Ten years ago, Luc Besson’s Taken turned Liam Neeson into cinema’s most unlikely action star. It’s Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, though, who gave his subsequent roles in this vein sinew and heart. Neeson’s “particular set of skills” as ex-CIA man Bryan Mills in the three Taken films made him superheroically indestructible. All bar one of his other action films, though, has been with Collet-Serra, who has left him fallible and ordinary, with just enough skills to survive a series of outrageous conspiracies.
In Unknown (2011), he’s a scientist who loses his memory in a car crash in Berlin, and awakes to be disowned by his wife and everyone he thought he knew. Non-Stop (2014) finds him as an alcoholic Air Marshal blamed by passengers for the killings he’s trying to foil. Run All Night (2015) nearly leaves his action persona behind altogether, as his guilt-ridden former hitman and current barroom soak redeems himself with his family as the bullets fly. And now there’s The Commuter, in which Neeson’s sacked insurance salesman (and ex-cop) is bribed into identifying a passenger on his regular commuter train, for deadly conspirators who later decide to tip the whole train off the rails.
Director and star never stint on the bone-crunching action and white-knuckle tension. But The Commuter is at its most memorable in early scenes of Neeson’s 60-year-old character Michael losing his job, leaving a sudden abyss under his family’s life. The 65-year-old Neeson isn’t a geriatric Jason Bourne with Collet-Serra. He’s Hitchcock’s wrong man, flailing his way through danger like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. “His mentor is Alfred Hitchcock,” Neeson agrees of his still largely unheralded director.
“We don’t want to do the same thing,” Collet-Serra says of their developing collaboration. “And I want to see more of the Liam that I know up onscreen. And Liam is a sweet guy, very humble, with a great smile and very charming. If you have a character that starts from a good place – he’s a good father and good husband [in The Commuter], not an ex-alcoholic [as in Non-Stop] or a gangster [as in Run All Night] – then you have more opportunity to see his charm. And in this movie, he’s a fellow passenger. He doesn’t come from a position of power with a gun. So he has to manipulate and talk to people. And that is the side that I wanted to see from him, that I hadn’t seen for a while. But the more movies we make, the more sides we want to explore, within the genre. If we do another movie in the genre, he might not be so clean and courageous.”
I used to think that Neeson’s swerve away from draining roles such as his Oscar-nominated Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (1993) was connected to the shocking tragedy of his wife Natasha Richardson’s death in a skiing accident in 2009 (the year after the first Taken). There have always been Star Wars and Batman films between his character work, though and his part in Scorsese’s sombre religious epic Silence (2016) signalled a renewed appetite for difficult drama. Neeson has explained his action years as simply great fun (“And they pay me reasonably well...”). Ask Collet-Serra if, amongst the punch-ups, he’s still working with the same fine actor who made Schindler’s List and he hesitates.
“Err...obviously Liam’s had an amazing career, and I could do a thousand movies and I would never get to the end of his talent. I trust his instincts, not just as an actor, but as a storyteller. Because he really likes these kinds of movies – and I’m not talking about the action, but about the mystery and the thriller. He has a really good sense for those. When it comes down to the scenes that define the movie, where the character has to show who he is, I couldn’t ask any more of Liam. But in this movie there’s always a ticking clock and a new little mission, and the way that he shows you little bits of character while all of this is happening is amazing. All of the characters in our four movies are so different, because he makes them different. It’s only when we start rolling on day one that I know who is showing up.”
When it gets onto the rails, The Commuter is basically a sharp riff on the plane-bound Non-Stop. Its first scenes are so strong, though, that it could just easily take a different turn, into Oscar-bait solely about the late-life crisis of its salesman on the scrapheap.
“That’s what I think I do,” Collet-Serra says of such scenes. “People say I elevate the genre, and those things are not in the original script. The script I read is just a concept. And I try to fill it with intention and with characters that are interesting. But could I make a dramatic movie like that? For sure. And could I do it with Liam in the future? Maybe. But right now I’m young, and I want to make these movies.”
Collet-Serra’s talent is shown at its subtlest in his films’ opening scenes, which often make mundane routines quietly unsettling. In Non-Stop, Neeson’s airport check-in is as gripping as anything in the movie, as quick cuts and changing angles put us in his drink-fugged character’s jangled head. The Commuter distils a year of commutes into an elegantly edited prologue which contains Michael’s whole family and emotional life. “When the audience sit down they give you five minutes, where you can pretty much do anything and they’ll forgive you,” Collet-Serra explains. “So I try to take risks, with something really strong that sets the tone, and an overload of information that will come back later. I worked a lot on the editing and sound. It’s a very delicate piece.”
The Hitchcock comparison many of his collaborators make meanwhile seems explicit in the almost silent, stalking rail-yard duel between Neeson and gangster Ed Harris in Run All Night. It’s there even more in Orphan (2009), Collet-Serra’s tremendous horror film about an apparently nine-year-old girl who becomes a psychotic cuckoo in the nest of Vera Farmiga’s family home. The crackle of ice in a children’s playground which becomes a death-trap is only bettered by the moment when the killer’s deaf sister flees and can’t hear the telltale pot-plant crash behind her.
