What starts as a particularly bad day for insurance salesman Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson) takes a dramatic turn for the worse during his ride home. While on his daily train ride, he’s approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who asks him a theoretical “what would you do” scenario. After she abruptly exits, Michael is tasked with finding someone on his train who doesn’t belong. Should he succeed, he gets $100,000. If he fails, he risks the safety of his family, his fellow passengers, and himself.
A blend of mystery and thriller, with popcorn movie sensibilities, The Commuter marks the fourth collaboration between Neeson director Jaume Collet-Serra. We recently got the chance to sit down with Collet-Serra to talk about why he likes to limit his film’s locations, creating the best experience, and making Neeson an everyday hero.
When did the script for The Commuter first come on your radar?
After doing Non-Stop, which we had a great time doing and it was a big success, we wanted to do a sequel. [But] we were like, how can we repeat the experience for the audience? You know, it’s a thriller, has some action in it, has an ensemble cast, and there’s a mystery at the center of it. We couldn’t figure it out, and one day this script crossed our paths, about this mystery on a train, and we felt we can adapt it to a repeat experience for the audience. So we changed a few things, and even though it’s not a direct sequel to Non-Stop, it’s sort of a spiritual sequel.
Is there an innate appeal to having a story almost entirely confined to single settings?
Sure, I mean, I specialize in that these days, with Non-Stop, The Shallows, which [are] also one set, and this one. But none of those scripts originally were set in one location. I’m the one that makes them be in one location. Because that’s the last thing that a writer wants to do. A writer wants to sell his or her script, so when they write it, they want to make sure that it has all the elements so nobody freaks out. “Oh, my God, there’s just one location.” Some people have an aversion to watching movies that are not full of locations because they might feel like it’s too claustrophobic or whatever. But I think the opposite, I think that when you try to confine things, the purity of the concept comes to light.
So, this particular script, when it first was written, it had car chases, it had people kidnapping, you had cops, [you] had FBI, it had a whole range of things, and I just stripped all of that away. And by stripping those things away, I have to actually create a script that would be interesting, to be on the train. So I’ve added other elements that were not originally in the movie. Like the role of Vera, that was not in the original script.
So, creatively speaking, you prefer limited settings?
It’s not like I’m a masochist, but I feel like it’s a big effort with a really big reward at the end. It is my particular belief that those things help the viewer relate to what’s happening. Some movies, when they’re written, they’re just looking for one type of experience, and when I get them, I’m like, “The concept is good, but the experience is wrong.” So I take it, and I change the experience, and I make it a bit more thrilling, mysterious. A simple concept everybody can relate and understand. That’s my style.
You also manage to convey the same kind of claustrophobia with the opening sequence, which crams 10 years of Michael’s life into a few minutes.
I came up with that because I needed to convey to somebody that had never been a commuter what it’s like because that’s his power, even though he doesn’t know it at the moment. He’s taken the same train at the same time every day for 10 years. So you can say that to an audience, but you have to show it for them to understand it. So when this mysterious woman sits across from you and tells you, “You’re the only one that can do this because you have this experience,” the audience has witnessed it with him. Otherwise, I felt like they wouldn’t understand. They would understand it logically, but not viscerally.
It also gives you a window into Michael’s life as an everyman. Even if you don’t take commuter trains, the day-to-day redundancy of waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, all that, is something everyone will find relatable.
Exactly. Everybody can relate to that. But there’s so much information in those five minutes; the relationship with his son, his wife, married life, sort of this train becomes like his nexus between your personal life and your professional life, and it’s this vacuum in which you’re not in control. You’re not even driving, and you’re just trying to use your time by talking to people. Or nowadays everybody’s on their phones. [But] he’s an old-school guy, so he reads to help his kid, so you immediately relate to him, and you want him to win.
Is this the kind of experience where you’re hoping the audience will try to play along and figure out the mystery of who he’s supposed to find?
