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Welcome To The Punch - Eran Creevy interview

Welcome To The Punch

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ERAN Creevy talks about some of the challenges of making Welcome To The Punch and bringing Hollywood and Hong Kong-style action credentials to a London setting.

He also discusses the pleasure of working with leading men James McAvoy and Mark Strong, being advised by Ridley Scott and why he likes to make films in different universes like Quentin Tarantino…

Q. This is a massive shift in scope and ambition from your film Shifty, which was made for under £100,000. Was that always your ambition, cinematically, to make films of this size?
Eran Creevy: Yeah, we’d been making music videos and commercials for a period of time and we [Ben Pugh, producer] started off working on major Hollywood movies that had been shot in England and working as assistant directors on location, and that’s how we both met. So, we’d had that experience and then we set up our own company making music videos and commercials and it just so happened that while we were making music videos and commercials, the Microwave scheme came up and there was the opportunity for us to do something.

I’d written a script… it was kind of hidden away in a drawer somewhere and it was just a means to an end in order to get our first film made. And it fitted that model of the Microwave scheme. It was kind of a story about where I’d grown up as a kid. The music videos and commercials that I was making at the time had quite a glossy feel to them, an aesthetic to them, that I didn’t feel was worthy of what Shifty was… I didn’t feel that the story would benefit from being shot on 35mm and having that glossy feel. So, some people probably didn’t equate how I’d make that leap from Shifty to Welcome To The Punch. Visually, it [Shifty]’s quite socio-realistic and they ask: “How come he’s moving to this style of movie?” But that was always within me, to a degree.

Q. Can you talk about how the film progressed? Didn’t it have a very different leading duo attached at one point? How did you get to the point of Mark Strong and James McAvoy?
Eran Creevy: Any film that you make, it’s a very high end game of musical chairs… [but] that’s just the nature of filmmaking. You do the dance with a certain actor. James McAvoy and Mark Strong were always very much at the top of our list, but James was off doing X-Men: First Class and at the time I think that Mark Strong was doing John Carter Of Mars and that was a really long shoot as they kept on going back and re-shooting stuff, so their availability often just wasn’t available. So, you either go: “Well, I’m not going to bother trying to make this film.” Or you kind of think: “Suck it up and we’ll go to other actors.” And it just so happened that we did another dance with another couple of actors, and that didn’t end up working out and then we ended up coming back to James and Mark, who were at the top of our list initially.

Q. The film visually seems to wear its influences very much on its sleeve. There seems to be a very strong Eastern heroic bloodshed theme, particularly with the way you shot the action scenes. Is that the case?
Eran Creevy: Lots of people have said to me: “I hope it’s like the British Heat.” And I’m like: “Well, actually I grew up on a love of John Woo!” When I was a kid I loved Hard Boiled and I love The Killer and I love Infernal Affairs. At the moment I’m kind of obsessed by Korean cinema… I’ve just immersed myself in Korean cinema, so very much I’m influenced by the East. I think, musically and the visual style to me I think almost the city was trying to be portrayed as Tokyo; it could be here, it could be anywhere. I didn’t want to put a label on London and didn’t want to say this is specifically London. It could be anywhere in the world to a degree. It could be slightly set in the future, it could be slightly set in the past, I wanted it to feel timeless to a degree, the city.

But yeah, you are right, my influences did come from Eastern/Hong Kong action cinema and when we made the film I was like, okay, I loved Hong Kong action cinema and I grew up loving graphic novels and drawing comics myself, and it was just trying to figure out a way in which you find that balance and you make a British movie. And you have these people like Peter Mullan and James McAvoy and Mark Strong and Danny Mays and how do you sort of make it so they’re flying around with guns and sliding along the floor and how do you get that balance of tone?

I think sort of the way I approached it was that it couldn’t just be John Woo’s style, like flying sideways firing two guns and doves flying up in the background, if you know what I mean? It was trying to figure out how we could make it work in our universe, and I think it was like: “Okay, James, I do want you to slide along this bar in a kind of cool way, but fire the gun over your head at the same time.” But I think it was about trying to find that tonal balance of the action and hopefully make it work so you didn’t feel like it was jarring to have this kind of British-set action movie with Hong Kong influence-style action. But yeah, you are right.

