An interview with writer/director Mark Neveldine
In Hollywood, even the humble ampersand is elevated to an exalted position. When it comes to movie credits, the word “and” is used to indicate two people who had very little to do with one another. If, for example, a screenplay is written by “John Somebody and Jane Something,” then John and Jane probably wrote two separate screenplays that were glued together by the studio. If, on the other hand, there’s an ampersand linking their names, that means the two worked together. Ampersands are relatively rare in Hollywood, indicating closely linked teams like Joel & Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men), Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan (Can’t Hardly Wait), Andy & Larry Wachowski (The Matrix) and, uh, Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel (Super Mario Bros., anyone?).
Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, the hotshot writing/directing team behind the cult hit action films Crank and the recently released Crank: High Voltage, rate themselves an ampersand. Alibi was able to separate the two recently, chatting with Neveldine (he prefers to go by the single name these days) via landline about the duo’s distinctive style.
Let’s start out with Crank: High Voltage, since it’s fresh out in theaters. One of the things that immediately hits you in the face about it is there are so many influences crammed in there. You’ve got action movies, 8-bit video games, Japanese kaiju, comic books. Where does all that stuff come from?
It was sort of an explosion from our brains. We’re like these ADD guys who grew up in an ADD world, so we made an ADD movie. We can’t sit still. And [main character] Chev Chelios is both Brian and I just running for our life at any given moment, fueled completely by our own anxieties. It’s like a playground. It’s just a fun franchise for us to do because, like you said, we can jam everything into these movies and we don’t have to follow any formulas. We can break all the rules. At the end of the day, we made this movie for us. It amuses us.
The thing I have to wonder on a film like this, though, is how do you go in front of a producer or a studio executive and pitch this crazy mashup? How do they not just cut you off at the knees and call you nuts?
You know what? They would have said that if we didn’t have Crank 1. I mean, it took some time to get Crank 1 set up. Every studio read Crank 1 around 2002/2003. Everybody said the same thing: “Oh my god, we love it! It was so much fun! I read it on the toilet in 45 minutes! It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever read, but ... . Uh. Yeah, well, we really can’t make this movie.” We dealt with that for a while, because there’s the sex scene in Chinatown and there’s a lot of really over-the-top, ridiculous situations. It really took the confidence of Lakeshore [Entertainment] to get behind us and say, “Hey, we’ve seen these guys’ shooting style.” We have a very specific shooting style. We shoot on roller blades, we hang out of helicopters, we hang out of cars. We’re basically stunt guys who hold cameras. After they saw our [demo] reel with the script, Lakeshore said, “All right, we’re gonna make this movie.” Because that movie had financial success, it allowed us to take that tone even farther and to—not one-up it; we, like, 10-up it.
What’s also amazing about High Voltage is that it’s the first major theatrical feature shot entirely on cheap, consumer-grade video cameras. Why did you decide to do that?
We both started off in film. With the HD revolution, we were camera geeks and we got into it. We researched it and we looked at the quality of these cameras. A lot of directors of photography didn’t like the sort of sharpness of it, the edge of it. They didn’t really like the color saturation. We started playing with those cameras and found a way to shoot it that made sense to us and for our style. Because we’re these frenetic, hard-edged guys, that look is a frenetic, hard-edged look: It just made perfect sense to us. We shot the first film on the big HD cameras. I remember being on roller blades with a 62-pound backpack and a 17-pound camera. That was fun, but we were like, Why are we breaking our backs when we have these handheld, palm-sized cameras in 2008 that have the same power as the cameras of 2005? It’s 1920x1080 resolution, which is true HD resolution. The studio, at first, was like, “OK, guys, you gotta prove this to us.” They wanted a test. We did a test. We got on roller blades. We hung off of cars. We really got in there and tweaked the image and played with the shutter and played with the gains and the black gammas and found settings that really worked for us. We brought it into the DI [digital intermediate], we filmed it out into 35mm. We had a screening for the studio, and they were like, “Holy shit! If you guys can make this image look this good for this kind of money ... .” We’re using $3,800 cameras and $999 cameras. The studio’s like, “Let’s do it!” They don’t want to spend any money. We made the whole movie for $20 million. We kept our exact guerilla filmmaking style and had $20 million to play with. A lot of people were like, “That’s all you had?” But to us, $20 million is a ton of money. Granted, you’re only using about $11 million. The rest goes to what’s called “above-the-line”—the actors, the producers, the studio. Still, [even] $2 million to us is a lot of money. We had no money when we started off.
I don’t know many directors who hang off of helicopters. Is it hard getting insurance for you and Brian?
I’m the only director who directs on roller blades. And I think we’re the only directing team who does hang on helicopters and does hang off cars and does crazy stuff. The insurance company, because the first movie was successful, and they knew that we did it, they felt OK with it. I know that there’s a bigger insurance policy on us. Also, here’s an interesting thing: You know why they feel good? Because there’s two of us. If one of us goes down, well, there’s another guy. We’ll put one guy in a wheelchair at the monitor now and the other guy will be out there directing.
You shot your upcoming film The Game here in New Mexico. What attracted you to the region?
Initially, it came from the producers because of the great tax bonus and because of how incredibly film-friendly everyone is in Albuquerque. Truly accepting. We had no issues. Nobody got on our case that we were blowing up Downtown. We had, like, 25 explosions a day. We went though 100,000 blank rounds. We just love how user-friendly [Albuquerque] was. But initially, it was about money. We were nervous at first. We wrote [Game] as this New York City/
There are conflicting reports on the Internet, but is Game now retitled Citizen Game?
No, [the title] Citizen Game was released on April 1, on April Fool’s Day, as a joke. What happened was, nobody ever pulled the joke back and it got posted on IMDB and it got all this press and we were like, Ehhh. Game, the title, is owned, I believe, by Universal. We thought we were going to be able to get it through a handshake deal. It didn’t work out. We had to go back to the drawing board. [Citizen Game] came up as sort of a joke and they ran with it for a little bit, which is hilarious because it got us more press. Right now, we’re so close to the next name, but because it’s not officially approved by the MPAA, I can’t say it.
Can I ask you about the horror Western Jonah Hex?
Yeah, Jonah Hex! It’s in production right now. We wrote the script. We sort of left over creative differences—which was pretty simple. We just wanted to do a super-hard, ridiculous rated-R movie. [The studio] wanted to do something a little more conservative. It’s kind of a shame, but I’ll tell you: There’s such an amazing cast, Jimmy Hayward is a brilliant director. I think they’re going to be in really good shape. It’s gonna be another great movie. It’s just gonna be different than what we did. But it’s amazing that they wanted to keep the script. [Stars] Josh Brolin and John Malkovich fell in love with the original script that we wrote. That’s the reason why they got involved in the project. And they’re keeping 80 to 85 percent of the script. We’re still the head writers.
I was hoping you guys would direct, because I assumed you’d come back to New Mexico to film it.
I know, I know. We were excited. But we’ll get back there. Within the next three years I would assume we’ll get back there, because we loved it and everybody was so good to us. And I know all the bars now.