It turns the idea of a home-invasion movie on its head; it’s about a woman trying to break in to get her kids out.
The premise for original thriller Breaking In came to producer Craig Perry several years back when he was collaborating on another film with Jaime Primak Sullivan, one of this thriller’s executive producers.
“Jaime was working as a publicist, so we would bat ideas back and forth all the time,” recalls the producer.
Jaime Primak Sullivan (Story by/Executive Producer) is head of digital development for Will Packer Media, led by Will Packer. In 2012, Sullivan sold her concept for the unscripted series Jersey Belle, to Bravo!, in which she both starred and served as consulting producer. Sullivan sold her first horror treatment to Relativity in 2013, and in 2015 sold Breaking In. In the past year, she has created and sold three feature films that she will executive produce. In 2016, her first memoir titled “The Southern Education of a Jersey Girl” was published by Simon and Shuster and is currently being adapted into a scripted series. She most recently wrapped production on The Baxters, a series based on The New York Times best-selling book series of the same name, where she serves as executive producer. Prior to working with Will Packer Media, Sullivan launched Good Grit magazine as editor in chief and served 10 years as president of Bridge and Tunnel Entertainment, a full service public relations, branding and content agency.
He admits he was always impressed by his colleague’s tenacity, a trait she shares with their story’s heroine.
“Jaime is remarkably creative and always coming up with new ideas. Then one day, out of the blue, she called and pitched me this one. “I said, ‘Wow! Well, I don’t think this part works…but the very root of it is just fantastic!’ So, we began to develop from that nugget of a concept, and things moved very fast.”
Shaun Russell is a woman who will stop at nothing to rescue her two children being held hostage in a remote house designed with impenetrable security.
No trap, no trick and especially no man inside can match a mother with a mission when she is determined on Breaking In.
Alongside his fellow Practical Pictures’ producing partner, Sheila Hanahan Taylor—together known for their landmark, blockbuster American Pie and Final Destination franchises—development began, and they reached out to Will Packer Productions’ Will Packer and James Lopez to discuss a potential collaboration.
“One of the reasons why we partnered with Will and James was that they have the hot hand on so many films, and we loved what they could bring to Breaking In,” shares Perry. “He and James started their partnership at Screen Gems and now, as producing partners, they have created movies that squarely hit the target that we were interested in creating a film for. We were very lucky that they saw in the project what we saw in it.”
Together, the quartet of producers brought the package to Universal Pictures, where Packer has a first-look deal, and pitched executives the premise of a mother trapped outside a virtual fortress, who will not rest until she gets her kids back—would-be killers be damned.
After a number of writers were considered, it was a unanimous decision to bring aboard Non-Stop writer Ryan Engle to pen the screenplay.
Ryan Engle (Screenplay by) was a writer of Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter, which starred Liam Neeson for Lionsgate. Before that, Engle also collaborated with Collet-Serra on the Universal Pictures film Non-Stop, which starred Neeson and Julianne Moore and grossed over $200 million worldwide. This year, Engle also wrote Rampage, which starred Dwayne Johnson.
Engle crafted the tale of Shaun Russell, a mother who was attempting to tie up loose ends at her recently deceased father’s vacation home—at the same time struggling with difficulties in her own marriage. When Shaun travels with her two children to her estranged dad’s remote house, she stumbles into a threat that could easily mean the end of her family. She has a split-second decision to make…a simple one for any mother trying to save her children: rescue them…or die trying.
What made Engle’s screenplay especially poignant for Packer was that the protagonist was trying to do better by her children than her father ever managed by her. “Shaun wants her relationship with her kids to be something positive, unlike what she grew up with,” the producer explains. “She makes sure that family is the most important thing. She’s a career woman who has a lot going on, but family is at the centerpiece of her life; it’s her purpose. Shaun’s drive is all about those kids. Mama Bear will do anything to protect those cubs.”
When actress and producer Union was considering tackling her latest project, she found herself drawn to a production that brought three things: the opportunity to work with her long-time friend and often collaborator, Packer, producer of her hit comedy, Almost Christmas; the chance to bring life to the script from Engle, whose Liam Neeson-headlined thriller shook audiences; and the ability to join a seasoned group of fellow producers who shared her passion for giving a much-needed voice for women in front of and behind the camera.
Perry explains their logic in asking Union to become their Shaun: “Gabrielle was the perfect choice to play this character because not only is she a spectacularly talented actress, but she has intense physicality. We knew she would be capable of rising to the occasion and of handling the stunts, but she also has sheer presence…against guys who have dismissed her because she’s a woman. They have no expectations that she’ll be able to deliver on any of the challenges they throw at her.”
Adds Hanahan Taylor: “Gabrielle is a strong-willed woman who is sublimely intelligent. The combination of all these factors make her a formidable foe for the bad guys. It’s not the other way around.”
Packer loved the idea that the crew was building a narrative in which the tried-and-true was upended. He reflects: “In these type of movies, you either have somebody trying to break out or you have somebody trying to get into to steal something. Rarely do you have a situation where you’re trying to break in to save your family. This time, it’s not about bad guys trying to get in; it’s about our heroine, Gab Union, breaking in to save the day.”
Union walks us through where we find her character, and the threat that immediately awaits this family: “Shaun and her two kids are visiting her dad’s home to clean out his place after he dies. There were some bad guys her father was involved with, and they have come for $4 million they believe is in the house. In the process, they kidnap her children. She ends up on the outside trying to fight her way inside to get her kids back.”
