Safe Director Boaz Yakin on New York’s ‘Beautiful Decrepitude’ and the Secret of Jason Statham’s Tears
Filmmaker Boaz Yakin has taken a circuitous route through the years tackling indie dramas (Fresh, A Price Above Rubies, Death in Love) and studio gigs (Remember the Titans, Uptown Girls) alike, not to mention his writing stints on films like Prince of Persia and producing duties on the Hostel films. But this week’s Safe, a frenetic throwback actioner starring Jason Statham, marks a return to his roots — both to the streets of New York he grew up loving and to the genre beginnings that gave him his start.
Safe follows Luke Wright (Statham), a disgraced NYPD officer-turned-cage fighter who hits rock bottom and then becomes the protector of a 12-year-old Chinese girl (newcomer Catherine Chan) who’s being pursued by an entire city filled with Triads, Russian mob, corrupt city officials, and dirty cops. As Yakin told Movieline, writing and directing Safe gave him liberty to craft a kind of homage to his favorite ‘70s New York action pics while adding his own flair to the well-worn genre, and the result is an authentically gritty, ultraviolent action romp filled with flying bullets, twisty machinations, and – yes – the glory that is the sight of a single tear rolling down Jason Statham’s steely face.
Yakin spoke with Movieline about shooting on his beloved New York City streets, the “beautiful decrepitude” of a bygone NYC that he hoped to capture, how filming limitations gave way to the film’s most inventive and impressive sequences, and how he almost learned the hard way why you shouldn’t cut before Jason Statham has turned on the waterworks.
Even though you partially shot Philadelphia for New York, you manage to capture so many authentic-feeling New York locations in the film. How much did you split filming, and how much were you able to shoot in the city itself?
We shot in Philly but the thing I made sure of was that we shot the lion’s share of our exterior work, the New York subways – that was all done in New York. And then we went to Philadelphia and did some night shots, night exteriors, and basically all of our interior stuff was done in Philadelphia, and some key things that would have been very difficult to do, like some street car chases and things like that. New York is an amazing city to shoot because it looks so great and you get so much of its energy and texture on film, but it’s also really hard to shoot there just physically. People don’t really give a damn that you’re there and move you around, and it’s so grueling to shoot there. In Philly it was a lot easier and people were a lot more accommodating, and you’re able to get away with shooting things there at all hours of the night, making noise and things like that, which they’d never let you get away with in New York. So it worked out for us.
Which were your favorite New York locations, the ones that were most gratifying to get that really nailed that texture?
I have to say that even though it was so incredibly difficult to shoot there, I’ve never directed an action film but I’ve written a bunch of them [The Punisher, The Rookie] and one of the things that really gives New York its flavor is the subway system and the way the subway feels. In the classic New York action film it’s always there — there’s the classic French Connection subway chase, and all that – and for me it was really important to do a memorable subway sequence that could stand up there with some of the best ones that have been done in the past. None of them will ever touch the French Connection one, but I wanted to sort of add my entry. So for me, the location I got to shoot in that just really defines the film is the subway scene.
Which stops did you film at?
It was between two stops — one of them, we sort of made a stop on Wall St. look like a stop in Brooklyn and then there was the 14th Street L that goes cross-town on the East Side.
You mention The French Connection, and the film conjures that meaty throwback, ‘70s and ‘80s action feel reminiscent of that film and many others.
That’s what I was going for – seeing the movie as sort of a double throwback movie, both to the films that I was writing when I broke into the business in the late '80s and more so to movies about the city that I grew up in. I grew up in New York in the 1970s, when it was sort of in a state of decay, a kind of a colorful, crazy lawlessness; you felt like anything could happen at any time. There was a kind of a beautiful decrepitude about it, like it hadn’t gotten Starbucks-ized. It still had this kind of gritty texture and an "anything goes" improvisational feeling and even as a kid there was a part of you that sensed that this was never going to be this way again. This is crazy! Someday I’m going to miss this, you know?
And it’s true; I still love New York, but I miss its texture and its crazy kind of falling apart quality, and I wanted to capture that in the film. I wanted to capture the New York movies that I love, like The Seven-Ups, Death Wish, The Warriors, just the kind of movies that soaked up the streets of the city in their DNA, but really also a tribute to the way I felt about New York when I was younger.
In terms of filmmakers, were you inspired by a shot here or a technique there or an archetype from the genre staples? I thought a lot about the classic John Woo and Hong Kong cop movies, for example.
I think having seen so many of those films over the years, you sort of just absorb them and I just know them really well at this point. I would say that whenever you’re going to do an action scene you study the stuff in Better Tomorrow Part II and so on but there were a lot of other films that I looked at too. And one thing I kind of didn’t want to do that John Woo does, actually, is that he slows things down for the action scenes — like, kind of sexualizes and glamorizes every gunshot, and makes it into this slow-motion ballet of violence which is just fantastic and he’s a master of it post-Peckinpah. But for me, there are maybe two slow-motion shots in the film. I wanted things to feel hectic and in your face and jumping around and very present; I didn’t want to treat the action like, ‘Aha! Here’s the action scene!’ I wanted the action to spring out of what was happening in the moment and for you to feel like you were catching up with it while it was going on. So in that sense I tried to find a different approach to it.
Your shooting and editing style really jump out throughout Safe, and there are a number of action sequences that are really impressive to watch. You wonder, 'How did he pull that off in just one shot or one staged sequence?' And more to the point, why go to so much trouble to pull off these deceptively complex scenes?
