TAKERS – BEHIND THE SCENES – with Hayden Christensen
BEHIND THE SCENES with Hayden Christensen
The story of Takers begins with Gabriel Casseus, an actor who had never written a screenplay before. After a night at Hollywood’s fabled Mann’s Chinese Theater, Casseus was struck by an inspiration. "The idea for the movie came to me complete from beginning to end," he says. "But I didn’t know how to write a script. By chance, I had read a script written by Peter Allen a couple of years earlier. I’d never met the guy, never heard of the guy before, but after I read it, I said to myself, I’m going to find this guy and I’m going to write a movie with him."
Casseus tracked down Allen in Los Angeles and proposed they collaborate on a screenplay about a high-tech, high-style crew of bank robbers. "He had some very specific ideas," recalls Allen. "Gabe wanted it to be about a multiracial crew of guys who wear sharp suits and commit designer crimes, meaning they never get caught. He described the robbery that opens the film in great detail. And I said, ‘Okay, we can run with this.’"
Allen gave his partner a window into an urbane world that suited the story to a tee. "To me, Peter represents Gordon Betts, the older master thief played by Idris Elba," says Casseus. "Peter is very old school and classy, with that sophisticated Dean Martin-Frank Sinatra mindset."
Allen and Casseus crafted a complex narrative that gives equal time to both sides of the law, pitting the ingenious, charismatic crew against an equally cunning, unrelenting lawman. "You have to have worthy adversaries to keep things interesting," says Allen. "Your cops are only as good as the guys they’re chasing."
As the pair fleshed out their ideas, Casseus continued working as an actor. When he won a role in director John Luessenhop’s feature debut, Lockdown, he knew he had found the perfect advocate for the project. "John and I became friends and I gave him the script," says Casseus. "He responded to it and took it to Clint Culpepper at Screen Gems, who made it all happen."
With encouragement from Culpepper, Luessenhop and his partner Avery Duff polished the script. "Having someone like John Luessenhop take a pass at our script was exciting," Casseus says.
"He completely understood what we envisioned. He was always thinking about how the story could be improved. He brought an amazing sense of the visual to it."
Executive producer Glenn S. Gainor consulted with Luessenhop during the development process, which took a number of years. "Getting this movie made is a dream come true for John," Gainor says. "We discussed the script for months on end. And it’s a tribute to Clint Culpepper and Screen Gems that it did. It really was one of those journeys you hear about in which the script is waiting and waiting until finally, there it is."
Luessenhop and Duff reinforced the quirky characterizations that Casseus and Allen infused in the script. "Even though it’s essentially cops and robbers, John and I spent a lot of time making sure that you could empathize with everybody," says Duff. "Every movie has a plot, but this one’s got heart as well and that’s what separates it from a lot of the other movies of this genre. Every one of these characters is complicated. Once the audience knows a little bit about who they are, they’re more likely to think, gee, I hope he gets away. It allows you to go along on the ride with them.
"When we started the process, we were convinced the audience would be more engrossed if they started out rooting for one side, then found themselves rooting for the other," continues Duff. "So we began on the side of the police who are supposed to stop crime. Then it turns out that the other side is so cool, so hip, and so much fun, that we enjoy being with them. But they are on a collision course and that’s really the tension of the movie."
The completed script is part high-concept crime caper, part character study and non-stop action. "The script is fun because it’s so full," says Luessenhop. "It is an action picture but, at the same time, there’s a great deal of emotion. All good pictures, whatever the genre, should be able to tie into the humanity of the characters."
That forced Luessenhop to divide his time between working with actors in dramatic settings and creating the more visceral spectacle of the film, a combination of tasks he relished. "It’s packed with intimate personal stories mixed with tremendous action, set against the huge canvas of Los Angeles," says the director. "I loved dealing both with the people, and these tremendous stunts and great camera work. It’s thrilling when it happens in front of you, and you can say, ‘Yes, we got that!’ And I got just as excited when someone like Matt Dillon hit a home run in a scene. I wanted to just jump up and hug him at the end of it."
As a writer, Luessenhop made sure to give each of his leading actors a moment worth cheering for. "Every character has a heightened moment in the film, where they achieve something or resolve something. That’s one of the things I’m most proud about the story and I think that’s what attracted a lot of our actors."
Filling the dual roles of writer and director gave Luessenhop a distinct advantage with the cast, says producer Will Packer. "John was able to truly articulate who these characters are," says the producer. "He has a great way with actors. On a show like this, we had a lot of testosterone—eight main male actors. So it was good to have somebody like John, who has a very calming spirit. He’s even-tempered and very clear about what he wants. He talks to everybody with respect and I think they respect him because of that. And he’s an extremely hard worker—the first one on set every day, the last one to leave."
