: Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Chris SarandonDirector
: Boaz Yakin Genre
: Action, Crime, Thriller Running Time
: 90 minutes Synopsis
: Sometimes a chance meeting can save your life.
Mei (Catherine Chan) is a 10 year-old Chinese math prodigy who is abducted from her home in Nanjing by the Triads; she is sent to America by the Triad leader Han Jiao (James Hong), where she will serve as a "counter" for their extortion racquets. No computers, no paper trails- she keeps all the numbers in her head. One year later, Mei's new adopted "father" Chang (Reggie Lee) brings her along to count the numbers as he shakes-down his business operations.
Luke Wright (Jason Statham) is a second-rate cage fighter in the mixed martial arts circuit in New Jersey. When he blows a rigged fight, the Russian Mafia make an example of him- murdering his wife and threatening to kill anyone he forms any kind of friendship or relationship with. Now homeless, destitute and completely isolated from society, Luke wanders the streets of New York like a ghost, hovering on the edge of suicide.
Big things begin to stir in the city, when Triad boss Han Jiao appears in New York, and gives Mei a secret number to memorise. On her way to use this number for an unknown purpose, Mei is violently kidnapped from the Triads by the Russian Mafia, who wants the information she now has in her head. So does the corrupt Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke) of the NYPD. Mei manages to escape, but she won't be able to survive on her own for long.
Standing on a subway platform ready to throw himself under a train, Luke Wright sees the young and terrified Chinese girl being pursued by Russian thugs… he knows something is wrong, and he knows now he has to make a decision: continue on his downward spiral, or come back fighting in order to help a little girl he's never even met. Luke snaps back to life, forcing himself into violent action, and over the course of one harrowing night, he tears a swath through the city's underworld in order to save Mei's life and redeem his own.Release Date
: 17th of May, 2012
Lawrence Bender has produced some of the most original and successful action films in history, including Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and 2 and Inglorious Bastards. So when Boaz Yakin, director of Remember The Titans, decided to make an action film, there was no producer he wanted more than Bender.
"Lawrence Bender and I made Fresh and A Price Above Rubies together," said Boaz Yakin, who wrote the screenplay to Safe. "It had been almost 10 years since we worked together. I was looking for producers and Lawrence Bender got interested and we decided to work together again."
Lawrence Bender was also enthusiastic about Boaz Yakin's script. "Boaz has a great style as a writer and he is a wonderful director. So when he told me he wanted to make an action film that had an intense emotional through line, I couldn't wait to read the script."
Established as an action writer - Boaz Yakin wrote screenplays for The Punisher and Eastwood's The Rookie - he'd never directed an action movie. After he made the sobering, emotionally-exhausting Death In Love in 2008, Boaz Yakin was ready for another go at THE action genre. "I wanted to make something that had a broader appeal, so I thought, let me see if I can write a script the way I used to write when I was starting out. As the story developed, I started to identify with the main character quite a bit, the process of pulling himself out of a dark place, putting one foot in front of the other and finding a reason to live and connect to life again."
To Boaz Yakin, Safe's emotional heart is the driving force of the film. "The idea of directing an action film was interesting, but unless there's a strong emotional motivation for the action, it can be a lot like directing traffic," Boaz Yakin says smiling. "Action is very technical and detail-oriented. A lot of action films, you're really just waiting for the pyrotechnics. I wanted every action scene in this film to come from an emotional need in the character."
"This is a film about a guy who as lost everything in his life & through this chance encounter, he finds a reason to live again," said Boaz Yakin. "This little girl is in need and this broken character finds a way to help her."
When it came to casting the lead, Lawrence Bender and Boaz Yakin were both interested in Jason Statham. "I had met Jason Statham and he was just a great guy and I wanted to work with him," said Lawrence Bender, "I've been so impressed with how dynamic he is, since I first saw him. What a big presence he has on screen. He has this unwavering authenticity to his characters." Lawrence Bender took the script to Jason Statham, who read it and liked it.
"Lawrence Bender was really instrumental in getting Jason involved and helping to put the movie together," acknowledged Boaz Yakin. "This is a film where Jason Statham is in his wheel house," he continued. "It's an action film, he plays a tough guy. But this is a much more emotional and vulnerable character than he usually plays. That was the most important thing I discussed with Jason Statham when we started out. I wanted to know that he was excited and open to playing someone who's hurt and vulnerable."
A fight Luke Wright is supposed to throw goes horribly wrong, and on the losing end of the bet is the ruthless, unforgiving Russian mob. Terrified, Luke Wright races home to get his wife, Annie, to safety, but he's too late. Annie is dead, and he has nothing left to live for.
