We visit the editing room to take a special look at Michael Davis' new bullet ballet
The eyes. Powerful. Grey. Character lines resting at the temporal flux of the forehead. A Sergio Leone close-up. Cut back to the entire face. We see that it is Clive Owen, unshaven. He brings a carrot up to his mouth, tearing at the tip like a pin in a grenade. Cut back again to reveal him sitting on a park bench. Alone. On a city street at night. A whimpering pregnant woman runs past him, holding her belly for dear life. He pays this odd bit of sidewalk theater no mind.
Seconds later, a thuggish lump of a man comes careening down the sidewalk, chasing after this new millennium Virgin Mary. Owen waits a beat before bowing his head in disgust, "Ah, fuck." Taking his carrot, he heads in the direction of the pursuer. We instinctively know what he has to do. Only, not to what extent.
These are the opening moments of Michael Davis' new bullet ballet entitled Shoot 'Em Up. It's possibly one of the craziest 86-minute stretches of film ever put to screen. Davis has taken Leone's detailed Western structuring and mixed it with a touch of John Woo gunplay, creating something that is wholly unique and utterly shocking. I only got to see about six scenes form the film (though I did watch practically the entire thing on fast forward) and it will be one of my personal favorites of the year. Yes, I can declare this statement after having only watched about seventeen minutes of it. Those seventeen minutes completely blew my eyeballs out the back of my head.
This is the action film I've been waiting to see for about a decade. And that's no lie. We have Clive Owen running around the entire time with a baby in his arms. We have a gratuitously over-the-top Paul Giamatti shooting a thousand bullets at him. And our heroine is a lactating hooker played by Monica Bellucci. This thing heaves like a Looney Tunes short on steroids.
A gaggle of other Internet journalists and I recently met up with Mike Davis at his editing suite in Burbank, California. There, he was putting a couple of finishing touches on the almost completed film. He brought us in, gave us some pizza, a can of Coke, and then literally chucked our collective brain out and onto the couch with some of the pieces he showed us.
Continuing with the opening scene, Clive runs into a factory warehouse. The thug has the pregnant woman cornered. Clive kicks up and jimmies the carrot through the guy's mouth so hard; it comes jutting out the back of his head in a spitball of blood. This crimson goo hits the screen in a spooge-pool that drips to reveal the title: Shoot 'Em Up!
When we come back to Clive, he is completely surrounded by a crew of gun toting loons. The scene erupts into a Crique Du Soleil show of spinning bullets. Owen shoots an oil drum, then slides through the slick in one long, even swoop shooting gangsters as he goes. It's prolonging and sort of goofy. Yet it never looses that truly hip vibe it's officially earned within seconds of its running time. We known for a fact that we are watching a live-action cartoon with this funny moment.
Clive manages to get the pregnant woman in a secluded corner. Lead is flying past both of them at an alarming rate. Our hero sees one of the shooters, a Guido in a cheap Italian suit. "I hate ponytails. They don't make you look hip, young, or cool." And with those deliciously delivered lines, Owen decimates the back of the guy's skull, shooting the ponytail into a matted mess of blood and hair that lands on the floor.
The pregnant lady drops to the concrete. The scene suddenly turns into a Lamaze class shoot-em-up, with Clive screaming, "Push! Push!" The baby pops into Owen's arms, and without hesitation, he blows the umbilical cord off with his gun.
Right when things couldn't get any more "what the f*ck am I watching", Paul Giamatti steps into frame. He pulls a gun out of his coat, and takes to shooting up the joint with the other thugs. At first, we're not sure if he's with the hero, or against him. But his intent to kill the baby becomes quite clear soon enough.
After a bit of breastfeeding, the pregnant woman is shot in the head. Clive scoops the baby up and screamingly asks, "Why are you trying to kill this woman." Giamatti answers this with the poem "Tit for Tat." The shoot out proceeds to the top of an abandoned building, where a neon sign is shot out to reveal a very funny joke. I wont spoil it for you. This is the opening five minutes of the film. A fast-paced collection of, "Oh, my God! Did I really see that?" moments that defiantly left me wanting more.
