Q & A with Co-Writer and Director John Luessenhop

Tip “T.I.” Harris (left) and Director John Luessenhop on the set of Screen Gems’ action thriller TAKERS. ©2010 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tip “T.I.” Harris (left) and Director John Luessenhop on the set of Screen Gems’ action thriller TAKERS. ©2010 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to John Luessenhop, co–writer and director of the action crime thriller “Takers,” opening Aug. 27 via Screen Gems.

In “Takers” a group of high–living young criminals bankroll their extravagant lifestyle with a series of painstakingly planned bank robberies while a dedicated police officer makes it his personal mission to stop them.

Directed by John Luessenhop (“Lockdown”), the PG–13 rated “Takers” stars Matt Dillon (“Crash,” “There’s Something About Mary”), Paul Walker (“The Fast and the Furious,”), Idris Elba (“The Wire,” “Obsessed”), Jay Hernandez (“Lakeview Terrace”), Michael Ealy (“Miracle at St. Anna”), Tip “T.I.” Harris (“American Gangster”) with Chris Brown (“Stomp The Yard”) and Hayden Christensen (“Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith”).

The film’s screenplay is by Peter Allen & Gabriel Casseus and John Luessenhop & Avery Duff. Produced by Will Packer, Tip “T.I.” Harris and Jason Geter, it was executive produced by Glenn S. Gainor, Gabriel Casseus, Chris Brown and Morris Chestnut.

The Story (some spoilers): Longtime friends Gordon Betts (Idris Elba), John Rahway (Paul Walker), A.J. (Hayden Christensen) and the Attica brothers, Jake (Michael Ealy) and Jesse (Chris Brown), finance an extravagant lifestyle filled with hot cars, hotter women and unlimited cash by staging high stakes bank robberies. They avoid being caught by planning to the tiniest detail, leaving no clues and pulling off one — and only one — job per year.

Their latest successful caper, a $2 million heist, attracts the attention of LAPD Detective Jack Welles (Matt Dillon), an old–school cop who has sacrificed his marriage, his child and any semblance of a personal life for his job. Despite a lack of support from the Department, Welles is determined to track down the elusive gang before they strike again.

As the crew celebrates their latest daring robbery in a chic downtown cocktail lounge, Ghost (T.I.), a former comrade–in–arms recently released from prison, drops in with an irresistible proposal. The only member of the crew arrested for an earlier job, Ghost says he has a plan that will net each of them enough money to hang up their ski masks forever — robbing an armored car carrying over $12 million. But it has to happen in five days or the opportunity will evaporate.

Although doing another job right away goes against the crew’s strict rules of conduct, the lure of all that money proves too great and they decide to risk a daring daylight hold–up on a crowded downtown Los Angeles street. With just a few days to prepare, the crew sets in motion an intricate scheme that unknowingly puts them on a collision course with a group of ruthless Russian mobsters.

Meanwhile, Welles is unraveling a complex web of evidence that takes him from a small time arms dealer to the Russians and finally to crew leader Gordon Betts. With the clock ticking down, ancient rivalries, unexpected double–crosses, unknown enemies and just plain bad luck complicate the plan, resulting in a deadly showdown that no one saw coming.

John Luessenhop made his feature directorial debut with the 2000 independently produced urban prison drama “Lockdown,” starring Gabriel Casseus. The film struck a strong chord with urban audiences, opening the UrbanWorld Film Festival in New York City and closing the Hollywood Black Film Festival in Los Angeles. It also premiered internationally at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2000.

A native of McLean, Virginia and an alumnus of the University of Virginia and Georgetown Law School, Luessenhop began his film career writing and directing the hard–edged 33–minute short “Tick…Tick…Tick,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win Best Short Film at Universal’s Florida Film Festival.

With his signature gritty style, Luessenhop has directed more than 20 episodes for the series “America’s Most Wanted,” including two national cop–of–the–year stories.