Welcome To The Punch

Q. British actors seem to love doing action movies because they played cops and robbers as kids. Did you get the sense that James and Mark had to be almost dissuaded from doing their own stunts and leaping into it?
Eran Creevy: James did train to do most of his stunt driving, but there was just some stuff that he didn’t do, like the car chase with the motorbikes. Obviously, a lot of the time James is in that car, but there were a few shots where it just got a bit hairy and he did try one of the moves and I think he took off the kerb and stuff. But James really did do all of his own stunts because he used to be a dancer. Originally, when he came out, he used to do a lot of dance and he’s got that kind of body, he’s wiry and he can take a lot of hits.

Q. When you’re prepping a genre piece like this are you living in fear of other movies stealing, quite inadvertently, some of the ideas that you’ve come up with? Some of the locations you share with The Sweeney, and newspaper headlines have overtaken you to a certain extent, so is that something that goes through your mind in the process?
Eran Creevy: I guess so. We shot before The Sweeney, so you know, you can be fearful. It’s funny that you go to shoot a movie like Welcome To The Punch, which is an action cops and robbers movie set in London, and you hear that there’s another one going to be going soon and you panic a bit. But you just have to get on with it and hopefully I think that myself and Nick Love are as far apart as we can be, stylistically and aesthetically, [in terms of] how we approach the films. For example, I write my own material. So, there are similar things. I went to see The Sweeney when it came out on its first day and there are similarities, but I think they’re as far removed as they can be, to a degree.

Q. Did the reality of making this type of movie live up to expectations and was it everything you hoped it would be when making big budget aspirational films? And could you also talk about the involvement of Ridley Scott?
Eran Creevy: When I made Shifty, I’d made music videos and commercials, but I’d never really worked with actors to a degree. So, the first time I stepped onto set was the first time that I’d worked with, you know, directed actors, but we did rehearse for a couple of weeks, so on Shifty there was that sort of two week rehearsal process. But yeah, stepping onto Welcome To The Punch, I’d never really directed action before. I’d kind of done a few action-orientated commercials but nothing on this level. I’d never worked with guns or live gunfire before.

And the first scene that we shot, because of the availability of actors and Andrea Riseborough was off doing Shadow Dancer so she couldn’t come until three weeks into the shoot, was the hotel shoot-out, where Mark Strong is in the bathroom and Jason Flemyng and Daniel Mays come into the room, and that was the opening scene, that was the first day on set. And I was just doing that human thing where you wake up and you think: “What am I doing? Why am I doing this? This is ridiculous! I’ve never done this before!” [Laughs]

But I think, as with commercials and music videos, it’s just about preparation, preparation, preparation, and we just prepped really hard and I had a distinct vision of Hong Kong cinema and how I wanted to shoot it, and how we were going to light it and how we were going to approach it. And the power of the weapons, you know… I knew that I wanted the weapons to be very powerful… every time there was a gunshot in the film I wanted you to feel the force of the guns. So, I had a point of view about how I wanted it to be shot, so I think that’s the best you can come with, to be as prepared as you can be and have a point of view of how you’re going to shoot the film. And then the rest of it is luck, to a degree [laughs]!

There were times in the schedule where, because we were shooting so quickly and we didn’t have the money, we were like: “If this shot goes wrong, we’re fucked! If this shot goes wrong, because we’re going to be taking out the entire wall, we’ve got all these cameras rolling, and if the squibs go wrong and we have to re-set the entire wall and we have to come in and re-set it, we’re going to be going three hours over schedule and that’s going to knock us into our second day.” So, you are sweating from day one that it’s all going to work out. But it worked and a lot of the time luck was on our side and we made it through.

