I'll admit, the name of director Gary Felder was not one I look for or seek out or even always recognize right away. He's one of those great, all-purpose directors that can adapt to the style of a story and not necessarily impose a style upon one. As I was doing research for this the phone interview I did with him recently for his latest film, HOMEFRONT, I discovered a couple interesting facts about Felder, whose best-known work are such films as THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD, KISS THE GIRLS, IMPOSTER (2001), RUNAWAY JURY (making him the second-to-last director to work with Gene Hackman), and THE EXPRESS.
But over the years, Felder has also directed a great deal of television drama, and for a while became on of the go-to directors of series' pilots. He did an episode of the acclaimed mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon" for HBO, and most importantly in my book, he directed one of the single greatest hours of television I've ever seen.
It was an episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street" from 1997 simply titled "The Subway," guest starring Vincent D'Onofrio as a man pushed in front of a subway train and subsequently pinned at the waist between the train and the platform, perfectly lucid and alert. But it becomes clear after that the minute the train car is moved, his bottom will split in two and his guts will fall out, killing him instantly. Much of the episode is simply D'Onofrio and series' star Andre Braugher talking, and the moment when Braugher must deliver the news about the poor man's prognosis is harrowing. For reasons I'm still not clear on, a documentary film crew was on the set during the shooting of the episode, and a fantastic Making Of aired on PBS about a year after the show aired.
A couple of years ago, when I got my first shot at talking to D'Onofrio about another film, I couldn't resist the temptation to ask him about "The Subway," an experience he revealed to me was among the highlights of his career. If for no other reason, I was excited about talking to Fleder, although it didn't hurt that I actually really like the b-movie antics and thrills of HOME FRONT, starring Jason Statham in a story written by his EXPENDABLES comrade Sylvester Stallone, originally as a Rambo sequel. But the story has been modified, and the results are a lot of fun with an above-average cast for a film like this. Watching James Franco, Clancy Brown, Winona Ryder, and Kate Bosworth, among others, is an absolute treat, and it's cool watching Fleder pull out some of the action stops, without going too over the top--something we talk about, actually. Please enjoy my chat with Gary Fleder…
Gary Fleder: Hello, Steve.
Capone: Hi Gary. How are you?
GF: How are you, sir? Are you in Austin? Where are you?
Capone: No, actually I’m in Chicago. A few of the other guys are in Austin. I remember first seeing the poster for this film and the Stallone screenplay credit. So where exactly did it come from? I understand this is a much older script, but how does one get ahold of a unproduced Stallone screenplay?
GF: Let me strip away the mystique of this one. Basically, way before my involvement. Way before as in like 10-11 years ago, Stallone and his producing partner Kevin King Templeton, who produced the movie, they found this book, HOMEFRONT by Chuck Logan, which was a really good book. They bought it, and Stallone actually was going to develop it to adapt, star in, and direct. In fact at one point, this is an interesting little factoid, it was discussed to be a possible RAMBO sequel. I’m not really sure what that would have been because I'm not sure at what point Rambo got married and had a kid. Anyway, I didn’t see that draft, so it evolved over the years.
I’m sure as you know as a movie guy that a lot of movies don't get made or do get made for a variety of reasons, so it sort of went dormant for a while, and then a couple of years ago, I met with Kevin, and we wanted to find something to do together that we felt would be a good fit. And I think that given my body of work in more suspense thrillers, he thought this would be a good fit, and then simultaneously he'd given the script to Jason Statham while filming EXPENDABLES 2. Jason responded very quickly, and when I saw it, I thought it was really cool. I refer to it as a contemporary western--small town, ex-law enforcement guy moves there with his family, chaos ensues.
Capone: His past comes back to haunt him, right.
GF: Yeah. White hats and black hats, which is really classic. I think it's like UNFORGIVEN, the idea that Jason Statham’s strength is dormant and he has to bring it out to survive. And then Sly said, “Hey, go with God,” and he gave Kevin and I the blessing to run with it, so he did some more rewrites to the script and, by the way, also came to rehearsals, which was great. It was great to see him with the actors in rehearsal, because he was there so we could do a lot of modification on the script. Really, I've got to give him tremendous kudos on this. He said to me, “Go off and make the movie; I’m not going to get in your way.”
