INT: Geoffrey Sax
Geoffrey Sax has had a great deal of experience with the BBC
including TIPPING THE VELVET, DOCTOR WHO and many others.
He had his first introduction to American audiences with
WHITE NOISE. But he is about
to give teenagers their own personal James Bond movie in ALEX
STORMBREAKER depending on who you ask.
had a chance to meet up with Mr. Sax at The Four Seasons in
How did you find out about the [Alex Rider] series of books?
They’re pretty well known at home, I mean, I think Anthony [Horowitz] wrote the first one just a few years ago and they’ve become really successful over there. He’s on his seventh one now. They’re very, very popular; they’re on the national curriculum for schools there, in fact. I was just aware of them, I mean; I’ve got two girls… younger girls… I’m just aware of them. It wasn’t really until I started talking to other parents at school and they said, “Oh, no, we listen to them on tape in the car and…” it was really quite extraordinary and they really are popular. Every time you go into a book shop you notice them, you go, “Oh, they really are!” [Laughing]
it really important for you to make this like a mini-James Bond
rather than be “silly” or the stunts be too “childish”…
was there a thin line that you were riding?
Well, yes, I mean my feeling was that so many children now have access to their parents DVD’s, from my own experience you suddenly go and you think, well, what are you watching, and then they pinched them and loaded them up. So many kids see films - they’ve probably seen the Bond films and my feeling was… that we should try and do something that was a bit more grown up. And there is that sort of thin dividing line with violence; I mean, we really did want to get a PG [rating], obviously [we] want people to see it. It was trying to find ways of making it stylish and plenty of jeopardy without a load of outright violence. I mean, some people have even said that, you know, have you been too violent? I don’t think we have.
did you find Alex [Pettyfer]?
was one of the first in [for the auditions] – I think the first
day actually. And we
thought, well, he’s absolutely perfect.
We’d seen him on TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS.
I liked him in Tom Brown.
So we then of course, did the usual thing of interviewing the
other four-hundred and ninety nine [Laughter], just to make sure we
got it right. Trying to
find somebody who is sort of comfortable in there own skin and
comfortable with their moves and looks natural and has acting
ability was a much taller order than I… I mean, I thought we would
have a choice of two or three dozen really good people.
But it’s very hard to find - they’re either wonderful
little actors but when you actually put them with the stunt team
they would look just idiotic or the other way around.
So, you know, you get some of these people coming in to all
that. And then you say,
“Can you just read something?” and then you kind of wished you
he [Alex Pettyfer] have a little bit of sports training or was he
already a bit athletic?
he’s a natural sort of athlete.
And I think that he really wanted this role so he’d gone
and done some extra sort of martial arts type things as well.
In fact, when we first saw him we were worried; one of the
concerns was that he may play slightly too old because the boy’s
meant to be fourteen and Anthony really wanted to keep him as
old is Alex?
Well, Alex was fifteen when we shot the film and he’s sixteen now, but because he developed such a physic he just looked older. So we said, you know, if you want the part… stop training a bit because he looked sort of like Charles Atlas [Laughter] you know, I wish I had muscles like that.
noticed Donnie Yen is credited here are you a fan of his movies?
Is that why you hired him?
Well, I’ll tell you what happened, there was that we had a meeting quite early on with Harvey Weinstein and he said, ‘One of the things that the kids in America love is martial arts.” And he said, “You have to have the best you can get.” And you know, we had great stunt teams and they did some great stuff, but it is a different sort of discipline altogether. So we went after Donnie and found that he could do it which was great – it was great for me as well to watch because they work in a very different way than we do. You know, they do… like for example they say, well all I need now is that bit.
