Desperate Measures: About The Production

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DESPERATE MEASURES, which was filmed on location in San Francisco and in and around Los Angeles, is produced by Barbet Schroeder and his longtime collaborator and producing partner Susan Hoffman, along with Gary Foster (Tin Cup) and Lee Rich (Just Cause). Jeffrey Chernov (First Kid) is executive producer and the screenplay is by David Klass (Kiss the Girls). Reteaming with Schroeder are Director of Photography Luciano Tovoli and Editor Lee Percy, who have worked with the director on his last four projects. Geoffrey Kirkland (Mississippi Burning) is the production designer and Gary Jones (Just Cause) is the costume designer.

Since its formation in 1995, Mandalay Entertainment has produced Tony Scott's The Fan, starring Robert DeNiro, Wesley Snipes and Ellen Barkin, Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, Tsui Hark's Double Team, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman, and Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt and David Thewlis. Slated for a February release is Bille August's Les Misérables, starring Liam Neeson, Oscar® winner Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes.

In DESPERATE MEASURES, Barbet Schroeder continues his love affair with American movie genres, from courtroom drama to psychological thriller, from film noir to family drama. Like many French directors of the post-New Wave period, Schroeder learned how to make movies by watching them over and over again at Paris' famed Cinemathèque. "I started going to the movies seriously at the age of 12 or 13," he recalls. "I was just one generation after the New Wave and we were much more exclusively fanatical about American cinema. I knew everything about the movies of Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann, Samuel Fuller and Alfred Hitchcock before I knew anything about Shakespeare or Mozart. This was my cultural milk. So the movies I do in America are linked to the American movies I was seeing then."

These directors, now acknowledged as masters, often worked in genres that were considered too popular or unsophisticated to be taken seriously by the cultural elite. They also switched genres, seemingly indiscriminately, often alternating a western with a war film, a gangster melodrama with a musical. But true cinéastes like Schroeder soon learned that, while these filmmakers worked within conventional formulas, their unique style and distinctive vision enabled them to transcend whatever material was at hand and transform it into something of lasting artistic value. "Among the filmmakers I love," says Schroeder, "most never won an Oscar®. But for me, there is absolutely nothing inferior about a genre movie. Many of the films I consider masterpieces of the cinema are genre movies."

Of all the different genres Schroeder has explored, DESPERATE MEASURES is the most quintessentially American, and the one least likely to have been made in his native France. Though his previous two films, Kiss of Death and Before and After, were mostly dialogue-driven (and were written, respectively, by noted author/scenarist Richard Price and Oscar®-winning screenwriter Ted Tally), DESPERATE MEASURES is almost completely kinetic. Apart from a few introductory scenes that establish the characters and their situation, the balance of the film unfolds over one long night and involves almost relentless action and movement as McCabe escapes and makes his flight, with Connor and a host of others in perpetual pursuit. Inspired by such classic fugitive-on-the-lam dramas as Raoul Walsh's White Heat, starring James Cagney, Schroeder builds DESPERATE MEASURES around a number of "top of the world, mom" moments involving high-speed car and motorcycle chases, rooftop helicopter assaults, foot chases through darkened hallways and steam tunnels, mid-air leaps from fifth-story windows or 120 feet-high drawbridges, as well as a number of conflagrations, explosions and gun battles.

If all this son-et-lumière is customary for an action thriller, it was certainly new terrain for Schroeder, who found the physical demands of the production and the emphasis upon action over words both challenging and stimulating. "I had done a little bit of that in Single White Female and Kiss of Death," recalls the director. "There were entire sections that did not rely so much on dialogue, and I discovered that I actually liked the process of doing an action scene. For me, it is really magical that you design all these little puzzles and finally, when you put them together after long, excruciating labor, the fact that it all suddenly works is exciting. It's like a magic trick. I discovered real pleasure doing that in short sequences in those two movies, so that's why I thought I would do it on a bigger scale with this one."

The film's continuous narrative, beginning from the point where McCabe is brought to the hospital and extending through the ensuing evening, night, and early morning, presented enormous problems in creating transitions, ellipses, momentum and continuity. "This movie was really like a minefield at every stage because there were so many little implications to every bit of action, so many little details that had to fit together logically. The amount of information you have to process and piece together is totally amazing. And while the average audience would never think about three quarters of the questions we asked ourselves at every single stage, if something were wrong everybody would notice!"

Apart from all the creative decisions he was accustomed to making, Schroeder found himself facing considerable logistical choices that were, for him, unprecedented. For instance, when Michael Keaton's character gets shot in the leg early in the film, it sets into motion a debate over "how much blood and how wet? How dry is it 20 minutes later, one hour later? How does it come out? Then, when he has stitched the wound, and the blood is not flowing anymore, is it dry? Does it have a different color? There was endless discussion about everything," he recalls.

