French director Pierre Morel may well have reinvented — or at least reinvigorated — the action genre. His 2008 film “Taken” earned nearly $230 million worldwide and single-handedly transformed star Liam Neeson from a critic’s darling into cinema’s go-to middle-aged angel of vengeance.
“The way I see action movies is not to make them action-centric — I want to make action that has more depth,” Mr. Morel told The Washington Times, “[and with] characters [that have] more [to them]. That requires great actors. That’s why we went to Sean. He was interested in an action movie that wasn’t ‘just’ an action movie. And I think he delivers much more.”
Like Mr. Neeson, Mr. Penn, now 54, embraces his vintage in Mr. Morel’s work — unafraid to showcase the reality of age both as an actor and in his character in “The Gunman,” Jim. The two-time Oscar winner is joined in the cast by fellow Academy Award winner Javier Bardem as the morally complex Felix.
“He’s very often cast in American movies as a villain, [but] this one is a much more conflicted character,” Mr. Morel said of Mr. Bardem. “He’s not just a ‘bad guy.’ So we wanted an actor who could play multiple layers to the character.”
Indeed, having two such high-profile professionals on set was a particular joy for Mr. Morel, not only to direct but also to behold. He described a particularly tense scene involving the two men as “magic.”
Mr. Morel, who lives in Paris when not on location, took his cast and crew to Barcelona, London and South Africa to capture the somewhat-nihilistic backdrop for “The Gunman.”
“As a moviegoer, I like traveling [instead of] seeing my backyard,” Mr. Morel said, so “I like shooting on locations [for my] films.”
Mr. Morel is especially fond of the action genre, both as a filmmaker and filmgoer. “They’re a lot of fun to shoot,” he said. However, he maintains that action set pieces should not be staged for their own sake, but rather to advance the plots of his films. In his films, the action helps develop “a character dealing with a situation.”
He is also keen to point out the vast difference between action movies and real-world violence, an especially hot topic for a Parisian like Mr. Morel, who was in the French capital during January’s terrorist shootings at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 17 dead.
“I try not to portray violence as entertaining,” Mr. Morel said of his fictions. (“The Gunman” is rated R for “strong violence, language and some sexuality.”)
“Gratuitous violence is not a [hallmark] of French directors,” Mr. Morel said, nor is “glamorizing” it. Violence in his films “hurts, because in the real world it hurts. It’s not a good thing. When one does violent things, there are [consequences]. I try to make it hard to watch.”
Mr. Morel grew up watching homegrown films but recalls being particularly blown away by “Star Wars.” He also admires English filmmakers Ridley Scott and Paul Greengrass, director of two of the “Bourne” films, whom Mr. Morel describes as “a master.”
However, he is careful to keep admiration from veering too close to imitation. “You never try to reproduce someone else’s job,” he said.
Mr. Morel pointed to the different aesthetic between French and American cinema, the latter of which, he said, is particularly concerned with commercialism.
“Also, the economy being the way it is, we make smaller movies,” he said of French cinema. “Most movies in France are small, independent movies.”
Even “Taken,” despite its incredible earnings and spawning of two sequels, was made for a relatively modest $25 million.
In addition to his considerable acting resume, Mr. Penn is also a director in his own right, having helmed such films as “Into the Wild,” “The Crossing Guard” and the upcoming “The Last Face.” Asked whether he felt Mr. Penn took any liberties beyond acting for “The Gunman,” Mr. Morel insisted that “we only had the actor Sean Penn on the set,” not the director.
“As a director [himself],” Mr. Morel said, “he understands more than just as an actor what is required. So communication was never an issue. He got it right away.”
While certain details of “The Prone Gunman,” the source novel by the late French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, were changed for the screen — chief among them contemporizing the action — Mr. Morel, who read the novel upon its publication in 1981, maintains that “the bones, the story” of the existential book are the same despite updates to the 21st century.
Nonetheless, he said, Mr. Penn’s performance as Jim lines up with Manchette’s description of the complicated protagonist.
“I like characters that have flaws,” he said. “So we created a story for the character that he wasn’t a cookie-cutter action hero, but rather had some depth. We used [Mr. Penn‘s] wrinkles. [Jim] is a real man, not just a ‘hero.’”
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