Director's Chair: <I>The Protege</I> — Martin Campbell
Issue: September/October 2021

Director's Chair: The Protege — Martin Campbell

Director Martin Campbell long ago established himself as one of the top action directors in the world, with credits that include two critically acclaimed James Bond films. He directed Pierce Brosnan in his debut outing as the famed British spy in Golden Eye, and his reboot was credited with rejuvenating the franchise (the movie went on to gross more than $350 million worldwide). And later he directed Casino Royale, another critically acclaimed box office smash, which introduced Daniel Craig as the new Bond. 

The versatile Campbell also helmed another blockbuster, the romantic swashbuckler The Mask Of Zorro, which earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, and launched the international careers of Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and directed the sequel, The Legend of Zorro. Other credits include the mountaineering action adventure Vertical Limits; the epic romance Beyond Borders starring Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen; Edge of Darkness, starring Mel Gibson; and The Foreigner, a gritty action thriller starring Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan. 

His latest film is The Protégé, which stars Maggie Q (Mission: Impossible 111) as Anna, who's rescued as a child by the legendary assassin Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) and trained in the family business. Anna eventually becomes the world’s most skilled and ruthless contract killer. But when Moody — the man who was like a father to her and taught her everything she needs to know about trust and survival — is brutally killed, Anna vows revenge. As she becomes entangled with enigmatic killer Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), whose attraction to her goes way beyond cat and mouse, their confrontation turns deadly and the loose ends of a life spent killing weave themselves even tighter.

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Campbell about the challenges of making and posting the film in the time of COVID.

What was the appeal of this project and what sort of film did you set out to make?

"These sorts of films are genre, and there have been many with female protagonists like this one, but I really loved the story and all the relationships — especially the ones with Moody and Rembrandt, and it was also a fairly complex story. It wasn't just about someone who loses a family member, goes into training and then shoots everyone. It has a lot of plot twists and surprises in it, and ultimately, of course, a bitter-sweet ending to it. So it was a combination of all that, and I set out to make the film you see."

What did Maggie Q bring to the title role?

"When I cast her, I had no idea she could do physically what she does in terms of all her own stunts, and all that stuff you see is actually her. She did the jump off the balcony, where you'd normally use VFX and face replacement. The only thing she didn't do is the bit where she's hit by the car, as it's just too dangerous and you have all the insurance issues. I'd seen a clip of her with Ethan Hawke and I was very impressed with her acting, and we needed to cast someone who was preferably Vietnamese, and she's half-Vietnamese, so based on that, I cast her. But then I discovered she'd trained under Jackie Chan and knew exactly what she was doing in the action scenes, so that was a big bonus. And we had a great cast, with Sam and Michael, and so on. I never find filming to be much fun, but they all made it as much fun as it can be, and they all brought something to the party."

How early on did you integrate post and all the VFX?

"Right away, as I'm a great believer in planning ahead and being as prepared as you can be when you have big action set pieces and VFX. This was produced by Millennium, and we did most of the post and all the VFX at their big post facility in Bulgaria. And while a lot of the VFX were wire removal and clean up, there's a whole big section of the film set in Vietnam, and we couldn't shoot there with the cast because of COVID, even though we were doing testing on a daily basis for the whole crew. So we ended up having to recreate all the Vietnam scenes on a back lot in Romania, where the main shoot took place, and we also shot for a week just outside Sofia in Bulgaria to create other scenes set in Vietnam, and then we had second unit stuff shot all over the place for all the other locations, including Vietnam and in the UK."

How tough was the shoot?

(Laughs) "Every bloody shoot is tough, and this didn't have a big budget, so that means you have to move fast, and we had a lot of action in it, which always takes a lot of time to get right. And then all your actors are scheduled for an exact window. For instance, I had Michael for four weeks, Sam for just two — so your shooting schedule is dictated entirely by their availability. And then COVID further complicated everything. After the Romanian shoot, we got shut down and I went back to LA and began cutting as much as I could, although we still had that other week in Sofia and some other bits and pieces to shoot, so that caused a delay. And then we were doing all the VFX in parallel while I was cutting."

