Now playing in select theaters and available On Demand, Enemies Closer reunites Peter Hyams and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The pair previously worked together on Timecop and Sudden Death, and their chemistry is evident with their latest venture. Playing an environmentally conscious drug runner, Van Damme brings a welcome sense of flair to Hyam’s latest production.
We had an engaging interview with Mr. Hyams, whose diverse career includes such features as Capricorn One, Outland, Narrow Margin, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick End of Days. Hyams, who also serves as the cinematographer in much of his work, talked about the joy of shooting Enemies Closer and elaborated on why, several decades into the business, he’s still a passionate filmmaker.
What are the advantages of being the director of photography for most of your films?
It’s a great advantage. I grew up as an art student. I grew up with photography as a language that I speak, and I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that people who direct a film have an image in their head. Because I’m semi-fluent in this language, what I have in my head, I can put on the screen. When I’m scouting a location, I choose the location and I know exactly how I’m going to light it and I know where I’m going to place things. So I think I have a real advantage over people because if you have to do things very quickly as in the case with this film, I know where and how to do it before I go into it.
There are far greater directors than I’ll ever be who collaborate with wonderful cinematographers and come up with great films. And then there are directors who are really knowledgeable and are hands on with the photography of their films. So I don’t think there’s really a rule.
Can you talk about the challenge of doing night shoots and making it viscerally interesting?
It was an enormous challenge, which is why I exactly wanted to do it. I think most cinematographers will tell you that they like (shooting) interiors…and night exteriors are what separates men from boys and girls from women. And this was a film that was mostly exterior, mostly at night. In the woods, in the lakes, in mountains. Plus, it had to be shot in a very short amount of time. So it was very difficult (but) that was the reason I wanted to do it.
Although the movie’s just 85 minutes, there’s still a ton of story and action to spare.
I am very, very impatient with my own films. So I’m somebody who wants to make things shorter all the time. I’ve actually been locked out of my own editing room by film editors, because they know I will sneak in and cut every time I look at something that I want to take out. One time I was literally locked out of the editing room and it was at the back of my house.
Especially with a film like this, I wanted it to be extremely tight. This is not a very sober and deep character study. This is a movie that should excite and entertain and make people say ‘Wow!’ I don’t think it works if it’s slow and lumbering. The film could have easily been a half hour longer (but) I just wanted it to be as tight as it could be.
Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a villain who is concerned about the environment. Was that originally part of the script, or was that trait developed during production?
When I was first offered the film, Van Damme was going to play the part that Tom Everett Scott got to play. He was going to be the good guy and that didn’t interest me. I wanted to do it if Van Damme played the bad guy. When I spoke to Jean-Claude, he said “I don’t know about that.” I said “if you play the bad guy, I promise you we’ll make a character that is so flamboyant and so much fun it’ll be much more fun than playing the good guy.” There’s not a lot of ad-libbing in this movie so I’m a believer that what’s on the page is basically what you try to do. So all of the quirkiness, all of the kind of absurd, environmentalist, vegan nuttiness, that was always there. That was in the script.
Jean-Claude came up with the idea with this wacky hairdo and once he signed on to do it, he went in all the way. And he’s actually very funny. It’s a facet of his that he hasn’t shown a lot in his movies. I saw it in JCVD, and he was just (plain) funny. He didn’t have to be told the humor of it. He got it. The one thing I talked to him a lot was this was a guy whose emotions were always shifting in 90 degree changes. There were no curves. He would be smiling and sweet and then he would plunge a knife into someone’s stomach or break their neck. That would make him totally psychotic. I was very proud of him, he delivered a performance that was surprising to a lot of people.
Another element that stands out in the film are the action sequences. Much of the fighting takes place in confined spaces.
People have seen a lot of fighting in movies, and people have seen individuals bopping each other over the head. So you have to give each sequence a reason and a character. The more confined the space, the more dangerous it is, the more you have no place to run. If the fight occurs in someone’s house in the kitchen, you use the kitchen. If it’s in the woods, you use the trees. If there’s a fight in the water, then you use the water. That, to me, is what distinguishes each sequence.
With the new technology available today regarding shooting and editing films, are there steps being bypassed along the way with such an easy access to materials?
I’m somebody who actually believes in demystifying films, and the easier it is to access and get an image onto film, the more one cares about what the image is. If you play a tuba, it’s very hard to get a sound out of a tuba. If you hit a piano key, it’s very easy to get a pretty sound out of a piano key. But to play the piano well, you have to really (understand) it’s far more complicated than playing the tuba. This very obtuse musical analogy is a way to say it’s really great that anybody can try to do it, just like an art student. You have a pencil and a blank sheet of sketch paper, and some people can draw better than others. I’m for that. I’m for everybody trying. I’d like to see someone do something as interesting as what Spike Jonze (Her) or David O’Russell (American Hustle) did or what David Fincher does, or what Martin Scorsese did. Not everyone can do that. That’s what separates them from mortals.
Is that what keeps you passionate about directing? The absolute hunger to get better and learn from the process?
What keeps me passionate is that I don’t think I’m good enough and I’m trying to get good. I’m trying desperately to get good. I think it’s impossible for me to ever reach (the level) where I’m good enough, so I’m going to keep trying.
As I’ve gotten more and more experience, not to mention older, I see better. I see that the gulf between me and the people I think who are truly gifted – I think that gulf is getting wider, and not narrower. So I’m trying hard. I’m kind of like Charlie Brown. Each time I believe Lucy is not going to take the football away – and she does. There was a guy who once said he didn’t know what he was, he just knew where he was going, and he knew what he was wasn’t there. That’s kind of the way I feel.
What was the joy in making Enemies Closer?
First off, the joy is the process. It’s making film. That’s the beginning, the middle and the end. It’s what I care most about in the world aside from my family. I just want to do it. I try so hard just to get better. Every time I’m given the opportunity, I (believe) that this is the chance to do something and this was very rushed and a small budgeted film. I do think the job of a director is to pour a quart of water into a pine box. I just said, okay, I’m going to make this the biggest and most elaborate film on this budget than anyone’s ever done.
What are your feelings about shooting on digital instead of film?
I’ve been using the RED camera and been shooting digitally with the last three films I’ve done. Once digital photography reached a certain resolution, which it has…once it gets to 4K, once you get to tinted, logarithmic color depth you basically are equaling 35mm film. Digital photography is here, it’s what it is. It’s going to stay. I believe Paramount Pictures announced they are not going to release any film from now on and in any other format other than digital. Digital cameras are exponentially getting better and better. The newest one is 5K. So to me it’s a technology I embrace and love.
For a review of Enemies Closer, check out my post on Hollywood Outbreak.