In the beginning, there was Heat, the thriller novel written by William Goldman in 1985. It told the story of Nick Escalante, the “toughest guy in Vegas” – a mercenary-turned bodyguard in Nevada’s Sin City. Next came Heat: the movie (1986), also written by Goldman and presented as a vehicle for hirsute leading man Burt Reynolds.
Its production was dogged by problems, not least a revolving door of directors. Legend has it that one director, Dick Richards, wound up in hospital following an altercation with Burt, came back to the set a few weeks later, fell off a camera crane, and ended up back in an ambulance again. Heat had a similarly bruising encounter with the box-office, and made considerably less than its then-lavish $17m budget.
Nearly three decades later, Goldman’s script is back in barely-modified form; Nick Escalante is now Nick Wild (Jason Statham), but he’s still a hard-gambling, self-described “chaperone” who gets on the wrong side of a bunch of gangsters. Oh, and he’s still the toughest guy in Vegas.
Now called Wild Card, it’s the latest collaboration between director Simon West and Statham – the pair previously having worked together on another remake, The Mechanic, as well as action sequel The Expendables 2. Wild Card sees Statham in a far more verbose role than you might expect; although there are a few storming fights (choreographed by Corey Yuen), the greater part of the film sees Statham get to grips with Goldman’s tough, acerbic dialogue.
As Wild Card opens in the UK, we spoke to West about Statham’s leading turn, doing justice to Goldman’s script, and what he’s up to next – not least his forthcoming reboot of 50s monster movie,The Blob.
I thought it was really refreshing to see Jason Statham being given a chance to do some acting. I think it might be a surprise to some people if they’re only familiar with his action films.
Yeah, yeah. Because when I did The Mechanic with him, and I think he had about eight lines in the whole movie. And then when I got the script for [Wild Card], it’s a classic 70s, 80s William Goldman script, and it’s chock full of dialogue. I think it has more dialogue in it than all of Jason’s films put together. Even I was a bit sceptical about how it was going to work, but the first day, Jason comes on the set and has every line in the movie memorised perfectly. After the first day, I was totally confident, because he managed to fill this huge part, with tonnes and tonnes of dialogue, and he was brilliant at it.
I always thought there was more to Jason than the public may know of him, because obviously, they’ve seen all the action. Also, he’s so good when he doesn’t say things – he’s got such an incredible face. He says so much with just a big close-up. So it was a great surprise and very justified on his part, that he gets to do some real acting.
I think, as well, because the drama builds up to the action – there’s only a handful of action scenes, really – it gives them that much more impact.
Yeah. And each one of the action moments is character-driven, so you’re right, it builds up. So when it does explode, it’s exploding for the right reason. The first one, he’s getting back into his old skills – precision fighting. The only way he’s going to get out alive is by relying on his old skills. And he’s a master of that. The second fight explodes out of anger, and it’s really anger at himself for going back to being a gambling addict. They’re character-driven fights. Whereas traditionally in action films, they’re light relief – they’re almost commercial breaks in the story. These ones come out of the situation his character’s in, not just that he’s in jeopardy and has to fight his way out of it – they’re emotional fights.
William Goldman, when he wrote the original novel before he wrote the screenplay, there’s a whole chapter taken up with a fight scene described in slow-motion. You’ve recreated that in this film, and it was in the 1986 movie, but they didn’t handle it very well. How long did that take to plan and shoot?
That was one of the hardest things. It is written in the book like that, and also in the script that Goldman adapted as well. That was one of the things I worked hardest on, because firstly because of the way it’s described in the book, and also, Jason’s done so many fights, and I’ve shot so many fights, so we both wanted to do something very different. The script had it described like that, so the first thing to do was to work out how to shoot that.
We planned it for weeks and weeks – weeks of rehearsals. Not because it’s very complicated, but because we were trying so many different things. It looks very simple because it’s only five or six shots, but they’re very difficult to do because I was using a Phantom camera for at least half of it, where it’s ultra, ultra slow-motion. You’re going hundreds and hundreds of frames per second instead of the normal 120.
It shows up so much. There are certain things you can fake in a fast fight – the punches miss, the head-butts miss, but because it’s so fast, you don’t notice. But when you’re going ultra slow-motion, the head has to contact the nose, and you have to see the flesh wobble, and the bones breaking, and it’s much harder than you would think, because you’re given the time to study it.
That was the hardest of the fights, because you’re watching it in such detail – even though it’s the simplest in terms of the number of moves – he only has three or four moves in it, and certainly not that many shots, because the audience has time to study it, it has to be much more realistic.
But having so few shots makes it more effective. Sometimes action directors tend to over-edit.
The intention was, I originally tried to make it one shot entirely, so there would be no cuts in that. And there is a version of that we did do in one of my early edits, where there are no cuts at all, which is another reason why it took a long time to shoot. I think it was, like, three days to shoot that fight, because we had to put invisible edits in there. It wasn’t even that we were moving cameras into different positions – we were changing physical pieces of equipment because there were two or three different types of camera used in it.