As she considered Breaking In a vehicle in which to both produce and star, Union appreciated the dichotomy between the beleaguered character she would portray and the villains she’d face—as well as the seemingly unsurmountable odds facing them all. “The guys that Shaun’s up against are the worst of the worst,” she reflects. “They’re bottom-feeders who have no problem preying on a woman and her children. They’re desperate, have no moral compass and there’s no boundary that they won’t cross.” For the multihyphenate, this premise offered a wealth of opportunities. “Shaun’s not used to dealing with people like this, but they’re also not used to dealing with a woman who’s willing to do anything to protect her kids.”
The character’s fear is, without a doubt, what she needs to hold onto in order to survive. Indeed, Shaun’s biggest strength is that she’s terrified. When you’re that afraid, there are no boundaries. She knows that there are no limits you can put on a situation that stands between you and your children’s safety; that premise stoked Union’s desire to explore the role.
The actress/producer adds that what drew her to Breaking In was the premise of one woman versus four men, a metaphor of the challenges women have long faced—personally and professionally. “In real life, those are the odds we’re normally up against,” she notes. “You factor in a woman of color, a black woman, and the odds are generally not even that kind.”
Union appreciated that Engle’s tale was one of life imitating art and art imitating life. “Your back is always against the wall,” she says. “You’re daily faced with micro-aggressions that test your resolve, and you’re being asked—in every capacity—‘What will you do to get to the next step? How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to sacrifice?’ What I love about this film is that we take life and turn it on its head. We get to show women that, even though the odds are always stacked against you, you can also come out on top.”
She underscores how important it is to have heroines like Shaun for audiences of all backgrounds to experience. “Growing up and seeing kick-ass women on film or in TV, it was incredibly rare,” Union relays. “Having a ball-busting woman of color? Unheard of. So what’s changed? Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating—every character Lupita has played, and those characters are making people money. People are finally recognizing that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and we want to see them reflected accurately on screens big and small. If it makes dollars, it makes sense.”
The bonus was being able to partner once again with Packer, whom Union shares, is plain and simple, family. “Working with Will is like working with my brother. He knows when I’m going to love a take or hate it. Our relationship is incredibly collaborative, and we don’t put each other in positions to fail. We make sure that we’re creating winning situations for not only each other, but for everyone involved in our projects.”
Packer returns that, as an accomplished actress and seasoned producer of television and movies, Union knows what performers need from their producers. “She understands execution on a film like this. Gab was great from a casting standpoint, as well as from a physical-production/on-set standpoint. She made sure all the other actors were aware of what was going on and were comfortable. She was also very instrumental in making sure that we were efficient in the time we would spend on set. She comes with a different perspective than a lot of producers. The other thing is that Gab’s just plain smart. She is somebody who really understand business.”
Director James McTeigue Joins
When deciding on a director for the story of Shaun Russell and her children’s harrowing night, the producers knew they had to find a filmmaker who inherently got her. In sum, Shaun is your average mom going about her business and trying to juggle life, while dealing with the death of a father to whom she hasn’t spoken in years. When she is backed into a deadly corner, the tale becomes one of Shaun’s evolution. With obstacle after barrier in her path, she must rely upon her wiles, smarts and physicality—all the things that she uses every day as a normal member of her family—to free her kids and escape this hellish night.
To helm Breaking In, Union and her fellow producers landed on director James McTeigue. They felt that his keen eye and knack for sharing daring stories of fascinating women—obvious in visually sumptuous fare from V for Vendetta to Sense8—was ideal for the look and feel of their thriller. “James is a kind, sweet man, who is so prepared,” lauds Union. “It’s the most amazing combination to have in a director; the fact that he’s incredibly collaborative on top of that is a godsend.”
Perry offers that one of the things the production team was searching for in a director was someone who not only had a wealth of experience shooting movies, but who had a great eye for rapid action. “We wanted a filmmaker with an understanding of how to build suspense and the capacity to work with actors. James has demonstrated over his long career that he’s profoundly capable of doing both.”
For McTeigue, the opportunity to work with his Breaking In team was too good to pass up. “I was excited by the chance to collaborate with Will and James because I’d known them for a long time. I thought the script was really good, and I’d been trying to work with scriptwriter Ryan Engle for some time. Once I’d met Craig’s team and knew how enthused they were about the script, I was ready to jump into the production of the film. I really responded to the reverse-Panic Room-feeling of the screenplay.”
The director underscores that films in this genre typically have a male protagonist, and what was unique was that this had a female character in the lead role. “This turns the idea of a home-invasion movie on its head; it’s about Shaun trying to break in to get her kids out. More than that is that, there’s a female at the heart of our story.”
He responded to Union’s reflections about the trying state of the film industry…as well as inherent sexism in our day-to-day lives. “Women are generally underestimated and should be running the world, instead of a lot of men,” believes McTeigue. “Women do incredible things every day; that goes unsaid and unnoticed. This film shines a light on some of the things that we take for granted from women.”
In Union, McTeigue found the ideal collaborator. “Gab has a distinct empathy that audiences respond to; when they see her, they very easily key into who she is as a person…and by default who Shaun is as a mom,” he states. “You’ll feel this empathy that connects you to the character and how she has to elevate her mentality—and her physicality—to deal with what’s been put in front of her.”
Packer agrees, not holding back his enthusiasm for the captain of their ship: “James directs the hell out of this movie. He came in from day one with a very specific vision of how he wanted this project to come together. He knew that he wanted to have the viewer on the wire’s edge…never comfortable. He talked about how he wanted to light the film, how he wanted the camera to move and what he wanted the score to feel like. He wanted Breaking In to feel like a thrill ride every second, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”