In Faster, which opens nationwide on Wednesday, Dwayne Johnson plays Driver, a nameless ex-con on a mission to avenge the murder of his brother during the botched heist that sent him to prison 10 years earlier. It's a classic set-up that co-writer Tony Gayton says began with a single image.
"The idea was somebody getting out of prison [and] shooting somebody in the head as fast as he can," he told Spinoff Online. "Then you find out he's your protagonist. "
To play Driver, the pro wrestler turned actor bulked up again after slimming down in the years outside the ring. "Bigger is always better," Johnson laughed. "It fit with the character, who was incarcerated for 10 years; nine and half of those years were in solitary confinement. In the prison population, the type of training that they do is very unsophisticated."
Like Johnson's single-name character, co-star Billy Bob Thornton's veteran police officer is referred to simply as Cop, a choice made by the writers to punctuate their rumination on the action film. A third principal character, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, is called Killer. "We wanted to set them up as these archetypes, but then get underneath that and to show them as more original character," explained Joe Gayton, Tony's brother and screenwriting partner.
Tony added, "I realized, in writing this, how difficult it is to write an entire screenplay without somebody calling the character by their name."
"We always wanted it structurally to be more interesting than these movies generally are," Joe said. "Usually, all the stuff is front-loaded; it's about getting sympathy for your protagonist right off the bat." Instead, the writers decided to eschew modern storytelling convention: "[The film] starts off with a guy we don't know and another guy we don't know. You find out slowly what the story is, which we found a lot more interesting."
Although Driver is clearly the film's protagonist, Johnson hesitates to call him a hero. "I thought of him as a man who was tortured. There was a lot of turmoil going on as he discovers things along the way," the actor explained. "That which he thought would bring him gratification just brings him more pain."
The film also represents a return to the action genre for Johnson, who has spent the past few years in more diverse, often family-friendly roles, from Get Smart to Race to Witch Mountain to Tooth Fairy. However, he wanted to make it clear Faster wasn't the result of an overbearing need to get back into the action game.
"It was just a matter of getting good material that resonated with me," he said. "The philosophy has always been pretty clean and straightforward: If I see something that I like and I can see its value to the audience and its value to me, then I'm going to take my shot at it regardless of the genre."
Thornton agreed with this sentiment, saying he was drawn to the different layers of his character. "I think one of the flaws in most commercial action movies is that the characters are usually not very developed." In Cop, the actor saw something different, something fascinating. "That sort of world-weariness added to the movie because he's not black or white; it puts him in a very gray area."
Director George Tillman Jr. said that Faster possesses a moral undertone, even in its depiction of violence: "[I] really try not to glamorize it. It's quick, it's over, it's reality. I try not to continue with the action, try not to do what most action films do by extending the beat, extending the conflict. As a director, I feel I couldn't go overboard." Even when a violent scene is over, it's not excused. "There's always the beat of the Driver wondering, 'Why did I do that?'" he said. In an era of hyper-real movies, Tillman believes the audience can respect a more thoughtful take on the matter, crediting the down-to-earth script as a driving force behind the film's more realistic edge.
"I don't like movies where it's just violent and it doesn't have consequences," said co-writer Joe Gayton. A car crash shouldn't have multiple flips or slow motion augmenting the brutality of the moment, he went on to explain.
Thornton also had strong opinions on the matter. "We're making, in my humble opinion, the worst movies in history because they're geared toward the video-game generation," he said referring to Hollywood's recent output. In addition to the amoral violence of video games, he sees most films getting lost in the unreal. "[They] are about vampires in 3D or fantasy movies and war eagles or whatever those things are." Noting the lack of computers in the making of Faster, the actor agreed the film is, in many ways, a throwback to the gritty, violent yet realistic action films of the 1970s. "Traditionally in movies, there's always been some lesson in the violence. Those things at their core were morality tales."
Johnson had a more philosophical take on the movie: "It was nice as an actor to be part of that rooted, grounded reality and have all the action and intention and motivation fueled by emotion'"
Continuing the down-to-basics approach to the story, Driver rarely speaks. "[He] only says about 15 to 20 lines throughout the movie," Tillman said. "Throughout the whole process, we talked about how we can get the most, subtextually, without saying anything. We spent a lot of time talking about Steve McQueen in the '70s and how do you really tell a story through your eyes."
Johnson credits the director with preparing him for that approach to portraying his character. "One of the great welcome challenges of the movie and the script that these guys wrote is holding an audience without saying many words," the actor said. "George, who's one of the most prepared directors I've ever been around, was doing his diligence, talking about the scenes [with me] every day, just doing a lot of talking and communicating. So by the time you're ready to shoot, regardless of who the bad guy is, you're ready." Asked how he prepared himself to stare down his fellow actors, Johnson, famous for his arched eyebrow, joked, "Watching a lot of Clint Eastwood, that's for sure."
As prepared as Tillman was when he walked on-set, he was also known to be affable while shooting. "Every day, I'm like, 'Will you yell at me or something?'" joked Thornton. The actor claimed he was used to rougher, more dictatorial sets, but found both the director and the writers welcoming of his ideas and input. "Am I at Disneyland?" he recalled thinking.
The outspoken actor also had kind words for co-star Carla Gugino, who plays Cop's de facto partner. "I think Carla is one of those actors who sometimes is overlooked as a really terrific actor," he said. "Sometimes, when somebody is really good in the part and they don't try to eat the walls off, they can be overlooked because they're so good you don't notice it."
Finally, when asked if there were any plans for a Faster sequel, Johnson said he's proud of the film, but it's up to the audience to ultimately make that decision, offering only, "I think the material lends itself to coming back a second time."