Paul McGuigan is best known for directing quirky thrillers like Lucky Number Slevin. He told us about branching out with the paranormal action-adventure film Push — and his involvement with Marvel's abortive Deathlok movie. Spoilers.
Push, which comes out Feb. 6, is a total departure for McGuigan, who's known for films that are somewhat more rooted in reality. "I've never done an action sequence before, even though people think I have," he confesses. When the studio sent him the script originally, he wasn't sure why he was chosen: "I was a bit like, 'It's so funny. Why are you sending this to me? Nobody's dead on the first page.'"
But the producers wanted McGuigan to do the film because he could bring more realism to the premise, about kids who've got mental powers (like telekinesis, clairvoyance and mind control) as a result of government experiments. Instead of relying too much on CG effects, McGuigan wanted to make the film as real and naturalistic as possible. That meant lots of wire work — when you see star Chris Evans being flung around the ceiling — he's really being tossed around — and McGuigan's trademark camera-follows-the-actors style. In the end, the film does have about 500 CG shots, but uses practical effects way more than most similar films.
(Evans did a lot of his own stunts, but his stunt double got tossed so hard a few times, McGuigan wasn't sure if the guy was going to get up. But "he's from Australia, so who cares?") Here's one of the film's standout sequences, a telekinetic gun fight:
A more realistic approach also meant treating things like telekinesis — and the ability to make people bleed out using your mind — as if they were real phenomena. It helped that McGuigan went on the internet and found tons of sites where people were talking about the reality behind mental powers. And there were plenty of conspiracy sites where people claimed the government really did experiment on people after World War II to try and create superhumans.
McGuigan has always said Wong Kar-Wai is his favorite director, so it was terrific to get to make the entire film in Hong Kong, where Chris Evans' character has to hide out from the government agents chasing him. "You can hide in Hong Kong, there's millions of people in the streets. It's hard to track one person." McGuigan drew on Wong Kar-Wai classics like Chungking Express. He also avoided using real extras as much as possible — instead he relied on Hong Kong's own bustling masses, who barely reacted when they saw a kidnap or arrest happening nearby on the street. Instead of closing the street to film, McGuigan had special "hide cameras" made, which he could put on cars and streetlights, so bystanders wouldn't know he was making a movie. Instead of getting people to sign a release form, he had a "really really small notice" that said, "You are now entering a filming zone."
Another way that McGuigan reached for realism in Push was through the actors' throw-away performances. He rants about shows like 24, which have all the actors hissing through their teeth and chewing the scenery. "I don't know if you've ever seen 24, [it's] the worst acting I've ever seen."
Star Dakota Fanning, in particular, brings the whole sense of being fourteen years old to her punky character: all her hormones are going and she's intense and obnoxious and loveable all at the same time. "She's amazing," McGuigan says of Fanning. "I don't think I could have done this movie if she'd said no. I couldn’t have seen my way around it." And she knitted the director a scarf, which never happened with previous stars Bruce Willis or Josh Hartnett.
I asked McGuigan how overt all the stuff about the government experimenting on people and trying to create superhumans is in the film, and he said it starts off with a pseudo-documentary. "We explain the timeline, that after WWII and [during] the Cold War, the government experimented on humans. We take it that it went a bit further than we know." He delves a bit into the horrors of people being tested like lab rats, with the upshot being that they may be able to move a cup with their minds, but they also may be disabled or disfigured as a result. All because the government sees that power as a potential weapon.
And McGuigan is very up front about believing that governments are utterly corrupt and "aren't to be trusted... The government is evil."
I asked him if he saw any similarities between his film and Incredible Hulk, which also had the government experimenting on people to give him superpowers, and he insisted that his film is both more realistic, and a fresh take on the genre — partly because it's not based on an existing comic book. (Push is spawning a comic-book spinoff, but has no comics source material.) "The Incredible Hulk was a piece of shit," he said. He compared the CG-heavy giant fight scene at the end to a Tom And Jerry cartoon.
Another way the film strives for realism: it establishes very clear rules about what people can do with their powers, and then sticks to them very carefully. At the start of the movie, the super-powered characters aren't very good at using their powers, but they get better as the film goes along, and that's a big part of the movie's arc. "You can't change the rules because it suits you," says McGuigan. "You just can't make them up as you go along, because people like you will fucking crucify us."
What's changed, at the start of Push, is that people like Chris Evans' character, Nick Gant, are inheriting superpowers from their parents. The film refers to Gant as a "second-generation Mover" (or telekinetic.) That poses a challenge for the mysterious government agency Division, led by Djimon Hounsou, who are tasked with keeping all the people with superpowers under government control. Meanwhile, there's a superpowered arms race: the Chinese have their own superhumans, with different abilities, like "Bleeders," who can make you bleed out.
Finally, I asked McGuigan about those internet rumors that he was working on a movie based on Deathlok, Marvel Comics' cyborg character. "It wasn't a rumor, it was true," says McGuigan. He'd been working with Marvel and writer David Self on a Deathlok movie, but then Marvel put it on the back burner. "I was really into it, but Marvel changed their mind."
McGuigan got pretty excited about working on Deathlok, and he has all of the character's back comics. The biggest challenge in doing a Deathlok film would have been the fact that the killer cyborg is always having conversations with his on-board computer. "In a way it felt like Knight Rider, where you have the machine talking to him." It would have been a challenge to make that work on screen. "The script was really good. David Self is no slouch, he's a great screenwriter. And the whole idea of nanotechnology was fasinating." The movie included a "weird professor" character, who created Deathlok because he wanted to go down in history as another Da Vinci. (And McGuigan had envisioned Robert Downey Jr. for that character, which would have been a very different role than Tony Stark.)
"It would have been a good movie," he adds. "Maybe they'll still make it with somebody else."