I think that for me the movie happens in the audience’s brain. It doesn’t happen on the screen. So you’re supposed to be interactive. If you’re interacting with the movie, the time will go faster for you, because you will be doing two things at the same time. And my job is to always be ahead of you. And I can be ahead of you, because I’ve had a year to think about it, and you only have a few minutes. So it’s not like I’m smarter, I’ve just had more time to think about it. So if I do my things right, you’ll never guess it.
So, going in you knew Liam Neeson was going to play Michael, obviously.
It’s almost something that just comes together at the same time. I wasn’t looking at this movie without Liam. And Liam was not looking at the movie without me. It was something that we were looking for to do together.
He brings a sort of effortless complexity into his roles.
Oh yeah, he has a great presence and so many layers, and as a person and as an actor he’s just an endless well of brilliance, so he can do anything. But in this movie I really wanted him to be more of an everyday man like you said. I wanted him to be in the mystery, and look for the clues from a fellow passenger point of view, and not from a position of power. In other movies, he’s the marshal, or he has a gun and he’s forcing people to do things. In this one, he’s trying to manipulate people, and to do that he has to use his charm and he has to use his everyday skills as an insurance salesman, and not so much intimidation and things like that. Because Liam is a very sweet human being and generous and humble, I wanted to see that side of him on the screen, and I think we did that.
How was it working with the rest of the cast? You’ve got a pretty impressive ensemble going here.
I mean it’s a lot of pressure for them, because they have only a couple of days to be on the movie, and they have to build this character, and some of them even have a little arc. Obviously, experienced people like Vera, and Jonathan Banks it’s no problem, they just can come in and just give you so much nuance and soul, and I give them a lot of freedom. I never say, “Say these lines this way.” I give them the responsibility to give me a character.
Obviously, Vera’s job was extremely hard, because she has to sort of deliver the rules. And that’s why, after working with her in Orphan, I wanted her for this. I think she’s the only one that could’ve done it, in such charm and sense of humor and mystery and everything.
It’s harder for the actors who are not used to being protagonists, you know, the little ensemble that has to be in the background for three weeks, and then suddenly you have the scene with Liam that day. And then they have to kind of be perfect. And it’s hard to keep that tension going for the three weeks that they’re in the background, so you see them, and you care for them. It’s a unique experience in that sense because mostly in movies, you just come in the day that you’re on scene. But on a train, because I see you all the time, you’re there every day, even if you don’t have a scene.
From a technical standpoint, is filming a movie like this complicated when it takes place in just a few railcars?
Yeah, it’s always very challenging. The big challenge here was that we couldn’t build a whole train, because it’s too big, and it doesn’t fit anywhere, it’s expensive. So we only had one carriage. We had to re-dress it constantly to make it look like the others, and in this way, it looked like we have six. In order to make that efficient, you would shoot all the scenes from carriage one together, and then all the scenes from carriage two, which means that because the characters go up and down constantly, the train that you’re shooting seems completely out of order, massively out of order. And that means a lot of planning because when you then cut it together, any sort of jump in continuity would be very apparent, because the whole movie almost happens in real time.
So you have to be very accurate about who’s sitting where, even the ticket behind them, if he’s entering from the left, from the right, from this, you know. So that’s technically very, very difficult. Nowadays they have smaller cameras, we can do things like that, but continuity was the biggest problem.
This is obviously a great popcorn movie, but there’s a distinct craftsmanship to how it’s put together. How do you respond when you’re referred to as a master of the B-Movie?
Great! It’s a movie made by me, you know, it’s not made by a machine, [or] by some marketing expectations or whatever. I make it with Liam, and some great people behind the camera, producers, and it’s a group of small people, that we are sort of the brains of the operation, and you can feel that. So this kind of movie, it’s very rare to make them, it’s very enjoyable for a director to have so much control over it, over what you do, and that makes me very happy. And people like it.
Obviously, because these movies are a risk, I don’t have a lot of money to make them, so I have to do the best that I can with what I have. But I’ll take master of anything. Master of the C-Movie, whatever.