There’s a new kid on the Hollywood block, well maybe not new but fresh and exciting, and that’s director Michael Davis, whose latest film, Shoot ‘Em Up is creating quite the buzz. This contemporary western/gangster combo stars a sardonic Clive Owen as a guy whose interference in the potential murder of a mother and child results in him being pursued by limerick-sprouting gangster and killer Paul Giamatti, while fleeing with the sexy hooker with maternal instincts [Monica Bellucci]. All this results in a wild, sexy and risk-taking movie that stands unique in Hollywood, and nobody is more excited than the film’s effusive writer/director who talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: Now this movie and I guess your attitude towards it, are influenced by your youthful love of James Bond. Would that be a fair enough comment?
Davis: You know, at the beginning of it, absolutely, but James Bond had so many other kinds of action in it. So it probably is James Bond but also the John Woo movies, the hard boiled, in the Killer because there’s such a reckless abandon in terms of the body count and how many guys get hit and how the characters throw caution to the wind and to how bold they are, diving into a storm of bullets, which they don’t really do here. The characters are always hiding behind pillars or crates or whatever and they duck out and shoot and then they take their protection, and I kind of like how acrobatic John Woo movies are where the guys just charge out and start firing, diving and rolling and sort of a bold sort of dance, It’s like Cirque du Soleil with, you know, blood’s flying in the air. So obviously the love of the action films came when I was a kid, my Dad had taken us to the boat show up in Manhattan and at the end of the day after he dragged us around the floor looking at all these boats and stuff we were all bored and there was a double feature of You Only Live Twice and Thunderball. But he took us to see this movie and I was like in fifth grade and it was like a whole new world had opened up for me. But unfortunately, we stayed for the beginning of You Only Live Twice which I don’t know if you’ll remember, they fake Bond’s death and you realise that it’s a set up, that his body gets picked up by the submarine.
My Dad took me away from the movie theatre after they had killed the Bond but before they had resurrected him and I was like, ‘No, no, I have to see him be alive!’. Of course it was years later that I saw the movie again and reassured myself that he was alive. The other thing that was funny to me is I had this writing partner that I did a number of scripts with and he recalls the first time he saw James Bond was the same double feature in Times Square. And that’s what brought us together.
Question: Now I don’t know if I read this into it or what, but I felt there were some western mythological elements to Shoot ‘Em Up. Were you at all influenced by the western genre? Is this kind of your way of doing a western in a contemporary setting?
Davis: Well yes. Absolutely. I mean I guess the Sergio Leone Man with No Name certainly is something that we kept in mind. Obviously the tight close ups that you’re used to seeing Clint Eastwood in, I was influenced by. The other thing that I felt is in terms of learning the characters’ back stories, is that throughout the movie, you know, Paul Giamatti is saying ‘I know who you are. You’re this guy’, and ‘This is what happened to you’, and even at the end Giamatti wants Clive to say ‘You’re this guy. I figured you out’. And Clive doesn’t answer him. I like that because I think keeping an air of mystery about a character keeps them intriguing. Also in my heart of hearts I was hoping that maybe there’d be a Shoot ‘Em Up II and if you disclose the character’s back story, it always makes it harder to do a sequel because you know everything about him and also I believe that when you’re writing back stories, back stories support the theme of what you’re trying to communicate with each story. So if I could have the liberty of recreating a brand new background for my hero, it would add more substance to a sequel and give me more sort of creative room, so I felt like I kind of had this slight of hand that I gave you a back story that is satisfying and makes sense for this story but I’m not married to it. So anyway it goes with A Man with No Name but certainly there’s a lone gunslinger, there’s a reference to the Lone Ranger and, you know, when I was a kid I remember watching the Lone Ranger. Somehow all these sort of cowboy sort of metaphors did come into play as well.
Question: If you look at your previous filmography either as a director or as a writer/director, there’s not a lot that suggests that a Shoot ‘Em Up is in your future. I mean Girl Fever, Monster Man, Eight Days a Week. They don’t exactly suggest that this is a Shoot ‘Em Up kind of filmmaker.
