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‘Wheelman’ Interview Part 1: We Chat to Writer and Director Jeremy Rush about His New 70s Inspired Netflix Original, Starring Frank Grillo

Wheelman is a new Netflix Original, produced by Joe Carnahan and starring Frank Grillo, who you might recognise as Crossbones from the MCU, among other things. It’s a tense, atmospheric getaway driver movie that harkens back to classic 70s cinema, with a minimalist plot, hard hitting practical action scenes, visually arresting cinematography and a mesmerising central performance. It was our absolute pleasure to spend time talking with Wheelman’s writer and director, the appropriately named Jeremy Rush. In part one of this interview we discuss shooting a movie set almost entirely around a car, and working with Frank Grillo, in his first lead role and at the absolute top of his game. Enjoy!

So, Wheelman, right up my alley… action cinema!

Yeah, it’s funny, everybody calls it an action movie, but I don’t know. I don’t know that it has enough action to warrant that genre. I don’t know what genre it would be. Maybe just more of an out-and-out thriller. Or a throwback kind of a thriller or something.

I was certainly on the edge of my seat. It really hit me. I started it and I thought I knew intuitively where it was going, and it didn’t go there at all.

That’s good to hear. I think that’s the magic trick, right. If we’re going to make a film –  and Wheelman is 82 minutes long – if we’re going to ask you to devote 82 minutes of your time to sit and watch our movie, we need to deliver, and part of that is setting you up. I mean it’s like telling a joke. You set up an expectation, and then you either deliver on that expectation, or you turn that expectation on its head. Either way it should satisfy that expectation. So it was a very calculated move to make this feel very familiar at the beginning and then start to turn some of those tropes on their heads. For instance, we start off with a character that’s like every driver character, or every neo-noir anti-hero, where he doesn’t talk very much and he’s very stoic, and then we find out, oh, this is a family guy, and when shit hits the fan,  he’s just like all of us, he’s on his cell phone, yelling, trying to figure out what the fuck’s going on. He’s just a regular dude. So, hopefully that was a satisfying experience, spending 82 minutes with that asshole in a car.

I thought that was brilliant. In so many of these movies the guy is perfect. He’s the best driver, he’s the best shooter, too cool for school. This guy was super-fallible. He’s not the best, and that’s what makes it more thrilling.

That’s what real-life criminals are. I mean, obviously this is a bit of a heightened reality, but that’s what real-life criminals are for the most part. Regular people under extreme circumstances and they go out and decide to break the law and steal something, in this case it’s a bank-robbery, and so the two guys that go in the bank, these are not navy seals, these are just the two guys who have whatever psychology it takes to walk into a bank with a fucking rifle, you know. And the guy behind the wheel, just happens to be the guy who is a little bit better of a driver than everybody else. He’s a weekend racer and kind of an amateur car enthusiast. He’s a hell of a driver for a regular guy but he’s not doing magic tricks with cars like some car chase movies.

When you were writing this did you have the film in your head? Did you know how it was going to look and feel?

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been kicking around Los Angeles for about fourteen years and doing a lot of self-funded projects like short films and things like that. I have always written and directed my own material. So, for me it’s really one pretty fluid process. Whatever that piece of meat on the bone that you go for is with a piece of material, whether it’s a character or an image, or a set piece, or the concept, whatever it is, you figure that out and then you start inhabiting that world, inhabiting the different characters, and for me that entails quite a bit of research and I need to know what these people look like and feel like and I needed to know, in the case of Wheelman, what kind of cars are they driving, what kind of  city are they in. So, I start pulling images and kind of compiling, I don’t know what you would call it, an inspirational reference list of imagery that makes me think and feel that particular film. So, for Wheelman, by the time we shot the film I had, I don’t even know, between five and eight thousand images that I’d collected, maybe even more than that. A lot of them are screen grabs from different movies, so on and so forth. It’s just things that elicit the vibe of the thing that I’m writing.

Wheelman was my eighth script and I’ve spent too much time trying to gauge what I think I should write, or trying to impress people in more academic circles, or trying to game the industry and what I think would sell. And finally I was  like, I’m gonna put all the shit that I really like into a movie. And I like performance driving, I like cars, I like mentor and apprentice, father and daughter, father and son kind of relationships, and I really like movies from the 70s. 60s and 70s. So, that’s where all this came from.

It definitely has a feel. I think of Two Lane Blacktop and those grittier driving movies.