Q: When did you begin working on “Takers?”
A: I began writing this movie in 2000 and first gave the script to Clint Culpepper, the head of Sony/Screen Gems, in 2001 or ‘02. We wanted to go forward at that time and bogged down because of casting. The picture was originally written for New York City. About 2003 “The Italian Job” came out and that put a big pause on what we were thinking of doing with our picture. We re–wrote it ultimately to make it more saleable and to distinguish it from “The Italian Job.”

The movie was originally conceived as a younger, hipper “Heat.” Not inspired by or anything, but a bunch of us who were involved loved the movie that Michael Mann made and we just said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a sort of younger version of it that maybe wasn’t so bleak at the end?” Getting the cast together took time and came together starting about 2007 when Matt Dillon came on and then Idris Elba.

I remember walking into Clint Culpepper’s office and he threw an Ebony Magazine down on the table and just looked at me. I said, “What?” And he goes, “What do you think of that guy?” It was a picture of T.I., who I didn’t know that much about, but I loved his look. I said, “God, that should be Ghost.” And he goes, “That’s going to be your Ghost.” Once he came into the picture, then the last two pieces were Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen. We felt really fortunate that both of them wanted to do the picture so certain things were done in the writing of it to make it better for them. Chris Brown was a big part of it, also, because of his success with “This Christmas.” He came in around the time that T.I. was brought aboard. And then Zoe Saldana said, “I’ll come in” and then Michael Ealy said he’d do it.
Q: So things started heating up around ‘07 with Matt Dillon.
A: The script was formally acquired by the studio on Oct. 31, the day before the writers’ strike, and the papers had to be done by Midnight. I remember all this pressure. They were stockpiling (scripts) and making sure they had things in case that was a long term event.

The picture probably would have gone earlier. I moved to Virginia. I was a little burnt on Los Angeles. I moved back there and then I had a family tragedy. Our middle child — we just walked upstairs one morning and he was unconscious on the floor barely breathing. This was in 2005. The picture still had momentum with Clint to find the right way and place to make it. Anyway, they saved my son’s life. He still does not walk or talk. He’s my middle child. I have three boys. Clint Culpepper would call me all the time and he would just say, “Whenever you’re ready we’ll make the movie.” I told him candidly for a two year period consistently, “I’m not ready to go back to Hollywood and do this.”

At that point, I was still taking my child to every specialist in the country that I could get hold of from Florida to Chicago to all the children’s hospitals up and down the East Coast. Clint would call me at Midnight to say, “How are you doing? How’s Orson?” And it just kept going that way. Finally, somewhere late into 2007 that’s when I said, “You know what? I’m ready to make a picture. I’d love to do it.” He was great. He honored it and they bought the script pretty rapidly. And then off we went to making the picture.

I shot the picture in late 2008 from September through November. It was only 46 days.
Q: That’s a tight schedule.
A: Well, Screen Gems isn’t in the same budget range as Sony. But they did support the thing. At the time, we were the biggest budget picture in the history of Screen Gems.
Matt Dillon stars in Screen Gems’ action thriller TAKERS. ©2010 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Matt Dillon stars in Screen Gems’ action thriller TAKERS. ©2010 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Q: How big?
A: $30 million. The truck drop sequence could have been cut down (to save money). The concept for that was laid out with six packs of Coca Cola to build what the idea was using sea containers to put these walls up where we could have a platform that trucks could drive off of so they could go into the ground. I was shocked they said, “Okay, we’ll do it.” I know that cost probably in the millions to build all that. They went forward with it all. I guess, once Clint is confident in something or enthusiastic, he throws his whole body at it and he supported me through it, which was a great experience.
Q: Why did you shoot in L.A. rather than in New York?
A: The script was originally written for New York. We flirted with the idea of going back there, but we could not fly helicopters over the city at that time because of the holdover from 9/11. We asked all sorts of things (like), “What if we used the 34th Street Heliport or flew in from New Jersey or refueled wherever?” They just weren’t up for the game. And then we rewrote it for San Francisco, which I felt was the ideal city for it. When Clint finally greenlit the picture he said, “It’s going to be a Los Angeles show.”