Mike Davis had a huge smile on his fast as he put the movie on pause. He's in love with his own work, and that feeling soon turned infectious. As over-the-top as it might be, I couldn't help but love it too. Davis stood in front of the television and gave us a little history lesson on the film...
The first thing he told us about was the sequel:
"New Line is hoping that there is a franchise. It's about the paperwork. I've talked to Clive, and he wants to do the sequel. He wants to have a franchise under his belt. But you know how these guys are. They want a slam-dunk. I'm psyched. It will be a little wilder than Shoot 'Em Up. I figured if I was doing the sequel, I couldn't wimp out. I had to push the stakes up a bit. I don't want to talk about the sequel too much yet. Right now, the script is a stand-alone story. It could be tweaked to be a sequel. What is it? A Fistful of Dollars and the The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. They both have the man with no name, but they don't really reference the other movies. I didn't want to get into a soap opera of carrying over the love interests."
Mike then showed us a stick figure animation of one of the scenes from the movie, "I basically went to New Line. They loved the script. Then I had fifteen minutes of this animation that I cut into a five-minute demo reel. They were a little afraid that Toby Emmerich wouldn't go for it. Because he just had a baby. And the movie has a baby in jeopardy. So they said, "No!" Then we went back, and said, "This is a great script. We can't let it die." We showed them the animation, and it was sort of a six months project in getting New Line invested in the movie. We showed the animation, and the script. Agencies were throwing everybody at us after that."
About getting Clive signed onto the picture, Davis tells us that, "My favorite person was Clive Owen. Most of our money comes from the foreign division, and they loved Clive. The matter was, "Is he available?" When we wanted to shoot the movie, he was still attached to Poseidon. He dropped out. I had drinks with him. We hit it off. The planets aligned."
Both Shoot 'Em Up and Children of Men revolve around babies. They also both star Clive Owen. Mike talked about the similarities between the two, "I knew there was a slight comparison with him being with a baby. I was extremely lucky to get him. He could have said, "I don't want to do two movies with a baby." Both movies are so soberingly different. I loved Children of Men, but this is so comic booky, over the top, and fun. I don't think he was ever bothered by it. I wasn't bothered by it. The one thing we did talk about was that the film opened with him delivering the baby. The first thing you hear is, "Push! Push!" It was crazy. It threw you right into the action. But we felt it was important to say, "Hey, this is more John Wooian." Because people were more clued into the drama of the baby. And the mom. They laughed, but they should have laughed a little bit louder at the ponytail being blown-off. So we ended up adding this whole acrobatic opening, with the oil slick and the plate-glass window, to tell people before the birthing that this wasn't Children of Men. That this was an out and out Shoot 'Em Up. I think it really helped the movie to add this action in front of the birthing scene. Audiences might make that comparison. But I don't think it is going to affect the film."
Michael Davis then showed us a spoiler that we are not allowed to discuss. All I will say is that it is very disturbing, and you will never be able to look at Paul Giamatti in the same way ever again. It's pretty gross. I can tell you that some of this scene involves a lactating hooker. It's pretty weird.
Davis tells us that some of Clive's personality came from his own feelings at the time, "I ended up becoming this kind of angry guy. I had written all of these scripts, and tried to make all these little movies. And I never felt like I could break through. Every little thing? I would hate it. Ponytails. Guys who drive badly on the road. I would get this inner anger from not being able to do want I wanted to do, and it manifested itself in me being irritated all the time with these little things. And that comes out through Clive Owen's character in the movie. He's always saying, "I hate guys with ponytails." He hates guys who sip their coffee and go, "Ah!" afterward. That actually is me. Yes. I hope none of you drink your coffee that way. And he has a nasty word for all you luxury car drivers. I found that it was a way to take my own personality and write it into a genre piece."