I think you want to bring something interesting and add to it when you’re doing a genre film — you want to appreciate the genre and do what you can to add to it. I think that part of it, by the way, is the creativity that comes from having limited time and money. For instance, the scene where the girl gets kidnapped from the car and they get driven into, you see everything through the windows and the rearview mirrors of the car, and it’s like, okay — I’m going to have one day to shoot a scene that if I was really going to cover every guy killing every guy and all that stuff it would take me three or four days. Okay, what’s the emotional grounding of the scene? It’s this girl’s experience. And it’s sort of like putting you into the shoes of the people in the car. So I go, okay — I can do this all with three kind of complicated shots, but that’s three shots — when you look at that sequence it’s something like three or four — for something that you could shoot in fifty shots if you were really covering it.
So it’s complex, but it has a point of view and it’s specific. Sometimes being limited enables you to think in a way that’s more creative. You could never replicate it in this film, but Alfonso Cuaron did Children of Men and he did like three or four sequences, there’s this one in a car, and he’s shooting these fabulous long takes… That’s actually something that there was no way I could try to get to that in this film; we just didn’t have the time or the wherewithal. But there were a few places where I wanted to recreate a little bit of that feeling.
That totally works, because you do get swept up in the chaotic feeling of being there in scenes like the kidnapping and the memorable unbroken shot in which a fight is witnessed via a rearview mirror. You have a shot of Reggie Lee shooting someone randomly in the middle of a hotel exodus that most directors might cut around, but instead it draws attention to the execution of the scene itself and the power of the chaos in that moment.
In a way, the less you cut the more you feel like you’re in a situation. And by the way, how great was Reggie Lee in the film? He’s such a great actor. For me I thought there were a lot of really terrific character actors in the film and it was important to me to create that tapestry of characters, the way they did in those New York films that I loved so much. But Reggie Lee just constantly surprised me. Every time he showed up onscreen there was something authentic and genuine and nuanced. His part doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to convey his mixed feelings about what he’s doing. You’ve just got to feel it all from his performance and his looks.
And you give him a scene in the car where he unexpectedly reveals some measure of a fatherly impulse toward Mei, which dimensionalizes him. Which brings me to my next question: Here you have Asian Triads and Russian baddies with a capital B, so to speak — why make the ethnic villains so larger than life?
Look, when you make an action movie and a thriller, someone’s got to be the bad guy! And in this film, the main bad cop is a Jewish cop called Captain Wolf, you’ve got a sort of evil gay Italian mayor and his lover… Everyone in this film is bad, there’s nobody good. And I think at this point the Italian mafia has become a little played out. After The Sopranos, they’re just cute; when you see the Italian mafia in movies anymore it’s just like Robert De Niro in Analyze This, you want to send them to a therapist and have a few laughs. It’s a little played out, so I think that dealing with the Russians and the Chinese is a little fresher for me — not that it hasn’t been done. But frankly, the heroine of the film is a little Chinese girl, and she’s in a way almost as big a part as Jason. But to answer your question — I don’t care, you know what I mean? It’s an action movie, and there are tons of bad guys in it of all ethnicities.
Equal opportunity villainy.
It’s equal opportunity! And it’s like everyone should be able to be bad, and everyone should be able to be good. I can’t think that way and start limiting myself that way.
Let’s talk about Jason in this film; the character he plays is at once very much in his action wheelhouse but also much more vulnerable at times than we’ve ever seen Jason Statham in the movies — he loses everything, he’s wracked with guilt, he’s suicidal…
You know, it’s interesting. The way the part was written, and especially having Jason, who has developed this reputation and made so many films where he is in many ways not vulnerable, it was important to me to emphasize those aspects of his character. I think that when you put, say, Matt Damon in a Bourne film or something like that, the work that you have in those films is that everyone knows Matt is a really wonderful actor and nuanced and your challenge in a Bourne movie is to make people believe that he’s also a bad-ass, right? With Jason it’s the reverse, where you know he’s a bad-ass, you know he can do all this stuff — how can we bring these other elements and colors to his persona? That was something I really tried to emphasize and bring to the table.
There’s a scene when he’s at a very, very low point where you orchestrate a surprising emotional moment for him — his entire world is collapsing and as the camera moves in, he conjures a single tear.
Yes, that long take moving in on Jason. Look, I think Jason is a much, much better actor than people give him credit for, and that even he gives himself credit for. I think that there are a lot of people who are more highly regarded as actors who could not have held that close-up and that kind of shot, moving in on him, for the amount of time and the level of intensity that Jason did. When he commits himself to something, he’s very, very good.
And there is a funny little story about that one shot; I’m a terrible one for cutting as soon as the scene is over. I think a lot of smart people, when the scene is over you just kind of let it sit a little to see what’s going to happen — like, if there’s anything extra that happens that’s good. I tend to try to keep the set moving, so as soon as it’s over I’m like, ‘Cut! Okay!’ We did a few takes of this shot with Jason and he was good in all of them, but then we were doing that one more take to see what would happen — and this is the one that was in the film — and as it was getting to the end, the dialogue was finished and I was about to call cut, the DP [Stefan Czapsky] and my friend, the producer, Lawrence [Bender], literally picked me up and moved me away from the monitor so that I wouldn’t say ‘Cut.’ I was surprised – they didn’t tell me they were going to do that – and three seconds after that happened, the tear came down Jason’s face! [Laughs] I was about to say ‘Cut’ and they literally tackled me and pulled me away and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ Then the tear came down Jason’s face and they were like, ‘You see?’ I’m like, okay – lesson learned.
Safe also stars Chris Sarandon, Robert John Burke, James Hong and Anson Mount and is in theaters Friday.