Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Director John Herzfeld (Escape Plan: The Extractors)

Neil Middlemiss

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John Herzfeld, actor, writer, producer and Emmy award-winning Director (Don King: Only in America), has a long career in Hollywood. He’s also been a good and close friend to one of the most legendary action heroes in all of cinema, Sylvester Stallone (Sly). When he was approached to tackle the third film in the Escape Plan series, he leapt at the chance to work with his life-long friend.

John spoke to Home Theater Forum about working with his good friend, what he says is the key to Stallone’s longevity, and just how bright a future Dave Bautista has.

Escape Plan: The Extractors is available now to rent and purchase at all major retailers in DVD, Blu-Ray, and Digital.

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HTF: Let me jump right in and give you my sense of what I thought worked really well in the Escape Plan: The Extractor, and that was the sense of mood, or rather, a sense of tension built through mood. I'm thinking of the early scene with Mr. Friend, or Shen Lo, when he arrives and has verbal dance with the receptionist. That moment builds that nicely into a rather good fight sequence. Now, I know sequels, especially, third sequels, that aren't getting a theatrical release, the budget is much smaller than the progenitor film, so I always think filmmakers have to be very creative in how they elevate the quality of the film because the budget just isn't there. So, I thought what worked well was that sense tension through mood. Was that one of the cards that you had in your deck?

John Herzfeld: My number one card! From the very beginning, as you just articulated very well, it was my number one card. When I first came aboard and Sly invited me along, it was tone and mood. We wanted to change the tone on one. [The first film was] science fiction, more high tech. The second film, Sly wanted to move away completely from. So, what we thought about was let's make this intense, let's make this like a 70s, 80s action throwback, and let's make this gritty in terms of the palette of the film and the casting. Tone was everything. The mood was everything. That's what we discussed first because that's where the movie starts.

“He's doing these kicks, and when I'm watching him hit and sticking this umbrella into somebody's throat, I literally thought, "Oh, my God."”

And that spilled over into almost all the fights. There's no green screen, there's no slow motion, there's no sped-up shots. You see what you're getting. In that first scene that you mentioned with Max, I wanted to stay wide. I said, “I got a guy that can do it!" He's doing these kicks, and when I'm watching him hit and sticking this umbrella into somebody's throat, I literally thought, "Oh, my God." But the choreography really worked. And his fight, I wanted to make sure you saw in wide angles. So, what you see is what you get, and I tried to do that in most of them.

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HTF: Well, here's why I think that really worked well because typically, when you're doing fight sequences - and I would say this is perhaps for less experienced directors - is there's a tendency to try and agitate the image to get a sense of action, or excitement, or momentum from the sequence. Having the camera dart around, with fast cuts and all that kind of stuff. I think is just a dreadful way that makes murky the gorgeous ballet of a good fight or action sequence. I think the choices you made, probably in celebration of the athleticism of the actors and the fine choreography work, was that you kept clear. I understood what was going on through the fight sequences, which I frequently don't in lesser films. So, tell me about the choreography. Was that a challenge? I mean, the fight sequence near the end, and spoiler alert here, between Sly and the film’s big bad in very tight and contained space, was brutal. It's a very angry fight. Was that tough or do you enjoy the challenge of trying to find ways to film in such a tight space?

“You have to understand this, when someone looks at that fight and they say, "Wow, there's a straight minute with no cuts, and it looks like he's killing Devon," it was unchoreographed.”

John Herzfeld: Well, that's a great question! Let me talk about that fight. That fight is unique in that, yes, that's a seven by nine-foot cell. We didn't build it, we didn't move it, they're fighting in those tight quarters but that was very organic and fluid fight. The way that fight started - and I don't know if I'll ever be able to do anything like this again - was I choreographed some stuff with our stunt coordinator, the great Clayton Barber and Justin Woo, and Sly came in, looked at it, and says, "Nah, let's really go for it. Let's really go for it." I said, "Okay." So, we talked about the movements, and Devon was up for it too, but that fight was not choreographed. It was choreographed in discussion only. You have to understand this, when someone looks at that fight and they say, "Wow, there's a straight minute with no cuts, and it looks like he's killing Devon," it was unchoreographed. I've known Sly for so many years, and we've both seen a lot of fights since we were kids. Certainly, been in a few. And we watch fights together all the time. Every Saturday night, I'm watching UFC or a boxing match with him. So, we were able to talk about the tone and mood, and Devon was right on board because he’s been doing MMA for 15 years. So, we decided to just go for it. And that fight is one take. There's no take two

HTF: Wow!

