Exclusive: Director Simon West on `The Mechanic`

On remaking the 1972 film and how he'd love to do a sequel to `Con Air`.

Silas Lesnickby Silas Lesnick

Exclusive: Director Simon West on `The Mechanic`

Hitting theaters this Friday is Simon West’s remake of the 1972 action film The Mechanic. Starring Jason Statham and Ben Foster, the film updates the Charles Bronson original with Statham as an expert "mechanic", an assassin who not only kills with ease, but who can make any death look like a perfect accident. When he’s tricked into betraying his old friend, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), Statham’s Arthur Bishop ends up becoming the unwitting teacher to Harry’s son, Steve (Ben Foster), schooling him in the art of the kill.

West offered an exclusive interview to CraveOnline to discuss the updating of the original film, the unlikely duo of Statham and Foster, and what he’d like to be doing in the future, including a potential sequel to his very first feature, Con Air.

CraveOnline: Where did The Mechanic begin for you?

Simon West: I just got a call from Irwin Winkler. He said, "We’ve got this film and we’ve love for you to read and direct." Because I know his name and I know he made all these great classic movies, I was interested in anything he was interested in. I loved the chance to work with him because I’ve worked with people like Jerry Bruckheimer and Mace Neufeld. These iconic Hollywood producers who made all these cool movies that I grew up with. He sent me the original script, which I hadn’t realized that they’d been developing for 17 years and had hundreds of versions of. They ended up rejecting them all and sending me the original 1972 [Lewis John] Carlino script. It was written on a typewriter and all that and that’s the one that we based it on. It was literally going into production in two or three months and I had this 1972 very dated script. We brought in Richard Wenk, who wrote 16 Blocks — I love that script — and he had eight weeks. We sat together and completely updated it, using the structure. The same characters and the same general things happen, but we reinvented everything to be modern in kind of a classic way. There’s not a lot of techy equipment in it. It’s not Mission: Impossible, but it’s definitely been updated visually in terms of what the audience expects to see action-wise. Everyone has seen a million movies since the original and they need an updated approach to it.
Crave: Was there ever any thought to just making a period film?
West: No, not really. I think because, in a way, it is a period piece. If you want that, you can go and watch the original. But no, funnily enough no one ever broached me with that idea. I think that Hollywood is generally adverse to doing things that way because it’s perceived to be more expensive and probably is. You have to dress everyone and every car in the background would have to be from the 70’s. But also they were probably afraid that it could become comedic, I suppose. Like Starsky and Hutch. Suddenly everyone would have giant mustaches and big hair.
Crave: Jason Statham and Ben Foster make for an interesting pairing. I assume Jason was attached first?
West: Jason came in right at the beginning. I had met Jason and hadn’t gotten the script rewritten yet. I met him and told him what I wanted to do with it and then went off and rewrote the script. Then we did a huge casting call for Ben’s character. We went through everybody and still no one felt right. Then they said, "Who do you really want?" and I said, "Well, what about Ben Foster, because everything I’ve seen him in, he’s fantastic." They said yes and it was a coup, really. He brings it all together. He’s a great actor and he’s got an unhinged, psycho personality. You can see him being irresponsible and violent and not restraining himself, while Jason is very controlled and precise. You can see Ben is violent without direction or control. You put them together, there’s going to be fireworks.
Crave: There’s always a hard balance in films like this where you have your heroes essentially doing work that could be seen as villainous. How do you maintain that moral edge?
West: I always use The Godfather as a reference. If you spend enough time with a character and you see their ups and downs and the story is from their point of view, you’re automatically sympathetic. As long as their not killing puppies or something like that. They’re in a tough guys world and you go in expecting. If you’re in the mafia world, you expect the mafia guys to have to kill each other. You just go from the view of whoever the story is told from. That’s who you root for. There is a slight insurance policy in this film where you get the little hint that the people they’re after are not always the nicest people. Especially the cult leader who is really insidious. No one is going to cry over him getting killed. But the fact that he is so precise and does his job and does show real regret trying to kill his best friend even though he thinks that his best friend has turned on him, you feel sympathy. It’s not like he coldly kills his friend. And, of course, when he realizes he killed him for the wrong reasons, he goes on a rampage. You go with him and you forgive him because, when he does realize it’s all wrong, he tries to put it right.
