It's the moment every father dreads: Erik's teenage daughter Hanna is ready to experience the world on her own. No parental supervision. No protection. Just her and whatever will be. It's treacherous enough out there for your average sixteen-year-old; for Hanna, however, it's literally kill or be killed. Such are the perks of being the superbly-trained, killing-machine spawn of an ex-CIA operative who's been hiding out for over a decade in the wilds of Lapland.
As the badass papa bear of Joe Wright's sensationally entertaining HANNA, Eric Bana does more than watch pensively from the sidelines as his lethal lil' girl (Saoirse Ronan) wrecks shop across multiple time zones. Bana's an integral part of the narrative and the action: as the film progresses, we gradually learn of his past association with the film's big bad wolf, government operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett reveling in grotesque, Gary Oldman-esque villainy); also, as Erik scrambles to locate Hanna, he has several bruising run-ins with Wiegler's murderous minions. There are many spectacular set pieces in HANNA, but the undisputed highlight of the film is Bana's tracking-shot tussle with four assassins in an underground train station. It's the action scene of the year until further notice.
This was my third interview with Bana over the last couple of years, but, oddly enough, it was the first time talking to him about a movie in which he'd acted (our last two chats were for his car documentary, LOVE THE BEAST). Knowing Bana to be an action film aficionado, I was excited to talk about the movie's bravura, one-take brawl, as well as the other Jeff-Imada-choreographed fight sequences - all of which are basically the antithesis to the Cuisinart-edited (and way over-imitated) BOURNE style of onscreen combat. While that subject unavoidably dominated our conversation, it led us into an interesting discussion of the Chemical Brothers score, and how music is an essential component in all stages of filmmaking, not just postproduction. And then Ridley Scott came up for some reason. I love talking to Bana.
Mr. Beaks: This movie is so much fun. And so rigorous. Once that switch gets flicked in the cabin, it's a full-on sprint. You've done some real physical stuff in the past - like Hector in TROY - so I was surprised to read that you thought this was perhaps your most physical movie to date.
Eric Bana: I think that was a bit of a misquote. It's my most physical movie in quite a while. I guess the perception is that I've been more physical in movies than I have. 'Cuz I don't think guns count, TROY was the last one that was a real physical workout for me - and that was with weapons. [HANNA] was actually my first real exposure to hand-to-hand combat in film. I really enjoyed it. Jeff Imada is just a genius, and to work under him and his guys was a real privilege. It was a hell of a lot of fun. On top of that, I think Joe was partly discovering that world for himself, so to be with him on that journey, and see how much trust he put in Saoirse and I for a lot of those sequences, it was a lot of fun.
Beaks: How specific was the training? So many of the fight sequences are viewed in long takes. I really wish more people directors that. I love to see the actors and the stunt men do their work in longer takes, because, if done well, it looks like a real fight. How much training was involved?
Bana: I didn't have a huge amount of lead time coming into the film, so luckily I was in reasonable shape and didn't have to spend months getting into a physical zone. When I arrived, we got straight into the choreography. Jeff was great at working around stuff I'd done before: footwork and things that felt familiar. But it was still a very steep learning curve. And I was excited by it because, as you say, it's so rare that you see a piece of action that's more than a couple of seconds. A lot of the time, you learn the sequences start-to-finish anyway; you're capable of doing it, but it's removed through the editing process for whatever reason. I agree with you. I 'm always a fan when the camera pulls back and you're able to see more than a few seconds of action. That's why I like MAD MAX 2. When you go back and watch that, that is cut so much slower than you think. When you watch the way that movie is framed, and how the action happens within the lens, and then it moves on to the next piece of action, and then it cuts. That's something I love. And with Joe, he was fantastic at trusting us with some of those pieces. It's an honor to get to do that stuff, and have the camera just keep going.
Beaks: Do you have any favorite fight scenes? Sequences you were hoping to match up to?
Bana: I love a car chase. I'm probably better at referencing those. My criticism is that they usually have too much editing involved, so I do love it when you see a longer version. As a kid, watching the early ROCKY movies, a lot of that was pretty cool. But it's pretty hard. I haven't seen boxing captured in a great way for a long while.
Beaks: A number of your fight scenes are with Saoirse. How careful did you have to be with her?
Bana: I was concerned for her because I thought if I got a foot wrong, and she got on the wrong side of a punch, it's going to be really ugly - mainly because she's in every frame of the film. It's not like hitting a stunt man or you getting hit yourself. But once we started training, I was less concerned because I could see how committed she was. It was a lot of fun. And I told her, "Look, when it comes to wailing on me, just go for it - especially with the body shots. Just do what you've got to do." But again, coming back to Jeff's choreography, it's really cool because there's a lot of actual contact. Sometimes when you're doing fights where it's just big punches being thrown, it's harder because it's difficult to get a point of reference for your opponent. But with the stuff Jeff choreographed, someone's holding you or there's elbow-to-elbow - so you've constantly got some kind of a physical point of reference. It makes the fights more visceral and, in actual fact, easier to do.
Beaks: So these weren't undercranked?
Bana: No, we never went half-speed. I haven't seen the finished film, but I hope there's no cranking.
Beaks: While we're talking fight choreography, let's just get into the underground sequence, which... (Laughs) bravo, man. I mean, it's just amazing.
Bana: (Laughing) Thank you.
Beaks: One of the great things about that sequence is that you can kind of feel it coming.
Bana: (Laughing) I was going to ask when you started smelling it.
Beaks: When you're coming down the escalator. The guy's behind you, and you can just sense that shit's about to go down.
Bana: It's like in RUSSIAN ARK. I had no idea going into that movie, and then at some point I was like, "Shit, this is all going to be one shot!"
