“Parker,” the new crime thriller starring Jason Statham, is adapted from “Flashfire,” written by the late Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym of Richard Stark, and marks the first time that the Westlake estate has allowed filmmakers to use the character’s name in a movie. The script written by John McLaughlin, which stays true to the essence of Westlake’s honor-bound criminal while updating and expanding the story, attracted the attention of one of Hollywood’s top producer-directors: Oscar winner Taylor Hackford who has helmed such acclaimed films as “Ray” and “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
Hackford found himself unexpectedly charmed by the character’s peculiar psychology, his unshakable code of ethics, and how completely unapologetic he is about what he does. He also saw the opportunity to make an intelligent action picture, full of intrigue, and strong characterizations. At the film’s recent press day, Hackford talked at a roundtable interview about the casting process, filming on location, directing his first genre movie, collaborating with Statham on the intricate action sequences, David Buckley’s score, and his upcoming projects including a pilot and three different scripts.
“Parker” opens in theaters on January 25th and also features Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte, Clifton Collins, Jr., Wendell Pierce and Micah Hauptman.
Question: How did you go about assembling such a diverse and eclectic cast?
Taylor Hackford: I always start every film from the center out, whoever is going to be my lead, and then I work around that person. In this instance, it was Jason Statham. Parker is a literary figure and a very specific non-verbal character. He is a man who analyzes everything around him and then acts. When he says anything, it’s very short, terse and it’s with a specific purpose. If you don’t listen to him and you don’t follow it, there are going to be repercussions. His opponents and the people that he is dealing with have to be substantial in order to have something play out and be real. And so, I was casting the bad guys, let’s call them, but actually they weren’t bad guys. He’s a professional and he’s an unapologetic thief. He wants to steal as much money as humanly possible. He has no remorse about it, but he works within a set of rules. Those rules are not a code of ethics. The rules are pragmatic. I don’t want to get caught. I don’t want to get sent to jail. I want to survive to live another day and fight and make more money. So he recognizes other professionals. Nick Nolte’s character, Hurley, is his mentor. You have a sense that whatever their past was, Parker was the novice and Hurley was the pro. They learned. They worked a certain way. There is a shorthand between them. You know that there’s a father-son relationship there. When Hurley says these guys are for real, they’re pros like Melander (Michael Chiklis’ character). Parker would rather work alone, but if he’s going to [work with a team], he’s got somebody who’s vouching.
I love Michael Chiklis. I love Clifton Collins. Wendell Pierce is a member of my acting company. These guys are veterans in their own right. They really have an acting integrity and you’ve seen it. They’ve got miles on those tires. Each of those guys is smart. When you see Wendell Pierce, he’s a guy who may be overweight, but you know that he’s thought things through and he’s plenty tough. With Clifton Collins, the same thing goes on. And Michael Chiklis, I loved him in “The Shield.” He’s got it. You want to have Parker just look at them, and when they talk, they’re talking in shorthand as professionals. You know that he sizes them up and it works. The problem in that instance is that, like always in criminal endeavors, sometimes you’ve got a weak link, and Micah Hauptman plays that role I love in this piece. Everybody goes, “He’s not quite up to…” Well, of course, he’s not. He’s not a pro like they are. He doesn’t have years of experience. He’s an arrogant prick whose uncle is the head of the Mafia in Chicago. His uncle has spoiled him, and you meet his brother and you know his brother is plenty tough. He’s played by Kirk Baltz who you meet in New Orleans. This is the young kid who’s looking to make it as will happen. He’s worked a deal out where he’s going to fence this jewelry for ten cents on the dollar. If you’re Parker, immediately you’re not interested in jewelry for ten cents on the dollar. All these little things are there, but they’re part of that criminal world. So he says, “No, we’re getting twenty.” If you get twenty cents on the dollar for $60-$70-$80 million worth of jewels, it’s worth making the compromise of having this kid along. Of course, unfortunately, it was a bad mistake.
