Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The pace – I always make it faster in editing. If you do your things right, you’re there with the character and the movie and your mind, as an audience, starts going faster.
Filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra knows how to tell a taut tale at a brisk speed. Cutting through any resistance with the sharpest of blades, his clean, economical style of storytelling offers up to audiences necessary thrills and the coldest of chills. ORPHAN, UNKNOWN, THE SHALLOWS and NON-STOP have shown off his skills cooking up unnerving, entertaining thrillers, and now with THE COMMUTER, the auteur fashions a Hitchcockian-influenced suspense that demonstrates his talents in the tightest of spaces – on a commuter train during rush hour.
Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) has just lost his job when he’s approached by a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga), asking him, “What kind of person are you?” For the next hour and change, she proceeds to test his boundaries in order to find out. The trouble is, she and her devious employers didn’t count on their target being as cunning and clever as only the best Liam Neeson characters can be.
At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the affable auteur over the phone about everything from the technical challenge of not having a real train to shoot on, to what sequence became “a leap of faith,” to if this will inspire people to read more classic literature.
Had you always wanted to do a movie set on a train? I know Hitchcock used trains a lot in his films.
No. Obviously trains are very cinematic. The first time somebody invented the camera, somebody shot a train. Great thrillers have happened in trains. I like movies like THE LADY VANISHES and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. It’s also a great metaphor for life – it’s something you can not get out of. It’s a final destination. After doing NON-STOP with Liam, we kind of wanted to repeat the experience a little bit. We wanted to do something where it was a mystery, a large ensemble, with different socio-economic backgrounds, but a very different character. We wanted to find a new character for Liam to play where he was more regular, more normal, more true to Liam’s age. When the script came along, that felt like the great opportunity to adapt all of our needs into this movie.
This really establishes the layout of the train really well – mainly with the camera going all the way through the train. Had you already had preconceived notions where you were going to set some of the major scenes that maybe were different from what the original script had set them?
Yeah. When somebody writes the script, they’re writing what happens, but they really don’t write in detail where it happens and how it happens. In the original script, the people writing it didn’t really know if it was four carriages, six carriages, if it were a hundred people, eight hundred people, or if people moved from two to three, would we miss a clue, you know? It was really a lot of work to break it down visually in my head to know where everyone was sitting – all of that geography to make sure there were no holes in that aspect. The script had to be rewritten. Some other passengers had to be placed in other places, because it wouldn’t work otherwise. And new scenes were created. So that’s how it evolved.
From then on, you’ve got to come up with a visual arc so the same environment doesn’t become boring for the audience. We only had one carriage. We had one carriage we kept redressing to make it look like the other ones. It’s not like we had a train two-hundred feet long. A carriage is like eighty-feet long. That’s why it’s important we knew where everybody was sitting.
You have the magic touch with red herrings – where you introduce them and how you introduce them. Is there a key element to creating that formula of where you put them?
For me, the key element is to know your ending and beginning, but don’t know the path there. Really question every decision. Sometimes box yourself into a corner and figure yourself out of that corner like the character would. If you already know the path to the end, it’s easier that you’ll give it away. Sometimes that takes you to really weird places where the script falls apart and then you have to start all over again. It doesn’t mean that every time it works, but you have to do the exercise to know that’s the only place you can go. You can discover a lot of great things if you go off plot mentally a little bit in the preparation.
There’s a rhythm to suspense too. Is that something that happens on set, or the editing booth? Or a combination of both?
You can not turn something that is shot in a completely radical pace. This can’t be helped in anything. If it was shot one way and edited for another pace, usually it will destroy the geography. The path there will be confusing. I’m very anal about it. If somebody looks at something, you look to what they’re seeing – you never cross the line. I get confused if I don’t shoot that way. To change an angle in a scene, it has to be done in a certain way where it’s not jarring for the audience. That’s just my style. The pace – I always make it faster in editing. If you do your things right, you’re there with the character and the movie and your mind, as an audience, starts going faster. You start understanding and you need less and less.
From a technical standpoint, are there goals you set for yourself- like test different techniques?
Not really. I was lucky enough to do about two hundred commercials before I made a movie. I’ve done everything. I put a camera inside a tamale once! I don’t believe in a movie just to be showy. You do what’s right for the movie, but you need to have an arc of some sort. You have to have an evolution. If you’re shooting in one location, you can’t shoot with the same lens, or same light, because you’ll bore people to death.
This was already a technical challenge because we didn’t have a train. That’s the challenge, which was a little bit like in THE SHALLOWS, where we shot it on an ocean for about a day – the rest is all green screen. The challenge is to make what’s obviously there, is not.
And feel grander too.
Yes. Only the things that make sense to the story. If you don’t feel like cutting a fight scene because you want to show the brutality and the realism of it, then that’s fine. It’s appropriate. Some of my shots are what I want to do and can do. Some is the time I can do. Some I have planned fifty shots, but something breaks down and I can only do twenty. My job is to make sure that doesn’t affect the movie overall.
Were there things about the camera movement, shooting a fight sequence in an enclosed space you learned on NON-STOP that you applied here?
Yeah. Fights are very difficult to shoot. Every movie that comes out has the next best fight. It has to really capture the actor’s rhythm – that’s #1. Just because it’s long doesn’t mean it’s better. I learned that on UNKNOWN – short is good if it’s well done. In enclosed spaces it can be helpful because you can cut faster. They have less places to go. If the characters can move less, you can actually cut faster. If they move a lot, you have to tell where that punch goes. Most of the time, I end up operating the camera myself during the fights. I learned that because I know the fights as much as the actor and the stunt coordinators. If I operate, I have a better chance at getting the right angle at the right time, than maybe an operator that hasn’t had the time to do rehearsals. I like operating as well.
I loved, in the beginning, how you show the passage of time. We get all the subtext without any of the exposition. Was that something that was in the script?
It’s a very different way to do it. That was my idea. I had to show his routine – not tell. Tell doesn’t help me. It’s not the same as me seeing it and understanding it. I had this idea and it was very hard to explain, to write and to shoot, because when you think of repetition, people think we’re going to see the same scene over and over again. Instead, you’re seeing different moments of scenes that all string together as one scene. It’s like time lapse 2.0. For that to have a flow, and for people to understand, it was a leap of faith. A couple of times, there were doubts if it was going to work. If it works, I’m really happy. We shot the thing in a day and a half.
Is your hope with this to inspire people to read classic literature and take the train?
[laughs] Ah, yeah. When I did research for this on this line, everybody was on their phone. So, yes. If you see in the beginning montage, everybody is on their phone except him – he’s reading. I wish I were that person. That’s why we made the books sort of a mini-theme. But I do love books and if you’re on a train, it’s a great thing to do.
THE COMMUTER opens on January 12.
Header photo:Liam Neeson and Vera Farmiga in THE COMMUTER. Courtesy of Lionsgate.