Director David R. Ellis talks Cellular
David R. Ellis has racked-up some pretty impressive credits, serving as an Assistant Director on a number of popular action films, including The Matrix: Reloaded, The Perfect Storm, and Patriot Games, just to name a few. Last year he hit hard with his second directorial effort, the gore-soaked sequel Final Destination 2. Now, he continues perusing the Funcore genre with another crowd-pleasing gem aptly titled: Cellular.
Cellular manages to be a fast-moving, highly enthusiastic shot of adrenalin that is as inventive with its script as it is enjoyable to watch. David recently sat down with Movieweb to discuss this, his latest effort…
O: Do we see this as a realistic movie?
Ellis: I think that is determined by how you interpret it. I think it is a "movie". Is it realistic? Could it happen in your life? Maybe. Maybe not. On this level, are you going to get a cell phone call from someone that has been kidnapped by dirty cops? Probably not. Will there come a time when someone is in need that you could help? Probably so. This is a movie, after all. But I think if anybody gets anything out of the film, maybe we can make them think about helping someone that is in need. Twenty years ago, you could go out here on PCH and hitchhike to Malibu. You can't go out there and do that now. Nobody will pick you up. They're worried about, are you going to cut their throat, or what's going to happen to them. The landscape of what people do to help each other has changed. If we get anything out of this, it's "Would you help someone that is in need?" After all, it's still just a "movie".
O: Larry Cohen also wrote Phone Booth. Is there a phone trilogy on the way?
Ellis: I'm not sure about that. We're going to get hammered for that, I'm sure. People are going to say, "Is this just a rip-off of Phone Booth?" With a new kind of setting. I think the concept he came up with is cool. Cell phones are a big part of everybody's lives. A lot of people have experienced cross talk, where someone answers a wrong number. Stuff like that. So, could this happen? Maybe. But we're going to be compared to Phone Booth. I'm sure.
O: That was a much more static movie. It took place in one setting. Whereas, this movie is constantly on the move.
O: Could someone really download a videotape onto their cell phone like Chris Evans does in the movie?
O: How would you do that?
Ellis: I'm not a computer guy. But on my cell phone, I can access the Internet. I can send stuff to my email. And this new phone actually does everything you saw in the movie…So, yes you could download video.
O: We see that the phone can do all these things. Couldn't he have put her on hold and called the police?
Ellis: It's a fine line. At the same time we're saying the phone can do all of these things, the phone can actually do more things that would have made the movie end a lot sooner. He could have put her on hold and called the cops, and then maybe try to trace the call. All kinds of stuff. But those are problems that, when you're developing the script, you don't see. You start filming, and you go, "Wow." Then you go, "Hopefully, people will get caught up in the movie and have a good time." It's like any movie. You can tear it apart logically. A lot of people are going to wonder about the cross talk. A lot of people are going to wonder why he didn't put her on hold and call someone else. But he still doesn't know where she is. They'd have to go through some FBI thing. We tried to keep it that, he really didn't have time to do all those things. There was always something he had to do or react to, instead of taking the time to stop and think. Or convince the FBI that he's got a lady on the phone and that they need to trace the call. This and that. So, we tried to keep it moving. He has to go to the school; he has to get the charger…
O: Did you basically film this as two different movies?
Ellis: Yes. What we did was, we only had Kim for about three weeks. We filmed the entire movie, prior to giving the last three weeks of production to her. We then got Kim, and we did all of her stuff. We started, unfortunately, with the last scene of the movie first. That was her first day. Then we did everything inside the attic. Then we had Chris Evans on stage, hidden from Kim, doing all the dialogue, so that she heard on the phone, Chris's side of the story.
O: Can you talk about casting Chris?
Ellis: We saw every hot young actor there is. From Shane West, to Ashton Kutcher, to Topher Grace, to all those guys. Ashton was interested, but he had a lot of other things going on. But we saw every other guy that was in that age range. We didn't see Josh Hartnett, but we saw Jason Biggs, and all those other guys. And they were all really, really good. Chris just brought something fresh, and he really nailed his test.
O: Did you hire him just on the basis of that?
Ellis: Well, he had to come back and do it three times to convince the studio. The studios are always looking for someone that is going to mean something to the domestic box office, or Internationally, to help sell the film. Initially, they were a little skeptical. After they kept seeing the test that he did, they agreed to let me take a chance on Chris. And I think Chris will be a big star in the future.
O: Did you incorporate some of your own experiences with living in LA into the creation of this script?
