HEAT VISION

How 'Rogue' Filmmaker M.J. Bassett Used the Action Genre to Condemn South African Lion Farming

ROGUE
Courtesy of Lionsgate
The filmmaker also discusses why she’s unlikely to revisit 'Strike Back' and her status on Showtime’s 'Halo' series.

M.J. Bassett knows how to pack a punch in a short amount of time. After her 2012 psychological horror film, Silent Hill: Revelation, underperformed critically and commercially, Bassett received an email from her friend and former collaborator Philip Winchester about directing Cinemax’s high-octane action series Strike Back. The exchange led to a meeting with the show’s producers, and within a couple years, Bassett had successfully revitalized her career as an “in-house” director on television’s most action-packed series. From there, Bassett was able to apply her skill set of creating cinematic action set pieces on a TV schedule to other genre shows including Altered Carbon, Iron Fist and Ash vs. Evil Dead.

Bassett’s success on television also relaunched her feature film career as 2020’s Rogue is the second of three films she’s directed since wrapping her commitment to Strike Back in 2018. Rogue also fuses two of Bassett’s greatest passions: action movies and conservation. The Lionsgate actioner tracks a stranded team of mercenaries in Africa, who are forced to confront a dangerous group of local rebels, as well as a stray lion. The latter allowed Bassett the chance to address lion farming, a very serious issue in South Africa where Bassett has consistently worked since 2012.

I didn’t want to turn the lion into a monster. I didn’t want to do to lions what Spielberg did to sharks; we’ve moved on from that in our world. Having worked in South Africa, I know that the lion farming industry — and it is an industry — has 12,000 lions in farms across Southern Africa right now,” Bassett tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They’re being bred as cubs for the tourist industry. And when the cubs grow too big, the lions are shoved in cages until they’re big enough to either be shot during canned hunting for trophy hunters or they’re just killed outright for their body parts for Eastern medicine, traditional medicine.”

Bassett even included a letter in Rogue’s closing credits that addressed the real-life problem.

“I don’t want to be the person who just hits you over the head with the message. I want you to be entertained by the movie, so you have a good time for 95-100 minutes,” Bassett explains. “When the final message of the movie literally comes up at the end, it’s something I wrote. I wanted to include pictures and links to things, but the DGA won’t let you do that. I told Lionsgate that’s what I want to do. I said to the distributors that’s what I’m going to do. So yeah, almost that entire final message existed before the rest of the film existed.”

Rogue also stars Megan Fox in a mercenary role that is wildly against type for the former Transformers star. As soon as Bassett met with her, she understood why Fox was willing to take a detour from her usual roles.

“She’s deeply committed to environmental issues, which of course was the first thing I was concerned about with this movie,” Bassett shares. “But she’s also aware of how she’s perceived through the work that she’s done before, and the legacy of what Michael Bay made her into with Transformers. She became this iconic young woman, who was sexualized and turned into an object of lust for men across the planet. I’m not very interested in it personally, but she also knows that she could shed it. And with this character, she was able to do it because Samantha O’Hara, as a character, is not a sexual character in any way, shape or form. She’s just another badass human being who’s leading other badass human beings into this story.”

In a conversation with THR, Bassett also discusses why she’s probably not interested in revisiting Strike Back someday, her status on Showtime’s Halo series and why Rogue star Winchester is incredibly underrated as an action star.

So I have a very important first question. Who’s responsible for getting Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” stuck in my head again?

That was me. I’m sorry. (Laughs.) I just wanted an earworm! That’s exactly what that tune does. It’s just so damn catchy. There was a little bit of debate over which song it should be, but I won that, I have to say. Seth Rogen has got a big thing about Backstreet Boys and I think I may have watched his movie This Is the End with that great dance sequence at the end of that movie. And I just remember watching it and just going, “That is the catchiest damn tune.” I didn’t grow up with the Backstreet Boys; I wasn’t a fan, but “Everybody” really is an earworm if there ever was one.

Since you co-wrote the film with your daughter, Isabel Bassett, I assumed it was an idea that she originated.