Davis: Paul, but here’s the thing that if anybody could understand about me, it’s that they really need to understand Hollywood OK? It is really, really, really hard to get any kind of movie made in Hollywood. They’re not going to let anybody direct. They’re not going to let anybody at the helm of $40-50 million dollars to make the movie, right? So what happens for me is that I’ve written thirty-five screen plays and when I was probably half way writing my fifteenth, I had a lot of small writing assignments. I wrote for this guy, Charlie Band, who did all these horror films called Puppet Master and he had this kids division that was doing these Spielberg-like kids fantasy action movies and that was sort of how I was paying the bills. I was also storyboarding Ninja Turtles, which was a lot of action. But here’s the thing that I get to is that to get to direct you somehow just need to find a way to direct anything right? And I had directed a kid’s movie for Charlie Band called Bean Stalk which was basically a modern day Jack and the Beanstalk. I had $700,000, there were a couple of little action scenes in it, but you know, when people saw it they were comparing it to Honey I Shrunk the Kids and I could not parlay this little $700,000 straight to video movie into a studio directing gig. I was very depressed, and I ended up taking a pay cheque from one of my writing assignments, a little inheritance and said ‘You know what, I’m just going to write an indie movie’, and direct because I want to make movies. I loved Clerks], Kevin Smith and his one location had these guys talking about these funny sexually related things. I had written a screenplay about Alfred Kinsey, the famous sex researcher which again I mentioned I was very disappointed that another Kinsey script got made. That guy influenced my writing to have a little bit more of a sexual end to it. And I go ‘Well what can I do for $200,000?’ I had seen Cinema Paradiso and there’s this great scene in the movie where the projectionist tells the young man to win the girl’s heart why don’t you stand underneath her window twenty-four hours a day every day. And I go, ‘Well that’s a great idea for a movie – the whole movie’ And so I go ‘For $200,000 I could do a movie about this kid who stands underneath Keri Russell’s window trying to prove is love and saying “Look how dedicated I am. I want to prove it to you” and he sits outside her window and then he ends up saying all these crazy things to sort of like a rear widow in suburbia and I can make that movie for $200,000. I’m in control of my destiny.’ I was the writer, director, storyboard artist, producer, I signed the cheques, I set up the payroll company, I made the deal with the agents, I wrote up the deal memos, I did everything. I was master of that world. I went ‘OK, I’m going to make a movie. They can’t stop me from doing this.’ So the movie came out really well and it was sort of charming and it was a precursor to all those teen movies like American Pie. The movie actually is very charming and it’s sort of like an R rated John Hughes movie and it had a cult following. Well again, I want to direct. I want to get better. What are people going to offer me after I did a teen romantic comedy? Who’s going to offer me another teen romantic comedy. And because you can’t control your destiny, you can’t always raise money to make the movies you want, well what are you going to do? You go with the path of least resistance. So I made another teen romantic comedy because hey – at least I’m behind the camera and I also happen to love the genre. I find that when you’re a teenager the issues of love become so life and death and even larger than when you’re an adult because when you’re a teenager you kind of feel like if you’re a loser in high school and you don’t have some kind of triumph at high school that your destiny is to be a loser the rest of your life. You’ll never get to be a Jedi knight. You’ll never get to be the handsome guy who gets the girl unless you conquer your demons at this age.
Davis: So here I am. They asked me to do a teen romantic comedy. Great. I get to do another one. ‘Oh let’s do a sequel to 100 Girls’. I do 100 Women because at least we’re staying in the game right? And then finally they offer me to do a horror film right? And I didn’t come up with the title. Monster Man was a super cheesy title. The producers has pre-sold the title and I thought it was the silliest title in the world but ‘Michael, write a story to match this title because that’s what we sold’ and so I say there’s a monster that drives a monster truck. And I got to do car chases and all that kind of stuff.
Question: All of which prepared you clearly to do Shoot ‘Em Up.
Davis: Yeah, so there are a lot of people out on the Internet that go ‘Oh he made these crazy teen comedies. What the hell was he doing making an action movie for us?’ Well they make it actually seem as if you have free choice to choose what movies you get to make.
Question: But do you think now that you’ve proven yourself with a film that is really likely to be a commercial success, that now you are in a position where you can say ‘You know what? Now I’m going to make the kind of movies I want to make’.
Davis: Yeah. And here’s where my head is at right now. I can see what’s out there. I kind of feel like I’m a kid in the candy store. But all these action scripts are kind of very middle of the road and the one thing I learned from doing this five indie low budget movies is try to have your own stamp, to have a little bit of your voice injected into the movies. Like even in Shoot ‘Em Up like when Paul Giamatti gives his limerick: ‘There once was a woman with this great big ass’ right? That’s the limerick that my dad told me. That was the first dirty limerick I ever learned. And to me when I watch that scene, it’s to me great because it’s part of my childhood. That’s my dad speaking there. Obviously I was a big animation freak and so the whole Bugs Bunny carrot thing sort of reminds me of watching cartoons every afternoon after school, the Bugs Bunny Road Runner Hour. So anyway, it’s like – going back to hopefully this is a commercial success – I’ve written a new screen play. It’s wilder than Shoot ‘Em Up and that’s what I would like to do next is I would like to continue on as the guy who deliver on these crazy, larger than life action set pieces that creates an action hero that’s a little bit different than the norm. Just to freshen it up a little bit. I would love to continue on being the writer/director action guy. Whether I get to do that is sort of up to how the movie succeeds.
Question: Now you say you’ve already written the sequel to Shoot ‘Em Up?
Davis: No and this is what got misinterpreted – we had some guys through the internet come in and also my publicists don’t like me to talk about this too much because they want me to talk about the movie at hand. I wrote a new script that is it’s own stand alone action script. I could take it to any studio and set it up as it’s own action franchise. But if the script were tweaked, it could also end up being Shoot ‘Em Up II. I’m hoping that’s what you’re commenting on, that you’ve seen some notices on the internet that I already wrote Shoot ‘Em Up too.