Because with us, what we tend to do is you’ll shoot the whole thing from one angle and then you’ll bring the camera around and repeat it and then you’ll go into bits and bobs. There, he’ll do… that! Cut! And then you’ll do… that! Cut! And you say, but that doesn’t go with that, and he’ll go no, that’s move number thirteen, this is move number three. And you think, God this isn’t going to work. But it was fascinating and they just used the bits and ultimately in a funny sort of way it’s quicker because you only have to get that bit and then you can move on so you tend to do a huge amount of set-ups. Whereas, normally you’d probably do, I don’t know, you’d have it come from every angle and there’s only one take of each bit that I can use anyway so… But it’s scary not overlapping because we overlap everything, I mean if we picked a scene again, do we do it that way or we do it that way… and they just, no overlaps.
Is this the biggest action movie that you’ve directed? Was it pretty daunting?
Well, I always think that the hardest thing for any director is dialogue, two people in a room. Because, the thing is you’ve shot many scenes with two people in a room and you’ve never shot that particular scene before and it’s the dynamics and what are the actors going to bring so you can’t… you have to be looser. With a big action scene, frankly, I mean - the Albert Bridge for example, we must have gone in there fifteen times. We took the stunt teams with us, we took the designers, we took the people who are going to build the bikes, [and] we took everybody with us.
So by the time we came to shoot it, I had it all storyboarded out and I knew exactly how the day was going to go. I mean, there’s always something comes up to bite you in the butt; that happens. But on the whole, you’ve planned it out. So with the big action – Piccadilly, the first time it had been done we closed it for four hours… I have friends of mine saying, “God. I was stuck in…” [Laughing], it was backed up for miles but because it was the summer we got there early and finished. But because of that, we had to know exactly what shots that we had… for example we had a camera vehicle with a camera already mounted.
When I got there, they were already mounted because we talked about it… So those scenes are kind of – they’re daunting when you first read the script because you think… Oh, how can I do all this? And then, when you break it down then it becomes easy but it’s… I still think it’s the acting because without a character you care about, it doesn’t matter – that’s why I think SPIDERMAN was so popular, because you loved that character and I thought it’s a great character and amazing effects. Those other expensive films, some of them, you just come out sort of humming the stunts as it were. I’m thinking I couldn’t care whether he lives or dies or falls off or…
Now obviously if it’s successful, they are going to try and do a sequel. Are you worried about Alex getting older too quickly?
The idea with
Alex is that he – the theory was that they change the boy on every
film. Now whether that will still happen – he's meant to be
fourteen and stay fourteen and Alex is clearly already… the time
that the next film is prepped and made Alex is going to be headed
into seventeen isn't he. I think that if he does prove popular
here then there will be the pressure for him to do another one, you
know I think that would great. I think he's terrific.
What was the dynamic of having the writer on the set?
Well, the thing is Anthony and I had a terrific collaboration together, I mean I love writers and I think at home it's very much a writer culture. So, I have tremendous respect for writers and we work together, he was only on the set – he wasn’t on the set everyday, he came along and he was great, he said, "You know, I didn't like to say anything.", I wish you would in a way because I've got no problem with that, I know some directors are very nervous about that and quite rightly too if the actors are saying, "Would my character do this?" in a way, I'd rather the actors go and badger the writer than talk to me when I'm filming. [Laughter] I don't know, I just want to film the scene. [Laughter] But there was not problem with Anthony being there. You know, we had dinner last night and we were saying let's try and find something else outside of the Alex Rider, just to develop and do cause we did have so much fun.
Are you signed on for a sequel?
well I think the whole thing was they were sort of thinking of it
like a Bond sort of thing as a model. Whereas they'd have
different sort of voice for each film and I think everyone's feeling
is wait and see how it does here [United States]. Because this
is really the market, I mean we can't fool ourselves, I mean it's
very nice if the film does well at home [England] but I'd be very
When did it open in England?
