Once an artist and maker of short films, French director Olivier Megaton had his first brush with action cinema when he worked as second unit on Xavier Gens’ Hitman in 2007. Shortly after, writer and producer Luc Besson handed Megaton the keys to his lucrative Transporter franchise, and the Transporter 3 came out in 2008.
Having helmed another Besson production, 2011’s Colombiana, Megaton’s excursion through action cinema continues with Taken 2. It places Liam Neeson’s retired CIA operative in Istanbul, where a group of dishevelled gangsters are waiting to do evil things to both he and his family, and only his skills of survival and strangulation can save the day.
In person, Megaton’s quiet and unassuming, and surprisingly open about the processes of making a relatively low-budget action movie in a busy city, and directing a follow-up to a movie that Besson once said would never have a sequel.
Here, then, is what Megaton had to say in reply to our questions during a lively round-table interview.
So what was it like taking on this second film? Was it something you relished, or were you under pressure to do as well as the first?
Not at all. Before shooting Colombiana, Luc [Besson] proposed it to me, and like everybody, I said, “What for? The first one was great and a huge success.” And he said he wanted to do another one. So I made Colombiana, and during post he gave me a script and told me, “Read the script and tell me what you think about this.”
And really, I didn’t want to do another sequel after Transporter 3. But I read the script, and there was something in me – a little voice, saying, “You should do this, maybe.” So I said yes. And after this, I put my finger into the big machine.
It’s always like this. Every movie’s the same thing. You’re given a lot of scripts and you say, “Yes, no, yes, no.” Most of the time it’s no, but when you say yes, you have to jump on it and do your best. But no, there was no pressure at all. Everyone knew what happened on the first one. It was a huge success in US, Korea and a lot of countries, but it wasn’t a huge success in France and Germany, and some other countries.
So the first thing, you analyse why it became a success, to try to understand all those things. But I didn’t look back at the first movie. I didn’t watch it again. I think it was the same for Liam [Neeson] – we preferred to be realistic with the memory. To treat the first film like a memory; two years before, this happened, and now we’re making another story.
Did you consult with Luc Besson a lot after you read the script, or was that it?
No. Working with Luc is very strange, because I don’t think everyone’s working like this with him or other producers. But he’s known me for 20 years. I was a director when he met me for the first time, so he watched my first movies, he always knew me, he brought my first movie. He always respected the way I was, you know? So when he gives me something, he trusts me.
He doesn’t trust me because he likes me, it’s because I’m like him – when I’ve got something, I’m like a dog with a bone. I work a lot, and everybody around me works a lot to make the best. So he knows if he was around, it would change a lot of things, and I wouldn’t be happy about it. And when I’m not happy, I’m exactly like him, I’m biting. So no, he was like a producer – he came three times on the shoot for one hour, and when I finished, he told me, “I don’t want to see anything before you’ve finished the first cut.”
He’s very respectful. He’s not here during the promotion. He saw that I was a good guy to do the job, so he left me like this. After reading the script, I had a lot of conferences with him and Robert [Mark Kamen] in LA, just for an afternoon. Maybe this sequence is a little too long, maybe do the action scenes this way, and not that way. It always happened like this, on Transporter 3 and Colombiana.
We’ve heard that the residents of Istanbul were determined not to let the film disrupt their daily lives. How difficult was it to film around these people, and did it spoil any shots?
Everywhere’s the same – it’s not only in Istanbul, it’s everywhere. When I helped Xavier Gens to shoot Hitman, I was in South Africa, a township. And we had exactly the same problem. Thousands of people. Kids. Dogs. Everywhere. And we were shooting… it was like a nightmare.
You try to do your best to avoid anything [bad]. After all, we are surrounded by professionals, who know their jobs very well. We’ve never had an accident [raps on the table] – I hope this is wood – on my movies.
Being in Istanbul was exactly the same deal. When we were shooting in the market, there were thousands of people to handle, but it was clear after the first time we tried to shoot the sequence with the BMW, that we had to play with their mood. You have to wait, and when they’re happy and let us go, we shot. So it was the exact opposite to what we’d do normally. Normally, you’re imposing your mood on everybody, but it was the reality that gave something organic to the movie. We did it, you know? It’s being patient.
I know that a James Bond movie was shot in the same place, and they had much more money than us. So they could afford to give money to have everyone stay at home. We weren’t lucky like this.
I believe you had a quite unique way of filming the rooftop scenes. Could you tell us about that?
The rooftop run was very funny, because it’s a real market rooftop. It’s a very traditional, 600-year-old building. You can’t walk on the tiles, you can’t put anything – a crane or whatever – on it. You can’t film with a helicopter because it’s too low. You can’t do anything. But this location was so great, it’s in the heart of everything. So we were 200 people on this rooftop with one little staircase to get up there. It was a mess each time.
We were only able to shoot with the steadicam fronting or backing the action, and little by little, we tried to find the solutions. We found a little drone helicopter in Belgium, and we filmed it using this.
Each time, you have to find a solution. For example, Maggie [Grace]. She drives, but she has a Prius in LA. This means that she drives like… a person who drives a Prius [Laughs]. And we had a stick-shift Mercedes, and so there’s a big difference to how it drives. I had to work with this top-rider car, where the driving seat’s on the rooftop. All the actors are inside the car, and Maggie’s free to fake the driving. The car’s going very fast, doing 180 degree turns and everything. Each time, you’re finding different things.
When you’re working with Jason Statham, he drives very, very well, so you don’t have to do this. But you have to manage.
