Storytelling in Action: Four Tips For Crafting the Perfect Action Sequence From The Commuter‘s Jaume Collet-Serra

Jaume Collet-Serra is a Barcelona-born director whose films increasingly testify to a deft eye for action, ever since his 2005 debut with the cult thriller House of Wax (2005).

Collet-Serra infamously directed Paris Hilton getting impaled through a metal pole in that film, setting a standard for the gruesome yet visually dazzling action that has characterized his work. The Commuter re-teams Collet-Serra with Liam Neeson (Non-Stop) and Vera Farmiga (Orphan) in an energetic thriller which follows an insurance salesman who gets swept into a deadly criminal conspiracy on his commute home from work.

The Shallows was Collet-Serra’s last big-screen venture, 87 lean minutes of pure suspense, tracking Blake Lively’s desperate 200 yard journey to the shore through great white shark infested waters. For its simple premise and constrained location, the film impressed audiences and critics alike. Collet-Serra was praised for his economical direction of action. The phrase “taut thriller,” used more than once in reviews to describe The Shallows, and could be applied to The Commuter with gusto. Here, Jaume Collet-Serra shares his perspectives on crafting the perfect action sequence with MovieMaker in advance of The Commuter‘s release. —Ryan Coleman

Oscar-nominee Vera Farmiga plays the mysterious Joanna, a catalyst to The Commuter‘s major events. Image courtesy of Lionsgate

Fundamentally, Action Needs to Lead to Character Development

I have found that the very root of action is character development. Either the audience needs to learn about the character through the action or the character has to learn about herself through it. In my early movies, my action was more reactionary, “oh the car is flooding I have to get out”, or, “somebody is chasing me I have to run”. Those sequences felt very long as a result. The audience was waiting for the movie to continue instead of enjoying the moment and watching the plot propel. Instead, the goal is to treat action as a dramatic scene and know what beats you need, what revelations are needed and then have them come out through the action.

In The Commuter, Liam [Neeson] plays Michael, an everyday sort of hero who is also 60 years old. This character didn’t have a particular set of action skills to draw from so we had to keep it very real. All of the action sequences and beats were designed with that fact in mind. This was an ordinary man who was put in extraordinary circumstances and had to rise to the occasion. We wanted that to come across in a realistic way. He mostly has to draw from his experiences and not from his strength. In this movie, Liam loses more fights than he wins.

Embrace the Difficulty

Filmmaking isn’t easy. Shooting action isn’t easy. But it shouldn’t be. Filmmaking is about embracing the difficult. It’s about embracing the fact that it’s going to be super hard. It’s an addiction to problem solving that can get you through every challenge. Give yourself big goals and break the big problems down into little problems. Then start solving them.

One of the biggest challenges I encountered was in my first movie, House of Wax. My entire stage literally burned to the ground, with the set and equipment inside. It was the first day that we were using real fire, when suddenly the set caught on fire and it progressed very fast to the silks and blacks hanging from the ceiling. We had to evacuate the stage while the camera was still rolling. We thought they were going to be able to put it out immediately because we had a fire team standing by, but they couldn’t. The fire extended to the point where it burned the whole set and the whole stage. It destroyed all of our equipment, except the camera that was rolling, which was luckily a handheld. It was probably the last hour of the week, so luckily all the film had been sent to the lab and we didn’t lose anything that had already been shot. That said, there were still three weeks left in production and we had to shut down for a couple days. We finished the couple days we had left of exterior shots and sent everyone home while the set was rebuilt. Meanwhile, we had to figure out what went wrong to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. Everyone came back and we shot the scene, but with added safety measures. During that time I thought I would never direct another movie again. I thought, “Well, at least I went out with a bang.”

Be Aware That Filmmaking is a Ton of Work

I struggle with shooting action in every single movie. I end up thinking about it every minute of the day. When I’m cooking, driving, when I used to go to the gym… every time I had a second, I was thinking about the action. You have the actors and writers to give you support on the characters, but with action, it falls more on the director’s shoulders. Hopefully you can build yourself a good team of people (ie: stunt coordinator, storyboard artists, production designer, etc.) to bounce ideas off of, but no matter what, the challenge to create action definitely ends up consuming your thoughts.

Coming up with original action is tough, but it’s like anything in storytelling. You have to figure out the ending, and once you have an ending that is great you have to think what would be the most unlikely beginning. Once you’ve come up with that beginning, the journey should in theory write itself. But it never does. You want to be surprising at every point so you have to allow yourself to experiment using storyboards, bouncing ideas off others, and editing over and over until you discover what the is real essence of the action. Then you shoot it, and pray for some miracle of improvisation that will make it great. I find it’s usually the small improvisational stuff that makes the scenes really resonate with the audience.

Each action set piece should have a concept. It’s not just the technical concept of being one shot, or shaky cam, or a ton of shots. You should be able to describe what the action set piece is about in one sentence—just like you should be able to describe what the movie is about in one sentence. In The Shallows when the surfers get eaten, it’s about her being unable to warn them. The camera is told through her close up and her point of view. The camera stays with her.

Don’t Over-Design the Action—Keep It Simple

It’s a very common mistake to over-design action. When plotting out action it’s very difficult to find the right pace. Through planning, shooting, and editing you get a sense for economy and simplicity. When you shoot it, even though in your head it plays very quickly, it generally plays out much slower in the edit. The action you designed is no longer exciting. If you try to cut it to feel faster, it becomes confusing. During the process of designing you, should ask yourself what the fastest way from A to B, from B to C is—then try to design it in the simplest, most effective way. In the past, I’ve had to throw a lot of shots, very hard-to-get-shots, out because I needed to cut a scene in half. The scene wasn’t character-driven and I had overdesigned it.

One of the most challenging scenes I ever had to design and shoot was the bathroom fight sequence in Non-Stop. I made the decision to not move the camera and to cut very fast (like the shower scene in Psycho). It was very challenging because each shot had one action move. I had to shoot it completely out of order—we would only take one wall out at a time from the set. So I had to do all of the shots with the removal of one wall, then put that wall back up and take out another to do all of the shots that were from that wall, and so on. It took almost a day and a half to shoot, but it was very fun to edit. When you pay so much attention to each one of the moves in an action sequence, and you’ve really thought about it, you can pick up the pace without making it confusing. MM

The Commuter opens in theaters on January 12, 2018, courtesy of Lionsgate.

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