No, she wanted “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners, which I really like! I just didn’t know if it would travel. The whole point is that you can’t just have people singing other people’s songs in your movie. You’ve got to get the rights to them, and I never really thought that we’d get Backstreet Boys to agree to let us sing their song. But they did! So it worked out fine.

Since 2009, you’ve worked with Philip Winchester on five different projects, but the two of you met in 2003, during an audition for a movie that didn’t go. Did you immediately take a liking to him which would explain the numerous projects since?

I did. He came in to audition for a movie called Lab Rats, and he was very personable. The thing about Philip is he’s the nicest man you’re ever going to meet. Physically, he’s also incredibly capable. That movie was a horror movie that never got made, but I cast him. He was going to be my lead guy. He was an up-and-coming young actor, he looked great and he had all the chops I needed. But I didn’t know much about him personally. When I made Solomon Kane about four or five years later, I was looking for a heroic young man, and I remembered Philip. I thought, “I wonder what Phil’s doing.” So I called him in for that and he was amazing. I began to realize what a thoughtful actor he is, but physically, he’s so damn capable. He also works like I work. He’s not afraid of some cuts and bruises, and being physically challenged. And then, Phil and I stayed friends while I went off to make a couple movies. I made a film called Silent Hill, which wasn’t super successful. Nobody liked it, so I was licking my wounds a little bit. And then, Phil and I exchanged emails, and he said, “I’m making this show Strike Back. You’d really love it. It’s right up your street. Do you want to come and direct one?” And I said, “Well, Philip, you can’t offer me a job. I love you, but you can’t. You’re just an actor.” But it turned out that the producers liked Solomon Kane and they said, “Do you really want to come and do TV?” And I said, “Yeah.” If Strike Back didn’t exist, I’d have to create it. It’s a perfect thing for me, and I went down and directed some episodes. Philip was amazing. I got to know Sullivan Stapleton, the other lead, very well. We all became great friends and the show became a beast for us all to work on. I ran three or four seasons of it as executive producer and director, and sometimes writer. Since then, Phil is my go-to guy and if Sullivan’s not working, I’ll use Sully as well.

I still don’t understand how Philip hasn’t been drafted by the big action franchises yet. He’s got the skill set plus every quality you could possibly want from an action star.

It drives me crazy. I’ve done lots of action stuff, and I would say that Philip is the most physically capable actor I’ve ever worked with. He is unafraid of any situation, and his military training is excellent. He also works with veterans all the time, and he does a lot of charity work as well with them. I was with some marines and they said to me, “Nobody hooks a corner like Philip Winchester.” That’s when you go around a corner, tactically. He is incredibly capable, and I do not understand why he hasn’t been drafted. I don’t know why he ended up doing Law & Order or whatever. He shouldn’t be a man in a suit; he’s a man with a gun! And his vibe is really positively heroic as well because in real life, he is a thoughtful, caring human. So I don’t know what it is. Somebody should get Phil in to do this stuff because he would wipe the floor. I’ve asked him to do ridiculous things and he always rises to the challenge. I love him for it.

His character, Joey Kasinski, is Rogue’s main source of levity. Were you eager to see Philip in a role like this since he’s often asked to play serious or stoic?

Yeah, I knew that he could play Joey Kasinski because I know him as a friend and he’s funny and charming. I also wanted to push him a little bit, you know? Joey Kasinski is bisexual. He’s a guy who’ll do anything for a bit of money and a good time. Now we don’t explore that a lot in the movie, but I wanted Phil to be able to be very loose and free with him. So we played with improvisation a lot, because I knew that he had the physical aspect completely sorted out. I didn’t have to worry about how he was going to handle a weapon. He very much led in that respect, and he was a big support for Megan because he’s not afraid of these things. So I was surrounded by people who knew the tactical aspect of the movie. But allowing Phil to demonstrate this other part of himself was really important to me because he came down and worked for nothing. He just came to play. So if an actor’s going to come and do that for you, then you need to give them something back in return. And though we had the best time on this movie, it’s also important that people see Phil do something else and see that he’s a guy who’s got a huge amount of range.