Luessenhop credits Packer with giving him both the freedom and the support he needed to make the film he envisioned. "Will Packer added so much to this movie," says Luessenhop. "I don’t believe we ever would have achieved the cast we have without him. I was in charge of directing, and I made my own decisions, but he was always available to bounce ideas off or suggest improvements. He was always there in the trenches, trying to make the hottest movie possible."
Packer has a long history with Screen Gems, serving as producer for films including Stomp the Yard, Obsessed and This Christmas for the studio. But he says Takers represented a new opportunity. "As a producer, this is my first full-blown action movie. We had a lot of set pieces that had to be carefully prepared for and thought out and designed. I enjoyed overseeing a project of this size and scope for the first time.
"The audience is going to fall in love with our crew," says Packer. "And I think they’ll take this journey with them. Through triumph and failure and love gained and lost, we’re with them every step of the way as they’re trying to pull of this one last impossible job."
Luessenhop hopes audiences will walk away with an experience that transcends genre. "The thing I would be most proud of is for people to see more than karate or cars or explosions," he says. "I hope it has some emotional resonance after the visceral component fades away."
To create Takers’ cast of cops and robbers, the filmmakers filled their eight leading man roles with some of the hottest talent in movies, television and music. Idris Elba, T.I., Hayden Christensen, Paul Walker, Chris Brown and Michael Ealy play the suave outlaws, with Matt Dillon and Jay Hernandez representing the long arm of the law.
"To have the level of cast we have in this film is really exciting," says Packer. "With that kind of a cast, what can you be but cool? These guys bring it. They have so much swagger. They ooze self-confidence and it all comes across on screen.
"It’s just an honor to have someone like Matt Dillon anchoring this film," he continues. "As an Academy Award® nominee, he brings a level of gravitas with him, as does our other Oscar® nominee, Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Everybody from Matt and Marianne to Jay Hernandez brought their A-game. And then we got great actors like Steve Harris and Glynn Turman in supporting roles to give us that extra oomph."
Dillon plays Jack Welles, an old school, hard-as-nails, workaholic detective, unhappily divorced with a daughter he loves but can’t connect with. Unable to reconcile his job and his personal life, Welles becomes obsessed with sniffing out the bank robbers. "Matt was the ideal Jack Welles," says Luessenhop. "He brings balance and weight to the role that counters the crew he’s up against."
Dillon, who was nominated for an Oscar® for playing a police officer in Crash, was intrigued by the filmmakers’ ambitious goals. "John had great vision for this film from the beginning," he says. "It’s a really big film. There are two storylines that eventually converge. On one side is this crew of guys who are doing these heists and on the other, the guys who are tracking them down. It’s an outsized story and I liked that.
"I haven’t done a whole lot of action and while it’s definitely an action film, there’s good, strong character development and very dynamic storytelling," he adds. "John knew he wanted lots of action, and he wanted it very real. But he never got so swept up in the technical aspects that he forgot who these people are. There’s some very poignant stuff on both sides of it. It’s not just a straight-up cops and robbers."
Dillon and Jay Hernandez, who plays his partner, Hatcher, have the kind of chemistry that can’t be faked, says Gainor. "I’ve worked with Jay on so many movies and he lives his roles. We made a film called Quarantine and when my wife came to set, she asked him if he really worked at the fire station."
Dillon too, admires Hernandez’ commitment as an actor. "I loved the chemistry we had. Hatcher is more laid back than Welles, more easy-going with a good sense of humor. Jay’s very natural, so when I’m working with him, we’re just having a conversation." |
On the other side of the thin blue line, Idris Elba as Gordon Betts and Paul Walker as John Rahway head up the heist crew. Elba is a British actor who first came to the attention of American audiences when he played Stringer Bell on the critically acclaimed HBO series "The Wire." "Idris is a movie star from frame one," says Casseus. "Women love him. Even when he got shot on the show and he was obviously dead, I heard smart women, saying, ‘God, I hope he gets up from that.’"
Elba is blessed with that ineffable quality they call "presence" in Hollywood, according to Luessenhop. "Your eye seems to go to him automatically. Idris brings definition to his role with everything he does, from the way he walks, and the way he carries his briefcase, to the way he sits at a table."
Walker, best known as Brian O’Conner in the Fast and Furious franchise, matches Elba’s quiet intensity as Rahway, the crew’s other alpha male. "Paul has some Steve McQueen in him, with those blue eyes," Luessenhop says. "He just has to look at something and you want to know more about what he’s doing. And I love the interplay between Paul and Idris. You might think these guys would never have anything in common. But on the screen, they come together in a unique, warm friendship."
