If there’s one thing to take away from Sylvain White, it’s that he’s not content to slide into a particular genre and stay put. In a young career, he’s already done horror, a hip-hop driven drama, and his next entry is the team on a mission style comic book adaptation The Losers.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with the director on the day he locked picture on the film to talk about dance battles, getting lost in the jungle, and one of the best Birthday gifts he’s ever gotten – the chance to shoot a project he’s loved since he was a kid.
Scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you about locking the film?
Oh, wow…12, man. [Laughs] It’s cool. It’s a really fulfilling feeling. It’s a point of commitment, too. You know, you commit to the picture at that point, and also I’m looking forward to working with my composer Jon Ottman and my sound effects guy. I love sound design. That’s an entire process I’ve been able to embrace. I was able to do some great work on my last film that really enhanced the experience, and with an action movie like this, there’s some awesome possibilities with sound design.
Also, the visual effects stuff starts kicking in, too. I’ve been seeing a lot of that the last two months, but we’re getting to the finishing stages on that, so that’s also exciting. It’s a really cool part of the process, but it’s also a great situation because I get to finish, and the movie comes out right away. There’s no waiting time. Don’t have to wait 8 months for the release or anything like that, so it’s kinda cool. It’s putting it out into the world.
And near-instant gratification.
You mentioned working with music. Stomp the Yard has so much music involved because it’s about a particular dance movement. How much of The Losers is influenced by sound design and music?
It’s a great cinematic tool of course, and I try to use it as best I can. My composer is very talented, and we’ve had a great collaboration so far. In terms of unifying the themes in the scenes in the movie or the themes to the characters, it’s something that adds a lot of detail, a lot of emotion to the movie. I try to pay careful attention to that as I did in my last picture. But some of the music cues – obviously we’re not as music-cue driven as Stomp the Yard was. Not a bunch of club dance scenes – but I do try to do some pivotal songs here and there that really give it a kick start or some comedy sometimes. We have a song by Journey – “Don’t Stop Believing” – that we use. [Laughs] The use of it is pretty interesting and cool. I try to also use as many different styles of music as possible in terms of the cues as well. A little rock. A little hip hop.
It sounds like you’re saying there’s not going to be a dance off in The Losers.
[Laughs] There’s quite a bit of a dance-like fight between Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Zoe Saldana – they’re the characters of Clay and Aisha – it’s quite remarkable. I’m really proud of that scene. It’s a really cool action scene, and I think it sets a bench mark in the boy/girl fight scene. It’s probably one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
You don’t see many of those in films.
And specifically, this one is fun and believable at the same time. You really see the character of Aisha – she’s all about stealth and speed and quick hits – and the character of Clay is more like a boxer, more of a slugger, and you combine the two and you get something exciting and kind of level.
I’m trying to think off the top of my head, and the only ones I can think of are the ones in Daredevil and Crouching Tiger where there’s that fight scene that turns into sex out there in the desert.
That’s right. That’s right. There’s one in Mr and Mrs Smith that’s kind of classic.
Oh, right. Of course. Well, what other boundaries do you feel like you’re pushing with this movie?
The thing that first drew me to the film that ultimately made it unique and appealing was the combination of hard, gritty action with a light comedic tone. I think in the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of hyper-kinetic action in movies, a lot of realistic action in movies, but it’s almost always combined with very dry, very serious tones and plots and characters. I feel like – and this was the tone of the comic book. I didn’t invent anything here. I was just trying to mirror the comic book as much as possible – it’s the combination here of engaging, visceral action and light characters that you go on a ride with.
The resulting cocktail is pretty impressive. It works because you’re engaged in the action, but you can laugh and have fun during the scenes and intermittently during the action. It’s a really nice balance. That’s how I feel the movie stands out the most.
When you were announced as the director for The Losers, there were a lot of mixed reactions. I wanted to touch on how a guy who does a direct-to-video horror entry and then a movie like Stomp the Yard becomes a comic go-to.
Yeah, you know the funny thing is that I grew up in France, and I read a lot of graphic novels. They were a big passion for me, and that graphic novel world there is huge. There’s more publications there than in the States. I’ve always been a comic book fan at heart.
As a filmmaker, you come into Hollywood – I was just a young kid, and everybody has their way in. I started doing music videos and commercials, and I cut my teeth on a couple of low budget films – I Know [What You Did Last Summer] 3 was one of them – those are just opportunities you take to try to move up the ladder and show people you can deliver certain things. I’m at the point now on the ladder where I can do things that I have a passion for. I’m in a position where I can do movies I’m really interested in. Stomp the Yard was the first movie – [Laughs] you know, the funny thing is that when I was up for that movie, people said, “Well, he’s never done a dance movie before.”