Beaks: And it's not a problem that you sniff it out here because HANNA is kind of a movie-movie. And as Joe begins to set up what's there, and you see all the guys slowly closing in on you, and the fight starts, being aware that he hasn't cut actually heightens the excitement. How many takes did you have to do to get it right?
Bana: Not many. We shot it at magic hour, so we had a very narrow window to get a perfect take. I think we did six or maybe seven, and I've got a feeling it's take two that's in the movie. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure it's take two. But, yeah, the whole day is allocated to it, so what you do is piece it together during the day and rehearse the background elements and the extras and the busses and the this-and-that. We'd gone to that location in advance and done dry runs with handicams with the stunt guys, and then went there again with Joe and reformatted it. I think we actually tweaked it on the day; I think Jeff and the stunt guys and I were making little tiny changes on the day. It really was evolving. Then it gets to 6:45, and it's like, "Right, get into wardrobe, and we've got forty-five minutes to shoot it." We just kept doing it; we did it take after take after take until we lost the light. It's awesome. Moviemaking is not usually like that, and the sense of teamwork that comes out of it - the adrenaline, the cameraman, the focus puller, the guy dragging the cables, the background - everything has to be bang-on for one take, and it is a hell of a lot of fun.
Beaks: Well, the challenge must be exhilarating. You're doing this at magic hour, so time is fleeting. But since so much relied on you, were you ever nervous?
Bana: You live for those moments as an actor. I was a little bit scared, I must admit, when Joe told me a week before how I was going to do that in one shot. I was like, "Oh, shit!" But at the same time, when you do it, and it gets done, it's the greatest feeling. So much of what we do is unquantifiable as actors, so when you get a sequence like that and it's obvious when it's working and obvious when it's not working, it's a rare moment. It's very rare that you can look at playback and go, "Yep, we got it!" So when you get a chance to do that, it's a huge thrill.
Beaks: Joe seems so precise in his approach to filmmaking. You've worked with a lot of great directors: how does his process compare to the others?
Bana: I think his knowledge and faculty of the project as a whole was so all-encompassing. He had such an awareness of what he was doing - and by that I mean, yeah, the script was fantastic, it really felt fresh and original, but his take on the script, the whole fairy-tale aspect, and this notion of a fairy tale gone wrong was great. Stylistically, the locations that were chosen, the colors that he used, the way that everyone's wardrobe came together, his collaboration with The Chemical Brothers... he was all over it all the time. You just felt like this movie existed in his head - and that's a director's job. We can all, technically-speaking, take a script and go shoot a movie; we'd do a terrible job, but we could, technically-speaking, go and do it. It's really a director's job to impose a sense of style and honesty upon that, and I just think he really elevated this script to a level that I don't know you could get much better. I was just in awe of those abilities.
Beaks: I like that you also had to fight on different terrain. Going at it in the snow as opposed to concrete would, I assume, require a different level of preparation. How did this change your approach to the choreography?
Bana: True. The wardrobe's also different. Every time there would be a sequence like that, you were doing something completely different: in one sequence, you're doing some stick fighting; then you're doing mock hand-to-hand stuff; then you're fighting against three or four stunt guys; then you're running and jumping between cars. Every time you were doing something completely different - more so for Saoirse. She had even more than I did. It was pretty physical.
Beaks: The Chemical Brothers music is so integral to the mood of the film. You knew they were on board while making the movie. Did Joe ever play their music while shooting to help you with, say, the pace of the scene?
Bana: I can't wait to see the finished film because the score wasn't finished in the cut I saw - though there was a lot of Chemical Brothers music in it. It felt like he had a definite sense of what kind of tracks he was going to use, and then that was obviously going to be elevated by them scoring specifically for the film. I remember Ridley Scott saying once, "If a director doesn't know what kind of music he's going to use whilst he's making a movie, he doesn't yet know his movie." I really agree with that. Music's so important. I'm not saying it should dominate a production or a finished film, but I love music so much. When you see that, I think the movie is elevated by the director having that sense right from the get-go and not discovering it in post.
Beaks: How much did the script change from when you came on? Did you have input into how your character was shaped?
Bana: I honestly wasn't interested. I loved the script. When we sat down and went through it in rehearsals, I had very few notes. I love Seth Lochhead's work. He was with us for the first couple of weeks and through some of the production, so it wasn't one of those scripts where I was like, "I can't wait to get to Berlin and give you a piece of my mind." (Laughs) No. I had very few notes. The collaborative part was more in the physicality, and us working together on how to capture the physical aspects more than the dramatic stuff. The dramatic stuff was very tight on the page.
Beaks: You brought up Ridley Scott. By chance, I just watched BLACK HAWK DOWN last week for the first time in years. It really holds up. It's a great film. But it strikes me that that was a completely different way of shooting action. Could you contrast your experience on that with shooting HANNA?
Bana: Well, Ridley shoots a hell of a lot of long lens - Ridley and Tony both have that style. With Ridley, you don't feel like the camera is anywhere near you, which is cool. Joe is a bit different. You felt like the camera was closer to you. They're completely different kinds of movies. I hadn't done a lot of movies when I did BLACK HAWK DOWN. Looking back, that was one of the big things: the cameras were always off in the distance stacked up with long lenses, which is part of the aesthetic of the film. That was the biggest difference. But they're both similar in the way that they have such a keen production eye in terms of production design and background and colors and palettes and all that sort of stuff. They're very similar in that respect.
A lot of praise will be lavished, deservedly so, on Saoirse Ronan's performance in HANNA, but Bana quietly does some of his best work in years as a protective father fearlessly sprinting toward a fate he can no longer avoid. And then there's all of that ass he kicks.
HANNA is so much fun. It opens wide on April 8th. Check it out.