A classic Hitchcockian thriller set-up about the wrong man being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A blistering action thriller set in the French capital, Paris, Bastille Day is a story of an unlikely pair – a reckless CIA agent and a brilliant pickpocket – who must work together to uncover and take down a conspiracy.
Michael Mason (Richard Madden, Game Of Thrones) is an American pickpocket living in Paris who finds himself in the hands of the CIA when he steals a bag that contains more than just a wallet. Sean Briar (Idris Elba, ‘Luther’, Prometheus), the field agent on the case, soon realizes that Michael is just a pawn in a much bigger game and is also his best asset to uncover a large-scale criminal conspiracy.
Going against commands, Briar recruits Michael to use his expert pickpocketing skills to help quickly track down the source of the corruption. As a 24hr thrill ride ensues, the unlikely duo discovers they are both targets and must rely upon each other in order to take down a common enemy.
Bastille Day was shot in Paris and London in autumn 2014 for 9 weeks and is directed by James Watkins (The Woman In Black, Eden Lake), from a screenplay by Andrew Baldwin (Jason Bourne) and James Watkins.
“The original idea at the time when Andrew Baldwin first shared his inspiration for this movie was to create a movie that combined the taut action of the Bourne movies with the character-rich experiences of watching movies like Frantic and even The French Connection. We believed that a movie that honoured those iconic films would be commercially viable and be creatively exciting. Andrew’s underlying curiosity was to understand what these characters might be doing in Paris and to examine their motives and choices under intense pressure, but still take us on a thrill ride through a city that we all love.” says producers David Kanter and Bard Dorros. Anonymous Content commissioned Baldwin to write a script based upon his original idea and it became the basis for Bastille Day.
In 2012, Kanter and Dorros approached long-time friend Philippe Rousselet, chief executive officer of Paris-based Vendome Pictures, confident that the screenplay, with its strong French and American themes, would appeal to the French producer. “They responded within two or three days and said let’s do this,” says Kanter.
It was the film’s combination of high-octane action, mismatched central relationship and sly social engagement that appealed to director James Watkins, the British filmmaker who first came to international attention with his grippingly taut thriller Eden Lake about a couple whose romantic trip to the countryside goes terrifyingly wrong.
‘Hitchcock is my hero and Bastille Day had a classic Hitchcockian thriller set-up in that it’s about the wrong man being in the wrong place at the wrong time – Michael, the pickpocket, who picks the wrong pocket and is the catalyst for a sequence of events that get increasingly out of hand. I thought this harked back to the classic noir-ish thriller of the past such as Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street.”
My last film [The Woman In Black] was all about going as slow as I dare. Here I saw an opportunity to tell a story at breathless, breakneck pace. The story recalled the muscular 70s thrillers that I love: shot on the streets, with new lighter handheld cameras, giving the action a raw edge. I wanted to make a film that had the lean and mean quality of tension of Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin’s New York.
Briar’s character – uncompromising, brutal, reckless – had shades of Popeye Doyle, Dirty Harry or Walker from John Boorman’s Point Blank. The notion of Idris Elba playing this role was irresistible to me.
His combustible relationship with the streetwise Michael struck me immediately as the beating heart of the film and I liked the opportunities this relationship gave for lighter moments. It reminded me of the gruff, salty humour of early Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood collaborations or classics like Midnight Run and 48 Hours where the tone shift gears from gritty action to more playful moments whilst never breaking character.’
The twisting and turning nature of the three protagonists’ relationship was a key element for Watkins. “Michael, Zoe and Briar are all very ambivalent, morally ambiguous characters,” he explains.” Zoe was going to plant a bomb; Briar’s methodology is questionable – he’s violent and he’s aggressive; and Michael is, to use Briar’s words, “a parasite” who steals bags and watches and wallets. They’re all troubled, and sometimes morally troubled, but despite that, they are likeable. They’re not bad people, they’re just complicated.”
Kanter also points out that it’s the way the characters have been developed that makes BASTILLE DAY special. The characters are not conventional heroes; rather, they are all flawed and forced by circumstance to discover who they really are. One key to the success of the film is that they are believable and realistic. “It feels like a movie from the 1970s, where the characters are all carrying something heavy in their psyches. They are thrown together by fate and come to realize that the bombing isn’t what it appears to be, so they are forced to depend on each other.”
Watkins also spoke to the fact that Bastille Day tries to explore more than just narrative thrills: ‘We tried to make a Friday night ride, a rip-snorting entertainment for people at the end of a long week. But that doesn’t mean you can’t smuggle things in or glance at current social anxieties – Captain Phillips is a really interesting example of an incredibly tense piece of entertainment that also manages to make some points about a number of social issues including globalisation and inequality without being boring or polemical. I’m interested in films that can do that, that have an elevated quality to the thrill so it’s not just guys running around with guns.