This is all part of Donald Westlake. He researched. He knew his stuff. I’m not defining the story. The story comes from “Flashfire.” What was interesting to me were the hints that he gave me in the characters had everything to do with who I cast. And that’s what you do. You cast from the center out so they fit with Jason. That’s number one. Number two, I’m not creating something from scratch, from whole cloth. It’s a literary work and a character that goes for 24 books. John McLaughlin, the screenwriter, is a wonderful screenwriter. I want to give credit where credit is due because John adapted a terrific crime novel. When you adapt, you don’t just say I’m going to be true to the Bible. No. A book is a book and a film is a film. You’ve got to be able to step out and make those choices. When I first read the script, I knew Parker and I went, “Oh, I like this. Hey, this is cinematic. This is good.” Then I read the book and I liked it, but I realized what John had done. And so, when he and I started collaborating, we took the script through a couple of drafts. We really got along and I said, alright, now the director’s in here. I don’t read screen direction. That’s what I do, and we worked together wonderfully.
I think the casting is all about being true to the inspiration, but then taking a step above it and saying, okay, that’s there, I’m not violating the inspiration but it’s going to be my version of this Parker. It’s going to be my version of Melander. It’s going to be my version of these different characters. Quite frankly, the Wendell Pierce character and the Clifton Collins character aren’t that clear in the book. They just fell there. By casting those people, they define who they are. They don’t have to say a lot. You just know who they are.
Q: What are some of the considerations that went into filming on location in Palm Beach and elsewhere in order to create the unique look of this film?
Hackford: This is a really good question. The great thing in the project is when you come out of a book. I don’t want to take any credit. Donald Westlake did his homework. The film starts, as the book starts, at a state fair. He did his at the Missouri State Fair which is big. I went to the biggest State Fair which is Ohio. There are 40,000-50,000-60,000-70,000 people a day at the Ohio State Fair. There’s no way you can do that in a film where you can’t afford to pay those people. This was not a big budgeted film. The people said you can’t do that. I made a deal where the second unit was going to go get me some big shots, which in and of itself is good and bad. It gives you some integrity, but then again, I’m cutting from the Ohio State Fair where there are huge crowds to a little fun fair in Louisiana where I was shooting which has got nobody there and I can’t pay the people. So I was already on the hook. The great thing is sometimes accidents will happen. The people around this fun fair in Baton Rouge are carneys. Carneys will be carneys. And, as I got in there and I was ready to shoot, we made a deal. We were ready to go and they pulled the rug out. They said, “We’re going to charge you four times what our deal was. You’ve got no choice.” At that point, I said to hell with it. I can now go to the financiers and say, “Hey, you said I couldn’t go to Ohio. What if I go with a stripped down crew? We go up there and I can convince them to let us shoot. We’re not going to control it, but you’re going to have to pay more here for lesser stuff.” And they went, “Oh, okay.” We got on a plane.
I’m walking into the Ohio State Fair with Jason Statham, Michael Chiklis, Clifton Collins and Wendell Pierce. We have no control. You think I can say to 60,000 people, “Stop!”? They’re going to have a good time. We just went in. Jimmy Muro, my cinematographer, is there. Everything in this film in handheld. It’s all a style that I wanted. We went in and shot. Luckily, the bad guys were wearing clown outfits so it worked. They don’t know who Micah Hauptman is, and Jason Statham was dressed as a priest, and people didn’t recognize him because he had a wig on. He’s got a gray wig on and people don’t get it. We’re in there shooting and accidentally I get some of the best, amazing shots in the piece, because who could afford all those extras? It’s the real deal. It isn’t Hollywood. It isn’t a bunch of extras. Those are the real people. You can tell you’re in the Midwest. Those people look like they’re the Midwest.