People were saying, “Well, why don’t we just move it north of the border to Canada?” And he said, “No. I want it to be right here where I can go every day even if there are cost savings somewhere else.” And that gave us a chance to say, “Okay. Let’s shoot this thing big canvas, iconic L.A. with strong sex appeal with the guys.” We upscaled the clothing to make sure the picture was never perceived as a thug film or a lower end urban picture and especially when we had a multi–cultural cast it allowed for that. Everything we did with these guys, we tried always to be upscale and cool.
Q: With all the action that you have in the film, shooting that on a tight schedule couldn’t have been easy.
A: There are major action sequences in the film. We decided to shoot Panavision and the Sony HD camera, which I was scared of at first because I’d only shot film in my life. But I was convinced by Michael Barrett (“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”), the Director of Photography, that this would work and would help us. So we shot three cameras. We probably did 35 to 40 set–ups a day to make it through the schedule. The first A.D., Steve Danton, really was great at breaking it down into units even within units so we could conquer as much film every day as we could. Starting with the opening heist, just exploding a helicopter over Dodger Stadium was something else. Just finding a bird that looked like what they really flew so we could actually blow it up took some scavenging around.
Q: How did you do that scene?
A: Yeah. It blows up in a parking lot there (at Dodger Stadium) once they’ve landed and they walk away with your cool guy walk, barely looking back at something that blows up behind them. I thought the way we did it was as real as we could do it. There’s very little CGI in this movie. These are all practical stunts and action sequences because I loved different movies from the ‘70s and some of the (more recent) action stuff like “Heat,” I just didn’t want to use a bunch of computer generated stuff. So we went practical with it, which I think really helps with the realism of the picture.

Going back to the helicopter, finding the right one to match it, paint it and then allow actors within 50 yards of it when you blow it up and they drive away, that’s all real. There’s a little bit of green screen, but not much. That’s the real deal.

The truck sequence where Paul Walker takes over becomes a huge hero moment. All of that stuff is real, too. Those trucks are dropping into a hole that’s 20 or 30 feet below them and driving over a truck that’s there and things like that. Just to set that up from an engineering standpoint is a little mind–bending — and to cable it right so no one gets hurt. I remember one of the big questions was, “How do we make the truck stop?” When we first designed the set it would go right through whatever was supporting it. I mean, it’s a four ton truck! So they ended up building like you would out on a highway a trestle of cement that this thing really goes up against to prevent it from going further. That’s what they had to do.

We also have a big shoot–out in a hotel. One of the challenges there was that we had to preserve a PG–13 rating, yet on the page you have an R movie script — a room full of bullets and people flying and tearing it up. So, again, we went with an artistic way to do that by slowing down speeds, slow–mo things, feathers flying with the bullets and to juxtapose it against music you wouldn’t ordinarily hear in a gunfight. We approached it so that artistic intent would override the violent intent that would have moved us to an R rating.
Q: Why didn’t you want an R rating?
A: PG–13 probably enhances boxoffice because of the greater access to your audience. I mean, 13 year olds can now walk in and see “Takers” whereas they would have had to be with an adult if it had been R. I think it would have taken away a big chunk of our audience. A studio has to have a really good reason to make an R rated movie these days because the public, I think, does look at these labels now and scrutinize what the studios are making. They didn’t want to leave $10 million to $20 million on the table.

Q: You have some partial nudity in the film. Are there guidelines as to how far you can go?
A: The MPAA came in and watched the film and they gave their notes. Basically, they’re mandates. You don”t have a whole lot of latitude if they come in and say, “You need to change this or you don”t get your rating.” There’s no court to appeal to. They saw the scene where you see Paul Walker walk into a swimming pool with the girls. You don’t see anything of the girls’ bodies or anything, but the first cut they thought was way too sexually charged or suggestive. So that was re–cut to accommodate the MPAA’s concern. Also, we have a Butch & Sundance kind of moment where two guys go out in a blaze of glory. We had to stylize that. We never shot the reverse of it, which is we never shot the police guns firing and everything. We turned it into a very surreal moment where it goes out of focus and you see roughly what happens and hear a lot of it, but the photography is not that graphic. So you don’t head right into a situation like “Heat.”