Capone: Well that’s what I’ve always heard is the mark of a good producer: to step in when he’s needed and to step away when he’s not needed. I was going to ask you if his producer credit was just symbolic? But it sounds as if he did actually have a hand in it.
GF: No, he was involved but he understands his own power as a persona and an iconic figure, and he didn’t want to come to the set for a week and, in his mind and in my reality, distract from the process. He watched dailies, he watched the footage, we talked weekly and sometimes daily about different elements. He was very involved in pre-production, very involved in casting, very involved in seeing all the footage coming in, and then when the cut came together, he had a lot of ideas. He’s a very seasoned and skillful filmmaker. I talked to him as a director, not as a writer per se. So, yeah, even in the post process he had a lot of ideas about everything, from editing to score to all those things.
Capone: What I really dug about the film is that all the action seems very much within the realm of possibility. You’re not going over the top; Jason isn’t defying you know physics to get a bad guy. It’s all practical and efficient and all within the realm of his training. Was that important to you to just keep everything simple and not get ridiculous?
GF: Yeah, I’ve two answers for you, and they're two different reasons for that. One is, I’m a guy who grew up on great '70s, '80s films. The WALKING TALLs, BILLY JACKs, and then more recently with a film like MAN ON FIRE, with Denzel Washington. With all the movies I really like and find relatable, the violence isn't just cartoon violence. It isn't just green screen violence, almost like AUSTIN POWERS with faceless goons. The thing I would say about violence in the movie is something someone said to me after a screening, they said, “Wow, you really personalized the violence.” I thought that was a really flattering thing for me to hear, that it didn’t feel like comic book or cartoon violence.
Listen, I’m not disparaging all the super hero movies that come out every week and they make a billion dollars at the time, but I find that violence just becomes one-dimensional, faceless, with people becoming canon fodder. I find that really depressing. And by the way, there’s a modulation of it throughout the movie, it goes from something small to something bigger. I think all the violence in the movie feels relatable and accessible in a way that doesn’t make the people feel like cannon fodder. They are real stakes. People bleed, people get hurt, like you said, there’s real physics involved. That was really important to me. A film that I loved from a couple of years ago was WARRIOR, the Tom Hardy movie that my friend Gavin O’Connor directed. And I remember thinking, "Wow, every fight scene in that movie felt like it had real stakes, real violence, again it felt very accessible." I guess if I ever did a super hero movie, it would become just goons, faceless goons, but I can’t do that now; I'm not hardwired that way.
Capone: People forget that Jason Statham can be a terrific actor. To watch him here in those scenes where he’s being apologetic and trying to make peace with these people before all hell breaks loose, those are some great scenes. When do we ever see him do that? It goes back to the fact that there are stakes here, especially when it comes to his daughter; it’s a nice acting vehicle for him as well as an action vehicle.
GF: That's a great observation. Jason Statham in real life is a guy who is multi-demential. He can be charming, he can be funny, he can be very humble, he can very shy. And the reference that might be interesting for you is, when we talked about it with Sly, it was COP LAND. In COP LAND, Sly wasn't playing an alpha male. He was playing a guy who wasn’t the alpha. And he kept saying to Jason, "COP LAND, COP LAND, COP LAND. This can be your COP LAND. This can be your movie where you have to subjugate all the aggression and be a guy who goes and says I’m sorry."
Even if he’s right and not wrong, he says I’m sorry. For Jason, it was really important to, even the scene at the gas station that’s been used a lot in the trailer, that whole scene is Jason saying to the guy, "You don’t want to do this." It’s not a moment of explosion; it's a moment of him saying, "You really don’t want to do this."
Capone: He’s giving the guy a chance to get out of it.
GF: Yeah, and again, not that Jason's character shouldn't have walked away anyway, but I like the fact that there’s a moment where he’s like, “Look, I’m pumping my gas here. Just walk away, and it will be fine.” I think it’s really fun for the audience to see a guy who has the skill set trying to make peace. Then of course that scene at the gas station always signifies the end of the first act of the movie, because that’s the moment when the Broker character makes a decision which is, good or bad, a decision that has now sealed his fate. And I think that’s a wonderful things Jason does as an actor, after he does this tremendous beatdown on these two locals who are bullying him, you see Jason before he gets in the car, he has a moment where you see on his face and he’s like, "Oh man, now the gates of hell are open."