John Herzfeld: As soon as I saw it, I go, "I'm never going to get better than this. And I don't want anyone hurt." And Sly, he had a lot of stuff, and he let it go, and Devon, too. What you see is everything. That's it. But there was no take two.

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HTF: I love that about Sylvester Stallone because he's getting older. These are themes he's explored in some of his films, obviously the Creed films of late, he's explored that sort of aging body. But you never get that sense when you're watching some of his more physical performances. And this one is probably a very good example of someone who doesn't look like they've slowed down one moment in trying to put it all on screen in an action sequence. You've known him for decades. I know you were in Cobra with Sly way back in the mid-80s, but how did you first meet Sly?

John Herzfeld: Here's how we met. In June of 1967, I transferred from one college to the University of Miami mid-semester. Sly, who's a couple years older, had transferred from a college in Switzerland, then Miami-Dade for a couple years, before he transferred to the University of Miami. The first day I got down there on the first day of drama class, people are on bleachers and the very revered acting coach drama teacher came in, and everybody's in the first four or five rows, they all know each other. And here I come in, didn't know anybody, so I just go to the top row and sit alone by myself on the left side. Then some other guy comes in, he looks around and goes to the top row and sits on the right side all alone, by himself in the corner. After the drama class everybody's gathering, I got outside, standing alone, and Sly walks over. We start talking, and just hit it off. We had similar kinds of interesting upbringings, we both had very tough fathers, and that's how we met. And I knew early on, on meeting him, I said, "He's great." He's just so interesting!

HTF: And what was it like coming back and directing him in this film? I mean, is it like a homecoming? Was it fun because I know it was a tough shoot!

“I loved directing [Sly]. I think he's so directable, and he has so many ideas per second. And he is who he is. He sees things.”

John Herzfeld: Yes, it was a very short, tough shoot. We shot dusk until dawn all nights in a row. No breaks, no lunch. I never sat down, but I had a great time. Honestly, Sly and I had been working on the script together. We kind of knew what we do. We have a real shorthand. If he has any suggestion, he can articulate it in a word or two words or a look because, you know somebody 52 years, you don't need a lot of words. Matter of fact, I don't think since I've known Sly, I've never said hello or goodbye to him when I've seen him. I don't know why, we just don't [laughs]. But I loved directing him. I think he's so directable, and he has so many ideas per second. And he is who he is. He sees things. The scene where he harpoons the bad guy through the neck, remember that?

HTF: Oh yes, I remember that moment!

John Herzfeld: Well, he was supposed to just shoot him, but he picks up this iron rail off the floor, and he goes, "I have another idea," and that's how that whole thing came about. It's just split second. We were prepared for him to just go and shoot him. And I love it, loved the idea, and we put it together. It's was easy and fast. Very fast.

“I'm desperate to do another action movie with him, or anything, because it was the best.”

HTF: Well, that was a much more interesting way to kill that fellow because, in the movie, he'd just shot the first guy. So, it was more interesting to find a different way to dispense with for the next guy. Good choice!

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John Herzfeld: Yeah, it was a great choice. And it was interesting to me because he-- the big guy who he did it to, that's my son. He's a big kid, a tough kid. And so, seeing Sly harpoon my son, it's…interesting [laughter].

HTF: That's great.

John Herzfeld: Sly just has a lot of ideas. And the ideas never stop. His mind is always working. He's very fast, though. He's a complete visualist. He sees things in visuals and actions, and it's great. I'm desperate to do another action movie with him, or anything, because it was the best.

“Let me tell you why I think [Sly] lasted this long, from a guy who knows him really well. And this is what some guys who want to be action heroes don't quite get. Sly…is not afraid to show his deeply vulnerable.”

HTF: That brings me to my next question. So you probably know him well enough that when you see one of his films and you're like, "Eh, that's not your best work," or when you see something, you're like, "Oh, that's the best thing you've done in decades." If you had to pick the thing that you think is his best performance or his best work, what would that be. For me, it's First Blood and then it's Cop Land. Two ends of the performance spectrum. One's incredibly physical, one's incredibly understated and dramatic. And that really shows me what that man is capable of. How about for you?

