In the arena of Hollywood comebacks - John Travolta, Mickey Rourke, Broadway-style musicals - the return of Jean-Claude Van Damme, in a vehicle that actually requires him to stretch his acting muscles, is most astounding.
Who'd have thought the Muscles from Brussels could do more than just smite, that he could truly emote? Remember, this isn't like watching Sylvester Stallone take on a serious acting role (Sly has proven his chops in films like Cop Land, First Blood and Rocky, for which he was Oscar-nominated). This is Van Damme, whose career high points - till now - were limited to Bloodsport, Timecop and Death Warrant.
It turns out that JCVD director/co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri was pretty confident that Van Damme could pull off the complex task of playing himself, a washed-up action star, in a seriocomic thriller in which he gets trapped in a bank heist.
El Mechri sat down with NOW during the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss working with Van Damme.
Were you always a fan of Jean-Claude?
He's one of my childhood heroes. I was a first-generation Bloodsport fan and a fan up until Death Warrant. But I started to pull the posters off my wall at Double Impact.
How did the first draft of the script differ from the rewrites?
That draft didn't get Jean-Claude. It didn't get that he was a huge, huge star to a lot of people who grew up watching his movies. The script was kind of a fake Die Hard: Jean-Claude's stuck in a robbery and scared of guns. It didn't have the heart, the story about Jean-Claude coming to Hollywood with $200 and struggling to make it as an actor.
What elements did you want to bring to the story?
I was interested in the rise and fall of Jean-Claude Van Damme, coupled with a really good hostage situation. Everyone assumed I was going to do something funny with him, to parody him, but I can't stand that. It wouldn't be fair. He's a funny guy who can poke fun at himself, but he's so much more than that.
The opening scene is a single four-minute take of the most intense action sequence ever to appear in a Van Damme movie. How did that come about?
The first idea for the opening was to have two Jean-Claude Van Dammes, because the twin thing keeps coming back in his career. But I wanted a straight fighting sequence. It took eight weeks to choreograph. I intentionally put young stuntmen in the scene, because he's 47 and I wanted him to be tired and pissed off fighting them.
How much input did Jean-Claude have in that scene?
He was used to having all the control on his films. At our very first meeting I told him, "I'm the director. I make the decisions. I make the casting choices, the script choices, the shot choices." The only scene he tried to control was the fighting scene, but I wouldn't let him. For eight weeks it was a hell of meetings with him while we choreographed.
The other great scene is this existential confession he makes during the hostage-taking that's so raw and honest, it really shows his ability as an actor. How did that scene come together?
We didn't write that scene. He called me the night before the first day of shooting. It was 2 am and he was really scared. He wanted to talk about things to put in the movie - we needed to talk about his drug use, the divorce, custody battles - and I said we didn't need that stuff. But I made a deal with him that he would get to create one scene, and if it worked I would include it. I didn't want to shoot him snorting coke or doing anything like that. What I was interested in was him telling those stories. He said, "No, I can't do it," so with a little coaching we shot the scene with just him and the camera and myself and no one else. I had a black curtain hiding the rest of the crew, and we didn't tell anyone what we were going to shoot. It wasn't scripted. It was a complete improvisation from the things he had sketched out that he wanted to talk about, and he did it in one take.
Were you surprised at how raw his performance was?
He's pretty naked in the film. He had to act, to play a real character that happens to be based on him. He told me that in the process of being a star he'd lost confidence in directors, in being directed, because he could control most everything going on on a set. He was fragile. I wouldn't let him have control. Only once did he call "Cut!" on my film, and I promise he didn't do it again. I was so mad.
What's next? Reviving Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris?
No, no. A romantic comedy, like Punch Drunk Love, called The Midwife Crisis, with Vanessa Paradis, about a weird affair between a midwife and a loan shark.
Is there a part for Vanessa's significant other?
Johnny Depp? Nope. It would overshadow the film. But I'd love to work with him given the right script.