“The Commuter” Director Jaume Collet-Serra on the Complexities of his Fourth Liam Neeson Thriller (Interview)

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For whatever reason, Jaume Collet-Sera is one of the more unassuming and even underrated filmmakers working within the Hollywood system, despite repeatedly proving he can make entertaining thrill rides that moviegoers seem to enjoy.

The Spanish-born director had already directed a House of Wax remake and the creepy thriller Orphan for Warner Bros. before he was first teamed with Liam Neeson for Unknown in 2011. That led to the even more successful Non-Stop in 2014, and the 2015 crime-drama Run All Night, the two of them building a relationship that’s built-up quite a low-key fanbase. (Oddly, most of Collet-Serra’s films after House of Wax have received mixed but not horrible reviews, usually in the 50-60% range on Rotten Tomatoes.)

Collet-Serra has also continued to work within the world of genre, whether it’s his shark thriller The Shallows with Blake Lively or his latest film The Commuter, which is straight-up high concept Hitchcockian suspense thriller.

This time Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, an insurance salesman (and retired policeman) who is laid off after ten years. On his commute back home, Michael’s approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who tells him that he needs to find someone on the busy rush hour train carrying a package. Michael isn’t told why he has to find this person or what might happen to them, but it creates conflict for the do-gooder who realizes he, his family and others on the train are in danger if he doesn’t comply.

The Tracking Board spoke with the filmmaker earlier this week where we mainly discussed some of the intricacies of creating the impressive visuals that separate  The Commuter from just being “Non-Stop on a train.” We also touched upon his upcoming Disney film Jungle Cruise with Dwayne Johnson, which they’ll start filming in Atlanta and Hawaii in the spring.

(Note: The interview started with me telling the filmmaker that I had just watched Non-Stop earlier for the first time and thought that while there are many similarities, The Commuter is the better movie.)

: This was easier to make, and obviously we learned a lot from Non-Stop — many, many things. It was easier to make, so it was a bit more fun.

I’m surprised it was easier, because you were shooting a lot of stuff in and around New York, like at Grand Central…

No, no, no, we didn’t go anywhere. We shot everything in London.

Even Grand Central?

Yeah, it was CG. We were not allowed to shoot in Grand Central. We were the only people not allowed.

I’m usually very sensitive about movies showing New York that they are accurate to the actual geography.

Oh yeah? So I fooled you. We tried to be accurate in a sense, but we shot it all in London with all British actors. We came to New York, and we shot one day only. When I read the script for this movie I’d never been in a Metro-North [train]. I didn’t know the details of where, how you even deal with tickets and all that stuff, how long would it take, and what kind of people took it. Obviously, I’ve lived in New York, but I lived in the city and I heard about these commuter trains, but I’d never been on them so I did my research, and it was important for me. I think that is one of the things I do in movies, and when I shot in Berlin the same, since I come from an outsider perspective, it’s very important for me that everybody else that’s an outsider understands it. Even though what might be obvious to the local people and be real so they’re not offended. At the same time, [I wanted to] make sure that the other people understand the logistics of it, especially with this ticket system that I only think they use here.

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(L-R) Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, , Liam Neeson (Marion Curtis / StarPix)

Yeah, the set-up on the train was very accurate, because if you’ve ever been to Grand Central at 5pm or 5:30, that’s what you’d see as people rush to get seats on the train.

Sure, I took that train at the exact times that I wanted to take it. I obviously we did some research. We even we took some ideas from the people that I saw on those rides and what not. They made the ride a few times with my designer and DP to even kind of guess what was the route, but we got no permission from Metro-North to do anything, not even [FX] plates, nothing. It was tough because we had to recreate the experience of going along the Hudson River without actually having the capability of doing that. With the plates, we took roads and things to try to give that experience to the viewer.

Did you go on a train and take a lot of pictures in order to recreate what the trains look like?

Yeah, and video from the DP which he actually then synchronized the video to lights, so we would recreate the actual lighting, because it’s a blue screen set, and then match some plates that we found and that we shot on roads. It was technically very difficult. It’s one of the aspects of these movies I think a lot of people do not appreciate is how real it looks, but it’s so difficult. We only had one carriage — we didn’t have six carriages, and we had to redress all the seats, and move the people around and what not. We shot it completely out of order, because we shot all of Carriage One first, Carriage Two second. It’s not like we redress every day because it’s a pain in the ass, so it’s technically very difficult, and obviously, the light changes gradually at that time of the day as day becomes night and all that. The whole movie was shot in 100 square feet.

I was already impressed, because I didn’t realize you had shot all of it in London, but I assumed there must have been a lot of craft and skill in creating the movie, which is something I feel has improved with each movie you make.