Another challenge was presented by the set which, according to the script, needed a highly specific set of attributes. One wing of the hospital where McCabe will submit to the bone-marrow transplant is modern and hi-tech. The other, containing the prison ward where McCabe seizes control, is old, outmoded, and full of the long-forgotten, labyrinthine passages that he will use as an escape route. Between the two wings is an elevated bridge that must be destroyed in a key scene. In addition, it is frequently necessary for important actions involving some characters who are in one area of the hospital to be witnessed by other characters who are in another area. Needless to say, nothing even remotely like this location existed in reality, and Schroeder and his team devised a strategy whereby actual exteriors in multiple locations were combined with constructed exteriors, real interiors and studio sets to create the impression of one large edifice.

"What I like in this kind of movie" Schroeder says, "is that it forces you to resort to what I call 'real' movie making because things have to be constructed. Your shots, the story, the set (which had to be constructed especially for the story)-all this really forces you to know everything that's happening in every shot ahead of time. Not only did we have the usual stuff, where you use storyboards," he adds, "we could also visualize the set in 3-D, using a computer. This way, we could know if we put the camera at that window, using that lens, whether we would frame the whole walkway or not. By visualizing the set in 3-D, we could actually move the camera within a virtual set and list all the shots we needed to tell the story correctly."

He continues: "With a big budget and a complicated situation like this, it is better to know exactly what you are doing, and even if you are doing it. If you bring everybody to the set in the middle of the night and find out then that it doesn't work, it's a nightmare!" Yet, despite all these technical considerations, which forced him to elevate efficiency to an art, Schroeder was charged by the process. "There is something essentially cinematographic in making a location exist, in making real a setting that before had only existed in your head. It's a very exciting exercise."

Having chosen to work within the action formula, Schroeder, like his forebears, makes it his own, placing his distinctive stamp on material that succeeds or fails almost exclusively on the merits of its execution. About the match between the director and the project, producer Gary Foster observes, "I liked the idea of having a director who was known for his characters doing an action picture." With Schroeder on board, DESPERATE MEASURES could be, in Foster's words, "a character-driven drama" and "more than just a prison-break film." Susan Hoffman, Schroeder's longtime partner in producing his American films, notes that "if Barbet and I bring anything to what we do, I think it is definitely to create a character study, so the story becomes more about people in a situation than the situation itself." Schroeder adds, "When I do a genre movie, I always try to work on the characters, to make them as rich and believable as possible. If you follow the characters in their logic, you cannot do anything stupid. In other words, if they do something stupid, it is because they are stupid, not because you are stupid!"

Having sharpened the characters with his esteemed team of screenwriters, Schroeder was able to bring them to thrilling life in his casting, starting with Michael Keaton and Andy Garcia as the two antagonists. "I always say," stresses the director, "that if I don't have the cast that I dream of, I prefer not to do the movie. When I saw Michael Keaton in Clean and Sober and later in Pacific Heights, I thought his performances were absolutely extraordinary. He brought complete freshness to this part, creating an entirely new character, a new voice, as we knew he would. Similarly, Andy is totally authentic in his performance. Apart from being a wonderful actor, he is a wonderful human being and a devoted father whose family is what is most important to him. I felt this would come into play in one way or another."

Echoing Schroeder's enthusiasm, Garcia says, "I really wanted to work with Barbet and, when I read the script, I was attracted to the relationship with the son. That was the most compelling thing for me as an actor: what is a father prepared to do in order to save his son's life?" Playing a completely different sort of role, Keaton also found one compelling thing about his character that became his key. For him, it was "finding a tiny spark of humanity deep inside McCabe, who otherwise might be irredeemable." After all, he observes, "this is a man who has spent over half of his life behind bars. He might, in fact, have some sort of psychological disorder, as opposed to just exhibiting sociopathic behavior. So, if there is just a wee spark, then I could put a bellows on it, and it might possibly build into a flame."

In identifying the humanity in the horrific McCabe, Keaton addresses a moral ambiguity that is, in fact, a hallmark of Schroeder's films. Never one to work in the absolutes of black and white, Schroeder's belief in the moral "grayness" of us all is one of his ongoing thematic concerns. Never has this blurring between good and bad, right and wrong, and hero and villain been as prevalent as in DESPERATE MEASURES. "The irony here," says Schroeder, "is of a cop needing to keep a murderer alive. In order to save his son, he must side with a sociopathic murderer. Finally, the question is how many more people will the 'hero,' Frank Connor, allow to be killed in order to save his child." Adds Hoffman, "this gave us a twisted situation, and Barbet and I thought it would be fun to play with that. McCabe and Frank are engaged in a cat-and-mouse game that reveals just how alike the two men are."