Your DP David Tattersall famously worked on so many Star Wars films with George Lucas. Talk about the look you and he went for on this.

"This is my third film with him and I also just did my next one with him too, so he's my go-to DP now. We shot on the brand new Arri Alexa 4K S35, which Millennium had just bought, and we were their first ever film to use it, and it was terrific. It gave us the color and texture we wanted, especially the rich look and hue for all the Vietnam scenes, which we talked about at length. The film has a glossy look we really wanted, and David did a great job."

Tell us about post. Was it remote because of COVID? Where did you do it?

"Most of the editing was done in LA. The editor was with us in Romania for the start of the shoot, but then we flew back to LA when they shut down there, along with Britain, and we got out by the skin of our teeth. So I ended up editing the whole film remotely in LA, but I didn't even see the editor in person because of COVID. And then she stayed at home in LA and I flew over to Nu Boyana, Millennium's post house in London. We did all the pre-mixes there, and then I went to Millennium’s Nu Boyana studios in Sofia, Bulgaria, where they have this really great dubbing stage, and we dubbed the whole film there."

Angela M. Catanzaro cut this. How did you work together, and what were the main editing challenges?

"We used Evercast, and it was a direct link and it worked really well. It's a very fast system, very efficient, and it's like being in the same room basically. It was a first for me. I've never cut a film that way before, but I'd seriously consider doing it again. Here's the thing - when you're editing in a room together, you talk about everything from horses to the weather, and you're always taking breaks for coffee and so on. But when it's Evercast, it's all business. There's no chit chat. And with the delta variant getting worse, I really think it's the way to go now. 

“As for the challenges, they were more technical than artistic, as I shoot very economically and there's hardly a set up we don't use. I plan it all out very carefully, so it's pretty obvious how it all flows in the edit. It's pretty linear, and I think we only lost one scene in the end. Yes, we do a certain amount of tweaking and tightening up stuff, but nothing major. The bigger challenge was that Angela was still in LA while I was doing all the dubbing and sound work in Bulgaria with the sound crew, so once we'd finished a reel, we'd rush to ship it over to her and she'd watch it at a theater, make her notes, and we'd discuss it. Sometimes it'd be live as we worked, and she'd make the adjustments right there and then. That's how we did it all, and that was another first for me."

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you? 

"It's hugely important, and as they say, it's probably over half the film. I think it's especially important in an action film, and composer Rupert Parkes, who also scored my next film, did a great job."

There are quite a few VFX. Who did them and what was entailed?

"They were all done by Nu Boyana, Worldwide FX, in Bulgaria, and they're very good at what they do, and they built all the Vietnam sequences from the ground up — buildings, trees, the whole thing. For example, when Anna's in the boat in the river, there are these very tall rock formations, which are actually in Vietnam, which we comp’ed into the shots, and with VFX we also created a lot of palm trees and other exotic stuff. I've always liked working with VFX and seeing what you can do, but I also like to get as much stuff done in-camera as possible. But they were absolutely essential for this film."

What about the DI? Who was the colorist and how closely did you work with them and the DP?

"We did all the color timing with colorist Vanessa Taylor at Nu Boyana in London, and the DP came over for it, and the three of us spent a week there working on the grade. Vanessa is very fast, very good, and we got a lot done in just a week, tweaking stuff and so on. Apart from the sound work, that's really the only time in post where any of us were in the same room."

What’s next?

"I just finished Memory, another action thriller, starring Liam Neeson, Guy Pearce and Monica Bellucci, and I just finished my director's cut. It's based on a Belgian movie about a hitman who's getting Alzheimer's, which is a really good premise, so I'm excited about that. It's not another Millennium project, but I'm in the middle of post as we speak at Nu Boyana in London, and the whole post pipeline is very similar to what we did on The Protege.”