As I said to Philip, Megan Fox has reached a level of fame where everyone has their own idea of who she may or may not be. Did she exceed your expectations at the end of the day?

Oh completely. I never saw Megan in this role. I wrote it with my daughter and when we finished the script, we thought it turned out very well. Everybody really liked it, so it had a real shot of getting made. The big thing was: “Well, who’s going to be Samantha O’Hara? Who’s going to be this badass lead soldier?” I had my list of actresses who I thought were really good at this and could be capable or shaped into that way. There was also another list of more A-list-y actresses. Again, I wasn’t looking for big names. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do that at all because it’s a very, very small budget movie. But Megan’s name was on the list, and I was like, “Well, Megan Fox is never going to do anything like this. She’s never shown any interest in this kind of thing. I don’t believe her as a particularly tough person.” And it was like, “No, just because you have a perception doesn’t mean they can’t do it.” And of course, even as a director, you do get slightly blinkered to what people’s real abilities are because of what they’ve done before. So we sent her the script, she read it and she immediately responded to it and liked it. So I went for a meeting and we talked. It was one of those things where you go, “Oh this is not the person that I thought I was going to meet.” She’s very quiet. She’s very thoughtful. She’s deeply committed to environmental issues, which of course was the first thing I was concerned about with this movie. But she’s also aware of how she’s perceived through the work that she’s done before, and the legacy of what Michael Bay made her into with Transformers. She became this iconic young woman, who was sexualized and turned into an object of lust for men across the planet. Now I didn’t want any of that baggage because I’m not interested in it for the character. I’m not very interested in it personally, but she also knows that she could shed it. And with this character, she was able to do it because Samantha O’Hara, as a character, is not a sexual character in any way, shape or form. She’s just another badass human being who’s leading other badass human beings into this story.

What the story evolves into is this notion of a woman who has kind of buried her femininity, and more importantly, her maternal instincts, beneath all the baggage of having to operate in a very male-driven world, i.e. the military. And this movie peels away those layers so that she can actually find a greater level of toughness and commitment through being a maternal presence. It’s very much like Ellen Ripley in Aliens or Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies. So hopefully, it’s that kind of legacy. Megan really stepped up physically. She didn’t have a lot of training, but we spent some intense time with her, teaching her weapons, how to move and just being confident in that world. And people like Philip Winchester, Brandon Auret, Greg Kriek and these other South African actors who’ve all served, they come with that confidence, and it allowed Megan to do a really good job. I hope that she carries on doing movies like this because I think there’s a possibility of her being really, really good at this, if she’s given the time to train.

So I’m sure it’s happened before, but I can’t remember the last time a director included a closing letter that outlined the importance of the real-world issue inside their entertaining action movie. What prompted you to highlight lion farming once more in the credits?

