Smuggling $600m out of a US mint in the path of an impending hurricane ….
Humans vs nature in the exciting heist-thriller Hurrican Heist, when two forces of nature collide: a category 5 hurricane, and the American dollar.
After becoming a reader for Hollywood agent Mike Medavoy, director Rob Cohen, with a formidable reputation built on highoctane blockbusters such as xXx and Dragon: Bruce Lee, and the creator of the Fast and Furious phenomenon (Universal’s biggest franchise to date), plucked a neglected script by Scott Windhauser and Jeff Dixon – from a story is by Anthony Fingleton and Carlos Davis – out of the slush pile and promised Medavoy it was, “the great American screenplay and … will make an award-winning, major-cast, major-director film.” Medavoy would try and sell it – but if there were no takers, Cohen would be fired. Universal bought it that afternoon: ever since, Cohen has been known as ‘the kid who found the Sting’.
His intuition and guts have fuelled his work ever since, balanced with down-to-earth innovation in explosive practical effects: from using hydraulics to fire cars out of moving trains, to placing cameramen on go-karts to film stunts at low level.
Now, in order to film a waking nightmare – one all too real in the memories of thousands of Americans – as the backdrop for the heist of the century, meant a whole new approach to the gritty, visceral style that has come to be the hallmark of Cohen’s work.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this film from the day the producers told me the concept,” explains Rob. “The idea of a heist going down in a hurricane immediately hit me as a new way of doing an action film, because it wasn’t just, ‘we’re breaking into Fort Knox’ – it was, ‘we’re going to have all the traditional elements of a heist, the takeovers, plots, guns, safes, combinations, breaking in, $600 million’ – all the stuff… but it all becomes different when the story is set within in a vicious category 5 hurricane.”
Humans vs nature – both in the great outdoors and within ourselves – is an ongoing battle playing out front and center on the world’s stage: approximately 40% of the world’s population lives by the coast. With natural disasters are on the rise, a new reality of living in the path of Nature’s fury combined with humanity’s worst flaw – greed – create a deadly mix that explodes onto the screen in a riot of practical effects, white-knuckle moments and human performances.
Imagine a massive engine, bigger than anything humanity has ever produced, fuelled simply by warm air. That’s a hurricane, or, technically, a ‘tropical cyclone’, as hurricanes are the name given to storms which form over the Atlantic or eastern Pacific: a belt known as one of the most dangerous environments for massive storms.
As warm, moist air rises off the ocean, cooler air swirls in to take its place, creating barriers of high and low pressure in an accelerating spiral of wind and evaporating clouds. As the hurricane gets faster and faster, its one gigantic eye slowly opens to reveal a high-pressure core, inside which everything is calm, and normal. In the eye, all is eerily silent… until the eyewall hits and everything from cars to homes and buildings, trees and roads gets sucked up into the swirling vortex.
This is the destructive force of nature that ended the life of Will and Breeze Rutledge’s father in Alabama in the summer of 1992: and while Nature makes it look easy, creating the storm of the century on camera proved to be more of a challenge.
In 2010, 2.6 billion $1 bills were destroyed: shredded by the Federal Reserve and sent to waste energy facilities for disposal. Old money gets thrown out all the time, and most of the time no one notices – unless a category 5 hurricane happens to be headed right towards where it’s kept.
When that happens, you’ll get a few people watching very closely.
But months before audiences would see piles of notes transported out of the Gulfport treasury in a daring heist, director Rob Cohen was experiencing his own rollercoaster ride when it came to the movie’s fiduciary status. “It was an indie movie, indie financed,” he explains.
“So it had its moments of falling apart and coming back together and so on, but Moshe Diamant (producer) and I held it together even when the money didn’t show up and we were already getting close to the start date. Somehow, we both worked very hard to hold it together until we could really get going.”
He laughs. “So there were heart stopping moments going on behind camera as we were creating the storm of the century in front of the camera, on a limited budget. It was definitely a challenge.”
Finally Producer Chris Milburn’s UK production company together with Oscar Winning VFX house Double Negative and UK’s Post House Lipsync teamed, to put the missing financing into place along with Headgear films and Rob was given the way forward to make his storm and with Prime Focus’ help in 3D as well.
Starting its journey as a germ of a script in Hollywood, USA it spread to Alabama for principal research and location scouting before sweeping across the ocean to cast British actors Toby Kebbell and Ralph Ineson, who plays introverted antagonist Perkins – picking up Artem Miniatures in Glasgow along the way, hopping across the continent to Bulgaria, and finally back to Manchester to wrap up shooting.
