Realistic action is good and all (that’s why we have geniuses like Michael Mann), but what’s more fun than a gun battle staged as a Vincente Minnelli musical number? This is why Hollywood dragged John Woo out of Hong Kong, and it’s also why Michael Davis is going to be working in this town for a very long time. Formerly a director of straight-to-DVD movies like 100 Girls and 100 Women (thankfully, that franchise died out before we hit 100 Biddies), Davis has arrived as a first-rate action filmmaker with Shoot ‘Em Up, a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon starring Clive Owen as the carrot-chomping good guy and Paul Giamatti as an amalgamation of Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. The plot has to do with Owen protecting a newborn baby from the nefarious Giamatti and his inexhaustible supply of henchmen. Thought Giamatti has a reason for chasing the baby, it’s really just a MacGuffin that allows Davis to keep hopping from one preposterously exciting gunfight to another. There is no let-up here; Shoot ‘Em Up blazes away until Motley Crue’s "Kickstart My Heart" roars over the closing credits, at which point you’re ready to reload and watch it again.
The following chat with Davis is from last July’s Comic Con. For no reason in particular, I decided to wear my t-shirt emblazoned with the old Cannon logo that day, which interested Davis enough that he favored me with a Menahem Golan anecdote. All interviews should start with Menahem Golan anecdotes
Michael Davis: Did you work for Cannon?
Q: No, I just admired their stuff as a youngster. All the Chuck Norris movies–
Davis: Allan Quartermain [and the Lost City of Gold]. They’re not bad.
Q: There’s a real charm to them. First, you have the excess violence, which, as a dedicated reader of Fangoria, was a real plus for me.
Davis: Can I tell you my one Menahem [Golan] story?
Q: Of course!
Davis: So I directed this movie, Beanstalk, in which Margot Kidder starred. And Margot tells me about meeting with Menahem to do Superman IV. He had only $3 million to make it. Margot goes, "How are you going to do Superman for $3 million?" And Menahem says, "In this movie, Superman… he no fly!" (Laughs)
Q: Superman was a cut-out in that movie. I remember riding my bike all the way out to the mall to see that movie by myself. It was quite a trek. And the first sight of Superman is that cut-out image flying at the screen. I just slumped in my seat and said, "Oh, this is going to be bad."
Davis: That’s disappointing.
Q: Yes. But not disappointing is Shoot ‘Em Up. I thought it was hilarious. At the end of the movie, my friend leaned over to me and said, "It’s Children of Men directed by Frank Tashlin!"
Davis: That sounds great.
Q: It was a surprise, too, because I only knew your name peripherally. I’ve seen Eight Days a Week and 100 Girls on cable, but nothing in those movies indicated that you would grow into this audacious action filmmaker. The action scenes are really inventive and well-staged. Have you just been pent-up for all these years?
Davis: It has been pent-up for all these years. In sixth grade, I started watching James Bond movies. I ended up loving them so much that – and this is the era before VCRs – I would go and tape record the James Bond movies at the movie theater. Instead of listening to rock-and-roll growing up, I listened to the James Bond movies over and over again. I’ve been dreaming about action forever. I wrote my own Bond novels in junior high: they were called Spearhead and Masquerade of Death; each was like 100 pages typed, so they were about as long as Octopussy. Then I went to art school, and ended up doing this animatic of an Indiana Jones scene: it was a scene with a biplane, and Indy uses his whip to hang on behind the plane. Then I became a storyboard artist. I worked for John McTiernan and did Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and what I found is that these guys had no time to come up with their own cool ideas. They didn’t really want me to storyboard what they had in their heads; they wanted me to give them ideas. On Ninja Turtles, I kid you not, I did a stack of drawings this high (indicates quite the pile), and all of them were ideas that weren’t in the script. I was on this movie called Jack Frost, and I had to storyboard the snow chase scene. I ended up doing this bit where the snowballs land on Jack Frost’s chest and they look like two breasts, and he’s like "Ah!" I did all of these gags, and they had hired these $100,000 a week gag writers to come up with gags that ended up in the movie. But me, the lowly storyboard artist, all of my gags ended up in the trailer.
