In a year with many action films inspired by graphic novels or comic books, “Red” stands out because most of the action stars in the film are over the age of 50. “Red” (based on the graphic novel of the same title) stands for “retired, extremely dangerous,” referring to a group of former CIA operatives who come out of retirement when they find out that they are targeted to be assassinated because of the secrets that they know. The group of hunted former spies consists of Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis), Victoria (played by Helen Mirren), Joe Matheson (played by Morgan Freeman) and Marvin Boggs (played by John Malkovich). Karl Urban plays CIA operative Will Cooper, who is given the task of finding them and killing them.
At Comic-Con International 2010 in San Diego, Willis and Mirren made their first appearance at the annual event. After the stars appeared on the “Red” discussion panel on July 22, Willis, Mirren and Urban gathered for a “Red” press conference. (Mary-Louise Parker, who plays Sara Ross, Frank’s love interest in “Red,” was on the “Red” panel but could not attend the “Red” press conference since she was busy promoting her TV series “Weeds” at Comic-Con.) Here is what Willis, Mirren and Urban said when they answered questions from members of the media.
Bruce, how is “Red” is different from your other films?
Willis: I have a romance in this film. I get to kill people and be in a romantic comedy. It seems great. I am pleased with this choice.
How was it working with “Red” director Robert Schwentke?
Willis: I think Robert had a lot of things to juggle. I think it would be intimidating for almost anyone to have to work with as many veteran actors and big movie stars. Robert managed every day with a lot of grace and a sense of humor and got the work done.
Mirren: He was very loose and very easy and very patient. And he was also quite German … in that he wouldn’t let go. He knew what he wanted, and he would push all of us, in terms of acting, always, to what he wanted. And he was kind of relentless in that way. As Bruce said, with this disparate number of people with their own histories of acting and so forth, you could have a movie where everyone is acting in a different style. But Robert was very good at maintaining the style of acting as well as the overall style of the movie.
Helen, why do you think comic books inspire so many movies and TV shows?
Mirren: I’m wearing a T-shirt in respect of Harvey Pekar, whom I think was a great, great artist and graphic novelist. He showed me graphic work that, in my ignorance, I didn’t understand before I was exposed to work. Now I’m much more open-minded. Before, I thought it was all about comic-book heroes and boys’ kind of stuff. And he revealed the fact that a graphic novel can be as deep and complex, personal and psychological as any other work of art: novel, movie, painting, anything.
So I think with this [comic-book] world, it’s really exciting to see it burgeoning and expanding and changing as it goes into a real, total art form. I think we’re at a very exciting point in the whole era, the whole development of comic books. I’m fascinated to see where it’s going to be another 20 years from now.
Willis: I think these guys [“Red” graphic novelists Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer] wrote and illustrated a pretty well-thought-out story that showed up long before it ever made the transition from a graphic novel to a film. It [the “Red” graphic novel] would have to be about 66 pages. So you have to take 66 pages of a graphic novel and to turn it into 110 or 115 pages of a script, and you try and fill 90 minutes of that. And it was very ambitious.
And there would be many days where I’d say, “Where are we in the story? What are we doing?” And Robert always knew the answer. He always knew exactly where we were, what we were doing, what this scene is about. But I think the story was already really dramatic and very easy to play and very easy to understand. If someone shoves you a little too far, you’re going to shove back. All of us were shoving each other and shoving back.
Helen, did you learn anything from Bruce on how to be an action star?
Mirren: My God, it was great fun, this film. I had fun, anyway. I absolutely loved every minute of it. Yes, you always learn from great movie stars, I have to say. There’s no accident why they’re a great movie star, and Bruce is a great movie star. These things don’t happen by accident. And it means that they have both a mystery about them and an expertise and a very high level of technique, plus an incredible instinct that they allow to operate. And it’s always a dream to watch that and learn from it. I was doing that all the time on set.
Can you address the issues that “Red” brings up about what people over a certain age can really do when they’re pushed to extremes?
Willis: The [phrase] is certainly used in the title of the film” Retired, extremely dangerous.” It’s commented on a couple of times, but when you see the film, it’s right now; it’s hip. Karl Urban and I went at it [in “Red”]. It was one of the toughest fights of my life. Contact was made. We weren’t going, “I’m a little too old! Ow, buddy! We can’t fight this hard!”
It was deliberately crafted along the lines of mixed-martial arts and how violent that is and how we’re throwing each other around. I mean, literally throwing each other around and doing things that are very cool and very right now. Anyone that you see who’s reported to be retired in this film is sexy and hot and romantic and funny. It’s just one good part of the title.
Urban: The most fun I’ve had in years was having the opportunity to throw Mr. Bruce Willis across the room and watch him smash into furniture. This film explores the kind of concept of “old school techniques versus new school techniques.” Bruce and Helen and Morgan and John, their characters represent the way things used to be done. I play a character who’s of the new breed in the CIA. And one of the cool things about this film is that you get to see those different schools of thought go head-to-head. And there’s definitely something to be said about “old school.” Old school is cool school.
Mirren: I would just say that as an older person, you bring a different energy to the piece. And maybe it’s the energy of wisdom and the energy of experience. That, in a sense, is the story of the movie as well: that these people bring their deep experience and knowledge of what they’re doing to this particular job.
