While they’ve collaborated on several projects, filmmakers John and Peter Hyams’s respective approaches to action filmmaking are basically different. Father Peter (Timecop, Sudden Death) emphasizes the importance of a film’s screenplay in determining its tone while son John (Dragon Eyes, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) considers editing to be the most crucial stage of a film’s development. In time for the release of Enemies Closer, a new film directed by Peter and edited by John, the Voice talked to the Hyamses about working with star Jean-Claude Van Damme, using gore to establish a film’s complex tone, and comparing Paul Greengrass–style shaky-cam to Parkinson’s disease.
Based on his recent collaborations with you both, it seems like Jean-Claude Van Damme has become more comfortable in meaty character-actor roles. How do you collaborate with him on creating his characters?
PH: When they asked me to do Enemies Closer, I read it, and thought it was an interesting premise. Originally, Jean-Claude was the hero of the movie, but I said, “No, I will only do it if Jean-Claude is the villain. We have to create a character for Jean-Claude where he is flamboyant and funny and lethal.” His character’s emotions shift at 90 degrees at a time: He abruptly goes from being kind to being nuts. I had a certain credibility with Jean-Claude, so everyone, including Jean-Claude, signed off on that. Some people don’t know this, but Jean-Claude’s actually really fun, and I wanted to play off that.
JH: Jean-Claude has become a lot more interesting as a character actor than the good-guy action performer. That’s perhaps one of the benefits of him becoming older, having experience. Right now, a close-up of Jean-Claude — his face tells a lot of stories that, in the past, it didn’t. Anyone that spends time with Jean-Claude knows that he’s a guy that wears his emotions on his sleeves. He’s also not afraid to show himself in different ways. So, when the concept of Day of Reckoning was established, we thought, “How do we do something completely different with this movie than we did with the last film?” One of the basic ideas was to turn the protagonist of the past movies into, if not the antagonist, then the destination of the films. Day of Reckoning is a journey movie with a new protagonist, and [Jean-Claude] is the character that looms over the whole film, like the Harry Lime the hero is going to find.
John, you cut out chunks of dialogue in Dragon Eyes so you could try to convey more information visually. What, for both of you, is the role a screenplay plays in the way you visualize, shoot, and edit a film?
JH: Different movies call for different treatments as far as how faithful you’re going to be. Something like a Coen brothers or Tarantino film is really beholden to the dialogue. However, for me — and maybe this has to do with my documentary experience — I really like to think of the script as something you use as a structural standpoint. It’s something you put a lot of work into, figuring out how to track this story and these characters. I believe in taking whatever is written on the page and taking it to another place on the set. Actors bring a lot to the table, in that sense. And once I start cutting, I don’t look at the script. At that point, I look at the film as a bunch of raw footage: How it goes together and what the scenes are can really change, so you need to keep yourself open to that.
PH: With all due love and respect, I don’t agree. The script is the script. Your function is to first get the script to a place where everybody sees and hears the movie you’re making. The script isn’t a starting point or a sketch: It is a well-defined blueprint for the film. Your job as a conductor is to read the composer’s score, and get the orchestra to play that something realizes the script.
How do you work with action choreographers to establish characters through action? I was especially wondering how you worked with Borislav Iliev on Van Damme’s introductory fight in Enemies Closer, and for John, I wondered about choreographing the sports store scene with Larnell Stoval in Day of Reckoning.
PH: An action sequence isn’t very different than an acting sequence. I had a series of balletic and athletic moves in mind that are choreographed and rehearsed over and over again, and I imposed them on Bobby, my stunt choreographer, who I think was extraordinary. If somebody has an extraordinary idea on how to make things better, I’m fine with it. However, I need the ideas that I want in those sequences. I try to keep them very controlled and the way they were conceived.
JH: I really think Larnell is one of the most talented choreographers out there. He really has a great understanding of the narrative elements of a fight; he was one of my most intimate collaborators. So with a sequence like that, none of the beats or moves are actually that defined in the script. But the script gives you the flavor for what kind of scene it is, and in that scene, the characters were bulls in a china shop. In the script, we talk about aluminum baseball bats, but I really encouraged Larnell to come up with the fight himself. He would pre-viz the whole thing, and in the case of that fight, we stuck pretty close to his pre-viz. There’s a few things here and there we eliminated, but he has such a good sense of the general movements of a fight — like it’s a dance, as Dad said. I also relied on [actor] Scott Adkins; he has a great mind, not just for specific moves, but for how to shoot the moves that he does. But with a guy like Larnell, I’m just trying to inspire him to go in one direction or another.
Humor in action films, especially during action scenes, is tricky, but there’s gruesome, surreal humor in both of your films. And it’s not always for the sake of being extreme, or giving the audience a basic kind of relief. In Peter’s Sudden Death, there’s the fight with the penguin mascot, and the mascot’s head has cotton come out of it before the woman inside the costume is strangled to death. When is violence surreally funny, and when is it just necessarily extreme?
PH: When you first construct a fight between somebody and another person wearing a penguin costume, there is an implied absurdity in that. If you don’t deal with the absurdity in that, you’re dumber than I am, and if you’re dumber than I am, then you’re really dumb! I’m not, and I never have, tried to make a film where the “violence” is only one color. You try to make it more than one color.
JH: Taking Day of Reckoning specifically: The film’s tone was the most important thing, and that’s a thing we established in a lot of ways. I don’t know if it was conscious at the time, but on one level, I was going for a tone Cronenberg has struck very well in his films, where if there’s humor, it’s incredibly deadpan. But what you’re aspiring to is something like The Fly, where he really achieves overt humor. We wanted to be visceral, and a movie that’s as much an action film as a horror film. And as you said, you need to create a release. That release was, in the ’80s or ’90s, one-liners. We wondered, “How do you create a release and humor without really letting on that it’s a joke?” I think our goal the whole time was to make a midnight movie, so the violence is going to go to a place where the only thing you can really do is laugh about it.
What do you guys think of hyper-realistic techniques that guys like Tony Scott, Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, and Paul Greengrass have used to establish urgency in action films, stuff like lens flares, handheld photography, hyper-fast editing?
PH: I will probably get myself in big trouble — and I really don’t want to, because Paul Greengrass is somebody I so admire — but I think there is a difference between reality and Parkinson’s. I come from a place where you have to show what’s going on, and shaking a camera to the point where you don’t know who’s where kinda negates that necessity. On the other hand, I think the Bourne movies were brilliant, so who am I to say? It’s just not the way I do things. I’m trying to make people feel the punches, to fear for the person who’s falling. I may succeed, or I may fail, but that is my intent.
JH: I agree with my dad. I’m trying to not be predictable in how I edit action scenes; I sometimes prefer extremely long takes. Any way that you can create the illusion that these things are happening in real time is some of the most exciting action filmmaking I’ve seen. Those long takes in Children of Men are some of the best action scenes that have ever been done. That being said, people need to be careful of lumping filmmaker together. I love what Greengrass has done with the two Bourne movies he did. The car chases in both films stand up with The French Connection. But there’s Greengrass, and there’s people that took what he did and saw it as a technique, and it wasn’t necessarily consistent with their movies, or they didn’t know why they were doing with it. Greengrass did something so much [more powerful] than just shaking a camera.