If you’d shot it like “Heat,” you’re an R. So that scene was tempered. No guns were pointing in the camera. We had rules that Clint set up from the beginning — there’s no exit wounds on bullet shots if someone gets hit and, at the end of the day, all squibs of blood were removed from the picture. That’s probably one of the big digital things. The PG–13 was very, very important to them. We also scrubbed the script of any gratuitous dialogue. There are no F–bombs in there. There’s no mother–fuck in it. It’s all gone. And, actually, when I watch the film I don’t miss it at all. Not one bit. And I thought I would because I originally thought of the movie as a little more gritty. But once Clint and I had gone over the film and sat there with the DP I understood what they wanted and understood also that this could be a lot more popular film than what was in my head. The changes were made and we went along that way.
Michael Ealy (left) and Chris Brown star in Screen Gems’ action thriller TAKERS. ©2010 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Ealy (left) and Chris Brown star in Screen Gems’ action thriller TAKERS. ©2010 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Q: To shoot 40 some set–ups a day you must have been very well organized.
A: I storyboarded the truck drop sequences to a T. I’ll probably frame them in my office one day. We used three locations to make it happen — where Ghost is on the street holding up the trucks and getting them ready to go into the drop zone. That’s one set — (in Downtown L.A. at) Fourth & Olive. The next street was at Studio Center in Downtown Los Angeles where you have a controlled street and you can do things. So I had to merge those. We identified all the shots and how we wanted to do most of it. And then we had to move the trucks to the final place where they’re literally lifted by a crane and put on a platform so they can drive and end up in the hole that’s blown up in the street. Because their plan didn’t go right — the trucks were supposed to immediately fall in, but they didn’t — we have chaos. So there were three places. That was all carefully drawn out so the set designers and everybody knew what we were doing.

One of the highlights of the picture is a chase scene where Chris Brown is chased by the police through the streets of Los Angeles. That I didn’t really storyboard, but we walked it ad nauseum many, many times and conceived the stunts and things that would happen and then we pre–vizzed it — not with real actors, but with people like me and you. We put it together as video snippets to make sure it would hold together.

With drama scenes, I’ll have the core shot and then I don’t mind painting during the day. In other words, things can change if you see things while you’re shooting a film. Rather than be locked into it like a robot, you can adapt and do things. I do leave myself that kind of leeway as a director when it comes to dramatic stuff. There’s no reason to storyboard a couple of people talking at a table.
Q: Tell me about the writing credits.
A: Gabriel Casseus is an actor. He’s the only African–American really featured in “Black Hawk Down.” I did a picture called “Lockdown,” which is a smaller urban prison picture, and Gabriel was one of the stars of it. And that’s where we got to know each other. When I finished filming that in 1999 he came to me and said, “I have this script that I wrote with a friend of mine and Warner Bros. Music has already optioned it, but it’s going to fall out. I don’t think they’re going to make it. I read it and said, “Okay, but I think these things would improve it.” He said, “If you want to go forward with it, then you guys do that.” Avery Duff, who’s my writing partner, and I undertook to make it what we thought was a better story. Basically, more of the police story was put into it. At the end of the day, it was one of those situations where all the writers looked at each other and honestly said, “Okay, we all have a contribution here” and we didn’t arbitrate it. Both sides were scared. They were scared that if they were wrong then they ended up with a “Story By” credit. And we were afraid if we were wrong they’d get the whole thing. So the all or nothing aspect of it to either side kind of said, “Well, let’s just all split it.”
Q: What makes “Takers” unique?
A: It has a bounce and a cool to it that you don’t have in all your action films. It does not look like a ‘90s movie. It does not look like a 2000 picture. It has a little swagger to it that I think movie audiences, particularly urban, are going to gravitate to and are going to think is pretty cool. I think that putting the multi–cultural cast together where we don’t have a token white guy and a token black guy is also going to (help) it. Each one of these guys actually is intricate to the story. And what I’m really most proud of is in the story every single one of these guys has a huge moment. Nobody is a piece of cardboard. That’s what I think is going to make it attractive (to moviegoers).