‘Wheelman’ Interview, Part 2: We Chat With Writer and Director Jeremy Rush about His New, Hard-Hitting, 70s Inspired Netflix Original

Wheelman is a new Netflix Original starring Frank Grillo as the titular anti-hero, an ex-con getaway driver, who abandons his crew believing that they plan to kill him. He is then left literally holding the bag, caught between rival gangs who threaten to end him and his family if he doesn’t give them the money stashed in the back of his sporty BMW.  Wheelman spends the rest of the night speeding away from his would-be killers as he desperately tries to find a solution to this deadly conundrum.

We here at Screen Mayhem had the good fortune to talk to the movie’s writer and director Jeremy Rush. In part 2 of this interview we discuss directing dangerous stunts, screwing with audience expectations and working with Netflix. Listen to the unabridged audio at the bottom, or read on. Enjoy!

There’s a great action sequence in this where a motorcycle’s chasing him and it crashes. The stunt work in that was frickin’ amazing! How did you make it look so raw and realistic?

Part of that is because of the camera position, which I think you guys alluded to in your podcast. When you’re not placing the camera in completely artificial positions, the ‘camera on the street corner’ kind of positions, you’re keeping it really subjective with the character, you’re kind of with that character, and everything feels much more realistic. We’re not doing big crane shots. We don’t have any drone shots, etc., and so when you see a car accident,  or when you see a stunt like the motorcycle stunt from the perspective of the car, that is how you would see it if you were riding shotgun with Wheelman, or if you were in the car with him.

Our stunt coordinator, Eddie Fernandez, is just a super-badass. We really worked hand-in-hand and had every single little detail worked out. The motorcycle stuntman, Joe Dryden, he’s one of the best in the business, he’s one of the top guys. Our main driver, Jeremy Fry, is the guy who did all the stunts in Baby Driver. We had the best of the best. You surround yourself with THE most experienced people, that are exponentially more experienced and more talented, and then you put them in a position to try to do their best work. You say, “Hey, I want this to look like this. How can we do that?” And they figure out how to do it. Violence is a terrible thing. It shouldn’t be fun or it shouldn’t be sensationalized, I don’t think. Obviously, you’ve got films where you can kind of give it more levity, but for this film we really wanted it to feel real, and it wanted to feel like the consequences of this guy’s evening are dire, are mortal.

That motor crash was originally one of the worst nights of the entire shoot. We set this thing up and the motorcycle driver, Joe… I think he was coming in at the back of that Prius at about 30 miles an hour. And then we had a practical effect where there’s an air driven piston that kind of bucks the back of the car up in the air. So it really looks like he hits it with some serious velocity. When we did the stunt, he came in, and he was planning on kind of tangentially hitting the roof of that Prius and kind of flipping over the top of it onto the hood and then onto the concrete, or onto the asphalt, rather. And when the stunt went down, he came around the corner and drove into the back of the Prius. The Prius bucked up in the air, and then the trunk opened, the rear hatch opened, about four inches into the air and caught him right in the middle of his abdomen. So that stunt was a stunt gone wrong, and it knocked the air out of him, and he went down. He was on the ground for about two or three minutes.

Oh my God!

There was about sixty seconds there, where we thought he was seriously, seriously injured. And so Frank’s reaction that you see, Wheelman’s reaction, is Frank’s actual reaction to that accident, because he heard all the wind get knocked out of Joe’s lungs, and he heard him kind of groaning and grunting and could tell that something went wrong. He was really injured. It was a massive impact. And so we kept Frank’s genuine reaction to that horrible accident, just because it looked so authentic. Fortunately everyone was okay. Joe got up and he was fine. He’s such a badass. He injured a couple of ribs, and he was right back on the motorcycle the next day, driving for us. So, huge props to him. Stunts are just, they’re so fucking dangerous, but boy they look good when they turn out well. All the violence in the movie, you try to make it look as realistic as you can. I mean, it should feel like there’re real consequences.

That is really where you feel it. First you’re kind of like, “Woo-hoo, Wheelman you’ve made it. You’re not getting shot at any more!” But in the same respect you’re like, “That guy’s dead.”

Yeah, I wish you could’ve seen it in the theater, because when you’ve got it on the big screen, especially when you’ve got that theatrical sound, holy shit, it just sucks the air right out of the audience. You hear the entire audience just go, “Oh shit!” You can really feel the reaction. It’s almost like seeing a YouTube video of a real accident and that’s what we wanted to go for, that level of realism and shock and the consequence of violence.

I loved your second stunt as well, when Shea Whigham’s character crashes into the back of the Beamer. First off it was super real and raw, but then you’re wondering “Who the hell is this?” There’s all this stress.  If you don’t mind, tell me about how that one went down?

