Director Julius Avery On 'Son of a Gun' and Nailing the Action Genre

Action movies are something of a lost art in Hollywood.They've become ultra-masculine relics of the past, unintentional parodies of themselves. In an over-saturated marketplace with franchises like the Taken series, there’s a lot of rehashed garbage out there that sticks to formula and fails to produce compelling content. Every now and again, however, something will come along that sucks you into a carefully constructed world of high-stakes power plays and makes you feel like a kid again.

Australian director Julius Avery’s directorial debut, Son of a Gun, feels like a badass live-action Grand Theft Auto mission. The characters are dangerous and cunning (featuring our current cover star Ewan McGregor as a coy Machiavellian who gets off on outwitting criminals), and the stakes are enormously high throughout the film. The action sequences are also stylized for authenticity, creating moments of adrenaline-packed suspense that keep you on the edge of your seat. Curious to learn more, we called up Avery to discuss Michael Man, character archetypes, working with Ewan McGregor, and how to go about making the perfect action scene.

What were some of your inspirations for creating some of the more stylized action sequences? I’m a huge fan of Michael Mann. I think he set the benchmark for elevated action. To me, I love his attention to detail. He mixes his style with the grounded and real, making his juxtaposition quite interesting. I think when we set out, we were trying to do something like Heat in Australia and that was where some of the inspiration came from.

What are some of the secrets to making great action scenes? What I wanted to do was make the audience feel like they’re in the action by making it feel as real as possible. I wanted to make it feel a little more gritty, a little more real. We couldn’t really afford the big stuff in a lot of action movies, so we decided to do something a little more down and dirty. The car stuff for instance, we cast Nash Edgerton who’s an actor and stuntman. When the audience sees him slinging out in that land cruiser and driving it hard, they know there’s an attention placed on the actor. There’s a real sense of danger happening. Ewan also did a lot of his own stunts. We wanted the audience to feel like the character’s actions hold significant weight.

Where did the idea to make the film come from? I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. I fell in with the wrong crowd when I was a young teenage boy. I was hanging around this crowd, this gang that was lead by someone similar to Ewan’s character. I lost my father when I was quite young, and I looked up to him as a father. On one hand, he was quite paternal and on another hand he set me out on destructive missions. I didn’t go down that path very long. I got out and was accepted into an art school in Sydney when I was young, but the story about the father/son relationship in the film is based on what happened to me.

It’s definitely very interesting to use the more dangerous people in your life as a source of inspiration for creating broader character archetypes in art. I didn’t want to be too heavy with it. I didn’t want to give too much backstory or too much expositional dialogue. I just wanted people to feel like they got off a high stakes rollercoaster.

What was it like working with Ewan? He’s an iconic, famous actor. Usually you’d feel that someone in that position who’s done so many films would be very specific in how they wanted to work. He was quite malleable, he’s very into getting into the vision and he trained a lot for the character. He worked out a lot and got himself prepared. I described to him very early on that relationship I had with that dude and he responded to that. From there, we built this character together because we didn’t want Ewan playing the bad guy. We wanted it to feel effortless and not forced. Ewan had bright ideas and was very giving. He made me feel like I knew what I was doing as a first time director. He was also really great with Brenton [Thwaites], I’d just like to point that out. He really took him under his wing, in both the film and off set.

What were some examples of that? It’s very daunting for an actor to have their first lead role. [Brenton] had smaller parts in other movies, but this was the first time he was actually leading a cast. He looked up to Ewan and didn’t want to screw up. Some actors can say to other actors, “You’re on your own, where’s my close up?” Ewan’s not like that. He was always making sure [Brenton] got time on screen and was always helping him speak up and that he was getting the dialogue he wanted. That was something I wanted to set up. I don’t really believe in too many rehearsals. I like it when actors hang out a lot before shooting so they can form a bond and rely on each other. They put themselves out there and want to work with someone who’s sensitive to that.

You’re known primarily for these great short films you’ve done. How exactly did you about securing the funds for the project? I had shot a film, Jerrycan, that won at Cannes and did really well on the festival circuit. It opened up a lot of doors, but at that time there was the financial bust so smaller budget films weren’t being made anymore. It was really hard at that time to get something off the ground. I had this idea, it was just a short pitch and a fully formed script with the same themes [as Son of a Gun] more ready to go. It was a much smaller budget, more intimate story. It was about to get made, but fell over at the last minute and I was completely destroyed by it. But I picked myself up and took the pitch to a producer and he understood that it was similar thematically to the other film, but it much more viable. So we took it to Screen Australia and then Cannes, the marketplace, and got Ewan attached. And once Ewan was attached, it all fell into place.

Nowadays, action movies are a lost art form. What’s so unique about your film is that it’s a character piece with action as an element to it. What are some lessons Hollywood could take away from something like Son of a Gun? It’s my first film so I don’t really have any advice to give. But I think to me as a filmmaker, I try to make it as real as possible. I try to motivate the action and make it feel like it’s coming from a place that actually exists. For instance, the helicopter escape in the prison is based on a real thing. When you go to these prisons, you realize that sneaky breakouts late at night really aren’t that real. However, something that seems over the top like a helicopter escape is real. There have been something like twenty-three helicopter escapes in real life. There was just one with the Hells Angels up in Montreal. I originally had the break out at night, but we didn’t have enough money to shoot it because the lighting budget was something like $100,000. I talked to the prison warden when we were doing location scouting, and he told me this story about this Columbian drug-lord being broken out in a very similar style to the helicopter extraction [depicted in the film] where everyone was fully armed and fully geared up ready for takeoff. The police raided them and caught the guys, but the way I wanted to do it on paper felt very real. I guess that’s what I love about Michael Mann; he has this documentary attention to detail. He does a lot of research and fact finding. For me, if a project has even 1% more authenticity because of the research, then I’m doing my job.

Text by Davis Richardson.