Q. And how was working with Ridley?
Eran Creevy: Well, there was that initial thing where I flew out to Los Angeles and met him at Scott Free and was so nervous when I got to LA. I was shaking, literally shaking when I got into the room because I was going to meet my hero Ridley Scott! And he walked in and he’d just had an operation on his knee, so he had a bit of downtime and that’s the reason why he’d read Welcome To The Punch and watched Shifty and really enjoyed Shifty and enjoyed the script. And then as soon as he walked into the room he just wanted to… I thought it was going to be a pitch. I thought I was going to have to pitch to him and tell him my vision for the film. But he just sort of walked in and said: “So, how are we going to get this film made? What are we going to do? Let’s figure this out.” And he just sort of started picking up the phone and phoning people and when Ridley Scott picks up the phone and starts phoning people things start to happen, you know [laughs]?

It was an amazing thing and he was very much involved in the process, and we would meet once every couple of weeks when we were developing the script and we would talk and he would read every single draft and he’d kind of give notes and I’d go away and take onboard some of those notes and address them to the script. And then the same process when we shot the film, he was off shooting Prometheus, so he then became very much more involved in the editing process. So, we would edit the film every couple of weeks and we would show him a screener, we’d go to the MPC [editing suite] and he’d watch a cut of the movie and give notes. And there are those moments where you go: “That’s why you’re Ridley Scott.” Because you’ve got a problem with the edit and you can’t figure it out and he goes: “Why don’t you take that shot you’ve got there, grade it for night and put that as an establisher?” And we go: “That’s amazing, why didn’t I think of that!’ It’s just simple things like that logistically, which he’s had to come up against in the past and yeah, it was an amazing experience.

Welcome To The Punch

Q. It’s also very much a film that feels suffused with the spirit of Tony Scott. Was Tony involved in any way?
Eran Creevy: No, Tony wasn’t involved with the film at all, it was kind of very much to do with Ridley. But I said this before at a screening, that Ridley Scott’s name has been bandied about because he was an executive producer, but one name that became synonymous with the style of the film was Tony Scott. And when we were on set, the production designer, Crispian Sallis, would come up to me and I’d be having problems choosing a location and he’d sidle up next to me… Crispian had worked with Tony and Ridley in the past. I think he’d been a set designer on Gladiator and Revenge for Tony Scott and had worked on Hannibal and Alien, and as I was trying to choose a location and Crispian would creep up behind me and say: “Tony would love it here, darling.”

I knew what he was trying to do… he was just trying to gently nudge me into this process of choosing the location and he was often more than not right. And sometimes when we were framing up for a scene and we were looking through the eyepiece and I’d say to Ed Wild, the D.O.P: “This isn’t very Tony Scott, is it?” And he’d say: “No, it’s not very Tony Scott.” So, we’d go back and we’d re-set the frame. So, we were trying to push that aesthetic and bring a different visual style to British cinema and hopefully we achieved that and we made it look sexier than what you’re used to seeing in British film.

Q. Going back to James McAvoy, did you want him because he was a convincing action character, or did you need something more for that part that he could give?
Eran Creevy: I guess it’s just that he’s a brilliant actor, you know. I loved The Last King Of Scotland and Atonement. I thought those films were fantastic and I think with any film you just want to work with the best actors that you can, and I’ve always admired James. So, he was always at the top of my list and he’s British, well, Scottish… but yeah, we’d just always wanted to work with him just because of the quality of the performances I’d seen before and I’d just always wanted the chance to get to work with him. And thank God, he said yes!

Q. In casting Jason Flemyng and Daniel Mays, it’s as if you’re setting up your repertory company, because they were both in Shifty. If that’s the case, how does the casting of Peter Mullan, Mark and James fit into that?
Eran Creevy: It’s more because they’re my mates and they’re brilliant [laughs]! With Jason Flemyng, there were talks he was going to play David Morrissey’s part and his wife had just had twins, so Jason really wanted to be in the film somehow, but literally only a few days before we started shooting his wife had had twins. And I was like: “Well, do you fancy playing this character? It’s literally two days on set, you come in and have a bit of a gunfight and stuff and then you get shot.” And he was like: “Yeah, but that means I’m going to get killed in every single one of your films that I make!”

