From Paris With Love: No Merci
By Jenni Miller
Tribeca Film, February 1, 2010
John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, director Pierre Morel, and writer Luc Besson chat up their flashy actioner From Paris with Love.
From Paris with Love, starring John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is the latest stylish action caper from director Pierre Morel and writer Luc Besson, with Virginie Besson-Silla on board as executive producer. By day, James Reece (Rhys Meyers) is a smartly dressed, well-organized assistant for the US Ambassador to France; by night, he’s tirelessly working his way up the ladder at the CIA as an undercover agent. He’s got a gorgeous girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak), a fabulous flat, and the wherewithal to become a hotshot spy. Enter his new partner Charlie Wax (Travolta), a rude and crude American with a shaved head and rather unorthodox methods for getting his mission accomplished.
This is the third outing for Morel and Besson as a writer/director team; they are also behind the parkour-infused French film Banlieue 13 (District 13) and 2008’s Taken, starring Liam Neeson. (Besson also wrote the screenplay for the sequel to District 13, District 13: Ultimatum.) The film has crazy bullet-flying action, but with its tongue firmly planted in cheek, like ’80s cop movies Lethal Weapon: Wax’s favorite treat is, yes, a Royale with cheese, and Reese spends a good deal of the movie protecting a Chinese vase full of cocaine. (More on that later.) Travolta, Rhys Meyers, Morel, and Besson appeared in New York to discuss their new film, from Travolta’s action moves to Taken 2.
Morel is also directing a new adaptation of Dune; read what he had to say when we cornered him for a hot minute here.
John, what did you do to prepare for this role?
John Travolta: I think between Pierre, Luc, and myself, there were lots of discussions about this guy. It was beautifully written, so he was easy to fill ’cause the verbiage was so ideal for me to attack. The look was very important in this movie, and we saw Soldier of Fortune covers where these guys are suddenly, I don’t know why, very glamorous-looking, with scars and shaved heads and goatees, and it was brave to take it all off and all that, but I think we decided that was the only way it would work, to be bold with it and go all the way. So that was some of what we did.
And, of course, I hung out with some undercover guys in my hometown. They were kind enough to let me hang out with them, so I would spend the night driving the streets of Ocala and going into these different areas that were in trouble, and see what these guys do, and it was like a microcosm of where it is all over the world.
Did you ad-lib at all?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: No, it was pretty much there in the script, but also we’re making the film where I’m playing an American guy in Paris, so if I didn’t have someone like John there, I’m not quite sure it would have worked for me, because I had to have a true American. I had to have somebody there that I could play off, and that was a happy accident because [when] I met Pierre and Luc and Virginie in London, they said, “John’s going to do this movie, and we think the chemistry’s going to be fantastic.”
But of course, I was shooting The Tudors on a Tuesday, and I arrived in Paris to shoot the movie on a Wednesday, so the first time John and I really got face time with each other was onscreen, in that [first] scene where I go in and bust him out of [the] customs office. So that’s an extraordinary reaction, ’cause I’d seen John in many films but I hadn’t seen John like that, you know? So I didn’t know what to expect. And of course, James Reece’s character, he expects a sophisticated, elegant, worldly James Bond to turn up, and what he gets is, he gets a biker boy, minus the Harley-Davidson but [with] pretty much everything else.
James has dreams [about] what a spy is going to be like. He dreams that this is what a sophisticated, undercover life is. But the reality of it is, it’s a dirty job… James doesn’t have the cynicism [Charlie] Wax has, but James has the naiveté that Wax enjoys. He enjoys seeing [James] be confused, he enjoys seeing him get a punch, he enjoys seeing him be shocked at the shooting because there’s only one way to train somebody, and that’s to throw them in the deep end.
Luc and Pierre, what makes an action/thriller a classic?
Luc Besson: Oh my God, if we knew that, we’d be like….!
