Hey folks, Harry here... I bet you can't wait to hear Mr Beaks' perceptive thesaurian writings about a film about a cellular phone! Oh just you wait and see how Mr. Beaks twirls you about on this report. He'll say "Hitchcockian" and I think he means it not in an ironic fashion... so read on...
If all goes well, CELLULAR will not do for wireless phones what THE NET did for the thingamajig on which you’re currently reading this review (unless you printed it out to read later, in which case you’re a tree killer, and I hope the Ents, The Guardian, and “Branchy” from POLTERGEIST celebrate an early Arbor Day on your ass). Having read a recent (but since rewritten) draft of the script, for which I was harshly chided by Jason Statham when I mentioned it to him, I think this has the makings of a very smart, frantically paced Hitchcockian thriller.
Oh, stop rolling your eyes! “Hitchcockian” is a wholly applicable term here, since CELLULAR is, in essence, a reiteration of the ol’ NORTH BY NORTHWEST formula (actually, the formula predates NXNW, but it’s still the one everybody cites). This time, the innocent man flung unsuspectingly into intrigue is Ryan (Chris Evans), a young beach bum who lives to surf, pick up women… and surf. He is jarred out of his carefree universe by a desperate call from Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger), a married doctor who has been kidnapped and held for ransom by a ruthless gang of thugs led by Jason Statham. Though he doubts her story at first, he eventually comes to believe her, and scrambles to help save her adolescent son and her husband, all the while trying desperately to maintain the phone connection. (For the nitpickers: Jessica would be unable to call him back due to the hastily rigged nature of her connection, and he can’t call her back without alerting the kidnappers. Don’t worry; the internal logic is up to snuff.) Also thrown into the mix is a close-to-retirement police officer (William H. Macy), who skeptically looks into Ryan’s claims, and finds a tangled web of intrigue that suggests there’s far more than greed at the heart of the kindnappers’ demands.
Presiding over this New Line concoction slated for release sometime next year is David Ellis, the legendary second unit director (you’ve seen his work this year on THE MATRIX: RELOADED and MASTER AND COMMANDER) taking the first unit reins for the second time after the gleefully gory FINAL DESTINATION 2. Given his beginnings as a stunt driver for the king of vehicular mayhem, Hal Needham, Ellis is actually a perfect choice to direct this film, since a good deal of CELLULAR takes place in speeding, frequently out-of-control cars (Ellis worked on HOOPER, meaning that his ascension to Valhalla is all but certain).
But on the day of my set visit, the action is solely on foot, as we’re confined to the Santa Monica Pier, where Ellis is shooting a critical series of scenes that occur late in the film. Outside of Basinger, most of the main cast is assembled, including Evans, Macy, Statham, Noah Emmerich and the lovely Jessica Biel, who might be leveraging a takeover of New Line, seeing as how she’s splitting time between this film and BLADE: TRINITY up in Vancouver – all this after having starred in the studio’s October hit, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Also hanging out is Dean Devlin, who has been developing the film for several years along with its original producer, Lauren Lloyd.
Everyone is in high spirits because a) the film is ahead of schedule (a rare occurrence for any production) and b) it is an absolutely gorgeous day. Though we would end up staying three hours longer than expected, I could scarcely complain since my pasty ass could always use the sun, while the bikini-clad eye candy is abundant and rather choice. This is seriously one of the most chipper sets I’ve ever been on. Then again, I haven’t been on many, and one of those sets was John Singleton’s SHAFT, so intermittent knife fights could break out between extras, and I’d still be feelin’ the love.
CELLULAR began life as a spec script by horror maestro Larry Cohen, who has suddenly reinvigorated his career as a peddler of high concept suspense flicks to the quality-starved studios with this and PHONE BOOTH. But this proved to be a bit of a hurdle for the producers. According to Devlin, “There were some problems because (Larry) had written PHONE BOOTH. Fox was worried that it was going to be too similar, and I assured them that we were going to develop it very differently.”
“Differently” meant, for starters, moving the setting from dreary Boston to sunny Los Angeles, which required a pretty massive rewrite from a number of scribes, including Chris Morgan, who apparently did a good enough job to warrant his presence on the set. Morgan relished the cross-continental transplant because it gave him a chance to place the story in what he refers to as “the capital of cell phones”. The main challenge, however, was inventing new ways to jeopardize Ryan’s cell connection, while ultimately keeping him on the phone without straining credibility. “It was actually easier than it sounds,” says Morgan. “If you talk to anybody, they all have stories about weird glitches that happen with cell phones, and it was just taking the fun ones and expanding on them a little bit.” Such obstacles include driving into a tunnel, a dying battery, and crosstalk that happens to tie up Ryan’s line with chatter from someone Devlin describes as “the biggest asshole lawyer in Los Angeles.” (Sounds like a perfect cameo for Johnnie Cochran or Pamela Mackey.)
