Director David Weaver might one of this country’s most intriguing directors, but he’s not exactly a nice, quiet Canadian filmmaker. His darker sensibilities are best characterized by his second feature Siblings, a superbly sick 2004 comedy about a few children who kill their parents and try to form a new fractured family while covering up the crime. That sensibility was founded in his ensemble debut Century Hotel and continues into his latest feature The Samaritan.
The new film feels like a vintage neo-noir harking back to late 80s/early 90s crime movies and stars the one-and-only Samuel L. Jackson. He plays a veteran grifter who just got out of a hefty prison sentence with plans to play it straight. Of course, that sort of lifestyle isn’t easy to escape, and with Jackson’s late partner’s son (a delightfully deranged turn from Luke Kirby) currently in trouble with a local crimelord (played by Tom Wilkinson with uncharacteristic bloodlust) it’s only a matter of time before he slips back into the con world. But if you know anything about Sam Jackson, you can assume that none of the guilty parties will be let off easy.
With The Samaritan opening this Friday, we got a chance to chat with David Weaver about the inception/inspiration for his new film, the challenges of creating genre movies in Canada, and what it was like to work with the great Samuel L. Jackson. (Note: Weaver dropped one pretty hefty spoiler during the interview, but we’ve provided a warning if you desperately don’t want to know).
Dork Shelf: I thought The Samaritan had a nice, old fashioned feeling as a crime movie, almost like a traditional noir or even a neo-noir like The Grifters. Could you talk a little bit about that influence?
David Weaver: Well, it’s interesting, I had a film prof say to me once that all directors are just remaking the movies that they loved when they were teenagers. (Laughs) Unfortunately that’s very true for me. I guess I haven’t grown at all. I’m still making the movies I would have made when I was 16 years old. I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
But for sure, those were movies that I saw when I was growing up and really loved. For me, the inspiration for making the movie was always early Neil Jordon movies like The Crying Game or Mona Lisa. The Usual Suspects is another one that fits into that genre. I just feel that those movies don’t seem to be made much anymore. There were a flurry of those made in the 90s and then they seemed to die down a bit. There aren’t many noirish movies made today, and the few that are made, from my perspective, are artificial. There isn’t much atmosphere to them and they aren’t character driven. Or they’re studio movies, like something Denzel Washington or Tony Scott would make together, that are kind of mechanistic. You know, every five minutes something explodes and it’s shot with 16 cameras and beautifully lit. They’re great in their own way, but they aren’t that kind of smaller-scale character driven neo-noir that I grew up loving. So, when you are fortunate enough to get to make films, you start to look around and think, “Why don’t we make movies like that anymore?” I thought that this film was unabashedly an attempt to revive that genre and I think that’s what appealed to people all the way down the line to make this movie.
DS: Was it difficult to get a movie within that genre and with such dark themes made in Canada?
DW: Oh yeah. Look, I went to film school in the States, but at the same time I grew up in Toronto and I live in Toronto. One of the things that I try to do as a filmmaker is put the Toronto that I know up on screen. I don’t think that’s in a lot of movies. When people think of Toronto in films they think of the Egoyan or Cronenberg Toronto which is very cold and lost. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a vision of Toronto, it’s just not the Toronto that I see.
DS: Yeah, or Toronto will stand in as New York or another city.
DW: Right, which is even worse. So a big part of it was to embrace the noir genre, but also to unabashedly try to make it work for the city that I love. You know, a great part of those movies is that when you see them, you feel Los Angeles in Chinatown or you feel New York in a Sidney Lumet movie or you feel London in the Neil Jordon movies. I don’t see why as a Canadian filmmaker we can’t do that. It seems to me that we have this great unexploited setting. So that was part of it. And then you know, it’s a difficult type of movie to get made. It’s a hard thing to make a movie that so unabashedly dark. You’ll have people come to you and say, “Could you somehow change the twist?” And what I tried to explain to people is that the kind of movie that we were talking about just a minute ago really committed to their characters and to the idea that tough things do happen in life. That’s the great thing about film noir is that going right back to the 30s, it looks into the darker corners of life. And that’s what I’m interested in as a filmmaker, those dark corners.
DS: It strikes me that writing a credible con job is very difficult. How did you approach doing constructing those sequences?
DW: I wrote the movie with Elan Mastai and I think one of the great things about writing the film was that he had a real appreciation for those movies as well, so you have the excitement of writing with someone who is totally on the same page. You get into this back-and-forth of trying to top each other with the con. You know, “What if this happens?” or “What if we throw in this twist?” I think that’s a part of the joy of writing this sort of movie. We drew on other con movies, but we never limited ourselves. A lot of what goes on including the notion of “The Samaritan” was just stuff that we invented. That’s part of the pleasure of it, getting to embrace the vernacular of those movies. Some of it like talking about “the grift” or that sort of thing comes out of other movies. But then you start to go with it and build on it. About half of it is stuff we found elsewhere and half of it is what we came up with on our own.
