Logic would dictate that production of an action movie would start with the high-intensity physical elements. Director Pierre Morel doesn’t follow such logic.
“When I make an action movie, I start with the connection between the characters,” Morel says. “It’s the characters who need to drive the movie. Any action in the film needs to come naturally.”
The French director used that approach to make the 2008 release “Taken,” one of the biggest action movies of the past decade. Liam Neeson’s character throws plenty of punches, drives fast and never hesitates to fire his gun, but, as designed by Morel, is first and foremost a caring father.
That’s the approach Morel uses in his latest film, “The Gunman.” Sean Penn plays a mercenary who gets involved with an assassination. It’s not the bullets that define him, it’s his relationships with the love of his life and an old friend.
Morel didn’t have to waste time helping Penn find the emotional intensity to play the character.
“He knew who his character was before he got to the set. All we had to do was fine tune it a bit,” Morel says.
And some of that fine tuning meant helping Penn find the right level of intensity to play a scene. The Oscar-winning actor’s made a career out of taking characters to the brink of emotional cliffs and then letting the audience watch to see if they go over the edge.
There were times when Morel needed all of that intensity. But he also needed Penn to dial it back so that he could open himself up more emotionally, especially in scenes where Penn’s character is doing humanitarian work.
“Those scenes are all about redemption for him,” Morel says. “His character has spent his entire life working with some pretty shady characters. He realizes that by doing that, he lost himself. After one major event there’s a year gap and we see that he’s trying to do something better with his life. He’s trying to live with what he’s done.”
A lot of those scenes also come in scenes with Italian actress Jasmine Trinca, where Penn’s character finally lets his guard down. Morel cast Trinca — whose not known for doing action films in Italy — because she could show emotions without coming across as wimpy.
Morel, whose first directing job was the 2004 release, “District B13,” tends to feature veteran actors like Penn, Neeson and John Travolta in key roles.
“I chose actors because they fit the story. Even when we do fight scenes, they aren’t choreographed thinking the actor is 50. I just try to make the scenes seem real so that it is easy for the audience to relate,” Morel says. “Older actors have flaws. They are interesting because they have more depth to them. Actors of a younger age would not have those flaws.”