Michael Winnick is someone with an interesting perspective. He’s just written and directed a VOD action film called Code Of Honour. It’s got Steven Seagal in it playing a vigilante on a brutal killing spree. As such, he’s made a movie under very different circumstances to most of the filmmakers we get to interview here at Den of Geek
I know Steven Seagal is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I really hope that even if he isn’t yours you’ll give this interview a chance (that you’ve opened the article and are reading the introduction bit is a good sign). I think Michael Winnick has some interesting insights into the challenges of making a film.
It was early evening for me, and just after breakfast for the filmmaker, as we had a chat over the phone about how he made his film. A very open, funny and friendly man, Michael Winnick was a real pleasure to talk to. Here’s how our interview went.
What inspired Code Of Honour?
Well, the thing that inspired the movie was when everyone heard that Bin Laden was assassinated, everyone I knew cheered, including myself. Like, we were all happy to hear it. And it got me thinking, how far could that go before people stopped cheering? What if someone assassinated a prolific serial killer, or all the most violent street gangs, or took down the most vicious cartel? And what about rapists? And muggers?
How far down could that go before you’d start going ‘is this really ok?’ And when would you really stop cheering or being happy about it? When would it start to become more grey? That was the original thought that sort of inspired where the film was going.
And also to try and make a First Blood meets Death Wish type of feel. That was the original concept.
How long did it take to write the script?
I actually wrote the script some years back. It’s gone through a few different versions. It started as a larger movie and was almost made as a much larger level film. Then there was a stage where it was just gonna be bought off and made into, as you would probably say, a bigger, more studio-ish action film.
Then what had happened is, I had made a film called Guns, Girls And Gambling a couple of years back and the editor of that project had done all of the big Steven Seagal films back in the 90s. While I was in post-production on that film I actually met Steven and we just talked in general, he was saying he really liked that movie and we were talking about doing something together. He actually ended up reading that script and said “I’d like to do this.”
When he’s involved, we went through another process and we ended up making the movie.
And how many days did you get to shoot?
Well, I ended up getting only twenty days to shoot this movie. I shot the whole film in twenty days. Originally, like I said, it was a larger thing and I had a lot more days. When it actually came down to it I shot the whole thing in twenty days, which is pretty darn fast for an action film. Actually, pretty darn fast for any film. But we attempted to still pull it off. It was very ambitious.
Yeah. How long were the days?
On an independent movie we had twelve hour days. So pretty much if it’s daytime, it’s til sun down, if it’s night it’s sun down to sun up.
That sounds exhausting.
It was pretty intense. But you do what needs to happen. When you don’t have a lot of time or a lot of money you have to just get creative and persevere. Thankfully I had a really good cast that was down to go wherever I needed them to go.
With that tight shooting schedule, I noticed, particularly some of the early sequences, they’re stylishly shot. You have a lot of moving camera. Obviously you want to stamp your style on the film. How much pressure does that put on you when things are tight like this?
It’s very intense, cause you’re always fighting against budget and time and schedule, and I’m desperately trying to move the camera and make it look big and grand and do it right. It’s very ambitious, cause, with all the moving camera, everything from just trying to get the focus right, it takes time. You don’t have that kind of time. You’re always pushing it as far as it will go and keep going. But I try to keep a really positive, enthusiastic atmosphere on set. And like I said, the cast were just really gung-ho to go with it and that was a nice experience.
I actually ended up shooting this film in Utah, which I had made a previous film in and so I knew the terrain pretty well. So that was slightly beneficial to all of us, just because I knew how to move around, so to say. But it was definitely very intense and ambitious to shoot an action film in twenty days.
What was your favourite thing to shoot?
Well, there are several things, but I’m gonna say, for the teen boy in me, being able to blow up an actual building in the downtown area of a city and have Steven Seagal walking away in slow mo. I don’t care if it’s been done, I was like ‘This is the coolest thing ever!’
I’m not even kidding, my next question was gonna be how do you shoot a cool guy walking away from an explosion?
Well, here’s one thing I can say; he is the real deal in that, he did it. That’s a real explosion, that’s him walking. You have a longer lens, so he’s not quite as close as it appears. But he’s really close. That explosion is really blasting behind him. Of course it’s not all fire, it’s a special effect explosion. But make no mistake; it’s loud, it’s big, it’s dangerous, but he does it. And the craziest thing is, what I couldn’t believe, there’s no flinching or blinking when it happened. It’s like ‘oh my gosh’.
Needless to say, you only get one take at that. So you put multiple cameras, you mark out the little spot on the cement where, once he reaches that, we trigger the explosion.
And he did it. It’s real.
That would terrify me. I suppose I’m more of a wuss than you are, but, as you said you only get one take, your entire plan is based on Steven Seagal not flinching. And I’m guessing he’s not someone you can ask ‘Hey, you’re not gonna flinch, yeah?’
No, you don’t really say that to him. You tell him what you’re doing, he’s like ‘I know what you need, I’ll do it.’
What we were able to do, not with a person, but I had a really rudimentary sample explosion, just had some smoke shoot out, to kind of get a feel of what it will look like. You try and use that. Then obviously I go on the safety coordinators and the stunt coordinators and the special effects guy and the pyro guy, who are like ‘where is this dangerous, where is this safe, where is this really safe?’
Then I moved the line even further away because the last thing I wanted to do was blow up Steven Seagal.
The craziest thing was, you do that test and I’m very happy I moved him up, because of course the real one was even bigger. I was like ‘Oh boy, I’m glad I moved him up.’
But like I said, he was, whatever it looks like on film, in person it was even more ‘wow!’
How long did you get to edit the film?
