Although the Charles Bronson revenge movie The Mechanic has developed a cult following in the United States since its release four decades ago, English director Simon West confesses he'd never seen the original before signing on to the remake.
"I watched the film once, just so I could know what everyone was talking about when they referred to it, but I never went back to it after that because it is 40 years old," West told Spinoff Online during a recent press junket. "It's a really great movie for its time. It's very dated, but the structure is perfect."
The Mechanic stars Jason Statham as Arthur Bishop, an elite assassin with a strict code and professional detachment that’s made him the best in the business. However, when his friend and mentor Harry (Donald Sutherland) is murdered, he sets aside the rules to find the killer. But Bishop’s mission is complicated by Harry’s son (Ben Foster), who seeks to learn the trade so he can avenge his father.
The high-octane thriller is a natural fit for the director, who made his name with big-budget, bone-crunching action films like Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. However, West notes he also drew from his lesser-known earlier work as an an editor of award-winning television documentaries and period dramas.
"I come from a BBC drama background, where it is about the drama and the actors and I've sort of learned the action stuff on top," he said. "I always like bringing in the drama and the great actor moments in amongst all that."
Like West, Statham has become primarily known for his action movies, such as the Transporter and Crank franchises. But in The Mechanic, the star had an opportunity to flex other muscles, working opposite Foster and Sutherland.
"He's got such a great face. There's no better close-up," the director said. "Every time you put the camera on his face, you go, 'Oh, that's such a good close-up. That's like Paul Newman mixed with Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen.' You put them all together and you get that close-up."
West explained he was drawn to The Mechanic because of the unique way Bishop makes each hit look like an accident. "He doesn't just shoot people or blow them up in a simple, obvious way," he said. "This level of intricacy makes for a far more ingenious and clever story."
In fact, West knew one of the methods the hit man uses to evade capture during the opening sequence -- hint: it takes place in a swimming pool -- would be impressive as soon as he pitched it to the stunt team.
"You wait for their reaction, and if the stunt guys go, 'Oh, yeah. That's cool.' Then you know it's cool, because they're like arbiters of tough-guy coolness," he said.
The film was shot entirely on location in New Orleans. Consequently, the rich musical history of the city had a hand in helping West and composer Mark Isham develop the film's eclectic score.
"I collected a lot of local music from New Orleans before shooting and sort of used it as inspiration," West said. But even as the score was being developed, the director was careful to avoid treading familiar territory. "I said, 'I don't want a cliche. I don't want New Orleans jazz that we've heard a million times'."
West also wanted Isham to add another crucial ingredient to the sound mix: "I said, 'I like films where you can hum the theme from it, like James Bond or Mission: Impossible or, you know, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.' When you hear the music, you go, 'That's that film'."
Isham would later admit to West that he had been a little intimidated by the James Bond reference, but he soon returned with a haunting Telecaster guitar riff that would become the theme for Statham's character. "As soon as I heard that, I said, 'That's great!'"
Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff have a long and storied career in Hollywood. Together the pair produced Rocky, The Right Stuff, Raging Bull, the original version of The Mechanic and now the remake. Directing this movie gave West an opportunity to work with people who made the films that he grew up watching.
"You just want to work with someone of that experience," he said, adding, "And also, it's just great for hearing the stories: 'Okay, tell me a story about working on The Right Stuff, or tell me a story about Rocky,' or something like that. I like it purely from being a film fan point of view."
Working with first-time director Zebediah De Soto, West is also producing Night of the Living Dead: Origins, an animated 3-D story that explores the beginnings of the George Romero classic.
"We're doing very new technology in it, so I'm also using it as a whole new R&D because I'm going to do one of them afterwards," West said. "We've built all of this special equipment and special motion-capture for it."
This new animation technology has attracted a lot of attention within the industry.
"We've got revolutionary facial capture," West said. "Our facial capture is the best in the world. Even the guys that did Avatar are licensing it off us now because it is so good. You can't tell the difference really between the real actor and the CG face."
It will even be used to create the surrealistic art in Dali, West's biopic about the iconic painter, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas.
"That, again, will be a CG 3-D thing, so it's a film about an artist, but it's not an art film with a capital 'A'," West said. "It's much more fun and it's more like Moulin Rouge or something like that. So it's very outrageous and it's an outrageous character, and he's kind of a rock and roll artist, so it's one for every age group."
West also spoke a little about comics and his involvement in the new NBC series The Cape: "I had the best time making the pilot for The Cape because it's was, you know, everything I love. It had action, it had humor, it had weird twisted circus characters, it had the drama, and so that was the most fun I've had shooting almost anything."
In keeping with his newfound appreciation of comics, West just signed a deal to work with Stan Lee and he would also like to do a 3-D CGI movie featuring his own comic book creation. "It's going to be a graphic novel and then hopefully a movie," he said.
The Mechanic opens on Friday.
Come back on Wednesday for Spinoff Online’s interview with star Jason Statham.