Bastille Day Q & A - James Watkins

Bastille Day is about to hit the cinemas in NZ so we have secured some chats with the stars... Here's the director James Watkins

After the enormous success of the movie version of The Woman In Black, director James Watkins returns to our screens with Bastille Day. Set in modern-day Paris, it follows a ruthless CIA agent Sean Briar (Idris Elba) and young pickpocket Michael Mason (Richard Madden) as they are brought together in pursuit of a terrorist group.

QUESTION: Was attracted you to Bastille Day? Was it the chance to do something opposite to The Woman In Black?

JAMES WATKINS: I didn’t do it just for that reason but it certainly was an attraction. I guess you come to projects for lots of reasons. One is, hopefully, story. I liked the Hitchcockian set-up of the story; the wrong man gets the bag that is the catalyst for all the events, in a North By Northwest sort of a way – that double-chase structure you have in a Hitchcock film, where they’re trying to find one thing out and the other people are after them. That was one reason. And the other reason – and I know this doesn’t strictly relate to the film I’ve made – is that I’m a massive [Jean-Pierre] Melville fan. This is not in any way in the world of Melville. It’s more in the world of 48 Hours, Dirty Harry or Midnight Run. Some of that buddy stuff. Particularly with Idris Elba’s character – whether it’s Popeye Doyle or Dirty Harry. I introduced Idris to some of these references. I said, ‘You’ve got to see Lee Marvin as Walker in Point Blank.’ With Idris, his character in Luther is a much more a vocalised, outward performance, whereas here, he’s much more withheld; a man of few words and doing a lot less. He’s got such a screen presence. And I wanted to show him Lee Marvin, who is the master of it.

QUESTION: Had Idris not seen Point Blank?

JAMES WATKINS: I’m not sure he had. I showed him the famous sequence; I was in his office and I showed him online the scene in the opening when he’s walking down the hallway. And in the tiniest way, the little bit in the corridor is my tiniest reference to Point Blank! So coming back to Melville…I thought, ‘A thriller on the streets of Paris! That’s great.’ And then when Idris was interested, I just thought, ‘Wow!’ We’re very lucky at the moment with British actors: [Michael] Fassbender, [Tom] Hardy, [Benedict] Cumberbatch, Idris…there’s a few of them. I’ve been lucky, I’ve worked with Fassbender [on Eden Lake] and Idris is in that space for me. He’s got the physicality, he’s got the charisma. But what I really love, and what those guys like Hardy and Michael and Idris do…it’s just the little moments. I know this is a roaring action movie, but there’s a moment where he finds the hanging body and you just breathe on him for a minute. I just can feel the cogs turning and the thought processes. He just does that so well.

QUESTION: This feels like a film that shows Idris could play James Bond, as many are saying. What do you think?

JAMES WATKINS: I think he could do it, a hundred percent. I feel for Idris – it’s not something he can control. But he would be fantastic. At the same time, does it need to be Bond? What struck me about this…he hasn’t been given the platform to showcase himself in this way. And there’s an opportunity here. He hasn’t really done this, in this way.

QUESTION: It’s like Liam Neeson doing Taken after a career of making other sorts of movies…

JAMES WATKINS: Yeah, completely. I think Idris is young, he’s fit, he’s physical…Liam Neeson is a good analogy in a way, because they’re both classy actors. Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender…all these guys can inhabit those spaces.

QUESTION: The film is quite funny – especially the dialogue with Richard Madden. Was that in the script already or did that develop as Idris got on board?

JAMES WATKINS: We pushed it. It was something that I bought out. Again, those Seventies/Eighties references…I was talking about this with my editor…the original Beverly Hills Cop wasn’t going to be an Eddie Murphy movie. And we’re not quite in that space. We’re not quite as action-comedy. But one of the things about Bastille Day is that it’s surprisingly funny. I pushed that element of it. If you look at the original Beverly Hills Cop, the bad guys are playing it as bad guys; they’re not hamming it up. It’s real. And I loved the way in those Seventies/Eighties movies, what’s raw and real is raw and real. But through character, you can have those interactions, some humour can come out in terms of the exchanges. To have that light and shade, and to hold that tonally within a movie, is something those films did and something I was trying to get to.

QUESTION: How was it shooting in Paris?

JAMES WATKINS: They won’t shoot long hours. We had a lovely French crew, but with the unions, you lose an hour or two in the day, so you have to work a lot quicker. You have the most amazing lunches! Ridiculous! They have wine – it’s absurd! But it was a real privilege, really, and obviously with everything that’s happened, shooting in Paris is much harder now. We wanted to showcase a different Paris. There’s obviously the Paris that everybody sees. We were way out – in Aubervilliers; areas of Paris that never get filmed in.  There are security issues in some of those places, and you have to have people look after you, but it’s a fascinating, working city and I wanted to capture some of that. Again, going back to those movies in the Seventies, with hand-held cameras, I wanted to have that feel – that French Connection/Friedkin feeling of being on the streets and in those worlds. When we started the film, we did recce Budapest and Brussels to shoot as Paris, but I was like, ‘It’s got to be Paris!’