Capone: With Kate Bosworth and Winona Ryder, initially I didn't recognize either of them when they came on screen, especially Kate. I wrote down in my notes: “Louisiana swamp rat.” What did you have to do to convince her to do that?
GF: When I met with Kate Bosworth, I met a few other actresses at the same time, and I kept saying that the analogy is like what Charlize Theron did in MONSTER. I kept saying that this is a role that’s going to be physically and emotionally ugly person. I said, "I don’t want to have make up, I don’t want to have hair; I want this person to look like crap." I saw some other actresses--I won't name them--who were like, "Oh, no." They were a little against the idea. And Kate to her credit was like, “Let’s bring it.” She embraced the idea. The thing is with Kate, I happen to think, this is my own opinion, that this is a transformative role for her. I think that if anyone has ever doubted how brave she can be as an actor, to look this way and be this ugly emotionally and physically, here’s the proof. She’s tremendous in the film.
The other thing is that, the character she’s playing probably was both physically and maybe emotionally much more beautiful when she was in high school. When we met, I said that this is a character who probably, when she was 18, she peaked in high school. She was the homecoming queen, her life was going great, she was in this little town. And I said "Here she is, she’s 30 and she's got this kid with special needs, and she’s got this husband who owns la junk yard. There ain’t no upside. There’s no like vacation to Cancun next week. She’s looking at her life and saying I peaked 10-12 years ago." Once she had that simple idea in her head that there was almost no hope in a way, and then of course there's the whole sort of layer of the drugs she's on. By the way, Kate’s character is the only character in the film that has a real arc.
Capone: I wrote that down in my notes, strangely enough. She is the only one that actually, by the end of the film, is turning it around a little bit and feeling a little bit bad about the fact that she started this ball rolling.
GF: To me, if you’re an actress, this is the best role in the film. Even though she instigates the chaos in the picture, by the end of the movie, there’s definitely a seismic change. There’s a transition with her. Again, Kate deserves to be at least acknowledged for a very brave, ugly performance. I think it’s tremendous work.
Capone: I've got to talk about James Franco here, because I can't even think of a time when he’s played wsuch a pure villain role, which isn’t even a pure villain role because he does get reluctantly dragged into this conflict. What I love about the character is the guy can’t fight, and he’s constantly spending the film doing everything to stay away from Broker and outwit him without having to get into a physical altercation with the guy. He’s a natural coward, but he’s also really smart, so I could see why he would want to play a character like Gator.
GF: Yeah, I would actually make a comparison to roles that Christopher Walken has played. To me, Christopher Walken, if you look at a movie like AT CLOSE RANGE, the classic James Foley movie with Sean Penn, I wouldn’t say that Walken was physically opposing, I would say that he was psychologically opposing. What so many young actors lack, and James has in spades, is emotional danger. They’re so smart and they’re so eccentric and so dark that anything could happen. And in fact, there’s that wonderful scene in the cafe where Statham walks in and warns him to back off. And what’s great about that scene and what’s great about James’ performance and the choices he made is that he says, “I’m not going to try to like out alpha this guy. I’m basically going to look at him and smile because to me he’s a dead man walking.” He’s already saying to himself “This guy is already toast, so I can just play with him.” To me, that’s an example of what you’re saying. It’s not about "I can outfight Jason," but he can certainly outwit him, and he can have psychological warfare.
Capone: You’ve done a ton of television, including a lot of pilots, but I didn’t realize until I saw this last nice that you directed what is in my estimation one of the greatest hours of television ever, which is "The Subway" episode of "Homicide." I revisit that episode because I think it’s one of the greatest pieces of drama I’ve ever seen. When I met Vincent D’Onofrio a couple of years ago, I had to hold back asking him nothing but questions about that. What do you remember about that experience? Did it seem that significant at the time, or was it just another gig?
GF: I treat all the work, whether it’s television pilots or film, with passion. I don't diminish any of that. I remember when I got the script thinking it was brilliant. James Yoshimura wrote it, and Jim and I are still friends. They call him Yosh, that’s his nickname. But I remember that being a huge challenge because the majority of the script is these two men by the subway in Baltimore, and I remember thinking, "This is really on the backs of the actors." I’ve got literally pages and pages of dialogue with these two characters, and this is really going to be about Andre Braugher and D’Onofrio.