Oh yeah, totally. You’re asking if its visualised from early on. I think the third line in the screenplay was a parenthetical that said in italics “unless otherwise noted the camera never leaves the car.” When you do something that extreme, visual design-wise, it’s going to be a gimmick unless it somehow enhances that story, so attaching the camera to the exterior or exterior of the car allowed us to do stuff. We’ve seen this particular story a thousand times. It’s not a super-unique story, but this perspective allows us to see bits and pieces of this story that maybe we’ve never seen before. And so that’s where the visualising of it all comes from. I usually render it into a previs book – I think for Wheelman it was about eighty-five pages – that I can then hand to the crew and cast and, producers, whoever… Netflix, everybody and kind of say here’s the script, here’s the story that we’re going to tell, and here’s the way that we’re going to tell it visually. By the time I’ve finished the screenplay I always have some kind of look-book, or a visual reference guide done.

There was something so stylish and beautiful about this movie. The road-lights reflected in the windows, the sound of rain going down the paint. It was just a perfect set of elements to really pull you in.

I’m glad you said that. Building some kind of an atmosphere is a huge part of what you go for, and huge props to all the crew who pulled that off. I show up with some good ideas and they take those good ideas and turn them into great ideas. That’s the production design and our cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz etc etc across the board. So the execution and the rendering of it, is all the crew. And I think, in the end, the performances are the most direct conduit of your story to the audience; that’s what people show up to see. They show up to see human beings and human behaviour, and hopefully some insights to that. Everything else, the camera work, the costume design, the production design, the water on the windows, and the locations, are all just to build credibility for that performance, so that hopefully the audiences watching the movie can suspend disbelief, ‘cos you’re looking at a two dimensional screen, but hopefully it doesn’t take too much to suspend disbelief, and believe that that guy’s doing those things, and it allows you to immerse in the story. So, I’m glad you liked that stuff. I really get off on all the details. I love the technical aspects of filmmaking.

What were the challenges of having to shoot from around and within the car, whilst keeping the storytelling fluid?

There are a few rules of thumb for directors. Scenes not to shoot, or to try and really limit. And it’s shooting in water, shooting with children, shooting with animals, and shooting in cars. So, I decided to go ahead and shoot in a car with a minor… with a child. We shot almost everything practical, which was a very conscious decision.  We experience physics every single day. You ride in a car almost every day of your life. There’s high frequency vibrations, or low frequency vibrations, and there’s g-force, minor g-force over every bump and every turn. If all that stuff doesn’t look perfect, then it’s going to pull you out of the film. So, going to shoot this stuff practically, even just for the driving and talking scenes, not necessarily the performance driving scenes, makes for an extremely complicated movie to shoot, because you have to shut down actual streets to go drive on, it’s not like you can be on a soundstage. You’ve got the safety and logistical concerns for shutting down streets and driving around, sometimes at really high speeds. Fortunately, Boston accommodated us and they allowed us to shut down sometimes quarter mile stretches of road, like a loop. So that instead of shooting for two minutes and then having traffic go and then co-ordinating with the cops to lock it down again and then trying to get our next two minute window to shoot, we could just lock it down and drive in a circle for ten minutes and just shoot continuously doing take after take until we had to stop and let traffic go through.

You’ve got to find locations and get permits, and you have to have dozens and dozens of police officers in patrol cars, and blockades set up, and people standing on street corners, sort of hidden from the camera, but with their own visibility to be able to stop people from trying to run across the street. So, just doing things safely and securely is complicated enough when it comes to driving, but then fitting a goddamn camera inside of a car is a nightmare, because it’s not just the camera with the lens, and the battery and the mat box, it’s also all of the rigging gear, the camera support gear for how to position that camera.

We lived and died by our rigging team. For instance with the BMW, we would have two cars shooting, and we would have the A car and we’d go out and shoot with that car while they’re rigging the B car, and then we would come back, drop off the A car, switch our team over to the B car and then go shoot with the B car while they’re re-rigging the A car. They were like a pit-crew. We were just constantly leap frogging back and forth in order to make our days, moving the camera from one position to another, let’s say from the hood to the side window. That can be a forty-five minute rigging change. And it doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility. It’s like, once you’ve placed the camera you can’t really move it around because it’s going to take half an hour. That was complicated. On top of that, you have the creative, technical challenge. There’re about nine places to put a camera in a car to shoot an actor in the driver’s seat. So, if you’ve got nine camera positions, how then do you design a visual language for the story that will allow you to escalate that visual language in support of the story. So it’s trying to come up with unique camera positions, or at least variations on those different positions to allow you to escalate the visual language and enhance the telling of the story.

It was hard. I did not realise how complicated it was actually going to be. But fortunately we had a great crew and our DP has shot over two hundred car commercials, so he was a huge asset in figuring out how to pull all this stuff off. And by the time we showed up in Boston to shoot the film, I had pretty much the entire movie, maybe three quarters of the film storyboarded. Every single shot in the film, more or less by the time we started shooting. We had to be really planned out. We shot this film in nineteen days. I don’t know if you’re familiar with typical schedules for a film, but nineteen days is like…. I couldn’t even tell you what movie was shot in nineteen days. It would be a movie about three people, a talking heads movie, with just people talking in apartments, and at restaurants. Nineteen days is just an outrageous schedule!