So, going back, I was choosing my locations from Donald Westlake aka Richard Stark. The great thing is it starts with this heist and it ends with a heist. But the first heist that goes on is real. It’s at the fair. And then, you fall into this criminal world that’s kind of industrial wasteland, monochromatic, and difficult. You’re in Houston and Tennessee. You’re in these places where you’re going, and that’s what you expect. But Donald Westlake, in the novel, did end the piece in Palm Beach. There are a lot of things that you inherit and I don’t want to take the credit for it because it’s in the book. You go through, you’ve got this revenge story, and then all of a sudden you end up in Palm Beach because the crooks go for their big thing. You don’t know. Parker’s got to find it. He’s got all these little hints. When you’re in the car at the beginning and Carlson (Wendell Pierce) says, “You’re going to take a million and a half and that’s just for the house.” What the hell does that mean? And then, later on, you get these things, and Parker finally gets Bobby Hardwicke (Kirk Baltz) and he puts the chair in his throat and Hardwicke says, “Palm Beach, Palm Beach for Christ’s sake.” There’s that moment where you see Parker work it through.
All of a sudden you go from this monochromatic industrial wasteland to pastel paradise. You’re in Florida. I’m telling you, it makes Beverly Hills look shabby. You have never seen so much clipped Ficus in your life. The gardeners there must make $100,000 or more a year. It’s conspicuous wealth. They pride themselves by saying there’s more billionaires per space than anyplace else. You go in and you’ve got it. It’s bright blue sky, aqua water and green, green tropical things, and everybody’s wearing pastels and the buildings are pastel. So, stylistically in the picture, what you’re talking about is it hands you a whole surprise. You’re going along with this world, and all of a sudden boom, you walk in like this and you introduce Jennifer Lopez. But Jennifer Lopez is not the Jennifer Lopez that we know – Miss Glam, diva of the world, rich, powerful. No. I did this specifically. When I went to Jennifer, I said, “I don’t want that.” I know her. We developed a film together and it didn’t work. It didn’t get financed. I said, “Jennifer, I don’t want that. I don’t want the beautiful diva. I want somebody who’s messy, somebody whose life hasn’t turned out the way she wanted, somebody whose dreams have been dashed, somebody who owes money and has the ultimate nightmare of any woman, which is pushing 40 and no money. You’re so strapped you’ve got to move back in with your domineering mother.” Who wants to do that? I don’t know any woman that does. I mean, I wouldn’t want to do it. It’s impossible. Jennifer’s response was, “I dig, I’m in,” which says a great deal about her. All this comes from what was there in the original material.
It’s a long answer to your question but it’s really interesting. I’m like Palm Beach will be great. Fantastic. The people that live there are rich and they don’t care. They’re not involved, influenced or impressed by Hollywood. They’ve got an ordinance where they won’t allow filmmaking in Palm Beach. West Palm Beach, which is kind of like Culver City, [is alright]. It’s like any place here. But Palm Beach? No cameras, no movies, we don’t want you. At the same time, I have a responsibility to capture what the original material was on this piece, and I can’t find Palm Beach anyplace else. It is what it is. So I set out on this journey of going down there and meeting every person on the town council, meeting the mayor, meeting the city attorney, doing up my dog and pony, being as charming as I possibly can, and going through the whole process and ultimately having them say no. As a filmmaker, “no” is not in my vocabulary. I’ve got to figure out a way. Even though they’ve said no, they voted in this city town council. “Gee, nice guy, we really would love to do it, but no.” At the same time, I find out that of course the roads are owned by the state. They can’t keep you off the roads. Donald Trump was going to let me use Mar-a-Lago, the most famous house on Palm Beach, but they wouldn’t allow it. They don’t like Donald Trump, number one. And number two, they weren’t going to let me in there.