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John Herzfeld: I think he does fine work in many movies. As for my favorite, I'm going to say something crazy. I think Sly's got more to come as an actor. Of course, he's developing his production company, he's producing, he's a wonderful director and a great artist. But let me tell you why I think he's lasted this long, from a guy who knows him really well. This is why-- and this is what some guys who want to be action heroes don't quite get. Sly, and this is what hit in Rocky, is not afraid to show his deeply vulnerable. With the softness he displayed with Adrian. Being weak, being deeply vulnerable, questioning himself, and being insecure. That's what's made him last. It's not just coming on, shooting your gun, being tough with the big muscles. I mean, he's always had this softness inside the armor. He has it as a man. He has that humanity. He has that empathy, and he has that awareness that it's okay to be weak. Come out strong, but we are all weak and insecure at times, and he's not afraid to show that. That's his key. But you know what? He was great in Cop Land. Cop Land was great. But he was great in Rocky, of course, and First Blood, and Rambo. But I think that vulnerability, that's what holds you to him. That's what holds men and women, old and young because they recognize a side of themselves within him because he's able to reveal that. He's able to let that nakedness come through. And that's what I think one of his great strengths is.

HTF: I think you're right on there. When I first saw Lock Up, and this was after a period of watching his sort of very gun-heavy action films, but in Lock Up, he is a man who is beaten and vulnerable through almost all of the picture. He survives not just because of his physicality, but because of his wits, and because of his strength and devotion to the love of his life he's trying to get out of prison to be with. So that's one that really told me exactly what you just said, which is that there is a vulnerability and a humanity to even his understated action heroes, and I think that endeared me to him for life. But I was going to ask you about working with the rest of the cast. And there was a lot of very, very big fellows in the film, but Dave Bautista, in particular, a man and an actor that I've really come to appreciate. He's got an enormous physical presence, and he's got a great comedic way about him, and brought some of the few moments of comedy relief in Escape Plan 3. Talk about working with Dave.

“Dave [Bautista] will be surprising people, I think, too. He's got a long career ahead of him, and just keeps getting better. But he has a warmth, and a wit, and a humor. Of course, he's got the guts, and the power, and the force.”

John Herzfeld: Dave, whom I hadn't known before, was so wonderful. As an actor and as a man in the time spent together. I find him extremely authentic, very honest, real, warm. He's got a great warmth. Of course, he's got that sense of humor. And again, big guy, but he has a softness in his eyes. He has the smile that's really easy and unforced, and it kind of pulls you in. And he's blowing up. Dave will be surprising people, I think, too. He's got a long career ahead of him, and just keeps getting better. But he has a warmth, and a wit, and a humor. Of course, he's got the guts, and the power, and the force. He's got all that. But then he brings out extra layers that you can strip away. And there's more, and more. And that's what keeps an audience watching. And he's great with Sly. We went to do this movie, where they walk away in the airport, and I know it sounds crazy, but I think you're a film freak so I think you'll maybe get this, at the end of that, I had an image in my head of Pat O'Brien and James Cagney walking away at the end of Angels With Dirty Faces [laughter]. I told him Dave, "Dave, you remind me of a priest in this." Here is Sly's character, full of guilt, who's done this unbelievable violent rampage, and it hasn't been the greatest day of his life because he's blaming himself. We didn't get into a dialog, but its looks. I saw Dave as someone who's almost as a father trying to comfort this soul struggling with what just happened. So that was kind of in my head. Whether it comes across, I don't know, but that was my image.

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HTF: I love that! So, last question and this might seem a bit left field. I have one of the scores for one of your films. Well, it's actually what they call the rejected score. Jerry Goldsmith's unused score for Two Days in the Valley.

John Herzfeld: Oh yes, and wow, how did you get that?

HTF: Intrada, a terrific record label, released it a few years ago, and I'm a Jerry Goldsmith completist, so I had to have it. It's a beautiful score. So, I must ask, was this just a case of great music just not fitting what you had envisioned for the film?

John Herzfeld: Yes, yes. It's great music. But, at the end of the day, I didn't feel it was-- I mean, Jerry Goldsmith's the greatest composer that ever lived. But it's one of those things sometimes. So, yes, we went to another score. But I have to get a copy of that. I was great. Chinatown-esque a little bit.

HTF: Yes, exactly! It has a great theme and it feels like a distant cousin to Chinatown. I think you're exactly right. Chinatown-esque is good way to put it.

John Herzfeld: Yeah, it is a distant cousin of Chinatown. That's what I thought too. Believe me, just one of those things.

HTF: Understood. Well, thank you for talking with Home Theater Forum today. It's been a fun conversation. I'm looking forward to other people getting to have fun with the more serious, but still fun Escape Plan 3

John Herzfeld: Thank you, I really appreciate the great conversation!
 

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