“When I read the script I was really amazed at how the writers were able to keep you invested in the story.”
The screenplay for The Commuter was crafted by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle, and proved irresistible to both the director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson, not just for the bravura of the action and the thrill of the suspense but for the moral conundrum the protagonist is faced with and the consequences it has on him, the passen-gers on the train and his family at home.
Following the worldwide success of Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night, Neeson and Collet-Serra reunite for a fourth time with this explosive thriller about one man‘s frantic quest to prevent disaster on a packed commuter train.
For producer Andrew Rona, the genius of scriptwriters Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi, who make their debut with The Commuter, was in keeping the audience gripped.
“When I read the script I was really amazed at how the writers were able to keep you invested in the story,” he says. “We’ve seen movies like this before where guys are propositioned or get caught up in something. In movies like Speed, they have no choice but to stay and figure it out. But with The Commuter, I was amazed by the level of depth of character, the level of mystery, the level of suspense and the level of action.”
“The Commuter asks the audience, if someone asked you to do something that seems insignificant but you’re not sure of the outcome in exchange for a considerable financial reward, would you do it?” says Jaume Collet-Serra. “That‘s the philosophical choice that our central character – a man of 60 who’s just been fired, has no savings and is mortgaged to the hilt – is faced with. Is he thinking just about himself or is he going to take into consideration the possible moral consequences of what he’s asked to do? That’s the question we want the audience to ask themselves.”
For Neeson, it was also the story’s real-time narrative that gives it a thrilling momentum. “The story almost plays in real time,” says the actor. “The main character realises what he’s set in motion and sets out to identify the person that holds the key to the conspiracy. So the tension cranks up at every stop at a station as new passengers get on, and another clue is left for him. The danger gradually gets greater and greater and the film becomes this really fast-paced psychological thriller along the lines of a Hitchcock‘s Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest.”
Producer Alex Heineman agrees: “Andrew Rona, my partner in The Picture Company, and I both read the script and just fell in love with it. We loved the Hitchcockian scenario where an everyman gets caught up in extraordinary events. We made Non-Stop and Unknown with Liam Neeson and Jaume and we thought this could be another thriller in the same vein both in terms of narrative, character and style.”
The story centres on Michael MacCauley, a middle manager at a faceless insurance company, who lives with his wife and son in Westchester in New York State. Like so many hard-working family men, he is facing financial breaking point, trying to make ends meet on a pay-cheque that is stretched to the rafters. His son is about to go to college and his wife doesn’t know how the family is living beyond its means.
Then one day, his situation suddenly gets so much worse: he goes to work and gets fired. That, however, is not the only thing that‘s going to spoil his evening. On the commute home at the end of the day, the passenger sitting opposite him introduces herself as Joanna and puts a proposition before him: find a passenger on board the train who doesn’t belong, in return for a handsome reward. An easy deal, you’d think. But not if you’re an ex-cop who has a strong moral sense of right and wrong. Michael eventually agrees to find the “suspect” amongst the sea of passengers, using his wit and skill to uncover their identity, but soon comes to realise that he is at the centre of a deadly conspiracy that will end in the murder of everyone on the train and he is the only person who can stop it.
As he weighs up who among the regular commuters on the train he can trust, he is forced into a nail-biting chase to thwart the conspiracy, entrap the killers and bring the train and its passengers to safety.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson already had an enviable track record with Non-Stop amassing $222.8m worldwide in 2014 and Unknown’s $130.8m in 2011, so teaming up again for another thrill ride, this time on a train in New York, was a no-brainer.
When he read the script, Collet-Serra saw the parallels with Non-Stop. “It’s a spiritual sequel to Non-Stop,” says the director. “With a mystery evolving around your central character, it has more impact if your protagonist is a normal guy. That‘s very Hitchcockian – you think of North by Northwest, The Lady Vanishes or Rear Window – and like in Strangers on a Train we wanted a normal guy to be faced with a moral choice. How much is he willing to do for money without knowing the consequences of what he’s going to do? When extraordinary events happen to regular people, it’s important that the first choices that these characters make are choices that we as an audience agree with and that the action escalates plausibly from those choices”
The story also appealed because of its narrative perspective. “I like movies played from the main character’s point of view,” says Collet-Serra, “so we know exactly what he knows at the same time that he knows it. The audience is with him every step of the way so we learn that his family is in danger only when he does. We wanted to keep the camera on the train but imply that his family was in danger without showing it. That‘s another very Hitchcockian device and it really dictated the visual style because we had to have enough going on in the train to justify us staying there.”