JRM: Can I jump in for a sec? I think it’s chemistry. I think [what] separates an action movie from a classic movie is the chemistry between the actors doing it. If they’re liking each other and they’re liking the story on—why does Lethal Weapon work? Because Danny Glover and Mel Gibson work with each other, and you can see the energy. They play off each other very well, so you’ll get some partnerships in life that will just mean more. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—if that had been Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, would it have been the same movie? Who knows? But it’s their energy that carries it… It’s the spontaneous element of the human being [that] is worth more than any explosion. If you can get that one little moment where people understand and they share a joke onscreen or share a nice emotional moment, that makes the movie. That makes a classic action movie to me.
LB: It’s also the amount of risk that you can take in the story… You also have to take some risk in the directing, in the script, when you talk about the movement, [when they say] “Checkmate, motherf*cker.” You take the risk.
Luc, Pierre, what challenges did you face in making this film in Paris?
PM: It’s not challenging, actually. I feel homey in Paris. That’s where I live, that’s where I’ve been working forever so I can feel more comfortable shooting in Paris than anywhere else… We didn’t have many, many issues. I feel very, very comfortable shooting Paris. Especially with this one [Travolta], because I didn’t have to make a postcard of Paris, you know? When you live there, that’s actually what you—your experience in Paris was different from mine, of course [because] I’ve been living there for so long. You definitely don’t want to be in a position of having to make postcards of the city you live in because you don’t see it that way. So actually having to show the gritty part of Paris was fun.
LB: Shooting the Eiffel Tower was the most challenging thing for us, because the Eiffel Tower is a nightmare to shoot in, actually. It’s a beautiful place, I love it, but it’s the most visited monument in the world. There’s millions of people coming every year just to visit this. And there is no way to shut it down, no way to privatize that. So you have to be all [pretending to duck] with thousands of people peeping, trying to look [at] what you’re doing, taking pictures, and we had to block—bring big, big screens to block the people [from seeing] what we’re doing and then manage to get the crowd to move around and still enjoy the Eiffel Tower, because that’s what they came for, but, you know, that was actually the most challenging part, was the Eiffel Tower for us.
JRM: Actually, I think it’s become one of the most difficult monuments to shoot in the world, because now they charge you for shooting it, because they have blue lights on it and it’s privatized, so if you want the blue lights on the Eiffel Tower in the back of your shot, it’s like 20 grand or something. It’s expensive.
Can you guys talk about the physicality of the role and if there were any scenes that were particularly challenging or fun to do?
JT: To me, the whole thing was challenging! I said to Pierre, “Do you really want me to do all these stunts? I mean, upside down on a pole and shooting two guns and rolling down buildings and jumping off?” I said, “I’m an old man!”
PM: I said, “So what?”
JT: There was such a confidence that I could do it that I decided, well, hell, I’m going to live up to their expectation and I went and did it, and I really was proud that I attacked it in a full-bodied way. And it really paid off, because I’ve never done this much action in a movie. Ever. And even though I’ve been in two John Woo movies, this was the most running and jumping and fighting and flipping, and the body’s still able to do it. Now [Rhys Meyers]’s a young whippersnapper, so his body is made to do this kind of thing. What was it for you?
JRM: It was okay, except I don’t like heights. I had to go up these stairs and I’m not a good height guy and I dropped the vase of cocaine going up the stairs. It was kind of funny… I went, “Oh f*ck, the coke!” I could hear Pierre laughing from three floors below, and John’s still running. He’s three floors ahead of me. And they were like, “Cut!” And I had to go all the way back down, and I’m scraping the coke [back into the vase] and it was just awful. And this vase, of course… I’ve got to hold this vase, which became a teddy bear. It’s like his blankie at one point. He’s sitting there [like], “It’s just me and my vase!” And I kind of felt sad when I had to drop it. It was my buddy for the movie; it was like, this is what protects me from the whole world, is this vase of washing-up powder.
Will there be a sequel to Taken?
LB: Yeah, I finished [the script] yesterday.