I don't normally like to interview people before I've seen their movie, because I like to have more of a context when I'm talking to them. But for Jackie Earle Haley I wanted to make an exception. Haley's completed his directorial debut, CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES, a crime film centered around a group of friends who get in debt with some very bad people. Shot in Cleveland, Haley has brought together a stellar cast, including John Travolta, Dan Stevens, Michael Pitt, Edi Gathegi, and Rob Brown, and Haley himself. Plus, Jackie's just a cool guy, and he was fun to talk to.
Another reason I interviewed him is that Haley, along with Edi Gathegi, is bringing his film to Comicpalooza this Friday, to screen in front of Houston audiences. I'm very excited about this - although Houston's a big city, we don't often get these kinds of opportunities to see films like this early. CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES is slated to open this fall - it's just been picked up by Image Entertainment, and to hear Jackie describe it, it sounds like a nasty, amoral, fun little crime flick. It'll be cool to see Travolta flex his crime movie muscles again. The rest of the country will just have to wait until this fall. But if you're attending Comicpalooza this weekend, you'll be given a rare treat - a screening at 8:00 PM, followed by a Q&A with Jackie Earle Haley and Edi Gathegi. Kelly Leak returns to Houston! Here's my interview:
Nordling: I actually met you once, you came to Butt-Numb-A-Thon and brought that clip of WATCHMEN.
Jackie Earle Haley: That was a fun day. It was super early, if I remember.
N: I’m very excited about CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES. I’m seeing it on Friday with everyone else at Comicpalooza, and as a Houstonian I really appreciate you bringing your film to our town. I wanted to ask you a few questions about your film. It looks to be an interesting crime film, and I wanted to see what your inspiration was in stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, and this script.
JEH: My inspiration for wanting to direct this film goes way back to THE BAD NEWS BEARS. I have literally always wanted to direct. So much so, that every single set I was on since I was a little kid, I was completely paying attention to what the director was doing, I think I knew camera geography by the time I was 12 or 13. I remember when I was 11, and my parents were completely aware of this, and they bought me a Super 8 MM, that’s film, not video, camera along with a little plastic editor and projector. And this was back when you had to like, you know, film was on a reel, and you had to splice it with scissors, and you had to glue the stuff together.
This is something that I’ve always wanted to do, and the thing that’s always flummoxed me was how to get a script off the ground, how to get people behind it, how to make it happen. I remember when I was 30 I was thoroughly bummed that I hadn’t directed a movie yet. And I think that, just over time – and again, it’s not like I put out a great amount of effort, I just couldn’t figure out where to find a script, and who to take it to, and how to get it financed. So you come to all these years later, and I’m 52 years old at the time. I get a call from my manager’s husband, Wayne Rice, who is a very prolific producer – some of his bigger titles are VALENTINE’S DAY, NEW YEAR’S EVE, but he’s also done 20 to 40 movies over the years. I think over the last ten years or so he has been, in the morning he and his wife will sit and watch my audition tapes. Sometimes they’re a bit elaborate, not just, you know, a camera on sticks pointed at a white wall, and I’m performing – I’ll choreograph what the camera’s doing and try to make a scene as well as I can and a winner. So I think he saw that and realized that directing was something I could do, and so he called me up and said, “Listen, I’ve got this script, and I know for a first film it’s very important that you love the script, but if you read this script and respond to it and like it, I’d like you to direct it.” So of course, I’m thrilled, but at the same time, I’m 52, and I don’t want to just direct anything at this point. So I agreed that I really needed to love the script, and so I got the script, read it, and immediately loved it. I think it’s a really well-written script. So I call him back so fast after reading it and saying, “I love this script, and I’d love to direct it.” He was already basically financed and so we dove right into casting. So we got everything put together, and we went and made this film in Cleveland, and then I spent a little over half a year focusing on editing it, and putting all the final brushes on it. Test audiences seem to really be digging it, it’s really well-written, and I think we got a pretty cool little movie.
N: I really admire the cast you’ve brought together. I love Dan Stevens in THE GUEST – he’s terrific in that. Michael Pitt, John Travolta – this movie’s got a great cast. How did all that come together?
JEH: I was really fortunate that the casting crew was really helping us along, and I think that Wayne and I both have very similar sensibilities. I first talked to John (Travolta), and I think John really responded to the script. He normally has a policy of wanting to meet the director in person before he makes a movie, but he and I had a really nice 20-minute phone conversation and the next day he called his manager and said, “You know, I don’t really need to sit down with him – let’s go ahead and do this.” And he really loved this script, and he was awesome in the movie.
The whole ensemble is great. Michael Pitt, he plays the alpha of the group, Dan Stevens plays kind of the nerd of the group. It’s really amazing too, because in DOWNTON ABBEY, he’s the suave, sophisticated guy, and in THE GUEST he’s completely different. Dan Stevens is a really diverse actor. He disappears into this role – he’s quite amazing at it. And Chris Abbott – he’s this really cool, naturalistic actor, he’s wonderful in the first couple of seasons of GIRLS, and his character Warren is, well, I like to call him the heart of the movie because his character is the least self-centered, and he’s got the most empathy towards his other castmates. Rob Brown plays the more grounded guy – when things start to go crazy, he helps pull everybody together.
