Arriving on the Philadelphia set of Law Abiding Citizen, I’m ushered into a small, out-of-the-way room where a Catholic priest in full canonical dress is waiting. Luckily, I’m not in need of last rites; this priest is actually producer Alan Siegel, in costume for his cameo as a clergyman who attends the execution of a prisoner in today’s scene. Siegel is the longtime manager of actor Gerard Butler (300, P.S. I Love You) and the film is the first under their new production banner, Evil Twin. They’re working alongside The Film Department’s Mark Gill and Neil Sacker.
As Siegel walks me around the set to talk, no less than a dozen crew members pop out and do a variation on the same joke: “Bless me father, it has been 30 years since my last confession. Is that bad?” Siegel takes it in stride, making the sign of the cross for everyone as we walk and he fills me in on the film’s long production history.
Law Abiding Citizen began eight years ago with another pair of collaborators, veteran producer Lucas Foster and writer-director Kurt Wimmer. A side project they tinkered with for years while developing other films together, like Equilibrium and Ultraviolet, it was in danger of being shelved until a fortuitous meeting broke the logjam.
As Wimmer’s ultra-hot script, Salt, was making the Hollywood rounds, he met with Butler about the plum role, but ended up turning him on to Law Abiding Citizen, the story of an ambitious district attorney who allows some vicious murderers to plea down their cases, and in the process earns the wrath of one of their victims, a tech wizard named Clyde (played by Butler).
With Butler on board, the team began courting top-tier talent, including Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx and two-time nominee Frank Darabont. Pre-production commenced, but many kinks remained and Darabont began doing rewrites intended to draw the script closer to the somber prison dramas he knows so well. In doing so, he clashed with the producers, who were set on a white-knuckled thriller. Darabont eventually walked away, making way for F. Gary Gray, helmer of crime thrillers The Negotiator and The Italian Job.
On the day MovieMaker visited the set, all elements seemed to be clicking and an atmosphere of grim concentration was evident as I watched Butler perform dozens of takes of a crucial prison cell confrontation between himself and Foxx. When the scene finally wrapped, late into the night, Butler and I found an out-of-the-way corner to talk about his first outing as a feature producer.
Ryan Stewart (MM): I was impressed by your concentration through all those takes. What do you think about after take 50 to keep your mind sharp? Women?
Gerard Butler (GB): (laughs) I was there! It’s very funny, because people watch movies and they can’t appreciate the conversations that go on between scenes, which often have nothing to do with the movie. It might be about women or music. For me, when it’s a particularly heavy scene, one of my ways of keeping focus is to relax, to laugh and joke. It’s not about focusing your mind for 18 hours at a time, because then you’d just exhaust yourself.
MM: And it’s understood that Jamie will stand there for you through every take, to help your reaction?
GB: I think it’s understood. I would never in a million years abandon my fellow actor; I’ll always be there for them, even in the tiniest of shots. Jamie is the same way. When we started and were filming at City Hall, my character had nothing to say to him—he was far away and I just had to look at him. It was so cold, but I felt that I needed him and he was more than happy to stand out there in the cold. That was actually kind of nice, seeing as my character is not too happy with him in this movie. It was nice to see him suffer. (laughs)
MM: Why the decision to put on a producer’s hat this time? Does it mean more control? More responsibility? More confidence?
GB: All of those things—it’s definitely a double-edged sword. It’s been amazing to be so involved in the creative process. I’ve found that with the movies before now, you could only be creative up to a point and then you’d lack a certain amount of control. I have a lot of confidence in other areas. On this film I’ve been allowed to put all of that in; into the development of the script, in casting and even in choosing the director, and that’s been amazing. It’s also a big responsibility—it’s your movie. There’s more on your shoulders and if you’re going to fuck up, you’re not just fucking up as an actor, you’re fucking up as a producer.
I have found the whole thing stressful, but also exciting. When you sit back and look around and you see all these sets and the people working, you think, ‘Wow, if at any point we had dropped this project, all of this wouldn’t be happening. All these people wouldn’t be working.’ Every day I look at the dailies and it’s even more exciting than normal, because you know you’re so responsible for all of that coming through. Ultimately, it’s… what do they say? More pain, more gain?
MM: No pain, no gain.
GB: Right, no pain, no gain. But I like more pain, more gain!
MM: Which part of producing has been the most fun?
GB: Developing scripts. I think I’m very competent at that, if I do say so myself. Going into a script, ripping it apart, developing the scenes, developing characters, taking out characters, all of that—making things more interesting, giving it more edge, whatever it is—I love doing that. I’m seeing a million things happen in this movie and I go, ‘Oh, that was my idea!’ Or ‘This has changed,’ or ‘That line has changed.’ I’m heavily involved in all of that.
MM: Would you say this movie is typical of what Evil Twin wants to make going forward?
GB: Just like me as an actor, I don’t think any movie would be indicative of anything for me. That’s what I find exciting… I don’t think people have seen me in a role like this before but, likewise, I just did a romantic comedy and then an action movie, so I would hope that our production company goes along the same lines. We’ll do the stuff that interests us, and hopefully other people, in any genre.
MM: Are you still pushing to do more as an actor?
GB: I’m pushing to do less! My big fight at the moment is to not take on too much and it’s very hard. I have a couple of friends whose careers are taking off right now and they are booked for the next year. As much as I’m excited for them, I also tell them, ‘Just remember, if it’s going great for you, then maybe you want to keep it to two projects instead of three, because you want to have a life as well.’
I do know one of the reasons I’m here is because I worked so hard, but at the same time I sometimes wish I’d gone at it 90 percent instead of 100 percent. I wish I’d forced myself to take more time off. At the moment, I have so many projects coming out that I could work every day of this year. So I’m pushing to reduce things.
It’s hard because I love acting, and I get so excited about projects and find it difficult to say ‘no.’ My agent said to me, “You’re at a stage where you could get a lot of the projects that you love, but you’ll also have to say ‘no’ to things you love.” In days gone by, I’d sometimes say ‘yes’ to things I didn’t even like that much, because I didn’t have much of a choice. Now, things I think are amazing, I still say ‘no.’ There aren’t enough hours in the day.
Law Abiding Citizen will be released by Overture Films in early 2010.