The Hunter vs Sergeant Candy – Jonathan Mostow (The VH Interview)

 Although he started his career back in the eighties, director Jonathan Mostow hasn’t pumped out as many films as some of his peers, instead choosing only to work on projects that he truly appreciates. Working like this has given him the opportunity to work with some of the biggest action stars in Hollywood, such as Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzegger and Kurt Russell.

His latest film, The Hunter’s Prayer, sees him team with Avatar-star Sam Worthington, to tell a smaller scale story than some of his previous hits, such as Terminator 3 and Surrogates.

I spoke to Jonathan about his career, the nature of contemporary cinema and the topic of masculinity. Unfortunately, the connection between Los Angeles and North Wales isn’t the greatest, so the central question isn’t present in the following article, but hopefully you’ll enjoy our chat all the same:

The Hunter’s Prayer is more of a standalone story, as opposed to some of the other films you’ve worked on, like Terminator [Rise of the Machines] for instance, which is a big blockbuster movie.

How does making a smaller film like this contrast to making a blockbuster like that?

Well, there’s a couple of things. I don’t work that frequently, and the way that the movie business has really transformed over the last five to ten years is that it’s just become completely dominated by these big studio franchise films, where a lot of the time the movie is not getting made because someone had a great idea or somebody wrote a great script – the movie’s getting made because there’s a built in audience to see number seven in the installment of whatever.

For me, at least, those aren’t captivating exercises because I didn’t get into the movie business to tell chapters of other people’s stories. I got into the movie business to tell stories that I found personally interesting. So when this project came to me – the contrast is a story that feels familiar because it fits into the ‘hit-man’ sub-genre; which really is it’s own sub-genre because there’s so many films like that – but this did feel different to me. And y’know, I like Sam Worthington and I liked the use of his character, and I had always wanted to shoot a film in Europe. I’d never got a chance to do things on location to be able to get that true European look. So I’d always wanted to have that experience. So that was another factor.

Are there any places in Europe you’d want to go after this to shoot any future projects?

Anywhere! I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Los Angeles?

I have once, yes. 

[Laughs] So you know what it’s like; everything’s on a rectangular grid system and anything from the fifties is considered ancient history and it’s a pretty ugly city.

[Laughs] Yeah.

And then you go to anywhere in Europe, turn on a camera and point it anywhere, and it’s gorgeous.

There’s also the quality of the light in Europe – I can’t quite explain why. The lighting there just feels different. So I couldn’t imagine a European location that I wouldn’t be happy to film in.

Sam Worthington / Picture courtesy of Saban

Going back to characters, you were saying how this film feels like the same sort of thing we’ve had before, but also very different. In regards to Sam Worthington’s character Lucas, he has his own problems that make him different from other actions heroes, but he still fits this archetype of a ‘strong, silent American hero’ and he’s got this hidden vulnerability, sort of like you’d get in a Western movie. 

Why do you think Sam works so well in this typically American role?

The majority of movies throughout history have been anchored by a male leading star; that could be Humphrey Boggart in the forties, or Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the seventies or Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Russel Crowe in the nineties. That was always the tradition of film.

When Sam Worthington first appeared in movies, the studios instantly pounced on him and started signing him up for movies because he was in that mould of the classic male actor, which is in such short supply. It’s interesting, Hollywood doesn’t really produce these sorts of guys anymore; they tend to actually come out of Australia. These Australian guys, they’re much more sort of down-to-Earth – Sam, before he became an actor was just digging ditches, you know? He was a rugged guy. It’s really interesting to me that there’s this disproportionate number of Australians succeeding in these male leading actor roles, compared to the actors coming out of the United States.

What differentiates Sam from some of the other action stars you’ve worked with, like Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger?

What differentiates Sam from those other guys is that Sam is the most classically trained of  many movie stars working today. Most of these movie stars get going because they just have that X-Factor, and it tends to get discovered pretty easily. I mean, look at Brad Pitt; Brad had been working small parts in Hollywood for a couple of years, then got a small supporting role in the movie Thelma and Louise, but he stole the scenes that he was in, and then instantly he was a movie star. So these guys tend to get discovered pretty quickly because they have that quality and then they become movie stars and they don’t go to acting class anymore because they don’t need to.

I met Sam when he was doing Avatar; we met at a hotel restaurant for coffee, and the moment I sat down with him I knew that this guy was a movie star. What I didn’t know was that he was a highly trained actor; he’d gone to the Royal Academy Australia and he’d already starred in like, thirty movies in Australia.

He’d won their equivalent of the Academy Award, but in Hollywood he was just a new face that had showed up. And I think Sam’s biggest challenge was, the moment he showed up in Hollywood and was cast in Avatar, all the other studios were desperately hungry for male leading movie stars, so they signed him on to the bunch of different movies, and so I think the challenge for Sam was that a lot of those roles; male leading movie star roles; aren’t that well written or deeply written.

And Sam hungers for challenge as an actor and some of those movie star roles aren’t that challenging. Sometimes the more interesting roles in these films are the supporting and character actor roles.

Sam works a lot in nuance, and if you see the film, his character is struggling with personal issues. And Sam, in typical fashion brought his own kind of intensity to the role. Sam does embody those qualities but it comes out in the way of a more classically trained actor.

Going back to traits of the character, Lucas has got his problems; a fairly big one, in fact, but he’s also got another trope of ‘the action hero’, in that his past is quite mysterious. We get hints of it, but we don’t get loads of it.

However, it seems to be a trend in modern Hollywood that producers want to go back and they want to mine every little detail.