I remember shooting it, to add to surreality of it, we had to shoot all nights because we were using the actual subway station so we wold shoot from 6pm to 6am for I think six nights in a row out of seven days of shooting. I remember vividly at like 2, 3, 4 in the morning being on the set, and this one scene in particular, I remember so vividly where we’re shooting this very long scene. This moment where D’Onofrio realizes that he’s not going to make it, and Andre Braugher comforts him and says, “It’s going to be okay” It’s just this guy he barely knows, and he’s comforting him, and I remember it was like a six- or seven-minute scene without any cuts and we’re shooting it, and I turned around and most of the crew was tearing up; that never happens. It doesn't happen. Typically the crew is like, “When's lunch?”
But I remember vividly that it was one of those moments where I thought it was like they were watching a one-act play. In fact, I always felt that teleplay could be preformed as a play pretty easily, just the idea of these two men and that relationship. But to answer your question, I didn’t realize at the time that it would become part of some TV pop culture, and I think that the documentary was horrifying at the time because I remember thinking, "Oh boy, this is going to be one of those 'the outsider director shows up and does this thing.'" But what matters to me is the fact that the show turned out really well and got Emmy nominations, etc.
Capone: I grew up in Maryland, not far from Baltimore, so that show meant so much to me, and I wish I could shake your hand just for having made it. Back to HOMEFRONT for a minute, you've worked with Frank Grillo before in television, correct? he's one of my favorite character actor today.
GF: Yeah Frank, it’s funny you mention the TV thing. Frank and I are very good friends.
Capone: You guys did "Blind Justice," right?
GF: Yes. But also before that, I met Frank because I did an episode of "The Shield" in its first season. I mentioned Gavin O’Connor, and he said, “There’s this great actor that you need to meet named Frank Grillo.” So I brought Frank in for "The Shield." He ended up doing actually I think six or seven episodes of the season. He’s a wonderful actor and again he came in on "Blind Justice," the Steven Bochco series, and we became good friends on that. And then over the years, I’ve seen him just do tremendous work with Gavin and other filmmakers, and he’s really, in the last few years, blown up. By the way, the movie DISCONNECT, if you haven't seen it yet...
Capone: I have seen it.
GF: He’s amazing in that, and I said to him, “Look there’s this role in this movie I’m doing. I think it could be played very down the middle, or it could be given some excentricity and some wit, and Frank’s like, “Look dude, I’m in.” It’s funny, when we first hired him, Jason Statham saw a picture and said, “God, that guy’s too good looking. He’s too handsome to play this.” I said, “Dude, wait till he’s done.” And then of course Frank put tats on, cut his hair spiky, and put scars on his face.
Capone: Is there a difference between doing TV and features. I know you can learn a lot about being efficient on a TV set, but do you approach it any differently?
GF: Actually, I don’t really. Because of the economy of things, because of the lack of funds these days, the days of shooting a movie for 90 or 100 days are done; maybe if you’re David Fincher, you can do that, but most of us mortals…[laughs]. I shot this movie in 42 days, and to give you a reference point of my seven movies, that’s the fewest number of days I’ve had to shoot a movie. I had 70 days on DON’T SAY A WORD and 60 days on RUNAWAY JURY. So it was very tight, and I used every trick in the book that I had from working in TV pilots to shoot this movie.
To me, it’s just the same craft. It’s all about telling the story visually, and I think that if you look at a movie the way Ridley Scott shoots. His process is like the way you shoot TV pilots; he’s doing two and three cameras at a time. He lights it a certain way so you can really shoot very quickly, do very few takes. I think the excesses of the old days are just gone. The idea of shooting a movie for 150 days, those days are gone. Maybe if you're doing one of those superhero films, you probably have all the tools. But for the most part, I think everyone has to now shoot movies very lean and mean.
By the way, all the guys in the '70s--Frankenheimer and Lumet--came out of live television, so they learned the preparation and the process of preparing your shots and designing things so they're not winging it. So I think they see this happening with a lot of guys. The guy who just did THOR, Alan Taylor, he came out of doing "The Sopranos," and "Game of Thones." There is a certain level of just decisiveness and speed that you have to bring to the process.
