Exclusive: RED Director Robert Schwentke

Director Robert Schwentke may never have seemed like the most obvious choice to bring Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s comic book mini-series RED to the big screen since it’s hard to figure what the director of The Time Traveler’s Wife could bring to a Bruce Willis action comedy involving CIA agents being hunted down by the government.

Undaunted, Schwentke took on the job and two years later, he’s made an action flick that combines many of the elements that have defined the genre in 2010, mixing nostalgia and practical on-set stunts with a cast that would make any other action director envious.

Essentially, RED is the story of Bruce Willis’ Frank Moses, a retired CIA agent who finds himself on the wrong end of a gun when the government sends their top agent, played by Karl Urban, to clean up loose ends. Bringing along a payroll clerk played by Mary-Louise Parker, Moses travels across country to find his fellow retired agents to figure out what’s going on and stop the CIA cover-up. Those agents are played by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Brian Cox with other key roles played by Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss.

SuperHeroHype had a chance to sit down with Schwentke a few weeks ago for an exclusive interview. Before we started, we mentioned how surprised we were not to see the filmmaker at Comic-Con back in July. He confirmed that he was too busy finishing the movie but that he frequently attended Comic-Con as a fan in prior years, so clearly the director is a closet comic book fan who finally had his chance to tackle that material. With that in mind, we also asked him about the rumors he was slated to direct the "Wolverine" sequel as well as a progress report on him directing R.I.P.D. with Ryan Reynolds.

SuperHeroHype: I remember when I talked to you for "The Time Traveler’s Wife," which seems like forever ago. You had just come onto this and it seemed like such a departure. Now actually after seeing it, it definitely seems like a departure ‘cause there’s comedy, there’s action, there’s a lot of things we really haven’t seen you do. Was that one of the main draws for you to try to get involved in that?
Robert Schwentke: My second film, a movie called "The Family Jewels," actually was a dramedy, and it kind of mixed tonalities a little bit as well, not like "RED." So I had done a little bit of comedy. When I read this draft, I definitely responded to how it tonally turned on a dime and how it just mixed drama and comedy and action and jeopardy with laughs. I thought that was really, really attractive, especially since it was irony with warmth, and by that I mean, it was tongue and cheek, but it always respected the characters and the integrity of the characters and I fell in love with those characters. I think the main draw were those characters and sort of their dilemma and taking seriously their dilemma within the construct of an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek action comedy.

SHH: What shape was the script in when you came on board?
Schwentke: It was in great shape. It was very much there. I mean, there were certain tonalities that we got rid of in the process of going through the drafts. There was a little bit of moral indignation and sort of righteousness and pathos, and those things felt to me like they were in a different key than in the rest of the film that I was being asked to take something seriously in a way that I wouldn’t sort of appear to.

SHH: Were all the characters there pretty much?
Schwentke: All the characters were there. The records keeper, I don’t think was what it became, because that particular action sequence changed quite a bit through various iterations, but yeah, Victoria was there and Marvin was there in all his pathological, infantile glory, and she always wore the nightgown when she fired the 50 cal. So all those juxtapositions were in place, and the Hoebers (the screenwriters) had done a lot of the heavy lifting.

SHH: It’s obviously a great cast, but getting Ernest Borgnine, right there that’s quite a coup. We haven’t seen him in anything this high profile for some time, so when I saw the trailer for this and I saw him I was like, "Holy crap, where has he been?"
Schwentke: Well, with Ernest Borgnine – I think a lot of our casting was driven by a desire to cast people in roles that we haven’t seen them in necessarily. With Ernest, it was quite the opposite. Ernest has real credentials in the action movie genre, and we just thought, "Oh my God, who cares that he’s over 90? He’s just fantastic," and just as what you were saying, "Where has he been?" We want to see him again, and we specifically want to see him again in a movie within this genre.

SHH: Was it hard to convince him to do this?
Schwentke: No, because it was kind of – I mean, one could say that he really sort of defines the theme of the film, and coming out of his mouth, it feels like he has earned the right to say these things. I think that he really responded to that, and he just, he loves his work. He loves to go work and he just, it was fantastic.

SHH: When you first read the script, did most of these actors jump out at you to the point where it was obvious who would have to play them?
Schwentke: Well, Bruce was already attached when I signed on, and that felt like a no-brainer in a way. Then, they had seriously talked to Morgan already, which also felt spot-on, and Helen’s name had been bandied about. Then, I think once we had them it was a little bit of a snowball effect where everybody else kind of signed on and then of course, we kind of got a little ahead of ourselves and said, "Hey! Let’s go after Richard Dreyfuss," and we kinda got him. He was the hardest piece of casting, though, because he just wanted to make sure that it was more than a cameo, that it worked on its own terms, but I mean, it was fantastic working with him. He’s really special.

SHH: I remember a couple years ago the first time we talked about this, you were saying it already drifted away from the comic book. Obviously, visually it’s nothing at all like the comic.
Schwentke: No, I mean, I felt like that in sort of making the narrative bigger you had to make certain choices, and I didn’t mind moving away from the darker tone of the comic book. I always feel that adaptations don’t ever obliterate what they’re based on. I mean, they both still exist, and I think they’re actually in spirit, they’re very close.

SHH: What’s funny is that I read the prequel comics and I liked what they did in terms of backstories for the characters, and that really brings something to the movie. I loved that the movie completes the Victoria and Ivan story in the comics, for instance. It’s kind of a shame you couldn’t get those backstories into the movie.
Schwentke: I know, I know.