I try. I mean, they all have their own particular technical problems in that sense. This one it was that, and the fact that there was a lot of visual effects that are not supposed to be visual effects, and the key for that is lighting. You’ve seen a lot of other train movies I’m sure, and I’d be curious to know if you find out something better that does the lighting interaction that’s so brave. Most of the movies tend to just flatten out the exterior to not deal with the accurate sync shadows, but I’m going for it. I have the sun in the frame, I have trees passing by. Basically, the sun is going to be there, so you put a light there. I’m going to erase it and put the trees going past. But that’s what I wanted. I wanted a movie that had an evolution. As he became more stressed about his situation, the movie became more beautiful in the setting sun, and all that, going against the grain, because movies usually turn cold and dark when he becomes more in trouble.

Was this a script that was already being developed before you got involved?

It was being developed for a long time. We were looking for something like that after our experience in Non-Stop. We kind of wanted to repeat the experience for the audience, which is an action [movie]in one sort of location with a wide ensemble from all walks of life, and Liam trying to find somebody. The train was perfect I think and it was different enough from Non-Stop that I felt challenged and a completely different movie. I needed to almost change the tone as well.  I got the script and it was very different, just as Non-Stop was. It was a normal movie where you would cut away to the family. You would cut away to the detective. You would have a car chase in the middle of it for no reason. Always in my movies, I always take all of that out and I simplified it into one location, because I feel that brings out the purity of the concept. Actually, you can spend all the money on that one location and it comes out I think stronger visually.

Are you a big fan of the suspense thriller genre in general? This is the most Hitchcockian thriller you’ve made thus far.

I’m a big fan of making them. Watching, I watch everything, but I love to be surprised, and I love to surprise the audience. I love crafting thrillers because I get to surprise myself. For me, it’s just about figuring out a way that I actually don’t know what’s going to happen and then solve it. I get a rush. Seeing the reaction that the audience has to the twists and turns, I think is what makes me happier. I think I got that from Orphan; I kind of became addicted to the twist. I made a couple movies before that, and the movies they were whatever they were, but I never got an actual reaction. In Orphan, when I was sitting in the theater and people gasped at the twist and clapped at certain moments, I felt that they had a connection with the movie. I wanted to repeat that, so my movies lately have all had little twists or visceral reactions that the audience has. In order to do that maybe I have to bend reality a little bit. Sometimes, people say, “A shark on fire?” like in my last one, but still, if people clap or if people have a moment, I’m okay with that. I don’t want to be too cool for school, you know?

I remember seeing Orphan well after it opened and still being surprised by its twist. Somehow, it wasn’t spoiled in advance.

I mean, whatever. It’s an interesting movie or what not. That movie had a lot of other difficult things that were accomplished in that movie, like Vera’s acting was amazing, and I learned a lot from her in that. Dealing with kids was new for me. I had the technical skill, but that movie kind of opened my eyes to other places where the audience can connect, so I was very interested in continuing to repeat that.

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One of my favorite scenes is the fight that crashes through the train window and spills out of the train. It’s obviously done using CG, but it was quite amazing visually.

Yeah, and I crafted that whole fight scene in one shot, just for that moment. I didn’t want to cut. Once his head goes out of the window, I didn’t want to cut to his reaction and then his point of view, and then whatever’s outside the train. I wanted to be outside with him and hold it, play with the focus and what not. Because I didn’t want to change styles just to do that I said that I’ll just backtrack and just do everything in one shot, so it builds up to that.  It was a big pain in the ass to do that, but it works. 

I think one of the reasons people like Liam as an is that he has such a commanding voice and in these kinds of movies, he gives every line a lot more weight.

Yeah, but I know it changes. I’ve done four movies with him, and every time he gives me a different character, and every time he convinces me and makes the character relatable. He has these little mannerisms. I don’t know how he does it but they show up on day one and they are part of the character — the way he smiles, the way he moves his fingers – it’s just completely different people he creates. There’s always a warmth, like you say. He’s very human, and I think he’s very generous. I think that people really appreciate when people are generous. Generous, in like “This is who I am.” As a character he shows it, he’s not afraid, but he’s a completely different person. I think he’s able to break down his character… we talk about what we want in the character, what’s his arc and what’s not, and he’s able to find that humanity and really latch onto it. He obviously has a lot of experience, and he knows that it’s only three or four things that he can communicate, and if he does that early on, the audience will kind of be on board, and he does it very well.

I also wanted to ask about that opening montage of Liam going to work which could have been done very simply, but you create this montage where he literally had to change clothes and other things for each shot. How long did it take to put that together?

