For his debut feature ‘Wheelman,’ Jeremy Rush puts a new spin on a classic, but not entirely exhausted, sub-genre.
Wheelman traps its audience behind the driver’s seat for the entirety of its running time and only offers them solace in exchange for other acts of exhilarating brutality. Director Jeremy Rush geeks out over gaskets and gears and it absolutely shows all over his debut feature. Wheelman is steeped in the history of Steve McQueen and Michael Mann but paves new ground through sheer filmmaking audacity. Partnering with Frank Grillo and Joe Carnahan’s War Party production company, Rush rockets onto the scene with a lean, vicious little beast of a flick certain to steal your attention from the endless surplus of your Netflix feed. Speaking to Rush over the phone, we chatted about the challenges of locking the POV behind the wheel, the strategy beneath nineteen nights of shooting, and the importance of Grillo’s genuine mug.
For your first feature film, why torture yourself by trapping the majority of the experience behind the wheel of a car?
That’s a good question man. It’s funny, we did a screening recently at Fantastic Fest and I made that comment, “Don’t ever make a movie inside of a car.” You know, I don’t think I knew that it was going to be quite as torturous as it actually was. It seems like a really cool concept and device, a contained thriller on four wheels, and … It was technically and logistically, it was really complex. It was a very, just a very technical film to execute, but once we got into the rhythm of it, it took … Oh, I guess that first four or five days to get the rigging, and it sounds like you’re well aware that just rigging a camera on or in a car-
Is just time-consuming and just it’s a bit of a nightmare.
But once the … You know, we had a kick-ass crew in Boston. They have super experienced crews there that have been making pretty big films over the last eight or ten years, so we had, I think Katheryn Bigelow was shooting Detroit at the same time. There were two or three other movies and a TV show shooting at the same time, but we had the best crew in Boston because we crewed up before everybody else did.
So our rigging crew was just A-list. So once we kinda got the rhythm going, to be honest, it just kind of started to feel like, “Okay. This is the movie we’re making,” and for me, as a first-time filmmaker, I knew I wanted to … Well, first of all, I feel like it’s the obligation to try to do something that audiences hopefully haven’t seen before, even if it’s only two or three degrees different in each scene or the overall film.
I don’t necessarily want to retread ground that’s already been tread before, and I hadn’t seen a movie like this before, zo conceptually, that’s kind of where it came from. And then, it seemed like a way … The limitations were actually pretty freeing, because it allowed me to play in that kind of a smaller sandbox, and try some stuff that I otherwise might not have been able to, on a film that was shot more traditionally with traditional coverage, and requiring more set-ups, etc.
This movie was shot in 19 days. There was no way we could have shot this film with traditional coverage in 19 days, it just wouldn’t happen. So, it actually played to our benefit, despite being the nightmare that you kind of described. It actually played to our benefit to shoot it in this way. The challenge then being every car angle has been shot a million times in every movie, and so how do we come up with a visual style that is hopefully singular to this film, and that became the challenge then outside of the technical, logistical stuff.
So, shooting only 19 days, did you heavily storyboard the film, did you know what shots you needed going in?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. When I write a screenplay I typically do, kind of a lookbook sort of a visual reference guide, where I’ll pull screen grabs from other films, and compile them into a PDF book, and for Wheelman, by the time we were up and running, I think it was about a 75 or 80 page lookbook with screen grabs from a bunch of different films and then descriptions, text descriptions of what I was seeing or what I was wanting in each one of those screen grabs, so by the time I landed in Boston, I had that 80 page lookbook, that basically became the visual reference bible for the film.
In addition to that, I worked with a storyboard artist and storyboarded essentially the entire film, before I even got to Boston, probably three-quarters of it was storyboarded. I kind of skipped some of the longer dialogue scenes, just because I knew that the coverage was going to be similar to other dialogue scenes, but more or less storyboarded the whole film.
