Rob Cohen is a master of the big Hollywood actioner, whether he revs up the screen with a Fast and the Furious or reinvents the secret agent with his no holds barred XXx. Cohen has a way of taking established genres and turning them on their head. Adding to that is Stealth, a pulsating action adventure about a futuristic fighter jet that runs on its own steam and heads out of control.
But like much of Cohen's recent work, this film is also about the abuse of power and anti-authoritarianism. When you talk to the veteran director, you talk to a man who is fiercely intelligent and ferociously passionate. Garth Franklin spent a short time talking to Mr Cohen about this and his next film.
Question: What was it about Stealth that interested you?
Answer: When I read the script, it's like falling in love - you know, the first thing you see is not necessarily what's going to be essential. The first thing I saw was that these hypersonic fighter jets were as fast as you go could on earth, and as a guy who likes subjects that move quickly, I thought this was an interesting arena. Then I got into it and began to realise that within the story it contained one of the great issues of our time - like... that as technology develops to the point of independence, who is in control and what are the possibilities, and especially as applied to war where the issues are very - when I rewrote the script I made those issues very clear.
Question: Do you think that this is a much more timely film than you anticipated?
Answer: Yes. The film for me has been that - what, three years ago when I finished xXx I went right into this with Laura Ziskin and Mike Medavoy and it was like science fiction, and now I think it's very much science fact - including our premiere in L.A., I mean in San Diego at the North Island, Boeing flew in a UCAV that was parked right at the end of the red carpet.
Question: What do you think defines a Rob Cohen film, if there is such a thing?
Answer: Usually I source my movies in subcultures, either martial arts like Dragon - or Hollywood like The Rat Pack, the ivy league like The Skulls, and the extreme sports culture in xXx. In this film I had grown up at the foot of West Point and I had grown up with a father and an uncle who had both been in World War II in the Army and I thought, well, I have had all this feeling about the military, both fear and fascination, why don't I look into this subculture through this film, and I got in very heavily as you can see
Question: Was that part of the attraction for you was also making a film that was special effects driven as this is?
Answer: Yeah, I had an idea that, you know, there was - in looking at not only the world of videogames and computer games but also the, Macross movie, ah, just beginning to see that the shift of perspective in a videogame was a very fascinating thing that film had never really taken advantage of, and probably had not been able to in a major way because it would - A, be done with editing so you would cut and that would change the perspective; but there was something rather joyful about changing the perspective in a continuous flow. So, I'm the first-person shooter and then, boomp, I see myself in this hallway, and then boomp I see the other guy and, whoow, I swing around and then the other guy is seeing me. You know, there's that kind of 3D environmental camera work that just is, ah, a new frontier if you take it into the film arena.
Question: It's amazing how much technology is changing the way movies such as Stealth are being made now.
Answer: But it always did. I mean this is nothing new. I mean, really, when you look at it the camera itself was a piece of technology. Then, you know, the sound was a whole other change in how films got made, and maybe not for the better as Rudolph Arnheim hypothesised - you know, that sound had turned movies from a visual medium of Nosferatu and Metropolis back to theatre because it was all about actors talking.
Question: How do you strike a balance between character and visual action and movements?
Answer: It is a balancing act and first you have to have the intent that at the centre of your movie are going to be real strong human performances and human archetypes that people can identify with and be amused by and be sexually aroused by or whatever the intent of the character is. But then the balancing of a film is really in the editing room. You have to have the intent, record and develop all the material, all the shots, all the scenes to their fullest bloom, and then you get in the editing room and go, well, we have so much beautiful character but, my God, the film is three hours long or we have not enough character yet in balance to the action so as difficult as it is we've got to lose these two action sequences. You know, you have to really look at the proportion, and I take a lot of time in the first hour of the film with these characters relative to a movie with this kind of, you know, format. You know, in other words it is a summer thrill-ride action film. It's not Room With a View...
Question: I mean obviously casting plays an important role, and you make sure you cast this movie with actors as opposed to movie stars, right?
