Weathering the Storm: Director Brian Trenchard-Smith on Drive Hard

A low budget, tight schedule, and inclement weather? Challenges for any moviemaker. But there’s certainly no raining on director Brian Trenchard-Smith’s parade. His new feature Drive Hard, starring John Cusack and Thomas Jane, is a film that encountered all of those road blocks and more, requiring a savvy vet like Trenchard-Smith to perform some “fancy footwork.”

High Concept, Low Budget, Short Shoot… Name Actors

I’ve made 42  films on budgets ranging from $150,000 to $20 million. The challenges remain the same – as James Cameron said after Avatar: “Never enough money, never enough time.” For a director to make the most of whatever budget he has, quick thinking and flexibility are essential. This doesn’t mean you have to downsize your ambitions; you just have to be clever about realizing them.

Drive Hard required a fair bit of fancy footwork, some of which I will outline here.

For starters, the principal challenge from which all others sprang was the accelerated schedule. I met John Cusack on April 24 to discuss the script originally intended for Jean Claude Van Damme.

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Cusack wanted extensive changes to suit his on-screen persona, and make the bank robber character less physical and more cerebral. To secure him, we had to have his scenes in the can by Saturday, June 22, so he could meet his scheduled date on a David Cronenberg movie. This meant I had to get the rewrite done, including transposing the story from California to Australia’s Gold Coast, in time for prep to start on May 15, and principal photography  on June 6. D-Day was certainly on my mind that morning, as was the advice on the front cover of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – don’t panic!

A good note for directors: Whatever goes awry, maintain outward calm. You are a visualizer, a brigade commander and a group therapist. Everyone wants to feel that the movie will be great. It’s your job to convince them, come what may. Have a Plan A, B, and C in your head at the start of every day.

But first comes the script, the architect’s blueprint. When we met at John Cusack’s house, I saw some books on the table by anti-globalization activist Arundhati Roy. Her latest is called Capitalism: A Ghost Story. And it hit me that the bank robber character would be more interesting with the addition of John Cusack’s own political world view: “The game’s rigged.” He liked the idea of making the villains corrupt bank executives (“banksters”) upon whom he was exacting revenge.

Then, when Thomas Jane came on board, the comedic chemistry between them was immediately apparent. I incorporated input from both of them, and encouraged improvisation. The scene where the bank robber calls the bank executive with a list of scatological insults aimed at the man’s wife is pure Cusack.

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Thomas Jane’s ability to adapt to the moment was evident in the scene when he leaves the car and tries to surrender, but gets back in when met with a hail of police bullets. Somehow, on take one, the car door wouldn’t open. So, without skipping a beat, he leapt feet-first through the open window into the drivers seat and roared away. We didn’t bother fixing the door for take two.

Stormy Weather on the Gold Coast

Production value is always a concern on low-budget productions, so setting as much as possible outdoors can help a lot. In this case, I moved an office scene to the roof of the building with a commanding view of adjacent city skyscrapers.

On Australia’s Gold Coast, I’ve shot a TV series, Mission Impossible, Time Trax, Flipper, Official Denial, Sahara, Seconds To Spare, and Absolute Deception. With its beachfront and inland waterways, the area blends Waikiki with Miami, while adding a splash of Australia. It’s really hard to get a bad angle in any direction and the city council is very film-friendly. If you approach local officials in the right way, they can be your project’s best friend. I mean, these guys let me run cars along the Esplanade and onto the beach, because as kids, they enjoyed the chases I did in BMX Bandits. Our total location and parking fee for the day: $750. Sometimes your past comes back to haunt you in a good way.

The budget provided for 18 10-hour days of shooting. But when it rained all day, we ended up shooting our car dialogue scenes (intended for sunny weather) through the wipers. This added a lot more texture to those scenes. To smooth the transition from shine to rain, I added an approaching  CGI storm front to a wide vista of the landscape, showing the city they left behind in the sunshine. This made it a less obvious mismatch between the sunny scenes in town when intercut with the car conversations on the rainy country roads.

For plot reasons, however, we could not shoot every car interior scene in the rain. I wrapped the waterlogged crew three hours early. And were they ever grateful! Show you care about your crew as human beings and they will jump through fire for you when needed, i.e. fires like squeezing three hours of the packed schedule on John Cusack’s last day to finish car interiors on a green stage. No pressure!

“Cool Action Shots”

Another challenge in this film were all the car chases, because we could not afford to damage any of the vehicles. Stunts, with two CG enhanced exceptions, were of the “near miss” variety, rather than Fast and Furious-type carnage. Near the end, we had 10 hours to shoot two sequences of bikers harassing the heroes. Coverage was key and you can never have enough images to play with in the cutting room. Two RED cameras, three GoPros, and a Canon 5D were brought to bear on every set up. The GoPros made changing car mount angles a much faster process than it used to be and the scenes benefited from every one.

Bikers harass car

Cool action shots are important, but coverage of how the characters are reacting to every beat are a much higher priority. Bear this in mind when planning the day’s shot list. It was a lot of work, but we were able to get done seconds before losing the light, thanks to the crew.

When you make it through a difficult day like that or a difficult shoot, there’s a special feeling of satisfaction known only to directors. Overcoming the challenges, going with the flow, and making it all work together. It’s one of the reasons why I keep doing it. MM

Drive Hard will be available on DVD November 11, 2014.

We’re giving away two copies of the Drive Hard DVD today only! See our Facebook page for more details.

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