So I kind of had this training ground of coming up with visual ideas. Yes, I had directed all of these teen romantic comedies, but the business is so hard that you have to do what is presented to you. I self-financed my own little movie, Eight Days a Week, and then I was the little romantic comedy guy for straight-to-video. The big thing that helped sell me as a director on Shoot ‘Em Up was that they were excited about the script, but I ended up animating fifteen minutes of the movie. And this is very fluid animation; it’s like ten drawings a second. It was fifteen minutes, and 17,000 drawings. And it was shot-for-shot exactly how the movie would cut together, so people could see what the vision would be. But when I’m drawing, it’s like the writing process: I get more ideas. It’s sort of like in the old Disney studios: there’s the script, but then there are gag guys doing sketches. They were all funny ideas, and sometimes they’d get incorporated into the script. So I was basically doing that for myself.
And I also have a certain taste in how an action scene should be. In a lot of action movies, they think that if they just have a big thing where the building explodes or a car tumbles… "Hey, that’s action!" I’m not excited by that. I’m interested in the tough situation the character gets into, and what is the cool, clever way he gets out of it. It’s almost a little bit of storytelling. There’s a scene in our movie where there are all these guys shooting at Clive, and then there’s a guy with an Uzi who’s protected by this wall… I guess it’s like a bookcase. Clive ends up shooting all the guys down, except for the guy with the Uzi, who’s hidden behind this wall. But the other guys, as he’s been shooting them, have been falling down on top of each other, creating this step. So he can step over them, and… it’s clever.
Q: It’s so well thought out. The geography is so particular; we always know where we are. I think that’s so important. In a lot of action movies, as you were saying, it’s just a lot of flash and explosions, and we never know where we are in relation to anything.
Davis: I’m not interested in chaos. I’m interested in action dance.
Q: Were you doing multiple- or single-camera on this?
Davis: We’d do usually two cameras. I had this great cinematographer, Peter Pau, who did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Q: Oh, he’s incredible. The Bride with White Hair!
Davis: He gave me more shots than I had storyboarded. But the thing that attracted him to the movie is that he saw the animation. And he said, "This is what you’re going to get to shoot, but then you’re going to get the extra camera." It was more than what my vision was.
Q: It gave you extra room for invention, sure, but you knew precisely what you wanted. It was just a question of getting it, right?
Davis: Because I had animated it, I could tell right down to the frame whether I had it. They would go, "Oh, but he kind of drops the gun at the end." And I’d say, "No, I got the piece that I want."
Q: You talked about doing storyboards for John McTiernan. He’s one of those guys who, at his best, is a master of geography in action sequences. And I appreciate seeing a director put that kind of care into their choreography. It’s rare.
Davis: My excitement in watching an action movie is that I want to be that guy. And then, therefore, you need to have the guy do cool things. And the more cool things he can do, rather than have the building fall down, the screentime is on him. Then you have to figure out "This is the part where he realizes he’s in big trouble, and the light bulb goes off." Now you need to figure out what elements he can use to get out of trouble. "Oh, he shoots the guy who was repelling. Now he can use the repellers rope to go down the stairs."
Q: But you don’t allow too much reality into the mix. And in these movies, we don’t care about real world logic. We just want a good time.
Davis: That applies to the movies where you have someone saying, "This is how you hold a gun to keep it steady." I wanted the comic book poses. We called it, basically, an American John Woo movie, where you can fly through the air and still aim. That’s what people want to see: the fantasy and wish fulfillment version of an action movie.
Q: And you really helped yourself with Clive. There’s a guy you can hold a camera on.
Davis: Obviously, I was a huge Bond fan. There are times when he would do a take, and I would just freeze the frame and go, "Look at that! That guy is just so great to look at as an action hero!" You just get that rush! I don’t even know what to say. You just want to be Clive. He looks so cool.
Q: He certainly looks cool continuing a gun battle whilst having sex with Monica Bellucci. I thought that sequence was great. It’s one of the crudest things I’ve ever seen, and yet I can’t imagine anyone getting offended by it. But afterwards, I was thinking, "I bet Davis wanted to have them doing more acrobatic positions, and more–"
Davis: If I would’ve had more time, maybe I would have.
Q: So you did think about going that far with it?
Davis: I did think about going a little further with it, but everything is about time management. The one thing I did change from the storyboards is that I wanted the orgasm to save their lives. She kind of moans and climaxes and shakes them away from where the bullet hits, and that saves their lives.
Yes, Clive Owen banging Monica Bellucci in the middle of a hellacious gunfight. It’s called Shoot ‘Em Up, and you’re going to see it this weekend. Opening day is September 7th.