A huge part of doing a stunt like that, where the hero vehicle with the actual cast member, with Frank, is going to be involved in the stunt… You’re really figuring out how to edit it together, because you’re cutting together footage with Frank because you want to sell, that it’s actually him in the car, but obviously you cannot do a stunt like that, with that kind of G-force, with him in that car. Insurance would never bond the film if you tried to do that. So you have to figure out, what angles can we shoot with our stunt performer, with our stand-in. So that’s sort of the geometry of it. How do you get shots with the stunt performer that don’t – in their composition or in the camera position –  that don’t give away that fact that it’s  clearly a shot set up so that we don’t see the guy’s face. You’ve got to design the visual language of the stunt so that it all fits together fairly cohesively, and the magic trick is invisible.

For that stunt, they’d used a piston system with a cable attached to the car, so that when they fire this piston, it jerks the cable and then pulls the rear end of the car around ninety degrees. And it pulls it round at, I forget how many G-s they said, but it’s a lot, I mean it’s a pretty violent stunt. So you do that, and then you’ve also got the shot that you do with the SUV actually hitting the back of the car, which again is a pretty traumatic thing to do. Our stuntman, Jeremy Fry, he got in there and we had all this safety padding in there, and he started to go, “You know what, you’re going to see all this safety padding,” as we’re setting this shot up. And we’re looking at the monitor going, “Oh man, you’re right.” You’re going to see that the B-pillar has a bunch of foam on it, and you’re going to see that the A-pillar has a big pad on it. He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, just pull all this stuff out.” We’re like, “Are you crazy? You’re going to do the stunt without the padding?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He said, “I want to wear my minimal safety gear,” which is his neck harness and his helmet and all that stuff.

So, it was a lot of math… If this car’s coming in at this speed, and the SUV’s coming into impact at this speed, and the hero vehicle is driving through at this speed, what it is the actual G-force? You know, whatever all those calculations are. I don’t even know all the terms, but they’ve got to figure all that out, to figure out what’s going to be safe. So these guys are just, they’re masters at their gut instinct, but also at very precise mathematics, to figure out what the actual outcome is going to be, before they even do it. Then you run it a few times, and then all of a sudden you lock it up and you roll camera and a car smashes into another car. And as you’re witnessing this, standing off to the side, you’re looking at the monitors to make sure that you’ve got it. But at the same time you can’t help but watch a fucking car accident happen, ten, twenty feet away from you. It’s astounding man, and that wasn’t even a huge stunt. I can’t even imagine these massive stunts that they do. There’s so much that feels like it can go wrong, but these stunt coordinators, they calculate everything to a thousandth of a degree.

I was so happy with how that came out. And then of course the sound design is a huge part of how you sell it, especially with a movie like this. The AK47 fire, or the impact of those cars.

I was just going to ask about that. When the guns started going off, that was so realistic it shook me. That was insane!

Violence happens really quickly and extremely violently. You know, when a gun goes off inside of a car, I can only imagine that it is deafeningly loud, it’s so concussive. I mean those 7.62 x 39 millimeter cartridges that an AK47 fires, those are rifle cartridges. They’re huge, with a ton of gunpowder in them. We actually had to shoot a test with the cops, they made us … because we were in downtown Boston, they made us go down there with the blank firing AK47, and we had a full load which, would be full gunpowder; a half load, which is obviously half gunpowder; and then a quarter load. Just because they wanted to test how loud it was, and how much much it was going to disturb the surrounding areas. They fired the full load, and they were like, “Okay, well, you don’t even have to fire the half load. You have to use the quarter load.” It was so loud! You could hear it like a quarter mile away, in the buildings, it was so loud, just reverberating down there.

That’s what we wanted to capture. And we had an A-list. The movies that our sound team did, before they did ours – Planet of The Apes. And our lead sound mixer won an Academy Award, while he was working on our film, for Hacksaw Ridge. So, we worked with him one day, and he said, “Well, tomorrow night I’m going to the Oscars,” and we were like, “All right. Good luck!” And then the next day he shows up, and he sets his Oscar on the mixing console, as we’re working. So, it was like, “Oh man!” He would mix something and then say, “What do you think of that mix?” And it’s like, “Well, I’m staring at your Oscar, a foot and a half in front of me, so I’m going to go ahead and say this is pretty good!”