Crave: Can you talk about the casting of Donald Sutherland? He doesn’t get a lot of screentime and he has the burden as an actor of carrying a lot of offscreen history.
West: Yeah. He’s all-mentor. The trick is that you don’t get a lot of time to spend with him, but he’s such a good actor. You wish you could get just one or two more scenes with him, but the story doesn’t really kick in until he gets killed. You’ve got to have that balance of sympathy. I mean, he’s an old man in a wheelchair, but he’s probably in the wheelchair because he was shot or something and he’s probably killed a load of people himself just because he’s in this world. He’s a bit of a horny old guy anway. But it’s tricky and Jason was very concerned about that, too. He said, "I’m shooting a guy in a wheelchair and that’s not very heroic." I said, "I think the audience is going to go with it." And we do set it up in the airfield beforehand where Dean, his boss, tells him, "If you don’t do it, we’re going to do it in 48 hours." Once that’s set up, he knows that the train has left the station. He knows that he’s going to be killed. It might as well be him because he can at least make sure he doesn’t suffer or leave a mess. In a way, it’s braver to do it himself because it’s hard to look him in the eye and do it. It would be easier to say, "Okay. Get someone else to do it." and then just hear about it later. If you’re a brave person, though, you’re going to go and hear about it.
Crave: There’s an extra element of suspense in this, too, in that, unlike a normal hitman movie where he just has to kill, Jason’s character oftentimes has to make it look like an accident. Can you talk about how, stylistically, you would shoot that versus a straightforward assasination?
West: Well, it’s all in the prep, really. It’s about working out how one would do that. It is a sort of macabre thing you go through. You have the hitman versus a guy who is totally protected. You’ve first got to choose how he’s going to die. Is he going to die or choking or heart attack? You go through the insurance tables of what might be the most likely way to die. Mostly, it’s falling over or heart attack or smoking or electrocution. They have these tables to determine the most likely way to die. You pick one and ask yourself how you might fake that. You really become like a hitman and work it out and, because it’s a movie, you put a layer on a layer. Plan A can go wrong so you might have to have a Plan B. You’re thinking on the spot, which makes him even more clever. In the end, though, the first hit has to be super slick. There, he’s on his own and has to get away. As soon as he takes on Ben, that’s when things go wrong. He’s never had a partner before and this partner always seems to screw it up. At first, he was supposed to poison that guy in the bar and get out of there, but he wants to be like Bishop and strangle a guy. It may have been appropriate at the other time, but not here and in this situation. He gets in trouble and it’s a big mess, killing this guy. Then in the wall, it’s all messy there. It’s him that makes the noise and lets the nut fall. That all turns to a mess. It becomes clear that Bishop has to get rid of him because he’s just a liability and he’s going to find out that Bishop killed his father. So what’s the super-slick way of doing it and getting away with it? Also, because so many people have seen movies where the characters work out how they’re going to do something like this, there’s no suspense. So what we did is stay with the victim. Everybody knows what the movie is about and they’ve seen the trailer. They know Bishop is going to pop out somewhere. But where is it going to be? Is he going to blow the car up? Is he going to be electrocuted? So it’s a surprise when he pops out of the bottom of the pool. That’s kind of reverse engineering it. Then it becomes about how you have one of those plans fall apart so it can turn into an action sequence. If it went perfectly well, there would be no action. You need to show some of his skills and how gets out of situations like that.
Crave: What’s coming up next for you?
West: I’m about to start a film with Nic Cage called Medallion. It’s a bank robber film. He’s a bank robber who just gets out of jail. His ex-partner, who everyone thinks is dead, is working as a cab driver and kidnaps Nic’s daughter and throws her in the trunk of a cab because he thinks that Nic’s character still has 10 million from an old job, even though he doesn’t. Because he doesn’t, he has to go and rob a bank, which he said he was going to give up. So he has to rob one more bank to get the money to pay the ransom. Mayhem ensues.
Crave: Do you have a dream project that you’ve wanted to go after for some time?
West: Yeah, I have a couple. Con Air 2, I’d like to do.
Crave: Why hasn’t that already happened?
West: I know! It’d be great. It’s a matter of getting everybody together. There’s so many people involved and it’s about getting everybody to agree. But I’m going to bring it up to Nic. I’m going to put a bug in his ear about it. If the two of us want to do it, we’ll go after the others. But there’s also Dali, which is a big CG/fantasy thing about Salvador Dali that I want to do. I’ve just got a little stack of them on my shelf that I’m trying to work my way through. A huge children’s fantasy film. Hopefully I’ll soon be working my way through that stack.
The Mechanic is in theaters this Friday. Check out the trailer below.