“The Fast and the Furious” Director Rob Cohen Talks His New Film, “Hurricane Heist”
It isn’t a backhanded compliment to say that Rob Cohen has been in the business a long time.
He started in the early ‘70s as a junior executive in television before graduating to film not much later in the decade. Cohen worked as a producer into the late ‘80s (movies to his credit during that time include The Wiz, The Legend of Billie Jean, The Witches of Eastwick and The Monster Squad).
Even while producing, he found time to direct, sitting behind the camera for television before becoming the helmer behind Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Dragonheart, Daylight and The Rat Pack.
But it wasn’t until 2001 that Cohen made his mark on popular culture with The Fast and the Furious, the one that started it all. After launching the franchise, Cohen settled into massive-budget filmmaking, giving us XXX, Stealth and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
His latest film, The Hurricane Heist, opened in March.
Here, Cohen talks about his relationships to the writers on his films, the advantages of a low budget (he’s the man behind the $4.8 million Jennifer Lopez thriller, The Boy Next Door) and switching between his producer and director’s hats.
Q: In the case of The Hurricane Heist — or really any movie you direct — what is your relationship like with the screenwriter? Especially in this instance, since you had multiple screenwriters on the project, including yourself.
Rob Cohen: I love working with writers and have done so all of my career. I have very strong ideas about the way I think the story should unfold, but when a director has a collaboration with a writer that works, it’s really a very big joy.
It helps for writers that I am a writer. I wrote Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and wrote on many other movies. I understand what they’re going through. I understand the sensitivities of it and I can help them by infusing them with ideas and thoughts to make the writer’s experience less lonely, more fluid and more collaborative.
Q: Do you often write on set — either the day of shooting or the day before — contributing your own ideas to the films you’re involved with?
Rob Cohen: I try to battle it out before we shoot.
On The Hurricane Heist, for example, I had to stop only once to rework a scene because Maggie Grace was unhappy with a certain thing and she had a lot of correctness on her side; with the intense focus of an actor, they can see their part very thoroughly and differently.
She pointed out that the way we had this was making her look terrible. In that case, it was two o’clock in the morning in Bulgaria and there was no time to call anybody and get them working on it. I’m standing around with a crew who had been working all day and we’re freezing … I just had to sit down and write it so that it was more balanced.
She was happy and we moved on. Those are the times you go, “I’m really happy I can write.” Because, what would we do? We’d be improvising with actors, and that’s never a good way in my mind because it always feels flabby and too loose. You’re making a taut thriller, you want it to move concisely. But most of the time, I’ll very often have the writer there in rehearsal with the actors and we can hash it all out upfront and make everybody comfortable so we don’t waste any time.
Q: How rare is it for you to work on a film that’s been written by just one writer?
Rob Cohen: It doesn’t happen that often … Between the studio and the financiers and your own needs, you just look for a new viewpoint … Even if it’s to go back to the original script, there’s a point where you go, “I don’t know if this is working and we’ve gone as far as we can go with Writer A …” And then you have another draft and you say, “no, no, this was much better the way he had it … but Writer B added some humor to these scenes, which is much better than the straight delivery that we had before.”
It is a collaborative medium. Not everybody is Aaron Sorkin; not everybody has a voice that is so distinct and so powerful. You have to deal with the realities of a medium where you have actors who have ideas, DPs who have ideas, editors who have ideas. For the movie to grow to its full potential, you have to be open to the input of smart people all around you.
Q: How did working as a producer help prepare you for directing?
Rob Cohen: When you’re a producer, you learn one thing — and if you can learn this as a young filmmaker, you’ll be ahead of the game: Every single decision that’s made on a movie is both creative and business. Every creative decision is a business decision, every business decision is a creative decision.
If you order 50 more period cars because you think the frame will look a little more alive, that’s a creative decision, but it has a business impact. The producer looks at the business impact and goes, “you realize you’re just costing the film $50,000 more, where are we going to get it?” If you’re a director and you want those cars so badly, you’ve got to go, “you know the scene in the club where I have 150 extras for three days? What if we play the club as empty, just these guys are meeting in the empty club? We get rid of 450 extra man days, and I get my cars.”
When you can direct with that hat on then you begin to realize how to be successful in the studio system or in any type of film, even the independent world.
You’re never going to have enough money. When I had $163 million to make [The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor] it still wasn’t enough money, which was a shock to me. I’m sure F. Gary Gray and people directing [The Fast and the Furious] sequels get budgets of $250 million, $300 million, and it’s still not enough.
Q: Can those limitations be beneficial to the film?
Rob Cohen: I found when directing The Boy Next Door for Blumhouse with a $4.8 million budget that it really does focus your values.
You absolutely have to sit down and say, “here are the values of the movie. Here are the five most important scenes, here are the five least important scenes. Okay, I’ve just cut these five least important scenes.”
You focus your film so carefully when you have to make those decisions and you have no wiggle room. It focuses the mind wonderfully.
Q: Even though you’re a veteran of both sides of the process — producing and directing — do you find it’s still hard to take off the producer’s hat when the director side of you really wants something?
Rob Cohen: There are those moments.
For example, on The Hurricane Heist we were about to start … the huge sequence where they bring the tower down. The tower wasn’t CG, by the way, the tower was real. We had a completely sunny forecast and I had struggled in other scenes with the sun, but I was able to control it. The one thing that will break any hurricane reality is the sun bleeding through the frame. So I came up with the idea to shoot at night and if we shot at night we could light it for a hurricane day using big, giant balloons to bounce lights off to create this hurricane daylight. Well, it was a $400,000 add to the budget … I went to the producers and said, “we have to do this. We cannot scrim the sun off a street this big, we can’t limit the sequence. It’s the only answer.” And they said, “it’s over budget, this and that,” and I said, “I wish I could find a way to give you $400,000, but I know this: You’re going to spend more than $400,000 in visual effects trying to repair sun damage to the shot where the reality is gone. You have to weigh the difference between the expense of money at the end of the movie and biting the bullet now, where every shot will be a non-effects shot as opposed to every shot will be an effects shot.” They mulled it over and they decided it would be the right decision and so we did it … The whole sequence went off on schedule and I think it’s one of the best in the film.
Q: Finally, a clichéd question, but one you’re well suited to answer, given your past as both a producer and director: What is the best advice you can give a screenwriter who is just starting out?
Rob Cohen: When I start a script myself, I think, “you’re only 120 pages away from greatness.” I have that written on my desk and I think that’s really the key; to believe that, yes, it’s very difficult, but it is achievable.
You’re not being asked to write War and Peace, you’re not being asked to write a 600-page tome. You have a certain amount of time to take the reader, and consequently the viewer … It is possible. Don’t lose heart.
There is no film talent that will advance a person faster than this writing ability. You’re creating on the page and if you’re successful at creating a cohesive, thrilling or funny or mysterious experience, that will jump you ahead five, ten years over people who are trying to become directors from their thesis film in NYU.
The Hurrican Heist is out now on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD.
Screenwriter / Film Critic / Journalist / Reporter
Eric Walkuski is a screenwriter, film critic, journalist and reporter. He is currently a managing editor at JoBlo.com. You can follow Eric on Facebook and Twitter at @ericwalkuski