When Director, co-writer, and producer Mark Williams was looking to follow up 2020’s Honest Thief, he read a script that had an interesting hook but was especially intrigued by the character of Travis Block, a guy who has to go into places and get good people out of bad situations., so he rewrote and updated the story to make the action-thriller Blacklight, with a lot on its mind, in a genre that harkens back to great conspiracy-minded actions-dramas of the past while being very of-the-moment.
Mark Williams, producer of The Accountant, The Marksman, and Copshop, among others, and creator and executive producer of Netflix’s acclaimed, Emmy-winning series Ozark— says that when he was looking to follow up 2020’s Honest Thief, which also starred Neeson he found a script by screenwriter Nick May that had dealt with COINTELPRO (derived from “COunter INTELligence PROgram”), FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s secret program in the 1960s and ’70s sought to infiltrate and take down what it deemed “leftist,” civil rights, or “radical” groups.
While Williams liked the script, he knew there was another way to go with the idea. “Nick had written the script before I knew him, and I read it and thought it was an interesting hook — but I was especially intrigued by the character of Travis Block, a guy who has to go into places and get good people out of bad situations. That was intriguing,” says Williams. “There was a draft I read that was set in 1971 and was about COINTELPRO, which is now mentioned Blacklight in passing.” The references, used by Robinson, illustrate the power of Hoover — a power that Robinson admires and aspires to.
“I thought that that story, set in 1971, would be tough to get made, but the character of Travis Block was too good to let go of,” Williams says. “So I ended up transporting the story to the present day and focusing on current issues. But the core of the story for me was always Block. I wanted the opening to set up the discontent in the world as it is now, and then spin the story off of that,” says Williams.
“For me, it wasn’t about pointing fingers at either Democrats or Republicans. But the fact is, as people try to rise up and change the world, bad things can happen. And from there, the story gets more layered. But I didn’t want to make it a ‘political thriller.’ It’s more about characters who are trying to tell the truth, which is something we’re all trying to do – we wonder, what is the truth? For Block, his truth is trying to figure out if he’s a good guy. Is he doing the right thing? It’s about finding the truth in who you are and what you believe in.”
“The film is a great ride, rooted in the ideas of family, loyalty, truth, and the idea of betrayal,” says Neeson. “It has some wonderful action sequences that come out of what’s been happening between the characters. The action is never gratuitous in Blacklight. It’s driven by the story, which is very gripping.”
The dark side of duty and the hidden, morally murky parts of heroism are rarely seen in the light — they’re illuminated by unexpected turns, unpredictable events, and changes in perspective. For Travis Block (Liam Neesom) the decades of shadowy work have blurred together, since a killing during the last days of the Vietnam War connected his future to his then-fellow officer, Gabriel Robinson (Aiden Quinn, Avalon, Legends of the Falls, TV’s Elementary). Fast-forward to the present day, and Block is a freelance government “fixer,” working for Robinson, who’s now director of the FBI and overseeing Washington, D.C., with an omniscient gaze. But storm clouds are gathering that even Robinson can’t control. When a young anti-government activist, Sophia Flores, is killed under mysterious circumstances, and FBI agent Dusty Crane (Taylor John-Smith, TV’s Sharp Objects), who had infiltrated Flores’s group, wants to come out of deep cover, Block begins to question if the job he’s been doing getting agents out of dangerous undercover assignments is accomplishing what he thought it did. A young journalist looking into the Flores case, Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman (Broadway’s Hamilton, TV’s The Umbrella Academy), forces Block to confront the truth of his profession even more. Now, as he’s dealing with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and trying to bond with his grown daughter Amanda (Claire van der Bloom) and young granddaughter Natalie, Block wants a chance to turn his life around. But his violent past — and Gabriel Robinson — may not allow it.
From Page To Screen
There are few actors who occupy such a rare place in the cinematic consciousness — or in moviegoers’ affection and devotion — as Liam Neeson. A reliably exciting and grounded starring presence in films for over 30 years, the Northern Ireland-born Oscar, BAFTA, Tony, Golden Globe, and Indie Spirit Award nominee has brought to the screen complicated heroes (Schindler’s List, Michael Collins), true figures (Kinsey, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Silence), and grizzled men of action (The Grey, The Marksman, the Taken franchise), as well as mentors (Gangs of New York, Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace), devoted husbands (Ordinary Love, Widows), and many more in a career that’s included Best Picture winners, blockbusters, action hits, indie dramas, psychological studies, and wry comedies.
In Blacklight, Neeson’s portrayal of Travis Block is affecting on several levels. Says Neeson, “Travis is an ex-military man who now works for the head of the FBI in a job that doesn’t have a description. What he basically does is retrieve FBI agents who are undercover in the field. But in the years he’s been doing that, he lost his wife because he was never there for her, and wasn’t there for his daughter, who is now an adult and has her own 5-year-old daughter. Block has turned a corner and wants to get out and spend more time with his grandchild, and that weighs heavily on his mind and actions. But the pursuit of the real truth can be hard to attain; we want to say to people, ‘Don’t lie to me, tell me the truth.’ And that leads to action scenes that are entertaining, but at the heart of it all is hurt and betrayal which motivates the story and a lot of characters.”
“We’ve obviously seen Liam do so many things since Taken that have him playing action guys, but playing Travis Block gave him the opportunity to show him as a bit of a broken character,” says Williams. “Liam has a big heart. He’s not just the tough guy, and I wanted to show the poetic, alternate side of Travis Block, and that side of Liam as well. Block is trying to be a better man, the guy he wishes he would have been when he was younger.”