"Because McCabe has nothing to lose," she continues, "and Frank has everything to lose, there's a dynamic that creates an equal desperation for both of them. Frank starts to behave a lot like McCabe and he has to think, 'am I accountable for my actions?' There is a point when they become the same," she notes. There are, in fact, many moments when the audience's moral preconceptions are so turned around that it finds itself cheering for the 'villain,' who is both intelligent and resourceful, at the same time that it feels outraged by the 'hero,' who becomes increasingly ruthless as the film progresses. "I did that sort of perverse thing in Single White Female," notes Schroeder, "where there was a lot of empathy with the character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. That's how you can subvert a genre. That's also how you can renew its whole equilibrium."

Placing villains front and center in his films is yet another trademark of Schroeder's, who has created some of the most memorable "meanies" ever to grace-or disgrace-the screen. "I guess I'm always attracted to the mystery of evil," he says, "and the fact that it comes out of people who are completely human and sometimes quite charming. Otherwise they couldn't operate the way they do. One of the big shocks when you've been born into the world is to find out that bad people have a lot of charm. So the black and white view of the world-that on one side you have the bad guys and on the other the good guys, and that you can easily choose between the two-is actually much more complicated. Of course, the biggest villain I did a film about was Idi Amin Dada, who was a total charmer, a total seducer, very funny and, of course, totally frightening."

"One of the most important things you can learn about people," continues Schroeder, "is that bad guys have a human side. And if you are an actor, and you want to portray one, you discover all kinds of very nice things about him. Then when you play him in the movie, you become the advocate for that person and try to show his good side. Because, the more you show that good side, the more frightening the character becomes, the more real he becomes." Keaton, who has never before essayed a character this horrific (in a serious context), agrees: "McCabe is a monster, but also extremely intelligent. I thought that made him twice as scary and twice as interesting."

Producer Hoffman sums up this latest Schroeder villain by saying, "Although McCabe is very evil and scary, he's also kind of fun and, at some level, even likable. Although he does horrible things, in a way, we admire him and I think audiences will enjoy him." As for her partner's penchant for portraying such characters as both appalling and appealing, she notes, "I think that Barbet is a natural born psychologist, even though he doesn't think of himself that way. And I think he is extremely sympathetic to monsters. Barbet finds humanity in everything-I think of it as an obsession with humanity-and he pays evil an equal amount of respect. Which makes his character studies maddening, but also very compelling."

Another way in which Schroeder puts his imprimatur on the material is with his distinctive visual style, developed in conjunction with his longtime collaborator, Luciano Tovoli. Tovoli, who achieved cinematographic immortality with his legendary gyroscopic coda to Antonioni's The Passenger, has shot Schroeder's previous four films and, with his director, has devised a look that is at once contemporary and classical. As Tovoli notes, "I don't think that you can do a suspense-action thriller without a very strong visual element. It's one of the reasons why such James Cagney films as White Heat are so memorable. In the '40s they used lighting to define an atmosphere. You have to think of an aesthetic when lighting movies." It is precisely the aesthetic of a classic '40s film that Schroeder evokes with DESPERATE MEASURES, intentionally eschewing the currently popular post-MTV pyrotechnics that emphasize activity, not action. "It's much harder to do a constructed shot, with depth of field, than a multitude of little, out-of-focus shots that don't relate to each other except when they are linked by music," observes Schroeder. "I don't think you can get into a character if the editing is too abrupt. You always have to have a little time to understand what is happening. I think an exciting action sequence is one in which you understand what is at stake; you understand the geography; you understand the psychology and goals of the characters. If you have all those elements, and if they are all clear and on the screen, for me it's much more exciting."

In DESPERATE MEASURES, Schroeder has made a movie that has many classical elements, each of them renewed by his unique perspective. As a European, he sees our world and our way of filming it with different eyes. As he puts it, "When you come here from somewhere else, you can have a fresh approach to old formulas. You say, 'I'm not going to do this, which has been overdone' or 'we can avoid this cliché, or we can use this cliché, but we can make it completely different by injecting this,' and so on. This kind of exercise is very pleasant for somebody coming from the outside."

But Schroeder hastens to point out that, to a great extent, Hollywood has always been made up of "outsiders" like himself. "This phenomenon of attracting talent from all over the world is absolutely nothing new. Right after the first World War, you had waves of immigrants who were bringing unbelievable stuff to American filmmaking." Citing Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Fred Zimmermann, Frank Capra, and Alfred Hitchcock-all of whom gravitated straight to the mainstream, all of whom were artistic but never "artsy"-he notes that "basically 50 percent of the American cinema was made by people who were imported." Summing up his attraction to Hollywood and its legacy, he concludes, "Hollywood has been for cinema what Paris was for painting. Things are happening there and it has the vitality of an art that is being made for the whole world. Working there, I have been able to go from one extreme of the palette to the other. From one style to the opposite one. For me it has been very satisfying and exciting to be able to try new things."

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