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Friday, September 19, 2014

Press Junket Potluck: Liam Neeson & Scott Frank take A Walk Among the Tombstones

Film Flam Flummox

The poster for A Walk Among the Tombstones features Liam Neeson striking a familiar pose, standing tall, back turned, brandishing a gun. But writer-director Scott Frank's adaptation of Lawrence Block's novel of the same name finds the star playing a tough guy in an even tougher context: Matt Scudder, an ex-cop-turned-private eye whose personal demons are just as deadly the kidnappers and killers he pursues in New York City. In a pair of press conferences in Hollywood on August 22, Frank and Neeson discussed in depth how the film is a much darker, more dramatic, more deliberately paced departure from the more slam-bang entertainments with which the Academy Award-nominated actor has become closely associated in recent years--or, as Frank succinctly prefers to put it, how it's not Taken.

The Long Journey from Page to Screen

"In 1998, I had just [written] Out of Sight for Universal, and right after that movie had come out, I had read [A Walk Among the Tombstones]. I just loved this book, and I had been trying to kind of a really tough New York private eye story. It was a genre I hadn't done, and I was really interested in finding something. I'd been really inspired by William Hjortsberg's book Fallen Angel years earlier, which became [Alan Parker's film] Angel Heart, but they relocated, for some reason, that story to New Orleans. I thought what was so great about it was all of these strange things happening in New York City. I had been reading [Block's] books, and I came upon this book. Someone had just recommended [Block's] A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, and I read A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, which I quite liked a lot, and then I read [A Walk Among the Tombstones, and I thought, 'This is my New York private eye book. This is the one.' And so with Danny DeVito, who's one of the producers at Jersey Films, we brought the book to Universal and said, 'I'd like to this next.' And just as I was about to start writing this book, Minority Report happened, and Steven Spielberg said, 'Would you come help me do this?' And my life became that for a couple of years, and I finally adapted this around 2000, 2001. Then began a very long journey with various directors and actors coming in and out of it, and it was just tough to get made because adult dramas--even adult drama thrillers, which is what this is--weren't getting made. As one studio head said to me, 'This is answering a question no one is asking, and there's really nothing to recommend it beyond its own quality.' And I kind of didn't know what to say to that. [laughs] But it was true. People weren't going to see these movies. And then what happened was a couple of things. One, movies in the $20-35 million range became viable. You could do dramas if they cost that much, particularly if you had a movie star. But more importantly, Liam Neeson wanted to do this movie, and in the course of those ten years, Liam had become a huge international star. And that's what really put us over and why we were able to get it done. But we had to wait for Liam to become a huge star. [laughs]"
--Scott Frank

The Draw to that Box Office Draw

"It's just something noble and damaged about those sorts of American cinematic heroes. I just was always attracted to that type of cinema hero as an adolescent growing up in Ireland. Robert Mitchum springs to mind; later on, it was Steve McQueen, and to a certain extent, Charles Bronson. Those types of grizzled characters who had one foot on the side of law and order and the other foot in the bad guy's camp, treading a very delicate line. I thought this was very much one of those sorts of characters: not good in the relationship world, tortured, and, in Matt Scudder's case, is a recovering alcoholic. Those guys, they wake up in the morning and have to think of a reason to get up, and then once they're up, to not have a drink. It's like there's all these little heroic battles they have they fight with and against every day of their lives. I think Scott brought that out very beautifully in the film. So he's not larger than life; he's just one of us, really."
--Liam Neeson

"It was important to [Liam] to not to be the guy in the Taken movies. And you all have to say this movie is not Taken ; whatever you write, the first sentence has to be 'This is not Taken.' [laughs] I think what he liked was this guy who had this whole history; he liked this man who was not a superhero. We talked a lot about those films from the '70s, and it's shot like that; it's lit that way; it's cut that way. But the good guys weren't all good or all bad. They all lived in this kind of grey area, and think that was really interesting for him to do that."
--Scott Frank

