Global Perspective: Extortion Director Phil Volken Moves From a Local First Film to an International Follow-Up

Peaceful, isolated islands, tranquil seascapes and the slow lull of waves crashing on the beach seem like the ideal setting for relaxation. But when it comes to making a film, nothing is quite what it seems.

For his latest endeavor, multi-hyphenate moviemaker Phil Volken, set out to achieve what he never imagined possible. With only one feature-length film under his belt, Volken took on Hollywood-style action on an international scale and a 260-person crew, all while still remaining within the confines typically associated with an independent project.

Phil Volken’s latest feature, Extortion, was not only shot on location in Puerto Rico, but was also filmed with an entirely local crew (with the exception of cinematographer Helge Gerull). After arriving on location, Volken was able to meet with Puerto Rico’s local film commission, who helped provide him a number of crewmembers ranging from PAs to department heads. Puerto Rico provided not only the striking scenery, but also a production team that surpassed Volken’s own expectations, and left a lasting impression on him of some of the many benefits that come with shooting abroad.

Need more reasons to consider shooting that next big indie endeavor on a much larger scale? MovieMaker caught up with Phil Volken to talk about how he made it work, as well as increasing his scale for his second project and what it ultimately means to become a moviemaker.

Eion Bailey as Kevin Riley in Extortion. Image courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Grant Phillips, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What were some noticeable differences between directing your first and your second feature?

Phil Volken (PV): Well, the scope of the project. The first feature was shot in L.A. with a local crew. It was relatively easy. No film is easy to make, especially at an independent level. You go through hell and high water. But that one was easy comparing to this one. The challenge was, half of the film was set on water. And it’s the last thing as a filmmaker you want to do. I don’t recommend it for anyone. It’s extremely difficult to be shooting with boats and to be shooting out on the open sea, on islands, and away form the shore. Physically, that’s the biggest difference. Extortion is set on the high seas.

MM: Did you work with the same crew, then, from your first feature? Or was it a different crew on this one?

PV: It’s a completely different crew. Ironically, the entire crew was from Puerto Rico. They were all locals. The only person who traveled was the cinematographer, Helge Gerull. When we scouted the islands in Puerto Rico, we met with the film commission, the local filmmakers and the local crew. The level of professionalism was outstanding and I’m extremely happy that we went with a local crew, including all department heads. Typically, productions from mainland don’t do that. You bring everyone with you. But we decided that we were going to trust local talent and I’m very happy that we did.

MM: You not only wrote and directed the film, but edited it as well. Did you find that that gave you more control over the project?

PV: It definitely does, because I’m able to envision how the film is going to flow—what shots I’m missing while I’m shooting, what shots would be nice to get, etc. because I do edit as well. However, there’s definitely a negative side to that. As a director, you need a set of fresh eyes. It’s difficult to cut your own picture—you’re in love with your shots, you’re in love with your creation, you know what shots work. Some were difficult to achieve and you want to put them in the movie. You have to have self-discipline in order to trim what you’ve created. So, that’s why I did bring an editor on board to help me polish up once I had assembled the movie, to help me look at it from an objective point of view. I don’t think I want to do that again, to be honest.

Eion Bailey (L) as Kevin Riley, Mauricio Alemany (C) as Any Riley and Bethany Joy Lenz (R) as Julie Riley in Extortion

MM: How did you go about writing the story of Exortion? What was that process like?

PV: The writing was easy. I write a lot and this story is relatively simple: It’s about a father who needs to find his family. So, you follow the path of the character and it’s not a complicated story in that regard. But the journey itself within the overall framework is difficult. I wrote this script in under a week, first draft. It unraveled on its own because it’s very realistic. I put myself in that situation of what I would do if this happened to me. And since it’s not sci-fi or a hyper action movie, but more of a grounded film, I was able to put myself in that situation and was able to put the characters through a crazy thrill ride.

MM: What was the casting process like? How involved were you in that? Did you have anyone in mind for any of the roles beforehand?

PV: My top choice when I first envisioned the film was Paul Walker, but when we were developing it, Paul had a tragic accident. As we were developing the film, I knew of Eion Bailey and knew that he was a very deep, and, might I mention, an underappreciated actor. We went with Eion and [Bethany] Joy [Lenz] for the wife. When I saw Captain Phillips, I knew right then and there that Barkhad Abdi had to play Miguel Kaba in Extortion, and it worked out great. We were actually having fun with this on set with the crew. We were betting on what Barkhad would say about “Who is more of a villain? Miguel Kaba in Extortion, or Abduwali Muse in Captain Phillips?” To me, it was a no brainer; Miguel Kaba in Extortion is pretty much the worst of his kind, the worst of villains. Barkhad agreed, and some people won money [laughs]. He definitely agrees that Muse was actually a positive character, and while they’re very similar, Miguel is just a rotten scoundrel in Extortion.

