Few directors have had careers as varied as Boaz Yakin‘s. He started out working on screenplays for big action movies like the Dolph Lundgren “Punisher” and Clint Eastwood‘s “The Rookie,” before segueing into more personal material as a writer/director (1994’s “Fresh,” 1998’s “A Price Above Rubies“). Yakin would have the biggest hit of his career with a script he didn’t write, with the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced inspirational football movie “Remember the Titans.” Since then he has bounced around between high-profile screenwriting jobs (“Prince of Persia: Sands of Time,” again for Bruckheimer) and personal projects (2008’s little-seen “Death and Love“). This weekend, though, he’s back and kicking ass with “Safe” – a sophisticated, New York-set action movie starring Jason Statham. We talked to Yakin about his career, what he wanted to accomplish with “Safe,” and whatever happened to his “Batman Beyond” movie.
One of the things you really get out of “Safe” is this kind of film noir vibe. Jason Statham plays a terse drifter with a mysterious past who becomes the unlikely protector of a young Chinese girl wanted by the Chinese and Russian mobs (and an unscrupulous mayor played by Chris Sarandon). Replace trench coats with hooded sweatshirts and pre-war unease with post-9/11 paranoia and you’re pretty close to the atmosphere that “Safe” gives off. But there’s another layer that Yakin clued us in on. “I’d call it a double throwback movie,” Yakin explained. “It’s a throwback to the movies that I wrote when I first started in the late ’80s, early ’90s, but even more so to the movies I watched when I was a kid and the New York I grew up with in the ’70s. There are those great, gritty New York action movies like ‘The Seven-Ups,’ ‘Death Wish’ and ‘Serpico,’ where the whole city is this decayed, anything-goes personality. And I wanted to find some of that personality to capture.” Yakin then summed it up succinctly: “It’s sort of a film noir action film.”
And the “action” part of “Safe” is pretty striking – there are a number of heart-in-your-throat set pieces that will leave you breathless. Yakin had a very specific approach he was going for with the sequences, and it shows, with a mixture of brutal chaos and elegant camerawork. “For me the concept was action that is grounded but just a little bit heightened. It’s not really realistic action, but it is grounded. And also it’s a New York City action movie and so many movies I see, it’s like, ‘Okay, now you’re going to have the action scene’ and it’ll be some fight that happens in the middle of an empty warehouse. I wanted to have action scenes that could erupt in a crowded room full of people and ‘What the fuck’s going on?’ and it’s chaotic. It was a challenge, and an interesting one.”
While there are a number of graceful, single-shot sequences, Yakin admits, “In my plans there were even more of those,” and that some of them were built around necessity. “There’s that scene where the girl gets kidnapped – and you can shoot that scene like an action scene with each individual part, and it’ll take three days,” he explained. “But I knew I had one day to shoot this thing, so we did it in one take.”
One thing that Yakin really wanted to stay away from was the ‘Bourne’-style shaky cam stuff that has been a staple of action movies for most of the past decade. “I wanted to find a style that had some of that contemporary energy but didn’t have the shaky camera madness,” Yakin said. “I get nauseous from that stuff. If the camera shakes I’m going to throw up.”
Looking back at Yakin’s resume, we had to ask about his career, and even before we finished asking the question he interrupted us, hilariously, with, “Because it’s so bizarre and difficult to pin down and lacking in focus and structure and direction?” We said we preferred the term “journeyman director,” and he then gave us a long explanation of how he’s gotten to where he’s gotten. Trust us, it’s fascinating and totally worth the read.
“The truth is that the films I make are, with rare exception, the first choice of what I would be doing,” Yakin said. “I tend to write the kind of film that I’m really interested in making and it doesn’t get financed and I have to figure out what I’m going to do that someone might actually want to put money into.” Yakin said that his “official” career is one that’s very different than the one he dreamed up for himself. “The career that I have as a director, the sort of IMDB page, is the result of a lot of failed attempts to do the things that I want to do and me going, ‘Oh shit I haven’t made a movie in 3 years, how do I get a job or how do I write something that people will finance?’ It’s eclectic in a way that I’m always rebounding from something I want to get done not getting done and trying to figure out what people will want to see. I’ve never quite figured out how to put some elements of commerciality into the stuff that I find really interesting. The career that I have that’s sitting on my shelf and the career that I have of produced films are two very, very different things.”
Yakin says that when he’s trying to cook up a screenplay that will actually attract attention, it’s even more difficult than coming up with something on his own. “I have to concentrate on it. I have to say, ‘Okay, what’s not going to upset or offend any financer? How do I take out anything that might be challenging or interesting or intriguing and make sure someone will give me money to make this,’ ” Yakin said. He then described the landscape of film financing and how it’s changed from when he started. “The way the independent film world works now, and it’s always been like this to a certain degree, is the polarization of what an interesting film can be and what a more commercial film is. When I was starting out in the ’80s there was still the mid-range drama. You could still make a studio film with Dustin Hoffman playing an interesting role and it would still do well. Now you either make a film for $750,000 dollars or you make a tentpole film, and even the middle range film has to be a genre film. So in terms of filmmaking it’s become very bifurcated.”
We wondered where “Safe” fit into his career – was it something that he really wanted to do or something that he felt he needed to do to get back in the game? “ ’Safe’ is an example of me saying, ‘How can I make a movie that people will go see, but that still has an emotional content that I can get into?’ ” Yakin said candidly. “I’ve written a lot of action movies but never directed one, and directing an action film can be like directing traffic. It can be very detail-oriented, time-consuming and specific. I had to find a story that I could at least identify with emotionally.”
One of the more interesting projects on his shelf of never-made movies was an adaptation of the popular Saturday morning animated series “Batman Beyond,” a kind of sequel to the influential “Batman: The Animated Series,” that saw an elderly Bruce Wayne train a high-tech new Batman in a futuristic Gotham overrun with violence and corruption (one of the best ideas was a gang of Droog-like Joker acolytes). Yakin explains the circumstances surrounding the project: “I had directed ‘Remember the Titans’ and at the time a lot of doors had opened. At the time my agent called me up and I had this script about an African American soldier who had joined the negro vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, but I was like, ‘Should I do a big commercial film first?’ And my agent said, ‘Yes!’ So almost as a joke I said, ‘If I’m going to do another commercial film I want to do ‘Batman,’ by which I meant something that you can’t go wrong with.” It might have been a joke, but executives at Warner Bros took it very seriously. “A week later I had a meeting to do a Batman film and I was like ‘What the fuck?’ ” Yakin said, laughing. “I pitched this idea to them and halfway through finishing the draft and turning it in I realized I didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t a world I wanted to be in. I told them that. There were definitely some people who were angry with me at the time and wanted me to stay on as director. And I said, ‘No you don’t understand, you need to do this with someone who really wants to do this.’ ” Yakin says that he barely remembers what his screenplay consisted of, besides being “futuristic cyberpunk with Batman.”
So what’s next for Yakin? Is it a studio movie or something that will sit on his shelf, playing in the multiplex of some alternate universe? “I wrote a little horror film that I can’t get the money for,” Yakin said. “Because it’s about a 12-year-old boy who wears his grandmother’s clothes, I can’t get the money for it. I’m still in the same place I always am. Trying to do interesting stuff and struggling with it, and we’ll see where I end up.” Yakin paused before adding: “The writing stuff is the day job stuff but even Jerry isn’t knocking down my door.”
“Safe” is in theaters now.