IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: DIrector Taylor Hackford Talks 'Parker,' and Looks Back at 'When We Were Kings' and 'Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll'

Monday, 21 January 2013 22:12 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: DIrector Taylor Hackford Talks 'Parker,' and Looks Back at 'When We Were Kings' and 'Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll'

Taylor Hackford is so much more than just “Mr. Helen Mirren!” 

In addition to being the current President of the Director’s Guild of America, Hackford is also an acclaimed director in his own right with such popular films to his credit as An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds, White Nights, Dolores Claiborne, The Devil’s Advocate, Proof of Life, Ray, and the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, as well as producing the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings, which tells the story of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship fight. 

Hackford’s latest film Parker, which opens in theaters on January 25th, is based on author Donald Westlake’s popular crime novels (written under the name Richard Stark) and features international action star Jason Statham (The Expendables 2) and actress/recording artist Jennifer Lopez (Out of Sight). Westlake’s novels have been adapted into films before, such as the Lee Marvin classic Point Blank, and the surprisingly good Mel Gibson vehicle Payback. But Parker, which is adapted from "Flashfire," the 19th Westlake novel, marks the first time a film has been granted the rights to use the lead character’s actual name. 

Parker tells the story of a thief (Statham) with a unique code of professional ethics who is double-crossed by his crew and left for dead. Assuming a new disguise and forming an unlikely alliance with a woman (Lopez) on the inside, he looks to hijack the score of the crew’s latest heist. In addition to Statham and Lopez, the film boasts a terrific cast that includes Michael Chiklis (Fantastic Four), Wendell Pierce (Horrible Bosses), Clifton Collins Jr. (Star Trek), Bobby Cannavale (Win Win), Nick Nolte (Gangster Squad), and Tony Award-winner Patti LuPone.

I recently had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with filmmaker Taylor Hackford to talk about Parker, as well as his overall career. The esteemed director discussed his latest film, obtaining the rights to use the name Parker, his admiration for Donald Westlake’s books, casting Jason Statham in the lead, helming his first action film, directing Statham in a genre that the actor is an expert in, working with “Jenny from the Block,” possibly returning to documentary filmmaking, When We Were Kings, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, the great Muhammad Ali, and “the diabolical” Chuck Berry

Here is what the acclaimed filmmaker had to say:

IAR: To begin with, obviously Parker is based on the Richard Stark series of books by Donald Westlake, which have been made into films in the past but this is the first time that a filmmaker has received the rights to use the main character’s name. Can you talk about obtaining those rights and how that added to the authenticity of the film?

Taylor Hackford: That has to do with one of the producers a lovely guy named Les Alexander who was very good friends with Donald Westlake. I mean they were friends for years. Westlake was the reason that Parker wasn’t used. He said, “You can buy the books, but unless you’re going to make them all, you can’t have the name.” You know, he was a cantankerous guy, Donald Westlake. He was a wonderful guy, but he didn’t care, you couldn’t buy him. In the long run I think it’s the combination of the fact that Les Alexander was a friend of Donald Westlake who died but they talked about this first. Abbey Westlake his widow, who loved Les, they talked about it and said it’s time to really make this work. Also Film District, who bought the rights, said if this works, we’d make it into a series, but we’ll see. We’re not going to do it unless it works. It came with that and it was delightful. You’ll notice that the dedication at the end of the film, which I put there is in memory of Don Westlake because he was great. He was just terrific.

Were you a big fan of the books before being approached to make the movie?

Hackford: Yeah! I had read the books and I was a big fan of Point Blank. I like genre movies but I haven’t made anything until this in terms of a crime movie and so forth. But I love that and when they work they’re just delightful. I said, I want to do this, and this will be my take on this long line of projects. Again, based on a literary figure that a lot of people have read, and second of all, many films that have been done with different people playing. As I’ve said before, crucial was who was going to play Parker and could find somebody who would embody what is on the page? That’s not so easy. Jason Statham, he’s English, and Parker is American but so what, it works and he is a terrific Parker.

What had you seen Jason Statham in that really clicked with you? Was it his work in the Guy Richie movies or in The Transporter and Crank films?

Hackford: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels I saw and I went, who is that guy? The thing is people can be fantastic actors, have great technique, but the camera doesn’t love him. When people come on screen and the camera does love you, you go right there. When I first saw Jason on screen I went hey, I like him, I believe him, you know understand that Jason was an Olympic diver and that’s a big deal, but also he did card tricks and card games on the streets of London. He knows the underbelly of society. So he’s a guy who doesn’t just imagine it, he’s seen it and I think he carries that. I think that really works for Parker

You mentioned that this is your first time directing a film in this genre, even though you obviously have a very long and distinguished career as a filmmaker. Jason Statham, of course, is an expert in making this type of film and has a lot of experience in the genre. What did you learn from working with him that, if the series were to continue, or if you were to make another action film in the future, you could bring with you and apply to that project?