John Rahway, Walker points out, would seem completely unassuming to the casual observer. "He’d fit right in on Wall Street. But all these guys all have a thrill-seeking mentality. They like living like kings, and the nine-to-five just doesn’t suit them. John is a pretty level-headed guy who stays cool in really tense situations. If things go sour, he’s the one who’s going to kick in the door and pull you out.
"That’s why he and Gordon get along so well," the actor adds. "They’re both really secure with who they are and they realize how much they complement one another. They know that the more often you play with fire, the better the chance of getting burned. So they’ve agreed they will do one job a year and give things time to cool off before they even begin to entertain pulling another job."
When asked about his cast mates, Walker says he grew up watching Matt Dillon and has enjoyed seeing Elba’s recent work. The film also gave him a chance to work with a familiar face, Michael Ealy, who appeared in 2 Fast 2 Furious. "Ealy’s just a real genuine guy," he says. "We worked together a few years ago and he hasn’t changed at all. He’s a professional who takes his work seriously."
The catalyst for the film’s final fiery showdown is Ghost, played by Grammy®- winning hip hop artist and actor T.I. Released from prison on the day of the crew’s latest hit, Ghost is itching to get back to business. "He lets them know they owe him big time," says T.I. "Then he strongly suggests a job the crew should consider. When he rolls up at the Mercury Lounge, it doesn’t seem like he’s left one stone unturned. All the dots are connected. It’s the job they always wanted to do, the biggest job they’ve ever pulled. And he has all the ins and outs figured out.
"Ghost is the most interesting character I’ve ever played," he continues. "He is a wild card and really street-savvy. And he’s got something in him that isn’t quite right. You’d like having him in your corner if stuff really hit the fan, but you trust him about as far as you can throw him."
For T.I., finding the sympathetic side of Ghost was paramount. "I wanted to make him a likeable character," says the rapper-turned-actor. "Ghost is a manipulator, but he feels he has to manipulate in order to regain his position in the crew. He’s done time for these guys and he doesn’t feel like they remained loyal to him. Jake is now with Ghost’s ex, Lily. No one checked in on him while he was away. He could have rolled over on them any time, but he didn’t. They’re not as sensitive to those facts as he would like, so he has a bit of chip on his shoulder. Maybe Ghost is a bad guy, but he’s also a guy you feel for. He’s a bit of a complex character.
"I wanted him to be approachable, not standoffish or in-your-face," he adds. "A bit of finesse was required to keep the audience guessing. You never want them to be able to see exactly where he’s coming from."
Although T.I. is a relative newcomer to acting, one would never know it based on the comments of his co-workers. "The man is icy cool," says Paul Walker. "I think he’s learned everything he knows experientially, and that gives him an inner confidence that radiates. He commands attention. His posture’s phenomenal. You’d think he was in the military."
"You watch him work and it is like the camera isn’t there," adds Casseus. "His whole essence reminds me of what Tupac had on screen. He’s a natural in his ability to pull from his own experience and be real."
Director Luessenhop concurs, T.I. is quite simply a powerhouse of an actor. "Just the way he talks and walks is interesting and sets him apart from the rest of the crew."
For Grammy®-nominated recording artist Chris Brown, already the star of the Screen Gems hits Stomp the Yard and This Christmas, Takers was a chance to break away from his image as a musical artist who sometimes acts. "This role is different from any of the others I’ve played," he says. "The earlier movies played to my strengths, which is cool, but it’s also good to be able to use your other abilities."
The film marks producer Packer’s third project with Brown, who was only 19 when the film was shot. "I may not be able to krump like he can, but nobody produces a Chris Brown movie like me," laughs Packer. "He was in his element in the first two films. In Stomp the Yard, he was a kid who was part of a dance crew, which was like breathing for Chris. In This Christmas, he was a kid who could sing, which is also not much of a stretch. He dances, runs, jumps, plays basketball. Anything athletic, this kid can do and with boundless energy."
Which made him perfect, in Packer’s view, for the action genre. "He gets an opportunity to really showcase another side of his talent in this film," says the producer. "He’s jumping from moving cars, jumping off a building, bouncing off the roof of a taxi and loving every minute of it. There is nothing that he does not believe he can do, so of course he insisted on doing his own stunts."
That didn’t always sit well with the producer. "One of my responsibilities is to protect our key talent. There definitely were times on set when we wanted to have a trained stunt man, someone who does this for a living every day as opposed to one of our main actors, do it. Chris didn’t always agree. Sometimes he would push back, but it’s great when you have an actor that wants to give a hundred and ten percent."
