TR Interview: Taylor Hackford on Reviving a Stark Parker



Jason Statham is to the “heist gone wrong” movie as Steven Seagal was to the “out for revenge” fight flick or Jean-Claude Van Damme was to the “high-stakes tournament” pic: it may not be the only thing he ever does, but it is what he’s known for and what you can frequently expect. Parker may not be much different in that regard, but it comes with a significantly higher pedigree than usual: it features a classic cinematic character, based on a series of Donald Westlake novels, who has been portrayed in the past by the likes of Lee Marvin (Point Blank) and Mel Gibson (Payback); and it’s directed by industry veteran Taylor Hackford, known for films like Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Devil’s Advocate and being married to Helen Mirren.

Hackford has been directing movies since 1973, but this is his first action film. I sat down with him to discuss such things as choreographing Jason Statham, casting Jennifer Lopez against type, and where he finds the time to make movies while being president of the DGA and husband to an imposing talent.

Luke Y. Thompson: So with being president of the DGA and having a spouse who is always in the awards mix, where did you find time to make movies during all of the awards hoopla?

Taylor Hackford: The great thing about the Director’s Guild is that we have working leadership. We always have: Frank Capra, Robert Wise – all these people in my past and the Director Guild’s, were always working, and that’s one of the criteria. We want someone to be president and still work, so it wasn’t that difficult.

LYT: It also seems like you picked up the pace and you’re making movies more often.

TH: That is a function of finding material that you can – it’s hard, it took me 13 years to get Ray on the screen. I thought, “Ray Charles! Everyone will be storming to finance this movie!” It wasn’t the case. So sometimes it’s not your willingness, sometimes it’s just the reality that nobody really trusts that something is going to be successful, and you just have to fight it out.

LYT: This was probably a much surer bet, I would guess, because the Parker character has been done so many times.

TH: It comes with a bit of a legacy, yes, but at the same time there are some liabilities. It’s been done a lot, so therefore you’re going to be evaluated by millions of Parker fans, the readers of the books, and also the fans of the old movies. So you think to yourself, “I’m going to do this,” but it’s not like it’s an original idea; it’s a character, a literary character who a lot of people know and love, so you’re going to be judged, so, so be it!

LYT: It’s also incredible how this character tailors so well (no pun intended) to so many stars and their existing personas. It worked perfectly for Lee Marvin, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham. What is it about the character you think that it can be tailored so well to each individual?

TH: Donald Westlake, although he was working under a pseudonym, Richard Stark, created – in fact, he chose the last name of his pseudonym based on the style of his writing: stark. He said “I don’t want to use a lot of words; I want this man to be a silent character.” He’s a professional thief, unapologetically so – he wants to steal as much money as he can, and he has not one iota of remorse about it. At the same time, he’s a man that has a set of rules that he follows, and he will never cheat on those rules; he goes right after it. There’s something admirable about that. Even though it’s abhorrent what he does, at the same time there’s a certain integrity to Parker that you can’t help but admire.

Now, I think that translates beautifully as a cinematic character. A man who is a silent, hard man. A man who is smart, because Parker is cunning and smart, but doesn’t say very much – from a filmmaker’s point of view, it’s a great challenge. I don’t like narration. When I see narration in a film, even though sometimes it has worked, I kind of say the filmmaker has failed, he has to resort to narration. But think of the problems involved! Because if a man doesn’t say very much, but at the same time he’s watching and seeing things, you have to reveal him visually. And that was the great challenge here, and a lot of fun. When you’re working with someone like Jason Statham – you know he was an Olympic diver for England, and those people are notorious perfectionists, and when they’re in the air twisting around, everything has to be perfect and detailed, and that’s a definition of Jason when he’s working. He is meticulous, he is tireless, and ultimately I felt he would be a very good Parker.

LYT: As a director and a producer, do you relate to Parker’s idea of “You can do whatever you want as long as you follow my simple rules”?

TH: Mine as a director/producer? I’m a realist. Filmmaking is a collaboration. I’m president of the Director’s Guild; I believe that you need vision from the person at the helm, and that that vision should be real. But if you can’t communicate that vision, how can you expect the people that you’re working with, whether it’s the actor or the cinematographer, to really be able to give you what you want? It’s first of all a communicative art, and number two, it’s a decision-making art. You have to listen as quickly as you can to all of the talented collaborators you’re working with, including the actors, because if you just dictate to them and say “Do what I say!”, they’re going to resent it, they’re going to rebel. You must open it up, you must listen to them, and then you finally say, “OK, I’ve heard enough. This is what we’re going to do.” They appreciate the definitiveness of it, and you’d better be right! You know, the ones where you’re right, you get to make another film; when you’re wrong, you may not. But, as I said, I celebrate the position, and I’m president of the organization. I love filmmakers, but I don’t think that filmmakers, even the greatest auteurs, get by without listening to their collaborators.

LYT: So when you get to something like the stand-out fight sequence in this movie – which is very well-directed, especially the end of it; I loved the last couple of beats – how much of that did you choreograph in your mind, how much of that was Jason, having fought in scenes like this before – whose ideas do you see in the final product there?

TH: I have to go back to the source material. In Donald Westlake’s book – pardon me, Richard Stark’s book! – that knife going through the hand? That was written. John McLaughlin, the screenwriter, a wonderful adapter, had it in there. I was bound and determined to make sure it was done right. So you can write it, but how is it going to be done? And Jason, when I was going through the entire fight – as I said, he’s a perfectionist. So I had storyboarded the entire fight, and I had shown it to him, we had discussed it.

