FinalBoss is thrilled to reveal our biggest interview to date – our white whale if you will.
Mark Neveldine is one half of the directing team of Neveldine and Taylor. Making their names in the mid-2000s with multi-million dollar pictures like Gamer, Ghost Rider 2, and most notably the Crank series, Mark presents a ballsy throwback of gritty action movies from odd and deranged angles – all while utilising some of the biggest stars in the game.
Mark has directed Gerrard Butler, Nic Cage, Idris Elba and Terry Crews to name a few.
We talked about his career, censors, what’s changed over the last decade in Hollywood and, yes… Crank 3 does come up.
Talking to one another via Skype, with a nine-hour time difference between us, Mark can’t help but be accidentally Hollywood, as the morning light shines through his windows so bright that he has to wear sunglasses for most of this interview.
FinalBoss: First off, how did you and Taylor meet?
Mark Neveldine: Brian [Taylor] was at film school, and I was coming out of the world of videography – I bought a Canon XL1… the digital world was just taking off, but at the same time I wanted to learn more about film so I donated time to work with the students. I did everything; grip, I acted in stuff, but the whole point was that I wanted to learn how to load actual film and work with actual film cameras.
Before I met Brian I was at New York City, I was writing, directing, acting in plays. I did about 25 Off-Broadway shows there. I also got my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card there. So when I met Brian I knew a little bit about a lot of different things, but I wanted to really start focusing on being a film director. And it just happened to be that Brian was the director of photography on a bunch of shorts.
We met and immediately hit it off, and realised that we had such a great connection. We’re [both] really aggressive with the camera.
We were working for people – let’s call them kids, who were younger actors – and we realised these guys don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and neither did we – but at least we have a point of view. So, why don’t we just call ourselves directors? We were both writers, our ideas just gelled and we got a commercial agent and I think we directed around 40-45 commercials.
FB: I was going to ask if you came from commercials. In previous interviews, Taylor said how you make films is kinda like “shooting porn”, and you’re looking for that Money Shot. And I kinda got a feel that maybe you come from commercials because it’s trying to sell that product – and I can see that in what you do.
MN: Because we were just diving into the digital world – we were trying to push the limits of digital cinema before anyone else. Everybody said you can’t shoot with shutter, you gotta shoot 24 frames a second, or at least 30 frames a second, and we just wanted to make shots look good so we’re not going to listen to how this is going to transfer to film. We’re going to make this look as cool as possible. We shuttered up and played with the gamma until we were super happy with – at the time – what we thought was this new, futuristic, digital look.
It was a little bit of that, and coming out of commercials and realising it was a bit of a missed opportunity [working on ads] – for a lot people, shots were so vanilla and table-toppy, and we just wanted to do something different – and people responded to that.
I don’t even know if any of the commercials we did were great. I know that one of them won an award but the rest of them were just wild and out there. They were experiments more than anything else. But it allowed us to find our voice, and it allowed us to get better at holding a camera.
FB: I watched Crank again the other night, and it in comparison to what you did after it – which I assume was budgetary, and you finding your feet – it’s quite stripped back in comparison. The way that you shoot it, and the styling and the editing is very MTV filmmaking with a machine gun.
MN: For sure.
FB: You really do just follow up that style – obviously you’ve got your own voice on Crank 2, but even with stuff like Gamer and Ghost Rider you feel that.
MN: In a way you could say that Brian and I came out of that MTV world.
I don’t think either of us shot anything for MTV, but it was sort of that style, and we were also sort of making fun of that style a little bit too. What’s the most ridiculous thing that we could come up with – well, what if you take the bus from Speed and put that concept onto a human – if you stop you die.
So Crank is a parody of an action film and but also works as an action film. And when we were like: “That scam totally worked, let’s make Crank 2 and show people really what we were thinking!”
FB: I wanted to ask, early days, did you come from a background of shooting shit in the back garden – or maybe skateboarding-sort of filmmaking? Just ‘cause it has that sort of style to it.
MN: I was always that kid, since I was in Grade School, in the plays, and eventually went to New York and got into theatre acting and became a camera operator and all that stuff.
On the other hand, I also grew up as an athlete and I was a hockey player and played in Northern New York and Canada – pretty much my whole life. I was always the kid too, at family reunions, who was saying “Can I grab the camera?”, and shoot stupid shit and I always liked being behind the camera.
And when I was in New York city, when I first moved there, I would hold on to buses and taxi cabs to get to work – and I decided why don’t I just grab my camera one day and start filming. This is probably 1997 or so, and I didn’t ever look at it, I just filmed, because I thought it was fun. And one day I plugged it into the TV and I looked at it and was like “Wow, this is really interesting”. I’m, like, underneath the wheel of a car, I’m cutting in between taxis and buses.
