ON THIS PAGE: GENESIS; CASTING; THE ART OF ANIMATICS; WRITER-DIRECTOR MICHAEL DAVIS
READ MORE ABOUT: MAKING THE BABY; THE GUNS; CINEMATOGRAPHY; PRODUCTION DESIGN AND COSTUMES; FILMING THE SHOOT-OUT SKYDIVING SEQUENCE; THE VISUAL EFFECTS
The genesis of Shoot 'Em Up was sparked by a scene from John Woo's Hardboiled where the hero, played by Chow Yun Fat, is in a hospital with a gun and a baby.
"Putting together a hardboiled guy with the most innocent thing in the world delivers dramatic tension and a great image," says writer/director Michael Davis, whose award-winning films include Eight Days a Week and 100 Girls. Davis expanded upon this scenario and devised the idea of having a gun fight in the middle of a room while the hero is helping to deliver a baby. "I thought it would be a great opening for a movie," states the imaginative director.
"Shoot 'Em Up is akin to an American John Woo action movie and tells the story of the angriest man in the world, Mr. Smith, who's stuck with a baby and a life-threatening situation," continues Davis, who also wrote the original screenplay. "It's about all the imaginative and clever things you can do with a gun fight."
"The easy bit was plotting all the cool things you can do with a gun fight," says Davis, a former storyboard artist who came up with a series of unique and outlandish scenarios in which to stage elaborate "shoot 'em ups." In addition to the birth sequence shoot-out which opens the film, there's a gun fight while Smith and paratroopers are free-falling out of an airplane, a scene where Smith spins a playground carousel with bullets so a sniper can't shoot the baby lying on it, and, in the perfect distillation of sex and violence, a sequence where Smith and the his accomplice, the prostitute DQ, make love during a gun fight.
"But to sustain the story, the hard part was to figure out the mystery and rationale as to why the bad guys want the baby," adds Davis.
The John Woo film was one inspiration. But the seeds for Shoot 'Em Up were sown several decades earlier when Davis was a 6th grader writing his own 100-page James Bond novels on a typewriter, with titles such as Masquerade of Death and Spearhead which mimicked the Ian Fleming tone. "I've been dreaming of doing an all-out action movie since then, whether it was writing my childhood novels or now, animating and writing a script," says Davis, who drew 17,000 drawings to create 15 minutes of animation for the film's 11 action sequences to use as a sales tool, which proved to be effective, impressing the producers - Susan Montford, Don Murphy and Rick Benattar (who, like Davis, is himself a Bond fanatic) - New Line Cinema executives and, ultimately, the cast. "The animation really encapsulated the high energy of the picture. It's been very exciting to see that process of drawn vision translated to the real vision on film," adds Davis.
Hollywood is an ephemeral place. You can be the most gifted screenwriter in town, but if you don't get that break, you're still a struggling filmmaker. Divine intervention intervened for Davis when his acquaintance from their days at University of Southern California, producer Don Murphy (Transformers, Natural Born Killers, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), along with his partners, Susan Montford and Rick Benattar, took up the cause.
"We felt Shoot 'Em Up was this truly special script with a unique voice begging to be made. It was right up our alley because it pokes fun at America's big obsessions - guns and breasts and violence, in that order," says Don Murphy, whose company, Angry Films, worked with Davis on his presentation showing the director's vision for the action sequences in the film as well as a line-drawn trailer. "We sent this stunning DVD animatic to New Line Cinema as our first choice and they loved it," adds Susan Montford.
Executives at New Line Cinema saw the potential in the film after viewing Davis' animatic and pitched it to the studio heads, who gave the green light. "New Line made sure that we were able to cast and hire the great people we have," says Murphy. "Michael had a vision and passion for the script as evidenced in the animatic. We felt this was the movie he was born to direct." Davis finally got his break.
Michael Davis describes Shoot 'Em Up as a "blue-collar James Bond movie. Mr. Smith is the antithesis of James Bond. He has been psychologically damaged in his past and is homeless, which gives you a Rocky-like underdog feeling, because he has no resources but his own. He lives in a derelict building. He's got nothing. Bond has all these gadgets. Mr. Smith's only talent is shooting, so he eats carrots because they're good for eyesight. And he has a pet rat trained to unlock his door - all low tech." Smith is also ingenious. "I like to see the clever way the guy gets out of a tough situation, what his thought process is. I find that much more exciting than the big spectacle, because it's the idea that's being celebrated," adds Davis, who from the start set out to make a highly visceral film punctuated with witty dialogue.