After Stomp the Yard, I booked The Losers, and people said, “Well, he’s never done an action movie before.” I take that as a challenge, and I study. I’m a student of filmmaking, and I’ll continue to be. When I got ready for The Losers, I did my homework. We’ve tested the movie already, and that’s one thing they love about the movie. They say the action is great, and I’m proud to say that because, yes, I’m a first time director of action here.
The other thing that worked out, that’s quite impressive – not to brag – is the scale of the movie and the schedule we had. It was hard to believe we wouldn’t have any reshoots, any pick ups, any inserts after the fact, and I came in on budget, on schedule and on time, and never had to do one reshoot, one pick up, one insert. I never had to, you know, do an insert of a tire screeching off or a close up of a gun trigger. I tempered myself. I knew what I was doing, and I can’t wait for the world to see it, of course, but I’m proud of what I did. I’m looking forward to seeing the people react.
Since you were a first time action director, what was the toughest thing to learn during that process?
I didn’t find it particularly difficult, surprisingly. I came really well prepared. The hardest part is visualizing the scene and then to storyboard it first. But in terms of the execution, once you have your plan of attack, it’s just like anything else. Which I found out. I just had to be well prepared and rock it out.
At the same time, I was really well-surrounded. Lucky for me, there was a little drought in movies while we were shooting, so we were able to get really high-level people in terms of stunts, in terms of special effects and explosions. All those departments we got people who had worked for years and with huge movies, so I was able to benefit. The benefit, as well, of it being a Joel Silver movie is that you can attract high talent in those departments. You get the best people wanting to work on the movie. I was able to benefit from being well-surrounded.
Definitely. You had the same pyrotechnics guys who did Iron Man, The Dark Knight and Iron Man 2.
Yeah, yeah, John Cazin. Every time I watch the movie, I praise his name because – the explosions for the money we had – he really went all out, and really gave me a great production value. I was very fortunate.
You said this earlier, and it is unfair to take a director and pigeonhole him instantly, but we do that in the media quite often…
And from my perspective, I’m a young director, I’m coming out, these are my first movies, and I’m going out there trying to prove myself, but I’ve got an eclectic taste. I like different kinds of movies, so I try to go do movies I enjoy now that I have those sorts of choices. When you first start you try to find opportunities, and I think it was Sydney Lumet who said, “You never turn down your first opportunity to direct a movie.” It’s so hard to get that opportunity.
Now that you’ve delivered on that opportunity, what would you like to take on?
I’ve got a lot of ideas and projects in development. I have a project in development over at Warner Bros. which is an adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel called Ronin – which I have a huge passion for. It’s really an iconic graphic novel from the early 80s. It deserves careful attention, and I’m really excited about that.
There’s another project that’s also a graphic novel based on a French graphic novel called Infinity – which is a sci-fi property, and John Collee, who is the writer of Master and Commander, is adapting it for me as we speak. That’s another project I’m working on, and I have a few things I’m writing myself, so you’re always trying to put out ideas and look at what to do next. You never know what’s gonna happen.
I actually read in an interview that Ronin was something you’d wanted to do for years. Can you describe what it’s like to get that phone call where you get the news that you’re going to be doing something that you’ve wanted to share your vision of for that long?
The beautiful thing about that one is that when I first heard I got it, it was my 30th birthday. The producer showed up unexpectedly. I was having a little get-together in Santa Monica with some friends, and he showed up and gave me this: he gave me the graphic novel wrapped up as a birthday present with a note attached on the inside that said, “Are you interested in doing this?” So, it was a particularly memorable moment for me.
It’s incredible. Especially some of those things that you read when you’re a teenager and this kind of career or the opportunity to do something like this is so far beyond what you think is your reach. You know what I mean? It’s so unrealistic. Sometimes it feels so surreal. I feel like it’s a great opportunity. With some of these things, passion makes all the difference in the final product. That’s the advantage.
For my last question, I wanted to go back to The Losers. You’ve spent a lot of time with the novel. Andy Diggle and Jock are icons in that world. In working with it so intimately throughout the process, was there any moment that hit you in the chest or wowed you?
The whole experience was surreal. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we shot the entire movie in Puerto Rico. Just being there on this island, there were so many moments.
For example, we were deep in the jungle, and we had to take a bus and a van and a security quad down this path, and walk down this muddy slope where you have to walk around this river and get all this equipment around the river so we can shoot the opening scene of the movie there. That was actually one of our first two days. That felt surreal. That felt like I was so far away from everything, and that’s kind of the point of the scene – to show you that they’re on this secret mission on the other side of the world, and I had my guys in their full uniforms and everybody in character.
It’s moments like that contextually that are amazing.