The director praises Bruce Willis and loves elephants

Richard Donner has made a career of gritty cop films. The Lethal Weapon franchise solidified Mel Gibson as a star and earned a billion dollars to boot. With 16 Blocks, he takes a much more personal angle to the characters and story. Here's Richard take on working with Bruce Willis, portraying dirty cops, and saving elephants in Alaska.

What does Bruce Willis bring to this film?

Richard Donner: Bruce has done some really unusual films. 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, he's really a good actor. He always plays relatively macho and within his age parameters. We just thought here's a guy that maybe will take a chance. He's a good actor; we know he takes chances on other roles. Will he take a chance and put himself in a category that a lot of young actors on that middle road don't want to put themselves in, because there's no going back. In this case, he can go back anytime he wants.

Were you surprised at all that he agreed to take that chance?

Richard Donner: No, not really. We felt that the minute he reads it, being an actor and being such a good role. He aged himself physically with the moustache and hairdo. He promised he'd put a paunch on, but he forgot, so we built one. The interesting thing, with all of that, if you really want to study him and see how dissipated, alcoholic and what internal problems this man is living with, look in his eyes in this movie. It's extraordinary. He's a solid. I don't want to say he surprised me, but he's really a solid actor. He made that work.

How difficult was it to film in Chinatown? That's an awfully busy area.

Richard Donner: You have to make an announcement that I'm shooting. Could you please not look at the camera, and don't be on the street if you don't want to be in it, and people kept going. We had 150 extras or something and we'd fill in the foregrounds. It was really no problem whatsoever. We shot 14 blocks in Toronto and 2 blocks in New York, 10 weeks there and 2 weeks there. A lot of that is Toronto, but we had a really good production designer, and it's hard to find the cut where it happens.

The names of the characters are Bunker and Mosely. Were they based on the writers Edward Bunker and Walter Mosely?

Richard Donner: Yes. I was always a big fan of Edward Bunker's stuff and I struggled a long time to find the right name. It just sounded right.

The story seems to be inspired by Clint Eastwood's "The Gauntlet". Was that an influence?

Richard Donner: Get out of here! (laughs) Clint's a dear friend. I was in Hawaii with him, and he asked what I was doing next. I told him I was doing this picture. He asked what it was about. He says, "A bus? That sounds familiar!" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Did you see The Gauntlet?"

Were you worried about portraying cops so negatively?

Richard Donner: They're not bad guys. I'm friendly with a lot of cops because of all the cop things I've done over the years. They're the most frustrated group of human beings. They'll get a murder case, and they're on it for two days and then they're taken off to go on another murder case. It's their personal mission to solve those cases, and it becomes almost impossible. Are these bad cops? In reality, yes, in their minds, no. They'll do anything to put the bad guys away, and we say it. They cross the line, and David Morse's character says it to Bruce in the end. I assume it happens every day. Are they bad cops? Do they take crap? Do they kill people indiscriminately? No, they're bad cops because they crossed the line to do the right thing.

Can you talk about the two different endings for the movie and did you test them to see which one would work?

Richard Donner: They were two endings and I completed them and tested them the same night; two theatres right next to each other. They're almost exactly the same, and the decision in a strange way came from the finest producer I've ever worked for, Lauren Schuler-Donner, my wife. She said, "Look this is a guy who has suffered the last part of his life in the worst way. He's got an opportunity now to go through a change. He's tried everything. You care for him. You see him pulling and fighting for it. Give him a chance. Give the world a chance to see that there is an upside that you can change." And I love happy endings.

We assume there wasn't a happy ending in the other one.

Richard Donner: No, he dies.

Whose idea was it for Mos Def to speak that way?

Richard Donner: When Mos suddenly became available, because his picture dropped out, we sent him a letter, along with some notes and the script, and used the word that Eddie is somewhat savant-like. And that was something that stuck with Mos and inspired him to come up with that sort of approach to his voice.

We've heard that Mos Def did a lot of improvising. Is this true and were there any particular scenes?

Richard Donner: There's the scene where Eddie puts the gun against David [Morse]. The scene was written like he puts the gun on him and says "You can get lucky all day" and then the scene was over. But not to Mos. Mos felt, growing up in Brooklyn and being oppressed by police most of his young life, that if that character had a gun on a cop, then it wouldn't just stop with that one moment and he took it further. But you have to accept those things, because I didn't grow up in Brooklyn and I didn't grow up in that neighborhood and I'm not African American, so that is something you have to embrace.

Talk about how you shot the film. It has a very claustrophobic feel to it.

Richard Donner: This was a claustrophobic film. It was basically a two-people picture. It wasn't a visual tour of New York, and I felt that if you're really involved with somebody in conversation, that's all you see, his face and he sees yours, and it keeps the thoughts tight, and we opened it up once in awhile. We tried to keep that gritty look. The cameraman was wonderful, Glenn McPherson, a great cameraman.

Are you involved in the remake of the The Omen?

Richard Donner: No, they didn't even call me.

How do you feel about it?

Richard Donner: Well, you know they're doing it on everything now. It's too bad because there are so many great original pieces of material around they're afraid to take a hand on. I wish they'd have called me just to ask if I had any thoughts, but I never got a call.

Can you talk about this other project you're working?

Richard Donner: It's this true story of this zoo in Anchorage, Alaska that housed two elephants and they're stuck in a pen and one of them has died already, and the other one is dying. I offered to buy the elephant and transport it to a wildlife refuge, but it's privately owned so they refused, it's just ego and things, and the poor thing is dying. And the idea is that, along the lines of Free Willy, these bunch of kids steal the elephant and transport it. It's going to have a much greater sense of reality than Willy did, cause Willy was in a period and it's almost for adults. It will start in Alaska and end up in a true sanctuary in Northern California, a couple thousand acres, where they bring the circus elephants, and the ones that have their own life to retire.

Will you shoot in Alaska?

Richard Donner: Oh, yeah… we may do it in Canada if we have the same conditions where we can find a city that has a zoo.

16 Blocks opens everywhere this Friday.