But they can’t stop me from shooting on the roads and the film commissioner of Palm Beach County, a guy named Chuck Elderd, one of the great guys of all time, he said, “I’m going to help you every way I can. Those people over there, I don’t have any control over.” I had a couple that were very much part of Palm Beach society who were helping me. Over the course of time, when I’d spent all that time with those people, the police chief, the town council, they did turn me down, but in their own way they made it clear what I was trying to do. I never lied to them because it’s a heist. Ultimately, I was able to get Palm Beach. When you see Palm Beach in this film, it’s Palm Beach. When we’re on Worth Avenue, that’s Worth Avenue. All those roads and the mansion at the end, I had to go across Florida to Sarasota where the old John Ringling mansion is from the Ringling Bros. Circus and that’s it. But, when Parker and Leslie (Jennifer Lopez’s character) drive up on the outside, that’s Palm Beach. When I go to the back and I look through, that’s Palm Beach. When you look in, you’re in Sarasota. I’m going to screen the film in Palm Beach for charities on Friday night. It will be really interesting to see all those people and see if they can… I don’t think they’ll recognize. It really works. It is Palm Beach. But it’s a long story. This is a filmmaker. Nobody that sees the movie will ever know that, but you say I want to be true to it and I want to shoot there, and then they say no, but you still get it.
Q: When you’re directing someone like Jason Statham who’s amazing in action sequences, do you defer to him at all? What’s the collaboration involved?
Hackford: Yes. The collaboration is this. I storyboard the scene myself. I know what I want. I show it to him. One of the things that was a joy was I’m making an action movie. It’s my first genre movie. It’s a crime movie. Parker, as per the original source, is not Superman. He gets hurt. Westlake/Stark are always maiming their hero and I like that. It’s not just somebody who bounces back and jumps around and everything is cool. With Jason, I get bonus points. He does his own stunts. I can appreciate the filmmaking involved, but within a second and a half when you see three or four cuts, you know what’s going on. They’ve got a stuntman there. They cut to a face. They cut away. He’s someplace else and it’s all phony. I get a chance to do real. I also double that chance by having Daniel Bernhardt in the big fight. Daniel Bernhardt has starred in his own Chop Socky movies. He’s rather famous in the world of action. So I cast the hitman with a real guy. I have Jason Statham and Daniel Bernhardt facing off each other, and I can take them crashing into a wall, going down to the floor, going up there and coming up all in one shot. I don’t need to cut to close-ups that are phony. They’re the real guys. By the way, this was all planned when I cast that way, and then I have a cinematographer like Jimmy Muro who can really go with it. There are bad operators who miss it. He doesn’t miss anything. He’s like a magnet. So I have all that working. I can stay back. I can go in tight for a shot, and I can see a television coming down, and when that television comes off, it’s Jason Statham. They brought it right down on his head. You do all this stuff and it frees you up to say to the audience, “Alright, now you show me where I’ve cheated. You show me where this isn’t so real.” You want to see a fight? These guys are getting hurt. At the end of that film, when Jason Statham…that wasn’t real blood all over him, but regardless, when he’s all in blood and you see him completely out of breath and he’s completely spent, he was. Because guess what? He did all that himself.
When I’m working with somebody as good as Jason and as much a perfectionist, I knew what I wanted and at the same time I listened. Why shouldn’t I? The guy has done a lot more action films than I have and he knows what he’s doing. So it’s a collaborative process. Once he trusts you, and as I said he’s a perfectionist, then you’re in a situation where he’s never ready to stop and you finally have to say, “Jason, we got it. Look me in the eye, Jason. We’ve got it. Believe me, we’ve got it.” For him to finally say, “Okay” is a big deal because he so wants it to be right. It’s a gift when you have people like that. I don’t want to get too intellectual about it because it’s a genre picture, but in a film like this, it was all done with a purpose. I want the audience to see it and feel that it’s somehow a little bit different fight than they’re used to seeing and believe that it was real. At the end, you seem him in that scene afterwards where he’s in Leslie’s apartment and Claire (Emma Booth) is there sewing him up and he winces. When you have that, it’s not like, “I’m Mr. Cool. Everything is fine.” He’s hurt and it’s important, because when Leslie says, “Are you crazy? Are you stupid? You’ve got four broken ribs, a mangled hand, and you’re going to go in this?”, that’s Parker. That’s not something that we created. That’s what Donald Westlake created. But you want to believe that it’s not the smartest move to go up against these guys. You want to believe that there’s a good chance…it’s a Jason Statham movie…you’ve got to believe there’s a good chance he ain’t gonna make it. (laughs) That, I think, is a little bit different than a lot of these movies and it was intended.