Did you have any problems with the hand grenades going off on the rooftops of Istanbul? How did you fake those?
We didn’t really have any problems with this, because we shot all the explosions in the middle of nowhere. It’s several shots – you don’t see it, but it’s really about four different locations. One’s in the middle of nowhere, in another she’s throwing the grenade in a studio… there are so many different locations. When they’re inside the hotel, that’s all in a studio. When she’s going outside, that’s on the rooftop in Istanbul, with the beautiful view. We built just the last level of the hotel so she could go outside and there are mats.
The only thing that I couldn’t do was the car exploding on the rooftop. It’s always a question of money and so on, and we had to fight with our line producer. He didn’t want me to do it until the end, because it costs money. So I ended up using CGI – the only CGI in the movie. Then he told me, “You should have done it [for real]. You could have used a wreck, and it would’ve cost less than 10,000 Euros to do it.” And I said, “Fuck you.”
It’s just because of power on movies like this. It’s everywhere, in every job.
The ending does leave it open for a sequel…
No. [Laughs] We didn’t open the end for a third one, we left the end open because it’s cool in a movie to have an opening there for something. We shot two different endings, because we weren’t sure about this. Nobody had written it. We were working on the dialogue just before shooting, and the writer told me, “Are you sure about this…?”So I said, okay, let’s shoot both. When we edited, it was better [the way we have it]. But no, we – or I – don’t want to make a third one. I think that Liam, from working together for a week, he said the same thing. The two movies are very complementary. The first movie was very rough, very raw, very simple. The second one explains more things about what happened before, there’s more emotion, and the characters are deeper. So when you close the second one, you close the book.
There are some quite nice scenes with Neeson and his fellow CIA operatives, but they’re only in it for a short while, with the barbecuing and the golfing. Did you ever think of drawing them more into it, and maybe getting them into a more active role?
No. Liam is a huge actor. I always remember the story about Dustin Hoffman… you know the one, from Marathon Man. He’s a huge actor, and when he’s on the set, he doesn’t need anything. It’s useful to have a lot of things to refer to, but very quickly, he creates his own character, and he’s one of those actors who doesn’t need to say a lot, because he expresses a lot before he even talks.
You’ve worked with other action heroes, like Jason Statham. How does Liam compare?
Totally different. Jason, suddenly, became an action hero after Guy Ritchie’s movie. Suddenly. He never moved to something else. He could, and he has potential to do it, but he never did it, because there was a huge hole to fill, and he did it, because of, uh, money – I don’t know.
Liam, he didn’t want to be an action hero, but it happened with Taken. It definitely showed him as an action hero, and as a very normal [person]. But I think this is the difference: Jason wanted to be an action hero, and now he wants to be an actor. Liam has always been an actor.
Bryan’s a reluctant action hero.
Bryan’s a father in the movie, so he has to be an action hero. He doesn’t feel like an action hero, he tries to do his best. We tried to stay close to who he is: he’s a 60-year-old actor today, and everything was done to respect this. He’s not doing incredible things with his body, he’s just trying to do his best. He’s breathing like anybody after running, and he’s tired and exhausted after a fight.
When I shot Transporter 3, it’s not the same target [audience]. It’s younger people who care about that kind of hero. People who watch Transporter are maybe asking a little less about reality, being serious and so on.
What were Liam’s concerns before taking on Taken 2?
I think he didn’t want to do it. [Laughs] It was really exactly that. Liam chose the script because he liked it, and he liked the director, and that’s it. When he liked the script, he decided to do it. The first time we met, we talked about specific things, for example, using a stunt choreographer, because he was an actor in a lot of French movies, and one of the best stunt coordinators in the world. And he could fight and be secure against Liam in a fight. So I had to convince Liam to work with him.
We also had a talk about the leather jacket. For Liam, it was armour, this jacket. And I totally agreed with him, but I said I didn’t want him to have it from the beginning. I said, if it’s armour, then at the end, you put it on and become the soldier. Before that, you’re just a father, trying to escape. You only wear it at the end. That was our only concern about the movie.
Were there any other action films that inspired you when making it?
Not really, because I’m not really a fan of action things. I like thrillers. My style of movies are closer to thrillers. I like David Lynch, I like Stanley Kubrick. I’m a big fan of Kubrick. I try to be like a painter. I mean, sure I see Bourne and I’m amazed, but he’s got his own signature, so why try to do the same? Like Tony Scott, or whoever. People say, “Oh, it looks like Tony Scott”. Well, sorry, but ten years ago I was doing the same flashes, the same double exposures, it’s because Tony Scott was, like a lot of directors, an experimenter of technical things. To show how a flashback could be used, for example. We have the same kind of experimentation. I just try to do my best, and that’s it.
I like Dark Knight, for example, and movies like this. Because it gives me some new direction sometimes. I worked with the director when shooting Hitman, and every meeting was like a list of feature films. Speaking about, “In this movie, there was this sequence, and this and this and this”, and “We can do this like in this movie”. Fuck no, you know? It’s so boring. I don’t like to sap [ideas].
I always remember I liked Tony Scott’s True Romance, where [Christopher] Walken and [Dennis] Hopper are talking about the son, and Hopper doesn’t want to give away any information. I just liked the way they were speaking. And some things are hard to explain, so I’d show this scene to the actors to explain or unlock something.
But I prefer to talk about paintings than other movies. It’s hard to make movies.
Olivier Megaton, thank you very much.
Taken 2 is out in the UK on the 4th October. Our review’s here.
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