Frank Cappello, He Was A Quiet Man
Whether he’s writing, directing, creating special effects, playing music, or simply recounting anecdotes, Frank Cappello seems to have a compulsive need to entertain. He honed his storytelling skills as a kid reading out his imagined motocross adventures to classmates, and then spent years writing spec scripts while working in special effects. Though the first script he sold, Suburban Commando (1991), became a derided Hulk Hogan vehicle, it was a launchpad for Cappello to direct two genre pictures. American Yakuza (1993) and No Way Back (1995) both ended up above-average thrillers as a result of Cappello’s contribution as writer-director-for-hire, as well as the presence of future stars Viggo Mortensen and Russell Crowe, respectively. Cappello, however, chose to move away from B-movie direction instead doing SFX work on Flubber (1997), Deep Blue Sea (1999) and Red Planet (2000), and writing the screenplays for the studio movies Timeline (2003) and Constantine (2005).
Cappello’s desire to return to directing with a “small” film prompted him to write He Was A Quiet Man, the tale of troubled Bob Maconel (the excellent Christian Slater), a reclusive office nobody trying to work up the courage to murder his callous colleagues with the gun stashed in his desk drawer. But fate conspires to make him a hero when he kills a workmate who has gone postal — just seconds before Bob himself was planning to do the same. Capello’s handling of the material, and particularly Bob’s relationship with the woman he saves, Venessa (Elisha Cuthbert), is smart and thoughtful, and he consistently confounds our expectations and forces us to think closely about the complexities of the characters and their situations. Playing out like the bastard son of Office Space and Fight Club, He Was A Quiet Man distinguishes itself with its originality and dark humor, and suggests that there is much more to come from Cappello — as long as he can again get funding for edgy fare like this.
Filmmaker spoke to Cappello about making Christian Slater bald, ugly and awkward, the best way to handle Russell Crowe, and how Dirt Bike magazine taught him how to write.
Filmmaker: I presume a film with this subject matter was tough to get funded.
Cappello: A lot of people say how it was hell to make a movie — I have the opposite story. Two years ago in November I was engaged to get married and I was having [an engagement] party. I had talked about doing the film and some big stars were coming to the table, $12m stars that would do it for free. Christian Slater was someone I had always thought about, and then who comes barging into the party but Christian Slater. I hadn’t even asked him [to be in the film], but he had heard through the grapevine I was doing it. He came and really campaigned for it, and it was kinda refreshing to see somebody shake everybody’s hand and say “I’m the guy.” That night I had an argument: there were problems [with my fiancée], and we broke up! So the next week, I said “I don’t want to think about this relationship, so I need to work now. Christian’s available now, so I want to go.” Everybody was like, “He’s on his way down, he’s over.” I said, “I don’t care. Slater’s at rock bottom. He’s raw, he’s ready to do it. He’ll do anything I ask. He’ll shave his head, he’ll do all this stuff. Christian’s the guy.” I got a lot of people arguing with me, but I [was] paying half the bills.
Filmmaker: So you just embraced the spontaneity of the situation.
Cappello: I shot in L.A. with no unions. I just risked it. I just said, “To hell with it. I’m gonna go and if we get shut down, we get shut down.” But from the moment I said, “I’m making this movie,” everything fell into place. I always used the example of the sheepherder from the book The Alchemist, that when you’re on the right path it seems like everything opens up. And it all happened because I didn’t marry this girl, and decided to go right then. And because I went right then, everything fell into place, [and] all these people started walking in and saying, “I’d love to be a part of this.”
Filmmaker: Christian Slater really seemed to relish taking on a role this challenging and substantial.
Cappello: I think he’s always been a great actor. He’s really an intuitive actor, and he’s always in his scene — he’s there. He’s not just saying lines, he will look around to see what other actors in the scene are thinking while he says something embarrassing, and that to me is somebody who really is an actor. He didn’t need any direction, other than I’d whisper in his ear and say, “You’ve got too much [Jack] Nicholson. Get rid of the Nicholson.” I told him at the very start, “You’ve got to get rid of the cool factor.” How he found this role was we were sitting around [at his place], and it’s cold. He starts rocking, because he’s cold, and he’s really stiff and tensing his whole body up, and I go, “That’s Bob!” All he had to do was think about being cold. Then we went in and he allowed me to do anything. “You wanna shave back my hair? Give me crooked teeth? Give me rotten teeth? Give me rosacea?” And that’s what we did. As he hadn’t met Elisha Cuthbert until the third day of shooting, he was already Bob and when she walked in, he kept saying, “This is not how I look. I am not bald like this!”
Filmmaker: So that was about two years ago?
Cappello: We had a year and a half of post, which is why we’re finally coming out [only now]. We had a lot of test screenings and I had an ending that was kind of confusing that I premiered in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest [Film Festival]. After I saw the crowd’s reaction to the end, I went back to an ending that I [had] wanted to do. It’s a darker ending, but it’s not confusing. On paper, [the first ending] sounds good, but the audience was scratching its head so much at the end that it took away from [them] getting any feeling from the movie — all they did was guess what I was trying to say, and they finally gave up.