Two days. One day where most of it was insane. We changed the lighting, we changed everything. When I came up with the style for that sort of opening, I knew that I had something special in the movie, because I needed to visualize his routine for the people to understand why he’s so valuable to [Vera’s character]. Most people don’t understand this commute. Here in New York, it’s a no-brainer, in Chicago maybe and in LA, but not in Poland. Why is this guy taking the same train the same day? Maybe in their city, it doesn’t work out the same way. So they don’t understand that they see the same people and they get confused. For a worldwide [audience], this is what the commute is. I kind of had to show that. It was a strong bet and the backed me, because it could have been a big fiasco.

It looked like it could have been a big fiasco.

Yeah, it could have been confusing, it could have been tacky, it could have been many things. I shot a little test with some non-actors, just crew people to see what exactly was the best way to communicate, and I learned a lot. I learned that each shot had to be one concept. Each shot had to be one moment that I shouldn’t do the same moment twice, and try to kind of stich them together. The accumulation of moments that add up to the whole picture. It took a lot of work to edit it right and everything but we’re proud of it, you know?

In the screenplay, was it one sentence of “Michael commutes to work” or was there any indication of what you ended up doing in the original script?

The script that I read, I don’t think that it was even there, or anything like that. There was nothing. That for me was a need that I created to solve the problem of how to communicate what a commute was.

I also want to ask about the Jungle Cruise movie you’re doing with Dwayne Johnson…

Yeah, we’re writing it.

How’s that going to work with Jumanji out there now and that also being a jungle movie starring The Rock?

I love Jumanji, I think it’s great, but it’s very different. I don’t know why people assume that Jungle Cruise and Jumanji are related in anyway.

Well, I was thinking it would be like the Disneyworld theme park ride with hippos and animals, which are also featured in Jumanji.

Yeah, I guess so, but it’s not that.

After you saw Jumanji, was there anything you had to change in the Jungle Cruise script?

No, it’s just so different, but not only like the tone and the world. Everything is so different, but I loved it and I really enjoyed it and I think Dwayne is fantastic and I can’t wait to work with him.

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Do you generally have two or three projects in in some kind of form or are you a filmmaker who likes doing one movie, finishing it and then moving onto the next one?

Yeah, I go from post to the next movie pretty regularly. I might have a couple of things that are possibilities like everybody else, but for me really the moment that I’m ready to start a new movie, it’s like which movie that I kind of have around will be ready to go? I’ve been doing a movie every year and a half for the last I think 13 years, so I’ve done eight movies in a row without really a break. I could do them faster. It’s just the system doesn’t let you release them as fast, and you have to wait to release them.

It amazes me that you can have so much CG in a movie like this and still make movies so quickly. I’m not sure people realize how much CG you used in this movie, but especially when you’re not shooting on a real train.

There’s a lot of sh*t, but also, when I did The Shallows, I became used to the idea of shooting something that didn’t exist. The Shallows was completely made up in post-, the world. It was literally Blake Lively on a rock in a pool in 99 percent of the movie, so the rest was all blue screen. The one main character, which was the shark, was a CG character. In the process of doing that, it had a very short window. The whole post- was done in five months. I saw what they could do, I saw the limitations of it at the time, so when it came time to do The Commuter, it didn’t scare me. People are very good and they’re very used to it now. I used to be more into practical, whatever — Run All Night barely has any visual effects.

I seem to remember House of Wax being pretty much done in-camera.

Everything was in-camera, it had no visual effects, so everything was prosthetics and the actual melting of the set, that was like miniatures.

Do you want to get back to doing things that way?

No, I think I’ll use miniatures for shortened things where I can get away with it. I think blowing stuff up in miniature is much better, not a miniature like this but like an eighth miniature, like the explosion in the hotel in Unknown. It was pretty big, but it was still a miniature. I’d rather have a fireball on miniature than have a CG fireball. The problem is in these medium-range movies, you have to choose. I think on a larger scale, maybe on Jungle Cruise I can get away with a few miniatures here or there, like they had in Pirates. The people in the visual effects department love miniatures because they get so much information. Even if they have to then tweak it and change it. It’s not like a perfect shot but they get to have the shot that’s already a lot more, the dynamics and all that so. But it’s a lot of money, it’s expensive. Making miniatures is very expensive.

Are you still doing a movie about Waco, too? Is that something you’re developing?

No, that’s something that was in a window. It was an opportunity, but it didn’t work out.  you know, I love the subject matter and I would love to do it someday.

Plus there’s also an upcoming show based on it coming up.

I think there is plenty of material to do many things on that subject but for me it was a specific window and maybe in the future I would love to do it obviously but that will wait for.

The Commuter opens nationwide on Friday, Jan. 12 with previews Thursday night.

| East Coast Editor

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