Question: When I was talking to Clive in San Diego, he seemed quite high on the idea of reprising this role. Did you ever expect that you would get the kind of cast for this movie that you ended up getting?
Davis: I would love to do Shoot ‘Em Up II and I think Clive is into it, absolutely. I have to tell you the cast is beyond my wildest dreams. I mean you write the script and it lives on paper and then you go ‘Well is anybody ever going to let me make this movie?’ Well then you get it set up at New Line and the original thing was, we thought they’d make it really like in the low 20s, like a really, really lower end studio movie. But the great thing about New Line is that they kind of have a sort of a larger world view and their casting is sometimes internationally driven. And my first choice was Clive Owen. My wife had been sort of showing me the TV shows he’d been in and she goes ‘This guy’s going to be a star’. And then she said ‘I want to go see this movie Croupier’. The guy is Clive Owen and I went to see it and I go, ‘Oh my God, the guy is fantastic’. He had already done action, but if I got him for Shoot ‘Em Up, this is the movie everybody wanted to see Clive Owen do. If he wasn’t going to do James Bond they wanted to see him do some other kind of action thing or an extension of the character in the BMW films. So he was my wish choice but it turned out he was actually New Line’s top choice. We actually totally agreed and then we got lucky. Clive was going to do the Poseidon Adventure and then that didn’t work out.
Then after that, once we had Clive Owen the world opens up to you. Paul Giamatti was intrigued by it and we had a great meeting in New York and the great thing is Clive was filming Inside Man in New York so the day I had lunch with Paul Giamatti and I thought Giamatti was going to do it I walked over to the set and saw Clive and he said ‘Did you get him? Did you hook him?’ And I go ‘Yeah’. And Clive was like, made this big, it was so obvious – Spike Lee’s looking around going ‘What is this guy Michael Davis doing interrupting my set’, Then the trick with the DQ part was to find a woman who could compete with Clive who was sexy enough but also I think had some life weariness to play a part of somebody that was just as wounded as life as Clive had been. And a lot of these younger actresses I just didn’t think had that sort of pain within them because they hadn’t lived enough life.
Question: How surprised were you by the reaction of the movie at Comic-Con? How nervous were you about screening it there?
Davis: You know I have to say I was really excited because I knew that the Comic-Con crowd was basically me. A lot of them had grown up, their favourite thing in the world was to watch genre stuff, whether its Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Star Wars, they all like the thrill, the wish fulfilment that they perceive as heroes. for me that’s what it is, is that when I’m watching one of these movies it’s because I get for a moment to fantasise I’m this person. And so I really felt like we were going to have a great response at Comic-Con because I just like these guys. I’ve been them. I am one of them. And so it was really gratifying to finally show it to them and have people totally, totally get it. It will probably be the best screening I’ll ever have of the movie.
Question: Do you think that the world is ready for a fun R rated sexy no holes barred action movie?
Davis: Well I’m encouraged – I didn’t that the PG13 rating hurt Die Hard and I think most people who had been worried about the R rating and went to see it and then they were happy that the movie still was a John McLean Die Hard movie. But prior to that when they were saying ‘We want the R rating. We don’t want people to wimp out, pussy out’. I do think there is a desire definitely for people to push the envelope. I think it’s easier, even with my teen romantic comedies to Shoot ‘Em Up, when you have the R rating there is a lot more freedom to it and the thing about it is that you’re going to go and see somebody who likes somebody shoot a gun and blow somebody away. You’re the person who doesn’t care whether it’s PG13 or R rated. And usually you’re going there to see something. You’re crazy and so I actually think that they’re going to embrace the fact that it’s an R rating. I think they’re going to embrace the fact that there is a little bit more sexual frankness to it that, even the character Monica Bellucci is a lactating girl who satisfies men with a mummy fetish. And at first they might think ‘Oh that’s a little crazy and Michael’s just put it in there as that “out there thing”‘, but because the story is about a hero protecting this baby, it kind of makes sense to the story. I didn’t’ just put it in there for sensation. And I don’t know, all I can tell you is when I go to the movies these days and I read these scripts, I’m bored at how much everybody’s just repeating themselves. They just don’t try. And so I think we’re going to really appreciate the fact that it’s R rated. I mean even you look at something like New Line, you know, Bob Shea made Boogie Nights, you know, and started PT Anderson’s career. They have had a history of upping directors that are a little bit more out there. So my hope is, the movie’s delivered on all the thrills and all the big set pieces but the hard thing about an action movie is not doing the fun action, it’s glue in between. And the fact that I got Giamatti who’s this crazy bad guy who does some weird things, because I’ve got Bellucci who’s kind of got this kind of twisted hooker version and then you’ve got Clive Owen who is getting mad at all the little every day irritations. I think people will identify with him. So I’m hoping the stuff in between the action is interesting and fresh. That what you need to make a good action movie, is not having all action, it’s the stuff other than the action needs to be interesting.