Well, my passion throughout my life has been natural history and conservation. As a tiny kid, I had loads of pets. I even wanted to be a vet. I was actually a vet’s assistant as a teenager. I run a wildlife hospital, and I was the youngest person ever in the UK to be licensed to run a wildlife hospital. I used to fly falcons. I’ve worked in zoos. I left school very early to be trained as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker. And then, I was on TV in the UK hosting wildlife shows, again, when I was still a teenager. And then, I got sidetracked into being a filmmaker of genre stuff, which I love. It’s my great passion to do that, but at the same time, in my adult life, I’ve always carried on with my other interests. And having had the privilege of working all over the world, you see what’s happening to the planet, you see the conservation issues and you see these massive challenges. So when Rogue became a possibility — i.e. making a genre picture that had a conservation message — I thought, “Well, what can I do?” I knew I wanted to make an action thing with a bit of a horror element. You need a bad creature. You need an enemy. Lions are a good enemy, but of course, they’re just an animal and they behave like an animal. I didn’t want to turn the lion into a monster. I didn’t want to do to lions what Spielberg did to sharks; we’ve moved on from that in our world. Also, having worked in South Africa, I know that the lion farming industry — and it is an industry — has 12,000 lions in farms across Southern Africa right now. They’re being bred as cubs for the tourist industry. And when the cubs grow too big, the lions are shoved in cages until they’re big enough to either be shot during canned hunting for trophy hunters or they’re just killed outright for their body parts for Eastern medicine, traditional medicine. They’re kept in terrible conditions, and I just thought, “This is bad.” There are also tiger farms across Southeast Asia. So I thought, “Okay, I can build a movie around that as an underlying concept. And I can have some characters speak to that without it being so overt that the whole movie stops being entertaining.” I don’t want to be the person who just hits you over the head with the message. I want you to be entertained by the movie, so you have a good time for 95-100 minutes. Bish bash bosh. It’s great. It’s done. When the final message of the movie literally comes up at the end, it’s something I wrote. I wanted to include pictures and links to things, but the DGA won’t let you do that. So that was the maximum I was allowed to do under DGA rules about promoting something in the titles at the end of a movie. But it was always part of the package. I told Lionsgate that’s what I want to do. I said to the distributors that’s what I’m going to do. So yeah, almost that entire final message existed before the rest of the film existed.

Did you fall in love with South Africa during Strike Back, hence your numerous return trips to shoot there?

I love South Africa. It’s an incredible country. I mean, it’s not without its problems, socially, but where isn’t these days? It’s got the vibrancy and the passion of the people. It’s got the landscape and the natural history. What’s not to love? So yeah, I return there whenever I can. When I get to do a movie that I know is “rough-and-tumble,” I know that the crews will work in the way that I work. I also know that they’ll look after me. I know that they’re respectful of me as a trans woman as well. I’ve had nothing but a good experience there, so I’ll always return. Financially, it just makes sense. The South African government gives a very good tax break, but as much as anything, they’ve got a skill set and approach to what they do which is very much in line with how I like to work. With Rogue, we knew we’d have 20-22 days to shoot the whole thing for not much money. So I had to have a team of people around me who had worked with me before. They knew what to expect. I push hard, and while I’m nicer than I used to be for all sorts of reasons, they still know what they’re going to get. And that’s why having Phil Winchester and the other actors around — who also knew what they were going to get — was a kind of support network for Megan. I think she hit the ground running really hard.

Were the lion sequences as complicated as you expected them to be?

Yeah, going into the movie, I knew I wanted to avoid using real lions. I have a dislike of having performing animals on a set, and particularly a big predator like a lion. They’re not domestic. Even if they’re “tame,” they’re still a potentially extremely dangerous creature. And of course, for Rogue, I needed the animals to be in attack mode, which any animal handler will tell you is something that they don’t want. So with tame lions, you just get a very sort of flaccid pussycat vibe to them. That can turn, of course, but the moment it turns, you really don’t want it. So I knew there was going to be some complexity involved. There are some real lions and lion cubs in the movie at the very beginning, and after that, it’s CG lions and some puppets. The CG is complex because the audience knows entirely how a lion behaves. Everybody’s seen a lion, and they know what they really look like. So it was a huge challenge for a small movie to try and put a recognizable CG creature on the screen. It’s different than if it was an alien because you can say, “Well, that’s what the aliens do.” And with my natural history background, I really wanted the lions to behave in a certain way. In the movie, certain sequences are great, and some are not so good. It’s challenging to make that kind of movie. It’s also challenging for actors to behave as if there’s a big dangerous thing present. Luckily, we were living and working near where the real lions lived, so we could go and see them. You could smell them, be near them and get a sense of their true power. When an actor was being attacked by a digital lion, we put them on ropes and just yanked them around, backwards and forwards. Then, we would comp the digital creature in afterwards. It was very challenging to do. I actually don’t like doing CG stuff very much. I like real things, but there’s a place where you just go, “Okay, it’s got to be digital.” My nightmare is shooting a movie in a big blue studio. That sounds awful. (Laughs.)

