BEHIND THE SCENES with Taylor Lautner, and his father!
ABDUCTION began as a simple but inspiring germ of a story idea that Gotham Group Executive Producer Jeremy Bell brought to Vertigo’s Roy Lee and Doug Davison four years ago. But it really took off after a subsequent meeting between screenwriter Shawn Christensen and the producers at The Gotham Group.
"At the very end of that meeting," recounts Christensen, "Lee Stollman mentions, ‘And then there’s this idea about this kid who sees himself as a child on a missing persons website.’ I thought it was a really good idea. I left that meeting to think about the project some more and two weeks later, I had lunch with Lee in New York later and said, "‘I’d like to kind of go my own way and have a bit of fun with it. If you give me sixty days, I’ll give you a draft.’ And in sixty-three days I showed them the first pass of ABDUCTION."
"Shawn likes to work with puzzles, and he responded to the idea of telling a story about finding your place," producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein says of why Christensen was the right choice for the project. "He was so taken with the idea that he turned in his first draft just two months after his meeting with Lee." "Shawn took that one-line idea and built a movie around it," added Stollman.
"To me it was just a great hook, but we could never really crack the story" says Stollman. "I'd never before seen a movie about a kid who is seemingly living a life, and then is suddenly living a lie."
So much of the film hinges on the audience’s investment in protagonist Nathan Harper, and all of the producers agreed that Taylor Lautner was the first and best choice to play him. Goldsmith-Vein explains of Lautner, "Taylor is probably the only actor his age who could take on this role, given his abilities as a martial artist and as an athlete. He’s also incredibly smart and really serious." Producer Lee Stollman agrees, "Taylor’s got the physicality, the appeal, both for men and women. He's just a great young leading man."
Roy Lee and Taylor Lautner sat down for a general meeting in June 2009, in which Taylor really sparked to the idea. Almost a year later, Roy approached Taylor Lautner’s team at Quick Six with Shawn Christiansen’s completed screenplay as a starring vehicle, and got a carefully considered, enthusiastic "yes." With that endorsement, Gotham, Vertigo and Quick Six worked in tandem to further develop the script and tailor it especially for Lautner, ultimately joining with Lionsgate, where Motion Picture Group President Joe Drake and President of Production Alli Shearmur quickly green-lit the film based on Lautner’s immense appeal and the taut script. "Lionsgate’s understanding of the genre and subject matter made them the perfect partner for us," said producer Dan Lautner.
"I loved this project from the moment I read it," says Shearmur. "I’d worked on the ‘Bourne’ films, and recognized in ABDUCTION a similar kind of intrigue and thrill, but also a uniquely all-American, very relatable and accessible quality that I thought made it really special. I know how carefully Taylor and his team considered his first leading man role, how involved they were in every aspect of the film’s development, and so we were thrilled when they agreed with us that Lionsgate was uniquely suited to bring Taylor in his first starring role to market."
With Taylor and his Quick Six attached and the film green-lit at Lionsgate, director John Singleton signed on to helm the film, and he and the existing group quickly forged a collaborative bond. "It was fast and exciting," Christensen remembers. "He would send little notes to me. He has this great smile, great attitude and great ideas." Principal photography commenced just four months after the sale of the project.
"For me, ABDUCTION is essentially a story about a son who didn’t know who his father was," Singleton says. "It’s a story about a young man who is trying to find himself, and that makes it very universal, because we’re all trying to find ourselves in some way." He continues, "The movie has a lot of action, but my inspiration in making it really came from classic adventure stories where the character is changed and transformed by the experience of the adventure."
"John has had involvement in some incredible character movies," says producer Pat Crowley, who was recruited for the film as a result of having produced the Bourne series. "That's the exciting thing about working with John: he is as a director who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film and film history. You feel comfortable that you've got a guy who has a great visual sense, and who also looks forward to and is quite accomplished in working with young actors."
"People have never seen Taylor Lautner the way they’re going to see him in this movie," says Singleton. "He really blossoms as an actor. We talked a lot about what he could pull out of himself to give this character weight. I think it's beautiful for me as a director to see him evolve as an actor within this movie."
Lautner has had a lifelong affection for action films. "I’ve always loved action movies," says the actor. "This role is by far the most physically challenging role I've ever done, which is pretty cool, but it also has a lot more going on. I loved the character and everything he goes through in the story."
The first task in casting was Nathan’s girl-next-door crush and chase companion Karen. Lily Collins had made a strong impression on Singleton, Shearmur and her colleagues at Lionsgate, and the film’s producers with her work in "The Blind Side." "There were a lot of people that we looked at for the role," says Crowley of the search to find the perfect Karen. "But Lily was someone that stuck with everybody, because there’s an all-American quality about her. Whether it’s in person or on screen, you feel that she’s really easy to get to know."