Do you think some characters can be over-explained? Do you think everyone needs an origin story? 

That’s a great question, and I strongly feel the latter.

I think that the way that films tend to develop is that it’s a lot of people sitting in rooms; talking about the film, talking about the script.

I feel that it’s a very fear-based enterprise.

Everyone’s always terrified that no one’s going to see or like the film and so you have people nervously trying to hedge their bets all the way through the creative development process, and that does tend to lead to ‘Oh, we’ve got to explain this, we’ve got to explain that’…

Kurt Russell / Breakdown / Picture courtesy of Paramount

The best example I can probably give of it is on my first studio-sized movie, which was Breakdown.

In that film I wrote the script and started the story with a couple driving across country and the wife is kidnapped and the husband has to find her and save her.

So I started with the couple driving in the car, and then there was a point in development where I left the film to look into something else, because I didn’t think the film was going to get made. And while I was gone, the producer hired another writer and the writer came in and said ‘Oh, we have to understand this character!’ and so the writer wrote this whole ten minutes of movie about the character and what he did; being a journalist in Bosnia, his flight home; all this stuff.

So when I came back to the project, it had moved forward with this script with a whole new ten minutes at the beginning, and I said “We don’t need this”, and everyone responded “No, no, no! We can’t just start with the character in the car, we need to understand him” and so I thought, ‘they’ll realise we don’t need this’.

But as we got closer and closer to production I kept thinking ‘what will it take to get people to get rid of these scene’, and unfortunately because I was such a new filmmaker at that point, I didn’t have the clout to get my own way on it.

So I wound up having to shoot this stuff; I shot a war scene, I shot two weeks of stuff; and then I thought ‘well, surely, when they see the film, the studio will realise that we don’t need it’.

So when they saw it, the studio loved the film and only because they loved the film did that give me enough clout to suggest when we did the test screening, we do two, and in the second one we’d just start the film where I originally wanted to start the film. They looked at me like I was crazy, but they said ‘we like the film, we like this guy, we’ll indulge his crazy request’.

So after the first test screening with all the stuff at the beginning, we pushed ahead with the second screening, and after that, they didn’t have to see the results; they walked out at the end, they looked at me and said “you’re totally right, we don’t need that stuff, we can do without it”.

Fantastic.

Yeah! It was like a controlled experiment in ‘do you need all that stuff’?

And the thing is, the audience is smart, and if you’re smart about the details and the consistency and how you go about building the character; from the wardrobe, to the behaviour, to all sorts of things, the audience intuits the character from all those visual cues and behavioural cues. The audience is hungry to know about the character, so if you’re movie is any good, they’re trying to soak up all of those details, and they do get it. They do intuit it.

But people, when they’re developing screenplays tend to forget that they’re a visual medium, and there are many tools that you have to tell a story, from wardrobe, to music, to cinematography, and if you do those things well, they all communicate ideas about the character; it’s not just about the dialogue. It’s not just about the scenes.

So anyway, that’s a very long-winded answer to your question, basically saying ‘yeah, I don’t think we need all that over-explaining’.

My next questions a two-parter.

Something that lead me to the previous question is that Terminator 3 has a scene sort of like this, where – well, you know, you made it – the Sergeant Candy scene. 

First part of the question: was that scene cut for that reason?

And the second part is, having already filmed that and explained why the Terminator looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, what do you think about the announcement that the next three (or however many) Terminator films are going to cover something that you’ve managed to do in a single scene?

[Laughs] That’s pretty funny.

I confess, I don’t – is that a recent announcement about the Terminator films?

I think so; I’m not sure that that’s going to be all that they’re about, but I think James Cameron came out and said ‘we’re going to explore why he looks like Arnie’. 

Ah, well, I’ll tell you the reason first. We put the scene in precisely to answer that question, and also, it had been like a dozen years since Terminator 2, so we were dealing with a section of the audience who were new to the franchise; members of the audience who had maybe not even seen the first two Terminator movies.

So it was a lingering question. So that’s why we put it in.

The reason we took it out was that it was too comedic and the film was reaching the point where it had too much comedy in it. And we didn’t want too much comedy in the film, because we also knew that we had made a film that the audience was rightfully skeptical of.

Like, ‘why do we need Terminator 3 – Terminator 2 was so great, it just smells like they’re trying to get our money, and that there’s not a good story reason to make the film’. Now I felt that there was another chapter to tell, but I got that the audience was skeptical about the whole enterprise.

They knew that Jim Cameron wasn’t directing and I realised there were a lot of reasons why the audience would be skeptical, so we needed somehow to disarm the audience. So we consciously decided to put humour into the film, and the Sergeant Candy scene was one of those things.

But when we watched the film overall, we thought ‘that’s just too much comedy’, and the fact is the scene wasn’t necessary to tell the actual plot of the film. At the end of the day, it was there for an expositional reason, to answer an expositional question. Knowing the answer to the question ‘why do they look like Arnold?’ does not have anything to do with whether or not you can follow or appreciate the stories. It should just be something saved for the DVD bonus. [Laughs] That’s probably the best place for it.

I’d heard rumours that Jim was going to come back to the franchise because he was finally getting the rights back, but I know at the moment he’s doing three Avatar movies, so that’s probably going to keep him quite busy. I assume what with him doing those Avatar movies, it’s going to be a long time before we see another Terminator from him.

But Jim Cameron is one of the great film makers of all time, so if he’s going to make a film, I’ll be the first one in line!

The Hunter’s Prayer is out now on digital platforms and DVD