Morgan also received a bit of unexpected writing assistance from William H. Macy, who helped transform his character from a clichÃ©d overweight Irish cop – as per Macy: “Being the feral hunk that I am, we knew that wouldn’t fit me.” – to something much more suited to his quirky sensibilities. As Morgan puts it, “(His character’s) been on the force for a long time, and he’s ready to retire. He’s been on the desk for a while, and his wife has always had this dream of opening up a beauty salon. The beautiful thing about it is most cops, when they retire, they… buy a fishing boat, or they get drunk, or have a heart attack. So, because his wife has spent so much time worrying about him as an officer, he’s going to pay her back by helping her with this spa. All the other cops give him hell about it. They call it a beauty salon, and he’s trying to convince them that, ‘It’s a day spa; it’s much more sophisticated!’”
While everyone is full of praise for Macy, they’re equally effusive about the film’s star. This is Chris Evans’s first go-round as a lead (excluding his work in NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE, where he was part of an ensemble), and he’s got his producer all atwitter. “He’s going to be the next giant star,” says Devlin. “I haven’t been this excited about an actor since working with Will Smith on INDEPENDENCE DAY.” Morgan explains Evans’s appeal by comparing him to an even more formidable personality. “He reminds me in some ways of a young Harrison Ford,” says Morgan. “(He’s) not the toughest guy, he’s not the smartest guy – no offense to Chris – but he’s the guy who’s the most determined.”
A quick chat with Evans, who’s all smiles despite having an ice pack wrapped around his torso to ward off exhaustion from the heat on this fairly blistering day, reveals a good looking, charismatic, but very humble young actor who knows better than to overplay his hand. Ask him about the pressure of carrying a film nearly all by himself – in many cases, it’s just Evans shouting into a cell phone – and he instantly praises his brilliant fellow cast members and the hard working crew. Should this film become a launching pad to the kind of superstardom predicted by Devlin, he’s certainly got the PR act down pat.
In fact, he’s got it down to a perfect science when it comes to discussing the work ethic of his director. “He’s great,” exclaims Evans, “he’s efficient. He knows what he wants, and he gets it quickly. He’s a problem solver. If there’s something that’s not working, it’s not a twenty minute ordeal trying to get it fixed.” Devlin shares this assessment, adding, “He’s not winging it. He’s got a shot list for the entire movie before we started shooting. You’re lucky if you get one on the day from the director.”
This organized approach, no doubt honed through his several decades as a second unit director, is described by Ellis as a case of knowing what he wants. “It’s doing your homework. It’s making sure that everyone else is prepared for you. Everybody’s got shot lists; they know exactly how I see it in my head, exactly how I’m going to edit it, so I know exactly which take I need, which piece I’m on. If I’m doing coverage, I don’t need a take to be good all the way through, because I know, during that take, I’m cutting to the other actor, or to this actor, or to that actor. So, I watch it, and when I know I have that moment, I move on.”
Ellis is obviously relieved to be making a movie with a little more substance than FINAL DESTINATION 2. In describing CELLULAR, Ellis says, “This is a character driven piece about a kid that’s really kind of self-centered and into himself. He’s never done anything right, or never really has done anything for himself. His girlfriend has bailed on him because of that. And he all of a sudden gets this random cell phone call from this lady that’s been kidnapped. It’s about him having this character arc where he comes up to the plate and actually really hangs it out for someone he doesn’t know. So, it’s a really great kinda PHONE BOOTH mixed with SPEED, because it’s constantly moving, and there’s obstacles that you encounter through the adventure that everyone encounters every day via a cell phone.”
That’s a pretty good pitch; one that will, hopefully, develop into a sensationally entertaining mid-level action film. After spending a good six hours watching these guys work, I’ve little doubt that they have the talent to pull it all off.
Before the end of the day, we got to watch Ellis and the crew set up for one last shot: a stunt that required Evans to leap off the railing of a platform dressed up to look like the end of the pier. Though they were racing against the rapidly setting sun, and working with an actor who had never performed a stunt of this magnitude, there wasn’t a hint of pressure or worry. To no one’s surprise, they got it in one take.