“Hitchcock started in silent films,” Collet-Serra says of this influence “and he gave a lot of power to the image, and understood the power of editing and the shot. And it may be my early experience making commercials, or it may be that I’m not super-extroverted, but I feel that’s my strength as well. Other than that, I personally want to make movies that have a very strong human component, and I feel that the tension in your normal life, by being late to catch a plane or by losing your keys, is as intense as someone being kidnapped. I can put people on the edge of their seats with very small things. When it comes down to it, you cannot separate yourself as a person from the movies that you make. I’m a person who is always a bit stressed, always a bit worried and paranoid. So those are things that are very easy for me to fantasise about, and then I can translate that worry to the audience. I couldn’t do a comedy, or a musical. But for some reason, tension is something I can absolutely break down in my head in the ten shots that you need, and the situation that you need, and the twists and turns.”
Ever since his debut, the horror B-movie remake House of Wax (2005), was made memorable with a whole American small-town built from wax, Collet-Serra has set his films in highly specific, contained worlds. “I’m into an enhanced reality,” he explains. Whether stuck in the plane and train of Non-Stop and The Commuter or on the tiny ridge of sea-bound rock where Blake Lively spends the last hour of The Shallows being circled by a malevolent shark, the director also traps himself in challenging, claustrophobic scenarios.
“I put myself at the service of the story,” he says. “And restrictions help purify the concept. Because if you have all the money in the world and all the possibilities to tell a story, it’s easy to get distracted in subplots, and make movies that are very long. Maybe it’s my influence from the world of commercials, where there was a very clear idea that you tried to make perfect in 30 seconds, but I enjoy the craftsmanship of doing that. I also want to direct the scene with the least number of shots possible, in the least amount of time, with the least amount of dialogue. These restrictions are self-imposed. Because when I get the scripts, they’re not like that. It’s very hard to write like that.”
Unlike many of his peers, Collet-Serra keeps his films lean, shooting at “very high pace” with a range of full edits already complete in his head. He trusts his actors to get quiet, dramatic scenes right quickly. “Then I can spend more time and takes on Liam moving from left to right and picking up something than on a whole dialogue scene. Because those are the ones that you need later to have at the right pace and timing.”
Collet-Serra is helped by another of his films’ distinct qualities: he casts deep, putting fine actors in every role. Run All Night, a pulsating modern noir-gangster-western which favourably compares with classic downbeat 1970s thrillers, gives Nick Nolte a tiny, crucial role. Oscar-winner Julianne Moore joins Neeson on Non-Stop’s flight where, as with The Commuter’s passenger-list, there are no weak links. Unknown peaks in a gripping conversation between the great old German actor Bruno Ganz and another veteran acting giant, Frank Langella.
“My way of casting is slightly different,” Collet-Serra explains. “I cast the actor, and then I write the part. I’m not looking for the perfect Spanish-speaking nurse [for an important, tiny role in The Commuter]. I’m looking for Clara Lago, who’s a very interesting Spanish actress, and then I create the character. I cast interesting people that I like, and they’re given the opportunity to help me create the characters. And so Clara gives me her best even when she’s in the background.”
Collet-Serra was born far from Hollywood, in the Catalan small-town of Sant Iscle de Vallalta and grew up in a Spanish boarding school “with very limited access to media or movies”. Agatha Christie’s puzzle-solving books were an early influence that has endured in his films, often whodunits with vertiginous last-reel twists. The 1980s blockbusters of Spielberg and Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver (who gave Collet-Serra his break with House of Wax) also made a great impact and the Hitchcock influence shouldn’t be overplayed – this is a director well-versed in 21st century action cinema. On the other hand, Hitch was known for expert thrills and chills, before Cahiers du Cinema made him an auteur. And Sight & Sound has already written about Collet-Serra’s particular set of skills.
He says he “didn’t even know where to start” to become a director in Spain, when he instead left in 1992, aged 18, to take a film course in LA. Artistically, at least, he doesn’t miss home. “I’m a director in search of a story,” he says. “I’m not a director who has stories inside to tell. Obviously I’m a complex human being, like a lot of people, but I’m not egocentric in that sense. I don’t feel like I’m bright, and that I have something to enlighten other people. If it’s an amazing story in Spain, have no objection to tell it, or if it’s in Cambodia. I think I’m part of this global thing, where now any movie is people coming together from all over the world to make a movie, to be consumed all over the world. That enriches the movie, and everybody.”
Though he is steeped in old-fashioned film virtues, this modern Hitchcock is also a highly practical Hollywood survivor.
“You don’t just do four movies with Liam Neeson by chance,” he says of his hopes for his future. “Obviously I know exactly what I want to do with my career. But you also have to know that you’re in world where everything is changing. You cannot just mimic a director who had a career 10 years ago, because now the industry’s completely different. You have to be very true to what you like, and what you’re good at, and take controlled risks. Because one or two missteps, and you’re out of the game.”
‘The Commuter’ is now in cinemas
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