Then once I connected with our DP, Juan Azpiroz, he and I worked together to then render out a shot list, so we shot listed literally every single shot in the film, just because we knew that we were so limited with time. We had to be very economical with our coverage, and then we were shooting anywhere from two to three cameras simultaneously, so we knew we had to be really precise with where we’re placing those cameras in order to not see the other cameras.
And then we were sort of leapfrogging one vehicle to another, so we had an A Vehicle and a B Vehicle, except for shooting the BMW. So, A Vehicle we’d be out shooting with while Vehicle B was getting rigged and then we’d finish with A, we’d come back and we’d put Frank into Vehicle B, go shoot with that, while A was then getting rerigged. So we were just doing that constantly at night for 19 days, so it was yeah, it was really, really precise prep with all of our shot lists and storyboards.
Then looking at the action itself, the cinematography around the chase sequences was confined as well. You have a lot of cameras rigged right onto the body of the car. You’re shooting that BMW close to the ground-
Gave it a unique flavor.
Yeah. Thanks. I do think that’s the obligation for filmmakers, is to try to do something hopefully that audiences haven’t seen before so that the last thing we want to do is waste anybody’s time. If you’re gonna go spend 90 minutes and watch a film, hopefully, you’re gonna see something and experience something that’s at least a little bit different than what you may have seen before.
I mean, this genre is pretty heavily tread ground, the bank robber getaway driver genre. So we want to try to do something that hopefully was two or three degrees different than what you’ve seen before and the POV was definitely a major part of that, that device, and so, we kinda called the POV the driver’s seat basically, so you’re almost … The point of view is basically connected to whatever character is in the driver’s seat so that when Wheelman is in the driver’s seat, we’re with him when he slides over and his daughter gets in the driver’s seat, we’re then with her.
And that allows for us to then get into some of the narrative that you might otherwise not get to see. When he’s negotiating for his wife’s release, for instance, you might be over on that side of the world with him, negotiating with a Molotov cocktail in hand and guns out and yelling back and forth, but with this POV device, it allowed us to stay with daughter during that scene.
So, for instance, we’ve all seen that particular scene or sequence before. We’ve never necessarily seen it from the daughter’s POV watching her dad negotiate with the gangsters. So, it was kind of the way to put a fingerprint on this thing, you know?
Yeah, I love how you switch and put her in the driver’s seat, and she’s no damsel in distress.
No, she’s quite capable. She’s in real life, Caitlin is quite capable and in the film, she’s quite capable and that was a fun thing to do. It was pretty cool to more or less put a 15-year-old in the driver’s seat of a car chase movie.
Actually, she was 12 when we shot the movie, so putting a 12-year-old in the driver’s seat of a car chase movie. It was pretty cool.
What were your influences on Wheelman? Where did the film spring from?
I’m kind of an amateur driving enthusiast, so I knew I wanted to make a driving movie. I love the crime/thriller genre, and so that’s where it kind of was born from, and the fixed POV device was what made it all come together and sparked the screenplay.
I love Bullitt. I love Thief. More contemporary stuff, I really … Of course, Drive was an influence, Nightcrawler, Vanishing Point. So, I don’t know, I really wanted to see if we could evoke kind of a late ’60s to mid ’70s kind of grit, sort of that ’60s, ’70s style, but not be too heavy handed with it so it felt kind of gimmicky or something. So, a lot of ’60s and ’70s, maybe mostly ’70s and maybe early ’80s films, I guess. I think Thief was like … Was that ’80 or ’81, ’82 or something like that. Yeah, a lot of those ’70s kind of hard-boiled crime thrillers.
Frank Grillo was made for this kind of movie. He’s like the closest we have to a film noir heavy.
Agree 100%, man. I think the two biggest decisions you make when you’re going out to do a film is the script that you choose and then the casting and Frank is just … You know, we don’t have a lot of actors of his ilk, especially in the United States right now.
You know, there’s a lot of man’s men kind of throwback Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen-esque kind of actors, you know, they’ve got some in the U.K. and in Australia, but we don’t necessarily have a ton here in the United States, and so I agree 100%. Frank was definitely the right guy for this. He’s got the face for it. He’s got the chops for it, and the mannerisms, etc.
