Aside from films lead by Angelina Jolie, action pictures starring women are increasingly rare. What's also few and far between is male stars, known for their action lead roles, who are willing to have their asses handed to them on screen by a member of the opposite sex. When Steven Soderbergh started casting up his latest, the spy action thriller, "Haywire," these are part of the problems he encountered. Well known action stars -- we won't name names -- who didn't want their asses kicked by a woman shied away from the project.
Their loss were the gain of others, young actors like Channing Tatum and Micheal Fassbender who jumped at the chance to work with the Academy Award-winning director of "Traffic," "Erin Brockovich" and the 'Ocean's' films franchise among others. However, there was still a little trepidation, but it was pitched in the opposite direction. "I called Michael up when we were discussing the film," Soderbergh recalled in an exclusive interview that took place after "Haywire" footage debuted at Comic-Con 2011 last week. "And I said, ‘Are you comfortable with the idea of punching a girl in the face? Cause that’s what you’re going to have to do here.’ And he had to stop and think about it for a second."
After a short debate, Fassbender, along with Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Angarano and Bill Paxton all signed on to star opposite the lead, Gina Carano, a non-acting Mixed Martial Arts fighter that leads this picture as Mallory Kane, a black ops super soldier who seeks payback after she is set up and betrayed during a mission. "Ultimately all the guys were really good sports," the director said. "They were really supportive and they were all rooting for Gina.”
Women could be rooting for the fighter turned actress as well. The filmmaker said that the film rated incredibly well during testing with women and it's something he hopes to exploit in the marketing closer to the film's release on January 20, 2012. "The film tested extremely well with women and the comments they left were super interesting," he said, suggesting that a group of females could really enjoy a night on the town watching some of Hollywood's sexiest hunks take a severe beating. "I'm not sure what's to be done there exactly [with the marketing], but who knows, it could be like a girls night out. It's not something we see very often on the screen."
And take a severe beating the men do. As we noted in our recap of the trailer and fight sequence footage shown last week, the film does little in way of editing tricks to mask the fighting. We wrote, "eschewing the conventional wisdom of quickly clipped and disorienting ‘Bourne’ style fight sequences, this brawl between the two actors was extremely grounded, mapping out a plain-in-sight geography that put the focus on pure and grueling mano y mano combat."
And Soderbergh noted this is exactly how he wanted it. "People really get hit in this film and they get hurt," he said. "Yes, they were wearing padding [referencing a brutal fight sequence between Carano and Fassbender] but they banged each other up pretty badly" (Fassbender got a vase accidentally smashed against his face). No one went unscathed, not even a stunt person. "Gina calibrated just slightly off on a punch and knocked out a stunt man cold on the first few days of shooting."
In terms of the austere and "anti-'Bourne' " geography of the fight sequences, this too is by design. The filmmaker noted, that each scene has no music, little sound outside of grunting and the smashing of objects and all the fighting is there for audiences to witness. "It’s my bête noire – disorientation," he said. "As an audience member you want to actually see what’s going on; [that editing style] it’s a bit of a cheat. So it tends to bother me as a viewer when I don't know where you are in the scene because the editing and rhythm is far too clipped. I feel like sometimes [progenitors of this style] aren't giving their audience enough credit."
But the director also noted that he didn't choreograph the fighting this way to be contrarian, it's just the style of action he enjoys from films of the 1960s where actors like Rod Taylor kick ass in a suit and tie in the middle of a five-star hotel. " 'From Russia With Love' is my favorite Bond movie and I've always wanted to make a spy film," he said. "The geography is all there too [in the fight sequences]. They're not hiding."
Part of the inspiration for making the film was watching Carano busting skulls on television and realizing someone had to leverage this woman on screen (and he then realized, that someone should be him). And the second half of that inspiration was the challenge the omnivorous filmmaker is constantly seeking to keep things creatively fresh. But he didn't make it necessarily easy for himself. "I don't storyboard things, so with this film I stuck to that rule and we just figured out the choreography of the fighting on set as we were shooting," he said, explaining that this nervewracking process was part of the fun. "It keeps things fresh and it keeps things alive and charged."
One thing that he did do in advance however was watch and reverse engineer (in his head) the fight sequences in his friend David Fincher's "Fight Club." "David is the guy," he said reverentially. "He's a master. So I would study the film and look to see where he was cutting, but not just when he was cutting, but why."
Was he concerned that his first action movie would star not only a female, but an untested female in her first leading role? “That’s the risk you take," he said, noting that the financiers had more trepidation than he had. "Look, Gina is an athlete and in many ways she’s a performer. But she held her ground. I mean, my god, she’s got scenes next to Michael Douglas for crying out loud.”
"Haywire" also came together really quickly. Soderbergh saw Carano on TV, contacted her, pitched her and when she was interested sought out his old commentary track sparring partner and writing collaborator Lem Dobbs who penned Soderbergh's "The Limey" and "Kafka." "The first draft was banged out in a month," he said of the on-the-run production. Even Carano noted during the Comic-Con panel that the film almost didn't come to pass. "It's going to happen really fast or its not going to happen at all, and then it happened," Carano said of the early caution she received about the movie. Soderbergh also mentioned that like "The Limey," this action thriller will also "play around with narrative a bit."
While the picture is now dated to come out six months from now in January, the filmmaker is eager to show it off, noting that taking it to Comic-Con was part of proudly displaying the film that was supposed to come out earlier this year. "It was a bit frustrating, waiting for the Lionsgate situation to sort itself out," he said (Relativity Media, the financiers turned distributors are now releasing the film). "The film was supposed come out in April, then in August. Now we have the right amount of time to get the word out there and I'm eager for people to see it.
As we noted in an excerpt from this lengthy conversation posted last week, retirement is still in the cards for the filmmaker. Some wishful thinkers have pointed out that he signed a six picture deal with for Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's HDNet Films for pictures that would be released simultaneously in theaters, on television, and on VOD. That deal produced lo-fi indie pictures like "Bubble" and "The Girlfriend Experience" but it no longer exists. "I was starting to wind down and they starting backing away from the [day-and-date film releases] as well, so we mutually decided to walk away from it." It didn't help that many pundits criticized this new model and called it a huge threat to the viability of the film industry. "We got killed," he said of the media and film industry's reaction to this experiment.
But retirement is not that soon on the horizon either. There's still the little matter of two films that have to be released ("Haywire" and September's virus thriller "Contagion" which will premiere at the Venice Film Festival) and three films that haven't even been shot. First up is "Magic Mike" a male stripper exploit film based on the life of "Haywire" star Channing Tatum, a big screen adaptation of the '60s TV spy series, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E," and finally, "Liberace" starring Matt Damon and Michael Douglas.
"Contagion" is a germ thriller that is horrific because of the "realism" of the story and Soderbergh says it will have audiences "looking for Purell hand-sanitizer afterwards. It's incredible to watch people's reactions [when it's over]." 'U.N.C.L.E' is something he hopes George Clooney will star in. “That’s the hope," he said, not wanting to count his chickens before they are hatched. "You know, we stay and touch and we talk obviously and he seems like the perfect fit for the role."
And "Magic Mike" is something that will shoot soon in September. Soderbergh calls it a "Saturday Night Fever"-like picture, but says he was drawn to it because it "was a world that's really intriguing" and one "we haven't really seen onscreen before." Will it push the boundaries of male flesh on screen, play with notions of men's sexuality and unnerve audiences given that it takes place in the world of male strippers? "Yeah, there might be some of that," he said, an audible smile coming in loudly over the phone.
"Haywire" hits screens January 20, 2012. Steven Soderbergh's career, as it stands now, has five films to go.