I’m always in the tank for bank robbery movies so I thought your Inside Man sequel was very entertaining. Would you mind extolling the virtues of your Inside Man: Most Wanted star Rhea Seehorn for a minute?

(Laughs.) I can’t say enough good things about Rhea. Obviously, Better Call Saul has given her this incredible platform and her work in that is so extraordinary. She just turned me down for the next movie I wanted to make because she can’t do it, but with Inside Man, she’s tough, she’s capable and she’s a proper grown-up human being. She brings an intelligence to her work, which I absolutely adore. Better Call Saul is going to launch her now that the series is wrapping soon; people are going to be snapping her up. I mean, I certainly will. As soon as she’s available and willing to work, she can come down and jump on my merry-go-round again.

If an HBO executive called and said, “Hey, let’s discuss relaunching Strike Back,” would you take that meeting?

Probably not anymore. I don’t know. It depends on how much control I’d have over it. I’d do a movie with Philip and Sullivan like a shot, and we could call it any other name, because anything I did with Phil and Sully would be something like Strike Back. That’s the world I like to play in, but I think they’ve brought the franchise to an end now and in the correct way. I was invited to go and shoot the very, very last episode ever of the season that’s just gone by, but I couldn’t do it. I’m too emotionally attached to it. It was one of the best filming experiences I’ve had, and I made lifelong friends. I just love the show. but it feels to me like I couldn’t get the magic back. That’s the truth. I’d rather make my own magic now. I also don’t own Strike Back, and I want to do things that I have control over. So don’t be surprised if you see Philip and Sullivan running and gunning all over again someday, just with a different name.

You direct a lot of genre TV when you’re not making movies. Because the TV production schedule is compressed into seven or eight days on average, have you become even more efficient when you make your way back to a feature set?

Yes, there’s an incredible lesson to be learned in how you make TV, because you can then bring that to features. But the danger with features is that you go, “Okay, I’m going to shoot it like TV,” when it must still be a beast all of itself. I shot TV episodes in seven days, eight days and 12 days, but they’re giving you less and less time now. The trick is to know exactly what you want. There’s no standing around and thinking in television. You’ve got to know your business, you’ve got to get on with the cast and you’ve got to understand the text that you’re working with. And as a jobbing kind of TV director, you get the script and that’s what you shoot. With Rogue, which I wrote, directed and produced, I have enormous amount of latitude to just go, “I don’t want to do that. It’s not working. Let’s do something different. Let’s make up some more lines. Let’s take the scene in a different direction.” So TV is such an extreme discipline for the merry-go-round of directors who do that. I’m lucky because I get to work on shows like Power, Altered Carbon, Ash vs Evil Dead and Motherland. They’re genre things that I absolutely love, and you can bring the management skill set of how to make a day and how to get what you need. You also must understand what studios want. They want things lit in a certain way, and they want coverage in a certain way. That bag of tricks also applies to the movie set, but you know what that bag is and you can take the tricks you need. Then, you make the movie how you want to make it, but with a team that understands the pace. And to be fair, Rogue was shot at a TV pace. It was like two episodes of television over 22 days. I made Solomon Kane in 55 days, and I had no clue what a luxury that was. It’s never happened again. (Laughs.) It’s that notion of “Oh my god, all that time wasted. I really, really could have done something special.” Doing TV has now given me that sense of, “Oh okay, this is where the luxuries are. This is where the breaking points are.” So it’s given me a better skill set.

Have you wrapped your work on Showtime’s Halo series, or did the shutdown push everything?

I got wrapped about a few days before I was due to start shooting, and I can’t go back to it because I have another project I was penciled in for. It’s my next movie, in fact. I managed to keep the date for the movie, but Halo is also going to get up and running on that date. So I had a conflict and had to step away, which is a terrible shame because Halo is going to be a really fun show. I was really looking forward to it. We built the sets, planned everything and had scripts that were working. It’s going to be an enormous, enormous show. Pablo Schreiber is going to be a great Master Chief. The whole cast was good, but unfortunately, I can’t go back to it.

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Rogue is now available on VOD and Digital.

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