Director's Chair: Gary McKendry - 'Killer Elite'
Issue: October 1, 2011

Director's Chair: Gary McKendry - 'Killer Elite'

NEW YORK — Stylish Irish writer/director Gary McKendry cut his teeth in the advertising industry, where his award-winning work at Chiat Day on Reebok and Nynex campaigns established his reputation and led to a position as a creative director with Ogilvy and Mather. At Ogilvy, he wrote and directed international campaigns for American Express and went on to direct acclaimed commercials for clients including Porsche, Coca-Cola, De Beers, AT&T, Budweiser, Nike, Chrysler and Ikea. 

In 2004 he shot his debut film Everything Must Go, nominated for an Academy Award in 2005. His new film, Killer Elite, which he co-wrote, stars Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert DeNiro. Based on a true story, the taut thriller races across the globe from Australia to Paris, London and the Middle East, and tells the story of an ex-special ops agent (Statham) lured out of retirement to rescue his mentor (De Niro), who is being held hostage in the Middle East. To make the rescue, he must complete a near-impossible mission of killing three tough-as-nails assassins with a ruthless cunning leader (Owen). But all is not quite as it seems.
Here, in an exclusivePost interview, Mc-Kendry talks about making the film, his love of post, and how his career in commercials prepared him for the big time.

POST: Your last film was seven years ago. What took so long?
GARY MCKENDRY: “I had another smaller Irish thriller that was a $2 million production that was meant to be a stepping stone to this, but it fell apart and I got plunged right into the deep end — I mean, working with De Niro, Clive and Jason? It’s intimidating, but you just jump in.”

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
MCKENDRY: “It’s a reality-based thriller, and what appealed to me is that this fantastic, outlandish story seems so unreal, yet these things actually happened. I grew up in Northern Ireland, so the idea of secret societies, killers-for-hire, ex-soldiers working for shadowy organizations was all very familiar.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges?
MCKENDRY: “The first was financing, as we began on this at the start of the financial crash. We had it set up twice, it fell through twice, and the third time we got Australian financing. But the story is set in England and Saudi Arabia, which put a lot of difficulties in our way, as we had to do a lot of it in Melbourne. It’s a period film, set in 1980, and that’s not easy to do with a small budget as so much has changed since then. It’s an unplugged thriller — without satellites, cell phones, tracking devices and computers.”

POST: You filmed in locations ranging from Melbourne, Australia, to the Brecon Beacons and Cardiff, Wales, Aqaba and Amman, Jordan, Marrakesh, Morocco and Paris, France. How tough was that logistically?
MCKENDRY: “It was really tough, mainly as you’re combining all that with the availability of actors of this caliber. You only get them in one place — two if you’re lucky. So you’re often greenscreening to blend worlds, and that was the huge challenge — to blend all the locations invisibly. Some of the scenes were shot with foregrounds in Australia and backgrounds in Morocco, so it was like a magic stunt, keeping the hands moving and keeping the story and pace moving. Each location has its own color palette and texture, so the audience doesn’t get confused where they are in the story, and there was a real discipline there.”

POST: You began as a storyboard artist. Did that help?
MCKENDRY: “It was invaluable since I had to storyboard everything. It was the only way I could control all the shots, switching from country to country within a shot. It was like a very intricate puzzle.”

POST: Do you like the post process?
MCKENDRY: “I like it very much because my background is art and I like being left alone to work. Post is just you and the editor and the effects people, and I love that. Producers and executives love to hang around the stage with actors or an exotic location, but no one wants to hang out in a dingy post room at the back of some facility, and I like that. And then I love the way you can change a scene and really make it shine and make it live the way you initially saw it. I’m very used to post after doing so many commercials, though they’re like a sprint and a movie’s like a marathon.” 

POST: Where did you do the post? 
MCKENDRY: “We did it all at Iloura in Melbourne, which was part of the deal. I worked mainly with their post supervisor Julian Dimsey, who was fantastic, and Iloura were brilliant too. The great thing is we got in early on post. We’d originally planned to shoot it in Morocco, England and Australia, but when we moved at the last minute to make it almost all in Australia, that completely threw off our schedule. So we had to scramble to come up with a whole new plan, and working with Julian was a big part of that. I was able to say, ‘Here’s my scene — can I do this here? Which elements do I need to film overseas?’”

