Sam Kitagawa chats with The Hurricane Heist director Rob Cohen…
Rob Cohen has directed a number of high profile action films including The Fast and the Furious, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and xXx. His new movie Hurricane Heist comes out March 9th. The film depicts a group of thieves who pull off a heist on the U.S. Treasury during a category five hurricane. Rob Cohen sat down to chat with Flickering Myth about shooting in Bulgaria, passing on Speed, and pulling off a crazy shot under a moving semi truck.
You worked as a producer before you became a director. How did that feed into your thought process when you started directing?
Well, when you produce you realize that every creative decision is a financial decision and every financial decision is a creative decision. So, you begin to see how those dance together… I don’t care if you’re Francis Coppola or Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg. You never have everything you want. There’s not enough money in the world to give any film director everything he wants so you have to make it for a number. And investors set that number, studios set that number, they calculate what this movie is worth to them in the abstract and that’s where you sit. In this case I had 35 million, which is a lot more than I had on Boy Next Door, which was 4.8 million. But I also now have a much bigger tapestry; it’s not just about a woman and a young guy in a hot relationship. It’s storms and stunts. So, how to make it? Well, our major producer Moshe Diamant said: you got to go to Bulgaria and look at Bulgaria because that’s the only place in the world I think we can afford to make the film that you want to make. So, I went to Bulgaria and there was absolutely no America there whatsoever. Not one part of it looked like America. And I said, okay we can come to Bulgaria but you realize we have to build all these sets. This whole town is going to have to be built. [He] said, building in Bulgaria is cheap unless you want to build crazy amounts. I said, no but I need to build this much and that. I need this town circle and we hadn’t planned on building that in the beginning but I said, I realize we need it. Here are all the scenes we have to do beyond this street that we’ve built. These streets where the tower was and… you’ve seen the film?
No, I haven’t, I’ve seen the trailer.
Oh, all right. So, you know, it was going to cost another 400,000 dollars. But I looked at this real location and [told] Moshe to do the kind of effects work and stunts that we have to do on a real location is going to cost more than on a set. So, creatively the two of us drove the cost of the set down and I got what I wanted. But I didn’t get it at the level that I wanted. I made a creative decision to need this set. But we made a financial decision that it couldn’t be everything that I had wished it could be. But I knew it was enough, that I could get these scenes and only if you knew what else was designed would you miss what wasn’t there. And so, you make these trade-offs, and I had to give up a lot of other things to get that set built. But I found ways. Like, there’s a set that was going to be built using cargo containers because we were gonna unleash 44,000 gallons of water into that set and it needed to be really strong.
To be flooded?
Yeah, to be flooded. And, you know, there was a lot of money to be put to finish the place so that it looked like a normal building, but the cargo containers were the wall to hold it. And I went, okay, what if they build whole buildings with cargo containers now. They build homes with cargo containers.
Yeah, so I said look at this architecture where they’re building all kinds of things with old, used cargo containers. Why don’t we build this set and just say it was built out of cargo containers? All that money to plaster and finish? Forget it! All that twenty-one-some-odd-thousand dollars we put in the other set. Well, it works like a charm, when you see the film you’re not going, that’s weird, that’s built of cargo containers. It just feels like this funky crazy person’s garden shop, right, so you make those trade-offs, creative to financial.
Yes, so you kind of allocate.
Since I haven’t seen the movie yet, how would you describe the tone of the film?
The tone of the movie is delicate in that it has got a lot of reality. We set out to put the storm in front of the lens, so you do feel it. It’s not a CGI-fest.
That was going to be one of my other questions. So, it was a lot of practical water and wind and stuff?
Yeah. A lot. I mean we dumped six million gallons of water in the course of making the film and we had these banks of hundred-mile-an-hour fans. [There was] debris and smoke and so much rain. It’s big.
And money flying.
[Laughs] And money. All kinds of stuff flying. But, anything that was not life-threatening to the actors, uncomfortable, damned unpleasant, but anything along those lines we did in front of the lens. And there are some things that, as you’ll see in the film, had to be CG. There was no way to do. So, the tone of the movie is sheer escapist fun but there are some really good relationships in it and good characters so it’s a balance. But, its tone is: go in and have a thrill ride, edge of your seat, lots of fun to watch, inventive. That’s the tone.
I read in the production notes that there is a bit of an underlying theme concerning global warming.
Yes. Yes. You can’t make a movie like this and be dumb, blind and deaf to what’s going on in this world and the hurricanes are a direct result of this global warming when those oceans warm they give fuel to these storms. I mean, warm water is the lifeblood of a hurricane and so when the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean starts getting hot that just gives these cyclonic movements power and they just start traveling and the more they suck up the heat the more violent and the larger they become. So I had to say it and I didn’t care, there were some people who go, well, you’re making it political. I don’t care if it’s political. The meteorologist, who’s played by Toby Kebbell, he has to explain it. We have an audience out there that needs to hear it, even if it’s “political.” It’s one moment, one speech in the film.
In your other films, you have a very mobile camera. I think of The Fast and the Furious when the camera goes down Vin Diesel’s arm and into the engine. Since there’s so much happening in this film with the storm and the heist elements did you also move the camera around a lot?
Yeah. I did one shot where I had two guys on roller blades under the eighteen-wheeler, one on [each] side. Then I had a guy tethered with a rope to a motorcycle. So, I set the trucks running and this guy on the motorcycle had the camera and we slung him in between the trucks and he gave the camera to the guy [on roller blades] who handed it off to [the other guy on roller blades] and here came the third truck. All in one shot. So, there are some wild ass shots, especially in the last twelve minutes on the film.
