pickpocket who winds up at the centre of a terrorist attack in Paris. The two are thrust together on a quest to stop the next strike, with plenty of barbed banter and thrilling chases cropping up as they attempt to do so.
Shortly after seeing the film, I shared 15 minutes with Mr Watkins in a posh London hotel room. He was a lovely chap, as you’ll probably be able to gather from the transcript of our chat…
In the very first scene of Bastille Day, you’ve got Richard Madden walking around Paris pick-pocketing loads of people. How did you go about making him likeable? How do you make a criminal a nice guy?
I’m glad you found him likeable, that’s good! It was a challenge, in approach and casting. And part of the reason I cast Richard is because he really has a quality of likeability about him, I find. And I didn’t really wanna soft-peddle the fact that this character is a bit of parasite and steals stuff and is a bit self-loathing.
You do see the sense that he’s a bit lost and a bit self-loathing, I think you catch some of that with Richard. Guilt, and a sense that he’s made some bad choices. So what Richard brought to it was – from the inside out – this quality of sympathy, I suppose, for that character. Because he could quite easily be a very annoying and very unlikeable selfish guy. But I think Richard was able to inhabit it in a way that you understand and sympathise…
Were you familiar with Richard from Game Of Thrones, at all? He’s very noble in that…
I don’t really watch a load of Game Of Thrones. Obviously, I’ve watched some of Richard in that, and that’s where I was aware of his work. And I’d seen him in two or three other things, and I thought he’d have a really interesting energy that would combust and collide with Idris [Elba] in an interesting way.
Yeah, they almost start feeling like a classic reluctant buddy duo, don’t they?
Definitely. You know, I looked at 48 Hours by Walter Hill. Or, one of those Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood sort of collaborations; sort of a Dirty Harry or Popeye Doyle. Particularly in terms of Idris, I looked at some of those. And Walker, the character that Lee Marvin plays in Point Blank was a real reference for Idris. This big rock stone granite guy that’s just a force of nature. He’s just gonna barge through every door and no one’s gonna get in his way.
And Richard is kind of the terrier that’s nipping at his heels, and constantly at him. There’s a little bit, actually, of Midnight Run. Idris and I talked a lot about Idris being in the De Niro sort of place, you know? It is kind of like the heart of the film, and if that central relationship doesn’t have that fun and warmth and development to it… well, that’s what gives the film its beat.
Was it always Idris?
Yeah. That was one of the things that attracted me to the project, when I heard that Idris was interested and I really wanted to work with him. I thought he was interesting. He’s a wonderful actor and he’s got this charisma and a real presence on screen. He really eats up the screen, in the way. And the big screen, you know? He’s one of these actors that gets bigger, better on the big screen.
People online seem to be saying online that this is his Bond audition tape –
[Laughs] Yeah. And I’m sure he’s sick of hearing that!
Yeah, I guessed as much!
I didn’t think of it as his Bond audition, at all. Obviously, it wasn’t even in my mind, I just thought ‘he’s a wonderful actor, he’d be great for this role’, but I did think ‘he hasn’t really played this role’, has he? In terms of front and centre, playing kind of an action hero in many ways. And to see him… he’s clearly a very physical guy and a physical actor and to see him be able to achieve that… I thought, ‘hang on a minute, people have missed a real opportunity here!’
He’s got all those skills: he’s got the presence, he’s got the thoughtfulness and the intelligence and he’s also got the physicality. So, of course… why hasn’t he done this? You know, even in Thor, you don’t see it. It doesn’t showcase that side of Idris, really. And I thought ‘wow, let’s showcase it. He’s got it.’
And he can do an American accent!
My favourite scene in the film is probably the rooftop chase. You might expect it to be quite glamorous – running along the roofs of Paris – but they’re actually falling over all the time and thumping into the buildings. It’s quite brutal. Were you consciously trying not to make it a glitzy thing?
Yes. Definitely. The word that we used a lot was ‘scrappy’. Both in terms of the rooftop chase and all the fight sequences. And generally the action, I wanted it to have that French Connection 1970s raw and real gritty aesthetic, in the way we filmed it. And I wanted the rooftop chase – because I’m afraid of heights – to have a really vertiginous scariness about it.