It opened in July at Leicester Square. It was unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it really, when he [Alex Pettyfer] got out of the car - it was crazy, they'd been there six in the morning. It was insane, he really is you know, just popular. But you know what he'd done just before the premiere? Had his hair cut, did you hear about this? He had the long hair and he… I saw him, he was on TV the previous Saturday and I watched the thing and I said Alex wasn't on. And as I phoned Mark the producer and I said, "Alex wasn’t on." And he said, "Yes he was, have you seen his hair?" And I went back and there was kind of… Oh, my God. It was really short, seriously. But it's grown a bit now it's getting back to how it was.
Could you talk a little about working with Mickey Rourke and
his character choices, such as the make-up?
Well, we talked
quite a lot about the character and he was very, very keen on doing
something that would [work] with a younger audience; he wanted to do
something that was really interesting. But on the set he did
kind of everything, he had the dark glasses… I mean he didn't have
a limp and a parrot [Laughter] but it was a lot of "props"
going on and it was fine for the character and it was fun. I
think he enjoyed himself.
What about directing him?
He was fine, you know, he was very, very good with young Alex because I think Alex really looked up to him. And he was helping Alex on the set a lot, he was asking him a lot of questions and sometimes if Alex was, you know, during the dinner scene if Alex was to not look at him or mumble and all, he'd "WHAT DID YOU SAY?" and it gave the scene a terrific edge to it. Obviously we cut those bits out of… it gave it more of an edginess I think. But he did it in a very, you know he said to me, you know I'm really trying to help him and – because, that's why I say those scenes are harder cause they're the pure acting scenes. You know, if you're putting eight cameras on the thing and you've got a stunt team doing explosions… you know, I don't want to over simplify but it's easier to screw up a dialogue scene than it is a stunt scene… in my mind.
What about Mickey's make-up… the eyeliner?
Mickey's idea… [Laughter] Which
was fine. [Laughter]
What about the Missi Pyle character?
Again, it was a surprise to me; we talked about it, we did drawings but when she first turned up on the set… when you see the combination with the heels and everything, I went, "HOLY $#&!" [Laughter] This is great really, you know she's sort of "verging" on cartoon I guess in a way but we still wanted to keep her scary and again we wanted to keep the jeopardy and I hope we did that. I've sort of lost judgment with it now because you see it so many times, all you see is; you see the film as a series of mistakes I think, as a director and I can't watch anything that I've ever done. There's one documentary I did, the worst documentary in the history of film [Laughter] and I've still never seen it. And I've got it on tape. It was about Kevin Keegan, the footballer and we went and followed him around Germany and he used to score a lot. Well, in this season, he only scored one goal and we missed it [Laughter]…
You're right; it is the worst documentary in the history of
the world… [Laughter]
But I learned a lesson because - I said to a guy, camera one came out and he said, "I'm really sorry Geoff, I didn't get the goal." And then I said, "What about you did you get…" and he said, "No, we ran out of film." – What I learned, of course I learned too late but because I've never done a sports film since, is that you have to re-load at different times. So we had to buy the goal from the BBC… it was the most embarrassing thing. [Laughter] Yeah, we had to buy this goal we said, "Do you have the goal?" and [they said] “Of course we got the goal, we’ve got about forty angles.” [Laughter] “Well… we sort of, didn’t get it.” [Laughter] I can’t watch it.
Everything we did was wrong. It was the early days of steadicam, and we took the steadicam, I said, “We’ve got to have steadicam.” What we didn’t know at the time is that you’ve got to learn to really balance yourself. So this operator [Laughter], it’s like the [rockiest] film you’ve ever seen… [Laughter] It’s insane. It’s insane, honestly. If you wanted to blackmail me, you get a copy of that film; it was terrible.
Has anything changed from the UK release to the American
release of Stormbreaker?
It’s absolutely frame to frame identical.
What about the name change from Stormbreaker to Alex Rider:
Well, you know, I’m going to be honest with you, the first time I knew about it I was – I got a thing from the company saying, you know… press tour, Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker and I thought that’s what they were calling like the press crew. [Laughter] Then I saw a poster and I was… “Oh, nobody told me.” I thought it was [just] Stormbreaker. Honestly, I didn’t know.
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