Brown’s headlong dash though downtown Los Angeles to escape the police is one of the film’s most thrilling set pieces. Using elements of parkour, a highly athletic, acrobatic sport, Brown surmounts seemingly impossible obstacles without any outside assistance. "I had to jump from one story to the story below on a building by scaling a wall," he says "It was difficult because I had to grab while I was free-falling. It actually came out great."
But even more fun than the stunts for Brown was the opportunity to work with so many actors of such high caliber. "I’m a fan of all these people," he says. "I watched them work while I was growing and wanted to be like them. To be a part of that magic is incredible."
Brown proved to be a quick study, keeping up with his more experienced co-stars in some of the film’s most emotional scenes. "I have to credit Michael Ealy, who plays Jesse’s brother Jake, with guiding Chris though certain scenes," says the director. "That’s the kind of intensity and emotion he brings. And he’s got a great look, too, with those blue eyes and that a great smile. Ealy’s got it all." |
Ealy’s character owns the Mercury Lounge, a jazz club and hangout for the crew, and is also one of the bank robbers. "He’s the crew’s explosives expert," says the actor, who most recently appeared on the television series "Flash Forward." "Jake is a pretty straightforward guy, but he’s forced to go to some dark places in this movie.
"Jake is one of the only guys who doesn’t want to do this job," Ealy continues. "His gut instinct about the plan and the person who brings it to them is bad. He wants to stick to the code that they have always lived by, one or two jobs a year. But he’s in it all the way with his crew."
The actor is grateful that the filmmaker gave him the opportunity to help flesh out his character. "I didn’t rob any banks to prepare," he says. "But I did try and bring the part a deeper sense of who the character is and why he does certain things. For example, in the script, he gives his girlfriend Lilli a necklace. But I suggested he actually ask her to marry him. That raises the stakes a bit and that’s what I tried to do throughout the film with the character to give him more depth."
His roles in Miracle at St. Anna and Never Die Alone gave Ealy plenty of experience handling weapons. "The gun training for this movie was a lot of fun," he says. "We did a lot of work with live rounds, which I had only done once before. The machine guns were my favorite, but the shotgun was one of the most intense weapons I’ve ever fired. That kind of firepower legitimizes the character."
Working with an ensemble made up of contemporaries he has long admired made the shoot especially memorable for Ealy. "We got paid to hang out with a bunch of guys, wear great clothes and look really cool," he says. "I’ve done a couple of serious pieces lately, and for me, it was a great opportunity to enjoy myself. It’s a fun movie, but there’s also a great sense of humanity that makes it more than just a heist film. We spend as much time getting to know these characters as we do on the heist itself."
Hayden Christensen completes the circle of friends as AJ, an Ivy League golden boy with a taste for classic jazz and blues. "Hayden Christensen brought in so many good ideas," says Luessenhop. "He was always very thoughtful about what he was working on and how he wanted to do things. And in fact, he was usually right. He’s got great judgment and really brought the character to life. Right now, I can’t imagine anyone but Hayden as AJ."
Christensen is probably most famous for his role as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars series, which garnered him some unwanted attention while shooting. "People in L.A. try to be very cool about seeing actors and watching films shot," says Walker. "But, you know, the kid in all of us can’t help but get a little excited sometimes. ‘Oh, Anakin’s over there!’ It happened a couple of times and we never let him live it down."
One of the most satisfying aspects of the film for all of the cast members is that the relationships formed on the set mirrored the relationships in the film. "What will stick with me for a long time is the personalities I worked with," says Walker. "I’ve been acting for just over ten years. The memories are what are sweetest. I know I’ll bump into Chris Brown ten years from now and I’ll probably be bald and he’ll still be dancing. And we’ll talk about working on Takers together. That’s the good stuff."
Every movie is partly script, partly actors and partly locations, according to executive producer Glenn S. Gainor, whose dozens of producing credits include Death at a Funeral, Vacancy and Happy, Texas. "In this particular case, it was a phenomenal blend—a gifted cast, a very fine script and fantastic locations. You can’t beat Los Angeles, and the downtown settings we used aren’t the usual version of the city you see in films."
The film was originally set in New York City, but after 9/11, the filmmakers focused their sights on the West Coast. "When I first got the script, it said, ‘Fade in: San Francisco,’" says Gainor. "We planned to incorporate all the city’s iconic images. But San Francisco had its challenges."
A Far East incarnation was considered as well. "I had a Hong Kong version, with an international cast," says Luessenhop. "Now it’s hard for me to imagine the film being set anywhere but Los Angeles. We chose to use a very glamorous side of L.A., but the picture is still grounded in the streets to take in the iconic landmarks, like the Hollywood sign, Dodger Stadium and the Hollywood Hills."
