A lot of filmmakers consider themselves artists, but French director Olivier Megaton describes himself as an artisan—"a worker doing his job like an artist." After directing short films and a couple of decidedly more personal features that never escaped France, he struck paydirt as the helmer of the third installment of The Transporter franchise. This week, he reunites with Luc Besson, his Transporter screenwriter and producer, for the hitman hottie flick Colombiana in which Zoe Saldana slays half of the crooks on earth for a chance to whack the villain who killed her parents. Boxoffice sat down with Megaton where he talked about being a director under Besson's French hit factory in which the producer is the star of the show, why Zoe Saldana is more dangerous than Angelina Jolie, and why even though he's signed to direct Liam Neeson in Taken 2, he's happy to stay off the road to mainstream Hollywood success.
Talk about being a part of the cottage industry that Luc Besson has created over the last several years.
Well, I'm not like the other ones. Louis Leterrier was an assistant who worked on a lot of movies with Luc, and Pierre Morel was a director of photography. And they all worked together as technicians, and I didn't have the same history as them. I made other movies before: I made 16 short films, and I was a painter before being a director. So I had a strong story before, and I've known Luc for 20 years. The first day he proposed for me to work with him was on The Professional and I refused because I didn't know what I could do. So we always had a relationship as director and director. This is very important because in this kind of movie, I was one of the only ones to come from another mood, because I was closer to theater, to drama movies, to like Kubrick movies, or Cronenberg movies, I'm a fan of David Lynch, and so on. I arrived at action because he asked me, "Try it—even if you don't like it, I'm sure you'll be good at it." And then it was really fun for me to do, so after that I said okay, because I learned about making movies just from being on the set. I've always been a director and I've never been another thing, so I was really personal in my approach of being a director. So it's very far from the logic of Luc and what he's doing. It's just the opposite. It's very strange that we found that kind of collaboration after Hitman, where I directed the action sequences, and after Transporter 3 and Colombiana and Taken 2. Even with the other guys, he has a habit of being on the sets. But with me, it's not like this. I'm not totally free because it's like working with a studio where you have a script, you have a market and you have to respect a lot of things, but inside this he really wants me to give it my touch because otherwise he would not be interested in working with me. So it's very strange and on Colombiana, I didn't see him for eight months because he was working on his own movie. So sometimes he would call me and say, "What's going on?" and so on, but he was in Italy and I was in Mexico, so you can imagine the discussions, the talks. So I was free to do a lot of things. Afterward, it's always the same—and I'm very loyal, I never lie to anybody, I'm very straight—and so he was very confident, and it was always like this. So I'm very atypical of his way of working.
What does that mean in terms of your career or making more films within the Hollywood system?
As far as arriving in the American market, he always dreamed about this, but not me. I'm living in France. I like my country. As soon as I'm back in Paris, I say, "Wow—it's a fucking beautiful town." But I travel a lot and I like to be in the U.S. because of the weather and everything. The industry is here, it's very busy, and so on. But I never dreamed about this—never. I should come here for two years or three years to make a movie here, but I'm not linked. It's not like Louis [Leterrier, director of Clash of the Titans] who always dreamed of having a house in the Hollywood Hills. It's not the same thing at all. I'm making movies, and I don't care about making a movie in India or here or wherever. So when Luc proposed for me to make that kind of movie [with The Transporter 3], it was very strange, because for me it was not so obvious. I don't care if I make a movie in French or English or if it's a Mexican movie—and because the guy was driving through Europe, English was the only language you find all through Europe, so I had a strange approach. So I'm not a fan, but I like to work here, and I try to keep my identity because we have a very special approach to making movies in Europe, especially in France. And there are a lot of directors here, so I don't want to be like all of the other ones. The Germans, the Spanish, they all became the same here. I prefer to know how to make movies like this with not a lot of money, try to have the most production value, and try to pick all of the little things to make it very precisely, and to be an artist in the process. In France we say artisan, and it's a guy who is a worker doing his job like an artist. So I'd like to make the movies that way, and I'm working seven days a week, 24 hours a day on movies, and it's like a short story for me, even if it's visual.
How tough was it to balance Zoe's character's strength and vulnerability? Particularly when you look at something like Salt, people had a tough time buying that Angelina Jolie could do all of the things her character is supposed to.
