Pierre Morel On ‘The Gunman’, Sean Penn, His Cerebral Brand of Action
Sean Penn bulks up, whoops some ass and atones for his sins in The Gunman, a dark thriller with a stacked cast, directed by Taken helmer Pierre Morel. Penn plays Jim Terrier, a sniper mercenary who, years after carrying out a high-profile assassination in the Congo and abandoning the love of his life, must chase demons from his past across Europe and reconcile with his lost lover. Fans of Morel’s measured, cerebral approach to action will find the French director staying true to form as he gives Penn the Liam Neeson “grizzled tough-guy” treatment. Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, and Idris Elba round out the cast.
While visiting San Francisco Morel sat with us to talk about his psychological approach to action; the mentality of men who kill; Sean Penn’s intensity on set; Mark Rylance’s raspy voice; his inability to settle down in a single location; and more.
One of my favorite sports journalists said something fascinating recently. He talked about how most people would like to think that, if their family or significant other were threatened on the street, they wouldn’t hesitate to protect them and inflict violence on the attacker. But in fact, most people aren’t able to do it. It takes a certain type of person who is capable of answering that call to violence at the drop of a hat. You’ve made a few movies about men with this capacity. What do you understand about the mindset of this kind of person?
I don’t know this kind of person, but the characters we’re portraying are what we all wish to be. It’s that fantasy: If my kids were threatened, I would immediately react and do what needs to be done. Many people cannot do that. But in a perfect world, we’d love to. Making these characters in movies is a way to personify our hopes and expectations of ourselves, which we may never fulfill.
It’s a bit strange to watch these men mass murder people. I think your movies are concerned with the psychology of that more than most action movies. I know you don’t consider your films straight-up action movies, and one of the things that allows your work to transcend that genre is your cerebral approach. Your action sequences aren’t necessarily about head-to-head fighting or brute strength. These guys are stuck in a corner, and they have to maneuver their way out with their brain.
I love that kind of thing. It is an action movie — it’s entertaining — but it’s not just that. It’s about the psychology of these guys and what leads them to do what they do. That’s more interesting than action for action’s sake to me. There are several layers of complexity in guys who actually do this kind of business. We met a few guys who do that kind of business.
Yeah. Snipers, black ops. They have a mindset. For those who have been close to danger, they have a mindset to get out of dangerous situations. It requires being very well prepared, also. It’s not something you can improvise, I don’t think. If you’re stuck in the middle of a massive fight and you’re not trained for that, you’re like a rabbit in headlights. If you’re trained, you can get out of it. The movie’s about that, but it’s also about the other side of it. There’s a cost to that kind of [mindset], a psychological and physical cost. The cost of killing is something that takes its toll on you, I think.
We see both mental and physical repercussions to Terrier’s work. Is his brain condition in the movie a real thing?
It is. It’s the same condition you find in football players or boxers. It’s repeated concussions that ruin the brain, causing it to create bad proteins that build up and disable your ability to act and function properly. It’s not a psychological condition like PTSD; it’s a physical condition. It impairs your ability to move, so if a crisis occurs in the middle of a fight, it impairs the hero’s ability to fight. It was interesting to us to give flaws to our hero. I like heroes that are human and have issues, not superheroes. If you know already that he’s going to win, what’s the point?
I enjoyed Mr. Rylance’s performance. Did he alter his voice a bit for the role? It’s wonderful.
People don’t necessarily know Mark Rylance because he’s a British stage actor, one of the most gifted stage actors of his generation. Sean had never done action, and Mark hadn’t either. He wanted to build a different kind of characters. In a few shots, you can see there’s a big scar on his neck, and he imagined he’d been hurt in combat before, so he modified his voice. That was his backstory for his character.
Mr. Penn got in great shape for the movie. You can tell he put a lot of work in at the gym. Is he intense to be around? He seems to take his craft very, very seriously.
One of the things that makes him so talented is that he doesn’t compromise. He’s a gifted actor, and he doesn’t compromise, so when he’s in character, he’s one hundred percent that character. He works hard. It’s easy to work with him because we had great connections and moments on set. We had early-stage conversations about what the movie’s about, who the character is, what his journey is, what his arc is, so on set you just make adjustments on an already great performance.
He and Javier have good chemistry.
It’s interesting to see them work together. They come from different schools, I’d say. Sean is method acting to the core, and Javier is from Spain so he has a different approach to acting. But ultimately, however they built their characters, the chemistry was pretty intense.
Do you enjoy putting your characters in hopeless situations and then try to plot out how they’ll fight or think their way out of it? Is that fun to you?
Yeah, it’s always fun. You work on the floor plans for your sets, like, “Okay, they’re coming in from here and over there…what do you do [escape]?” Cool action pieces are fun. I love them.
What new skills have you acquired on this film as a director?
I don’t know. I learn every time. Every day is a new experience. You learn many things on each film, but I haven’t analyzed that yet.
Is it a subconscious thing?
Completely. Very instinctive. I’m not very intelligent. [laughs]
I’ve seen and read a lot of your interviews. You seem to very much love what you do and get a lot of joy from filmmaking.
It’s fun. What’s not to love in making movies? Come on! It’s fantastic. It’s less a job than it is a passion. I watch movies as much as I can. You have to be a movie lover before you can make movies. I love movies, so I’m happy on the set.
And filming in these beautiful places doesn’t hurt, I’m sure.
That’s another part of me. I can’t settle anywhere more than a few months. [laughs] It’s a big problem of mine. But yeah, we moved a lot. We went to Spain for this movie, mostly. Barcelona is a pretty cool city, a beautiful city, and a really easy place to shoot. Wherever you put your camera is going to look good. [laughs] We shot in South Africa, which is probably the easiest part of Africa to shoot in, because it has an existing industry. It’s a world on its own, I think. Gorgeous.