Before he co-starred in The Dark Knight Rises as Batman's cop sidekick, Joseph Gordon-Levitt played a hero who zips though a major metropolis on his own version of the Batpod: a single-geared, brakeless bike. The hero in question is Wilee, the speed-addicted bike messenger at the center of Premium Rush, which was shot on the streets and roads of New York two years ago and is opening in theaters tomorrow. Co-written and directed by David Koepp (whose past credits include the screenplays for Jurassic Park and the first Spider-Man and director of Stir of Echoes), the movie finds Wilee trying to complete an express delivery of a valuable package while staying one bike line ahead of a corrupt cop (Michael Shannon) who is on his tail. Don't let the lack of bat ears or Batarangs fool you; Wilee's superb bike skills practically make him a superhero in his own right. We spoke with Koepp and Gordon-Levitt about what it was like to shoot such a fast-paced thriller, what lessons the actor learned from 3rd Rock From the Sun and why Die Hard With a Vengeance is one of the best New York movies ever made.
TWoP: David, you've described Premium Rush as a "map movie," where the character's primary goal is to get from one location to another before the film ends. That put me in mind of one of the best New York map movies, The Warriors. Was that a film you looked to as an influence?
David Koepp: We didn't look at that one, but it's a great reference, since it's also a Point A to Point B-style movie. Sometimes ideas start in a very prosaic way and when my co-writer John Kamps and I started talking about this movie, we were just like, "What about a movie about guy whose got to go from here to here in a limited amount of time?" After Hours and 16 Blocks were two movies we had in mind.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I fought for bell bottoms, but David didn't go for it.
TWoP: The ticking clock scenario lends the movie a lightning-fast paced. How did that inform the performances and the direction?
Gordon-Levitt: I definitely thought about pace with Wilee. Most of the time he's just riding fast, but even when he's not on his bike, I thought, 'This is a quick guy.' He's always fast, always two steps ahead of the conversation and he knows what you're going to say, so he can just reply right away. That was an interesting trait to focus on -- that he was just a fast-paced dude.
Koepp: When we were writing the script, the idea was that you want to start with the chase already underway so you can space out your chases. Then the flashbacks evolved as a way to go back and deepen each character, revealing how they ended up where they are. It was hard enough to work out all that in the script and then when we got to the editing room, we realized that we couldn't move any of the scenes because we scrupulously set up that this character is here at 4:21 and even showed the time and their location on a map. There's one scene -- I'm not going to tell you which it is -- where a character can't be where we say she was, but you have see the movie 100 times to figure it out.
TWoP: Compared to some of the more brooding heroes we've seen this summer -- including a certain comic book movie that Joe co-starred in -- Wilee is a pretty light-hearted guy whose main focus is just getting the task at hand done. Do you feel that too many blockbusters are weighing themselves down by writing such broody protagonists?
Koepp: I think there's room for many kinds of stories. With this one, we were trying to think in terms of a Western, like Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 -- this man's got a job to do and he's going to do it. That's why the showdown at the end in the street has a kind of Western flavor to it. One of our primary goals with Premium Rush was to be short; since there's a sense of urgency in the text of the movie, the film itself has to be the same thing. And in a short movie, there's not that much time to brood.
Gordon-Levitt: I do like how this movie knows what it is and delivers that. I feel like that there are movies that... you know what, I'm not going to go there.
Koepp: You just had bike-o-vision -- like we show in the movie -- in real life! Like, which way am I going to take this though... eh, you know, maybe not.
TWoP: If you were to play a superhero yourself -- and we won't say which one -- would you hope that his personality is closer to Wilee's than a more obsessed, driven type?
Gordon-Levitt: That's a loaded question. [Laughs]
TWoP: Fair enough! What drew you to this particular character in the first place?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, when I first read the script I was in the middle of shooting 50/50, where I was playing a character battling cancer and whose body is giving up on him. So the idea of playing a guy who is healthy and confident in his body and riding around New York City all summer was very appealing when I was in that state of mind.
TWoP: You made this movie about a year after Inception and before filming began on The Dark Knight Rises. What was it like making a relatively nimble and stripped-down action movie in between those massive spectacles?