Capone: You mentioned RUNAWAY JURY reminded me that you were one of the last people to direct Gene Hackman in a film.
GF: Yes, second to last. He did WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT after that.
Capone: So give me your best Hackman story.
GF: I'd heard that Gene could be very tough on directors and could be cantankerous. I was warned about that, so before we shot the movie I met with him and I said, “Look, I want to be very honest. I heard that you can be tough on directors and you can be occasionally unhappy about things are going." I'd heard he was tough on Wes Anderson on THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. I said to him, “I don't want you to be unhappy in this film, so if something's bugging you with the set, could you just give me a heads up?” And to his credit, he was very appreciative.
But there was one funny story, which I’ll tell you. We were filming this one scene down by the river in RUNAWAY JURY, this night scene, and it was chilly. At this point, it was like November maybe pushing into December, so it was chilly on this night. I came to the set and saw Hackman was talking to the wardrobe lady; he was looking at two different hats, two fedoras, for this scene, and I walked up and I said, “Gene, I don’t think this character,"--who’s a very modern dresser with his beautiful Brioni suit--"wears a fedora.”And Gene said to me, “Well, it’s really cold outside, and I like to have a hat to keep myself warm.” And I said, “Well, we can always give you a hat between takes, but I don’t think you wear a hat.”
And he looked at me with this very stern look and he handed out the two hats and says, “Which hat do you like best?” And I said, “I like that one.” And he’s saying to me, you’re pushing me a little too far; I’m wearing a hat. It’s a great story because he didn’t have to yell at me; he just indicated, "I’ve already made the decision, and you can be part of it or not." And that to me is the personality. He was giving me like a warning in a very clever way.
Capone: Wasn't that the first time he and Dustin Hoffman had been in a movie together? I know they'd been roommates in their early years.
GF: They and Robert Duvall, all three of them were roommates in New York back in the '60s, I believe. I think Dustin was selling shoes, Gene was moving furniture, and Duvall was apparently selling linoleum floors; that’s according to Dustin. Yeah, they were all roommates, and I will say that they had tremendous affection for each other. You can see it in the movie, tremendous affection for each other, although the had very different styles of working. Dustin likes to do 15 takes and play, and Gene liked to do two or three takes. I think the one day of shooting where we did that scene in the men's room at the courthouse, it was funny because you could definitely see that Gene was a little frustrated with the process, but again, tremendous respect and admiration between those two guys.
Capone: Do you know what you’re doing next? I saw something up on IMDB, but I never know how reliable that is.
GF: Yeah, it’s not very reliable. Basically the answer is, I don’t. I’m looking at several different things. I definitely enjoy doing the thriller thing. I made a movie before this called THE EXPRESS.
Capone: Sure, the football movie with Dennis Quaid?
GF: Which I shot in Chicago. I loved the film, and the film was a film that audiences through the preview process were evangelical in liking. But it was a real bummer because people didn't show up. I'm not to blame anybody but I’m just saying that for me doing thrillers is something I really enjoy doing them, and they seem to have more of a commercial upside. Frankly if you wanna keep working as a filmmaker, I don't care who you are, it’s good to keep making movies that are profitable and that people are coming to see so. HOMEFRONT is a really entertaining film and definitely a film that I enjoyed making, with a very good cast.
Capone: The fact that Stallone has an involvement in this makes me wonder if there been any discussion about having this character come back? I’m sure he has a lot of old enemy’s that can come back to haunt him.
GF: I think that anyone who has the arrogance to say that there's going to be a sequel gets what they deserve, so I think we all have been pretty mellow about that. Obviously, that’s in your head, and I think that the Broker character is a really interesting good guy, and certainly you’re right, there would be a lot of people out to get him. The movie TAKEN has shown that you can do sequel upon sequel on that if you want to. But right now we’re just concerned about getting the movie out, having its own life. Again, I think it’s wildly entertaining, incredibly brisk and fun and watchable and looks great. Audiences seem to like it. It’ll be cool because it’s the one cool suspense action movie for the Thanksgiving holiday. There’s no James Bond movie this year, so we’ll take that slot.
Capone: Sure, why not. Gary, thank you so much for talking.
GF: Yeah, thanks for the good questions. I’m a fan of the site, so I’ll look for it.