Summit Entertainment’s “RED” hits theaters this weekend, and as fans of the Warren Ellis/Cully Hamner DC Comics/Wildstorm miniseries will soon find out for themselves, it only faintly resembles its source. This is not a bad thing, however. “RED” works exceedingly well as a film, thanks largely to the talented ensemble cast – which includes Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Karl Urban – as well as the efforts of director Robert Schwentke in getting them all to play well together.
“Bruce was on when I came on board,” Schwentke said during the recent press junket for the film in New York City. “There had been serious conversations with Morgan, and Helen was certain a name that had been bandied about.” Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura interjected at this point, commenting on how things seemed to magically crystallize for “RED.”
“We pretty much got our first choice [of performer] in every single situation,” he said. “That was what was uncanny. We said, ‘Well who is Frank? Bruce Willis.’ Read the original graphic novel and there is nobody else who could play that character. I sat down with Bruce about a year before we started. Then I said to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have Helen Mirren shoot a .50 caliber machine gun?’ And Helen Mirren says yes. It was just one after the other.”
Even the casting of John Malkovich seemed to have been fated. Di Bonaventura explained that he was the original top choice for the role, but the actor’s scheduling got in the way so the production team turned to John C. Reilly instead for the role of Marvin Boggs. “Then [Reilly] abruptly pulled out on us and John’s movie fell apart, so we got our first choice back! It’s just one of those things where we kept getting one person after another, and after a while I think it just became a sort of snowball effect.”
Of course, working with a cast like “RED’s,” not just of its size but also with the number of veteran actors on board, it’s natural to think there might have been some tension between the salty dogs on set and a young upstart director like Schwentke, best known at that point for his work on “Flightplan” and “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” If there was, however, he either didn’t pick up on it or didn’t let it get to him. “Sometimes the things were spot-on and everybody was happy and we could move on, and sometimes you need to experiment a little more,” he explained. “It also, I think, depends on the movie and depends on the character, how much experimentation is really required.”
The biggest challenge, of course, was turning the three-issue comic book miniseries from Ellis/Hamner into the film currently in theaters. Of the movie’s many colorful characters, only those played by Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker and Karl Urban (to a certain extent) find analogs in the books, and even in those cases, the underlying personalities between the two are dramatically different.
“I think when you look at the graphic novel, it’s not immediately apparent how that could be a film,” Shwentke said, correctly. It’s a small story, set primarily in the home of Paul Moses (Frank in his big screen incarnation). The tone in no way resembles the action/comedy vibe of the film; it’s a dark story, featuring an overwhelming amount of hardcore violence.
“I’m a big fan of [Warren Ellis’] work and I knew the graphic novel,” the director continued. “I didn’t know how to move the graphic novel into a film, and when I read the script [from John and Erich Hoeber], a lot of the choices had been made. The comedy was there, all of the additional characters were there, and that’s really what I sparked to: the charm. I fell in love with the characters and I thought it would be a great opportunity to make a movie that didn’t take itself too seriously while at the same time sort of respecting the characters. To do something that has irony and warmth.”
Di Bonaventura, who helped develop the script, had more to add. “The original character is a very dark, lonely character. Forget about fun, I don’t think that’s very interesting cinematically. The graphic novel is a very compelling portrait, a sort of desperate portrait,” he explained. “The Hoeber brothers came in and said, ‘Why don’t we take him on this fantastic journey?’ We really didn’t know what was going to come of it. Literally the first draft, when Summit read it and when we read it, we all were like, ‘Let’s go make this movie.’ It’s really one of those rare cases where the first draft, for all intents and purposes, is greenlit.”
“I think one of the interesting things about what we tried to do here is, every group ensemble cast that has an objective in a movie usually goes on the mission by the end of the first act,” he explained. “Well, if you look at [‘RED,’] you don’t meet everybody really until almost the end of the second act, and you’re really on the final mission at the end of the second act. So it’s a very different rhythm. These kinds of movies, I think it’s one of the things that is enjoyable about them.”
It’s always impressive to see a movie, any movie, get made, but it’s even moreso when you hear, as di Bonaventura said, that it was deemed ready to go after only the first draft of the script. That said, the business of movies these days places just as much importance, if not more, on the post-theatrical afterlife on home video. For fans who feel the same way, Schwentke promises a few goodies in the form of excised content for the inevitable DVD/Blu-ray release, but not nearly as much as you might think.
“There are not that many deleted scenes, actually. We didn’t shoot much more than what is in the film,” he said. “Nevertheless, there will be one whole scene that was not included in the film [as well as] several extended scenes that we decided to take out a line or to take out beats, especially toward the ends of scenes to accelerate a little bit the rhythm of the film. All of that will be on the DVD.”
The reason for cutting bits out of scenes is part of, as Schwentke puts it, the process of “finding the tonality” of the film. “You always try as best as you can to give yourself options [during shooting],” he said. “So we did takes where we push the comedy a little more, we did takes where we pushed the drama a little more. We’re not talking about big, big differences, but we’re definitely talking about modulations that would allow us to have versions in the editing room where we could move around. In that way, we kind of progressed in the editing room toward finding exactly what we wanted to do.”