POST: Did you do much previz?
MCKENDRY: “A lot. Iloura did it all. So I sat down with all my storyboards, which had been done for a totally different kind of shoot, and went over it frame by frame. Can we do this bit greenscreen? Do I need a location in Australia and then we can add on a few buildings for this shot? That was the really great part of starting post early.”

POST: Your editor was John Gilbert who did the first The Lord of the Rings. Tell us about the editing process.
MCKENDRY: “He’s brilliant, and what I loved about Lord of the Rings is it’s not dominated by all the effects. The story is paramount, and I was looking for the same thing — invisible effects. We cut on Avid, and he came to the set and we’d discuss it every day. We shot completely out of order because of the actors’ availability, so we’d have to go back and check stuff like the skies and backgrounds. You have to be so careful with all that. He also worked with me on the previz, to check the pacing of the chases and so on. A lot were shot in Melbourne, doubling for London. So we needed to replace skylines and buildings and cars. It was like a jigsaw puzzle and we had to cut out all the pieces before we even started shooting.”

POST: How many visual effects shots were there on the film?
MCKENDRY: “We had well over 700, and about 95 percent were done by Iloura and the rest by Dragon DI in Wales, as we’d shot there. When you do period and location work, it all mounts up.”

POST: What was the most difficult effects shot to pull off?
MCKENDRY: “I was very nervous about the London rooftop chase with Jason being pursued by Clive. We shot it in Melbourne, and that one scene encompassed all the problems we had. We weren’t really in London or 1980, and it was full of very dangerous stunts done practically on rooftops 14 floors up. We had time pressure and had to move fast. So in a situation like that, your post guys can be such a help. We had it completely prevized, we shot with three units, one of them rigging cameras on cranes, so you’re really maximizing your time thanks to the previz. Then Julian and his crew ran around shooting the backgrounds with digital cameras, knowing that he’d go to London and shoot matching angles for later on in post. So it all went very smoothly because of the planning and previz. Basically, Julian, John and I became this very tight post team working on all these scenes. There were two shoots really — the physical one, and then the post shoot.”

POST: Tell us about audio and the mix.
MCKENDRY: “It’s a huge piece of any film, but particularly a thriller like this where there’s a lot of violence. I wanted a lot of subtleties in the music and sound, but when it kicks in it has to be huge. And I didn’t want it to just be all ‘80s tracks, or have Moroccan music when we’re there and so on. I needed something to tie very diverse locations together, and the sound became the through-line of the thriller. We did all the audio in Australia; we recorded on the Fox stage and did the mix at the Sound Firm in Melbourne.”

POST: How important was the DI?
MCKENDRY: “Huge, and we did that at Digital Pictures in Melbourne. I’m so used to DIs because of commercials. The great thing is, all the post elements fell under the Omnilab umbrella, who financed the film. They own a bunch of post facilities, so we were able to do it all in one building, which is great. So I could edit, then walk down the hall to see Julian and screen shots, and then go down to see Digital Pictures. That alone saves so much time in post.”

POST: How did your career in commercials help your film career?
MCKENDRY: “For a start, there are not too many toys you haven’t used. I know that that’s one of the biggest criticisms of commercials directors — that they’re used to having their toy boxes and unlimited budgets. But the advantage is that you learn so much doing commercials, you get to experiment and try new gear out really early. I started using digital cameras very early on, so it was funny to do my first big film in 35mm. I’ve been working with the Alexa, so this will probably be my last film shot on film. And thanks to commercials, there wasn’t a location or environment that I hadn’t shot in before. I’d done car chases and so on. So I think it’s been a big help to me.”

POST: Do you still shoot commercials?
MCKENDRY: “Absolutely. I just did a big one using the Canon 5D, so we try stuff and play around. It’s a great place to experiment.”

POST: So what is the state of cinema today? Is film dead?
MCKENDRY: “I think so. I grew up with film and love it, and know the difference — but I think a lot of younger kids either can’t see the difference or just don’t care, as they’ve never really been around it. So I think the difference between film and digital is becoming more and more irrelevant. For me, it all comes down to this: how do I capture the image? It used to be quite difficult, with all the cabling, monitors and so on. It’s not like that now. You have small lightweight cameras that go anywhere. In post, it just cuts out all the back and forth steps. It’s just one straight pipeline now.”