Director Jaume Collet-Serra has had quite an interesting career and, even if you don’t know his name, you’re probably familiar with his work. His career has been tied to that of Liam Neeson’s of late, as the duo have collaborated a total of four times on some of the Irish actor’s action movies that have been a staple of his career over the last decade. That trend continues with The Commuter this weekend, which is another crowd-pleasing, fun action/thriller.
The movies that Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra make with one another represent the kind of movies that don’t get made all that often in Hollywood anymore. While the majority of movies released these days are either very low-budget or massive, mega-budget blockbusters, movies like The Commuter exist somewhere in the middle. Studios have shied away from these mid-budget movies in recent years, but Collet-Serra and Neeson have found a way to make them work.
Starting with Unknown in 2011, Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra kicked off this series of collaborations. The pair later worked together in rapid succession on the airplane thriller Non-Stop in 2014 and then the action/drama Run All Night in 2015. These movies may not be critical darlings, and they may not be blockbuster smash hits, but they are entertaining and make money. Something about these two working together really works. The Commuter hasn’t had the chance to show what it can do at the box office yet, but it feels right in line with these previous collaborations.
Jaume Collet-Serra has also spent some time with horror, getting his start directing the House of Wax remake in 2005 and the indie horror flick Orphan. He also dipped his toes back in that well, at least with certain elements of the movie, with 2016’s The Shallows. He hopes to return to horror at some point, but in the near future he’s got some very big fish to fry. Namely, directing the big-budget, possible start to a major franchise, The Jungle Cruise for Disney, which stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
That movie is sure to make him a bigger name in Hollywood, but he’s already been up for other big jobs, such as Suicide Squad 2. And, as he teases in this interview, some other high-profile gigs we may never know about. With that, here’s my interview with director of The Commuter, Jaume Collet-Serra.
You make these movies that simply don’t get made anymore. These mid-budget thrillers and it’s great. How did you find yourself doing these sort of movies
Jaume Collet-Serra: It’s thanks to Liam. I think that Liam has a huge fanbase, he’s a huge star and he likes these kinds of movies. And I like them too, and we are able to collaborate and make them and give them some sort of unifying through line. It’s obviously, there’s a lot of people involved, like producers and financiers and people that allow us to continue making these movies, if the audience goes to see them. We’ll see how this one does and, if it does well, then we’ll make another one. It’s always thanks to the people that go watch them. It’s mostly because the audience loves Liam, and Liam is such a great actor and so likable, and such a great action star that people are fans.
This is your fourth collaboration, I believe, with him [Liam Neeson]. This one I feel like, specifically, because there’s so much going on to possibly distract from his performance a little bit. Did working with him so many times before help you be able to get what you needed to get this time around?
Jaume Collet-Serra: Yeah. But it’s not even really about getting stuff, because he’s an endless well. He can do anything. But it’s mostly that we don’t want to repeat ourselves. In other movies that I’ve done with him, he sometimes had a darker past, or a drinking problem, or some big redeeming thing that he had to do. So, in this one, I just wanted him to sort of be more of an everyday man and have a happy family, be a good husband, be a good father, and just make one small mistake, and then from there on, unravel a huge conspiracy. But I wanted him to be more charming, you know? And the fact that it’s his environment. It’s the train that he rides with the people that he already knows. He was able to kind of investigate, or find the clues, not from a power position, like in other movies with a gun or whatever, but from a fellow passenger. And I think that was a different side of Liam that I hadn’t worked, in that capacity. Usually it’s quite different.
I personally, I loved it because I have this affection for these action/thrillers and that’s, like, what I grew up on. This feels very 90s to me in a strange way. Did you have any specific movies that you were looking to channel?
Jaume Collet-Serra: The 90s. That’s me too. No. I think that always, when it comes together, it for me, as a director and a storyteller, I’m just trying to put the essence of the movie on screen and it’s both a mixture between, sort of the simple concept of [Alfred] Hitchcock, or older movies, but with the fun and flare of the 90s or the late 80s. I put those two things together. I think that this sort of medium-sized movie, I think in the 90s we discovered that they could be very satisfying and they could have a very nice structure to them. And they would have a very nice resolution, and everything would kind of develop and then have, you know, not to completely tie it in a nice little bow, but it would be satisfying and I think that that’s what I tried to do. Because I think earlier movies, they had this weird concept and sometimes, I don’t know, the third act was just very flat, you know?
Jaume Collet-Serra: But in the late 80s and 90s you would have these sort of elaborate third acts that somehow, they were still the right size. Then I think they became bigger and more boring and they’d have four endings. Then there’s other movies that just go on forever. So I appreciate the concise concept and still have a fun third act.
This one did have that nice button on it. It ends. I want to talk about that opening. The first ten minutes of the movie. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen something where you got such a complete story in such a short period of time. Sort of like the beginning of Up, in a weird way. How did you decide to do that? Because it was so beautiful.
