If you’re a fan of action films, then you’re familiar with the works of director Simon West. He tossed Nicolas Cage in with a plane full of the worst criminals on the planet in Con Air, clad Angelina Jolie with guns and a tight outfit for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and took his vision to the small screen to helm the pilots of Keen Eddie, Human Target and most recently The Cape. Now he’s teamed with fellow action icon Jason Statham for The Mechanic, a remake of the 1972 film starring Charles Bronson. An updated take, the movie (in theaters tomorrow) stars Statham as Arthur Bishop, a high-end assassin who’s hired to take out his mentor (Donald Sutherland) and trains the man’s troubled son (Ben Foster) in his very ugly business. I talked with West (whose next film, the “tough guy” movie Medallion, reteams him with Cage) about working with Statham and remaking a classic, so read below for the interview and check out a scene with Statham and Foster.
Photos courtesy of CBS Films
There is definitely a lot of drama amid all the action.
Yeah, we tried to make everything character-driven. We’re definitely not going to shy away from the action because I like it, [Statham] likes it and the audience likes it. But everything was driven by the characters and had to be real. We wanted to make this one as based in reality as possible, so nothing was not physically possible or not or research that couldn’t really happen. I just think the audience would engage in it better if they felt they were in a real world. There’s not lots of CGI going on or bullets going around corners or special powers or anything. He’s a guy who’s very good at his job and it’s a dirty job. We went to back basics: What is it really like to be an assassin? It’s not pretty. Our unique thing was it had to look like an accident. There’ve been a lot of hitman movies, and it’s easy to put a telephoto sight on a rifle and shoot someone from a mile away. But then it looks like murder. So the difference with him is everything he had to look like an accident. His character had to really work stuff out and be clever and sneaky, and when you have these accidents, you more than likely have to be in there with your hands on the person rather than from a mile away that’s all clean.
What made Jason perfect for this movie?
There’s just so few guys who are totally believable as a hard man who’s willing to do anything if you’re in this kind of world. There’s a sense of reality he likes to get in, and I love to have as well, and the audience gets lost in the story more if they feel everything’s real and they’re not watching a cartoon version.
Ben’s character seems to be the biggest departure from the original movie.
That’s why I chose him. I didn’t believe my luck when I was allowed to have him, really. The original, Jan-Michael Vincent, was the pretty boy of the time — kind of lightweight — and we saw all those guys casting-wise come through. Every time I had a reading, it always felt unbelievable and light. We finally got through all those guys, and the producer said, “Well, who do you really want?” I said Ben Foster but I didn’t think anybody would go for it because he’s not the archetypal pretty boy, but he’s always so great in all the movies I’ve seen him in. He always steals the show and steals the scenes and has an unpredictability the character had to have. He had to appear capable of extreme violence and instability. What I didn’t want is have a normal guy off the street and say, “OK, I’m going to turn you into a killer,” because then we’d have to have a long boring training sequence we’ve seen a million times. What I wanted was for him to be someone who was totally capable of killing people and probably was going to do it in the worst and messy way, and all Bishop was doing was channeling that dark talent and keep him to do it professionally. Of course, it doesn’t go quite as well as he hoped. But that’s what Ben brought: this unpredictability, this wild man and a real character. An actor of that level just elevates the movie. It stops it being a pure action movie and it’s a character piece.
There are some holdovers from the Bronson version, such as Bishop’s penchant for listening to classical music while preparing for a kill and his research board. Did you spend a lot of time figuring out what you wanted to be an homage and what was going to be new?
It was quick, really. I got the original script they sent me, because they’d been developing the script over 17 years and hundreds of versions. Lots of writers had had a go at it, and they tried to completely reinvent it and take it off into tangents of CIA plots and black ops and all these subplots that got away from the original clean idea. So they sent me the original [Lewis John] Carlino 1972 script, written on a typewriter, and I could see the structure was great. They knew how to write movies in those days: It was 110 pages long and had a great character at the center of it. It was just dated in its execution. I sat down with the writer and wrote a page one rewrite — every single word was changed, but keeping the structure and modernizing the action sequences and what he does. But the essential character was classic. It’s almost Shakespearean with a lone man who has one friend, his mentor, who he then has to kill for the wrong reasons, and then out of guilt takes on his son as his apprentice. The tension is for the audience when will the apprentice find out that his new mentor killed his father? It’s a very classic structure so we kept that. I only watched the film once, because it goes in very quickly, so anything that seemed to really hold water 40 years later, I kept in. The simplicity of how we worked was the attraction of it. We’ve seen a million hitman films over the years, and they just get more complicated and fantastical where they cease to be interesting to me because they’re not realistic. They take you out of it — there’s too much fantasy and CGI — and we went back to the basics and the grass roots of what it’s like to be a hitman. It’s not a pretty job for everybody, but for this particular character, it’s the thing he does best. So how do you portray that in a real way?