DS: I have to ask, how did you get Samuel L. Jackson and how was directing him? From what I understand, he’s very good at throwing around the word “motherfucker” and I’m sure it would be tough to be on the wrong side of that exchange.
DW: (Laughs) Well, when you know Sam, “motherfucker” kind of loses its sting after you’ve heard it a few times. You learn how many different ways it can be said. It’s not just used in anger. It could be, “Hey motherfucker, I loved your script,” which is quite pleasant. Anyways, the story is very banal unfortunately. I have a rep in LA who used to play golf with Sam. He never pitched him everything because he didn’t think it was appropriate. But he loved our script for The Samaritan and passed it along to Sam. It was a great moment because I found out on a Thursday and then on a Monday they wanted to buy it. They were nice enough to insist that I stayed attached, so I scraped together all of the air miles that I could and flew to LA. I made the incredible mistake of watching Pulp Fiction the night before (laughs), but I met Sam Jackson and he was a fascinating guy right from the beginning. He loved the material and he got what it was about.
One of the things that I think Sam saw in it was that there’s a sort of analogy in a way between what con artists do in terms of taking on a persona and what actors do. I think that was something that he was always very interested in. When his character commits to doing the con, he goes through an actor-like process to prepare for the role. I thought that was also what was amazing about Sam as a performer, in a way. He comes to the set in a very complete fashion. With a lot of actors, even Tom Wilkinson, they come and ask you, “How do you see this guy?” or “What should I wear?” There’s isn’t a lot of that with Sam. You write it, he takes it and creates the guy. You can modulate the performance, but that’s your relationship with him. So, it’s a little different than it is with a lot of actors. As a director, I think you come to appreciate that. There’s a certainty there that isn’t always the case in making a film. It can be intellectually and emotionally exhausting to make all of the decisions and it’s great to work with someone who has that level of self-assurance and doesn’t need any handholding.
[Now entering Spoilerish territory]
DS: When did you start working on The Samaritan? From what I understand, the screenplay has been around for a few years.
DW: Yeah, the idea came to me about five or six years ago or maybe even longer. I’ll leave it up to you about what to include about this in terms of avoiding spoilers, but the movie has been criticized because of the similarities to [REDACTED].
DS: That’s definitely something I had planned to bring up.
DW: Yeah, it’s a mixed thing. I have a lot of admiration for [REDACTED] and think it’s a great accomplishment. But at the same time, this idea actually preceded [REDACTED]. I actually hadn’t seen that movie when I started working on the script with Elan Mastai. Elan might have seen it. Inevitably, you face this question when you discover a similarity like that and wonder, “Should we drop this or go another way?” I didn’t want to because the idea that I had was to focus very closely on the consequences of this huge revelation. I always thought of The Crying Game.
What I loved about that movie was that a lot of times in say an M Night Shyamalan movie, the big twist comes in the last few minutes. Those are great movies, don’t get me wrong, but I like films like The Crying Game or Psycho where the twist is added into the story and then you see all of the dominos fall afterwards. So, we made the choice to write the script and it made its way to Sam. He saw read it and felt the same way. So that’s why for me, it’s very different than [REDACTED]. It’s not really a revenge film. It’s more a consequence of a decision that he made 20-30 years earlier.
[Now leaving spoilerish territory, have a nice day.]
DS: Since you’ve done so much TV work, could you speak a little bit about the difference between directing TV versus features?
DW: It’s funny to me that people perceive that. I don’t feel that I’ve done a lot of TV in particular, but I do feel like I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things in TV that I never would have done if I hadn’t been asked. That’s probably the best way to put it. I think the big difference is that in television, you’re hired like a craftsman to do a job and you hope to satisfy the people who hired you. It’s like you’re building a table and you try to craft it and make it strong and suit the function required. On my feature films, I’m really not interested in anyone else’s opinion (Laughs). I mean, I listen to my collaborators, but the reason why I make films and why I spent 5 years working on The Samaritan is because ultimately I want to see the movie. In the end that’s the most important to me with my films. I want to make something that sings to me. I’d love it if someone else likes it and obviously it’s great if it makes money. But ultimately, I made movie for me and created something I wanted to see. Like we were talking earlier about those neo-noir movies that disappeared. Not even Neil Jordon is making Neil Jordon movies anymore, so if he’s not going to do it, I’ll do it for myself (Laughs). The biggest pleasure of a film for me is looking at it when it’s finished. If it doesn’t work for you, I’m very sorry, but that’s the attitude I had.
DS: Are you working on any new films now?
DW: I’m trying to make a movie called Moon Palace, which is entirely different. It’s based on the last short film I made that went to a lot of film festivals. It’s about a guy who wants to be a writer and answers a want ad for a Chinese restaurant. The owner has bugged all of the tables in the restaurant and wants someone to sit in the back and write personalized fortunes for everyone based on their conversations. Then a girl comes in and he falls in love with her, but can’t explain how he knows everything about her. It’s a little urban comedy based on simple ideas of fate and whether or not we can manufacture our fate. So, that’s what I’m hoping to do next.