Boaz Yakin describes the scene. "He simply gives up. He's sitting surrounded by these Russians and they're telling him what they are going to do to him. The camera moves in on Jason Statham…it's about a minute long shot, the camera moves in close on his face, and there is so much gravity and intensity in his eyes. Not a lot of actors can pull off what Jason did in that scene." Boaz Yakin expected Jason Statham to deliver the action - "He's meticulous to a crazy degree," he laughed - and was equally impressed with the actor's unflinching dramatic moments. "He really went for it when it came to the emotional aspect of the character. I think that's going to surprise people - what a good actor he is."
"Jason Statham's such an intense actor," said Lawrence Bender. "He's very focused, very concentrated in what he's doing. His Luke Wright at this moment in the story is completely empty inside, a blank, a black hole. His pain is so severe that he can't even allow himself to feel it. Jason portrays that void brilliantly." Luke Wright is a lost soul. As he wanders the streets of the city without a purpose, he begins to think of suicide.
"We're introduced to Mei in the movie before we meet Luke Wright," said Lawrence Bender, "so when she and Luke Wright have their chance meeting, we already know what she's up against." A 10 year-old math prodigy, Mei is living in China when her math skills and flawless memory are brought to the attention of Triad boss Han Jiao (James Hong). Swiftly she is kidnapped, brought to America and "adopted" by mid-level Triad mobster Yao Chang (Reggie Lee). Mei is quickly assimilated into the crime family as their "human ledger", eliminating the need for incriminating financial records of any kind.
Han Jiao comes to New York on business, with a special request for Mei. There is a number she must memorise, the combination to a safe in Chinatown holding $30 million in cash. The Triads have been collecting the money for years, and plan to use it to buy vital information. Mei is to never reveal the combination to anyone, and to only open the safe for them. But the Russian mob smells the money, and have been trying for years to get their hands on it. Mei is smart enough to know that whether the Triads or the Russians get to the safe first doesn't matter; she's a dead girl.
Veteran actor James Hong plays Han Jiao. "It was important for the film that you feel an almost mythical presence to the main bad guy," said Boaz Yakin. "I needed someone who felt a little bit bigger than life, and James Hong can really bring that.
"I was extremely glad that Boaz Yakin chose me to do this role," said James Hong. "It was a challenge, as Mandarin is not my first language. But upon seeing footage of the film, I was very happy with my performance. Han Jiao comes across as a mean Triad boss, but with a very business-like sense of humor. I'm anxiously waiting to see the film as a whole. Filming in Philadelphia was a joy."
Finding the right 10-year-old actress to play Mei was the task of casting director Doug Abiel. Boaz Yakin and Doug Abiel worked together on Fresh, and Doug Abiel has an extraordinary gift for casting children, as Signs, The Royal Tennebaums and The Squid and the Whale can attest.
"Catherine Chan was there on the first day of casting," recalls Boaz Yakin. "There was just a quality of vulnerability and truth about her."
"It was exciting; because it was my first time auditioning for a real movie," said the twelve-year-old actress, who is appearing in her first feature film. "I was a little nervous. I told my mom that if I didn't get this movie 'I'm going to stay in the closet until the movie wasn't in the theatre anymore."
"We auditioned many, many girls," said Lawrence Bender. "Catherine Chan had the right amount of vulnerability but the right amount of fire, too, - her character moves from innocent to depressed to "let's do this!" and that's a lot of personality for a 11-year-old."
"She acts well," said Boaz Yakin, "but she doesn't feel like an 'actor,' she feels like a real kid. She's very powerful in her stillness, for me that's one of the most important things - to find kids who can act when they're not acting. Listening is the hardest thing you can do as an actor. Catherine Chan came off with a kind of real pathos and she was extremely good."
"James Hong found a way to get things out of Catherine Chan that nobody else could get," he continued. "When she did a scene with him, she elevated her performance."
Working with a star like Jason Statham was thrilling to the young actress. "Jason Statham is a big star, "Catherine Chan said, but when you work with him, you feel he is diligent. He was really nice to me, and he laughs a lot."
The Russian mob has discovered that Mei has the combination to the safe in her head, and they amp up the pressure to find her. The Triads try to keep her hidden, but the Russians are everywhere, and they ambush Yao Chung and Mei on a quiet street. Yao Chung pulls his gun and presses it against Mei's head. "They cannot have you," he says, and holds the gun to her temple as the thugs approach the car.
"It is a terrifying moment," said Lawrence Bender, "and Catherine Chan did a wonderful job. It's the ultimate betrayal to Mei - and even if he is not her real father, he is her guardian, and she has to face the truth that he would rather have her dead than risk losing the combination to the Russians."