I had people yelling at me because they were really upset, and once I looked through that footage I worked from that. So, by the time I met Brian I had that sort of rollerblading camera tactic.
FB: Every BTS I’ve seen has you shooting things on roller skates – there’s a quote from Crank 1 that Amy Smart says to Jason Statham, just as they’re about to have sex with all the Asian people watching them – “You’re like an adrenaline junkie with no soul”. My point is you could get anybody to be that guy on roller skates shooting that specific thing. Why do you personally want to be holding the camera?
MN: I love the adrenaline of it. I am kind of an adrenaline junkie, I like taking risks: whether it’s filmmaking or writing, or just in life.
Now that I’m a father of three, I had to tone that down a bit. There’s something about having that camera in your hand and feeling the instinct of the performers; moving with that and capturing that. I’ve always been a fan of it. I always thought that the characters and the action should drive the shots, and not the shots driving the actors.
You’re right, it was hard initially to trust some other kid to film on a skateboard or rollerblades and really capture that moment, or the way that I wanted to do it. I worked pretty hard on skating my whole life, there’s a lot of kids who do it now, it was not as easy as it looks, back in the day. I had 60 pounds on my back, tethered to a cord, and I’m trying to go backwards 50 miles an hour while Jason [Statham]’s on a motorcycle.
In the early 2000s, there were some people who were like “Oh wow, this is a cheap way to do some good filmmaking”, and there were a lot of broken bones and that’s why you don’t see a lot of directors on rollerblades. It’s kinda stupid. It’s not a smart thing to do. I’m not going to be holding on to cars going 70 mph anymore. That’s done. I always felt steadicam was just too fluid and it was almost too stable for me. Every single shot in a film should be the greatest thing you’ve ever done. Every single shot should matter. I just don’t believe every shot matters when you’re shooting a whole movie with two guys with steadicams, because you’re trying to please producers who want to shoot a movie in 20 days.
We don’t believe the studio ever read the Crank 2 script.
FB: I wanted to ask how the dynamic between the two of you work. From what I saw from the very few interviews of [yourself and Brian Taylor] online, Taylor is speaking in all of them while you sit beside him.
MN: It’s a little bit by design. Obviously, we’re both individuals, but what we found with being “Neveldine & Taylor ” where I could be this crazy guy at times and Brian’s more of the academic of the two of us, and it worked really well to play those characters. When we went to Comic-Con, people would laugh at how we over-exaggerated our personalities in that way.
You kinda need the funny guy, you need the straight guy. We just found a rhythm that was fun. When we worked, we would just make each other laugh. There was no-one in our universe but me and Brian. To make pure cinema you have to be really strict about it. You always want to hire crew that’s better than you, in everything that they do. You wanna hire the best people around you. But, you wanna keep your vision and your ideas sacred. We naturally just did that, we naturally shut people out and did what we wanted to do. To the point where when we made Crank 2, we don’t believe the studio ever read that script.
FB: It’s genuinely extraordinary. It’s every possible descriptive I could use for it. It’s balls to the wall. It’s ridiculous. It’s so bonkers. There’s so much going on in that movie. The edit on that is so good as well, the edit is so out there. It’s very pop-punk bubble gum. How do you decide what stays and what goes?
MN: We were super aggressive with the camera, we were still exploring the digital world. We went with a camera with less resolution than we did with Gamer. We decided let’s use these Pro-sumer Canon H1s, these things that were barely HD, and got crazy with it, shooting hundreds of hours of footage. To get that greatest shot ever, sometimes to do that you really have to experiment, you really have to play. You’re going to have to do it 15, 20 times. I just remember we would keep the cameras rolling until one of us decided we would move on.
FB: This is just for me, but that bit in Crank 2 where you do that fight with the puppets, and all the latex…
MN: The Godzilla fight.
FB: Yes! Is that Jason Statham as Jason Statham? Or is it just some other guy? Is he inside the suit?
MN: Um. I don’t think he was.
FB: Oh my God.
MN: I know he put that outfit on. I think he was in part of it. He was not in that big crash into the wires. As well as Art Hsu, who plays Johnny Vang, he was not in the suit either.
FB: Thank you very much.
MN: This was eons ago.
FB: You’ve worked with some really big stars. Some of them as they were coming up. Jason Statham wasn’t as massive as he is when you did the first Crank – biggest guy on the planet now doing the Fast movies – you worked with Terry Crews on Gamer. It’s just like him snarling for 80% of the time. And he’s just huge.
MN: And he got naked for us! Terry Crews is completely naked in that locker room scene.
