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INT: David R. Ellis

One of the most prolific and sought-after stunt coordinators in Hollywood (he was the man behind the mind-blowing freeway car chase in The Matrix Reloaded), David Ellis looks to cement his reputation as a director with the thriller CELLULAR, opening today. His last directorial effort, FINAL DESTINATION 2, won raves for its action sequences and effects work; with CELLULAR, Ellis hopes to showcase his abilities with a more dramatic, character-based project.

The film stars Chris Evans and Kim Basinger and is written by Larry Cohen and Chris Morgan. Incidentally, Cohen is responsible for another telephone-related script, PHONE BOOTH, and has actually never owned a cell phone. No joke – he’s actually currently working on a script called MESSAGE DELETED, about a killer answering machine.

I got a chance to sit with David last week for a one-on-one interview. Sitting on the veranda of the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica as waitresses served overpriced fruity drinks, we talked about surfing, car chases and his experience making CELLULAR.

DAVID R. ELLIS

What’s it like working with such acclaimed actors like Kim Basinger and William H. Macy?

For me initially it was really intimidating, but I talked with them and they liked my instincts. I just made sure that I listened to what they wanted to do with the characters and they had some really good ideas and probably 99% of the time I’d agree with them. And if I felt strongly that certain things should be different, we’d discuss it and collaborate on it. So it was just a really good experience, a real team collaborative effort. But it is intimidating. I’ve never directed people of this caliber until this movie. But it was a great experience. We all became really, really good friends. We respected the way each other worked and we had a lot of fun.

How difficult is it when you have two lead actors who never actually see each other?

It’s really, really hard. What we did was, because we had to shoot all of Chris’ (Evans) stuff first – we only had Kim for the last three weeks – it forced Chris to have to tailor his style to exactly what it was in the script, knowing that Kim would be saying stuff that he would have to react to in a certain way. So it didn’t give them the opportunity to ad-lib  or interact with each other, which is really kind of hard. What we did do is that we got an actor to read Kim’s lines off-camera so that Chris could hear the lines, hear the performance, hear the desperation and emotion through the phone, so that when he delivered his lines he could respond to that.

But he had a really tough job. And when we did Kim’s side, she had to stick with the dialogue as it was written, but I also gave myself time in the end to have a couple days so that if we had anything great came from Kim’s side or anything that she wanted to change, I could go back into the care and cover Chris’ side after Kim had done her dialogue. But for both of them it was really tough because 80% of the time we had to stick to the script. So they didn’t have the latitude to, in the moment, say something different, which is tough. So we just made sure that we went through script beforehand and knew that this would work for them.

Were you surprised by how good William H. Macy looked in his action sequences?

I think everybody else was surprised, but I wasn’t. Because when you meet Bill Macy, this guy keeps himself in great shape, you know? And you’re not expecting this from him. This is not the character he played in The Cooler. Or Fargo. You really haven’t seen this character from Bill Macy. So I think that it was really cool. He had a blast doing it – he loved doing the fight scene and stuff. He really got into being physical. I mean they all did. Kim got really into being physical. Chris, definitely. I mean everything he had to do in the movie – running, jumping, sliding, driving, fighting. So it was cool.

The movie was originally supposed to take place in Boston. What made you decide to move it to Santa Monica?

What happened was, when I was initially offered the script, I think it was a year before I actually did it. I think it was in June or something and we were gonna try to start shooting in Boston on the first of September. At that time I thought that there were a lot of changes that needed to be made to the script and the producers were pretty anxious to get started, so I didn’t do the movie. And they were trying to get the movie made and were having problems with it, blah blah blah, and they came back to me later.

After reading the script they said they’d like me develop it and help improve the script. And so we missed to opportunity to do the movie in Boston. And when it came back to me again a year later, after I’d gone off to do stunts on Master and Commander and some TV shows and stuff, we were faced with shooting in Boston in the dead of winter. I mean, I love Boston; it’s really really cool. But I wanted to have a sunny, nice, pretty movie, and (in Boston) it would be really bleak, dark, with girls wearing parkas instead of bikinis. I’ll go for the bikinis every time.

You’re famous for your car chases. What is it about car chases that you like so much?

I like action, all kinds of action. It’s funny, because when I did DEEP BLUE SEA, I’d never done any shark action and water stuff. So that was a real challenge because it was new and fresh, trying to catch it in a way it hadn’t been done before. So every movie is different and I think the action sequences need to fit the characters and what they can do. The Matrix freeway chase I did in The Matrix Reloaded was really unique because these characters can do the Matrix things; they can jump from car to car and do things that normal human beings can’t do. So that was a really cool, new kind of car chase sequence. I’m into new kinds of challenges. Final Destination 2 was one continuous accident, when each person was getting killed. So that was something fresh.

With Cellular, it’s really about “less is more.” You have a normal guy in extraordinary situations. He’s not a Parnelli Jones stunt driver; he’s just a regular guy.

Chris Evans mentioned that he was disappointed that he didn’t get to do any stunt-driving.

You know, it was really a drag because he did really good at stunt-driving school and our intention was to have him do almost all of the driving. But the studio jumped in because of insurance, because yes, he’s really good and yes, the situation is really safe and he’s really capable of doing it, but there’s always that one percent chance that something could go wrong and he could get hurt and we would have to shut down the shoot. And they couldn’t take that chance.

There’s definitely an art to crafting a good car chase.

I want to do the ultimate car chase movie. That would be my dream. I think there’s been some really really good ones. Bullitt, French Connection, Ronin, The Transporter had some great stuff, the Bourne Supremacy had some great stuff. I’d like to take all that stuff and just make the ultimate car chase movie.

What are you planning to do next?

I’m actually up for a couple projects, The Italian Job 2, The Fast and the Furious 3, and a few others.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com

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