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Movies with Fight Scenes: "The Gunman" Director Yells Action

In the international action thriller “The Gunman,” a scrappy, bulked-up Sean Penn plays Jim Terrier, an ex-special forces government contractor whose hired assassination of a mining minister in Congo sent him into hiding, and also put the nation into chaos. Years later, when a group of men are sent to kill him, Terrier emerges from his anonymity and reconnects with his old war comrades (played by Mark Rylance and Ray Winstone) in hopes of finding out who’s trying to clean house. During his international game of cat-and-mouse, he discovers that his old friend Felix (Javier Bardem), who assigned him the life-changing mission, is now married to Annie, the woman that Jim had to abandon, as played by Jasmine Trinca.

As Terrier wades through a sporadic onslaught of mercenaries with a mysterious employer, he receives a little help from an interpol agent named DuPont (Idris Elba, whose spare time on-screen hopefully means there’ll be much more in the possible sequel). And along with Terrier’s PTSD, the vicious ex-warrior suffers from a vision-impairing head condition that could render fatal with the wrong blow, raising the stakes of his physical vulnerability.

The film is directed by Pierre Morel, who has experience in modifying dramatic middle-aged actors into action heroes, having reinvented the world’s appreciation for Liam Neeson’s phone usage with the 2009 thriller “Taken.” Before that movie, Morel also directed the high-flying parkour action movie “District B13,” which received a sequel (“District B13: Ultimatum,” directed by Patrick Alessandrin) and an American remake (Camille Delamarre’s 2014 “Brick Mansions,” starring the late Paul Walker).

In an interview held a couple of weeks before the film’s wide release on March 20, Morel shared his perspective with on creating “The Gunman.” We discussed his beliefs concerning the presentation of violence, why he had Sean Penn walk through a wall of flames, his upcoming project about whale wars, and more.

What new challenges did ‘The Gunman’ present to you, especially considering all of your experience with action films?

PIERRE MOREL: Well, I think I’m not just making movies about action. What’s interesting about [“The Gunman”] is that it is more than action. Obviously there’s a more complex plot, with more layered characters and depth than the previous ones. But it’s also an ensemble, there’s such a great cast. So it was all that. But everything was a new experience. You keep on learning. I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint one specific moment, but I am always trying to improve.

When you make your films, do you think within genre?

I don’t do genre, I just do movies.

That just have shootouts and fight scenes in them, sometimes.

Yes [laughs]. But it’s not about guns, I always say that. If it’s action for action’s sake, I am uninterested. As a viewer, I am happy to go see it, the purely entertainment. Like “The Expendables”— nothing serious about it, but it’s so much fun. As the cinematographer that I was, and as a director, I think I’m more interested in the story itself, and that the movie is driven by the story. And if the story leads to action moments, then I’m happy. If it’s too heavy and story-driven, then it becomes drama. But then it’s too action-y driven, then it becomes genre. So I like to be in the middle, where you get the best of both worlds.

Were there discussions about the violence within “The Gunman,”especially concerning its presentation?

It’s not about violence. As long as the violence is coherent to the story and the character, it’s okay. I think, or what I always try to do, is not to glamorize or glorify violence. It hurts, and it hurts for a reason. Because in real life if you hit someone it hurts, and if you stab someone it bleeds, and if you kill someone, it’s dirty. And if you film it in a graphic way just to make it look cool? No thanks. So if it’s part of the subject, and if it’s not gratuitous violence and it makes sense, then there’s no resistance to have. It’s just that it would make sense at that moment in the story that the character would do this. As long as it is coherent, the actors are okay.

Do you think it is possible to make anti-war film that has violence?

I’m afraid violence is a part of our world. And human beings are a pretty violent species, we’re not the kindest species on earth. So without glorifying that, you have to accept that. It’s not about too much or too little, it’s just that we live in a dark, gray world, with dark, gray characters. But we tend to like gray. But overall, it’s pretty dark gray.

There’s an inherent darkness within the lead characters of your films. Liam Neeson’s on-screen daughter is kidnapped by sex traffickers in “Taken,” and in “The Gunman,” its inciting events involve a war-torn Congo.

Yeah, I like to set the action of the movies in real situations, with real issues. For “District B13,” it’s cartoonish and its fun, it’s not a serious matter, but it does take place in that ghettos around the suburbs of Paris. There are no walls around the suburbs down there [as in “District B13”], but there is a weird ghettoization in a sense; it is relevant. “Taken” obviously is very relevant, [as] human trafficking is huge, and it only made sense to set [the film] in that world. And the violence inherent to that is coherent, and it makes sense. Same thing for this one, with what’s going on in the black ops of the global economy, which is not clean, I’m afraid. 

Penn’s character in the film has a very debilitating head condition, which makes him extremely mortal but even forces the audience to readjust their expectations for action. What intrigued you about pursuing this character trait?

I don’t do superheroes. But even superheroes have flaws: Superman had kryptonite, there’s the heart thing for Iron Man. They all have flaws. I think it’s very interesting. And one of the early things that we did with Sean [Penn] when we discussed the movie was that we both liked characters that had some kind of flaw, some kind of weakness at some point, whether it’s physical or mental, that will impair their capacity to fight back. And that’s more interesting. Because if you know he’s going to win from the get-go, then what’s the point? So it’s interesting to have his condition because of his past activities, than it can strike and make it impossible to fight. You can relate to characters with flaws more. I love humans. Super-humans, as a moviegoer I love [them], it’s entertaining, but I love humans.