Jaume Collet-Serra was keen for The Commuter to have a different narrative point of view to the previous films Neeson has starred in. “I wanted people to identify with the lead character in this movie a little bit more than in some of Liam’s other films,” he says. “Michael wakes up every day and goes out there to fight for his family, and no matter how hard the fight was it’s all worth it, because he’s protecting his family, and that’s what every person does daily. But one day he’s offered a proposal which puts him between a rock and a hard place – he’s offered money but it involves something that he suspects is wrong – and he has to figure that out. And he gets help from the other passengers. They’re not in control, they’re not driving the train, but they find strength in numbers”
It was the everyman quality of the lead character that appealed to Neeson who knew it would also appeal to the audience. “Michael has been taking the same train for 10 years, five days a week and then one day gets fired because he’s hit the age of 60,” says the actor. “He doesn’t know how to tell his wife, and he’s double-mortgaged on his house. After having a drink in the local bar with an ex-cop friend of his, he takes the commuter train back to face the music and tell his wife and his son, who’s about to go to college, that they have no money. On the train a mysterious person sits beside him and asks him ‘Would you do one tiny little thing for $100,000?’ He’s not sure, but tempts him by asking him to find a bag with $25,000 in a compartment on the train. He finds the money and sets in motion the drama.”
Quite apart from the appeal of the script and playing such a multi-layered character, Neeson was thrilled to be working again with Collet-Serra. “I love working with Jaume”, says the actor. “I met him six, seven years ago when we did Unknown and he and I just clicked. We don’t analyze scripts too deeply; we just have a really good dance partnership and each time I work with him our little dance routine gets more and more intimate. He makes my job easier and he says I make his job easier, which is the ultimate compliment to me. Jaume’s a real filmmaker; he’s always thinking of the overall arc of the film and where the story’s going. He devours cinema, he just loves it and has a real intuitive feel for how a scene’s going and how it should be played. He reminds me very much of Steven Spielberg. I totally trust him, he’s very, very, very special.”
Collet-Serra’s talent as a director was plain for everyone to see. His assiduous preparation, imaginative approach to filming and skill at juggling the many different elements to create thrilling action scenes impressed everyone. Says producer Alex Heineman: “When we had our final production meeting, it felt like a film class that you’d go to at Columbia! Because Jaume is so meticulous in his planning, he was able to show the entire crew how every single shot of the movie was going to be manifested. It was really impressive. Every day when we came to set, he had an incredibly detailed plan of how he would accomplish every shot. Our cinematographer Paul Cameron was great and it was always a seamless process even though we faced very challenging shots every day. Jaume’s very confident in his vision; he’s not a director that shoots with more than two cameras. He’s really knows what shots he wants and knows how the movie’s going to cut together.”
The audience gets a taste of Collet-Serra’s imaginative approach as soon as the credits roll. Jaume Collet-Serra describes the creative conundrum he faced when confronted with translating the opening of the story into an engaging screen narrative: “The film is called The Commuter which suggests routine and monotony and in a way that routine is also our protagonist Michaels’ power, in the sense that for some 20 years he has been waking up every day at 6am, has waited on the same platform at the same time every morning, has taken the same train to work every day, and then 12 hours later at 6pm he has taken the same train back home. That is something so normal, so common, something everyone can recognise and relate to.
“One of the struggles that I, as a director, had was how do I show this routine,” continues Collet-Serra. “Obviously you can do a standard shot of him saying hello to some other commuters and the audience will get the impression they know each other but only doing that doesn’t show how monotonous the journey is. So I came up with the idea of opening the movie with a shot of each day of the week. So the first shot is Monday, the second Tuesday and so on and as the shots are cut together the only thing that changes is the background, the clothes change and the weather and his behavior during the shots is exactly the same because he’s been doing the same thing day after day. So the images blend together. It’s a very interesting way to open the movie because it immediately gives the audience the sense that they’ve been there with him for a year taking that train, day in day out. To me it was important to start the movie with a sequence that put us, the audience, right on that train with Michael”
Producer Andrew Rona was struck by the director‘s inspired decision: “Millions of people use travel by train to work every day in the New York area. The way Jaume showed the monotony of an everyday commute – the fact that every day you wake up, you get dressed, you go to work, you ride the train there, you ride the train back – and showed that over a year was inspired. It shows the passage of time – covering the whole year with the seasons changing outside the window and in the passengers’ clothing – and completely takes the audience into Michael’s world. As soon as the credits finish, the film switches to real-time. The whole film takes place in one train ride, 120 minutes!”