Producer Susan Montford's perspective on the picture: "If you love cinema you will love this film - it references the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, the French gangster movies of Melville and of course John Woo. The lead characters are cinematic archetypes re-imagined through Michael Davis' very twisted imagination. DQ is the tragic prostitute/mother. Smith is the mythic hardboiled loner with a slew of witty one-liners. They are classic outsiders doing whatever it takes to survive. When along comes this baby and brings them together, throwing both their lives into disarray. They join together to save the baby from Hertz, the fetishistic gangster with glasses and a comb-over. Like the BTK Killer, you could almost mistake him for a regular family man."
When it came time to assemble the dream cast, Michael Davis' top choice for the role of Mr. Smith was Clive Owen, best known for his work in Sin City and Inside Man. "Clive's a straight-up action hero, but we never thought for a moment we'd get him," says Davis.
But Owen, who co-incidentally had just turned down another film, was keen to play Mr. Smith. He and Davis met, hit it off and, as they say in the UK, 'Bob's your uncle!' They decided that Owen would play the off-beat character with an English accent, because the British have a knack for dark witty humor. "He's a little bit tougher with the British accent," explains Davis.
"Shoot 'Em Up is absolutely wild," says Clive Owen. "This is one of the freshest and most original screenplays I've read in a long time. It kicks in at a very high tempo with wild extraordinary situations and then doesn't let up. It has a dozen incredible genius shootouts. It's all redeemed with a great wit and humor."
"When I read the script, I called my agent right away and said, 'If the director can pull it off, it's going to be extraordinary.' And when I met Michael I knew straight away that he could do it, basically because he'd been waiting do to this movie for seven years.
It takes a particular brain and a particular person to pull this off."
"The way I'm playing Smith, you don't really get to know too much about him," adds Owen. "He's very enigmatic and a very good shot, yet, somehow, nobody seems to be able to get him. He doesn't really want to be in this situation. He ends up with this baby and he's running around throughout the whole film. But he's very protective of this kid. He's sort of symbolic in a way. He's a very original action hero," laughs the actor.
"Clive is the prototype of a young Sean Connery - alpha male, sexy, intelligent and very witty. He is an understated, nuanced actor which is a great compliment to the over-the- top action he has to perform," says producer Don Murphy, who, along with the other producers, felt that the cast had to be as unique as the script, so they championed actors who were fresher and more soulful.
"Clive brings a very mysterious brooding quality to Mr. Smith. He's also done a lot of his own stunts and action as well. He's really brilliant. You can't take your eyes off him," adds producer Susan Montford.
"Mr. Smith is the angriest man in the world," says Michael Davis. "Because he's angrier at a bigger thing that has caused trouble in his life, it's all the little things in life that make him angry. He verbalizes all the small things that irritate any one of us in real life - someone chewing gum, a guy who doesn't use his turn signals, or someone slurping coffee. He's hardboiled, but we can identify with him. A back story hints as to why he's homeless, why he has these great abilities. Not only does the movie have a mystery structure, plot-wise, as to why the bad guys are trying to kill the baby, but there is a progression as to who this character is. Although he comes across as sarcastic and angry, the irony is that he's the most sensitive guy in the movie. That's why all these things bother him so much - because he is so sensitive."
Clive Owen concurs, "Smith says he hates everything, but he doesn't really. It annoys him when people try to kill him. It winds him up and he can be pretty ruthless at times. But ultimately he always finds a way and deals with the situations."
Playing the key role of DQ, the prostitute whom Smith enlists to help him care for and protect the newborn baby, is Italian actress Monica Bellucci. "Monica is an incredibly beautiful, soulful actor with a refreshing lack of inhibition," says producer Susan Montford. "Once we imagined her as DQ we couldn't envision anyone else."
Echoes Michael Davis, "Monica is great for the part because I needed a strong personality to interact with Smith's strong personality. She's also very sexy and is the only character in the movie that doesn't take crap from Smith. She calls him on everything. What's also great about Monica is that in Italian families, the matriarch is such a strong figure. Her name is Donna Quintana, but Smith calls her DQ for short. She's really the emotional core at the center of the movie. She's always honest, she's always saying what she's feeling and eventually she gets Smith to make a transformation, to be a bit more open and caring, to start healing from his emotional wounds."