QUESTION: Did Richard Madden train in pickpocket skills?

JAMES WATKINS: Yes. We had this guy – whose nickname was Keith The Thief. He does party tricks, but he was this amazing pickpocket and he taught Richard. I’m sure Richard can’t do it anymore, but back then…everything was on camera. We had even more stuff on camera but I couldn’t use it, because it was just so good, I thought, ‘Audiences will just think there is some trickery.’

QUESTION: Did Richard come on board after Idris?

JAMES WATKINS: I cast Idris first. So I knew I had Idris, and then I met with Richard and had to weigh that up. You always hope the chemistry will work and you go with your gut. Sometimes you’re wrong. But what was great was that those two really get on. They didn’t know each other before, but they developed this relationship and that ongoing relationship played as we were shooting the film. It fed into the shooting. They did a lot of improvised banter during the shoot; some of it in the film – a little bit of it we used. They had the chemistry – which you can’t fake!

QUESTION: So off-camera was Idris bullying Richard?

JAMES WATKINS: No! Well, they have a very sparky, fun relationship off-camera. They get on very well but the same sort of banter exists off camera. Playful.

QUESTION: What surprised you the most moving from The Woman In Black to this?

JAMES WATKINS: I don’t think there were so many surprises. It was more the physical effort to try and get everything on screen. With action, I knew this going in, but it’s incredibly labour-intensive. If you’re going to create a film of this pace, and with the action sequences giving them this intensity, you just have to shoot so much and cover it so much, to be able to create that energy. I wanted the action on screen; I wanted the money on screen. And so I pretty much killed the crew! My cameraman Tim, who has done my last two films, at the end of it, he couldn’t walk. He was staggering. It was worse for him because he has a very heavy Arri Alexa camera on his shoulder the whole time. I think he was probably lop-sided by the end of it. In that way, it was physically very demanding for the crew. I think on the rooftop one day we did 88 set-ups – really pushing and pushing. And you have to do that. It’s not like a Bond film, where you have a seven, eight month shoot. And you don’t want to feel like you’re the poor relation. You want that money on screen, so you have to work at such a relentless pace to get that on screen.

QUESTION: Were you influenced by other action movies for these scenes?

JAMES WATKINS: I watched basically every chase I could find. I said, ‘I want to make a chase that can compete. I want this up there with them and to do everything we can so this chase lives.’ We storyboarded it massively and plotted it out. I wanted that vertiginous sense – and I’m scared of heights!  We shot some stuff, a tiny moment, up in Notre Dame with the gargoyles, and I was pinned against the wall, shuffling around, with everybody laughing at me! I steal from everywhere. You have to. Who has done this well? What is shot well? Where can you create the most energy? Where does the camera go? There’s a wire-cam shot, which I think I’d seen in a Bourne film – so we have a stuntman on a wire, tracking him as he runs across, and we were trying to figure out how to do those types of shots.

QUESTION: What about the film’s backdrop, with the anti-fascist protests? Was that ripped from the headlines?

JAMES WATKINS: Well, to talk about Paul Greengrass, who is a filmmaker I really admire…I loved the way a film like Captain Phillips is an incredibly nerve-shredding, tense film…it’s a Friday night movie that glances at globalisation. And here’s a film in Paris…what I liked about the story and what I really wanted to preserve was the social anxieties that it glances at. It’s a tricky one. It’s a big fun Friday night movie. It’s not The Battle of Algiers. You don’t want to sound like you’re pontificating; let’s not go overboard. But at the same time, I think it can reflect those social anxieties and glance at them, and I think it’s more interesting for that. Rather than just existing in some weird, hermetically-sealed universe where it’s just an action movie that has no connection with the world in which we live. I love trying to smuggle those things in as much as possible, those ideas, in the casting of it. We’re in these suburbs and there’s a lot of disenfranchisement; we have the Occupy London, Occupy Paris movements, people feeling excluded. And that sense of communities feeling excluded. This combustible world which can be manipulated, and that’s ultimately what the bad guys do I suppose.

QUESTION: Did the pattern of the film change given the terror attacks in Paris in November?

JAMES WATKINS: Yes. We were mindful of the release, and the release has been delayed simply because of events. There’s not much you can say except it’s very sad and you know people and your thoughts are with them.

QUESTION: What is next for you?


JAMES WATKINS: I’m developing Harry Palmer. Michael Caine. A complete reboot. So watch this space. But there’s a lot of very interesting British actors that could be Harry Palmer. 

Bastille Day is in New Zealand Cinemas from 12th May 2016


Rated R16 - Contains Violence, offensive language & nudity