Ellis: What I tried to do with this film…I mean, I love shooting all over the world, but I have a great crew in LA. And a lot of films go out of LA, and I really fought to keep the film here. And then, because I grew up in Malibu, I tried to show a part of LA that you don't see a lot. Which is Venice and Santa Monica, and try to keep it opened up.
O: In the film, you use LAX as a backdrop. Obviously, you couldn't shoot at the airport. Where were those scenes done?
Ellis: That is the real LAX. It's just a part that you've never seen…No, that was the Anaheim Convention Center, which a lot of people play for LAX, because it's really open inside. We went in and dressed it, and made it look like LAX, hopefully.
O: Why did the husband put the tape in the safety deposit box? Couldn't he have just taken it to a news reporter?
Ellis: You know; we went through so many things…This movie changed a lot throughout the development of the script. Originally, it was a computer chip. Once we brought it to LA, we tried to find something that worked for Los Angeles. It became these dirty cops. We weren't sure, initially, what to do with the tape. Was he going to run with it and keep it on him? Or was he going to try and hide it? Kim's husband; once he's got the tape, what's he going to do with it? He knows these guys are cops. He knows these guys have seen him. He knows they've probably run his license plate number to find out where he lives and who he is. He knows they're going to come after him. The only thing we felt was, he could run to a news station, but he's probably putting his family in jeopardy at home. So, maybe the best thing he has going for himself is to put it in a safe place. So that he can try and bargain with these guys incase they do come after him. Then he's got some leverage.
O: So, everything that was video taped happened in the morning?
Ellis: Yes, it happened that morning.
O: How are the LAPD to deal with when you tell them that you're making a movie about dirty cops?
Ellis: Are you kidding? We don't tell them that.
O: They don't want to know what the context is, or anything?
Ellis: No. Not when you're dealing with the LAPD for traffic control. That's what it is. You're hiring off-duty cops to come in and watch the set. I know a lot of LAPD guys, and this is probably going to be a sensitive issue with them. I just want to say, up front, that I didn't write this. I have the utmost respect for the LAPD, but unfortunately a few things have happened in LA that are similar to this.
O: When you use the LAPD as a character in the film, there are no proprietary things to consider? They don't control your take on the LAPD?
Ellis: No. Not at all. We made it a fictitious station. When we hire LAPD on the set, they're just coming to lockdown the streets and give us access to locations. They have no clue as to what it is we're doing. You can use the LAPD to get their endorsement. I'm not sure, legally, how all that works. All I know is that legally, we could use their name.
O: Can you talk about some of the other changes that were made to the original script?
Ellis: Yeah, the changes we made…What I did with all these characters, I let the actors come in and redefine who they were. Bill Macey's role was originally written as an overweight cop with a heart problem that is constantly eating donuts and stuff. And the guys in the precinct are constantly telling him to lighten up, that he has to eat healthy food. When Bill came in to talk about the character, he totally wanted to change it to a cop that was at the end of his retirement. And he's now going to do something for his wife who has stood by him for all these years. And help her open this day spa. That became the thing they started to kid him about. As far as on the set, if there's dialogue that we'd written, and it was in the script, and it wasn't working, we'd constantly change it to make it work for the characters. As far as the actors talking into the cell phone, but they're not talking to anybody…What we did with Chris is, we were doing tow shots with Chris in the car, and we didn't have Kim. We wouldn't have her for ten weeks. We hired an actress and put her in a minivan that was all set up with video monitors. That was like the command van, and it would go ahead of Chris. I could see what the camera would see on the video monitors in this van. Then I would have an actress on a microphone reading Kim's lines to Chris. At least he had someone delivering him the lines. He wasn't just talking to himself and remembering his lines. He had someone to interact with, and someone that could give a performance, even though it wasn't Kim. That way, he could get into his character, and show emotion.
O: How did Noah Emmerich get this role?
Ellis: How did Noah get this job? Noah's a good actor. And I like Noah. I thought he was great in Miracle. I think he's really good at what he does. Toby didn't come to me and say, "Hire Noah." We just thought Noah would be great for the part, and when we approached him, he initially turned us down. Then, I talked with him on the phone, and we talked about the part. He had some bigger offers at the time. But, what we did was rework the schedule so that he could do it.
O: Do you have any future projects lined up?
Ellis: I'm looking at some stuff. Hopefully another film for New Line. I just want another job. Hopefully I'll get one.
O: What do you consider to be the quintessential David Ellis film?
Ellis: I don't think that film has been made yet. I hope to do that in the future.