Hackford: I storyboard my action. I go through and draw what I want out of my action. I meet with Jason and he made some suggestions, which were great. But more importantly what I was involved in was the doing, the actual execution of these scenes. When you work with somebody that’s as big of a perfectionist as Jason … listen I’ve done action stuff in my films before. I’m not known for action, but I’ve done some really good action sequences; the car chase in Against All Odds I’d put up against any car chase in any film. There is also a lot of action in White Nights, and in Proof of Life. I happen to know that the extraction scene in Proof of Life the U.S. army uses to train people. So I’ve got that stuff, but they have bigger context with a little bit of action. But the interesting thing about Jason is that he was a diver. Now think about divers and dancers. They are perfectionists. Every move, every little number has to be done precisely right, and Jason’s that way when you’re shooting with him. So I’ve storyboarded it, I know what I want, and sometimes you get close and he’s not satisfied. It’s not perfect. I said, Jason we’ve got to move on. He says, “It’s not perfect.” So the things you learn, which is great, is that I want to get things as good as possible. When you’re a star, and let’s face it, Jason has a lot to do with why the picture was made, because it was made from a foreign sales company and he has an international persona. When your star is demanding to do another take and to make it right, that is fantastic. I want to say you learn from that because you ultimately want the same that he wants. It’s a gift to be able to have someone there who has enough clout, and it’s not clout to say I don’t want to do it, I want to go back to my trailer, and I want to quit early. No! It’s, I want to make it better. You can’t believe what a gift that is. 

You cast Jennifer Lopez in a role that we don’t see her in very often. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a female lead in an action movie quite like this. It’s definitely a very different type of role for Jennifer Lopez to play, what can you tell me about working with her on this film?

Hackford: Well, Jennifer’s a fabulous actress and there’s nothing that she won’t go for. I love, love, love her commitment! But I think that what was really important here is that there is a kind of indefatigable, you know, she won’t give up quality that I wanted in Leslie. By the way, it was on the page, Donald Westlake wrote it. This was a woman who by all intensive purposes was tragic. Everything in her life had fallen apart. She had to move back in with her mother at age forty. I mean everything had gone wrong for her, but she still down deep had not given up, which I believe is who Jennifer is. So I said that to her when I cast her in the movie, I seduced her to be in it, and then she just brought all this magic to it. When you see her in these different moments, where she’s at her lowest point and then you see something spark in there. That’s acting, but it’s also the real Jennifer Lopez coming out. I think that too often someone’s real persona can capture an audience. Jennifer Lopez is glamorous. Jennifer Lopez is incredibly rich and successful. Jennifer Lopez has her own cosmetic lines. What does she need? The idea that she actually embodies somebody who doesn’t have things working for her and is able to make it believable, it’s a huge test to her real talent, her acting talent. At the same time she’s harkening back to … see that’s the thing, I know Jennifer. I know how rich she is, I know all the things, but you know what? She’s real! She’s still that girl from the Bronx. 

She’s still Jenny from the block!

Hackford: She’s it! That’s exactly who she is and that’s what is her true gift. She hasn’t lost touch.

Finally, in addition to directing many great movies, you have also made what I believe are two of the greatest documentaries of all time. The greatest sports documentary ever, When We Were Kings, and one of the best music documentaries ever made, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Have you given any thought to returning to documentary filmmaking at some point in you career?

Hackford: Yeah, I love documentary form, but it has to fit. The difference is I did shoot the Chuck Berry film from beginning to end and it was fantastic. The Muhammed Ali piece had been shot, I did all the interviews so I did all that and I put it together and bought the footage of the fight, and put the whole thing together. So they were entirely different, and yet, in both instances they were the same. There are certain people in real life who are bigger, more glamorous and more diabolical than any movie actor. No star, I don’t care who they are, could match them. Muhammed Ali was the greatest star of my generation. He was the greatest. I mean you see him on film, and light just shines on him. He was amazing. Chuck Berry, I don’t care what they say; first of all he invented rock n’ roll. Everything you say about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll and outlaws, I mean he went to jail! He defined it. He defined the music, he defined the guitar technique, everybody that came after him, and at the same time however much you want to love him he is as diabolical as it gets. The process means that I believe, because I know performance and I love actors and getting performance, I know that if you turn your camera on the real thing and they’re bigger than life, you got a performance you’ll never be able to get from the greatest actors or anybody else. So will I do it again? Yes, if I find somebody that big, and that larger than life. If you have another moment, let me tell you one great story about working with Chuck Berry. I’m shooting with Chuck, and this is just diabolical. I have five days to make a whole movie, including the concert, and I’m doing these rehearsals. Rehearsals are crucial! So I’m there and Chuck knows and he says to me, “Oh, Taylor by the way Wednesday I won’t be able to work.” I said we’re ready to shoot. I said, Chuck, what? He says, “I can’t.” I said, Chuck, I’ve got five days to make the movie. It’s one fifth of the movie, what are you talking about? “Hey man, I’ve got a gig.” I said; you’ve got a gig? You’re the executive producer of the movie, you’re getting five hundred thousand dollars to do this movie, which was far more than I was getting. He said, “Don’t you say that, I’ve got a gig. I’m going to make twenty-five grand that night.” So I said, okay, I’m coming and I’m taking my camera crew. Fuck it, I’m not going to sit here and twiddle my thumbs on the shoot. He says, “Fine with me, but I’m not paying.” So I go off, and I shoot this thing. He goes to the Ohio State Fair, and he performs there. I shoot the whole thing. He comes in right before the show is supposed to start, he leaves his car in the parking lot, checks in his guitar and luggage, goes to the fair, does the show, and then comes back before one in the morning, gets in his car and drives home. I captured the whole thing, and then I interviewed (BruceSpringsteen the next day. Springsteen is the biggest star in the country (at the time) and he describes being in Chuck Berry’s backup band for a gig just like this one, twenty years earlier. That sequence in the movie was not planned and I now have Springsteen narrating it. It’s one of the best sequences in the film. It was accidental, but it fit perfectly and it was twenty years apart. I shot it twenty years after Springsteen was in that band and it was like, sometimes things happen for a reason.     

Parker opens in theaters on January 25th.

To read what Jason Statham had to say about The Expendables 3 at the Parker press day, please click here

To read what Michael Chiklis had to say about a possible The Shield movie at the Parker press day, please click here

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