There was the Phantom camera, which goes hundreds and thousands of frames per second, and a normal film camera, not to mention changing the lenses, so you can physically fit it between the fighter and the wall, and cuts bits of the set out to get the camera in. So I wanted it to be in one shot, but when I put it together, it felt a little too slow, so I went in and put a couple of edits in there, because I’m always a big believer in doing something else rather than sticking with that methodology you wanted to start with.
There are a lot of movies that have long shots – obviously classics like Goodfellas and things like that – and once you go down that path, the principle that there must be no cuts in this endless shot, you’re penned in. So although it took weeks to prepare and create, with all the special effects and everything, at the end of the day, I think it worked better with a couple of cuts in there. Having two or three edits helped the fight, but didn’t destroy the idea of a very precise, ballet of fighting that Jason can do so well.
I remember you saying a while ago that you had a couple of returning cast members who were also on the original Heat film. I wondered if you had any more anecdotes from that production, because it was notoriously difficult, wasn’t it?
Yeah. It’s the famous story. One of the reasons to do the film in the first place was because William Goldman scripts are like gold dust. And there’s been some of the greatest films ever made from those scripts – Marathon Man, Butch And Sundance, all of those.
This was a film that wasn’t well made, unfortunately, and so it was almost like putting the record straight by going out and shooting it. It’s a great character and a great world, and it didn’t have the justice done to it that those other films had in terms of shooting the script.
The stories that unfolded while we were preparing this one were pretty classic – one of the actors from the original film told me that on his first day, there was an ambulance leaving the set, and when he asked who it was, they said, “That’s the director. He’s broken his jaw. He’s been punched out by Burt Reynolds.”
Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not [laughs] – who punched who or whatever, but those are the sorts of stories that floated around the film. The director was only around for a short time, apparently, and it ended up being directed by committee, in a way. So we wanted to get this film shot how it should have been.
Do you know whether William Goldman’s seen it?
I don’t know if he’s seen it. I spoke to him before I shot it, because I worked with him on The General’s Daughter a few years before, and I spent weeks with him up in New York working on that in his apartment. So I knew him quite well, and when this opportunity came along, by sheer coincidence, I rang him up and said, “I’m about to put the record straight and fix this film for you.” I did ask him, what’s your one piece of advice for me when shooting this? He said, “Just make sure that Nick is the toughest guy you’ve ever seen in your life.”
That, I think is his approach – no matter how complicated the character is intellectually, no matter how much dialogue there is, or twists and turns Goldman puts in the script, at the end of the day, he has this one thing that he has above his desk that reminds him what the character should be. It was the same for me – once he told me that, “Nick’s the toughest guy in Vegas,” every scene informs that. Even when he’s not doing anything, everybody in the room knows that, and everybody know his history, what he’s capable of.
And so he ultimately doesn’t have to do that much, because he is the toughest guy in Vegas. But I haven’t spoken to William Goldman since it was made, so I haven’t found out whether he’s seen it yet. I’m sure he will.
So what have you got coming next? You seem to have quite a lot of things on the horizon – I know you’ve got your tank movie Thunder Run, but you’ve also got The Blob as well as a few other projects.
At the moment I’m just prepping a film called Stratton with Henry Cavill.
The special forces thriller.
Yeah, the Special Boat Service character from a series of books by Duncan Falconer. It’s set in London and a little bit in Italy. But it’s an action adventure. We’ve all seen the SAS a lot, but not a lot of people know about the SBS, who’ve actually been constantly at war since WWII – all over the world. They’re a busy service, but incredibly secretive – much more than the SAS, so not a lot of people know about them.
It’s going to be exciting. I’m a big fan of Henry Cavill’s work. I’ve been looking for a UK-based action character. There’s Bond, and that’s all we’ve got really. Even though Jason Bourne runs around Europe a lot, he’s an American character. I think there’s a real gap for a British, UK-based action hero, and I’ve been looking that for a while.
Then the perfect combination came up, first with this series of books and then with Henry Cavill also being interested in these books. So we got together on it, and that’s the next thing this summer, and those other things you mentioned will be coming shortly afterwards.
I’m really interested in what you might bring to The Blob, too. I read something where you talked about the potential of modern CGI. What did you mean by that? Do you see a big, widescreen disaster movie version of The Blob?
Yeah, it’s definitely going to be on a much bigger canvas than the originals, which were much more small, niche genre horror movies. My version of The Blob‘s going to be more sci-fi. The blob itself will be more sophisticated, more along the lines of Alien and Predator and things like that – much more science-based, the way Jurassic Park made you believe you could bring back dinosaurs with a bit of DNA from a mosquito.
This will be much more explained on where the blob comes from and how it works. It’ll be a much more sophisticated creature – because it is a monster movie rather than a horror in that sense. It will be on an epic, cinematic scale more. It’s more of an invasion movie, I suppose. This thing’s come from another planet, and also, we don’t know how many there are. It’s fun at the moment – while I’m prepping this other film, The Blob is a bit longer term. I’m having a lot of designing this creature, what its talents are, its attributes, how you can think you’ve defeated it, but you haven’t. It’s fun inventing a creature like that – like the new Alien or the new Predator.
That sounds exciting. Simon West, thank you very much.