"My character Karen is a really strong, confident young woman," says Collins. "She's not just the girl in the story. She's not just a love interest or a partner in crime. She really is there full force. There aren't many roles for young girls or for young women out there that aren't just your typical girl role."
Says director Singleton, "Lily Collins is awesome and beautiful. People are going to see her for a long time to come."
Jason Isaacs and Maria Bello portray Taylor’s presumed parents, Kevin and Mara. Though Isaacs immediately embraced the character and script, his enthusiasm increased when he thought of the added perks of the job. "I got the script and it was even more fun than I thought," Isaacs recalls. "I get to box, I get to dance and I get to kiss Maria Bello. What’s there to think about?"
"I heard ‘John Singleton’ and said, ‘I want to work with John!’" Bello recalls, adding that over the years the two had met socially and discussed working together. "And then I read the script. I thought it was fantastic – a great action-thriller, but one with heart."
"Maria plays Mara," comments Lautner, "and she's super, super sweet, and obviously an incredibly talented actress. I had a really emotional scene with her in my bedroom when she tells me she's not my mother. That was intense. I couldn't have had anybody better to play that role opposite. She was tremendous."
"Jason Isaacs is an actor of enormous power," observes Singleton. "He shot this great scene where he's training Nathan. It's kind of semi-abusive, you know, he's just smacking him around and Nathan doesn't understand why he's trying to teach him how to box and train and do all these endurance tests. But then later on in the picture when he's going through the stuff and he's running for his life, Nathan understands why."
"He is one of the funniest guys I've ever met," states Lautner of his on-screen dad. "The father-son relationship is really intense and he’s really stern with Nathan. Before shooting, Jason and I joke around, but as soon as the cameras roll, we have to go into father-son mode."
Alfred Molina joined ABDUCTION as Agent Burton, the CIA agent tailing Nathan. "This role was a whole bunch of firsts," Molina says. "I’ve never played a CIA operative before, which was quite interesting. The idea of that was intriguing in and of itself. I’ve never worked with John Singleton before, and I’ve been a fan of his movies for a long time. I had the chance to work with a whole new generation of young actors like Taylor and Lily and Antonique Smith. I thought this was a nice confluence of different things that were new to me."
The iconic Sigourney Weaver took on the pivotal role of Dr. Geri Bennett, an unlikely casting choice given that the role was originally written for a male actor. "We changed it throughout the casting," explains Stollman. "It was an inspired idea to have Sigourney play that role, and she’s phenomenal."
"It’s a very moving coming-of-age story about these two young kids who show so much courage and resourcefulness," Weaver says of the story of ABDUCTION. "These teenagers are suddenly caught up in this espionage game. And although they are very capable, they’re also helpless pawns of these greater powers, including the CIA."
Adds Crowley, "As Bennett, Sigourney has worked for the CIA for probably thirty years and one of her specialties was training agents, or debriefing agents after they would come back from missions that were particularly harrowing. Nathan's character had some very emotional circumstances early on, so the CIA felt it very important to be able to ease him through the transition of becoming a young adult in a comfortable, therapeutic way. So they put Sigourney Weaver's character at his disposal."
"His father, Kevin, trains him physically. I think his mother trains him emotionally, and Geri Bennett trains him psychologically," Weaver elaborates. "They’ve all got him going."
Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist plays Kozlow, Nathan’s nemesis. "We had seen ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and we all fell in love with Michael in that movie," Stollman says. "He’s completely unexposed here in the US and we felt that he was a great fresh face. He can appear sinister, but he’s also a handsome, charismatic leading man."
Agrees producer Doug Davison: "We were looking for a European villain and I had recently watched ‘Dragon Tattoo,’ which he’s terrific in. We found out that he’s Swedish, and since he speaks Swedish in that movie, we needed to know how strong his English was. And it was terrific! He was our first choice. We went after him, he was available and we got him. We feel really fortunate to have him in the film."
"I’ve always been attracted to the question of finding your roots," Nyqvist says. "And I love John Singleton’s work. He called me and we started to talk about it. I read a script and thought it was well written. Plus the part I play is a bad guy, and that is so fun to do."
Rounding out the cast are Denzel Whitaker as Gilly, William Peltz as Jake, Nickola Shreli as Alek, and the aforementioned Antonique Smith, who plays Burns, Burton’s second in command. All the actors seemed to enjoy the action each of their roles required, from joy riding off the side of a pick-up truck to shootouts in the streets. Smith, who won raves for her portrayal of Faith Evans in NOTORIOUS, longed to have an action sequence she could call her own. "I have a shootout!" exclaims Smith. "I love Angelina Jolie, and I get to have my ‘Angelina moment.’ So I’m excited about that."