FB: Because Gerrard Butler, isn’t! That’s really pushing it as an actor, isn’t it. It’s the towel test.
Terry Crews is completely naked in that locker room scene.
FB: Do you cast them yourselves, or do you have a caster?
MN: We have a casting director. A lot of times we have a really good idea of who we want – we knew we wanted Michael C Hall [as the villain in Gamer]. We were big fans of Dexter.
And the story with Gerry Butler: Gerry and I were friends years before that. We worked on a short film, we stayed in touch. I sent him Crank, and he was too busy. He couldn’t read it. We met Jason, we flew up to Vancouver, had a bunch of Heineken. He didn’t want to do the film, because he didn’t think he was funny. We got talking about and he agreed.
And I get a call from Gerry Butler, saying “Neveldine, I love this script, I want to do it ”, so I had to kinda say I gave you that script a year ago, dude. And they have an amazing rivalry; they are still up for similar roles.
Gerry flew to Los Angeles, sat with Lakeshore, and explained why he was the guy for the role – and certainly he could have been a version of Chev Cheleos. So, when Gamer came up, Lakeshore immediately said we know who we are going for on this movie. Gerry was coming off of 300.
Casting happens at a couple of different levels, and we do have a say in the matter, but it also happens at an executive level when it comes to the leads. Generally, when you get to that next level down, we hire amazing casting directors. They do the search and try and find the best people for the role. Sometimes we just make offers, like with John Leguizamo [with Gamer], he doesn’t need to come and read for us.
FB: I watched Gamer this morning. I’ve only seen it once before, and I enjoyed it more this time round.
MN: I hear that a lot, by the way. Some people have said to us, including some pretty big critics, they came back and said “I think your movie was a little bit ahead of its time, and you guys were really trying to look into the future.”
At the time we were reading Ray Kurtweil’s The Singularity [is Near].
The initial part of that movie came to me in a dream; that people were at home controlling other people – “there was Game… and there was God.” It was this really raw idea. I told Brian, and then he really started to shape it. He said, why not bring in this second life, that we call “Society” and let’s split it up into these two divisions, and we just started exploring that world.
It was just so much fun, and it came out of what was in the air at the time. Web gaming was just coming into its own.
FB: You saying it was ahead of its time, I completely agree. I feel watching it as research for this, it is an extraordinarily cynical look into the future, and it’s very rough and ready. It’s very strong and very on the nose, but with that said, it’s managed to foresee nothing less than: how big VR has become, catfishing, the Fortnite phenomenon.
MN: I was not a gamer. I played too many sports growing up, I played Donkey Kong , but I knew nothing of about the gaming world. It just wasn’t interesting to me outside of just seeing it taking shape, and this is going to be our future.
FB: Is that how you see us going then? Maybe not as violent per se, but do you see us heading towards a shape of that?
MN: I do. For sure. I think it’s kind of happening. [Gaming is] a really great distraction, to slow our thinking down, to get us glued to things. Brian was more the gamer, and knew about GTA and was kind of knee-deep into that stuff. That was fun about writing Gamer. We had our own little discussions and battles about what this was and what it could be. And I maybe blame myself for it being a little too dark and too on the nose, which probably came from me trying to force my vision.
FB: I think it works for it though. You saying that critics have come back and said that, now with the future being here, and rewatching it I think the cynicalness of it really works – it’s a better film in this society now as it was opposed to ten years ago.
MN: You’re right. Because of where we are now. The film itself doesn’t change, but when we look back at a lot of these films. I remember when True Romance came out – let’s face it, we’re not True Romance – it didn’t really take hold. Tarantino was ahead of his time. Tony Scott was doing something completely original. It took people to watch it in the theatres, bad-mouth it, then sit home and watch it on a VHS to realise it’s got something to say. It’s neat to see how things morph. I believe in my heart that we could have taken a little more time and not rushing it into production, but secondly, in sort of defence of Brian and I, Gamer was conceived as a 3D movie. It’s how I see it in my head. I wanted this to be that virtual reality experience that you’re really immersed in that world. I think it was a mistake that we didn’t do it in 3D.
FB: Saying that films can change for the better, I want to look at the opposite side of that. Everybody is talking about Todd Phillips, and how he can’t make films in “Woke Culture.” The guy that wrote American Pie said he couldn’t make American Pie anymore. I would say that you would be extraordinarily hard pushed to make the first Crank or Gamer today.
FB: And I just wanted to ask does that scare you as a director, or does it just mean that you; as a director, as a filmmaker, have to adapt to this new filmmaking world that you find yourself in?
MN: It’s funny, I thought you were going to lead with this question. Because it’s in the zeitgeist and everybody’s talking about this.