Jaume Collet-Serra: I just came up with the idea when I had a problem to communicate to audiences that maybe are not aware of what a commuter means all over the world. How would I communicate what this guy has gone through? What is his power? His power is that he takes the train everyday at the same time. So, the only way to communicate is to show that. Because if I tell you that, it doesn’t really resonate. So I came up with this crazy little concept, and it was very hard to shoot. It was very hard to kind of explain to people. Even as we’re on set, the people are changing wardrobe and it’s like, ‘What am I doing? What am I saying?’ It’s very confusing. But it worked, at the end of the day. Once you put in the music and the visual effects and the sound. People got all of the information that they needed to get. It worked on many levels. It was the only time you see the family. It’s the only time you see his relationship with the kid. And obviously, the whole train experience.
If I’m not mistaken, you’re next thing is going to be Jungle Cruise?
Jaume Collet-Serra: Yeah.
You’re moving into that next level of, this is sort of the big-budget thing…
Jaume Collet-Serra: Every movie is, you never have enough money and you never have enough time. It’s always the same.
Is there anything specific about this? Because I know, if I’m not mistaken you also had been looked at for some bigger projects. like Suicide Squad 2 I heard was on the table.
Jaume Collet-Serra: Many projects. Some come out in the news, some others don’t come out.
But what was it about this? The Jungle Cruise specifically, that you were like, ‘I want to take that.’ What was it that attracted you to it?
Jaume Collet-Serra: For me, I’m a big fan of Indiana Jones and the adventure movie. So I really, really wanted to get into that tone. Because I really like, even though some of my movies are action and whatnot, I really like fun, big fun. And funny as well, and I think with Jungle Cruise I can do that.
I would imagine with The Rock you get that fun thing for sure.
Jaume Collet-Serra: It’s just that adventure. There’s adventure. I love that.
House of Wax, the remake, was one of your first movies. Do you have any intention of going back to horror at some point?
Jaume Collet-Serra: Yeah. I would love to. For me, The Shallows was sort of an attempt at that, a thriller or whatever, but absolutely. Absolutely I would go to horror in a heartbeat. Like a small horror movie. Ideally, you want to do a little of everything but horror is, I don’t know, it just has a warm place in my heart. I grew up more of a thriller and action movie fan and horror just became, yeah I watched every horror movie like everybody else, but only when I started with House of Wax, and then Orphan, those were the kind of movies, as a director, I was offered at the time. But I really enjoyed it and I really love it, so I would love to continue that.
Yeah, and now does seem like a pretty good time for the horror stuff.
Jaume Collet-Serra: Absolutely, absolutely. Get Out. I mean, that’s an amazing, you know, that’s like the best horror movie ever.
Speaking of that, you had an interesting Conjuring reunion, because of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. But then you also had Sam Neill. I know they all had smaller parts, but what was it like getting some really top-notch actors to surround Liam with?
Jaume Collet-Serra: The good news is that, in Non-Stop for instance, we had great actors, we had Julianne Moore playing basically a decoy of a character, right? I think people want to be part of an ensemble cast and use their persona to kind of distract from the audience. Sometimes you’re trying to avoid casting the big star as the main bad guy or whatever, right? So, you have to use, sometimes, many recognizable names so people are confused and not know who’s gonna be the suspect. So you have to use that. And they’re game for that. The actors are game to be that decoy.
I love Sam Neill and I didn’t even know that he was in it until the credits rolled and I was just delighted to see his name. I feel like he doesn’t get used enough. He’s not in it a lot, but how was he to work with? He’s a guy that sort of fascinates me.
Jaume Collet-Serra: He’s amazing. I think that all of these actors, and it’s very hard for them to come in just for a few days and have very key roles, but he’s a good friend of Liam and they’ve known each other for a long time and I think they just have a good time playing those scenes together. But for a director, you just have to be very prepared because they’re very smart and they’ve worked in great movies, and they’re potentially writers and directors themselves, and they have some really smart questions. And you’d better be prepared to answer them.
As we wrap up here, I feel like this is a great time of year for this sort of movie, because there just isn’t anything like this for people right now. Did you have anything specific you wanted people to get out of this one?
Jaume Collet-Serra: Like you say, this is the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore and sometimes people discover the movie in the theater, or sometimes they will discover it later, but I think this is a movie that was worth making and it’s a movie that people are enjoying. And I think it’s a movie that you can watch with any member of your family. You can watch it with your kids. You can watch it with your spouse, because it has elements that are entertaining to both. What I personally enjoy the most is when I watch these kinds of movies is to try and figure out the mystery and get the medal. Like, “Ah! I knew what it was!” So this is a perfect movie to do that. To go sit down and see who gets it right.
If you’ve already seen all of the awards season movies you want to check out, or you’ve already seen The Last Jedi move than once, this is probably one of the best bets for moviegoers in January. It just wouldn’t be January without a Liam Neeson action movie, would it? The Commuter from Lionsgate is in theaters now.