Zoe is more physical than Salt—and I like Angelina very much, and I like the story—but I wanted to have more, and emotionally, I didn't buy it. So the secret was having the young girl in the movie for 20 minutes before seeing the star. When I read the script the first time, my first comment was to say, "Hey! The actress is arriving at Page 35," so the first fix is to say, "Page 35 is the arrival of Zoe Saldana. That's late, no?" And after that I said, no, maybe this is the good point because nobody's done this before, and maybe the point is to make this young girl very attached to the audience. She is so great, emotionally pure and so naïve, that she gives all of the good points to Zoe, so it was like seeing her when she was young. We chose this girl, she was looking like Zoe, she was acting like Zoe, and she gave everything to the main character. That was the point—to keep her fragility so that after all of the action, after the romance, all of the things down to Cliff Curtis being her uncle, him being a very strong guy, violent and rough, it was very emotional. You can see it in the script, and then try to find it in all of the people around her and make it high in emotion just to keep this fragility and humanity through all of the movie.
The second thing was to make her not too weak, and to be logical with her training, so we were really precise and I wanted the audience to feel that everything was real. She is like this, she is very thin, so we did everything for her, not for a superhero. We did everything for a girl who was very thin. When you have the fight at the end, the fight is a krav maga fight done by Alain Figlarz, who did the Bourne fights, and we thought about how we can, because the fight was not in the script, and I said we have to endanger her just before the end, to say, really she could be killed by one of those guys. She has to be in danger, not with a weapon, not with a big thing, but just in a fight. And then we created this fight in a bathroom because in a bathroom you have nothing—just a glass, a towel, a toothbrush and that's it. So I imagined this was in a bathroom because you can't take something from the wall to use it as a sword or whatever. In every movie it's like this, and just to make it pure and endanger her very, very far. And it worked, and she learned the fight, she was 95 percent in the fight herself. And she was better than Jolie because Jolie was done after an hour and a half and she fought with Jolie's double and she stayed until the end. So that was the two things: having the young girl giving her the pureness and all of the fragility, and having on the other side something very precise, very sharp, very violent, and direct into her training and so on.
How much is it a double-edged sword to work in action movies, which are so commercial that as a result, you'll just be offered more of the same?
No, not really. They know me very well so they know that I would really like to make a f--king good thriller or something much more personal. So I'm really between the two things. For me, The Transporter 3 was really commercial. Even when I tried to change or tune up a lot of things in the movie, I couldn't go far. But we made a huge score, $140 million around the world, so for Transporter that was very, very good. Colombiana was a little more personal. Even though it was a Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen film, we moved a lot of things around aesthetically about the drama, about everything, so it's a little more serious. And Taken 2 [in development with Megaton attached to direct] will be the same on another level, because Liam [Neeson] is a very atypical character, Maggie [Grace] is very good, and it's a good match. So for me it's kind of learning things: making action movies are not really my type of movie.
But especially when you come from Europe, you cannot begin with a personal project. Well, you can begin, but you are very limited. For example, there's a French guy who is very, very talented and his name is Fred Cavaye, and he made two movies in France, and one was remade here with Russell Crowe [The Next Three Days] and the guy is a fucking good director, but he is stuck in France, and it's always the same thing today. So after I watched his second movie [Point Blank, about a male nurse trying to rescue his kidnapped wife], it's really brilliant, but it's like, "What now, because we are really limited to making movies like that in France?" So the process is to go worldwide to try and use this commercial track to learn because the rest is brand new for me. To meet actors and agents, and I'm learning about Hollywood, too. For me, it's even harder to understand how it's going, and who are the good guys, and so on. And then after that being a little more prepared for my own movies. So I don't think about whether it's good or bad to make Taken 2. To me, making an action movie, especially the one I'm doing, I'm lucky to do this—I'm really lucky. So I'm going where I can go, and after one day, I could go back to a small movie, something more personal. I like for example movies like Old Boy or A Bittersweet Life, and my dream is to make movies like this. But you can absolutely not make a movie like this in Europe today. You cannot finance it—it's not possible. So I try to work a lot to be able to find or create that kind of project here in Hollywood, and I am finding people like this. But Taken 2 is the project needed for me to work in five or ten years.