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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“Once It Exists Conceptually, It’s Just Problem Solving”: Writer-Director Jonathan Mostow on Breakdown

Breakdown

In the summer of 1997, a season characterized by gargantuan spectacles like The Lost World, Con Air, The Fifth Element, and Batman and Robin, a modest thriller by an unknown young director surprised audiences, critics and probably even its own financiers by becoming a sleeper hit thanks to its classical virtues and relentless determination to put the viewer in the palm of its hand and squeeze. The film, Breakdown, began when Dino de Laurentiis hired low-budget filmmaker Jonathan Mostow to write and direct a new adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “Trucks,” which King had already directed himself as Maximum Overdrive. When the King project fell through, Mostow repurposed his research and location scouting into a new script about an ordinary guy (Kurt Russell) whose wife (Kathleen Quinlan) disappears during a road trip; the result was a witty, propulsive thriller that recalled aspects of The Vanishing and Steven Spielberg’s Duel but quickly took off in its own original directions.

Mostow’s sense of formal control is remarkable; each scene ratchets up the suspense with flawless precision, yet the mechanisms running under the surface are totally invisible. Like Alfred Hitchcock (whose The Lady Vanishes is a clear reference point for Breakdown), Mostow knows how to integrate framing, performance and editing so seamlessly that on first viewing the twists are completely unpredictable, yet on repeat viewings they seem inevitable. In its time Breakdown felt a bit out of its era, harkening back to the smart, mid-range character-driven genre films of Walter Hill and Don Siegel rather than competing with the likes of Air Force One and Speed 2: Cruise Control; now, it appears to me to be a stone cold classic that ranks proudly alongside its influences. This week Paramount releases a limited-edition Blu-ray of the film that offers the perfect opportunity to revisit or discover it; the new extra features produced by Justin Beahm are extraordinary, particularly a lively and informative commentary track by Mostow and Russell. The day before the new disc’s release, I spoke with Mostow by phone to explore and elaborate upon some of the ideas introduced in the Blu-ray supplements.

Filmmaker: Looking at the credits for Breakdown, it struck me that you were surrounded by really experienced, accomplished collaborators—from Kurt Russell to producer Dino de Laurentiis to your cinematographer, Douglas Milsome. Coming on to this film all of these people have decades more experience than you as a relatively new director, but you also have to assert your control and authority over the movie. How challenging was that?

Jonathan Mostow: I was lucky, in that I was surrounded by people that were supporting me. I’ve been a producer, and when I sat in the producer chair my philosophy was always—whether we had hired somebody to direct a script we’d already developed, or it was a filmmaker coming to us with their own project—that if you try to control a director and interfere and override their creative decisions, you’re almost guaranteed to not have a good movie. The ideal scenario is that the producer and the financier have made a decision that they are entrusting this film to this director, because it is a director’s medium. We’re taking all our chips on the roulette table and moving them all over into this one square, then we’re going to cross our fingers and hope that it turns out well, and we will do everything we can to support the filmmaker.

Now, that doesn’t mean simply bending over backwards and satisfying every whim of the director, but what it does mean is if the director wants to do something and you don’t understand it, or maybe you don’t even agree with it, you at least ask them, “Why are you saying that? Why do we need to go to this particular location?” Or “Why can’t we film that particular way?” Or “Why does it need to be this actor, not that actor?” And hopefully the director has an answer, because they have a vision. You pretty quickly know when you’re dealing with a filmmaker who has a vision versus someone who’s just lost. So, going back to your question: I had written the script, I had already made the movie in my head, and now it was a question of executing that vision. I think that everyone around me realized, this guy doesn’t have a long resume—in fact, he has almost no resume. But he’s written a script, we can understand what it is he’s trying to do, and he clearly understands what he wants. 

On the very last day of filming, Kurt said something to me I never forgot: “One of the things I enjoyed about working with you is that occasionally there’d be a moment where we got thrown a left turn, or something wasn’t as we expected it to be. And you weren’t afraid to stop and go, ‘You know what? I’m not sure right now what to do, I need a moment to think about it.'” I see a lot of younger directors, often out of insecurity, afraid to simply confess that there are moments where they’re not sure. And you need to take that mental moment to do a gut check, or to figure out, OK, what is the best step forward? As opposed to just, out of insecurity, barking out something like, “We’re going to do it this way,” which might be a bad decision. For whatever reason, I wasn’t afraid to take those moments when I needed them, and I was working with a crew and producers and cast who understood that process. It wasn’t that I was having these moments every day—we’re talking about maybe once every two or three weeks I might need to take a few minutes. But sometimes those few moments can be unsettling. Particularly when you have 100 people standing around and you’re on the clock…no one wants to sit there wasting time when you’re on a movie set.

Filmmaker: One of the things I love about the movie is how directly linked it is to the Kurt Russell character’s point of view. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single scene in the movie that isn’t told from his perspective. How does that make the writing and directing a challenge—or does it make it easier?

