Alex Cross director Rob Cohen has never been one what could label a “critical darling.” There are a few notable exceptions in Cohen’s filmography, like Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story or The Rat Pack, but even his most successful and well-liked blockbusters – xXx and The Fast and the Furious – didn’t get much love from the critical community. To Cohen, that doesn’t matter so much, especially if the audience eats it up.
A bad review may hurt Cohen, as he compares it to someone calling your baby the ugliest baby of all, but it won’t ever match the power of having a mass audience enjoying one of his popcorn movies. Obviously Alex Cross, his latest film starring the box office overlord Tyler Perry, hasn’t been met with a kind response thus far. Considering who Cohen wisely cast in the lead, those reviews won’t matter much when he sees this weekend’s box-office receipts.
Here’s what Rob Cohen had to say about crafting Alex Cross‘s bug-eyed villain, critics, his love for Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, and why Raiders of the Lost Ark wouldn’t get made today:
How are you feeling opening week?
You know, I’m kind of taken by such a great reaction at the premiere. As a director, you’re always very gratified when your cast loves the movie, because I’ve had the opposite…[Laughs] This is much better.
[Laughs] When the opposite happens, how do you handle it?
When they don’t like it? Like, when Jamie Foxx didn’t like Stealth? It puts a strain on the relationship, but it depends on how the actor really handles it. I know they wouldn’t like it if I came up to them during a big scene, saying, “This is really awful what you’re doing.” That’s not my technique as a director. Sometimes an actor feels betrayed if it’s not the movie they thought they were in. You just have to have a relationship where you can talk those things out or say, “Well, I guess we won’t be working together again.” [Laughs]
Matthew Fox had good things to say about working with you. What makes a collaboration between you and an actor work?
Well, what made it work between Matthew and me was the fact we spent four months emailing each other back and forth, while he was in London doing a play. We really developed the character’s goals in every single detail that you could imagine, and some you can’t imagine. By the time we started to mount that, we knew what was right and wrong. When he asked how I saw Picasso, I said, “I see him as a surgeon, who thinks he’s cutting away necrotic tissue, but doesn’t use anesthesia.” He would comeback to me and go, “I think he’s fascinated by all pain. Not just by others, but his own as well.” I said that’s a great idea, so we’d find a moment or two when he’s given a painful moment, and then we’ll show he’s as fascinated by his own as others.
We said he’s fat-less. He’s so efficient he has no hair. There was a time when we were talking about saving his eyebrows, but we backed away from that, since it’s too visually extreme. We went back and forth on everything, from the clothes to how he approaches his world of assassination or serial killing. We said he had the fascination of a serial killer, but had an intellect so sharp, that he has made a very good living killing people for hire. When the professional, coldblooded, precise assassin comes into conflict with the emotional, passionate, vengeful serial killer, that’s when his character begins to breakdown. That’s why I developed that visual trick of the multi-layers. Whenever he’s thinking not to do something, the serial killer is saying he has to do it, which is when we do the multi-layered thing with a hand-cranked camera and a tilt-shift lens.
We had all those conversations, and then that carried onto the daily work on the set. When we were on the rooftop, I said, “Why don’t you lay those Picasso eyes on the camera? Why don’t we destroy the fourth wall, to let the audience feel when they’re in this guy’s sights?” He said, “I’m not sure!” [Laughs] I just said to try it. It’s film, you know? If it doesn’t work, we won’t use it and we’ll do something more conventional. The way he did it, with the windup he gave himself, it blew everybody away. It was a very living, breathing way, and I wish everything would be that.
A shot like that could go either way. When do you find out if something, such as that shot, is effective?
I knew it worked in the editing room. Even behind the monitor I knew it worked. Very often things will shift when they’re put next to something else, though. The first cut that I looked at had that moment there, and it really gave you this reaction. I try to create films which will give you an adrenaline or a reaction where you feel like you’re moving, with a car crash from Fast and Furious or the look into the camera. I want it to feel like your gut gets grabbed. I like going to the movies for that reason, and I think that’s why a lot of people like to go.
Alex Cross fits more into that mold of Fast and Furious, where it deals more with practical effects and is slightly more grounded. Did you see this is a return to that form of popcorn filmmaking?
Yeah. One of my favorite words I like to use is “muscular” when talking about a movie. I want it to have a direct, in-your-face, and a one-to-one relationship with the viewer. The more I get to that, the more I feel the muscular the film is. A part of why I do things in camera, instead of a knee-jerk reliance on special effects, is…as good as special effects are today – and they are great and I’ve had a good hand in developing them – there is no substitute for the thousand subtle clues in any given image which says, “This is real, not done by pixels.” That reality – and whether it’s base jumping off a falling Corvette in xXx or the explosion in front of the courthouse – feels genuine, and that genuineness is what makes a film feel muscular. As good as visual effects are, you feel like you’re in an unreal world. That can be great, like if you’re doing The Avengers or The Dark Knight, where you’re entering into a world of fantasy. If you’re doing something about a cop and his family, if you get taken out because of a moment of unreality, it really bursts bubble.
Do you enjoy that unreal filmmaking, though?
Oh, yeah! It’s horses for courses. I had a ball making The Mummy, Dragonheart, and Daylight. There’s a lot of films I’ve used big special effects and created new kinds of effects. This was not Alex Cross, though. You want it to be down in the soul of that character.
You mentioned wanting to create a one-on-one relationship with the viewer. What got you interested in that type of audience-friendly filmmaking from the start?