It really is just about bringing all those people, and it’s a really … it’s a cumulative process. You shoot the stunt, like the car accident. You shoot it with the best ideas that you can come up with for the camera positions, and you’ve got these stunt people that say, “Take all the padding out, because we don’t want to see it. And I want to wear minimal safety gear. And we’re going to do all the math.” And then you’ve got the Special Effects Department, which has little cannons called mortars that shoot the fake glass around the inside of the car, so you get that really super-kinetic kind of a feel, inside the frame. And then you’ve got your Sound Design Department that is literally starting with digital silence and then sound designing up, from literally nothing, all the way up to what you see in the final film. So, it really takes a lot of people to make something like that.

I had this question with Steven [Screen Mayhem, Editor-in-Chief]. It was when we had Wheelman and Clay in the car, and Clay dies. I felt like Clay was trying to kill himself because he was feeling so hopeless, that everything’s fucked. And Steven took what I think is the more obvious route, that he was going to try to kill Wheelman, but Wheelman just happened to move the gun enough that Clay killed himself instead. Which was it?

I think that’s open to your interpretation. I think, probably, the only two people in the world that know the answer to that question, are probably me, and Frank, and Garret Dillahunt. Probably, just the three of us. But I kind of like that, you know. It’s great that it straddles that line because it’s like, “Would he shoot his friend or wouldn’t he?” And is he so desperate and down-and-out that he would kill himself in front his buddy, you know? I don’t know, maybe it could be either one.

I think he was just done. When he talked about how his entire groinal area went cold … it was like, “This guy has just gone dark!”

You know what’s hilarious? If you get a chance, throw Wheelman on, and put the German dub on, and watch that scene, (adopts comic German accent) “Meine schwantz ist kalt. Mein schwantz und meine eier ist kalt! ” It’s incredible! It’s it’s so funny man! It’s so good.

Oh my God! (Laughs)

I mean, I think you’re hitting the nail on the head. That scene is all about desperation and it’s about a desperate situation. It went a direction that it just didn’t have to. It’s almost like if a homeless guy goes into a 7-Eleven and steals a twelve pack, and as he’s running out the door with it the clerk shoots him in the back and it’s like, “Oh man!” He was breaking the law, he was a dirt bag for stealing that, but that’s not the way that had to go down, maybe.

Right.

And so it’s funny when you watch the scene at the theaters, when the gun first goes off and Frank is going “Motherfucker, what happened?” And everybody kind of laughs, and then he starts bleeding out, and his brain is short circuiting. It’s a pretty long death scene. Then people kind of get grossed out by it and sometimes people are even covering their eyes, they just can’t watch this guy suffering. And then by the end of it, when he finally dies, you can feel the gravity in the room. Like, “Oh man, that was brutal.”  His buddy just died, right in front of him. He was a bad guy, but maybe not a bad enough guy to get his head blown off, and bleed out over the course of sixty seconds. So it’s this really fun, little mini-story, this little mini-arc that happens, that goes from a nervous outburst of laughter, about how funny it is and kind of awkward and shocking it is, and then it goes into a kind of queasy gross out factor. Then it gets really quiet and sad, at the end. It’s very cool, and that is Garret Dillahunt, doing what he does so brilliantly in every film he’s ever done.

It’s such a dark death scene. It’s real and raw, again, and makes you think, “What would happen if you only shot the left side of your brain? How long would you live? What would you be thinking?” 

So, desperate, it’s so dark. It was a fun writing challenge, to try to write a character that’s such a sleaze bag and you just feel like, “Man, I just want to fucking kill this guy,” and then when it finally happens, you go, “Oh man, maybe that was little harsh.” It’s a great scene. It’s super-satisfying, but in some sort of a moral / ethical kind of a twinge, you go, “Oh man, maybe that was a little harsh for that guy. He wasn’t that bad.” Those are the fun kinds of audience manipulations. You kind of fuck with an audience in the good way that films manipulate you. That was an especially fun one.

I wanted to ask, this is a Netflix Original, and they’re doing a lot of these. What’s it like making a Netflix original?

They pre-purchased the film at Cannes. The only elements that were involved, were the screenplay, Frank Grillo starring, Joe Carnahan producing, and me, directing. So, they really went out on a limb with this little movie. I mean, if one single scene in the movie doesn’t work, with this in the car / attached to the car POV [style] then the whole movie is screwed. And they put a movie with that kind of a risky visual design concept into the hands of a first time film maker. That was a huge risk and I honestly don’t know that a movie like Wheelman gets made the way that we made it, and with a guy like me directing, unless Netflix makes it. And so huge props to Netflix, and huge thanks to them for putting us in the position to go and do this the way we wanted to do it, because it was largely an experiment, and they didn’t waffle on it at all. If they had it would have been a different movie.

 

 

Matthew Whitaker

Spreading the TV and Film love whenever I can, wherever I can. Host of the Cinema Bushido, and the Clones Cast podcasts; regular player on all that is Screen Mayhem.