Franks Grillo is very much the star of Wheelman and is the only person we see for most of it. Everyone else is a passing character. I just imagine him jumping from car to car and trying to maintain character. What kind of challenges were posed to him as an actor?

It’s a huge challenge for an actor and he knew that going into it. I think that’s part of why he took it on. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his other work. He’s one of those guys who is a very high-level character actor. You go and look at the work he did, for instance in The Grey with Liam Neeson and he fucking killed it. His final scene in that movie is one of the standout scenes from any movie that year. So, he’s one of those top of the food chain character actors who was ready to take on a lead role. He was kind of chomping at the bit to do it. He has the look and the vibe. I really wanted a kind of Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin kind of a throwback actor, and we don’t have a lot of those true man’s men tough guy actors in the united states anymore. Australia has a handful and the UK has a handful. But the United States we don’t necessarily have that.

Frank Grillo, ‘The Grey’ (2011)

He and I connected was through Joe Carnahan who directed The Grey. And Frank knew coming into this, man this is going to be a huge challenge being on camera for ninety eight percent of the film! There’s a lot of dialogue, but there’re also a lot scenes where it’s more just behaviour. He’s got to be in the moment of that character and it’s got to be real for him, because we’re in a medium shot or a close up on him for most of the film. And the camera does not lie. If you’re trying to bullshit your way through a human behaviour moment or a scene, it’s not going to sell.

So, he showed up with a script that looked like a fucking serial killer from Seven had gotten ahold of it. It was just scribbles. And he colour codes different emotions and he’s got technical notes and acting notes and he’s got emotional notes. He really charted his entire character through-line for the film. So, once we got him in the car he was then subject to shooting completely out of order. I don’t think we shot any two scenes in chronological order. I honestly do not understand how an actor does it, because his continuity between scenes is pretty much one hundred percent seamless. And so you try to figure out, what’s the scene we’re coming out of? We’re shooting scene, whatever, seventeen, and we shot scene sixteen eight days ago. So, how do you maintain the continuity of where you were in scene sixteen, now that you’re coming into seventeen? Because the story pretty much takes place in real-time. So, he can’t have big jumps in his emotion or his logic, or whatever the scene requires.

You think about those scene where he’s losing his shit.

Some of those are my favourite moments. So my favourite acting moments are hat changes. One moment he’s on the phone with the imposter and he’s negotiating for his life, the next moment he’s on the phone with his daughter trying to manage her domestic situation. Then he’s switching hats again and he’s on the phone trying to get the truth out of his buddy Clay, and it’s those moments in between those phone calls… It’s like he’s ranting and raving on one call, then he’s got to totally decelerate and remember his empathy when he’s talking to his daughter. Seeing him switch gears in between the phone calls, for me it’s very satisfying. Those are really tricky moments and I think acting moments that we don’t necessarily get to see in a lot of films.

I know you guys in the podcast you did on Wheelman, mentioned Locke, which I think is a great comparison for those types of moments. It might be one of the only other movies where you get to see a guy on a cellphone nonstop. ‘Cos you don’t get those… I don’t even know what you wanna call them… those hat changes with most films. Usually you would cut from one scene to another. You would have the scene where he’s arguing with the superior and then you would cut to the next scene where he’s trying to manage his daughter. You wouldn’t get them all in the same continuous moment. And for Frank, he was not acting with the actual actors in the film, he was acting with readers because we could not schedule to have all the actors there for the full duration of the shoot. He’s reading with people who are just reading flat, they’re just delivering the lines to him so that he knows where he is in the script. But it’s almost entirely on him to remember the emotional arc of where his character is at. So that was one hundred percent on Frank and that was a massive challenge for him that I really feel like he delivered on. I love his performance in this and I love that we didn’t cast… You know, there’s a ton of great actors out there and of course I would love to work with many of them, but for this film I’m so glad that we did not have some household name, superstar, because I think that completely changes the context of the film. If you have Tom Cruise in this role, which by the way I think Tom Cruise is awesome, if you’ve got him in this role that totally changes the stakes. You know Tom Cruise is not going to get his head blown off.

Right!

But Frank Grillo, he’s a character actor and we’ve seen him die in dozens of movies. So the unconscious, the subliminal expectation is that this guy could die and it feels that the stakes are much higher. And I think he played to that really well.

There’s a point where you know he’s done. He’s just screwed. He’s got nothing. The way he played that up… I think that was the point in this where I’m just like “Fuck yeah Frank!”

Yeah. I was so proud to have somebody like him who’s been dying to get into the first position, the lead role, and he picked my movie to do it and he brought it, he brought his A game, and I think knocked it out of the park.