Answer: Yeah, that was the big press on - and the big hump for the studio to get over. It was very clear to me after interviewing scores and scores of pilots and officers and men on the decks and all that to get on a carrier you... all the neurotics and all the people with weaknesses of a major sort have been weeded out and there are... these people are clear and committed and polite and - the pilots of course have their egos but it's definitely a very stratified and clear society out there at sea, and I needed actors that could do that. And you know as well as I do that, some movie stars of the world are so busy being drunk they wouldn't become a pilot.
Question: It has been three years since xXx Is that a concern to you that this process takes you so long to get something out there in the marketplace?
Answer: You mean for career or just life arc?
Question: Ah, both.
Answer: Well for career I don't worry because I'm at that point where I go, you know, I'm gonna do what I gotta do and it's gonna go the way it's gonna go. I'm not engineering a career as much as I want to tell stories. From a life arc point of view it gets a little freaky. You go, well, let's see, if I do... if it takes me three years to make each movie then I have only - now I'm at a point at 56 where I have... how many units of three do I have. None of us ever know but, you know... I've already bucked the odds by having success in my 50s and having done this for 34 years.
Question: Well, exactly - your career was kind of rejuvenated with Fast and Furious, I mean...
Answer: My, God, yes, in every sense of the word.
Question: And nobody expected that film to be particularly big, right?
Answer: No, no. That was, ah, a sleeper. But I believed in it.
Question: How bemused are you by the fact that both your big films spawned sequels, neither of which you were involved with making?
Answer: Ah, it makes me happy because I saw the results.
Question: (Laughter). I think that says it all. Do you - were you - was there any temptation to be involved in the sequels for either film or was...
Answer: No. I don't like the idea of a sequel. To me each film is an original work when you begin it. It's... it may have its antecedents in other pictures, its building blocks may be made up of other movies, but what comes out at the end is a truly unique entity. Then you say, oh, that worked really well, that was great, it did 300-million dollars. And then somebody says, well, let's do it again...Well now you're not working with a unique entity. And very few films were designed as a saga like Lord of the Rings where you are dealing with a gigantic novelistic approach to filmmaking. Most of it is reprocessed cheese - you know, retread tyres. It's a... it's a marketing ploy not really a filmmaking dream. And I think maybe this summer, I don't know, I haven't seen Batman Returns... Begins, I mean, but I'll tell you this - Stealth is original. (Laughter).
Question: Do you know what you're going to be doing after Stealth now or are you sort of, ah... because rumour has it that you were, that you had an idea - talking about sequels - that you actually do have an idea for a third xXx film if you ever decide to go back in that...
Answer: Oh, I'm not going anywhere near xXx - you know, it was... once was enough. Um, no, I, ah... I mean, I love xXx - the one I made...
Question: Well, of course.
Answer: I mean I loved that movie. That movie was just a fucking bunch of fun...and, it didn't really have an idea in its head, but it simply was 'let's just wreak havoc with James Bond and let's see how far we can push Vin Diesel as a new kind of American male archetype. But Stealth is full of ideas and full of visuals - of groundbreaking visuals - and full of beautiful and interesting performances, and it's really - I'm very, very proud of it.
Question: So what are... are you taking a break after this movie comes out or are you...
Answer: I've been developing the 8th Voyage of Sinbad - a whole new...
Question: As a live action film?
Answer: Live action, Keanu Reeves, Xiang Xi as a, you know, new, new saga of an Arab explorer in Asia in the 10th century. The idea of going back after all this ultra contemporary stuff and all of these issues in the real world I really have, you know, I have a big first-edition book collection of western exploration and, ah, ah, I have Captain Cook's diaries and the logs. It's just - to me the idea that these people who went out into the unknown and what happened when they met other cultures is just really fascinating...
Question: Are you doing it for Sony or is it... or you don't have a studio yet?
Answer: It's Sony.
Question: So you're looking at another three years.
Answer: Ahhh... yeah, probably. (Laughter)
Question: Ah, God, I'll be 52 by then. I don't know if I can keep on doing this every three years...
Answer: Oh, I don't want to tax you, Paul. But I'll try to make it painless.