And is it a coincidence that you’ve made another film with a middle-aged lead character?

Coincidence, I don’t know. I’m that age now too [laughs].

When you compose scenes of combat, you’re using lots of quick cuts with a great amount of of close-ups. What’s your interest in this type of filmmaking?

When it comes to action, it is very technical. You need the hits to be efficient. Even if you take a few frames off in the middle of shots, just to make it, it needs to hurt, basically. And then the pacing of when you cutaway, when you go to the drama and the dialogue, it’s all about the relationship between the characters. I am not specifically for or against pacing, it just needs to make sense. But then it’s all about the global pace of the movie. If you’re pre-paced all the way through a piece of the movie, and when you slow down, it has an impact. And you need to know when to do that, and not make it too long, so that when you start again it just has another impact. It’s all about riding waves, we’re always trying to do that. And I’ve been working with the same editor [Frédéric Thorval] since “District B13,” and we have that synergy with pacing.

What do you feel is the action director’s responsibility in terms of providing a full picture during such claustrophobic confrontations?

There’s two things. When it comes to action at least, what I like about movies, and action scenes, is when I understand what is going on. And there’s lots of movies where you don’t understand what is going on, because it’s just one big shaky thing and to me you actually lose energy by trying to add energy. If you shake the camera just to hide the lack of energy of what’s going on for real, it doesn’t really work. So you really need to have the right things going on on-screen, and then capture that. And then you need to see what’s going on, and breathe a bit. So it’s like, “this is where they are geographically, they’re going this way.” You can’t cheat that. It’s filmmaking vocabulary. Like, “This is where they are, this is what they do, and ding, ding, ding, ding, and then you pace up and cut to the hits.” And there’s no magic. If you want the hits to look good, there’s one angle to choose, not two angles.

How did you develop your eye for action, especially in a compositional sense?

I learned that from the Chinese. When I was DP-ing, like on the “Transporter” movies, I worked with Corey Yuen, who was a Chinese director, and I learned a lot from looking at how he shoots every hit in a specific way. Which I adapted, because I’m not making Chinese movies. And same with Woo-ping Yuen, who did some stuff with Jet Li. Martial arts movies are their specialty, so they have a very specific way to shoot action. And it’s very interesting to learn from them, and digest it and use it for a more western fighting style.

What’s your personal stance on practical filmmaking?

Well, there are a lot of visual effects shots in this, 600 of them, but the idea is not to see them. I try to keep things practical as much as possible, until the limits of safety. I like when there’s an interaction for real. And then you can enhance them with on-set impact, on-set fire. I think it does create an energy that the actors can use, rather than faking everything. I need that, that energy.

What’s an example of how that influenced Penn’s performance?

I always ask the actors to do everything themselves, and Sean did everything himself. The audience knows now that they can’t be fooled, it can’t be that whole “this is a wide shot with a stunt guy, then get a close-up of the real guy…” Come on. We all know. It’s good to have the actors to do everything and it shows, because then you cannot cheat. And even with this movie, we had Sean walking through a wall of flames. And you have to make it a controlled environment, but with the right people. When you have the DVD of “The Gunman,” you can zoom in and see that it’s his face in the towel.

Did this appreciation for the practical spur from your work on “District B13”?

Yes. [The work] shows. It’s a real guy jumping from here to there, and you see it in the same shot, there’s no cutaway.

What’s interesting about parkour, despite offering such exhilarating stunt work, is that Hollywood hasn’t embraced it as much as other countries.

There’s so many constraints. There’s safety issues. That’s something that productions need to take into consideration. You can’t jeopardize a production just because you want the guys to do the action themselves. If the guys break a leg you’re in for millions. That’s pure production. Even for “District B13,” it was a movie where nobody got hurt, but we had to be prepared and do the most dangerous pieces at the end, almost [laughs]. So that if anybody got hurt, it wouldn’t stop us from shooting. And you can’t do that in the states, I don’t think they will let you do that, it’s too dangerous.

As with “District B13” and “Taken,” you’ve started a lot of franchises but haven’t made any of their followups. Are you particularly interested in breaking that trend by making a sequel to “The Gunman”?

I tend to do new things. I just want to be compelled by the story. If this one is successful and they write another one and I like the idea, then of course, why not.

One potential project you’ve got listed as upcoming is the very intriguing whaler story “Sierra.” What can you tell us about that?

It’s about Paul Watson, one of the founders of Greenpeace, who is an ocean warrior. Have you seen “Whale Wars” on TV, where they’re fighting the Japanese whalers? We’re trying to put together a movie about the early days of this guy, because he got kicked out of Greenpeace basically because he was too proactive, and there’s the first couple of months and years when he got kicked out Greenpeace and rammed and sunk a whaler. He’s a crazy guy, but a really fantastic character. It’s not a biopic, it’s just about this moment, but he’s a really hardcore eco-warrior. And he succeeded, as the quotas of hunting are lower and lower. We may end up saving the whales, but the damage has been done, unfortunately. He’s a very good subject. You can get both action and content. With real issues, in the real world.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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