Oscar-winning director Taylor Hackford has tackled a number of genres over the past four decades, from documentary to horror to biography, but until Parker, he’d never tackled film noir.
"Parker is different than a lot of literary [characters],” Hackford told Spinoff Online. “He's a criminal -- unapologetically so. And as I've said before: he wants to steal as much money as possible and he has not one iota of remorse about it."
Author Donald E. Westlake, writing under the pen name Richard Stark, imbued his ruthless thief with an unshakeable code of ethics and relentless follow through, both of which were appealing to the director.
"The thing to me that's great about it is that in our world of compromise, in our world of loss of integrity, our world where anything can be bought and you can walk away from anything, having somebody like Parker is, in its own way, refreshing because he won’t do it," said Hackford, who’s known for such films as An Officer and a Gentleman, White Nights and Ray.
Opening Friday, Parker finds the thief (played by Jason Statham) teamed with a crew he doesn’t know to pull off a heist. After they double-cross him, steal his stash and leave him for dead, Parker tracks them to Palm Beach, where he partners with a savvy insider (Jennifer Lopez) to hijack the score and take everyone down.
While there have been more than a half-dozen films based on the Parker novels, none of the previous productions have been granted permission to use the character’s name.
"That was because of Donald Westlake,” Hackford explained. “He was a tough guy and wanted things done his way, and he basically said, 'If you want to do all the books, you can call it Parker, but if you're just trying for one, no.’” Acknowledging this was probably an unrealistic stipulation, the director noted that beginning with 1967’s Point Blank, the character was called “Walker.”
However, Parker producer Les Alexander had a close friendship with both Westlake, who passed away in 2008, and his wife Abby. “After Westlake died three years ago, Les and Abby said, 'We should do something with the Parker books’ and the people at Sierra Affinity, which is a foreign sales company, said, ‘We'll commit to make a series if, of course, if the film is successful,’” Hackford said. “They finally said we're going to sign up for the whole deal, but let's face it: if the film doesn’t work commercially, there won't be more."
The character’s nearly 50-year history, which includes the central role in 24 novels and big-screen portrayals by the likes of Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Jim Brown and Mel Gibson, presented a substantial challenge for the director.
"It's daunting because many people have tried, some people with varying success, but some very good filmmakers and you think, 'Well, I'm not going to be able to be judged just on this film, you're going to be judged on all the adaptations of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark books,’” Hackford said. “But there's nothing you can do about that.”
“People that are fans of the book I'm sure are interested to see what happens, and there's millions of readers out there that are going to be going: 'Well, let's see if this Hackford can do anything interesting,’” he continued. “Some will like it and some will not, and I take that, but I embrace the opportunity to take a literary character and give my take on it."
Although the director assembled an all-star cast, which includes Statham, Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte and Patti LuPone, he still gave much of the casting credit to Westlake. "He created those characters. [LuPone's character] Ascension is not called Ascension in the book,” Hackford said. “I gave her that name, but she's there.”
Hiring action star Statham to embody "the Man With the Getaway Face" also eased some of the pressure of getting the character right. "The great thing about having Jason is that I have an actor who's going to do it all -- that he is not going to have a stunt man come in -- that I can make it real, that I can make it painful, and that the audience therefore goes: this isn't a fantasy,” Hackford said. “This is real.”
With Lopez, the director saw past her glamorous persona and knew she was the right choice for Parker's unlikely partner in crime, the down-and-out Leslie. "The thing that was great was at this point in her life, things were not so easy for her," Hackford said. "She'd had a couple of kids. She'd had a lot of experiences and she -- and I give her total credit -- she recognized this was something that she wanted to do and could do and she was ready, after all of those romantic comedies, to go for somebody real."
Because Parker behaves in such a ruthless manner in the novels, Hackford was asked whether there was an effort to soften or edit the character’s behavior for film audiences. "I think there was. Certainly in my point of view, I have a certain admiration for Parker,” he said. "One, I like the character. Two, I wanted the audience to feel the same way, but if you look at this, there’s no point where Parker is Robin Hood."