IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Simon West Talks 'The Expendables 2'

Friday, 10 August 2012 19:07 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Simon West Talks 'The Expendables 2'

Director Simon West is no stranger to helming kick-ass action films that feature an ensemble cast of big name actors. In fact, he first gained attention in 1997 for his debut film Con-Air, which featured acting talent such as Nic Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, and Ving Rhames. Since then the director has made such popular action films as The General’s Daughter with John Travolta, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie, and The Mechanic with Jason Statham. So it only makes sense that when writer/actor Sylvester Stallone was looking for someone to relieve him of directing duties on The Expendables 2, that he would tap West for the honor.

The Expendables 2, which opens in theaters on August 17th, once again stars Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa, Rambo) as Barney Ross and features the return of his team of mercenaries for-hire including Jason Statham (Crank), Jet Li (Romeo Must Die), Dolph Lundgren (Masters of the Universe), Terry Crews (Idiocracy), and Randy Couture (Red Belt). Actor Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games) and action legend Chuck Norris (The Delta Force) join the team in the new installment, while Scott Adkins (The Bourne Ultimatum) and another action film legend - Jean-Claude Van Damme (Timecop) - play the film’s villains. Also returning for larger roles than they had in the original are international superstars Bruce Willis (Die Hard) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator).

This time around, after taking a seemingly simple job for Mr. Church (Willis), the Expendables find their plans going awry when one of their own is brutally murdered by rival mercenary Jean Vilain (Van Damme). The team then sets out into hostile territory to put a stop to a deadly weapon and gain their revenge against the people who killed their brother-in-arms.

I recently had a chance to speak with director Simon West about The Expendables 2 and the process of making the film. The accomplished director discussed the new movie, how he came on board, collaborating with writer/actor Sylvester Stallone, the “big name actors” who were considered for the film, casting Jean-Claude Van Damme as the movie’s antagonist, expanding Schwarzenegger and Willis’ roles, and creating the once in a lifetime shot of Arnold, Sly and Bruce all firing guns at the same time.

Here is what he had to say:

IAR: To begin with, could you talk about how you became involved with The Expendables 2? Were you concerned about directing a sequel to a movie that you did not originally make, especially considering that the writer and star of this film helmed the first one?

Simon West: I had done The Mechanic with Jason Statham in 2011 with the same production company Millennium. I had also just done another film with them that starred Nic Cage. Just as we were wrapping the shoot up they said that Expendables 2 was coming up really fast and they asked if I thought I could overlap them because they would like me to do it. Of course I said, how does that work because Sly wrote, directed and starred in the first one. How does that even work having another director coming in to do that? They said, “Oh no, Sly decided he doesn’t want to direct it, and he really wants to just be an actor.” Also I think the first one nearly finished him off. They said, “Have a meeting with him and see if you get along, and he’ll reassure you that he’s just coming along to be an actor.” I said I’ll do the meeting, but I was still unconvinced as to how it could work. I think every director they knew they had asked to do Expendables 2. I always told them, how on earth are you going to direct Sly Stallone especially after he did the first one and coming off of another film that he has directed. So anyway, I had a meeting with Sly and he was very gracious. He said, “You know look, we had a lot of difficulty on the first one, we had a lot of restrictions. Nobody knew if it was going to work and it was really hell on me.” He said, “You’re the director.” At that time the script hadn’t been written by Sly, it was a draft storyline that had been drawn up by somebody else, a different scriptwriter. Then I brought in my writer who did The Mechanic with me and we worked on the script. We worked out all the action sequences and things like that. So, we sent it to Sly and he loved it. But then of course we wanted to have the voices of all those guys from the first movie and that’s the thing about Sly, he’s great with those weird character voices. Actually a lot of what he came up with was on the set. It would say in the script, “the plane crashes into the cave,” and then I would storyboard the whole action sequence and then the pace that it was going to be. The script didn’t reflect what we were shooting so I would ask Sly, what’s a great one-liner for this? Instead of saying, “load the gun and fire,” what’s another way of saying that? He would be silent for thirty seconds and then he would come up with three great one-liners. Then I would tell Jason Statham, this is what you’re saying. Instead of saying, “fire the gun”, say “shoots hot” or “baby wants to travel” or “nail in the coffin.” You know, all these great lines that he thinks up on the spot. So, I used Sly for a lot of these movie one-liners. I could turn to him many times and say, what’s a way to do this? Because he was only acting in it, he wasn’t exhausted all the time or burnt out, he was sort of excited to dive in and come up with these lines. He was very gracious, on the first day it was very strange for me to be standing in front of “Rocky” or “Rambo” and say, go stand over there and do this and do that. He was saying, “Oh no, no, you’re the director, it’s going to be great.” Then all the way through the shoot he was very complimentary. He’d come in everyday and walk on a set that he hadn’t seen before, or see how I was laying out an action scene and he’d say, “Ah, this is fantastic. Way better than the first one. You’re taking it to a whole new level.” So he was always my number one cheerleader. My reservations and fears soon disappeared. He just wanted the best for the film and was there to support me rather than get in the way or anything. He was a great guy. I think he enjoyed it more because he could sit around with all of his kind and they could just tell their war stories and entertain each other because there is a lot of sitting around and waiting on a movie and he’s a great storyteller. He’s got a lot of great stories to tell.