Bastille Day is a story with buried layers – personal, action, and geopolitical – and, even though it’s a very, very fast paced action thriller, it does touch on the anger that a lot of people have in terms of feeling disenfranchised from the political process. You see it in London, you see it in Paris, and it is a big theme in the plot because the bad guys exploit it. The theme of deception and trust between the characters and the two countries – France and the US – and how the characters engage with that was very interesting. As Michael demonstrates to Briar, we live in a world of sleight-of-hand where ‘it’s all about the distraction…’
Watkins’ commitment to the film certainly impressed the producers. “We were big fans of Eden Lake and The Woman in Black,” says Kanter. “He responded very intelligently to the screenplay and during the filming, he was in command of every part of the movie, he understood what he wanted and had a very good rapport with the actors. He set out to create something inspired and beautiful and he did just that.”
Taking the lead is Idris Elba as Sean Briar, the CIA operative who has been confined to a desk job in Paris after a mission in the Middle East went wrong.
The filmmakers were looking for “a combination of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood,” says Kanter. “We wanted an actor with a moral code that feels organic to who they are. Somebody who projects a strong no bullshit vibe but is a real person underneath all that; someone who could carry the pain. There was a lot of discussion about how clearly we define Briar’s past. I think we strike a balance in our storytelling about Briar clearly having been through something specific, without articulating it to a great extent. He had to be someone who you really believed would take matters into his own hands and was competent enough to sort it out. Idris is one of the few actors who has all those qualities and this was a film which would allow him to show them. He really had a sense of who this man is and who he could be. When a movie star responds from an emotional place, when it’s a real connection with the material, you’d be a fool not to go on that journey with him.”
Watkins shared his enthusiasm to have Idris cast as Agent Sean Briar. “Briar is a CIA agent that has been out in the field for a long time but he’s been demoted and sent to Paris to cool off after an assignment in the Middle East went wrong, leaving him with blood on his hands,” says director James Watkins. “He really doesn’t like being amongst these desk-jockeys and is desperate to get out on the street. He’s the guy that gets things done but his methods may be a little bit rough. I really wanted a character that was a throwback to some of those classic really tough 1970s heroes, like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. Idris has that real presence, that real physicality and you can read his thoughts in such a telling way. Briar is in that classic western loner tradition, like some of those cowboy heroes, and Idris really can carry that off. He can own the screen and is able to convey what it is he’s thinking by doing very little.”
“There are very few actors of that calibre,” continues Watkins. “Michael Fassbender, Daniel Craig and Idris are among the few – they have the physical presence and the movie star presence, but they also have the real acting chops. It’s obviously a skill that they’ve nurtured but it’s also innate: it’s that sense of truth and the sense of being able to register thought in a really cinematic way. It was such a pleasure watching Idris work; you can read the cogs turning in his head, in his eyes, in such a subtle way. It means you can dispense with so much unnecessary dialogue. For me, cinema is about reading what the characters are thinking, what’s going on behind their eyes.”
Playing the American petty thief who inadvertently becomes embroiled in a huge conspiracy when he blithely robs a young French woman is Scottish actor, Richard Madden, best known for his performances in smash hit TV series, Game Of Thrones, and Kenneth Branagh’s recent cinema adaptation of Cinderella, co-starring with Lily James and Cate Blanchett.
With Idris Elba in place as Sean Briar, it was a challenge to find an actor who would match his formidable screen presence. “Michael is a tricky role,” explains Watkins. “He could be very unlikable because he’s essentially a guy that steals from people and ruins people’s lives. At his audition, Richard brought charm but also danger to the character and was able to walk the line between those two facets with incredible subtlety.”
For his part, Madden saw the character of Michael as “a street rat, with not much of a moral compass or sense of responsibility for his actions. He’s an American pickpocket in Paris, and he’s a bit adrift, but he’s got this incredible skill set, he’s really wonderful at what he does. But I think he’s not sure who he is and who he wants to be and he’s slightly lost in the world and has a certain sense of perhaps self-loathing and but he’s really ready to embark on a journey and try to find a different side of himself.”
“I wanted to make a big Friday night out film” exclaims James Watkins. The director’s ambitions for Bastille Day were one of the reasons the producers approached him. This was to marry big budget commercial thrills with kinetic, in-your-face shooting style with handheld cameras up close and personal with the actors, to get right in the middle of the action. “We wanted to be close enough to feel them, to feel their breathing, to be right in their eyes. A lot of the actions shots are from a subjective point of view, so as a viewer you feel completely in the moment. I’m not interested in CGI which creates scenes that defeat the laws of physics! So, however large the story is, everything should always have an emotional sense of truth. Ultimately, you go to the movies to see people and so the closer you are to those people, the more you’ll enjoy the experience.”
Watkins’ first point of reference was the New York films of the 1970s and 1980s such as Prince Of The City, The French Connection and Serpico. “They’re very much grounded in the moment and have that really gritty feel and I was looking to marry that with bigger American production values,” he says.