Filmmaker: Christian Slater didn’t watch his dailies, so what was his reaction to the film when he saw it?
Cappello: Talk about a nervous guy. He came up to my apartment on the 12th floor, and he goes, “Are you sure you’re having this screening on the right floor?” Because he might jump. So he sat down and watched, and at first he was going, “God, I look so geeky!” At the end, he buried his head in the pillows of my couch and he started kicking, and he’s going, “We’re in trouble, we’re in trouble, we’re in trouble…” We’re going, “Christian, what’s wrong?” He said, “There’s nothing wrong. I’ve never felt this after a film I’ve done, this is the most pure feeling I’ve ever felt after doing a film.” He was just really excited.
Filmmaker: I think one of the film’s great strengths is that it never descends into cliché, and you are always caught off guard by the directions that it takes.
Cappello: When I sat down to write it, reality TV was really coming on strong, and everybody was saying that within five years scripted work would be gone. I said, “Why?” “Because everybody knows what’s gonna happen.” With reality TV and sports, we don’t know the outcome, and so we watch. When I sat down to write this, I wrote it in two weeks, and I honestly just allowed myself to go in directions [that were more interesting]. When you’re writing fast, you’re almost watching it as a movie, and you’re excited about where [the story is going].
Filmmaker: The film played at the GenArt Film Festival just after the Virginia Tech massacre – what was that like?
Cappello: The day before Virginia Tech we screened at a small theater, and it was a completely different feeling: at the end, people were really talking about it, but they were still laughing. The day after Virginia Tech, which was the closing night of GenArt, I had to get up and say, “This is a darkly humorous film, but in light of certain events we want you to know that we take it very seriously and you’ll know by the end how seriously we do take it.” At the party afterwards, I just got flooded: the movie took on a whole new feeling. People really wanted to talk about it, about why these [killers] do it.
Filmmaker: How did you start writing?
Cappello: I was always a writer, even in junior high school. I’m not very good at English grammar, I hated all the rules, so in order for me to get passing grades I had to do extra credit work, which was a weekly story. It was about motocross riding, because I used to ride motocross, and each week I’d have to stand up and read my extra credit [writing]. I learned how to write from Dirt Bike Magazine. [laughs] Dirt Bike Magazine talked to the reader in a very irreverent way, so I learned to write in a very smart-ass way. My first script that sold out here was called Urban Commando, which they turned into Suburban Commando, with Hulk Hogan and Christopher Lloyd. It was really bad and it ended up being a really crappy movie.
Filmmaker: You worked with Russell Crowe on No Way Back.
Cappello: No one wanted him on the production because they didn’t know who he was. He was from New Zealand. He wasn’t your traditional handsome leading man, in fact, he was a little pudgy. He came over in a beard and he said, “I think I should have a beard because I have been hiding out for seven years since my wife died…” The producers were all saying, “You’ve got to make him shave his beard, because no actor has a beard — that’s the worst thing in the world.” I said, “You make him shave the beard!” He and I had it out only one night: it was pouring down rain and I was shooting two scenes and he was yelling at me because I wasn’t getting a long enough close-up on the other guy, not on him! I said, “Don’t you ever yell at me in front of the crew again.” We went off, we drank a bunch of beer and we were best buddies after that. That’s what you have to do with Russell, you just have to stand up to him.
Filmmaker: How did you get involved with Constantine?
Cappello: I was a getting a lot of comic book offers at the time. Warner Brothers handed me [the script for] Constantine, and I threw it away. I said, “This is a terrible script, this is Indiana Jones in Hong Kong.” It was really bad. Then they gave me the graphic novels and I went, “Oh my God, this is really great!” They let me go and write and I threw everything out and started over. When I turned it in, everyone was mad at me because I threw out a million dollars worth of script and I started over. I went through three directors, two actors and I was on that project on-and-off for five years. It got together because we just kept working at it.
Filmmaker: What’s the worst, or weirdest, job you’ve ever had?
Cappello: Dishwasher, but I was really young at the time. Anytime you have the murky water when you’re washing dishes at a restaurant, they do funny things to the new guy like put a rat trap inside, under the soap. Yeah, I got that.
Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?
Cappello: There’s one direction for Hollywood to go, and that’s the direction it’s going. There’s nothing else you can do. Honestly. You know what the coolest thing about special effects [being so good] that anything you can imagine can be done now? The only way to stand out is to have a better story. So now we’re back to telling stories — you can’t just throw a bunch of special effects in a movie.
Filmmaker: What was the first movie you ever saw?
Cappello: It could have been The Ten Commandments. I think it was at a drive-in theater. I don’t think it had any impact at that age. I think I was four years old. The parting of the Red Sea — I do remember that. I was like, “Wow! How did they open up the water?” And then I ran up to the swing set upfront and played. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Finally, what matters more to you: that a film is successful, or that you are happy with the finished product?
Cappello: That I’m happy. No doubt. I haven’t had one that has been completely over-the-top successful, so maybe I don’t know yet. Maybe if I had a film that made $400m and made everybody go “Wow!”, but it sucked, I’d feel different.