With the cast in place, principal photography on ABDUCTION began on July 12, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first of 51 production days. "Pittsburgh is an incredibly visual city," producer Crowley says. "It has all these bridges. It has three rivers. It has a wonderful urban landscape in which there are skyscrapers right across from a football field, a baseball field, and a huge hockey rink. It’s a town in which everything is pretty open. If you go in Manhattan, you have to get up on the eightieth floor to be able to see the city, whereas in Pittsburgh you can easily get a sense of how big and how open it is."
Agrees Lautner, "We were shooting ABDUCTION all over the city of Pittsburgh. In rivers, on roads, in forests, baseball stadiums, diners, all over. It was a great way to learn about this amazing city."
Much of ABDUCTION was shot chronologically, allowing for the suspense and tension of the script to build for the actors as the days went along. The first scenes to be shot were those set at the high school, filmed on location at Hampton High School in Allison Park, PA, using the school’s actual marching band, cheerleaders and wrestling team as willing extras.
On Day Three, production moved to a rural road for the opening scene of the film, which is also the film’s first big stunt. "The first time you see Nathan in the movie,’ says Lautner, "he is riding on the hood of a truck, going seventy-five miles an hour. This shows the daredevil side of Nathan – he's crazy! And it was fun. They had me harnessed up to the truck, so I wouldn't fall off, though I did slide back and forth on the hood. I had a lot of fun with it. It was a very cool stunt."
Lautner seemed to relish the chance to take on many of the stunts himself. "I've had the opportunity to do quite a lot of crazy stunts like slide down this huge glass overhang in PNC Park. I got to do some parkour, jumping off walls and I have this awesome boxing scene with my father in the backyard. It's a really physically challenging role but I jumped right in. I have so much fun with all that stuff. This is the perfect project to put all that to the test."
Stunt coordinator and second unit director Brad Martin joined the production early in order to choreograph ABDUCTION’S elaborate stunt sequences. "I liked coming in on this project from the beginning because it gave me a chance to help develop the action scenes. A couple of things weren’t really worked out, so I got to put my stamp on the action and help create them."
"The hood of the truck was actually pretty simple in terms of athletic ability," comments Martin. "We just strapped Taylor to the hood and drove down the street with him. Just him being able to show that Nathan’s relaxed and that he’s having a good time doing that is definitely a skill in itself, ‘cause we were going thirty, forty miles an hour on the street, while he’s strapped to a car and not able to jump off or do anything, should something go wrong."
Denzel Whitaker, who knew Lautner from an acting class they had both taken, was right at his side – the passenger side! Whitaker remembers, "They harnessed me up with one little rope and I said, ‘Is this going to really hold me in? What if I fall out?!’ By the end of it, I said, ‘Screw the rope. Let’s just do this! Let’s have fun!’ I loved it."
Isaacs and Bello filmed their scenes at a home in the small, historic Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon. Though their tenure was brief, Bello found that she and Isaacs settled into a believable, comfortable domestic rhythm. "In these short scenes, we’ve tried to capture what their life was like for the last sixteen years. You get snippets of it. We really tried to imbue in those scenes the nature and the feeling of this family," Bello says.
"Within the scenes that Maria and I acted with Taylor," Isaacs adds, "John allowed us to improvise. He created an atmosphere of play, but always focused on trying to make this relationship have texture."
But the domestic stability soon devolves into chaos, and Bello and Isaacs had to show a very different, very physical side to their secretive characters. Bello explains Singleton’s rationale for using the principal actors in as much of the stunt sequences as possible: "John likes the truth of that, to see someone’s face, to know it’s the actor. To do fourteen-hour days for four days trying to do these stunts, my body was broken. But I was really proud of it."
Isaacs trained rigorously to square off with the young actor. "The production got in touch and said, ‘If you take this job, we're going to need you to go to boxing training every day for as long as you can," Isaacs recalls. "It sounded like a ridiculously fabulous opportunity. While I was shooting something else, and while I was on the jury at a film festival, I boxed every day. I got to train with the world kickboxing champion in England and a fabulous champion in Scotland. Then I came to Pittsburgh and trained with the guys who did the choreography on ‘300.’"
"I needed to look like I trained Taylor, who’s been doing exhibition karate since he was six. That was a tough gig," Isaacs explains. "John kept on calling, saying, ‘How good are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m two weeks’ worth of lessons good!’"
Indeed, Lautner had the advantage. "I did something called extreme martial arts when I was younger for about eight years," he says smiling. "For the fight scenes, I’m able to pull some moves out of the old ‘extreme martial arts’ bag."
But that action isn’t limited to just the men on screen. "One of the reasons I wanted to do this job is because I have this big scene – a four-minute fight scene with two stuntmen! – and I love fight scenes," continues Bello, who brushed up on her skills for two weeks prior to production. "For my first job fourteen years ago, I had to train in Muay Thai boxing. I did a TV show for about six months and I had to use guns and knives and motorcycles. I really loved it. I’ve done some films where I’ve had to do stunts, but never anything this intense."
