David Koepp, John Kamps Talk Premium Rush, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Fearlessness And Pedestrian 'Scum'
Premium Rush is about speed. So let's not pussyfoot around and get right to the action. The action flik, which led this week's box-office newcomers with a reported $6.5 million take, features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a bike messenger being pursued through the streets of New York City on his brake-less "fixie" — fixed-gear — rig. Among those chasing Wilee is corrupt detective Bobby Monday, played by Michael Shannon, who is hell-bent on intercepting the package that Wilee is carrying.
In advance of the film's release, Movieline sat down with director and co-writer David Koepp and his writing partner John Kamps (Ghost Town) to talk about writing a white-knuckle action movie without killing anyone and how cyclists are the most responsible travelers on the street.
Why did Premium Rush need to be told?
David Koepp: It needed to be told because John and I have seven children between us and they’ve got to go to school. [Laughs] I had had this idea kicking around in my head for a while because I live here and see cyclists. I wanted to do a chase movie on bikes, which I hadn’t seen. You follow the idea, and see how long it lasts. I realized at a certain point, Well, I’ve had this idea in my head for a while now. The only way to get it out of there is to just do it. So, for peace of mind, this had to become a film.
Did you write this script with Michael Shannon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mind?
DK: No, we always try to keep the characters the characters at first.
Did either of them surprise you in terms of their performances?
DK: I was pleasantly surprised by Joe’s fearlessness. Not because I’d heard he was a pussy or something — because, just to be able to be willing to put yourself on a bike in a lot of traffic and in that kind of danger, while acting, is really courageous. So, I was pleased and surprised by how much he wanted to do and how aggressively he was willing to do it. And, Shannon — you’re surprised every day by his performance because it comes out of this Michael Shannon place that only he has. And you just think, I never would have thought to deliver that line that way. That’s fascinating.
What are the pros and cons of directing versus screenwriting?
DK: I’ll make it succinct. With directing, you have tons of control. But, you have tons of control, which means you have tons of decisions to make and you have to be there. And you have to have an incredible level of input and your life doesn’t really belong to you so much. With screenwriting, you get a lot more quiet. You go to an office every day. Maybe you work with a collaborator. That’s nice. It’s a life that’s in here [pointing to his head]. I like to mix it up. You get crazy being in the room alone for too long and you certainly get crazy directing on the streets of New York.
What was it like, logistically, to be filming people on bikes on the streets of New York City? I feel like few filmmakers have approached anything like this.
DK: It was one of the most logistically difficult movies of the last 20 years. And I’m not overstating, because it’s not cars; it’s people exposed to cars. But they’re moving at car speed. And, because so much of the action was on the street, we needed total street closures. The city went out of its way to be accommodating. The cops were great. And it still was a mess because people, surprisingly, don’t like to have streets closed. [Laughs]
You largely avoided CGI and relied on human stunts, yes?
DK: That was important. This movie was about what human beings can do--not about what computers can do. I mean, clearly there’s some computer stuff: like when he’s picturing what would happen if he went to the right and he ends up getting hit by three cars and run over by a truck. Clearly, that wasn’t a person. Everybody knows it’s a joke. So, I’d say 95-96 percent of it is really people doing that.
I read about Joseph going through the back of a cab and getting 31 stitches.
DK: Yeah, a guy with diplomat plates cut into our shooting lanes right in front of him. Joe had to swerve to avoid him and ended up going through the back of a taxi. It was really scary. There were lots of crashes, but his was the worst. Of course, he’s the star, so he’s got to have the worst crash and get the most stitches. [Laughs] Our biggest fear [while] writing it was: Fuck, I hope somebody doesn’t get killed on this movie. Ya know?
Absolutely. So, what was the motive behind Joseph’s character paying little regard to the welfare of other people on the road?
DK: I don’t think he’s really out of line. I would say that the most responsible people on the street are cyclists. They may not obey all the rules, but they stay out of the way really well if you just leave ’em alone. Cars are second, because drivers are notoriously distracted. They feel safe inside their bubble and they’re often texting and that’s no good. And then the worst — the scum of the streets — are pedestrians. We’re awful because we don’t follow logical patterns. We’re definitely texting. Nobody’s looking where they’re going. Nobody. And they make irrational decisions, like in crosswalks. And that’s not good.
How does this compare to L.A. traffic?
John Kamps: It’s very different. With pedestrians, it’s like: You have the audacity to walk?
DK: I think it’s legal to hit them.
JK: Pedestrians are completely on the defensive in L.A. because people are flying down the street at 60 miles an hour. So, it’s not like someone’s going to stop and honk at you. They’re going to take you out.
DK: There’s a pedestrian attitude in New York, which is, if you’re crossing the street and you cut in front of a car and you don’t look at the car, he has to stop. That’s just not really coherent.
What was behind your decision to use a visual mapping element in this film to show where the characters are in relation to each other?
DK: When John and I were writing it, we were saying, We want to know where everybody is, exactly, and at what time and how far [Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Wilee] has got to go and how he’s going to get there.
JK: A lot of the action you see doesn’t make sense geographically. It’s like, he’s on the building. Now he’s over there on the car. You have no idea what his goal is, how he’s getting from point A to point B.
DK: Then, you’re editing it. And you think, Well, let’s see. We should move the bathroom scene up a little. And you can’t. You can’t move anything, because you’ve gone to great pains to say who’s where when. So, we cursed the script many times in the edit room.
How long did Premium Rush take to shoot?
DK: Fifty-one days — with about 30 days of second-unit shooting, concurrent.
The wardrobe never changes. How many red shirts do they you through?
DK: Dozens! To get the right red shirt was a big deal. That’s the other thing about a movie in contained time: you’re a one-wardrobe movie. You have to really fall in love with what people are wearing.
What did you think of The Amazing Spiderman given your involvement in the first iteration?
DK: I think they did a great job. It’s hard to do something new that’s just been done, and I thought that they came up with a tone and a look that I hadn’t seen or expected. Great performances.
I felt like it was sort of old school—the way the high-school scenes played out and the relationship between Peter and Gwen. It seemed very…
DK: John Hughes?
Nell Alk is an arts and entertainment writer and reporter based in New York City. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Manhattan Magazine, Z!NK Magazine and on InterviewMagazine.com, PaperMag.com and RollingStone.com, among others. Learn more about her here.
Follow Nell Alk on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.