Bellucci was attracted by the originality of the script and the mix of different elements. "Shoot 'Em Up is violent, it's rock n' roll, sexy, dark, scary but human with a lot of humor. It's difficult to find all those elements together," says the actress, who was also drawn to the unconventional love story. "When the film starts, neither Smith nor DQ know how to love or what love means. Through the baby, who accidentally comes into their lives, they realize who they truly are; and through giving to the baby they also learn how to love each other." Bellucci also loved the character of DQ. "She's a hooker with a specialty, something very kinky. I loved playing her because she's totally free. She does dangerous, dark dirty things in a playful way."
Some years before, Michael Davis had written a screenplay about Alfred Kinsey. "Because I'd done all this research on human sexuality, all my scripts became more influenced with so many great things about sex. I never would've written about a lactating hooker if I hadn't written the Kinsey script. In Shoot 'Em Up, the hero is stuck with a baby. Who would he go to for help? Why not go to this woman who can actually feed the baby? DQ's the perfect foil for Smith because she helps. Just as Smith seems like he's had something in his life that's shattered him, she too has had something that shattered her. A really strong love story develops about these two broken people who come together and form this makeshift family, making the story stronger.
"Monica's a terrific actress and has done some incredible work," says Clive Owen. "In the film we obviously have a history - I go to her for help because the baby needs to be fed. We have a very tough relationship, but you can tell really that we're very fond of each other. She's very nurturing towards the baby and we make a very weird little family unit."
Paul Giamatti plays the chief bad guy, Hertz, who is relentlessly prowling after Smith. "What I found interesting about bad guys is that they're not bad guys 24 hours a day," says Michael Davis. "They don't think that they're bad guys, so how could I make a bad guy character feel like he's not a bad guy? Consequently, throughout the story, Hertz is always calling home and talking to his wife as if his job is a Wall Street broker. He just has to work late. You get this family man side contrasting with this horrible violent guy."
"A thriller is only as good as your bad guy," continues Davis. "So I didn't want to play it safe with Hertz. I needed an actor who could pull if off and became intrigued with the idea of Paul. The idea grew on me because it's against type. Though he's not physically big as a villain, mentally he is. It made it more fun that Hertz can represent everything about him as big: he has a big gun, drives a big car, has a big belt buckle and he's also compensating for his size. You need a great actor to pull off somebody's that a little bit more dimensional."
"Paul usually plays angst-ridden characters and now he gets to play a straight-forward bad guy, whom he modeled on the BTK Killer. He's very funny and creepy as well," says producer Susan Montford.
Giamatti, who had never played a bad guy or fired a gun before, gleefully reveals why he wanted to do the film. "There's a kind of Gestapo scene near the end where I break all of Smith's fingers. When I first read the script, I really wanted to do that scene. It goes on forever and I really break each one of his fingers nice and slowly. It was a fun scene to do. I try to kill his spirit. I'm more about killing people's souls. I have one great scene where I get to torture Monica Bellucci. She was great to torture. She's fantastic and an incredibly interesting actress."
"Clive is great at playing damaged sour guys. He makes a really interesting hero and brings this dark quality to Mr. Smith. It's funny because I play my guy almost sort of cheerful. It's like a weird role reversal," says Giamatti.
Replies Owen, "Hertz is a really wild character from the minute the movie starts to the end. He's the chief antagonist. The thing that's great about Paul playing this part is that the script is full of really wicked humor. And Paul's perfect because he can play it completely committed and straight. He's really a nasty piece of work, but it's incredibly enjoyable watching him go at it."
"Paul is the perfect villain in this, a role we haven't seen him in. He is such a terrific actor that he is able to externalize the complexes of Hertz without turning him into a caricature of a villain, which is a tricky task," adds producer Rick Benattar.
Adds Giamatti about his character, "I play an FBI profiler gone bad who's a super-intuitive genius. The idea was to have a non-traditional bad guy so we came up with the idea of making him look like an accountant. To all outward appearances, Hertz is a bland nobody little guy. Michael wanted to have a guy who kills people but has a family life back home. I have sweet conversations with my wife in the midst of incredible violence. It's when Hertz shoots someone in the head that he's actually kind of happy," laughs the actor. "It's nothing but big, cool scenes of people shooting each other."
