Roger Donaldson has made a name for himself directing many top of the line thrillers such as NO WAY OUT and THE BANK JOB. He now returns to the milieu with THE NOVEMBER MAN, a spy-thriller with a socio-political kick. In the film, Pierce Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, an ex-CIA agent who’s pulled back into the field by his former boss Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) to go on one final – and very personal – mission. When things go pear-shaped, Peter winds up in the middle of an international incident with the Russian government and his former protégé David Mason (Luke Bracey) on his tail. Seeking redemption and revenge, he finds Alice (Olga Kurylenko), a social worker who holds the key to a decades old mystery. Cat-and-mouse games and international intrigue ensues.
I had the extreme pleasure of speaking with the talented director about everything from the inevitable Bond comparisons, to how to craft the perfect thriller, to working with both Brosnan and Smitrovich a second time.
VeryAware: Is there a special trick to crafting a perfect thriller? I would imagine timing plays a huge part.
For me, every story is driven by suspense. Even a love story, you don’t know what the outcome’s gonna be. You can keep the audience guessing and the more they are entertained by a story. What interests me about thrillers is they are created around drama – the most basic of people’s lies, betrayals, love stories. Then you have those moments of explosive action – the shit hits the fan moments. The challenge is how do you keep surprising the audience? The pleasure of watching a thriller is, ‘I know how this is gonna work out.’ The pleasure of making it is to give them those moments when, in this movie, the girl with the cat shows up and you’re convinced she’s gonna be a something…
You don’t expect it will ever be that she’ll be used as a demonstration. You’ve got some feelings for this woman – and I can exploit those feelings and prove to you that you’re fucked. I’m stronger than you are. You think, ‘Is she gonna be a spy?’ It’s those misdirects.
VeryAware: I’m wondering about playing around with Pierce’s likability. Audiences really like him as a good spy, but here, he’s grizzled. In pre-production or even during, was there any worry about taking the darkness too far?
The only ever discussion there was, and there wasn’t really a discussion, we all knew that scene where he cuts the girl’s leg was gonna be like an ‘Oh my God! How could he?!’ The challenge for me, was how do we not lose the audience here?
VeryAware: Right. Because we’re still with him at that point.
Even then, you know he’s been so damaged by the death of his wife, that you sort of enjoy the depths of where his misery has taken him. How tough and ruthless he’s become, to prove a point. I mean, it’s quite a dark story but ultimately he comes across on the side of the young woman and how she’s been exploited. So the character turns around, but you’re never aware he’s the good guy.
VeryAware: I’m also wondering about whether or not you embraced any Bond comparisons or if you tried to run away from it?
I don’t think it’s possible to run away from it because he plays a spy in Bond and he plays a spy in this. People will want to make that connection. Truth is, his fan base is based upon the Bond movies so you can’t escape it. But from my point of view, as a filmmaker, it’s got nothing to do with Bond. This is a spy thriller in the spirit of movies I’ve made like THE RECRUIT or NO WAY OUT. Bond was larger than life, tongue and cheek, broad villains and twirling moustaches. So I don’t see any connection between Bond, other than it’s Pierce Brosnan.
L-R: Bill Smitrovich, Roger Donaldson, Olga Kurylenko, Beau St. Clair, Pierce Brosnan, Ryan Kavanaugh
VeryAware: Let’s change course a bit and talk about the magic that is Bill Smitrovich. I’ve been a fan of his for years now. I love his work and know this is your second time working with him.
He’s such a lovely guy. Bill was in THIRTEEN DAYS and I remember what a fabulous actor he was and though he’d be a good choice. He’s got a likeability about him, which I felt I needed. I wanted to suck the audience in. Those last scenes, you know, Bill’s very good. When Pierce says, “I like it this way,” that line came out of an ad lib. Pierce was like, “That’s so good. We gotta go with that.” This fucked up world of killing people, subterfuge of lies and cheating.
VeryAware: Another role I liked was Olga’s and that was all written for her. Was that all written before you came aboard or were there some tweaks you did?
The character existed when I came on board, but one of the things that happens is you make the movie fit the location. When I came aboard, it was actually set in Berlin. The decision was made to shift it to Serbia. For me, that was a real plus. I’ve never seen a movie set in Belgrade. It gave me an opportunity to do something different.
VeryAware: Did you get to play around with the stunts on that too in terms of the car chases?
Everything got built for that town. The river running through it, the way you get around town in the trams – all that stuff came out of being there and shooting there.
VeryAware: Marco Beltrami’s score is top notch and augments the film. How did that collaboration come about?
Marco has done some great scores.
VeryAware: Right? Turns out, he knows what he’s doing.
He understands what music does for the movie. How it motivates the feelings of the audience. To be honest, it was Pierce’s idea. They’re friends up in Malibu. Pierce thought, ‘I could get this guy to do music to our movie. What do you think?’
VeryAware: On every film that you’re a part of, are there personal goals you want to accomplish?
It’s a hard question to answer. What one does is you set out to entertain the audience. The accomplishment is to get people to come out of the movie and feel like you haven’t wasted their time. You know not everyone will love your work either, so you have to deal with a conviction and point of view. You can’t really think, ‘I must please the audience.’ But you must please the audience. The thing I’m determined I’ll never do is make the movie too long. I like the audience to be on the edge of their seat.
VeryAware: What’s next for you?
I’ve written a script with my daughter. Not a thriller – it’s a road movie. Sort of inspired by me driving her to college.
VeryAware: Aww. That sounds like it’s gonna make me cry. Is it going to make me cry?
Oh no. It is! It’s a really heartfelt story about a father and daughter, who are miles apart at the beginning of the story, sort of discover each other and the truth of their lives.
THE NOVEMBER MAN opens on August 27.
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