Here’s the thing: I made the mistake of doing films for other people, and it doesn’t work for me. I’m not at my best when I’m doing that. When I’m censored before I get on out of the gates… It’s like tying a horse’s legs together before it’s gonna run. It’s really hard, and I try to fight the fight. What people are doing is they’re saying this script is who this person really is; as opposed to what it used to be; we would write these characters, we would explore these characters and it would be: these are the characters, and this is the world. When we wrote Crank, all those characters, these were people that we actually met – believe it or not – real people who come in and out of our lives. But there’s this whole thing now, where people are like “That’s not true, you’re small-minded.”
Everybody uses these terms, but art doesn’t have to be mean. I also believe that people are definitely more sensitive now than ever. Maybe because the internet is so close to us, it’s so close to our face,
Mark gestures a phone mere centimetres away from his face now.
MN: -and you’re looking at something on Twitter and the reason why it gets you so mad is it’s so close to your face that you believe that it’s directed to you. I really believe that’s the case. We’re too immersed in this technology that people do have to cut themselves off from it every once in a while. I believe it’s that simple.
Executives are afraid. You go in these meetings and they say we only care about the creative, it’s about the movie and this this and this, but unfortunately they don’t want to lose their jobs and they will if they do something that’s controversial. People want to know why Crank 3 hasn’t been made… Brian and I wrote a Crank 3 script – but it’s fun and it’s honest and it’s not politically correct.
MN: I mean, a term like “politically correct” that has the word “ politically ” in it is just fucking bullshit. Why would you want anything to be politically correct? Why would you want anything with the word politically in it? But it is a battle and there will be people who will be like “Ugh, you guys are old school…” – I ain’t old school, I’m just the same school I’ve always been.
Brian and I wrote a Crank 3 script - but it’s fun and it’s honest and it’s not politically correct.
FB: Have you found yourself, writing of late, determined to stay being an in-your-face filmmaker, or have you purposely found yourself censoring yourself?
MN: Definitely. There’s times where you feel like you should curve this down. A TV show I wrote with a buddy we’re like: Oh this is going to offend somebody… then we came back to it and we’re like “we’ll leave it in.”
The executives love reading the edgy stuff. The executives are actually really smart people. They actually like to read the first draft that’s edgy, that’s not censored, the problem is that then they feel [later down the line] like they can’t make it. So, I always say to writers, just have fun with it, be honest, don’t worry about political correctness, don’t worry about anything, write the best movie possible, give it to the executives, and let them do that. If you have to compromise to make your movie, then you have to make that decision.
People have to stop thinking that tweets and Instagram and Facebook and movies and art and culture and cinema are all directed towards them. Get over yourselves. It’s not directed to you. It’s for a certain group of people. We’re all different. That’s what they’re trying to do: The world’s trying to make us all the same.
FB: That’s inspiring that you are still willing to break against that and not to please everybody, and to please the ones that matter to you as an audience. I respect that.
MN: I feel like that’s my job at this point. I have to remain that way and go back to more of who I was when I got into this business because it ultimately is going to help everybody.
FB: With that then, do you feel like you’ve evolved as a filmmaker? I know that you said you were learning as you went on Crank, do you feel overall as a director, writer, producer, etc, that you’ve evolved?
MN: I… evolved in two parts. One is I’m a father of three, which immediately gives you a different perspective. Another reason why is I want to make movies that my kids can see. I’m not a better director or writer than when I wrote Crank 1 and I’m going to constantly make mistakes, but I’m going to try to get original material out there. There have been a lot of remakes and reboots that have come my way… but it’s not really a way to be happy or be inspired. It’s a year and a half of your life, maybe two, so you have to get behind it.
FB: With that said, you’ve been reasonably quiet over the last few years…I know Taylor is still working pretty regularly. May I just ask why?
MN: Couple reasons. I did take a whole bunch of time off popping out three kids. We opened up a company with Amazon, Heavy Dose. But, it’s also really difficult to get movies off the ground… [Only] Now we’re just getting back to Los Angeles, and we’re diving back in.
FB: Finally, and this is where I do become a hack… we’re never going to see Crank 3 are we?
MN: I think we will, I really do. I think it’s one of those things where enough time will pass, we’ll get through this political movement…
MN: Once they start allowing artists to be artists – and again, art doesn’t have to be mean, but it does have to be art and it does have to be original. The Crank 3 script that we did write was an empowering movie. It’s funny. Ultimately a lot of these films is good vs evil. First-person Chev Chelios thinks about is Eve, and the last person he called when he’s falling to his death. And these stories are about love, but love is really complicated and dynamic.
Mark’s company Heavy Dose can be found here.