Mostow: Well, in some ways it makes it easier, because when I wrote the script, my mantra was that as the situation deteriorates, and this character is confronted by an increasingly challenging series of problems, I wanted him to do what would seem to be the smart thing in the moment. The thing that the audience would go, “Yeah, okay. I’d do that. Yeah, and then I’d do that. And oh, no. I didn’t realize this would happen. OK, now in this circumstance, I’ll do this other thing.” Writing it gave me the opportunity to think it all through. And then I was super lucky that immediately before Breakdown, Kurt was filming a big budget movie, Escape from LA, and it all took place at night. He was on a night schedule for five months, and that meant that he would show up at work Monday through Friday night, and then on Saturday and Sunday nights, he was home. But when you’re working nights, you can’t switch back and forth—you’ll experience the equivalent of jet lag. He said to me, “Look, if you’re willing to do this, I have to stay up on the weekends. If you come over to my house after dinner, you and I can talk through the script, work through things, and just stay as late as you feel like.” So, I’d come over after dinner, and I’d stay until three, four in the morning. It would just be the two of us in his house, everybody else was asleep, and we talked through the script beat by beat so that every step of the way Kurt understood what I had in mind. It gave us an opportunity to brainstorm stuff, so that when he showed up on set, when it was finally time to shoot, we understood every moment of the movie from start to finish. And that process was very much about making sure that it seemed like the character was always doing the smartest thing at any particular junction.

Filmmaker: That gets at something else I wanted to ask you about in terms of your work with actors. On the commentary track for the Blu-ray, you mention studying with Stella Adler and Uta Hagen. When and how did that come about, and what did you take from them that informed the way you work with actors?

Mostow: When I first moved out to LA and was trying to become a director, I was mostly unemployed. I was doing little freelance things to just keep my apartment and keep me fed, but I had time and wanted to try to learn as much as I could. So, I made it my mission to study acting with the very best people I could find. I studied with some other people as well, but Stella Adler and Uta Hagen were two of the four disciples of the great Russian acting teacher Stanislavski. Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen and Stella Adler had all studied with him in Russia, then come back and disseminated that to actors in the United States. You can trace Marlon Brando and that whole realistic style of acting in American movies back to Stanislavski. 

The number one thing I learned from those acting coaches was how to stop a scene that wasn’t working and how to recognize when a scene wasn’t working. The number one rule with Stella was no acting—the moment you could see the acting, the scene was dead, because movie acting is about behavior, and it’s about watching someone in their private moments and believing that it is real. The best movie acting is invisible; people on Broadway get Tony awards for big performances playing to the seats way up in the third balcony, but it’s the opposite with movie acting. I knew that the best actor for Breakdown would be someone who understood that completely, and was naturally an actor who is all about behavior and little moments, and that’s why Kurt was my first choice. Kurt is, in that sense, one of the great cinematic actors ever, because you feel like you understand what he’s thinking even when he doesn’t have any dialogue. That was perfect for what we needed for this role.

Filmmaker: Yeah, he really anchors it and makes it believable—as does the realistic way you stage and shoot the action sequences. Something like that scene where he drives the Cherokee into the water is totally convincing—as far as I could tell there’s no CG there. How do you plan and shoot a scene like that?

Mostow: The first step to any action sequence is that first you have to write it. Once it exists conceptually, it’s just problem solving—breaking down all the component parts and saying, “Okay, how are we going to do this?” And one of the things I was lucky about on Breakdown was that everything was done for real. There’s no CGI. I’m very much creatively influenced by the great thrillers and action films of the seventies, and they were very visceral films. That’s what I wanted in Breakdown, something very visceral. I wanted to do all the stunt stuff for real, and at that point computer technology wasn’t anywhere near where it is today, so there wasn’t even a serious discussion about doing it CG. I’ve had car chases in other films and usually try to do as much for real as I can, but I’ve definitely used CG. And with stuff in the computer, no matter how great your visual effects wizards are, the human eye can tell the difference. Even if people can’t articulate to themselves what feels fake, there’s just something in their brain that triggers them and goes, “Wow, something about that doesn’t seem real.” Now, it might be totally exciting, and the camera might be flying all over the place, but at some level it’s not quite real and it starts to lack that visceral quality. One of the things I was happy about in Breakdown is that we could do it for real and didn’t have to compromise that.

Filmmaker: Another cool extra feature on the Blu-ray is the alternate opening you shot that ultimately just got lopped right off the movie. I’m so glad you got rid of it, because I feel like it explains things that don’t need to be explained and robs the film of what makes it great, which is its immediacy.

Mostow: That alternate opening is a textbook example of the tension that often exists in the development of a film between the storyteller who is saying, “You know what? The audience, they’re going to understand who these characters are. We don’t need these explanatory, expository scenes. They’re going to get it through the behavior. They’re going to get it through all the tools of filmmaking and performance and wardrobe and everything else.” And on the other side, you usually have the studio—in this case, Breakdown was a hybrid, because it started as an independent production, then Paramount came aboard about halfway through filming—and there’s an anxiety I find amongst the executives who say, “Let’s make sure we make that clear to the audience. Let’s explain it.” I’m one of the few people in the world that had the opportunity to see Breakdown in front of an audience with that original 10-minute opening. It didn’t ruin the movie, the movie still works, but it was just clear that once you took it out, it was a much better movie. And what was great is that all the people involved—the studio, Kurt Russell, everybody who was involved in the movie who was at that screening—walked out of the theater after we first took it out and they all looked at me and said, “Yeah, that’s way better.” 

On all the films I’ve ever worked on, I’ve found that what you usually take out is stuff you thought you needed for the audience to understand things, and you realize no, they get it. The audience is much smarter than we give them credit for it, so it’s usually someone’s anxiety. And it could be the writer, not just the studio—the writer can have the anxiety of, “Gee, I’m afraid they won’t understand it if I don’t stick this into the script.” So often, that’s the stuff that comes out in the cutting room.

Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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