'The Protégé' Director Martin Campbell on How You Choreograph a Michael Keaton Action Scene [Interview]
Martin Campbell has had a varied career. For every high that is The Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye, or Casino Royale, there’s The Legend of Zorro or … Green Lantern. But you can’t deny that the filmmaker knows his action — he’s worked in the genre for upwards of three decades now. And he’s back with another action flick with his upcoming assassin film The Protégé, which stars Maggie Q as an assassin whose traumatic past is brought back to the surface when she discovers her mentor and father figure (played by Samuel L. Jackson) has been killed.
I spoke with Campbell about making The Protégé, which has been in the works in some form since about 2017 — back when it starred Gong Li and went by a different title — and what he thinks about the state of the action movie landscape today.
What initially drew you to the project that would eventually become The Protégé?
Oh, I thought it was a great story, number one. It was a very interesting script. There was some very snappy dialogue and also it was just different to a lot of the kind of the same genre of movie that I’ve seen before. And so it was really that plus the opportunity to work with three really good actors to bring it to life. I mean, that sort of combination. But mainly it was the story. It was the story that I thought was really intriguing, had a lot of surprises. You think you know where it’s going and then it changes, things happen. And that, I guess, was it.
So you boarded this film back when it was titled Ana and starred Gong Li. What did the script originally look like and how did it change in the years since?
Well, Richard [Wenk] did quite a lot of rewriting. When Gong Li was involved, that was way back. God, I can’t even remember when that was. But anyway, to cut a long story short, it didn’t happen with her and it was finally, one of the producers, Arthur Sarkissian, took it to Avi Lerner at Millennium, and he said he would do it. That’s really how it came about. But then we set to work, did some rewrites, just updated it because as you say with Gong Li, it’d been a little while before we’d done that and Richard didn’t want to do any rewriting until he knew the film was going to be shot. So when that happened, we sat down and I did some work on the script and then it went from there.
So was it always the intention to have the female lead of this film be someone from the Asian continent?
Because obviously with Maggie Q on board, it would take place largely in Vietnam.
Yes. That’s always — it was always written like that.
So I spoke with Maggie a couple weeks ago, and she told me that she was not keen on returning to the action genre before she changed her mind to do The Protégé. Did you have a part in convincing her to take on the role?
No. I mean to be honest, I’d seen a clip of her just acting, not the action. I had no clue about the fact she was an action, you know, she had done a lot of action. And I took her on her acting alone, just her performance. And we talked on the phone and so forth. I think she felt it was, you know, there was a lot more beyond the action in this film. The relationship with Michael Keaton, the relationship with Sam Jackson and so forth. So there was a lot more to it than just kicking butt basically. And I think that’s probably what did it for her.
Yeah, there is a great central dynamic between Maggie Q’s character and Samuel L. Jackson’s character, the father daughter dynamic of it all. Can you speak about that and how it became sort of the driving force of the film?
Well, the rare thing is that it had an emotional spine in the story, which I thought worked great. And that was obviously between her and Sam Jackson. He being the father, she the daughter, or being an adopted daughter, and that was absolutely key. So there are a couple of very early scenes up front which had to establish that because things happen very fast after that. And of course she’s on the journey, you know what I mean? She loses her father. And so it was essential to get that relationship between them both settled in those scenes if you see what I mean? So that was key really, in terms of their relationship.
I want to talk a little bit about Michael Keaton’s character and how he’s kind of this almost roguish wrench in her plans and in the plot. And was that something that Michael Keaton brought to the performance or was that something that was always in the character as written?
Oh, there’s no question it’s in the character as written. But to give it to someone like Michael Keaton, who now notches it up a couple of steps because he’s such a good actor that he embraces that part and he really brings it to life. I mean, you need someone like Michael Keaton to make that work. It was written like that, if you see what I mean, but in the hands of perhaps another actor it would not be nearly so good. And it created the chemistry between them both, which I think works very well in the movie. But someone of Keaton’s ability just really lifts that part off the page.
Did you similarly have any surprises when you start shooting and the actors start doing their thing and they bring something to life from the script in a way that you maybe didn’t expect?
Oh yeah, it always happens. Whoever it may be, and it’s always a kick. After all, the script is just a script, the film is something different. I mean, when you’re actually filming and you’re going for the performances, often little things, line deliveries, a little bit of business here or there, makes all the difference in the world. And that again is why you have the actors we got because they can bring all that to the party if you know what I mean?
So the notable thing about this movie is that all of its leads are older actors, especially for an action film. What was it like framing and choreographing fights around older actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton?
