'Peppermint' Director on His Female-Led Action Film, Jennifer Garner's Return to the Genre

Director Pierre Morel spoke with The Hollywood Reporter regarding his latest vigilante action film.

Pierre Morel is no stranger to action.

The cinematographer-turned-director was behind From Paris with Love, The Gunman, starring Sean Penn and Javier Bardem, and Liam Neeson's Taken. But Morel's latest feature marks a first for the veteran. Peppermint is Morel’s first female-led action film, following Riley North, played by Jennifer Garner, a mother who sets out for revenge against the cartel that murdered her husband and daughter.

Morel spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his working relationship with Garner during the production, why he wanted to direct a female-led action film and how his appeal to action stories goes beyond the genre itself.

How did you find this project?

The script actually came from a meeting with Chad [St. John, Peppermint's screenwriter] which we met like a year and a half ago, just a general meeting in Los Angeles. A few weeks later he reached out and sent me the script. He just finished writing and I liked it immediately because it was exactly what I was looking for at the time, which was an action movie with a female lead but with a heart, with a strong emotional reason for the action to take place. And that’s what the script delivered.

What kinds of training did Jennifer Garner have to go through before filming began?

Making action movies is challenging for the actors. I always tend to push the lead actors to do more of their action themselves and not have stunt people to do the job. So from the get-go we agreed with Jen that she would do all the fights herself. She had to train physically. It was tiring, but she was very fit and eager to do action over and over again throughout the day. It was a consuming and tiring process. And then to have some gun-handling training. She has already done that a lot in Alias but you need to be so consistent, so perfect, and she trained for three or four months to just for acquiring all those capacities.

Jennifer has not done a heavy action role in a while — what will surprise audiences most about seeing her in the genre?

There’s two different Jens. There’s the Jen that people knew from Alias. She’s the action hero Jen. And people are actually very happy to see her again doing that kind of thing. And there’s the most recent Jen, who is the fantastic human being, a mother who’s everybody’s favorite mom, basically. She is the best of both worlds. She is an action woman and she is a wonderful mother. And both take place in Peppermint.

Were you purposefully looking to make a story with a female protagonist?

It was something that I have been looking for for a few years already. I know that it’s very trendy now, because of all these very, very timely female empowerment and #MeToo but I was looking for that for a while. Most of what we see for a while, movies that were written for a male and just reworked by saying ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ but it doesn’t necessarily work. None of the stuff I found before was right and this one was actually the first one that I was really happy about. It’s about time we have a female lead in this macho-driven genre.

You have spent your directing career working with big male stars — what were the unique storytelling challenges of working on a project with a female protagonist?

I guess the psychology is different. The reason that makes a mother do what she does might be different from a father. Very often, women are stronger in real life. Very strong, mentally. So it was just very interesting to finally show.

With Taken and The Gunman and now Peppermint, you have become known for directing projects in the action/thriller space. What is it about this genre that gravitates you toward these sort of films?

Weirdly enough, I’m not specifically attached to action. I’d be happy to do something else. What is fun is the combination of the high-octane adrenaline combined with drama and, in all those movies, I try to have a combination of both. Once again, it could be action, it could be something else. Growing up as a kid, being able to shoot stuff and blow up stuff is funny. It’s a lot of fun to do. But action for action’s sake, I’m not really into that. I need to find a good story that drives the action and not the other way around.

You have been working in the action thriller genre for a number of years now. How have you seen the genre change? And where do you see it going?

Somehow I see less and less of those movies. I see more and more big superhero movies. Which are great, by the way. For some reason, the action movies is kind of — not a dying breed — but I’ve seen less of them somehow. I hope it changes. Cinema is an ever-changing industry. There’s genres that become very powerful and very popular and then it changes.

But people don’t care about the genre. Me, as an audience member, I don’t care about the genre by itself. I just wanna see a good movie. I wanna be transported whether it’s by sci-fi, superhero, action, drama. I don’t really mind. As long as we’re making good movies, whatever they are, maybe we’ll go on. The show will go on.