It sounds like you were really involved with the project from the very beginning of production, rather than coming in at the last second just to direct the shoot. Were you also involved with the casting as well and if so, what can you tell us about all of the rumored “big name actors” that we heard were being considered for the film?

West: Yeah, a bulk of the people were back from the first film, but then it was kind of exciting because everyone loved this concept of all these action stars together. So now, whom the hell can we go out there and get? We kicked around a lot of ideas for the bad guy and a lot of names came up, such as (John) Travolta, Nic Cage and even Javier Bardem because we also like the international flavor as well. Jean-Claude Van Damme was mentioned very early on and there was talk that he may have been considered for the first one. We had already written the part of the villain before deciding on Jean-Claude and the part of the villain had huge dialogue and was a very articulate, bright, intelligent bad guy. We all knew that Jean-Claude could do the action in spades from his past experience, but the idea of giving a very articulate dialogue-heavy part to Jean-Claude, well nobody knew if he could do it. I didn’t know because English is not even his first language! So it was pretty nerve wrecking. That was one of the most insecure parts of it for me, walking on the set the first day with Jean-Claude knowing that he has a huge dialogue scene where he takes on the whole Expendables team verbally and really not in his traditional fighting way. He takes them on in a verbal sparring match. In the end I think that was the thing that surprised me the most; Jean-Claude’s command as being one of the great bad guys and his sort of bizarre way of doing things on the set. His method is so unusual and quite scary when you’re filming because he never does the same thing twice. Traditionally in film you do take after take until you polish, but really you’re expecting the guy to stand in the same spot, to say the same lines, to pick up the same gun, and to shoot the guy the same way roughly. But Jean-Claude doesn’t do any of that and every take is completely different. He’s standing in a different division so the camera operators don’t even know where he’s going to pop up. He drops out of frame and he says different things, which is very scary the first time you do that. Then after a while you sort of realize that it’s quite brilliant to watch. It’s just going to be so fun in the movie and unpredictable. Even if its then a nightmare to film, and a nightmare to edit. My poor editor tried to piece the scene together and even just continuity wise he’s not in the same part of the frame from one shot to another. But it actually worked. He comes off as this nutcase, schizophrenic, and very dangerous bad guy. I asked Jean-Claude, you’ve got quite an unusual technique, why do you never do the same thing twice. He said, “Well you know what, I think it would be untrue. It would be lying to do the same thing in every take.” Once I realized he was doing it deliberately, and it wasn’t complete incompetence or just to be difficult, then it was enjoyable. You just never knew what he was going to do next. A couple of days he’d come in and he’d be very kind of orthodox actor and I would say, no this is really boring, do some of the weird stuff you were doing the other day. He would then turn it back on and go nuts again. So, he was the most surprising to me.

Finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis’ roles are larger in this movie than they were in the original, could you talk about expanding their roles and working with them on set?

West: Yeah, obviously they were in the first one and it was great to see those three guys standing there, but I think me and everybody else was like, oh it’s just a dialogue scene. Really it’s those three that have to get together because they’ve never been together in an action film before so they should be taking people out. I thought, how can I make the most of this because I didn’t want to put them in a situation in a jungle or a South American compound, which we’ve seen a million times before. I thought let’s put them in a modern slick environment causing mayhem and I thought an airport is a great place because we all go through them and we all spend time in them. It’s somewhere you can have a great battle and it would be more accessible for the audience then just going to some bizarre weird foreign location. Everyone knows airports and so I thought I’d start working on that action sequence. I thought that I’ve got to make sure these three fire every gun and let off every grenade possible. People are going to want to see them with the dial set to eleven because it may never happen again. So I sort of just storyboarded the sequence where they took this airport apart. Luckily we found a brand new airport in this place in Bulgaria that only had two flights a week and they let us have the complete run of it. So I just staged this giant battle for the end of the movie and I made sure that since I had the place for unlimited time that I got as many shots as I could with all three of the men together. It was such an iconic frame having those three, Sly, Arnie, and Bruce together. I made sure I didn’t do a lot of singles of them because in filmmaking you would do a close up on each of them and they would all be put together in editing. But I thought the fun of this was them all being in the same frame together at the same time. Of course that made it a little harder for them because they all had to get it right at the same time. They’re very experienced and they know that if they mess up or get something wrong, you can edit around it. But you have to have a single shot of them in order to do that, but when you have three of them in the same frame, all three have to be great at the same time. So we spent a lot of time rehearsing them in this gun battle where it’s sort of this steady cam one-shot action sequence with those three. Obviously it’s got to be safe so they don’t shoot each other in the back. Even blank firing guns are dangerous so it took a while to choreograph. I could tell it was sort of unusual for them because even Bruce Willis said, “I’m just not used to sharing the frame with other people.” Because they’re movie stars, they usually get their own shot. But when you have three big stars like that I wanted to spread the frame so we saw all three at once. They just weren’t used to that and it was sort of tough for them to do that because they’re used to getting off easy because they have a nice close up that can be edited in a way that makes them look great, but when you have three of them at once, then they all have to be great at once. 

The Expendables 2 hits theaters on August 17th.

To watch our interviews with the cast of The Expendables 2 at Comic-Con 2012, please click here.

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