He has given us one of the greatest concert movies ever with Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll, directed one of the most unforgettable romances in An Officer And A Gentleman, and he got an Oscar nomination for directing the acclaimed biopic Ray. Now with Parker, director Taylor Hackford tackles a genre he has not dealt with previously: the crime thriller.
The film stars Jason Statham as the title character, a professional thief who knowingly breaks the law but who also has a set of rules he always follows: he doesn’t steal from those who don’t have much, and he never hurts innocent people. Yes, Parker is a bad guy, but he has an unshakable code of ethics. The character of Parker originated from a series of books written by Donald Westlake (under the pen name of Richard Stark), and this is not the first time he has been brought to the silver screen.
The late Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson have played him previously in Point Blank and Payback. However, none of that seems to phase Hackford, who is pleased with the film he has directed. When I talked with him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills he seemed really excited about its upcoming release and of what the fans will have to say about it.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: The character of Parker has been featured previously in movies like Point Blank and Payback. There are also a couple of other movies where Parker’s featured that people are not as aware of.
Taylor Hackford: Yeah there are several. Jim Brown played Parker in a movie. Jean-Luc Goddard had made a movie (Made In USA) with Anna Karina as Parker; can you imagine that? A woman. Peter Coyote played him too. So there’s a long line of Parkers in cinema, some better than others.
We Got This Covered: Was there anything about the character that you wanted to bring to this movie that you hadn’t seen in other iterations?
Taylor Hackford: To me the challenge of Parker as a filmmaker is that he doesn’t say very much. If you read the novels, you got all the stuff going on in his head, so well of course you may decide to use narration. I always feel when a filmmaker resorts to narration they’ve failed. If I wanted to do that, then maybe I could tell the story the way Richard Stark (i.e. Donald Westlake) had written it. But that’s not a film, it’s a book. So the challenge was to say “how can I reveal this hard, silent man but also make you understand that he’s as smart as can be?”
He’s constantly analyzing every situation he’s in, and when he acts, he acts with purpose. That’s the challenge, and you have to see the movie to see if you think it works, but that was why I wanted to go after it. This film is my take on Parker. I know I’m going to be judged by millions of Parker fans of the books and I don’t know how many thousands of fans have seen the movies. So be it, it’s my version. I’m proud of it, I really went after something that I thought was interesting, I didn’t use narration, and I think that Jason Statham is a very, very interesting choice to play Parker because he shares some of that same ethos Parker has.
We Got This Covered: It’s almost a surprise that Steve McQueen never played Parker in a movie.
Taylor Hackford: Exactly! Steve McQueen would have been a fantastic Parker. He has all of that in him, and you want to be able to look at him and understand that behind those eyes there’s a machine working. The great thing about Parker is that he is what he is: he’s a professional thief, he’s a criminal, and he makes no apologies for it. He wants to steal as much money as humanly possible, and there’s not one iota of remorse in him. But he has a set of rules that he follows, and they are not necessarily a set of ethics. The rules are totally pragmatic; it lets him survive and keeps him out of jail. But the problem with the man is that if those rules are violated, because he doesn’t always work alone, he will go to the ends of the earth to get even. That’s interesting, and in its own way admirable.
We Got This Covered: I agree that it’s the most appealing thing about the character. He’s doing wrong, but the moral values he has set for himself are very clear to him.
Taylor Hackford: And in today’s world that’s unusual. In this world of compromise where you ask “what is integrity? I don’t know. What do you got? How much money you have?” That’s unfortunately where it’s come, and Parker is refreshing in the sense that you can’t buy him. You can’t buy him off. Even if where he’s going is not smart, he’s walking right into the lion’s den, he has to do it.
We Got This Covered: I read that you never wanted to get stuck in a single genre as a filmmaker which is very understandable. Is there a genre that you would like to explore that you haven’t yet?
Taylor Hackford: Oh there are lots. Let’s face it, there are a lot of things that I haven’t done. I get captured by scripts, by projects, by books mostly about working-class characters. That runs through all my films, and if I feel passionate then I will spend two years of my life working on a film. And then I get passionate about certain things that never get made; it took me thirteen years to make Ray. Thirteen years even before I got the money to even get a script cut. If you’re passionate about something, and I have many projects I hope to develop, you get disappointed. You try to develop these things that you care about, you have to get people on board to finance them, and when they don’t you’re stuck.
In this instance, I didn’t develop Parker. John McLaughlin wrote a really good adaptation, and the company that bought the book offered it up to me and I went “hey I’m going to jump on board. I’ve never done a crime genre movie, I’m ready to go.” So when you get captured like that, all you can do is say “I’m going to make my crime movie, my Parker version.” And other genres, I’m wide open. I’m not one of those dilettantes who look at genres and look down my nose to say “eww that’s a genre piece!” Dolores Claiborne was a kind of Gothic mystery, but I would call it a psychological thriller. I embraced it and I loved it. It was a woman’s movie and to me I wanted to do a real credit to it.
We Got This Covered: I really like that film a lot. You’ve got a lot of great performances out of actors like Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jamie Foxx among others. How do you go about directing actors to such great performances?