The next scene that he showed us was between Clive and Paul. A face off. Guns drawn. To give you a feel for the piece, and its connections to the world of Warner Brothers' animation, here is a taste of the dialogue...
Mr. Smith (Clive Owen): What's up, Doc?
Mr. Hertz: Oh, you're a wascally wabbit...But you're not wascally enough!
Davis explained the scene, "The only reason I show that is, as the movie progressed, and because Clive sort of has this Bugs Bunny quality, he was always getting out of these crazy situations and screwing Paul Giamatti, this line was already in the movie. It really does have a Looney Tunes quality. We enhance that later in the film. Paul Giamatti's ring tone is the Vuagner "Kill the Rabbit! Kill the Rabbit!" It's trying to tell the audience that, even with all this dark stuff involving the baby, the movie is supposed to be light. It is an ultra-violent cartoon. I kind of like their play there. It sort of enhances their Looney Tunes aspect."
Mr. Hertz: Does anybody know what a Jimmy Cagney love scene is? That's where Jimmy Cagney lets the good guy live. If that happens in this show, I'm going to do a lot more than ask for my money back. Let's go!
Davis described his aesthetic coming into the piece, "I wanted to do a gun fight where the guy is entirely on the run. I just like the fact that it is entirely in motion. It never stops. It's not about guys hiding. It feels more energized. I like characters that are diving and rolling around. To me, I want to be the hero. And when the guy is tumbling around, being a human bullet, that makes me feel like the hero. It's as fast, and I'm feeling what the hero is feeling."
Does Davis have a total count of the deaths that take place in the film? "I don't. It's pretty high. I was wondering if we should do the Jelly Bean jar and have a contest. But then you'd be wondering if some of these guys are really dead. I guess it would be the hits."
We were shown one of the signature car scenes form the film, which owes as much to the Coen Brothers' film Raising Arizona as it does John Woo's Hard Boiled. In it, we see Clive, his carrot, and the baby in a red BMW taking on a gang of thugs in a recreational van. The car gets flipped, and the baby goes flying out the window. Clive has to spin the BMW around and scoop the baby off the pavement before the van can get to it. He misses. The Van is closing in. Owen unhooks his seatbelt, a drives head-on into the coming vehicle. He is thrown through the windshield of one car into the other, where he lands in the back of the van and shoots all of its occupants.
Mr. Smith: So Much for wearing your seatbelt.
"You know, I would like the hero to have some clever way to get out of something than an organic explosion. I like that this light bulb goes off in his head, and he executes it. At the very beginning of this car chase, Clive buckles his seatbelt. I've had people say, "Why is he buckling his seatbelt? They never do that when they jump into the car." Well, I needed him to buckle the seatbelt to help tell the story. He's up to something. He unbuckles the seatbelt, and you know that he is going to go through that windshield. I like the build-ups and the pay offs of an action scene. It helps the story, and it helps the audience understand what he did."
About working with the baby, Davis said, "No, we didn't use a doll all of the time. We got very lucky. There are a few doll shots. There are a number of visual replacement shots where we drew in the baby's head. But we got really lucky. Here in L.A., the rule is that they can only be in front of the camera for a half hour a day. But when we went up to Canada, the babies could be in front of the camera for eight hours a day. The rule was that they could be on for fifteen minutes, and then they needed a twenty-minute break. But we had twins. So, virtually, we could have a baby whenever we wanted. That eased it up a lot. Whenever possible, I had the live baby. Because we just couldn't cheat it. It was a great call on our part. We were really nervous about working with the babies. The babies weren't around when we would shoot live loads, but of course, now, you can do the digital mussel flashes. We could have the baby around, and we just cheated it."
Just when we thought they couldn't add anything new to the mix, along comes this action extravaganza. Shoot 'Em Up looks to be an extremely exciting, fresh take on the bullet ballet aesthetic. I personally can't wait to watch the finished product. Shoot 'Em Up opens on September 7th. Expect to hear more about this movie in the months to c come.