The biggest challenge with Frank Grillo is he’s a 10 out of 10 on the bad-ass scale, so it became like who do we cast against him? Like, who do put in the back seat as Mother Fucker to like throw the Frank Grillo of Wheelman off his game? There’s nobody that’s gonna out bad-ass him. So, those became interesting challenges to come up with the different colors of those other characters and that other casting Shea Whigham and Garret Dillahunt, etc.
Well, I mean, I think you totally succeeded on the other casting. You may only have a short window of time to make an impact and they certainly do.
With those other guys, you mean?
With Shea and Garrett? Aw, man. Those guys are A-list assassins, character actors. Those guys are scene stealers and that’s exactly what we needed. So, yeah, thanks man. I feel the same way. Those guys just knocked it out of the park. They’re only in there for a second, but they just make the movie, those guys.
I don’t want to give too much away of the film, but there is one particular death in the movie that really affected me. It was a very slow pathetic drift away death sequence and-
Yeah, that is … Without giving it away, you know, that was supposed to feel like … You know at first, it’s really funny, the audience reactions are like, first people are shocked and they’re kind of gasping, then they kind of laugh, and then they get real quiet.
It’s almost like if a homeless guy goes into, I don’t know, a gas station or a 7-11 and steals a 12 pack and he’s going out the door and then the proprietor shoots him and kills him and you’re just like, “Oh, fuck. That didn’t need to go that way.” It should feel, there should be some gravity to it, and it should feel, I don’t know, almost unwarranted or unjustified or something.
There’s a true sadness to that scene.
Yeah, it should be. You know, violence on screen is I think that something that a filmmaker should take responsibility in. I think if you’re gonna lay waste to civilians or bystanders, I think you’re doing an injustice. I think that not only in sort of a social, cultural kind of an impact but for the story as well, it’s like if you’re just taking lives left and right, then the value of human life, just within the story of the film, it becomes very low, and so it’s not as shocking if a character dies, you know?
If you only kill a few people in your film and you do each one is really well calculated, motivation and story and narrative-wise, just makes it feel so much more impactful I think. So, I don’t know, that was kind of the thinking behind that I guess.
How was your relationship with the War Party production company? Wheelman is their mission statement. How’d it all come together?
I knew Joe Carnahan very peripherally for many years, for like two or three years, and this Wheelman screenplay started to get a little bit of heat, but no one wanted to even discuss me directing it, and so I texted Joe and just said, “Hey man, I got this script. I got this situation, can you give me some advice?” So he gave me a call, and I told him what was going on. He said, “No, you cannot sell this screenplay, you have to direct it. I’m gonna make it really easy for you. You can’t sell it, you have to direct it, I’m gonna produce it. Send me the screenplay. I want to read it, make sure it’s up to par, and then we’ll take it from there.”
So, I send him the script and he dug it and we started talking like casting and he said, “What do you think of Frank Grillo?” and I said, “Well, you know what I think of Frank Grillo.” So, he sent it to Frank and Frank dug it, and 24 hours later, we were talking with CAA and starting to try to package it and put it together.
And it’s funny, because once … We were in prep, I think, when they announced officially War Party’s launch and I told them, I was like, “Guys, what the hell man? Wheelman should have been the first War Party picture. To have the War Party stamp on Wheelman would just be awesome.” They were like, “Dude. It is. It’s our first War Party picture. Like, what are you talking about?”
It was a perfect opportunity for them and for me and kind of a good match of content with the production company that they’re putting together, and I think probably just very fortuitous timing, that I reached out to Joe for basically some advice on what to do with a screenplay that I wanted to direct, but nobody was even willing to discuss that and he was just getting ready to launch War Party with Frank and this piece of material came and it was just … That’s the kind of the lucky timing that it takes to get a project like this off the ground, and for a first-time filmmaker to get an opportunity to go out and make a movie, so it worked out perfectly.
Wheelman is available to stream on Netflix starting October 20th.