Heist: Interview with Scott Mann
To celebrate the UK release of new Lionsgate action/thriller Heist, I caught up with British director Scott Mann and interviewed him for MyM Buzz.
Hailing from the unlikeliest of places in Newton Aycliffe in County Durham, England, film director Scott Mann first caught the attention of fans with fast-paced British action film, The Tournament, starring Robert Carlyle, Kelly Hu and Ving Rhames. Taking the genre back to gritty, violent roots, the film offered a throwback to hard stunts and physical action in an age of family-friendly blockbusters and CGI.
His latest film in this mould is action-packed crime movie, Heist, boasting an eclectic ensemble cast including Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Robert De Niro, Dave Bautista and Gina Carano. Inspired by classic movies of past decades, Scott Mann represents a new generation of genre filmmakers following in the footsteps of good ol’ fashioned Hollywood.
To coincide with Heist’s UK release, Mann discusses the rollercoaster journey making this ambitious movie and how it was achieved in just a 17 day shoot…
For anyone who hasn’t seen Heist, what is the story?
The plot follows Vaughn (Morgan) a casino employee who asks for a loan from his criminal boss Pope (De Niro) to pay for his daughter’s life-saving surgery. When he’s rejected and fired, he and his volatile colleague Cox (Bautista) assemble a crew to rob Pope’s casino. After pulling off the job, they end up in serious trouble hijacking a bus during a shootout and taking hostages. Soon both Pope’s men and the cops are on their trail. There are also many interweaving themes around forgiveness and redemption but, at it’s core, this is the story.
How did you first come to be involved in the film?
I was sent the original script and told that Robert De Niro had been offered a role. The film was made by producers Randall Emmett and George Furla who are extremely reliable and known for their efficiency, so I knew it was all serious. After reading the script, I felt Robert De Niro might not want to do the film as his character was very underdeveloped in the original version so, after I told them this, they asked if I’d like to discuss it with him. I had the surreal experience of speaking to Bob on Skype and, sure enough, he didn’t really like his character. I pitched him the ideas I had to change the role and focus more on his character’s fatherhood angle. He liked the idea and invited me to New York. Two days later, we’re sitting together, having meetings and drawing out ideas for his role. It was the strangest week and resulted in me designing and re-writing the movie based on the Pope character, who now has the biggest arc in the story. We also based aspects of the character, such as how he dressed, on someone Bob knew who had a similar lifestyle, not quite as dark though [Laughs]. From that point onwards he was fully invested in the movie and it was extremely satisfying to be part of that process.
On the action side, a close comparison has been made to Speed. Did that film inform your creative choices at all?
To be honest, you couldn’t do a film about a bus chase without being compared to Speed, so we just had to accept it and try to do something a bit different. It’s actually one of my favourite action films. As it happens, my director of photography and I tracked down some “behind the scenes” material from Speed and even spoke to some of the original production team about how they made it, over 20 years ago! We couldn’t emulate all their methods and tricks. For one thing they had five buses, all rigged differently and some cut in half to get different access for the cameras [Laughs] We were shooting on a real bus driving down a real freeway because we didn’t have nearly the same budget to work with. The guys from Speed did give us some nice ideas though, particularly about lensing and framing, and we tried to use the space on the bus like a mini theatre, which was interesting and worked well in keeping a lot of the action contained.
The police you see in the film are the real police from Mobile, Alabama, who provided a rolling roadblock so we drove up and down the freeway constantly for days. Dave Bautista was making Spectre after our film and I remember him saying “I want to get back on the bus” [Laughs] because they were working on an eighth of a page of script in four days and we were shooting 8-10 pages per day while racing down the freeway. It was very refreshing and organic.
Since making The Tournament, your action scenes are known to be very intense and violent but filmed in an aesthetically clean way. What inspired you to work in this way?
I think a lot of people were inspired by Saving Private Ryan and even the Bourne films some years later. It’s interesting how we read into the camera operator’s body language which influences how we feel about the energy of a scene. For me, action doesn’t require “shaky cam” but rather an ability to move around the scene in a way that enhances the action, while still following the geography of what’s happening. Nowadays I consciously work with camera operators who understand this “language” of filming action.
In Heist, I really had to use every low budget trick in the book. As well as filming on the freeway, for the action scenes we filmed on the bus while it was parked stationary with lights moving around it. This also allowed us to shoot without green screen. I try to stay away from that because I feel it can ruin the look of a film and I prefer everything to be real.
The film has a very impressive cast. How were they to work with?
I had the most amazing cast and it was worth its weight in gold. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is so experienced and really a veteran at this point in his career. He carries the heart and soul of the movie which is incredibly hard to do. The film was shot in only 17 days and keeping up that emotional engagement, not just for the action but the story as well, is very demanding. He made a great on screen pair with Dave Bautista.
People are now realising it more but Bautista is a really good actor, very focused and loves getting into the character. And even though he’s a huge, imposing looking guy, he’s the loveliest person on the planet. He actually wanted to know very fine details about his character which genuinely surprised me. He’s obviously a very physical actor too, so he loves to get stuck into the action, as well as the dialogue.
I was definitely starstruck working with Bob De Niro as he’s one of my heroes. What’s great is that he actually loves being directed. It was such an intense shoot so I asked him to trust me because we’d have to cut to the proverbial chase if things were working, or not. He has no ego and is happy to try different things so it was a real pleasure and honour. One day I did have to pinch myself while reading lines with him because I couldn’t quite believe it.
As a major action film fan, which one is your absolute favourite?
That’s tough! One of my favourites growing up would have to be Terminator 2: Judgement Day. I’m a huge fan of James Cameron’s work but this one had a big impact on me. I saw it as a kid and it made me realise how good an action film really can be, owing to the strong characters and caring about the action. Good action is actually incredibly hard to do well and Cameron is one of the masters.
From watching the film every day as a kid, I learned pretty much every cinematic cut and camera angle paying attention to how Cameron frames his action. Funnily enough I shot a kind of homage to T2 in The Tournament and Cameron’s producer Gale Anne Hurd saw it, spotted those references and emailed me! That was very cool. There are plenty of other films I love, like Robocop, Starship Troopers and more recently The Raid, but T2 is definitely up there. As a filmmaker, I often revisit those old classics to get inspired and remember how they did such incredible work.
Heist is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Lionsgate