Gordon-Levitt: This movie didn't actually seem stripped-down.
Koepp: Yeah, even though our budget was relatively low for a studio, I wouldn't call us nimble by any means. Because New York does not let you be. Since we were in the streets, we were like a giant lumbering beast. In a normal movie, you can try a take and then do another one right away. But on our movie, the reset time was longer because we had to let the traffic through, talk to the cops and make sure it's okay to start again, send all the cars around the long way back to the start. So lucky if only 20 minutes go by before you get another take. What was particularly tough for the actors was that this caused a certain sense of pressure as they got ready to go, like "God I hope I don't flub the first line!"
Gordon-Levitt: But what would help was that we were on our bikes and doing physical things in the real world and that helped us ground the scene. So riding the bike during these dialogue scenes made them feel so natural. Being on location in New York helped too.
Koepp: Yeah, trying to do this mounted on your bike in front of a greenscreen would have just been embarrassing.
TWoP: Joe, you got your start in television and acted in several sitcoms growing up, including The Powers that Be and 3rd Rock From the Sun. Do you have fond memories of those experiences? And would you ever make a pure comedy again like either of those?
Gordon-Levitt: I loved 3rd Rock from the Sun and I find in general that actors who have done a lot of work on TV are really skilled. They've spent a lot of time on a set and they're really good at the technical stuff, like hitting their marks and getting their lines right. And I do love comedy, but it's the hardest thing to write and the rarest script to find. Filling up a whole 90 minutes with good comedy is something I rarely see.
Koepp: The last movie I directed before Premium Rush was a comedy called Ghost Town with Ricky Gervais. I hadn't directed one before and I was struck by what seems screamingly funny on the set is only pretty funny onscreen. Every day to have to bring that level of comedy spark -- it's fucking hard! [Laughs]
TWoP: Premium Rush has its fair share of laughs though, particularly in any scene with Michael Shannon as the heavy. How did you ensure that his performance would be funny without turning into parody?
Koepp: First, the character is written with a certain broadness; he's obviously a violent guy who is out of control, but he also pauses to rant about obscenities on television during family hour. So there's a certain amount of wit that's already asked for. And then Michael's just marvelously calibrated. He'll do a scene in a specific way and then come back and say, "Well that was about a four. You want a six?" The great actors are those who do many unexpected things and he was always unexpected.
TWoP: Several unexpected things happened during shooting, including a major accident involving Joe that we see footage of during the closing credits. Were there any positive surprise during filming?
Koepp: The things that surprised us unfortunately tended to be negative. It was a desperate struggle to control things throughout the shoot. Sometimes with a movie you're trying really hard to mix it up and have unexpected things happen. We didn't have that struggle; there was no struggle for the unexpected, it would just come at you from all corners and you'd try to react however you could.
TWoP: If you could pick only one New York movie that encapsulates the city, which would it be?
Gordon-Levitt: Manhattan is kind of an obvious one.
Koepp: Manhattan always makes me cry at the end. There are different ones for different eras. The French Connection captured the '70s New York, which doesn't exist anymore. After Hours perfectly encapsulates it for the late '80s. I can't think of one off the top of my head for the '90s.
Gordon-Levitt: How about Die Hard With a Vengeance? There's actually certain similarities to our movie, because it all happens in one day. I remember coming out of that movie and really wanting to be in New York City. And it's a really good movie! From what I remember when I was 14.
TWoP: What did you want to preserve about the city in Premium Rush for future generations?
Koepp: We wanted to see a route through town that wouldn't be the route you'd choose if you went out to pick locations for a movie. We wanted to pick the route the guy would go, whether or not it was particularly beautiful. The whole credo of the movie was that it's gotta feel real so people really feel danger. I wanted to show what New York looks like to me and I went as far as shooting on my own block, which was awesome. Except it wasn't. I shot in my neighborhood for three or four days, so all the resentment you create in somebody else's neighborhood you'd just now created it in your own. But I did get to go home for lunch a couple of times. [Laughs]
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