Yao Chung's slick modern-day Triad gangster is played by Reggie Lee. "Reggie is my favorite actor in the film," Boaz Yakin said enthusiastically. "He's the day-to-day gangster who takes care of her. He's a bad guy but he sees himself as someone doing a job that he needs to do. Even though he's a really hard, tough character, this adoption of this girl is not necessarily something he cared to do. He does care about her and respect her. Reggie would walk on the set and start doing his scene and everyone would just stop what they were doing and watch him. He was the most surprising actor, just the best." Reggie Lee had an equally positive experience. "I've done action films before, but never one with a character that had as much depth and nuance as Chang. Credit goes to Boaz Yakin for making the characters in this action film have so many colors and emotional challenges," Reggie Lee said. "I speak cursory Cantonese and Mandarin, but I really wanted to sound accurate for this film, so I coached way before to get the specific intonations correct and conversational as far as the Mandarin goes."
"My character is a gang sub-leader under the command of Han Jiao," said Reggie Lee. "We use Mei, a young girl from China, because of her expertise in memorising numbers to help us in our endeavors in the United States. I end up adopting her to make her legal in the U.S. It was really a great dynamic to experience because after a year of fostering her in the U.S., my character begins to develop a fatherly instinct for her. At the same time, I still have to fulfill my job, which involves using her in very dangerous situations to get what Han Jiao wants. It was one of the most fun characters I've had to play to date." Reggie Lee recalled that Catherine Chan was shy when they first met, because she had seen him in his TV series Prison Break.
Reggie Lee has the utmost respect and admiration for Boaz Yakin. "I can't say enough here. Boaz Yakin is truly one of the most gracious, caring directors I've worked with. He's extremely mindful of taking care of your work and the life of the character you've created. There were very long days, but he remained gracious and caring through it all. I can't stress enough how much I'd love to work with him again...I think any actor would."
The thugs get to the car and yank the door open, grabbing for Mei, and start firing. In the mayhem Mei sees her chance and slips out the car door, taking off for the subway station nearby. Standing on the platform by himself and staring at the train tracks is Luke. He's lost in his own misery until he sees a flash and turns to spot a frightened Mei running as fast as she can through the station, trying to evade four gun-wielding thugs who are hot on her heels. Something in the girl's face breaks through his fog, forcing him into action. The thugs never stood a chance.
As Mei tells Luke her story, Luke starts to see a pattern take shape. One of the thugs just might have been one of the Russians who killed his wife. And it's clear that without his help, Mei doesn't stand of chance of staying alive. Luke has to get Mei out of the city and away from the men who want to kill her.
"When we first meet Luke," said Lawrence Bender, "he's just a tough guy on the down side of life. We don't know anything else about him, except that he's trying to make some kind of a living fighting in these seedy places." But as the layers of the story are unfolded, we learn that behind the despondent pugilist is a former NYPD cop and Special Forces operative. Luke had been sent to New York City by Washington after 9/11 to help Mayor Tramello (Chris Sarandon) crush an increasingly confident criminal element and growing black market. He joins a task force within the NYPD, and soon, crime boss after crime boss is found dead, with no clues, no evidence of any crime. "A deadly ghost," says Mayor Tramello about Wright.
But Luke has a handicap. He's an honest man. And when the river of illegal money coming into the city starts to overflow into the pockets of the cops on his force, he can't hold back. "Luke threatened to expose them and their whole task force was shut down," said Yakin. "He doesn't rat them out, but he leaves and feels guilty about it. So he becomes this fighter."
Luke decides to reach out to his old friend and nemesis, NYPD Police Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke), who was his commanding officer in the special task force. "He's Captain Nefarious, really," chuckled Robert John Burke. "Wolf doesn't feel he's gotten his due. His City Police check just isn't cutting it any longer so he's going to do whatever it takes to supplement it."
"Wolf's a guy who is more ambitious than he is capable of meeting his ambitions," adds Boaz Yakin. "He's a guy who is a pro in control of his domain, but always a little bit behind the 8 ball."
Wolfe controls the gambling & smuggling in numerous districts in the city, and makes a point of playing the gangs against each other for his maximum return. But his career has been tainted by his own misbehavior, and he's trusted Mayor Trammello when he shouldn't have. "It's a classic example of a guy who was willing to be number 2 for a long time, who was "promised" the top job, but it's never delivered," said Lawrence Bender. "He's angry with Tramello. He's been betrayed. "
"Wolf feels a huge sense of entitlement where Mayor Tramello is concerned," said Robert John Burke. "Wolfe's understanding is that his effective, albeit illegal, police work, is what helped elect the Mayor to the office. But he seems to have a begrudging respect for Luke. The fact that he may be thwarted from becoming Police Commissioner propels him to assist Luke and see if he can come away with a huge illegal monetary gain," Robert John Burke continued. "He isn't stupid. He cleverly plays one side against the other until Luke gets the last word."