Look, God knows the critics are not on the side of audience-friendly filmmakers. They seem to think that’s less of a moviemaking effort than the things they usually tend to climb onto, which is fine. Maybe that’s their role. What I find is, above all, I’m an audience viewer. When I go to a movie I want to be entertained and stimulated, and that stimulation can come from a movie like The Battle of Algiers or The Last Year at Marienbad, but it can also comes from The Avengers, which I loved. Why does it have to be one thing? When you have a medium as diverse and so bursting for different things, why does it have to be an alienating, slow, verging on boring experience to get a good review?
I like getting an experience from a filmmaker, and that can come from Beasts of the Southern Wild or, you know, Ted [Laughs]. I loved Ted, but I also loved Beasts of the Southern Wild. I don’t feel like I have to choose between them, even though they’re from two completely different universes. They’re equally valid, equally good, and both difficult to pull off. I’m always there to say, “Let me see something that will entertain me, distract me, elevate, or stimulate me.” I don’t care what the form is. I’m always as happy to cry or jump out of my seat as having my intellect massaged or challenged.
Was there a specific point in your career where you started feeling that way about critics?
Yeah. It happened after my first movie, A Small Circle of Friends. I got a real critical drubbing from most of the major critics, and most of whom are dead now. It was, like, “Okay, I guess I’m not going to be one of their darlings.” [Laughs] I went, “Well, I could chase that dream or I could stick to my guns with what I want to do.” I stuck to what I thought was right. I’ve had my share of critical successes – Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, The Rat Pack, and some other things I’ve done – but more often I’ve had bad reviews and big box-office. There’s a reason my career has lasted 40 years, and it’s not because I’m a darling of Peter Travers.
[Laughs] It sounds like a simple choice of wanting to please millions or a hundred critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s simple, and yet, you cannot…when a real good director puts in the amount of thought, care, and love into their film, and then you stand naked, knowing your friends are reading something from the New York Times calling your film ugly, distorted, dull, or stupid, you can’t ever take all the pain out of that. You know, it’s like having a brand new baby you present to the world, and someone comes over to its crib and says, “That’s the fucking ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.” [Laughs] You may want to punch the person, but you can’t deny that it stings. You just say it’s a part of your job.
You have to accept there’s always been these people, and they’ve been wrong. Go back in history and read the reviews of all the films we love today, and you’ll find the people who said they were bad, stupid, missed the mark, or whatever. That goes from Casablanca to Gone with the Wind to Citizen Kane. What I said to Vincent Canby, who slammed my first film, is, “Somewhere, somehow people will still be watching the movie, as they’ve forgotten you were a critic.”
How do you know if your film works for an audience, then? Is it test-screenings or going to the theater on weekends?
Oh, yes. I do three test-screenings before I lock a picture. As horrible as the process is, it’s very important. As politically fraught as it is with the studio or the financiers…they all start to get numbers to use for the argument they’re making. You know, like, “Four people between the ages of 25 to 28 didn’t like this scene!” Then you go, “Well, what about the other 400 people in the audience?” They go, “No, we have to get rid of that scene!” [Laughs] You get all that kind of arguing.
As flawed as it is with the politics of it, you get the audience telling you it can be slow. It doesn’t matter how fast I think it is. If I’m hearing plot confusion, pacing issues, or performance issues, I listen and go back into the editing room, trying to interpret it in a way that does nothing but improve the film. It’s a luxury to get to the end user, in a sense. It’s not a burden to ask people, “Did you like him? Did you feel that?” For this film, from the get go, people felt it was paced really well and 90% or more came away going, “My God, I never thought Tyler Perry could do this! I didn’t recognize Matthew Fox for the first 15 minutes!”
Obviously you’ve made a few original blockbusters yourself, with xXx and The Fast and the Furious, but that’s not something we get very often now. In the past few years, for you, how tough has it been trying to make original, big budgeted projects?
It’s almost impossible. Through the studios? Almost impossible, and the closest to impossible since 1971, which is when I started a movie career after Harvard. Like, Jack, what’s your favorite movie?
Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Okay. Raiders of the Lost Ark would have a very difficult time getting made today. Let’s take George [Lucas] and Steven [Spielberg] out of it, and instead say it’s a reasonable director with a project about an anthropologist in the 1940s. The guy has a bull whip and looks for artifacts. What’s he looking for? The ark of the covenant. Oh, what’s that? You know, where they used to keep the 10 commandments. You know what I mean? Pitching that to any of the studios today would be an eye roll, like, “Yeah, we’re not into period pieces, unless it’s the future!” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Which could change at the drop of a success. Like, if Gangster Squad is a hit, maybe more period pieces would happen.
Yeah, yeah. But then they’ll point to Lawless or Public Enemies. They have arguments for everything. As my agent told me, a studio head came in who said, “Don’t bring me in anything that isn’t a major title, like a book or something with sequel possibilities.” That’s really tough to hear, and that’s why I’m a champion of Ted, since it’s the only really original movie we had this past summer. I really loved The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises, but they’re building on something else. This guy, Seth McFarlane, who is a genius as far as I’m concerned, came along and said, “I’m going to do a comedy so outrageous, so strange, so delightfully demented.” I’m telling ya, I haven’t enjoyed a comedy that much in a long, long time.
The fact is, Hollywood never stays the same. It’s like a big wheel, and right now that big wheel is on fear and paralysis, and later it’ll turn to unbounded greed and people will start to make movies again.
Alex Cross is now in theaters.