But not everyone was convinced at first – least of all Kebbell himself. “The truth is, the first time I read the script I’d been sent it by a friend of mine who originally was going to play Will,” Kebbell explains. “I asked who was in charge of the film, who was going to be doing it, and he said, ‘Rob Cohen’. And I said, ‘man, I’ve been trying to work for Rob for about nine years!’”
But after exciting preliminary talks with Cohen, the situation soon changed. “Rob, in the end, came to me and said, ‘you should play Will’. And I was like, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ and as he does, in such a charismatic way and so convincingly, he said, ‘No you are. You’re definitely him and you can definitely play him.’ We went through a few bits and yeah, he just convinced me. Convinced me I could do it and gave me the support I needed all the way through. I love these kinds of films and I’m honoured to be part of it.”
Ryan Kwanten, who portrays down-to-earth repair man Breeze, echoes Kebbell’s sentiments about working with the director. “Obviously the first thing you see is the title, but then the next thing that kind of struck me pretty profoundly is the name Rob Cohen.” Kwanten smiles. “He’s obviously pretty synonymous with making great films, and to sort of be a part of his legacy was kind of huge.”
From the moment Kwanten picked up the script, knew this was the kind of movie he’d always wanted to do. “The script is also one that just takes you on a hell of a ride from the get-go. You’re brought into this world of Gulfport in Alabama, and what’s normally a sleepy town is just pervaded by this permanent sense of ominousness. You’re never quite kind of let out of it. It’s this relentless ride, and Rob’s notorious for that kind of movie: once you sit down, you literally do not move. I remember not being able to put this story down.”
In True Blood, Kwanten played ladies’ man Jason Stackhouse: would the role of Breeze be any different? According to Kwanten, this movie wouldn’t see him nude on screen like his vampire counterpart, but playing Breeze would demand a somber, brooding subtext that Kwanten could bridge with this past role. “There was a philosophical side to Breeze that I really kind of gravitated towards, that he’s surrounded by these books. He’s separated himself from his one remaining family member, his brother, so he lives a pretty kind of solemn, lonely life. And this is, like I said before, his chance of redemption.”
Redemption is the web that connects the Rutledge siblings to Casey Corbyn, US treasury agent struggling to move past a deeply-held regret. “I once had the honor of seeing Brian Stevenson speak,” says Maggie Grace, who comes to the role of Casey, like Kwanten, from a bloodsucking role: hers being the record-breaking Twilight franchise. “One thing he said which really stuck with me was, ‘we are all greater than the worst thing we have ever done’. And I think Casey is so much more than that bad decision, but there are certain times where I think she feels defined by it.”
Recently, Grace has continued her role as daughter Kim to Liam Neeson’s former CIA operative in the Taken sequels, and dramas on the big and small screens. But the Hurricane Heist is not a title you can easily ignore – and like Kwanten, it was the story that first attracted Maggie Grace to the role of Casey Corbyn. “It was like five action movies in one. You have that huge set piece at the center of an action movie and there were like four in a row where I was like, ‘oh my God’, and then another car crash, and the mall, and it was just… it was awesome. There was never a dull moment but it all made sense.”
With roles in the Office, Game of Thrones and the last three Harry Potter movies, Ralph Ineson is no stranger to blockbuster material, and found international acclaim playing the role of devout father William in chilling 2015 hit the Witch. But when he became attached to the previously straightforward role of the ‘inside man’ who spends years in a dead-end job before he makes it possible for the criminals to infiltrate the mint, Rob Cohen was determined to make the most of his talents – and his distinctive baritone voice.
“Rob made changes around my casting, which really helped me,” Ineson remarks when it comes to discussing how he fleshed out Perkins’ character. “Once we got on set, we agreed what he was about and where he was, and that he wasn’t an utter lunatic. He turns into a crazy man by the end, but he’s a very reasonable guy who’s got a plan, and he doesn’t want to hurt anybody.” He then reveals Perkins’ true motivations for stealing from the drab
government building where he’s worked a dead-end job for years: “He just wants the money. He just wants a decent retirement – he doesn’t want anybody to get hurt.”
For director Rob Cohen, finding the perfect cast was one part of the production that just fell into place. “It’s been a very fast film schedule considering most films take much longer to get together,” he says. “I wrote the first real draft of the script in January 2016. We started shooting in August 2016, and now we’re finishing the movie in August 2017. So a year from the start of shooting to the actual finish of the film – that’s fairly quick, actually.”
