Having directed such films as The Fast and the Furious and XXX, Rob Cohen certainly knows how to build intensity within an action movie. With his latest film, The Hurricane Heist, Cohen continues to push his ability to create elaborate set pieces in an effort to take his audience on a wild thrill ride. When asked how he became associated with the film, Cohen explains that, initially, his journey began with an entirely different type of project.
“I had been working on a project about Joe Louis with a husband and wife producing team. I just finally said that I shouldn’t direct this,” he recalls. “We’re in the here and now and there are many, many talented black men and women directors. Even with my background of Motown, winning the NAACP image award and all the other stuff I’ve done, it’s a different time now. So, [I said they should go get] Ryan Coogler or somebody who might be more emotionally connected to the material than I am by birth. They said they were sad, still wanted to do something with me and said [that] they had this script… that was kind of like a bank robbery that was set to go down during a hurricane.”
“I [thought] that was a very interesting concept because plain old disaster movies aren’t going to work and heist movies can work but they have to be really, really good to stand on their own. They have to be Ocean’s Eleven. Short of that, they become subplots in the Fast and the Furious sequels. So, I read the script and it was not good. It was very old-fashioned. The minute the meteorologist got involved he became Bruce Willis or Rambo, you know… It was ludicrous. I liked the idea but it needed a total redo.”
With a title like The Hurricane Heist, one immediately expects that the film will feature incredible special effects and intense action sequences. However, rather than rely entirely on CGI for the film’s action scenes, Cohen demanded a more grounded approach that features practical effects and even asking the actors to participate as much as possible.
“I wanted the actors to do all their own stunts,” he explains. “We [had to] rig them up and design them so that [the stunts] are safe, believable, possible and real. So, we developed and imported from various places these 100 mile/hour fans and we dumped millions of gallons of water over the course of the shoot. As Toby Kebbell said to me, ‘You’re the greatest director because, when an actor comes on your set, we don’t need to act. We just have to survive.’ Every stunt is the actor and you can tell because we don’t cut away. When Ryan Kwanten jumps from a tow truck to an 18-wheeler at 50 miles/hour and almost misses it, trust me. He almost missed it… Toby did all the stuff where they’re running on top of the 18-wheelers as they’re barreling down the freeway at 60 miles/hour. That’s them. You can’t fake it.”
Given the difficulty of these conditions, Cohen believes that it takes a certain type of actor to take the lead in an action film. Having worked with actors ranging from Brendan Fraser (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) to Jamie Foxx (Stealth) to Jennifer Lopez (The Boy Next Door), Cohen says that a lead actor needs to have the courage and commitment to throw themselves into their role.
“I look for a brave actor,” he begins. “Brendan [Fraser] went home on the Mummy black and blue many nights. I would put Jamie [Foxx] in a gimble jet cockpit that would pull 3 ½ G’s and spin him and, once he got out of the cockpit, he’d go to the corner of the stage and throw up. But, when you look at their faces, you know they’re getting G-forces put on them and you feel you’re in this kind of supersonic jet. It’s all about designing it so that you can make it so real and so immediate for the audience… I always have this conversation with [my actors] when they say yes, they want to do it where I say ‘Not so fast. First you gotta understand what’s going to happen.’ Like most actors, they [say] ‘sure, I can handle anything.’ The first time, Toby felt the 100 mile/hour wind in his face and rain that stung like needles, he was going ‘You were not joking!’… These things take a great deal of courage and you need an actor with that level of courage or you can’t make the optimal action film.”
While taxing on the actors and crew, Cohen also contests that the sacrifice is worth the effort in the end. While the action genre often does not receive the same critical praise as other Oscar film bait, Cohen also thinks that, with its penchant for visuals over dialogue, these movies remain the most authentic form of filmmaking.
