Sean Penn and Pierre Morel on the set of "The Gunman."
The Gunman is the latest movie from director Pierre Morel, who launched Liam Neeson's action hero career in the original Taken, shot the pilot episode of The Night Shift and made the best-ever parkour movie with District B13.
Morel worked with Sean Penn to develop the movie, which is based on a popular French pulp novel called The Prone Gunman. They've updated the story, setting it in the shadowy world where Non-governmental organizations, international corporations and the governments of developing nations intersect.
It's a movie some that will surprise some of you: unapologetically violent, extremely sympathetic to Tier 1 operators looking to make a living after their military careers are over and deadly serious in a way that's sure to turn off a lot of people in mainstream Hollywood.
Pierre Morel visited Military.com headquarters in San Francisco and sat down with us to talk about The Gunman, the real-world inspirations for the story he's telling and why it's good to film real locations whenever it's possible.
Even though "The Gunman" is a straight action picture, there's a subtext about shadowy activities by private military forces.
In the movie, they’re described as kind of bad guys, which they're not necessarily in real life. We met many of those guys, ex-military from US Forces or from British Forces, who became military contractors and do some security work everywhere. None of them were doing any of that dirty business at all. We just made a movie.
You're French and the French have been doing this sort of thing for a lot longer than anyone else.
Mercenaries, as we called them back then. There's been a lot of them.
Your movie’s based on a novel from the early ’80s.
We had to modernize it because the world situations are different. The book was based on events from the ’70s and the tone was much more the equivalent in literature of the film noir, so we had to make it much more modern. That was the idea at the beginning, to change the setting and keep the bones of the story, keep the love story. It's almost a love story with a bit of action in it and set in a modern world.
When a lot of American audience thinks about Special Forces, they think about Army Rangers and Navy SEALs and they don’t realize that these guys exist in almost every military in the world.
Every army has its own Special Forces and Elite Forces. You named the American ones, but SAS in England, there's Special Forces in France, there's Spetsnaz in Russia. There's everybody. I mean every country needs elite troops for specific tasks. Once they retire from the forces and they become military contractors, they band together. There are companies now all over the world where you can find American, British, French, Russian, Czechian, South African contractors working together. And you find them in private business later on.
Did you get help from those guys when you were making this movie?
Well, help, no, you just need to document yourself to have some realism in the way you describe things. We have just advisors who have been in forces and who tell us about this workplace.
Did you cast any of those guys in smaller parts in the film?
Yeah, there's an ex-SAS guy who’s credited both with the part and as the advisor. He has a security company and he works for companies.
You’ve directed a very popular film about an ex-Special Forces guy with "Taken."
He’s a very different guy.
Have you had many encounters with people who actually come from that background? How they talk to you about your films?
A few. I’ve met a few guys who were ex-Navy SEALs, ex-Rangers, ex-Force Recon, ex-SAS, guys from the French military. They like movie because, well, I guess they like action movies, too. In the movie world, you can't describe them completely the way they are. You have a little bit of a leeway into freedom in the way you describe their actions.
No one likes a movie made about the job they do.
Because we're always wrong. You can't go that deep into details.
Your movie takes place in some pretty exotic places (Democratic Republic of Congo, London, Barcelona, Gibraltar) and there are a lot of scenes that were shot on location.
I like traveling. I've traveled all my life. When I was a kid, my parents would like carry me around to discover new places. So as a moviegoer, I like to travel. I like to be shown places I don’t necessarily know or have been to. Otherwise, I’d just shoot my backyard. It's boring at some point.
We wanted to give an identity to each of the locations, so that they become part of the plot. For instance, this movie starts in Africa. We tried to reproduce Africa in the best way we could. We shot some scenes in Africa, some not in Africa, but I've been to Africa very often and that’s kind of what it looks like. It has that grittiness and shows the way people behave and captures that ambience.
Then we go to London, which is a very much colder place and a place of power. All the decisions in this world are made either in London or in Wall Street. So it's just glass buildings and very slick and it's very different. Then we go back to Spain, which is another feeling, where it's a party place and it's also warm. It's a little more messy.
I was trying to think of anything that had been made in Spain like this recently, and nothing came to mind.