Now I have Daniel Bernhardt, who has starred in action movies (Bloodsport 2 and 3 among them) – I have the two protagonists of this fight who are both actually doing it, no stunt men – that’s a gift to a director, because you’ve seen a million fights where you get three cuts every second and a half, you go to all these different things, and the reason for that is because you have a stuntman in there and you’re trying to cover it up and not see it. I can let two or three moves within a fight happen because the two people who are actually on screen are actually doing the fight. So when I storyboard that fight and do what I wanted – again, I’m following, there are creations there, yes, is everything in the book, no – but a lot of what’s in the book, that was written.

So you then try to say, OK, I’ve got great inspiration, now what do I do to make it different than most other fights? I think a lot of that is key to the fact that I have two actors in the fight who can do their own stunts. They’re not afraid of it, they can really do continuity, and really go after it; this, I think, is the key. Parker’s not Superman; he gets hurt. Richard Stark/Donald Westlake is constantly maiming his main character! (laughs) He has to recover. In this film, he gets thrown out of a car at 50 miles per hour and hits the sidewalk. You see him, although he has an incredible sense of control to get up and steal his vehicle, he’s not going to go the next day and do what he’s going to do. He steals an EMS vehicle, he goes out in the forest, and he knows how to administer and heal himself. A couple, three weeks later, you see him back, his beard has grown, but you know that he’s for real; he’s not magic man.

And I think, in that fight at the end of it when Jason’s sitting there with blood all over him, and he’s breathing – that’s not phony, he’s been through it. He, as an actor, had a major opponent, and he really is exhausted, and when you see the next scene, which is at Jennifer Lopez’s/Leslie’s house, and his hand is being sewn up, he’s wincing, and at the same time, he is mind over matter. Maybe his one arm doesn’t work well, but he’s still going to go meet the bad guys. It’s that fine line of, could you and I do that? No, but Parker can – but Parker’s for real; he’s not a fantasy figure.


LYT: I understand you were the first to obtain the rights to use the name “Parker.” I had known a lot of people hadn’t done it before, but how did that work? They optioned the rights to the book but not the name? How did that work and how did you navigate it?

TH: Donald Westlake was a pretty tough customer, and he basically had sold the various books, but in Point Blank, Lee Marvin’s name was Walker, and in another movie he’s named something else. I think he said “I’ll sell the character if you’ll make all of the books.” That’s pretty unrealistic. But at this point, the company, Sierra Infinity, and Les Alexander (one of the producers) was very close friends with Donald Westlake – you’ve got somebody there who really respects the man and is protecting the legacy. Les and Abby Westlake, the widow, said “Let’s develop a series.” I have to be honest – if this film does well, maybe there’ll be a sequel. They certainly have the rights. But it all comes down to the luck of what happens. You always roll the dice with the audience, and the audience either discovers the film or not, and I’ve been around long enough to know that.

I like genre movies. This is my first genre movie. I’ve done film noirs, but I don’t consider those genre movies. This is my first action/crime movie, and I wanted to step out and do something, and make it credible. Hopefully we have; we’ll see how the audience responds. If they respond well, maybe there will be more.

LYT: One last question: The leading lady role that Jennifer Lopez takes, is that a tough one to pitch? It’s a leading lady who gets turned down by the leading guy for a younger woman, and I would think some actresses might be afraid of that, because people might think it’s what things are really like for them.

TH: I had worked with Jennifer developing a film. It didn’t happen; we couldn’t get it financed. But I knew her, she’s fantastic. She is anything but a diva; she’s for real – that girl is from the Bronx! And I love her, but when I called her, you can imagine – I called her up and I said “Jennifer, I’m doing a film called Parker starring Jason Statham.” She already knows that the star is not Jennifer Lopez.

I said, “Listen, there is a character that doesn’t come in at the beginning, she comes in part-way through. She’s messy. She’s pushing 40. She’s a failure, in her own terms, but I think this character is very real, and I think you could play the hell out of it.” Think about this: when I’m telling her this, 1) we get along, but 2) she’s saying “What is this guy offering me?” She read the piece, she called me back and said “I’m doing it. I love it!” I said, “I want her messy, I don’t want a diva, I don’t want the most beautiful woman in the world.” She said “I dig! I’ll give it to you!” And she did! When she came to the set, she was just fantastic, and she is a really good actress.

One of the problems when your personality in real life is so big, and the world knows you as this glamorous character, there’s a lot of resentment. “My god, why is she so rich and glamorous?” But they tend to miss out on something. She’s a girl from the Bronx. She’s really, basically at the core, she started as a dancer. Dancers are masochists, they work and work and work, and they never give up, and I think that defines Jennifer Lopez. She wants to work. I had a dream directing her, because when you’re working with an actor, you can suggest that they do a take, and you say “I would like you to go here.” Sometimes they can do it, sometimes they can’t. Jennifer can always go there, and you give her a note, and bang! She’s there. And you’re going, “Wow! She’s not just kind of part-way there.” She just embodied what you just told her, and turned it back wonderfully.

I think one of the things in Parker is that people will rediscover Jennifer as an actor. Not the glamorous character that they know, but somebody real. Patti LuPone, who is another friend of mine, who I put in this film, plays her mother, a Cuban mother and her daughter. Jennifer has to suffer the ultimate indignity, after marrying somebody she thinks is Prince Charming, goes bankrupt, sidles her with his bankruptcy. She’s so strapped for cash, she’s got to do the ultimate nightmare; at 40 years old, moving back in with her domineering mother. (laughs) To see Jennifer and Patti together is very entertaining, but you understand that she has a lot that she needs to get away from. I think that process of this character – you think, how does this cold, tough professional Parker ever team up with an amateur? And I think the idea is that she’s smart, Leslie, and she’s got moxie, just like Jennifer Lopez. And she and Jason Statham are pretty interesting in this film.

Parker opens tomorrow in theaters.