How many takes did that shot take to pull off?
That took a few – three or four. You know, where it wasn’t a smooth hand-off, it was too much movement. I only wanted [the audience] to think later and go, how did they do that shot? How’d they pass under? You know, cause I love doing stuff like that. I love making the camera move in unexpected and almost inexplicable ways sometimes.
The premise of this movie is conveyed just by the title. It kind of reminds me of those nineties movies that we don’t see any more like Twister or Speed. Was there something exciting to you about returning to that action movie realm?
I loved it. I mean, they offered me Speed before Jan de Bont cause I’d just done Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and they thought, oh this is a guy who can handle characters. It was one of the worst mistakes I ever made. I read the script and I went, I don’t know if you can really sell that you can stay at 50 miles-per-hour in Los Angeles. I just don’t know. How many times can you drive off the highway with a bus and still have a bus that will work? I got very into the details and I passed. I just felt that no one would believe that you could do it and then when I saw the movie I wanted to kick myself because they made it believable even when it wasn’t truly believable. But, you know, that was the leap of faith and they did enough close calls that you went, okay the rules are being followed.
You must have had to do that with this move quite a bit as well.
Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff in here that is marginally believable, but because there’s science behind it and because it’s scientifically possible it comes off.
And this movie takes place in Alabama, right?
What made you want to set the movie in the South? A lot of movies seem to make fun of southern accents and people from the South in general.
Yeah, this doesn’t make fun of them. First of all, I wanted to be on the Gulf Coast so that was Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas to some degree. I just felt that Alabama was a state that doesn’t get much recognition and with Katrina, Louisiana got completely covered in this. I didn’t want it to be a Texas story cause that tends to take over. So, I thought, it’s either Mississippi or Alabama and I just decided Alabama seemed fresher. These satellite treasury facilities where they destroy the old money, which is part of this plot, they tend to be in strange places. They’re not centralized.
To prevent people doing what they do in this movie?
Yeah, so I thought, well, there could be one in this small gulf coast city and we used The Black Sea in Central Europe to be the Gulf of Mexico. And it works pretty well. Unless you know Alabama like the back of you hand, I think you believe its Alabama.
I remember in another interview you talked about xXx filming in Czechoslovakia and for this one you shot in Bulgaria, how was it filming in Bulgaria?
It was very good. I’d go back because the whole country has a different economic scale then what we know. I mean, in Bulgaria a double espresso in a fine coffee bar is fifty cents. Everything. That pair of sunglasses you’ve been wanting but don’t wanna buy cause they’re three hundred dollars? It’s seventy-five dollars. Somehow everything in that country, brands included, is so much cheaper than anywhere else in the world and that goes for the wage scales and everything else. So, you can make a movie there where all the crew, for Bulgaria is incredibly well paid, but compared to what we’re used to it’s like a joke. [In Bulgaria], the driver may make four hundred dollars a week. In America you have a teamster, he’s going to make two thousand to twenty-five hundred dollars a week to do the same job. What’s cool about Bulgaria is they’re a very artisan-oriented culture, they have a lot of craftspeople – leather and construction and set finishing. They have all these skills and these people don’t cost the crazy amounts that you get in Italy, France, America, and England.
Are people less used to films being shot there? Are they more excited to see movies shot around them?
You mean Bulgarian civilians? You know, they were really largely indifferent. Bulgaria is a very interesting culture because they’re kind of unto themselves. They care about Bulgaria and Bulgarian culture and they’re not really interested in Greece, which is on their border, Turkey, which is on their border. You don’t feel like they care. They exist in among themselves. So, when you’re making a movie they’re busy getting to work. They don’t think, oh I have to see what they’re doing. You know, like we have here for example. They’re fresh in that it hasn’t annoyed them. Like now you shoot somewhere there’s always guys with chainsaws and blowers trying to get money to turn their shit off… they purposefully try to ruin your soundtrack. Or you’ll hear horns honking just to be pricks. But in [Bulgaria] it’s live and let live.
This is a blend of heist movies and disaster movies. Were there any films that you were looking at going into this?
Well, like you said, I was very well aware that I was trying to make a newfangled nineties movie. One that wouldn’t kowtow or be an homage to the bygone era, but one that would bring back the thrill of Twister and Speed and those types of push-the-envelope of credulity movies. And to give you, what I’ll call, a medium-budget action film that has big ideas about what it’s trying to achieve. And I think that we pulled that off. I think it really has that feeling. It feels like you could have seen it a long time ago. On the other hand, there are things in it that could never have been done back in the nineties. So, it’s the best of both worlds. It’s new but old.
And I wanted to ask about the studio that you made this with, Entertainment Studios, they’re relatively new when it comes to feature films, was it any different working with them than some of the other studios you’ve worked with?
It’s different. First of all, the deal was that I had final cut. When I showed them the film they were ecstatic. Byron Allen, who owns the company, he just stood up at the end of that screening and was applauding and carrying on whooping and hollering. It was a wonderful day, that screening, and the thing is they’ve opened two out of their two offerings – both Hostiles and 47 Meters Down. I’m hoping third time lucky. But with a new studio you never know. You don’t know if they’re reaching the audience and you don’t know if they’re reaching it in enough numbers. But I know if a decent amount of people get in to see it, the fun of it will travel by word of mouth and I think it could have longevity. I’m just hoping we get it to open at a respectable level.
Last question, this is the most important one: do you still surf?
Yeah! Little Doom baby!
Thank you so much for talking with me.