Collet-Serra now has three films with restricted locations under his belt – Non-Stop, The Shallows and now The Commuter. And all three have successfully taken their audiences on compelling and suspenseful journeys despite the limits of their locations.
Producer Alex Heineman points out the head-spinning energy Collet-Serra injects into his filmmaking despite their being set in one location: “Jaume doesn’t waste a second of film. His movies have a great pace and they’re just so suspenseful and tense, you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. You see that in Non-Stop and in The Shallows and he’s brought it to The Commuter. Jaume is really a modern day Alfred Hitchcock: he takes these high concepts and builds them into exciting movies. He knows how to put his lead character in a situation which keep the audience guessing how they’re going to get out of it, whether it’s The Shallows with Blake Lively or Unknown and Non-Stop with Liam Neeson. Jaume’s terrific at crafting suspense with an everyday character at the centre.”
Andrew Rona takes up the subject of the similarities with Hitchcock: “Hitchcock often made one set movies or movies which rarely strayed from one set – one thinks of Rear Window or Rope or Dial M for Murder. The concept allows you to have a good time with the characters because you’re not constantly worrying about locations and things of that nature. Jaume approaches it from that Hitchcock thriller aspect. He’s a modern master of suspense and thrills.”
Unlike Non-Stop, which locked the audience with the characters inside the plane for those whole film, The Commuter takes the audience out of the main location of the train to the outside world into the main character’s family home and into the office and bars: part of Michael’s daily routine. Says Andrew Rona: “There’s bigger scope to this film; it’s not such a closed room so the action has a more realistic feel to it. But at the heart it’s still whodunit; there are a lot of suspects and you go through the story following Michael, trying to figure out who’s the bad guy and what they’re after. So not only is it action thriller, it has a real sense of mystery and you’re with Michael in real-time trying to figure out what’s going on, so it’ll keep you guessing right up until the end.”
The Commuter marks the third film Andrew Rona and Collet-Serra have worked together on so it comes as no surprise to realise that the producer has seen the director grow and mature as a filmmaker over the intervening eight years. “I first met Jaume on Orphan,” says producer Andrew Rona, “and I’m really impressed with how far he’s come as a filmmaker. He did a great job on Unknown and with Non-Stop, really elevating that material by taking a very simplistic idea and making it interesting and compelling. With The Commuter, he’s really come into his own. I can’t think of too many directors working right now that can take this kind of material and make it a modern-day thriller and action film and really get inside there and do something interesting and different with the material.
“The Commuter is an action thriller,” continues Rona. “Some of the films that we reference when we’re making the film are The Fugitive and Speed, obviously Non-Stop, all mixed with a bit of Hitchcock and Agatha Christie. It is pretty much a whodunit, a contained movie on a train. But has the huge scope and spectacle of an action movie. And because we all made Non-Stop, we all had extra pressure to ensure we didn’t repeat ourselves here. We really pushed ourselves to come up with new and fun ideas on how to give the audience a fun ride.”
Rona was particularly impressed by Collet-Serra’s approach to filmmaking. “Jaume looks at a script very methodically,“ says the producer. “He really rips it apart and tries to figure it out from every angle. He gives every character a thorough back story; he knows their motivations. So when it comes to making the film, Jaume has done all the research, and he knows everything about the film and on the day we can just have fun with it. He uses the camera almost like a character. And he picks up every nuance, all the little things that you might not get in the script and he adds another layer to it. So it’s not just about the action or the characters, but it’s about the mood and the tone and the way he shoots it.”
One of the key elements to keeping the suspense cranked up to maximum levels was ensuring the protagonist was someone the audience can relate to and identify with. It is, after all, through the main character’s perspective that the narrative unfolds: the audience learns what’s happening at the same time as Michael does.
Movie-making is all about provoking emotional reactions in audiences and that’s exactly what Col-let-Serra hopes to achieve with The Commuter. “If my movies have something that unifies them it’s the fact that when I grab you you’re there with me and I don’t let you go until the end!” he says. “I hope this does the same thing. It’s similar to my other films but one of the reasons I wanted to do it was to prove to myself that I could basically riff on the same tune and make it completely different. It was a challenge to do a similar movie in a completely different way, get completely dif-ferent things out of it, completely different themes, but have a similar experience of not knowing what’s going to happen while getting real emotion from the characters.”