Giamatti was so enthusiastic about his character's look, he entreated his hair stylist to shave the crown of his head, leaving some long strands to comb over, and he framed his face with a beard. His stylist topped it off with a 'greasy' look, with a bit of help from Brillcream.
"Paul Giamatti's like the guy next door. He's 'everybody' and that's why everybody loves him. In Shoot 'Em Up he saw an opportunity to almost go over the top. He's the greatest Bond villain that never was," says producer Don Murphy.
"Hertz sees himself as being smarter than anybody else," says Giamatti. "I'm the muscle guy who goes out with all these soldiers and we try to kill people. I take charge all the time. I do a lot of sitting in the back of a limo on the phone telling people to kill other people. But for Clive, it's been exhausting. He has the lion's share of all the actual action."
"I had to get very fit for this film because it's a very physical part," says Owen. "The whole thing about the action in this movie is that it's always got this momentum where it's heading forward. It's never static. I think what separates it from any other action movie is its humor. The action has great wit about it. It's unexpected, and funny as well as being cool at the same time."
"I'm having the actors play it as if it's very, very real," says writer/director Michael Davis. I like to use the word 'exuberant.' The movie just goes for it. So many action films are about boom boom boom and giant things toppling down, but this is about the individual, and the intimacy of the action. And the great thing about Shoot 'Em Up is we've got A-list actors doing an outrageous action movie and they're having the time of their lives."
THE ART OF ANIMATICS
Davis' animatics - 15 minutes of hand-drawn animation he created - were a key element in selling Shoot 'Em Up to New Line Cinema and enticing Clive Owen to star. Over a period of six months, he animated ten of the big action set pieces of the film by hand, which involved 17,000 drawings. As Davis says, "It's like you are watching the actual movie shot for shot, cut by cut, but it is animated."
Initially Davis never dreamed the animatics would be such a great sales tool. "It just started as a hobby. I wanted to see what I could do with iMovie on my Apple. I started goofing around. I had this script I loved but was having difficulty getting it set up. I was itching to make a film and the animation sort of satisfied this urge."
"Once I animated the first sequence - the skydiving gun fight - I thought it was so cool. It was directing without a crew, so I decided to animate another scene. In the back of my mind, I thought if I ever got a chance to make the movie, the animation would be a great way to show the director of photography and the editor and everyone else how I wanted the scenes to work."
It was only later that he discovered that the animation was a great sales tool. The vision was so exciting and exacting that New Line decided to take a chance at letting Davis make the jump from independent to studio filmmaker.
The animation, along with script, also excited the talent agencies and several major stars expressed interest in the project. New Line and Davis both wanted Clive Owen, and the one-two punch of the script and the animatics led him to come aboard.
WRITER-DIRECTOR MICHAEL DAVIS
Filmmaker Michael Davis is not only an accomplished writer and director, but also a gifted illustrator who storyboards his films entirely himself. As a multi-hyphenate, Davis brings a strong vision to each phase of the filmmaking process.
In 1996, armed with his life's savings and life experiences, Davis wrote and directed the much praised Eight Days A Week, a loosely autobiographical, coming-of-age story. The success of Eight Days A Week allowed Davis to write and direct two more romantic comedies, 100 Girls (with Jonathan Tucker and Katherine Heigl) and 100 Women, both released by Lions Gate. He branched out into horror with the thriller, Monster Man.
Davis began his directing career in television helming a variety of projects from "The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys" to the highly rated special, "Cheers - Last Call." His other screenplays include Kinsey Reports, about the world's first sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, which was a finalist in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's Nichols Fellowship.
Davis was an undergraduate illustration major at Parsons School of Design in New York where he honed his skill as an artist and an animator. After a brief stint as an animation director in Washington D.C., Davis went to USC's School of Cinema-Television where he won the Edward G. Small Directing Scholarship.
After graduating USC, he apprenticed under several of the top directors as a storyboard artist. His work includes a turn as storyboard artist on the groundbreaking "Pee Wee's Playhouse," sketching sequences for John McTiernan's Medicine Man, and commercial spots for Michael Apted and Roland Joffe, among others.
Davis recently finished writing his first novel, Lawrence of Suburbia. He is currently writing his next action feature.
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