“Liam has heart, soul, and depth to him in real life, and it carries onscreen as well,” adds Williams. “It did in Honest Thief in a more romantic way, and he uses it even more here. He’s got layers, and that’s what’s interesting about him — he’s a real human being you can believe is in a tough situation. Liam and I talked about Block’s backstory in Vietnam that we hear him tell in the film, and how he isn’t always the hero; in fact, Block is a guy who’s digging himself out of a hole, and the connection to Robinson is part of that.”
As Robinson, Aidan Quinn adds levels of complexity to a character that is not simply a stock villain, but a man who feels his job of keeping law and order in the United States allows for a moral grey zone.
“Robinson is, in many ways, speaking the truth about what leaders have to do to keep people in line,” explains Williams. “For me, what was interesting about Gabriel Robinson was, we all face grey lines in almost every choice we make in life; we want the right results, but how we get there isn’t always clean.”
The energy between Block and Robinson in Blacklight had an extra dimension: Neeson and Quinn have known each other for over 30 years, says Williams, and co-starred together in films including 1996’s Michael Collins, about the Irish struggle for independence in the early 20th century.
Quinn, whose performances often exude warmth and easy affability, mixes his gentle charisma with a sense of professional, steely malevolence that underscores Robinson’s hard-to-pin-down motives.
“What called out to me really was what Mark had written, the language of the script,” says Quinn. “Robinson is definitely extreme, but Mark gave him an explanation as to why he is the way he is. Robinson looks up to J. Edgar Hoover, who was a despot, and he’s got the same kind of thought that some moral thing in the country has gone awry. And Robinson lost his wife before the story starts, and he’s in mourning and has gone off the rails a bit, thinking, ‘This is what the world needs right now, and you have to break the rules in order to bring people back to decency.’ But he’s losing himself in the midst of that. I liked that there was brokenness to him, but also confidence and expressiveness to the character that was fun to play.”
Making Memorable Action At A Challenging Time
Filming during the first year of Covid-19 lockdowns in Melbourne and Canberra in Australia (doubling for Washington, D.C.), Williams and his team worked to make several exciting scenes — including one in which Dusty steals a garbage truck as Block chases after him, as well as one in which Mira’s boss, Drew, is chased in his Porsche — positively thrilling.
“I’ve been writing action for a long time, so for me it all starts with the script, figuring out what the action would be on the page,” says Williams. “Then translating that into actual production was the next challenge — how do you make chase scenes in movies still interesting?”
Williams found some ingenious ways to accomplish that.
“The Porsche scene was crucial, because I didn’t want to make two car-chase scenes the same, so I tried to figure out how we could do it with limited hours at night on the street, and that’s where I started focusing on the character of Drew,” says Williams. “As exciting as the car shots were, it was more about the emotional state of the character. We’ve all been in that situation in a car at night, thinking, ‘Is that car following me? Is someone chasing me? Do they want to race me?’ It needed to feel like an emotional roller-coaster. I wanted to figure out how to make us feel what that character of Drew was going through, to feel things closing in on him as he’s starting to panic.”
For another scene involving a garbage truck barreling down the street, Williams called on the unique talents of his second unit director: Stunt sequence legend Guy Norris, whose work on The Road Warrior (1982) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), among others, have made him the maestro of mechanized mayhem.
“The garbage truck chase scene was the biggest challenge on a physical level,” says Williams. “I was so lucky to have Guy Norris leading the team for that sequence.”
“I had written the scene pretty much the way we shot it,” says Williams. “Guy had pre-visualized the entire thing. We had an eight-block loop in Canberra, doubling for D.C., and the prep was extraordinary: Guy had brought in phenomenal stunt guys, one driving a garbage truck through everything in its way! We plowed through flower and newsstands on the sidewalks, parked cars, all while avoiding people and oncoming vehicles. We had a lot of skilled drivers and stunt people who made all that possible. In the garbage truck chase, the guy driving the Dodge Hellcat was constantly hugging the curb, and if he hit the curb at the speed he was going it could have been horrible. But on every take, he nailed it every single time. This was not a heavy visual-effects sequence, as many action scenes are nowadays in films — it was straight-up real. Guy was able to design the whole sequence, and I was lucky to be sitting beside him as he was coordinating his team.”
“Mark has a very interesting process because he’s a writer by nature, and so it follows that he’s an observer. He’s all about letting actors bring to their performances something that they feel is authentic,” says Currie. “He also loves collaboration. He had wonderful, trusting relationships with the actors where they feel they can explore things. And that, of course, started with Liam, because he and Mark have done several projects together, and that rippled through every performance in the movie.”
“Art reflects life. I had written that scene long before that day, but as we were about to shoot it, I was being educated about how something like that might really look like,” says Williams. “We weren’t far from the truth. The meaning of that scene became, as I said of Travis Block: Are we the good guys? Any group can ask that; it’s about perspective. Are you doing the right thing? It’s hard to always know.”
Director-writer-producer Mark Williams
Mark Williams is a feature film and TV writer, director, producer and partner at Zero Gravity Management, a top-tier literary and talent management/production company he founded in 2001. Williams began his producing career with the Sundance favourite, The Cooler, starring William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello. He has produced numerous movies, including Flawless, The Accountant, Honest Thief, The Marksman and Blacklight. He co-created with Bill Dubuque and executive produced the Netflix hit TV series Ozark, which has been nominated for 32 Emmys. Williams is a Denver native, earning his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University and a Masters in Film at the University of Miami. He originally relocated to Los Angeles working as a full-time screenwriter. Williams produced his directorial debut The Headhunter’s Calling, He followed it up in 2020 with Honest Thief, starring Liam Neeson, he recently wrote, produced and directed Blacklight, starring Liam Neeson. Shot in Australia. To be released in February 2022.