Q: How did you and David Buckley team up and develop this amazing score that’s such an integral part of the film?
Hackford: I’m so happy you said that. This is a really interesting question because music has always been important in all my films, both the source music and the score. I’ve worked with some great people. There’s a guy in town named James Newton Howard. He and Hans Zimmer are the number one composers in L.A. I gave James Newton Howard his first big gig on “Everybody’s All-American.” I am not afraid to work with new people. Danny Elfman changed his whole style with “Dolores Claiborne.” I’m involved in that kind of thing, to try to give a sound or a score that works. In this film, I didn’t feel a lot of source music. I really wanted a score and I wanted it all the way through, but I didn’t have any money to be able to hire. I mean, these people are my friends. I can call them, and even then, they’d do me a favor. But even with that, I can’t tell you how much we spent on the score. It was a little bit. So I had to go to somebody new. Harry Gregson-Williams did a lot of Tony Scott’s films. He’s a terrific composer. David Buckley was his protégée. They composed together on “The Town.” I thought “The Town” was a really interesting score. Harry Gregson-Williams I couldn’t get. I couldn’t afford him.
But David Buckley I was interested in. I met him and talked to him about it and he was ready. He’s got a lot of experience. He worked with a really good composer. He was ready. We went in not with the idea that we had a lot of money, but we went in with the idea that there was going to be a lot of score and I wanted something that was really going to be supportive. The problem is when you use as much score in a film as we use in this, if it wasn’t good, you’d be sitting here going, “Ooof! God, I couldn’t stand that score.” There’s so much of it and he kept saying, “Are you sure you want this much of it?” I want to.
The score is always the wonderful icing. The score tells you the emotional content of the film. What the characters don’t say, the music can say. There are two themes for Parker in this film. There is an electronic trumpet that you hear for Parker at the very beginning, and then there’s that guitar theme that we use every time he steals something. At a certain point, you hear it. There is a theme for Leslie in the film. It’s electric piano. It’s Fender Rhodes. Who uses Fender Rhodes in a score? We went through that. All the way through these, I hope, are subtleties, but they’re very intended, and they make you feel a certain thing for each character. It’s great you said that. I want to toot David’s horn. It was intended and hopefully it does its job.
Q: What do you have coming up next?
Hackford: I’m working on a lot of things. I don’t talk about things until they’re greenlit. Remember, I worked for 13 years before I got even the money to get a screenplay written on “Ray.” And if I said I was doing the story of Ray Charles, at a certain point we’d be meeting and you’d say, “What do you keep telling us this for?” The reality is, when it becomes real, it’s real. I’m working on a pilot right now. I’m working on three different scripts. Hopefully, one or more will get financed and then I can talk about it. I’m real close but I’ve said that before and it never happened, but that’s the idea. That’s the problem when you develop your own material. And then, sometimes you get lucky. You develop your own material. It isn’t working or it isn’t like it isn’t working. I think it’s great, but I can’t find the money, and then something like “Dolores Claiborne” comes up. I didn’t develop it. I did work with Tony Gilroy on the script and formed a partnership with him for three films after that, but I was thrilled to do “Dolores Claiborne.” This is one of those instances. I didn’t get the rights to “Parker.” John McLaughlin had written the script. He and I wrote two drafts together, but it existed before, and you jump into those things when you can. So sometimes you get lucky.