Well, both Sam and Michael are in their sixties now, but Michael is in very good, he’s fit, fit as a fiddle actually. And the main thing is that Maggie clearly is very well-trained in action so she knows what she’s doing, and she’s very good at it. Michael hadn’t done action for a long time. He had to rehearse before we actually did the sequences. He had to rehearse with the stunt guys and so to know all the moves. And he did, and really actions about committing.
If you commit to it and you really go for it, no matter you may screw it up eight times, but on take nine you get it. And you only need one take. That’s all. In the movie you don’t need the other eight takes. And it’s down to their commitment as actors to really go for it, if you see what I mean. And it’s tough, it’s very tough for some actors. I mean, Michael has done action before so he had a good grasp of it, but you’ll often hear actors say, oh, you can use my double for that. But we didn’t use the doubles that much.
Were there any moments when, especially with Michael, just kind of getting warmed back into the action beats and the action genre, that there was some obstacles or particular challenges?
Yeah. The thing is he did have to get back into it and there’s obviously the Maggie fight, but there’s the one before in the alleyway where he really had to go for it, if you see what I mean. But again, these things are done in setups and cuts and so forth. And when you’re working with Jackie Chan, for example, he will just do two hits and cut the camera, then he will go to another angle and he’ll pick up from that point and go one hit back and then do another three hits, cut.
He’ll do it like that because he knows how to edit the thing. And all that’s important is the bit you’re going to use, either side of that doesn’t matter. And so it’s very much that of actually knowing how to shoot the thing. And it’s all done in small bits so when it goes together, of course, it all seems to flow. And obviously you can see that in any action film really, but it’s all done in little bits. So the actors do have a chance to A, get it right without exhausting themselves too much, and providing you know where to cut, then it works fine.
So you’ve been making action films in Hollywood for quite a while now, has there been a shift in the action genre since you’ve been making them? And what would you say that shift has been in recent years?
Well, the shift with action has gone to digital, that’s what’s happened. And you now get obviously all the superhero stuff, I get that, that’s all like the Marvel comics and so forth. But then you get Hobbs and Shaw, which the action gets close to preposterous, but it’s fun to kind of watch. And then you get ludicrous action of something like Fast and Furious, the last Fast and Furious which is so nuts that you just switch off. I mean, that’s what happens. What we used to do in the old days, like in the ’70s and ’80s, was there was no digital. So your action was much more realistic in terms of what you could achieve, everything else, because that’s all you had. There was no cheating. I mean, you couldn’t, sure the way you cut it, and yes you could use a double here and there, but these days you can just replace a face.
You can use the double and put someone else’s face on them. You can do ludicrous kind of action. You can drop 50 feet, the car survives, it drives over and then does three flips, you know what I mean, and then drives off. And so in a way, digital has sort of made the action just, I think it’s worse, the action now, much worse than it was then. Honestly, I do. And it’s because of the tools of digital really, and people go nuts with it. And most of it, I just don’t believe.
The Protégé is pretty scaled back compared to the films that you just referenced. So would you say that it’s almost a throwback in some ways?
I don’t think so. I just think the action is appropriate for the movie, if you see what I mean. I honestly think the action suits the movie. I didn’t want it to be any bigger. It’s all character-based, the action, which is important. But you know, we don’t have any cars flying from, with a 200 foot drop between the buildings as it leap, any of that, because for a film like ours that would look ridiculous. So it’s all kept very personal, very tight as it were and thought through. But the action I think is just appropriate to the movie.
I will say that if The Protégé is picking up on any action trends in general, it’s the emergence of the assassin movie, especially in the wake of the John Wick films, Atomic Blonde. Would you say that there is any sort of through line from those kinds of films that are bringing back that much more intimate action with The Protégé?
Well, John Wick has sort of established a world and a type of action. I mean, if you really analyze it, it’s kind of ludicrous, you know, he shoots 15 people, but they have some wonderful action. I mean, in the last one, the knife fight, for example, they have a really fun, different, you know, but yeah, scaled back. It doesn’t need anything more than they do because their action’s terrific. And it’s kind of, yeah, it’s way over the top and so forth, but you kind of, it’s actually new and joy because it’s inventive. The whole thing is inventive and great. I mean, look at Mission Impossible, the last one, it was fantastic. The fight in the men’s room. And if you remember that, it was phenomenal, but it was all real. I mean, there was nothing over the top in terms of its concept. It was just two guys, Cruise and what’s the name?
Henry Cavill, having the sh*t beat out of him by this guy, right? And it was fantastic. It was a terrific fight.
The Protégé hits theaters August 20, 2021.
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