And I think he’s making it a habit at the moment, like in Kick-Ass when he gets killed! But with Jason it was just like a friend on the phone asking if he fancied coming in and playing this character. And with Danny, I purposely wanted to work with Danny again after Shifty and it was that process of casting and looking at casting lists and seeing where Danny would fit in best. And I felt that the character was sort of a better fit for Danny. And there’s also Jason Maza… you know, where Andrea Riseborough goes to the container yard and the guy that runs the container yard? He’s in Shifty as well. And the guy that’s the barber, you know in the barber shop the guy that’s cutting Peter Mullan’s hair? He’s one of the lead characters from Shifty. He plays the builder with the cocaine problem. So, there’s little characters all over the film. My own wife plays Peter Mullan’s wife when she comes in and has a go at him, so she was the wife in Shifty as well. So, there’s more than just those two… they’re kind of all over [laughs]!

Q. What is it about the British film industry that means that films like this are so rare? And why do you think that something like Shifty was immediately copied by so many other small British films?
Eran Creevy: Well, I have my own opinion on that. It was really, really hard to get Welcome To The Punch made. It was really hard after Shifty and Ben and Rory said to me: “What do you want to make next after Shifty?” And I thought: “Well, I don’t want to make another socio-realistic drama because everyone says you’re going to be the next Shane Meadows, or you’re going to be the next Ken Loach.” And I was like: “Well no, I actually want to be the next Christopher Nolan, I want to be the next Tony Scott!” That’s kind of what I aspire to be! Perhaps I can bring it to this country and make those films here and be like a Luc Besson and make those style of movies… how come they can make those type of movies in France and EuropaCorp can make big action movies in France and they can do it in Hong Kong, but we don’t seem to be able to do it here with one of the best and most beautiful cities in the world? We’ve got the best technicians, we’ve got the best actors, you know what I mean? Why aren’t we doing it here? And I think we went through that process of actually realising how hard it was. Afterwards we were like: “No wonder they hate it here!” Because it’s so hard to get those style of films made.

Q. So do you see yourself staying in the UK?
Eran Creevy: Well, it’s Germany for the next one. It’s called Autobahn and it’s a bit like (500 Days) Of Summer meets Speed, all set on the German autobahns. So, again it’s trying to do the same thing, but shooting in Germany [laughs]!

Welcome To The Punch

Q. There seems to be a political message running through the film of possibly arming British police officers. Is that something that you personally believe in?
Eran Creevy: No, it’s not that I have a particular political opinion or agenda with that, it’s just that in many ways, this comes back to making a film that has universal appeal. It was: “Okay, we’re going to make this film that’s about two guys, but what is it about American cinema and international cinema that seems to not feel parochial and why do those films seem to travel better?” And I was like: “Well, let’s tell this story on a bigger canvas…” So, there is this story about these two guys who are steam-training it towards each other, but we need to tell this story on a bigger canvas and there needs to be much more at stake and what’s behind all this and what’s motivating it?

And I think that was a push to try and make it feel like a bigger film, to make it feel more like the American films and films that have more commercial appeal. And in many ways, afterwards when I thought about it, I was like: “Well, maybe I shot myself in the foot because in America the police do carry guns!” So, I think Americans watch it, and the Americans have loved it, and they’re like: “I don’t get it man, what’s this thing about guns? Police just carry guns!” And so to them, maybe in many ways I did what I shouldn’t have done in the first place… maybe I should have made it about drugs or something. But I think it was with an ambition to make the film not feel so parochial and tell it on a more epic canvas, and that was my intention. It wasn’t with a political agenda. But I think when you write a script, you can’t help but pick up on what is happening in the press at that time and what’s going on in the newspapers, so you reflect on that and you feed it into your stories in some way and that’s what that was.

