Director Michael Cuesta on ‘AMERICAN ASSASSIN’s psychological portrait of a post-9/11 hero

(Left to right) Shiva Negar, Michael Keaton, Neg Adamson and Dylan O’Brien in AMERICAN ASSASSIN to be released by CBS Films and Lionsgate.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Do not mention the name “Jack Ryan” to director Michael Cuesta. He will roll his eyes at you. This is the lesson I learned when I began my line of questioning to the AMERICAN ASSASSIN filmmaker.

During our private conversation at the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, he seemed visible annoyed by the superficial comparison between the hugely popular Tom Clancy character to his espionage-tinged action-thriller starring Dylan O’Brien. However, as I was quick to point out (and win him over), unlike those other movies, this adaptation of the best-selling series by Vince Flynn places the emphasis on the character’s psyches and dynamic relationships.

I don’t think Dylan or Michael Keaton would’ve done the movie if it didn’t have that. Dylan was more interested in the psychology of this guy and his trauma. I wouldn’t have made the movie if I wasn’t able to get that. That’s in the books, but we definitely dug into that in this movie and it’s the origin story so you have to.

In AMERICAN ASSASSIN, O’Brien plays “Mitch Rapp,” a man hell-bent on revenge over the death of his fiancé when the CIA deputy director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) recruits him to be part of an elite counter-terrorism unit, led by legendary field agent Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). With the help of double agent Annika (Shiva Negar), they’re tasked to find the government’s 15 kilos of weapons grade plutonium and apprehend the thief, rogue mercenary ex-agent Ghost (Taylor Kitsch).

Though this is very much an action film, in all senses of the genre, it’s also a character-driven film. When asked about how he made sure to keep that at the forefront, Cuesta pensively mused,

How is that a two hour action movie can be boring?! It’s because you don’t care. For me, every action sequence needed to be earned – story-wise and character-wise, it needed to be motivated. All of that was crucial. I slowed the movie down when you get a tender moment with Annika where she clearly sees herself in him. It’s to have that moment where the other stuff works better. It’s a love story right there in that moment. They don’t need to sleep together or anything like that. Actually there was drafts where they did.

You also have the dynamic between the student and the mentor. You have the two students going against each other at one point. You have a father-figure and his surrogate daughter. For action movies, these aren’t things typically considered.

You have the interpersonal. Ghost’s character, as far as that triangle – and it is a triangle. Without empathizing with Ghost it wouldn’t have worked. You really understand, he’s doing a horrible thing and he’s bad, but you understand him. The whole revenge theme – they are all experiencing the personal. Everyone is doing it for personal reasons. That was really important to explore that dynamic. You’re the first person…picking up on the right things. That’s why I made the movie. I can’t make a mindless action movie. My job was to dig into that. I haven’t made this genre before.

What were the biggest fallacies about making an action film that were completely untrue?

That you have to have action every second. Now, there’s a lot of action in this movie, but you also have the other stuff. That rule where there has to be a ‘whammy moment’ every five minutes. We have a lot going on but I think that if you care, you don’t need as much action. Putting this movie together, we never got the note, ‘not enough action. Movie’s too slow.’

The book takes place in the 80’s/ 90’s and you modernized it. What were some of the themes you wanted to bring out?

I wasn’t involved with the original adaptation. I came in later and had read earlier drafts. It would just keep getting sent to me and I would just pass. I found Mitch to be impenetrable. I’m a bit of a method director. I have to be in the shoes of the character.

Not until the beach sequence was created and how it develops – how you’re with him subjectively. That was interesting. You really have to feel your main character. I’ll go anywhere with you after that sequence. When he wakes up with that weight on him, He’s gotta learn to get that brick in his pocket and control it but it never goes away. It’s always personal. You have to learn to be a professional and weaponize that.

Look at DIRTY HARRY – it’s always personal. And it’s kind of fun. Everyone pisses him off. Dylan really captured that in a younger, mischievous mall kid kind of way.

Dylan O’Brien in AMERICAN ASSASSIN. Courtesy of CBS Films and Lionsgate.

Were the other unexpected things the actors brought to their roles?

You’re not making a movie if you’re not allowing… filmmaking is a process. With Dylan, I was so happy. Him and I were always like, ‘Less is more.’ He was a bit of a chatty character which made him not likeable – it made him less complex. Dylan was always pushing me, ‘I don’t want to say that. Can’t your camera see that?’ Dylan’s a bit of a director, in a good way. He gets what the camera can communicate – what cinema can tell.

Michael Keaton- you have to let Michael go. I am someone who never cuts. Now with shooting digitally with the Alexa, it lets you keep rolling and with Michael that’s key. Once he’s in, you gotta go fast. He’ll keep going deeper and then I’ll yell, ‘Forget the lines. Make shit up!’ He’s got that comic thing where he’ll just make up his own stuff. That was great, like really good. He really got into a roll improvising on camera.

The bathtub scene is something that stood out. The tension and paranoia have reached peak levels with Mitch. And Dylan just really connects with it.

That was the scene where emotionally – not just because of his accident and also because of who Dylan is, because he’s very committed – that was not an easy scene because it was about trust. Because his accident and also trusting me, I could see he really went there in that scene. He feels so hurt and that’s some acting. It had to be about the performances not the fight even though the fight was great.

There’s a moment in here where we see a news report that says, “The American President.” Was it a conscious decision not to actually name the President?

When we shot the hospital scene, there was a photo up of Hillary Clinton, before the election. And the Brits, because I shot that in London, were like ‘Yeah. That’s where it’s going.’ I was like, ‘Put a blue screen in because you never know.’ There was a scene in the movie, which I cut, where the guy Stansfield picks up the red phone and there was a line clearly speaking to the President. I cut it. Why go there?! It’s too hot right now. It would take you out.

It struck me that this movie doesn’t paint this job as glamorous. It’s not a highly-stylized pop film.

Right. That’s not what this film is. It’s too relevant to do that and I don’t do that. I get bored with over stylizing things. I was a photographer. There’s too many movies like that. I can’t compete with Marvel. To do a gritty, grounded movie… I’m more into 70’s movies than 80’s ones. My son said it perfectly. He’s like, ‘The movie’s either going to be grounded and real or I want to see complete fantasy. Don’t give me in between.’ Which is Sly Stallone. That’s over. That’s dated. It was important to make it visceral and muscular and real, leading into simple suspense.

AMERICAN ASSASSIN opens on September 15.

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