Then we got Edi Gathegi, who plays Marques, who these guys end up kidnapping and holding for 24 hours, he’s the centerpiece, the lynchpin of the film. He’s got a ton of dialogue, and he’s a wonderful actor. He just absolutely nails it. He showed up on the set literally prepared to do any scene. He had the whole thing memorized. I’m really proud of the ensemble we’ve put together. It really is a phenomenal cast. They’re all just spot-on throughout the whole movie.
N: Working with an ensemble cast as diverse and as big as this, how difficult is it as a director, especially for the first time, just juggling all these characters, and making sure everyone falls in line with the story?
JEH: Let me first state that in terms of being a first-time director, it was kind of an odd experience in the sense that, it really felt like that I’d done this ten times before. I know that’s a weird thing to say but even Wayne the producer even said, “Whenever you’re working with a first time director, you always look at him for when suddenly he looks like a deer caught in the headlights, and you never had that look on your face.” And I think I attribute that to the fact that I’ve been a director of commercials and producing them for years, and I think that gave me a certain expertise when production was involved, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into directing a movie.
But I think when you combine that experience with the knowledge of the fact that I’ve acted in so many movies, and have attacked so many scenes as an actor with other actors, with a director, that I think those two skills dovetailed together so that it really just felt like I’d done this before. I think the real trick in directing is really casting the right people to begin with. Because if you get the right people, who understand their character, understand the story, and they’re good at what they do – it wasn’t hard to keep them on track with the story because they were all just so good. It’s a matter of letting them go, letting them do their thing, guiding them where you want to push them a little bit in a direction. When you get the right cast, magic just happens, and you do several takes, and you’ve got several choices, so when you get into the editing room, you’re really able to craft some really good shit, because everybody dished it up for you on the day.
N: You’ve worked with so many different directors – you’ve worked with Zack Snyder, and Steven Spielberg, and so many other great directors. Do you feel as a director that you’ve pulled something from everybody that you’ve worked with? What do you think was the most important thing you’ve learned from working with all these directors over the years?
JEH: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I’ve got an answer right off the top of my head, but I will tell you that obviously each and every experience helped me to grow as an actor and as a director. When I was a kid, I was always aware of what the director was doing, what he was thinking, what he’s seeing. Each one of those guys have slightly different approaches. Like Zack Snyder, that guy storyboards and pre-plans like you wouldn’t believe. He’s so prepared on the set that he can sit and joke around between takes because he’s already made so many of the decisions. Then you get Tim Burton, who obviously is prepared, but I’ve heard him say, working the first week or so of DARK SHADOWS, the tone was being found. It wasn’t necessarily completely pre-planned. He was in search, partially, of this tone, in those first several scenes in his first week, and that helped guide where he was going with it. Everyone has slightly a different approach, but what exactly I’ve learned, it’s hard to say. It’s more ingrained in my being.
I will tell you this one time, as a weird aside, but it goes back to how I’ve felt, like I’ve done this so many times before, even though it was my first time – I do remember on the set with Steven Spielberg, when we were doing LINCOLN, we were out in this field, and it’s all muddy, and there are crane shots, and everything, and I can’t remember what I said to him, like “It’s awesome what you do,” and he said to me, “You know, right now I’m just exercising really old muscles.” And I swear to God, that’s what it felt, even though I’m making my first movie, that I’m exercising old muscles.
N: As crime genre films go, what movies did you see that really kicked it into gear for you as a fan and as a director, for inspiration?
JEH: My brain doesn’t really work like that. I’m not a “favorite color” guy, but I will tell you films like PULP FICTION, which was very grabbing, a very exciting way to tell a story. SNATCH, in a whole different kind of way. I like a lot of different types of films. It’s not like I want to just do crime films. This movie is really exciting – it got me an actual directing agent after the completion of this movie. I got a guy now sending me scripts and stuff. He was saying, “What kind of films do you want to do?” Surprisingly, my real goal is that I’d like to do diverse stuff. The real goal for me is that I want to make movies that start with a really good script. And you’d be surprised – that’s harder than you’d think.
N: I always admired Ron Howard for that. He never stuck with one kind of film. He does everything – any story that he’s fascinated by, he’ll make that movie.
JEH: That’s funny that you say that, because that guy – I remember from way back, identifying with him, because I always wanted to be a director and was an actor, and here’s this very famous actor, and he started to direct movies. And I was always a fan of his movies because he seemed to be a consummate storyteller, whatever the genre. Whenever there’s a Ron Howard movie, I’d want to see it just because he made it, from a BEAUTIFUL MIND to APOLLO 13, this guy is phenomenal. He’s a true storyteller.
N: Tell me about the shoot in Cleveland? How was that?
JEH: They had a really good program out there, that’s why the producer wanted to go out there, but when we got there, it was a wonderful place to shoot. They had some great human resources and we had a great crew. It was a 25 day shoot. We did really great. I think sometimes we surprised everybody because we’d end up having short days. Everybody’s a little bummed they’re not getting overtime, but everyone was so quick, and so good at what they do. I got my production designer out of there, and she did an absolutely wonderful job. Local casting did a phenomenal job. Wardrobe, makeup, keys came from there. We brought in our DP, but within the state there was a great camera crew, and it was a good place to work. I would go back there for sure.
N: I appreciate you bringing your film to Comicpalooza, and I can’t wait to watch it, but I got to tell you, Kelly Leak returning to Houston, the Astrodome isn’t quite there anymore.
JEH: Hah! I’m looking forward to seeing you all out there, and I hope you dig the movie!
Tickets are still available for Comicpalooza - lots of geeky activity this weekend at the George R. Brown Convention Center. I hope to see you there.