There was a chunk of Steven Soderbergh's Haywire. There was a little chase in there, a couple fights that are actually cool, in the old quarters of Barcelona. Nice movie.
Some people are surprised that Sean Penn decided to make a movie like this one.
It's interesting to see a new face in the action genre.
Did you worked with him to develop this project from the beginning?
Yes. Actors of his caliber need new challenges. He had never really attempted that type of an action-packed movie, so he wanted to try. And you know he's in pretty good shape, so he got it right, I think.
It’s also interesting because it's not just action for action's sake. There's content, there's a backdrop which is interesting to him. There's more than just action. There's characters and there's layers and complex characters and conflicted characters. That is interesting to play.
If you go back to Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the ’80s, there's a sense that they're in on the joke, winking while they’re making the movie. Sean plays it straight.
Sean has a lot of humor and there's a few moments in the movie in the movie where we use that. When he decides to embrace a character, he becomes that character. He tries to be as true as possible to what the real character would be. With the situations described in this movie, there's no reason to have fun. It's pretty serious. With the camaraderie between him and his old friends and guys he works, there's humor in there, but the rest of the plot is pretty serious.
There's a bit of difference between humor that comes out of character and the humor that comes from, “I’m a movie star, look at me, I’m playing with guns.”
There's nothing like that in our film He played that very, very, very seriously.
The NGO plot background is at the beginning to set things up and then you return to it at the end. It doesn’t get in the way of telling the story all the way through.
The NGO business is just the backdrop for the beginning. It's not a movie about NGO's. It's a movie about redemption and love with action and the plot itself is not about NGO. It's about the economic interest of corporations or western countries into third world countries.
Between the beginning which is supposed to take place in 2006 and the end, which is now, 2015, Africa hasn’t changed, unfortunately, so the NGO's are still there. So the loop is complete. For people working on the NGO front, nothing has changed. On the humanitarian front, nothing has changed.
Does the media in France and Europe cover the ties between those organizations and corporations?
Not much. You have to dig a little bit. There aren’t official links. It's kind of metaphor, what we describe here. It's not real. It's not based on real events, either. There was never such a hit on anybody in the Congo in 2006.
But when you start investigating a bit, you know that even during the Civil War in eastern part of Congo, where all the resources are, they were fighting to allow illegal mining to take place and resources to be exported to Rwanda. They started the corporations because they couldn’t buy the resources in the Congo. There's been a lot of trafficking and non-official exchange between African countries because Western industry needs those resources to make cell phones, everything.
There's no official tie. You can't say, okay, there's an NGO. He's been working for a major company and they're on the take with a corporation. No. It's a metaphor.
It's interesting that in the last 15 years or so that so many of the logical, well-made action pictures seem to have been made by French production companies and French directors.
Obviously Luc Besson is the guy who reinvented the French industry and managed to give it a one international look and managed to export it. French directors of my generation grew up with American movies. I grew up not necessarily with French cinema, but with a lot of Anglo-Saxon movies. We just embedded all these great action movies that we grew up with and put into the French movies.
One thing that all these films seem to bring back is a sense of space. The scenes cut together, the action that’s happening on the screen actually could have happened in order and real time, which is something that American films with a lot of CGI scenes have gotten away from."Transporter" came along and started pulling people back towards movies that made more sense.
Back to cool car chases in the 70's, Bullitt-type movies. Personally, I like very much doing real things in real life. I want actors to do the things themselves and not do too many CG creatures or CG action or CG stunts or CG this. American Hollywood is now more focused on big blockbusters or franchises from superheroes that require CGI. Not necessarily based on the real world. I don’t know if it's because of a budget issue, but in France we keep on doing things real.
You directed the pilot for "The Night Shift," a TV series that’s given a lot of attention to military doctors and veterans.
I'll be back in Albuquerque to see the crew and say hello in a couple of days, because it's been a great experience. When I first received the script, it was like, “Wow, that’s ER meets M*A*S*H*.” I started investigating about military medical crews that all trained in the ER and vice versa. To be efficient in a combat zone, if you have been in a rough ER hospital and you have already dealt with real bullets and real gunshots and real wounds, then you learn much more than just a theoretical approach to it. You actually know what a wound looks like.