Some commercial directors are not filmmakers. They may be able to craft a few pretty images, but it’s a different medium. Even Steven Soderbergh once expressed befuddlement at the idea of handing over heaps of money to commercial guns-for-hire to make their first features, and last year alone we saw a few directors disappoint us in that regard. While Non-Stop director Jaume Collet-Serra didn’t set the world on fire with his leap into film, he’s gone on to carve out a strange and successful career for himself.
His first film, House of Wax, was a routine teenage horror picture. At the time of its release more people were focused on Paris Hilton’s perfectly fine, non-night-vision performance than Collet-Serra’s glossily moody style, and when you have her running around in her bra, “the direction” isn’t going to dominate the conversation. Still, it’s competently made, especially in its superior first half, but it’s not the movie Collet-Serra wants to be remembered for.
“For me, it was a learning experience,” Collet-Serra tells us, explaining what he dreamt for with his first feature. “My hope for House of War was to learn as much as I could and to do a good job for them, to see how it works. As I’ve had the chance to make more movies, I’ve been able to have more control.” House of Wax did decent business, but Collet-Serra wouldn’t have had the chance to make the movie today. “It was a time in Hollywood where they were giving these commercial directors, like myself, the opportunity to do these kind of big horror movies, which have kind of disappeared now.”
That jump from not-respected-genre work to slightly-more-respected-genre work is a directorial tradition, and for Collet-Serra, the method (and a dominating sense of style) can be traced back to Alfred Hitchcock.
Collet-Serra is one of the commercial directors who has found success, but the transition wasn’t easy. “It’s a different animal,” he says. “There’s similarities with, you know, having to put the camera there and having the shots mean something. When you do commercials you aim for perfection.” According to Collet-Serra, you can have 45 takes containing different ideas in commercials, but that’s not a luxury he often finds in feature filmmaking. Thus, starting off in commercials is a double-edged sword in terms of what it prepares you for and what it doesn’t. “On the one hand, it does prepare you to face any shot,” Serra continues. “On the other hand, you’re really directing in collaboration with an agency, which doesn’t prepare you.”
On those commercials and, to an extent, House of Wax, Collet-Serra was delivering a regulated product. It wasn’t until his third feature that he obtained the level of creative control he desired. “Orpahn was a special experience for me,” he recalls. “After doing House of Wax I did another movie, Goal II, which was something I wanted to make because I was a soccer fanatic, but it was a failure in many other senses. With Orphan I needed to prove I could do a good movie, no matter what the genre was.”
He saw the film as do or die time, and the result was a slickly made, funny, and rather twisted studio horror movie. “I really took many chances. I went for a few ballsy moves which, ultimately, paid off.”
Creatively those ballsy decisions — like placing kids in constant danger, or that third act reveal — paid off for the story, but not where the accountants care most. “Sequels have been talked about,” Collet-Serra explains. “Ultimately, I don’t think it was successful enough, and that’s usually the thing. It was a summer release and didn’t do great in the opening, so it wasn’t a huge movie.” It wasn’t huge by summer’s tentpole standards, but the movie had legs and, best of all, Collet-Serra is proud of the film. For a variety of reasons, Orphan should have become a hit horror franchise, and hopefully one day the powers that be will return to the idea.
In Collet-Serra’s fifth film, Non-Stop, Liam Neeson plays an alcoholic, cigarette-sucking Air Marshal named Bill Marks who faces a mysterious texter threatening to kill passengers on a jet unless they get a large amount of money. He does his job, but twists and turns place suspicion on everyone, including Marks.
He’s a gruff figure to begin with, but the cigarettes are a funny, little detail. Twenty years ago an antihero smoking would go unnoticed, but today, it’s a strange occurrence outside of prestige TV. “There was no discussion,” Collet-Serra was quick to say. “It was my decision. I wanted the character’s flaws to progress the story.” Serra isn’t kidding, either. More than a character detail/flaw, Bill’s smoking is an integral part of Non-Stop.