Q. Picking up on world-wide audiences and their reactions and attitudes to things, do you think British audiences are ready for this… where the action is stylised and bullets tend to miss their targets?
Eran Creevy: I take your point and when we’re shooting the film and you’ve written those action sequences onto the script, you do start to think: “Wow, there’s a lot of shooting going on and not many people are getting hit.” But then your realise that they must face this problem in every single Hollywood action movie they make. If you watch Star Wars, for instance, the Stormtroopers can’t hit anything! They are the worst shots ever! But I think that’s a natural problem of shooting action films. So, there was that sequence when we were in the nightclub and I was saying to the guys: “We’re shooting this film and not enough people are getting shot!” But then you realise that is the nature of action movies and you have to throw yourself into it and go, there’s a level of suspension of disbelief.

It’s Friday night entertainment and we can’t get too wrapped up in where every single bullet hits and where they are going. Tarantino says Reservoir Dogs doesn’t exist in the same universe as Kill Bill. They’re two films… they’re from the same filmmaker but they exist in different universes. Kill Bill’s violence is cartoonish and over the top, to a degree. And I think that’s the same with Shifty and Welcome To The Punch – they don’t exist in the same universe. Tonally they exist in different universes and you have to tonally know what you’re going to be making as a filmmaker. So, I said: “I’m not making Welcome To The Punch to exist in the Shifty universe. It’s a much more graphic novel Hong Kong style of movie, so we’re going to have to go with it and just go with the gun fire and, fuck it, shoot the film.

The next film I’m writing… not Autobahn but the film after is a homage to Korean revenge tragedies like The Yellow Sea and I Saw The Devil. So, I’m reverting back to the Shifty universe and tone and the way I’ve approached the action sequences, I’ve had to be much more realistic. So, it’s like: “OK, when bullets fly there’s a consequence with it… one single bullet.” So, you tonally shift as a writer and director. But it’s a good point and hopefully audiences will be ready to embrace this as more of a Friday night fun piece of cinema.

SPOILER WARNING:

Q. You have your next two movies planned out but Welcome To The Punch invites a sequel. Will you come back to that world?
Eran Creevy: Only if it’s a hit and it if makes some money. But I’ve already got the title. It’s called The Hong Kong Sector and it all starts off… the opening action sequence starts in Hong Kong and Mark Strong runs a Hong Kong…. Basically, James McAvoy has been sent to prison for all the murders that have been committed in the film, he’s been framed for all of it. And there’s a huge opening action sequence at the beginning where James escapes and heads to Hong Kong after Mark Strong. But you don’t know if he’s gone to kill him or to team up with him and that’s the beginning of the film. So, I haven’t thought about it much [laughs]! I didn’t want the end of the film to be definitive. I don’t want the audience to know exactly what happens to James because I like to have this level of ambiguity to how it’s left. You know, is he going to take the heat for this? Is he going to grow to be a better man? So, you can’t help but think where we might go with the sequel.

Q. How many parallels are there between directing action scenes and music videos? I gather there must be a lot of choreography involved in both?
Eran Creevy: It’s an interesting point actually because all the music videos I’ve done have been really heavily choreographed music dance numbers. And choreography featured really heavily. And I suddenly realised that I was massively obsessed by Thriller as a kid. I just remember the Thriller VHS had the Making of Thriller immediately after it and I think everyone had a copy of it. I was obsessed by it and I used to watch it over and over again. And then I suddenly realised that every music video I’ve made has been like I was trying to make Thriller! And then suddenly I realised how much I’m into… I think that feeds into loving Hong Kong action cinema because it’s so choreographed, it’s so beautiful and intricately choreographed, and that sort of fitted into Welcome To The Punch and how choreographed all the action sequences are. I like things to be slightly contained within the hotel room or the nightclub… it’s the same sort of thing that you do with a music number or a dance number, so it’s a good question because I was thinking about that the other day. And I still hope, as a director, that one day I can achieve the Michael Jackson level of music video and work with Lady Gaga one day [laughs] on a big dance number.

Read our review of Welcome To The Punch

Read our interview with producer Ben Pugh