One of the film’s chicest locations is the Roosevelt Hotel, located smack in the middle of Hollywood. "The Roosevelt Hotel is the slickest place ever," says Avery Duff. The scene of the film’s climax, the Roosevelt was the site of the first Academy Awards® ceremony and became a playground for the movie industry’s rich and famous as soon as it opened in 1927. After a complete overhaul in 2005 restored its Art Deco glory, it is once again a spot for to see and be seen.
But the Roosevelt is just one of many unique locations in one of the most style-driven movies to come out of Hollywood in recent years. Takers owe its singular look to a trio of top movie professionals—production designer Jon Gary Steele, costume designer Maya Lieberman and cinematographer Michael Barrett.
"Michael created a signature style and look for this film," says Will Packer. "He’s got a great eye for non-traditional shots. You’re going to see bright, vivid colors that will leap off the screen, and camera angles that are more edgy and raked than what you would normally see.
"We’ve got a shot where the crew is shoulder to shoulder and they’re walking towards the club after they pulled off a perfect heist. We took our time filming because this was the quintessence of these guys—they don’t have a care in the world, just self-confidence and swagger."
Lieberman took an aggressively fashion-forward approach to the costume design, creating a distinct look for each character. Even Screen Gems executive Clint Culpepper had a hand in selecting the clothes. "When I showed up for the wardrobe fitting, Clint Culpepper, the president of the studio was there," says Paul Walker. "He was very specific about what he wanted.
"It was in the script that Idris’ character, Gordon, was real flossy in the way he dressed," the actor continues. "But that was the only mention of it, character-wise. Clint had a very specific look in mind for each and every one of us. Dolce and Gabbana fit me the best, so every suit I wear in the movie is D and G."
Packer admits it wasn’t much of challenge to make this cast look sharp. "We’ve got an amazing-looking cast," he says. "And these guys wear suits like hangers. You have five or six guys, all under thirty, dressed really, really clean in suits and ties and cuff links and pockets squares and wing tips. It’s not a look that you’ve seen before and the guys pull it off so well. They grabbed the opportunity to put on this look and really wear it well."
In addition to a unique sartorial style, each character expresses his individuality through the car he drives—after all, it is Los Angeles. "There’s a scene set outside the Mercury Lounge, and we shot it just like a music video," says Packer. "All the guys pull up in their various whips, one at a time, and it’s this great shot of them set against the skyline of Los Angeles, walking into the club as if they own the world."
Some of the actors had strong opinions about the car their characters should drive that didn’t always jibe with the producers’. "There was some battling back and forth about who got to drive what," says Packer. "Everybody wanted the coolest car. Idris has the Range Rover, Paul Walker has a cool roadster, and Hayden Christensen has a Cadillac. Michael Ealy got an SUV; Chris Brown is on a motorcycle. We let them have some input, but if we’d let these guys have their way, they each would have been driving half-million dollar cars."
With only 45 days to shoot the film and over 300 scenes to be filmed, the producers often ran two units at the same time, one filming action and another covering the dramatic scenes.
The film’s most intricate sequence, which involved dropping two trucks into a subterranean cavern under a downtown street, presented the biggest challenge. "John and I were trying to figure out how one drops a truck into the belly of a Los Angeles street," Gainor says said. "We realized that we were going to have to build the whole thing, because we’re never going to be able to actually dig a hole that big in a public street.
"So if you’re seeing action, we’re doing action," he adds. "Nothing is ‘virtual.’ And that’s what makes this movie fantastic."
As an example, the two producers point to the same scene, a favorite for both. "We got to blow up a helicopter," says Packer. "That was the coolest day. I called and said, "You’re not going to believe what we did today. I literally blew up a real helicopter today outside of Dodger’s Stadium."
Gainor is happy to offer a few tips on blowing up a helicopter. "Here’s what you need to know," he says. "Before you do it, you need a lot of gasoline. Then, get a chopper that doesn’t really work. It’s a lot cheaper. We put gas cans in the body of the helicopter and we actually shot it actually at Dodger Stadium. When you blow up a helicopter, you’ve got one shot, one shot only. Everybody had to stand back, we rolled four or five cameras and it was perfect."
Luessenhop is confident that when the smoke clears—literally and figuratively—audiences will enjoy Takers as a new twist on a classic heist picture, but they will remember it because of the characters and their relationships. "We set out to make a great genre movie," he says. "And I think we did that. But the emotional connections make this more than a one-note movie. The combination of the two is what is most satisfying and that’s what I hope really resonates with our audience."