It seems small, but here’s where the Hitchcock connection comes into play. “Hitchcock is in an influence in how you identify with a character who is not perfect,” Collet-Serra says. He believes, like Hitchcock, the characters must solve their personal issues first before solving the external conflict. “In big movies, you really see that idea,” Serra adds. “In a thriller, it’s a perfect genre to do that — the key to the mystery is yourself, right?”
There’s also, of course, the suspense element to the story Collet-Serra is telling, and he’s especially concerned with one particular lesson of the Hitchcock school. “He was one of the first filmmakers to really think about his audience, and he was a pioneer in that regard. I think about the audience all the time. I try to make the movies for their pleasure, not so much for me. That’s what I takeaway most from Hitchcock,” says Collet-Serra.
While the ads for Non-Stop rely heavily on the third act’s action, the director trusts his audience to go along with the second act ratcheting before the feces hits the fan.
A movie set almost entirely on a plane with Liam Neeson beating up snotty passengers certainly makes up for the lack of conventional action-packed thrills (sorry, marketers), but, before getting to that slo-mo shot of Neeson grabbing his gun in the air, the director first needs to make the inside of that plane worthy of the big screen.
“It was a challenge, but everything is a challenge,” Collet-Serra says. “It was one of the reasons why I wanted to make the movie. If nothing else, I wanted to learn something. You have to prepare everything before you even start building the set.” The spatial limitations of the set up meant that, for example, if Collet-Serra decided he wanted to change a camera move on a whim, he wouldn’t necessarily be able to.
With that technical challenge it mind, it makes the controlled camerawork all the more impressive. There are two scenes in particular that transcend the mundane setting. “There’s one shot that takes eight minutes in the middle of the film that goes around the plane a couple of times,” Collet-Serra says, citing one of the most challenging sequences. “I had to design that shot first and then decide where everyone was sitting in the plane.” Each part of the plane, whether the bathroom or business class, creates a specific mood for Non-Stop, and so does that eight-minute shot. That second scene is a fight in an airplane bathroom. What could’ve been a stilted and claustrophobic fight scene is instead exciting and visceral thanks to a dynamic camera plan. Collet-Serra states that scene was easier to shoot than you might think — taking out walls, shooting through the mirror, etc. — but it’s still a feat that yields an amazing on-screen moment.
Shooting inside that set wasn’t the only challenge at hand, though. There is a lot of texting in Non-Stop, with Neeson staring at his cellphone for plenty of the film’s first two acts, occasionally from funny angles.
“What are we doing here?” Neeson would often ask, whenever the camera was placed in an unconventional place. Thankfully, Neeson grew to trust Collet-Serra early on in their partnership. The duo have now made three movies together, including the recently wrapped Run All Night. Not only does Collet-Serra feel comfortable around Neeson, but so do audiences. “Audiences know they’re in good hands with Neeson there,” says Serra. “He’s not just there for a paycheck.”
Still, even with that gentle giant Irishman around, Non-Stop remained a “technical nightmare.” It’s curious, then, that Collet-Serra would want to follow it up with Akira. Not exactly a vacation. It’s been a stop-and-go project for years now, and anyone who’s read the manga or seen the original film know its level of R-rated ambition isn’t well-suited for a tame PG-13 movie. Fans are weary of the remake, and Serra has a theory for why.
“The original material puts a lot of things out there, which everybody interprets differently,” Collet-Serra believes. “Everybody has their own idea for what it is. For some people whose version doesn’t match my version, they won’t like [the film]. For people that don’t know about it and want to see my version of that story, I think they will have a great time.”
The director predicts “95% of people” who go to the movies have no idea what Akira is. Nonetheless, Akira fans are vocal and will continue to be, even if the film never gets made with Collet-Serra behind the camera. The project is far from a sure thing, but no matter what happens with that particular title, there’s a good chance that Collet-Serra’s career will continue to thrive. While all his films, including Non-Stop, have been met with mixed reactions from critics, there’s no denying he’s making the type of self-aware, tongue-in-cheeck B-movies we need. Popular fare within the classic thriller model. In a day and age of ultra-serious blockbusters, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker unafraid to comically blow up January Jones for our amusement. Jaume Collet-Serra is an audience- friendly director who has the shadow of young Hitchcock following him.