“It’s a very tiring but exhausting process to make a complicated action sequence,” he says. “That is why I always say to people that The King’s Speech is not the highest form of filmmaking. It’s basically a filmed play… in a room, [where] some very talented actors speak lines and make you fascinated by the people. But, when you really step back, is it a film? Well, yeah, it’s a film… but you could’ve put the play on in 1910 and it would’ve not been that different. Whereas, as a form, only cinema and nothing else can give it to you in that kinetic way and an action film director has to know a whole lot more than Noah Baumbach and those type of films. So, it’s fine for critics to put down action films but they’re actually the most pure cinema we have. They’re full of action, not talking. But that’s my personal theory.”
In light of this, Cohen has no regrets about his passion for telling action-oriented stories. While there may be those who criticize his work for lacking depth, he argues that his primary interest lies in entertaining the audience, as opposed to more introspective material.
Says Cohen, “I came into this business to entertain. I didn’t come in to study my navel and show everybody how depressing the universe is. I came here to give everyone an antidote to that and I’m unapologetic about it, which is why a lot of critics don’t like me. I’m not interested in two lesbians trying to have a baby or I’m not interested in the angst of some teenage girl in Sacramento. I’m interested in an audience coming in, grabbing them by the hand from Frame One and taking them through a rip-roaring thrill ride that never gets boring and never even lets you go to the bathroom. That’s what I [want to] accomplish… “
“I just love the idea that you go in for those hours… and you are taken to another world, into a story, into characters, and you’re seeing things [with] your eyes, and hearing things with your ears that are really transporting you to another plain of existence. The fact that your boss is an [idiot]. The fact that we have this moron president. All the things that make you depressed. All these things are gone for a little respite where you can have fun and, when you leave, you feel like ‘Well, okay. I’ve got my adrenaline. I’m ready to face life again. I’m a fighter and I’m excited.’ That’s the type of action I try to engender. That form, blockbuster or action film (however you describe it), that form is what I love creating and I love when audiences respond to it.”
With decades of experience directing action films, Cohen has also noticed a distinct change in the genre. However, rather than emphasizing technological shifts, he feels that the primary shift in action films is that they have moved their storytelling from being more grounded in reality to fantasy worlds.
“The action film blockbuster used to be somewhat based in reality in the past whether it was The Great Escape or The Magnificent Seven… or any of the big action adventures and today, so many of the blockbusters like Marvel… [are] in an unreal world,” he reflects. “Kevin Feige has been just ingenious about creating a movement which is the most successful of any that’s been seen. It’s all in a fantasy world. We owe that to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Even a film like Indiana Jones, you’re talking about spirits and the Ark of the Covenant and giant booby-trapped caves. Things that were not like the old days. [Steven] started to transform [action films] from here on earth to flying saucers and extra-terrestrials. It transitioned to where we are in the Joss Wheden/Kevin Feige world where it’s wide open. It’s not based on gravity or reality in any way. It’s based on the essence and metaphors of superheroes and the amazing visual effects that can be built around people with special powers. That’s very, very different than where the blockbuster started.”
Of course, perhaps Cohen’s greatest legacy lies in his role in creating the Fast and the Furious series. After 19 years and 8 films, what began as a little ‘street-racing movie’ has blown up into a multi-billion dollar franchise. When asked if he had any idea that the franchise would become what it is today, Cohen does not mince words.
“No, and anyone connected to the franchise (and anyone connected to the franchise when it was pure) who says they thought that would happen is a revisionist historian,” he states emphatically. “I thought there would be two movies. I left the first one very indeterminate… and I left it there because I fully expected to pick up the story where the next one would have been if it was one 3 ½ hour movie. Then, of course, life intervenes and it didn’t go that way. I made a stand and I didn’t win. They went off with the producer and made what they’ve made. It’s beautiful that it has this long life. What I love most is that, in online polls, etc, people feel that the first one is the best. So, I’m glad for my children’s college educations that it’s still running and I’m proud that I created something that the audience felt so attached to that they wanted more of it for two decades”
To hear more from Rob regarding Hurricane Heist, including how he sets up an action scene and which actors he would like to work with in the future, stream our interview with him below.
The Hurricane Heist blows into theatres on March 9th, 2018.