Taylor Hackford: You know, I started out making documentaries years and years ago, and when you’re working with real people who don’t want to reveal themselves, who want to put a big barrier up, you’ve got to bust through that barrier and it’s hard. I use a lot of the same techniques with actors. Now actors are supposed to be trained to be nuanced and give you a performance, but sometimes they’ve got their own barriers up and you’ve got to knock those barriers down.
So what I try to do is reveal, because I’m a storyteller. There’s a lot of technique in Parker. This whole film was shot handheld but not jerky to where everybody’s saying “oh my God I’m getting seasick” while watching it. A lot of times you would know it. The wide shots are not done on a tripod; they are done on a sandbag on the floor. There’s always a little movement, and I wanted that feeling of style. But ultimately I’m not interested in drawing attention to myself.
I want to reveal the story through the actors, through the behavior. And so when you’re working with actors, what you’re trying to do is to get them to reveal the larger context; not only their innermost feelings and the nuances of who they are, but also how they integrate with the chemistry they have with each other. Nobody acts alone, so how this actor response to that actor is how the audience will recognize “oh there’s something going on here.” Whatever they’re saying is not exactly what they mean, and they are feeling emotions inside that ultimately you hope to reveal is a filmmaker. That to me is the joy of the process.
We Got This Covered: The action sequences in Parker have a very visceral quality to them. This is not a movie you just sit back and watch and go “oh cool,” but more like one where you go “OUCH!” How did you go about directing the sequences?
Taylor Hackford: I had a philosophy about the action in Parker which comes right out of the books: Parker’s not Superman, he’s not immune to pain. Richard Stark/Donald Westlake were always hurting and maiming their heroes (laughs) and he doesn’t just bounce back. What was really important to me in things that I put in this piece is that Parker, when he jumps out of the window of that SUV at 50 miles an hour and hits the pavement, it’s going to have its impact on him. He’s really messed up. You see him in the hospital, he’s certainly been drugged up, he knows he’s got to be caught, and he gets out (and I won’t tell you how he gets out but it’s really interesting).
Then there is an important sequence where he steals an EMS vehicle, he goes to the forest, he treats himself and you dissolve and he’s got a beard, and you know that he spent a lot of time out there. He’s bound and determined to go after revenge, but he’s got to heal himself to do it. So the action and the violence is palpable, and I want the audience to go “OOOMPH!!!” I don’t like it when the audience goes “oh this is a comic book.” Unfortunately pain is pain and you’ve got to feel it, and too often I think people treat it as entertainment.
In one scene Parker is in the fight of his life, and I have Daniel Bernhardt who has starred in his own action movies… Jason Statham and Daniel Bernhardt, neither one of them uses stuntmen. They are doing it themselves. Everybody has seen fight movies where you’ve got three or four cuts in a second and a half, and you know why? Because they’re trying to lie to the audience and say this action is really being done by the real actors. Bullshit, it’s not. It’s been done by stuntmen.
But in this instance I can let three or four motions of this fight happen and never cut away because I have the real guys. When you do a fight like this there is a price to pay, and Jason is willing to pay that price and so is Daniel. I want the audience to feel that it’s real and at the same time believable.
We Got This Covered: In regards to Jennifer Lopez, this is really the best role she has had in a movie since Out Of Sight. She’s better in this movie then people will probably give her credit for. What was it like working with her?
Taylor Hackford: I love Jennifer Lopez. I knew her, I developed a film with her, but unfortunately the film never got financed so it didn’t happen. But I know who that person is, she’s for real. You see the glamorous person out there in the world of entertainment, rich and famous and a lot of times you get a bad rap because people are jealous. But Jennifer’s the real person. She was a dancer and they can just work and work and work. When I called her for this role it was really interesting because she knows she’s not the lead, right? And I said to her “look this is a great role, it’s a sad character, somebody whose life has not worked out the way she wanted and has been saddled with such horrible things. Her prince charming wasn’t prince charming; he went bankrupt and saddled her with the debts. She’s got the ultimate nightmare; at pushing 40 she’s forced to move back in with her mother who is domineering and difficult. You realize she’s up against the wall, and this character has what you have, she’ll never give up.”
I trusted the fact that she was good, but I didn’t realize how good she is. She’s a fantastic actress. She walks on the set, she frees herself of all of that Jennifer Lopez stuff and she embodies the character. I’m not afraid of actors, I live with a great one (Helen Mirren) and I believe an actor is better when they have a director working with them that can help them. So after somebody does a take, I tell them what I think. Sometimes an actor can absorb that, digested and come back, and sometimes they can’t because they’re not capable.
You tell Jennifer a note and BANG! It’s there in the next take. Not partially there, it’s there. You think “my God she got it, she understood it.” Now part of that’s me because if you can’t explain what you want, how do you expect someone to do it? But the other part of it is she’s got an instrument that is real and very developed. She’s a much better actress now that she ever was before, and she’s also gone through some things in her life. She’s got some miles on the treads of those tires, and ultimately she’s incorporated that. I think she’s terrific in this movie. She absolutely illuminates Jason when they’re in scenes together and there’s some great stuff happening. If people see the movie, I know they will be surprised. Everybody should be so lucky to get to work with her.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Taylor for talking with us, be sure to check out Parker, now in theatres.