'Takers' special effects are special because they're real
This may be the age of CGI, but the special effects that seem most special today are those done for real rather than by computer.
Practical effects, as they're known, are what director John Luessenhop gives us in "Takers," opening Friday via Screen Gems.
The action thriller about a bank robbing group of high-living young criminals features an ensemble cast, including Matt Dillon, Paul Walker and Idris Elba. The explosions, car chases, helicopter scenes, falling trucks and other effects driving "Takers" were almost all done the old fashioned way.
Actually, what Luessenhop ("Lockdown") could have used were some special effects to speed up the time it took "Takers" to reach the screen.
"I began writing this movie in 2000 and first gave the script to Clint Culpepper, the head of Sony/Screen Gems, in 2001 or '02," he told me. "We wanted to go forward at that time and bogged down because of casting."
It didn't help that another heist film, "The Italian Job," opened in 2003 and grossed over $106 million domestically.
"That put a big pause on what we were thinking of doing with our picture. We re-wrote it ultimately to distinguish it from 'The Italian Job.' "
O riginally, he saw "Takers" as a hipper version of Michael Mann's 1995 crime drama "Heat."
"We just said, 'Wouldn't it be interesting if there was a sort of younger version of it that maybe wasn't so bleak at the end?'"
Some of the delay involved Luessenhop's move from L.A. to Virginia where in '05 tragedy struck when one of his three sons was found unconscious and barely breathing at home. After two years of working with specialists, who ultimately saved the boy's life, Luessenhop was ready to go back to work and Culpepper was still keen to make the movie.
"The script was formally acquired by the studio on Oct. 31, the day before the (2007) Writers' Strike, and the papers had to be done by Midnight."
The screenplay credited to Peter Allen & Gabriel Casseus and John Luessenhop & Avery Duff reflects their joint decision not to ask the WGA to arbitrate the writing credits. Luessenhop notes that arbitration would have put each team at risk of getting less or no credit.
"Takers" was originally written for New York, but post-9/11 they couldn't fly helicopters over the city as the screenplay required.
"Then we rewrote it for San Francisco, which I felt was the ideal city for it. When Clint finally greenlit the picture he said, 'It's going to be a Los Angeles show.'" That enabled him to be there regularly during production.
access was important to the studio because "Takers'" $30 million budget, Luessenhop explains, was then "the biggest budget picture in the history of Screen Gems."
Moving the action to L.A. resulted in some story revisions to make the movie unique.
"We upscaled the clothing to make sure the picture was never perceived as a thug film or a lower end urban picture and especially when we had a multi-cultural cast it allowed for that. We tried always to be upscale and cool."
Production took place from September through November 2008 on a tight 46 day schedule, which was particularly challenging for a movie crammed with action set pieces.
"I just didn't want to use a bunch of computer-generated stuff. So we went practical with it, which really helps with the realism of the picture."
To make it all work Luessenhop shot with three cameras, doing 35 to 40 set-ups daily.
"The first A.D., Steve Danton, was great at breaking it down into units even within units so we could conquer as much film every day as we could."
In the film's opening heist scene a helicopter blows up in a Dodger Stadium parking lot.
"Just finding a bird that looked like what they really flew so we could blow it up took some scavenging. Once they've landed, they walk away with your cool guy walk, barely looking back at something that blows up behind them. The way we did it was as real as we could do it."
And then there's the big truck scene.
"All of that stuff is real, too. Those trucks are dropping into a hole that's 20 or 30 feet below them and driving over a truck that's there."
One of the biggest challenges was how to stop the truck.
"When we first designed the set it would go right through whatever was supporting it. It's a four ton truck! So they ended up building a trestle of cement that this thing really goes up against to prevent it from going further."
Despite all that action and violence, "Takers" is rated PG-13 as Screen Gems intended from the get-go.
"PG-13 enhances boxoffice because of the greater access to your audience. 13 year olds can walk in and see 'Takers' whereas they would have had to be with an adult if it had been R."
The economics are such, Luessenhop observes, that a studio needs a really good reason to make an R-rated movie these days.
With "Takers," he adds, "They didn't want to leave $10 million to $20 million on the table."
See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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