You don’t get a lot of time. That was one of my regrets on this, that post-production got scrapped for budget and time. Because it was a small film and it had a window when it had to be released. So, I would have obviously went with more effort and time there, but there’s a budget and a schedule to deal with, and you go with what you got. Not long!
So then how long is there between having a cut film and it being released?
Well this one, we shot this last year and it’s released now. So not a long period of time. Months, or less.
Your film comes out over here this week and then we have Asian Connection, which also stars Steven Seagal, and Sniper: Special Ops which stars Steven Seagal all coming out in the next six, seven weeks. Is there any frustration in, because he hasn’t had anything else out over here and in the US for more than a year, and now there’s a cluster of them all at once?
That actually came into impact with our post schedule, believe it or not. That was one of the things. We were kind of the first one back after, I think he had done one with Vinnie Jones a little while back. And we were the first one out, and then right after ours, he shot multiple films. Suddenly that was another thing on the schedule, we’ve got to be done now. We have to get it out. It became a race; everyone was trying to release theirs first. That, of course, as a filmmaker, is not always on my side. Getting rushed is not always desirable, I’ll leave it at that.
But again, the fact that there’s been a little bit of a resurgence of people wanting to make movies with him again is always cool, and very cool for him.
Yeah. I suppose, as much as you want the film to be as good as it can be you also want it to be as successful as it can be.
Yeah, well they have to release it. Literally, I think he left our set and went straight to shoot one of the ones you’re talking about. And then I think he went straight from that one to another one of the other ones you were talking about. But obviously as a filmmaker you always want as much time and money and effort as you can get.
But like I said, it’s kind of the nature of the beast when you’re doing a smaller film that has a scheduled time.
On a small film like this, are there any things that might surprise me, as an outsider who’s never made a film? What are the challenges that people don’t always anticipate?
Well, a big one is, when you’re trying to do moving camera and action and shoot outs and fight scenes and all that, it has to be very choreographed. There’s a lot of time in that. But the biggest thing is you’re moving that camera all over the place, it has to stay in focus. There’s a scene, it was a meeting between the two leads and then there’s a big shootout in a club with the extras running around. That is definitely a very ambitious, challenging thing to shoot, where you have film extras, which are really not necessarily film people, cause they’re local folks in the state of Utah. It’s not like we’re shooting in Los Angeles or London or New York, where everyone is used to being involved in a movie. It’s everything from ‘don’t look at the camera please’ to ‘you can’t go past this line here’, ‘you’ve got to look scared’ and all that stuff.
Then also an interesting thing is, depending on what time of year you’re shooting, we actually shot in the early spring, the days, you know I was telling you we were doing sun up to sun down or sun down to sun up for day or night?
Well those are not always twelve hours days! *laughs* Sometimes one of those is a lot longer than the other. For example, we need twelve hours of light but we’re only gonna get eight hours of light because the sun’s only up for that long. You’re like ‘ahh’. Or vice versa if you’re shooting at a different time of year. That’s an element that people probably don’t think about. Because once the sun goes down, or the sun comes up if you’re shooting at night, the day is over. It’s a cruel master.
So, Steven Seagal’s character Sikes, as you’ve said, is a vigilante with a line that we might find challenging. At times the character almost feels like a straight up villain. Was there ever a version of the script where the character was more of a standard villain?
No, never. If anything, my goal was to make it that we’re starting out on his side, and how long would it be? Would the audience turn on him and when would they turn on him? And when you have someone with a persona like Steven Seagal, who almost always plays the straight out hero, and a military hero, which this character is, it’s will the audience even turn on him? Because it’s Steven Seagal. But the character was never written as a straight out villain, especially when Steven was involved. He was never supposed to be a straight out villain, but you’re supposed to realise that what he’s doing is a little extreme.
How did you find working with him?
Well, he’s definitely the real deal, so to say. In that, he really knows his guns, his Aikido, his martial arts, his fighting skills. You know, he’s teaching you weapons, he’s teaching you moves. He’s been around a long time, but his arms, his hands, they’re still lightning fast. So much so, there’s a scene where he disarms a character later in the film and we were trying to figure out how he’s gonna do this. And he says ‘what if I do something like this?’ and it was so fast the camera wasn’t even set up right for it. It was like, ‘umm, we’re gonna need to do that one more time!’
So what’s pretty fascinating about working with him on that level is, this isn’t a guy who is playing with guns or playing with fighting; he’s really that guy. That was quite an interesting experience. I’ve probably learned more about guns and fighting while being with on that film than I’ve learned previously.
Okay, so I’m gonna mark this for spoilers, because I want to ask something about the ending.
Okay, so this will definitely be spoiler time. Go ahead.
Below Seagaphne the spoiler squirrel lie, well, spoilers. If you want to avoid them, skip straight to the Statham question.
Obviously that’s a twist that doesn’t usually happen.
I can only think of Executive Decision and Machete where that has previously happened. He dies! He was happy to die?
And if you ask him, he didn’t. He escaped. That said, the implication, the way the film is structured, is that he does. Obviously you can interpret it as you wish, but yes, he does go down. And that’s kind of what he’s been saying throughout the film. ‘Would you give your life to save the world if no one knew you did it?’ is the question he keeps posing. He’s completed his mission and he’s even made the other character take the fall for it.
That’s it for the spoilers. What is your favourite Jason Statham film?
Oh boy. I’m actually a big fan. My favourite Jason Statham film would probably be Transporter, but he goes all the way back to Snatch. But I wouldn’t call the Guy Ritchie ones Jason Statham films, so I’m gonna go with Transporter.
So I really enjoyed the early ones of his, but he’s actually made a few interesting ones recently.
Michael Winnick, thank you very much!
Code Of Honour, starring Steven Seagal, is out digitally and on DVD right now.
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