Filling Out the Cast

"In terms of casting, you want that 'one and one is three' kind of quality with somebody. You want somebody who's going to make it better. I'm not the writer who says, 'You have to say it exactly as I wrote it!' because you don't get good work. And you want somebody who's really going to bring something interesting to it and really create a character with you, and you see that with certain actors. It's also fun to pull people in a different direction. I did that with Matthew Goode in The Lookout, and it was fun to do that with Dan Stevens in this movie--just pull him into a darker place. He's such a good actor that he was able to do that. He was really able to disappear. Many people don't know it's him when they see the movie. 'Which one was Dan Stevens?' They don't know. So it's very fun for me to find those actors that will kind of create something really great. And Astro [Brian Bradley]--that kid. We were looking at hundreds of different people; [casting director] Avy Kaufman looked at so many different people, and then I remember getting an e-mail: 'Have you seen [the music competition TV show] The X Factor?' And I went, 'No,' and she said, 'I'm going to send you a little YouTube.'"
--Scott Frank

That Slow Burn '70s Cinema Style...

"Everybody embraced from the get-go what the movie was; they were concerned as to how to sell it, obviously, the people who put up the money. But nobody ever said to me, 'We need to do more of this, we need to do more of that; we need to find an extra scene to drop in.' It was interesting; they really embraced it for what it was--even the pace of it; it is a very deliberate pace. I don't think it's boring. I think it's refreshing because I miss movies like this where you're not cutting all the time. This movie opens after that shootout, that bit of violence--there's a scene of Liam Neeson sitting in a booth in a diner in profile. He's sitting there, and guy walks up and puts his back to camera. His back is to camera for 43 seconds. And then he sits down in the booth, and they have a conversation for another 30 seconds, and then we cut. Today, there's always this instinct to just start chopping it up and pacing it up, and you don't get to know anybody. You don't feel anything. You don't ever lean in because they're doing the work for you. I love Alan Pakula. I love Klute. I love these movies where you're constantly doing this. [sits up in his chair] We don't do that anymore. We tell you where to go; we tell you where to look; we blow up shots so that you can see everything better. And so [the '70s style] was really important to us, even in the performances--Dan Stevens plays a very deliberate, slow, in a good way, kind of character. He's very smart; he's grieving; he's lost. I miss those movies. I just really miss them."
--Scott Frank

...But Not Without Some Action

"I do love doing action, and I have a great fight coordinator, and he's my stunt double too--Mark Vanselow. We've done 16 films now, so we work very closely with each other. I don't do my own stunts, but I do my own fighting. I love doing that stuff. That's always fun to do. In this film, it's important to kind of make it real. It's not that cinema fight stuff; we wanted to make it very dark and gruesome. Ugly, where you don't know where punches are coming from, the way it would be in real life."
--Liam Neeson

The Final Word

"I was in my fifties when this Taken film came out that I was sure was just a straight to video, good little European thriller, well made. And Fox Studios took it and did this amazing sell job, and showed the trailer at big sporting events and stuff. The film became a hit, and I started getting sent these action script--in my fifties. It was very flattering, and felt like a kid in a toy shop--why not do them, you know? But I didn't want to try and become like a 27-year-old, you know what I mean? I try in some of these fight scenes to fight as a 50-year-old. [whispers] Even though I'm 62. [laughs]"
--Liam Neeson

A Walk Among the Tombstones opens in cinemas nationwide today, Friday, September 19 from Universal Pictures.

Buy the A Walk Among the Tombstones movie poster here.
Buy the A Walk Among the Tombstones DVD here.
Buy the A Walk Among the Tombstones Blu-ray here.
Buy the A Walk Among the Tombstones soundtrack here.
Buy Lawrence Block's A Walk Among the Tombstones novel here.
Buy Lawrence Block's A Walk Among the Tombstones audiobook here.
Save up to 60% on Movie Tickets & Concessions here.

(Special thanks to Universal Pictures)

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