Collins joined the action when production relocated to a bridge and underlying river in Sutersville, PA. "At five in the morning, your job is to run around in a river getting wet and then run through a forest," says the actress. "It’s the best. I’ve got battle wounds. I have bruises and scratches all over my body. I figured, the more marks I have, the more into it I’m getting."
Production eventually moved to PNC Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates, on August 22, 2010, to shoot the film’s gripping climax. In order to add to the authenticity of the sequence, three separate camera crews shot during a real Pittsburgh Pirates-New York Mets game, with a live crowd of over 26,000 appearing in the background of these scenes. "It was awesome…and it was hectic, because we only had a few hours to shoot everything," Lautner says.
In fact, it was truly a race against time for the cast and crew of ABDUCTION, and time ran out a bit faster than anyone expected. The game clocked in at just two hours and eighteen minutes, the shortest on record for the team in two years. Explains Crowley, "We figured that the game would be three hours and fifteen minutes. We essentially got robbed of an hour’s worth of time, and it’s not as if we can say, ‘Could you guys slow down? We need to catch up.’ But we got great stuff. People really hustled. I think we’re all very proud of the work we did."
Following the big game (which the Pirates won, for anyone keeping score), the crew took over the entire ballpark for an extended stay. "It’s been an incredible experience," says Crowley of working with the team and venue management, "because it’s a huge stadium and they let us roam about it freely. If we had a technical problem, they helped us figure it out. The Pirates organization has been a really great partner."
Lautner’s biggest stunt saw him sliding down an escalator overhang at PNC and then dropping to the ground, an idea that first came to Martin when he and Singleton initially scouted the ballpark. Martin choreographed the stunt and videotaped a run-through to show the actor and director. "I played Taylor the video and he said ‘Oh dude, I am doing that,’" Martin remembers.
Recollects Lautner, "After I've run around the entire stadium multiple times, I get to an area where there's an escalator with a glass covering over the top that goes down the whole way. Nathan hops over a railing, sees Kozlow coming, jumps on top of the overhang and slides down the entire thing. It was a very cool stunt and I was wired about that. I could not wait till the day we got to do it."
Singleton explains Lautner’s fearlessness: "The cool thing about Taylor is that he can do a whole lot of great physical things. He can box. He can do martial arts. He can do these flips on a dime. I think he was really excited about being able to do a lot of his own stunts. The people that he looks up to as actors, like Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise, did a lot of their own stunts in their action pictures. He wanted the experience of doing that. It’s great for me as a director because I don’t have to cut away too much when he’s in action because it’s really him doing these amazing things."
Like his leading man, John Singleton also easily balances the action, drama, suspense, and humor of ABDUCTION. "I think he’s been able to bridge the challenges of this movie wonderfully," Sigourney Weaver says of the director. "You have a very sophisticated CIA plot, as well as a sweet, moving, original love story, a lot of adventure, and a lot of great stunts. It takes a really masterful director to keep all those plates in the air."
Collins credits Singleton’s enthusiasm for creating much of the film’s energetic tension: "When he yells ‘action,’ he doesn’t just yell ‘action,’ it’s, ‘Okay, action, go!’ He gets so excited and he gets everyone else so amped up for the scene."
Bello points out that pragmatism and confidence define Singleton’s directing style. "It’s interesting with John," observes the actress, "because he knows how something is going to look on camera. I trust, from seeing his movies, that he knows how it’ll play on the screen. I’m really learning a lot from him in terms of that."
Smith believes that Singleton connects with a younger male demographic well. "I don’t know if I can call it being a ‘father figure,’ because he made his first movie when he was like twenty. He was probably the same age as Taylor is now. But there's something about his connection with young guys. He’s able to give them guidance. He fit perfectly with Taylor on this film, and really helped Taylor come of age on screen."
"John has an amazing, amazing gift to work with young actors," Lee Stollman echoes. "I’ve seen him work with actors that come from other professions and have done nothing on screen, yet he makes them credible and is able to get great performances. John was the perfect choice to handle the action, the drama, and particularly the cast for this story, with all of its nuances."
In all, audiences will not only love the action, mystery and suspense of ABDUCTION, but also seeing its hero in a new light. "First and foremost," observes director Singleton, "people are really going to be very excited by what Taylor Lautner does as an actor in this movie. Everybody knows he's a good-looking kid. He's like, you know, cool and everything. But what he does as an actor in this movie, you're able to see the growth of a new star that's going to be around for a long time. And that's no idle boast, either, because he's charismatic in this movie, he's romantic, he's charming, and he kicked ass. What more can you want?"