Helen, what kinds of skills did you have to learn for “Red”?
Mirren: Shooting a gun is all I had to know, really. That was fun to do, and I did it to a certain extent. You think about the relevance of old people, but I think that is a relevance amongst us. It is to do with wisdom and experience, and it’s kind of a gorgeous thing.
Bruce and Helen, what do you like about coming to Comic-Con?
Mirren: Well, we’re both [Comic-Con] virgins. Well, not any more. I was just ravished by Comic-Con. I’m not a virgin anymore. I had a bit of foreplay before that, and then I got ravished.
Would you say that the fans the best part of Comic-Con?
Mirren: That’s obviously what it’s all about, isn’t it? I just went into the big [exhibit] room. I had to see that, because that’s what it’s all about. And understanding for the first time, “Ah, I get it!” Because we obviously travel in a bubble a lot of the time, don’t we? We’re either in rooms with guys like you or on red carpets behind red things. And there [on the Comic-Con exhibit floor] is where you get to have real face-to-face experience with fans.
And the great thing about Americans is their ability to be enthusiastic and obsessed about stuff and do it on a grand scale. And for me, as a Brit coming into this, it’s really exciting and endearing. It’s everything you love about America. It’s that commitment and excitement and enthusiasm and a kind of an innocence about it. And it’s great to be a part of. It’s fantastic to have this kind of venue that you can get down and dirty, if you like, with thousands of people. It’s great.
What was it about “Red” that made you want tot do this movie?
Urban: For me, this was a dream project in many ways. First off, the people involved. It is very, very rare that you get to work on a project with so many extraordinarily talented people. And that, for me, was certainly a major draw card. And in addition to that, it was the way that the script was written. It’s a character-driven film, and the characters were wonderfully written. For me, a CIA hit man, ostensibly, but you also get to see this other side. He has this family life that he’s trying to balance out. And that’s something quite rich and great territory to explore, and something I certainly hadn’t seen or played. And that’s what it was for me.
Willis: I was talking with Lorenzo [di Bonaventura, one of the producers of “Red”] two years before we started shooting. There was never any way you or I could ever have imagined the richness of what a film can be that has a huge cast of characters in it when all of those characters are played by actors you know and love and I was already a fan of for a long time. I was excited all the time …
We’re just starting to talk about this film, and find out how to respond to this film, but I think one of the things that’s going to be talked about a lot more between now and the time this film comes out is just the fact that there’s this phenomenon of having this having this many actors and this many movie stars in the film who told a great story, who told a really complicated, ambitious story that’s fun and funny and has action and is very satisfying.
Mirren: Me? Not “The Queen.” Bruce Willis. Evening dress, machine gun. I’ve got to do it!
Sylvester Stallone also has an all-star cast in an action movie with “The Expendables.” Do you have a “dueling banjos” thing going on with these movies?
Willis: I hadn’t thought of it quite like that. I’m still a fan of films. I go to movies all the time. I like to see what’s out there. I never think there’s any competition between films. I heard it said, but I root for everybody’s film.
I especially have a fond place in my heart for graphic novels, for comics. What’s really cool about coming here is seeing Comic-Con, is seeing 7,000 people who all think the same kind of thing. I’ve never seen any slice of the audience that’s all in one place and all really excited to be here. I think it’s a really cool thing to see.
What do you think about the responsibilities that filmmakers have to adapt a comic book into a movie and staying true to the story?
Willis: I think we all try to live up to the storyline. I’d rather you ask the guys who came up to the idea. Did we live up to that story was? And did we live up to taking material and a piece of art from one genre and translating it into another. I was much more interested in what they would think, how movie stars would take the story and turn it into.
Bruce and Helen, is there anything that scares you?
Willis: No … There are many different parts of moviemaking that I take part in: talking about the project prior to them turning the camera on, doing the work after the film’s been made, and talking about it afterward and participating in the marketing of it and getting the word out there. My favorite part is the making of [the film].
I’m scared every day. I keep thinking someone’s going to throw me the ball and I’m going to go [he makes a gesture as if he’s dropping a ball], “Oh, wow, I just messed that up.” Not fear so much as excitement and that thrill of you have to create something out of 115 type-written pages, and make it be human and life-like. I think I’m much more afraid of making a mistake in raising my daughters than on any work that I do as an actor. It’s a much higher scale of fear there.
Mirren: I’m frightened all the time, actually. I think my whole life is just overcoming fear. The first nights in the theater were really scary. Now, I’m terrified of the rubbish in New York. There’s such a mountain of it. Where does it all go? It’s a scary thought. I’m terrified of plastic. Plastic packaging — that’s what’s scaring me right now. There’s too much of it. Get rid of it.
Bruce, you mentioned that you’re a fan of graphic novels and comic books. Do you collect them?
Willis: I don’t collect them, but I’ve done a couple of movies based on them, and it all turned out to be really fun projects and fun to do. There’s just more character in it. There’s just more stuff right there that you can go to. And, for the most part, people expect actors to fill in the blanks. And when they’re not blanks anymore and there are specific story things in the characters and things you’re upset about — what is my beef in this film — it’s always a lot easier to do.
For more info: “Red” website
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