So firstly we shot on a real rooftop. It’s not CGI. We built a rooftop on a rooftop, so that really helps in order to create that sense that you’re really there. They did a lot of practise, and it’s the actors running across on the rooftop. I really wanted to do as much as possible with the actors with the stunt work and all that, so you can feel it. It’s them, it feels immediate, you’re right in there with them.
I just think action films now have… often, because you can do anything with CGI, people do. And I don’t think you necessarily should. You lose that sort of human dimension, and you get all the stuff breaking the laws of physics. It’s actually much more interesting to go there. In the van fight, for instance, you’re right in amongst it and it feels… you want that raw sense to it.
And the sound design, as well. The sense that they could fall off this roof or go through it. It’s fragile. To keep that sense of ‘ooh, Jesus!’
Do you think you think your experience with horror helps with that? To get into the emotions and the sensations?
I think so. I know I’m very interested in tension in film. And one of the things I wanted to have for this was to have that sense of real, rip-roaring pace. I wanted to cut it as tight as I could and as fast as I could. I want to be like a bullet; you start, you get on this ride and you’re kind of spat out at the end. To have that, and to maintain the sense of held tension at points. I think people enjoy that. I enjoy it, anyway…
How is it different, then, to direct a horror film or direct an action film? Like, how did you work differently on this compared to The Woman In Black?
It’s more… physically demanding. I mean, I had a bit more money, but any director who’s trying is trying to get more for their money than is in the budget or in the schedule. So, I really wanted the action on the screen. The bottom line is; I wanted those sequences to feel like they can punch above their weight and really stand on their own. Constantly trying to push push push, to get… to make action work.
Woman In Black is a film where it’s very withheld. It’s the long takes and slow tracking shots. For action to work you need an awful lot of coverage. Because if you do a fight sequence, you really need to be able to creed the energy in the edit or augment the energy in the edit. So you need to really, really cover it. To shoot so quickly. We were working at such a relentless pace.
It’s a decent budget, but this is not a two hundred million dollar – one of those films – or anywhere near. But you want it to feel like you’re watching a big movie. A Friday night movie where people can enjoy the action and it’s not in any way short-changed. So, I would’ve shot stuff in a couple of days that would have taken – say, a Bond movie – a couple of weeks.
And even though it’s not a horror movie, do you feel like you’re still playing on people’s fears by making a film with terrorists in it?
Yeah… I mean, it does touch on social anxieties. The horrible events that have happened in Paris and Brussels – though we shot the film before those – those were incredibly sad. And we had film crew and cast who were in Paris, and our hearts are with them all.
But I think in terms of the film, it touches upon those social anxieties. Exclusion, and fear, and disenfranchisement and how those can be manipulated. I think it’s more about that, you know? I think, if you look at a filmmaker like Paul Greengrass, who I think is a wonderful filmmaker. If you’ve seen Captain Phillips you’ll know that he does make a real barnstorming-ly entertaining tense movie, but I love that way that that film – for example – touches on globalisation. You know?
It was important for me, that I didn’t want the film to exist in some completely hermetically sealed universe that doesn’t touch on real life. And I think these social anxieties exist in all these cities, and I wanted that woven in the fabric of the film.
Are there any other genres or topics you’d like to tackle? What have you got your eyes on next?
I’ve got a couple of film projects that I’m developing… and I’ve got a longer form TV series that I’m developing with a friend of mine, Hossein Amini, for the BBC, about global mafia. I’m hoping, in a couple of months, there may be some kind of announcement…
We’re just about out of time now, but I’m gonna finish with our traditional closing question: what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?
Ah… that’s a good question… you know… maybe it’s because my cameraman shot it, but… Revolver, it’s by no means a perfect film. I’d love to see a recut of that film. I think there’s some fantastic sequences within that film. Whether that’s my favourite film, probably not, in terms of those I’ve most enjoyed that he’s been in.
Probably Lock Stock, to be honest, would be my favourite.
James Watkins, thank you very much!