Cinematographer Shelly Johnson recounts what it took to commit the Dominator, a 1,000 horsepower, 10-tonne storm chasing truck equipped with the latest satellite technology and top of the range survival gear, to film from a technical standpoint: “So Rob Cohen said, ‘Shelly, we’re going to be shooting a lot of scenes in our storm chasing vehicle. It’s like a lab on wheels, and it’s a big vehicle and we have’ – whatever it was – ‘30 pages of dialogue inside this vehicle. All in a storm, all during the hurricane.’ Immediately, Shelly knew this meant his standard method of bolding cameras onto the side of the vehicle – a la Fast and Furious – wouldn’t work. The Dominator’s armour plating was simply too thick, and the interior too crowded with meteorological instruments, to even fit a camera anywhere inside. It was a sealed vehicle.
This was a problem.
For this complex scene involving pages of dialogue performed by actors who are simultaneously driving, making calculations and checking meteorological forecasts while honing back-and-forth chemistry, it needed to look like a category 5 hurricane is raging outside – without the need for the actors to deliver exceptional performances while dodging flying mailboxes and broken glass.
“So that was a pretty good challenge,” Shelly quips.
The answer? PRG – the snap-together screens which had transformed Sofia, Bulgaria into hurricane-ravaged downtown Gulfport. By assembling screens showing the Fernandina hurricane footage all around the vehicle, Shelly and his crew could shoot from any angle they wanted – without ever being in motion.
“We tested them, and they’re going to work amazingly well instead of shooting with green screen,” explains Rob. “Because then you have trouble using the water, you have the trouble of keying your image through the rain. It all becomes very tricky and sometimes not very effective – it look’s fake. And you’re going, ‘okay, I got this very hyperrealistic movie and suddenly we get in the car and it’s fake’.”
The LED screens had other advantages, besides looking more realistic. Shelly and his crew were able to get inside the Dominator with handheld cameras to pile on the realism, and no detail was missed out. “To me it was very important to have the storm light permeate into the Dominator,” says Shelly. “And by being able to light with actual images of the hurricane, we got that very natural feel in there.” He laughs. “And that was strictly through Rob pushing and pushing me to do something that I didn’t know how to do, but directed me to learn how to do it.”
But no matter how spectacular the effects, or complicated the logistics, cinematographer Shelly knew he only had one mission: tell a good story.
“I think what every film has in common is the real wanting to tell a great story. Even the large summer films have that same kind of idea. The spectacle might be different and the technique might be very technical and very fantastic, but ultimately it comes down to framing and lighting one image in a viewfinder, and that’s always the same.” As a director more concerned with entertaining audiences than pandering to critics, Cohen agrees with Shelly’s approach. “The pursuit of great storytelling is always the same, no matter how fantastic it is,” Shelly goes on. “And I think for a cinematographer, it’s important to not get too distracted by the technical side of it, and all of the glitz and all of the fancy equipment. How can you tell a story in the simplest possible way to guide the audience through what the characters are experiencing?”
The actors found this one of the most physically challenging scenes, not just in the movie, but in their whole careers. Ralph Ineson recalls: “You read it on the page and you say, ‘oh, it’s great. It’s going to be really exciting’. All the stuff’s going to be flying around, and you imagine that a lot of that stuff’s going to be done by visual effects and post-production. You don’t quite realize how much Rob and Shelly have decided to put in front of the camera.” He laughs.
“So yeah, working in these conditions has been really hard at times. If you don’t concentrate, you will get blown off your feet.” He goes on to elaborate on the punishing conditions concocted by the effects crew. “Into that wind that the machines are generating, there’s ice-cold water going in from a huge hose – so the water’s flying out at a pace horizontal to the ground. There’s debris, leaves, and twigs, stuff flying in it, and so you’re constantly trying to keep that out of your eyes.”
He describes filming a crucial point in the movie: “I was doing this scene the other day, I had to drive a truck into a flooded street, get out, and walk up towards the camera, and deliver a line in close-up. It brought me a lot closer to the big fan than I’d realized… so as I’m walking there, and it was coming in from that side to me, and it was so hard, the rain hitting on the side of my head, around here, that the next morning, when I woke up, I was bruised all the way down the side of my face and my head from the water.” He doesn’t seem too worse for wear, though. “It’s quite painful at times, but it’s also very exhilarating!”