SHH: Was that stuff originally in the script or was that something which came about later?
Schwentke: No, of course we constructed back stories that were more for ourselves, but it wasn’t quite as elaborate as those prequels got.

SHH: Bruce and Karl have done a lot of action, some of the other actors haven’t. What was involved in what they had to do to prepare? Did many of them have to do gun training or anything like that?
Schwentke: Oh yeah, Helen did quite a bit of gun training. Normal, mere mortals, when we fire a gun, we blink. There’s a great story from "Little Caesar" where they had to tape Edward G. Robinson’s eyelids up, because he couldn’t keep from blinking when he shot the tommy gun. So, Helen actually with intense focus and training, trained herself not to blink. She never blinked. That’s not something we created in the editing.

SHH: That thing with the eyelids actually made Edward Robinson even scarier in that movie.
Schwentke: (Laughs) He’s been up for days.

SHH: It serves a purpose, yeah. So how much did you want to do practically on set particularly with some of those bigger set pieces?
Schwentke: A lot of the stuff was done practically. I mean, obviously the spinning car – the spinning car was practical, just Bruce didn’t step out of it.

SHH: Really? That was amazing.
Schwentke: But that was a real car spinning in that place.

SHH: So did you just have Bruce doing the move on a green screen and then time it with the spinning car?
Schwentke: Well, we did both things on location. He stepped off a doorway dolly that was covered with green screen in front of a green screen, which is a fun thing to see, and you’re gonna be able to actually see that on the DVD because there’s a little comparison – "here’s what it looked like if you had been there, here’s what it ended up as." (laughs)

SHH: It’s an amazing scene. At the press screening when I saw the movie, everyone gasped when it happened.
Schwentke: Oh good.

SHH: Also, I wanted to ask about creating all these different locations all within Toronto and Louisiana. I’ve actually spent a lot of time in Toronto so I actually recognized some of the place, like the Royal York Hotel.
Schwentke: Oh yeah?

SHH: Did you have to do a lot of CG to make that happen?
Schwentke: Well, we didn’t really do any CG when it came to the different cities. We did some CG and marrying of plates with the postcards obviously, but those were visual effects anyway. That is Kansas City that you see, but then you land when the car arrives and that’s Toronto. But yeah, I’m a big believer in seeing what you have and then trying to stretch it as far as you can. I mean, there are places that we wouldn’t have been able to do without being caught with our hand in the door like Alaska. I would’ve not tried to do that… (laughs) even though you think it would be possible shooting in January in Canada that you would get Alaska, but no.

SHH: Well, they’ve used Canada for Antarctica a couple times, shooting just north of Toronto.
Schwentke: Well, there you go. But, yeah, Toronto has such a diverse architecture. We found places that we felt could double. The curious thing is too, since we’re using so many government buildings, government architecture it’s the same, institutional architecture is kind of the same all over.

SHH: How much realism did you want to bring to this because obviously being based on a comic, there’s a lot of heightened stuff, but did you have to make sure to keep everything believable as well?
Schwentke: Well, I think even in an action scene such as Bruce stepping out of a spinning car, I mean, that jeopardy is real. Those are real bullets and they were mixed to sound real and certainly, Karl’s response is real. That’s what I would do. I would get the hell out of the way. We always knew we were going to play for a more real, high stakes game, but the realism, I think… I really hesitate to use that word obviously with this movie, but the realism to us mostly applied to the characters. So, Helen or Victoria wearing a white gown as she fires a 50 cal is not burlesque. It’s not a dress-up. I believe that Victoria would wear a gown because that’s who she is. (Laughs) So this integrity of the characters was always on our minds, and even with Marvin, who has this innocence mixed with psychotic, over-the-top rants, all those rants were based on very specific research, like talking about the dentist. All of those things were based on very specific incidences with bombs, so even though it’s crazy sounding, it’s actually based in a logic and again, Marvin engaging in a stand-off with a business woman shouldering a grenade launcher to me is actually bizarrely something I would believe he would do. (Laughs) That he would step out and wait for her to reload and then engage in a kinda high noon standoff. So, as crazy as that is, I kind of feel like I go for it.

SHH: You mentioned that you’ve attended Comic-Con in the past so you’re obviously a comic book fan, and now having done a movie based on a comic, you seem to be looking at other material. There were rumors of you possibly directing the Wolverine sequel so was that something that was really happening?
Schwentke: Well, I was intrigued. I’m a big fan of all things Japanese and I’m a big fan of that particular Frank Miller piece of Wolverine writing. I always felt that that was a great Wolverine movie. I loved the mythology and I loved the character, but it panned out differently and I signed on to–I don’t know why–do another comic book adaptation, it’s just a sheer accident, which is "R.I.P.D."

SHH: Yeah, I talked to the writers of that and that sounds like it could be another cool action comedy.
Schwentke: Yeah, it is, and I’m very excited about it. It’s gonna be really terrific.

SHH: Is that something you’re going to do next that you’re going to start developing right away?
Schwentke: Ideally.

SHH: I guess you have to figure out how to get Ryan Reynolds to make time in his schedule from the 500 other comic movies he’s doing?
Schwentke: No, no. We’re just in the process of rewriting the script and figuring out how to make it and all of that.

SHH: How do you feel about taking on "Jackass" opening weekend?
Schwentke: (Laughs) I don’t know, we’ll see.

RED opens nationwide on Friday, October 15. You can also watch video interviews with Robert’s cast here.