Barkhad Abdi as Miguel Kaba in Extortion

MM: Do you let them improvise and adlib? Or are you pretty strict about the script?

PV: I do let them improvise, especially with Extortion. I wanted to have a documentary style, where we catch the action. We let the story unfold and we catch it. We shot with two cameras. We grab whatever we can see. In order for that feeling to play out properly, I implanted the idea and point of every scene into the actors’ heads. We did not rehearse, and they just kind of went along with it, keeping the main points of the script while bringing their own to every scene.

Eion Bailey (L) as Kevin Riley and Barkhad Abdi (R) as Miguel Kaba in Extortion

MM: The film juxtaposes many shots of claustrophobic interiors with extreme wide-angles. Did building that tension come naturally, or was it planned in the script?

PV: That came in the editing. We had such marvelous locations, unbelievable setting and unbelievable set pieces. We had around 12 picture boats and helicopters and all these toys that we could play with. So, once we grabbed as much footage as we could, we shot a lot. When you shoot on the ocean and you shoot on water, you want to roll as much as you can. Sometimes, you’ve just got to get what you can. Otherwise, there’s wind, there’s waves, there’s sun, there’s clouds, there’s rain… anything can happen. We ended up with a lot of footage. In editing I was able to look at the possibilities, and that’s what gave me the latitude to do that.

MM: How long was post-production, with all the additional footage?

PV: I edited for five months. It’s a long time. Post took about nine months, which isn’t that bad. It’s a huge movie. For the budget, for the type of project that we set out to do, we ended up with an enormous film that is shot and looks like a Hollywood movie, where you expect certain things and then it gives you that production value. For that reason, everything was a lot longer than your typical independent projects unfold.

MM: Was it intimidating going from such a small-scale local feature to such a huge scale for this one?

PV: Absolutely [laughs]. As a matter of fact, after I finished my first feature and I wrote Extortion, I didn’t think I would be able to do it as a director. In the back of my mind I thought, “I’m not ready for this yet.” I had never shot action, I had never dealt with stuntmen. Not to mention, without that type of experience, how am I going to put all these action scenes together and how am I going to shoot a film like that in a different country and set on water? So yes, of course [it was intimidating].

But the more I’ve thought about it and the more I prepared myself in trying to envision what this film will look like, it suddenly dawned on me: I wrote the movie. I know the movie. I obviously played it in my head over and over so many times that what I have to do is simply just put it together. It just occurred to me that I don’t necessarily need to be a trained action director or a trained high-profile studio director with a lot of experience in order to do a movie like this. I knew exactly what I wanted and that was my biggest strength. So, was it intimidating to show up on day one? Oh absolutely. I went from a 30-person crew to 260. My first day walking through set, I was like, “Oh wow, we have 15 trailers. We have all these toys. We have a marine unit and captains.” Of course you’re going to be nervous. But the second we rolled the first take, all that was all behind me and that’s it. I never looked back since.

Bethany Joy Lenz as Julie Riley in Extortion

MM: What are some secrets to maintaining a good relationship with everyone on set?

PV: You have to be a politician on set. There are so many personalities. Some people have ego and you can’t avoid that. Some people don’t see eye to eye. The key was balancing everything and trying to be a people person, friends with everyone—PAs, drivers, actors—and to have that positive feel. You start the day with positive energy, you get everybody involved, and you let people know you appreciate their work. As long the crew believes in what you’re doing and feels your energy and feels appreciated, then people are willing to go out of their way and have a good time.

With actors, they’re a little—a lot more—complicated than the crew. But it’s pretty much the same thing. If they believe in your drive and if they believe that you are able to achieve these things and you’ll make them look good and you know what you want, then they are behind you. In that respect, the balancing part was secondhand [nature] because I was so driven by the goal of making a great movie.

MM: Did going to film school help you prepare for that? Or was it something you learned as you went along?

PV: It’s great to have that film school background. It definitely launched me in the right direction. However, it does not prepare you to become a director. It does not prepare you for real-life filmmaking. It’s a good platform and something that gets you on the right track, but for anyone who wants to become a director, they need to pick up a camera and just start shooting. And there’s no one or anything that can stop that. Keep shooting. That’s how you’re going to achieve your goal.

MM: Do you have any new projects you’re currently working on?

PV: Yes, I’m working on another thriller called The Aquarium. It’s about a female cop investigating a series of murders in northeast Florida. I want to mention that a shark is involved. It’s a realistic story, kind of like Extortion, with new twists and an original story we haven’t seen before. Also, I’m developing a much bigger action movie that I’m hoping to have studios get on board with in the near future. MM

Extortion is available now on DVD, Digital HD and On Demand courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

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