'Faster' director George Tillman Jr. on crafting action movie spectacle on a tight budget
"Faster," Dwayne Johnson's return to grown up action fare after several family-targeted outings, has been an underperformer since its release Nov. 24. To date it's grossed just $18.2 million domestically. But as director George Tillman Jr. explains, "Faster" wasn't as expensive as you'd expect. That owes a lot to Tillman's early indie experience and his exhaustive preparation before filming even begins.
The film's notes say you made a really impressive presentation to the studio to land the director job on "Faster." What was in that presentation?
As the director, I try to go in and know as much as I can about the material. I really try to go in and understand what all the characters are about, what the movie’s going to look like. I go in and storyboard as much as I can, even though I don’t have the job, just so they can see the visual presentation and how it’s going to look, what it’s going to sound like. I’m always giving them a lot of music, storyboards of how the major scenes are going to go. Sometimes I’ll direct some of the scenes and show them how the scenes will be acted out. I’ve done that before on "Notorious." When I was getting ready for that movie, I wanted to show them as much as I could what it was going to look like, what it was going to sound like, how it was going to feel. That’s my job as director and the studios these days are taking a risk on movies and they want to know exactly what they’re going to get before they even start. So that’s how I like to present things. It’s almost like I’m in pre-production.
You don’t leave a lot to chance or middle of the night inspiration?
Exactly. They’ll know right away whether they want me or not. [Laughs]
Have you done this amount of work and then not gotten the job?
Yeah, but that’s part of the job of director. You’ve gotta invest in the job and what you do. When I did "Soul Food" for Fox 2000, I remember going in there and presenting a lot of food. Talking to them about the food and what it really meant and the history of family and how much the film means on a universal level. At that particular time, I loved a Barry Levinson movie called “Avalon,” and me just showing some clips of that movie, it showed that it was universal. You’re not just talking about how the movie is going to be creatively, but also from a financial standpoint and how I can hit the audience on a universal level.
"Faster" is surprising in how much time is spent with characters besides the one played by Dwayne Johnson. Did the studio need much convincing to make a nontraditional action movie?
I think in the beginning the idea was, how can we do a throwback to a traditional Steve McQueen action film from the ‘70s where the characters exist in a gray area? It’s not just black and white. Most people aren’t exactly what they seem. That’s always the challenge and the excitement of doing a movie like that, but you have to do it for a price. So we only had $24 million to do the movie and some of those scenes you have to do them in one or two days. How can you do them quickly without being cheesy and still make them exciting? You’re doing something that’s not being done like an average action movie but because of that, you have to take the hit and do it for a price. People take pay cuts to do the movie just to have the challenge to do something different.
You made a lot of explicit references to Sergio Leone’s westerns in the film. Was that in the script or was something you added yourself?
The script had that structure –- "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -– Driver, Killer and Cop. What I tried to do was bring Leone’s style and structure to the film. We shot out in Palmdale, Lancaster, using the vistas and the wide landscapes. Every character had their own car, their own weapon and their own music and three of them had their own stories all linked thematically and headed to a showdown. So in my mind, it was like a Leone western with action but with a dramatic subtext that would ground everyone. So that was my influence throughout the movie.
How do you go about deciding what car is the right car for Dwayne Johnson’s character?
It’s interesting. When I was working on “Men of Honor” with Robert De Niro, there’s a pipe that he has in the movie and it took us about six weeks to find the right pipe for him to use and feel comfortable with. It was a great choice, because it was really about what worked with the camera at that time. And later it was the same way, on “Notorious,” what was the right mike for Biggie’s character that really fit? So when it came to “Faster” it was the same thing. What is the right car that’s gonna fit Dwayne Johnson? What’s the right color that will fit his complexion? What’s going to look good at the right angles? It came down to the Seville SS. I felt like that was the right car. But in the script it was written to be light blue. I felt that to have it be menacing and the character be mysterious, it needed a darker color. But what’s the color of the paint and how much reflection will there be? It took us about five weeks to narrow that down. Also, the same thing with the Killer’s Ferrari. One of the original cars we had was a Maserati that the Killer would drive. But because we were going to be banging it up and we did not have the right money resources, we settled on the Ferrari so we could get two or three to use throughout the movie.
Tell me about the resource information you give to all your actors –- what do you give them?
When I was on “Soul Food,” one of the actors was saying that he believes that an actor should know more about his character than anybody on the set. I thought that was interesting, because I wrote the movie and I felt that no one should know more than the director. I think it’s important that a director be able to know his characters inside and out. With “Men of Honor,” De Niro’s character is a Navy vet who’s an alcoholic. It’s set in the early ‘50s. I wanted to track down when his alcoholism started. I wanted to know when he became a master diver. What schools did he go to, what’s his background, where did he live? This started very early on and by mistake, it got into the hands of De Niro. I didn’t want him to have it. He’s an Oscar winner and I didn’t want him thinking I was telling him what the character could do or be. But his response was respect. Here’s a guy who’s trying to learn everything about the character. From that day on, I was able to do that for every character: appearance, life, where they were born, why they are the way they are, background, psychological idea of who these people are, objectives, intentions. This is me just getting to know the characters. I made it a habit to give that out to everyone. Some people react to that, some people don’t. But I think it’s helpful, especially on “Notorious” with first-time actors who have never done it before to point them in the right direction.
You made “Faster” after Billy Bob Thornton’s much-publicized argument on a Canadian talk radio show. Did you have any discussion with him about that?
I don’t get into that a lot. I try to see how the person behaves one on one. When I met him, I went to his house. He had a studio in his house. And we didn’t really talk about the movie right away. We talked about music most of the time. From watching him and talking to him about music I knew he’s an artist first of all. That was the connection. When I look at the guys I work with -- Hal Holbrook, De Niro -- these guys just want to do good work. They don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t have ideas. So right off the bat, we connected. I didn’t want to move on and look at any more actors. I went back to the studio and said he can play the role.
How do you describe your role as director on the set. Father, dictator?
It’s a combination of three things. First is a storyteller. You have to make sure everyone’s on the same page, telling the same story. Second, you’re a motivator, to make sure everyone’s doing their best work, the crew, the cast, the guy who picks you up in the morning to get you to the set. The third thing is, you have a certain amount of days to do a movie in a certain amount of time. It’s my responsibility to make the movie work with the schedule and money we have. It’s my job to get the best movie we can do in the time we have. I came home a lot of days frustrated that we didn’t have more time. How can you do a car scene in one night? Two nights? I learned that it comes back to all my movies have been done for a price. I’ve learned to make movies for a certain price. I started in the urban world and it’s something I’ve always done.
--Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Director George Tillman Jr., right, on the set of "Faster" with Billy Bob Thornton. Credit: CBS Films