Robert John Burke raved about his experience working with Jason Statham. "He is a consummate professional - smart, funny, sharp, creative, hard working, and does not settle for mediocrity. He is talented and extremely generous - he brings more chi to any given scene than any ten actors put together."
Tramello (Chris Sarandon) is also into the game deep. He has the files, the information the Triads want, and once he delivers the disc, he'll walk away with the $30 million. "Chris Sarandon is a classic stage and film actor," said Boaz Yakin. "He's done so much great stuff. What was terrific was that even though this film is contemporary, it evokes the gritty action crime films of the 70's. Its inspirations are definitely The Seven-Ups and The French Connection and all those kinds of films. Chris Sarandon did some great work in a few of those movies. I like bringing his energy to the film."
With Mei's brains and Luke's training, and the stakes life or death, the unlikely duo develop a plan to take on both the Triads and the Russian mob, and get to the money. Mei has given Luke a reason to go on, and there is a new fire inside him. He's waited long enough. He's got a score to settle. About the Production
"Lawrence Bender often finds himself in a position where he is trying to make a movie for a third of what it should be made for," said Boaz Yakin, "and he's trying to support the director and make the best film he can while also keeping his eye on the budget. It's sort of a schizophrenic task. I think Lawrence Bender is often in that position on films where he makes less look like more, and he does it really, really well. I don't think we could have done this movie without Lawrence."
"I have known Boaz Yakin for twenty years, but we haven't worked together in 10 so I was really excited about this. " says Lawrence Bender. As we started to work together, it became clear that Boaz Yakin had some really original ideas about the action. His storyboards were amazing."
Crafting the look of the film involved many hours of discussion between Boaz Yakin, Bender, Director of Photography Stefan Czapsky and Production Designer Joseph Nemec.
"Stefan Czapsky has shot some really big films with Tim Burton and he's done a lot of great films in New York," said Boaz Yakin. "I think he's eager to get back to being a New York cinematographer. He's fast and he's efficient and he's a problem solver and he really connected with all of us on how the film should look."
Boaz Yakin described their process of crafting the look for Safe. "We looked at some 70's New York films together. I like to use very long and wide lenses so that the film sort of bounces back and forth between a very intimate look and a more revealing look, but not give that comfortable middle ground."
"We were often working with more than one camera," Boaz Yakin continued, "and Stefan Czapsky had a way of getting the second camera to tell the story as well as the first camera. I work with a very specific shot list that I put together before filming, and Stefan Czapsky was able to take the ideas from that shot list and bring something else to it. A different look or take on it. It was extremely effective. He is really, really, really good and the film looks great."
Production Designer Joseph Nemec had the never-ending challenge of limited funds, but Lawrence Bender and Boaz Yakin agree that what he was able to create was astonishing. "Joseph Nemec is an incredible talent," said Boaz Yakin. "We had a tight budget and it was difficult because our ambitions were way higher than what the budget allowed. We were fortunate that we had people who were willing to give us their best and supply what we needed for as little as possible. Joseph Nemec and I really wanted to get across something that was textured and gritty and brought New York back to the films of the 70's and early 80's. We were conscious of eliminating certain aspects of the city."
Joseph Nemec prepared a slide show of colors and textures for ideas and sent it to both Lawrence Bender and Boaz Yakin. "I felt that he really understood what we were trying to accomplish," said Lawrence Bender. "He's very thorough in the way he works and that attention to detail comes through in his sets and designs."
Though the film takes place in New York, filming was done in both New York and Philadelphia. "We shot all our exteriors in New York," said director Boaz Yakin. "There is no place that can truly double for New York, none. We wanted to shoot everything in New York, but it's difficult. The streets are hard to control and the people are a little jaded with film crews working here. But we did get great footage here."
While the crew was shooting in New York, interiors were prepared in Philadelphia. One of the largest sets was the Triad's casino, which was built inside of Girard College. "We used one of the buildings and some of the existing structure that was there, and basically built a stage set inside that," described Joseph Nemec. "It's an illegal underground gambling establishment. So at first it was a bit shoddy, which didn't seem quite right with these guys dealing in $30 million. So we ended up going back to more of the speakeasy kind of approach with this. Back in the days of prohibition, they'd have the hidden clubs that you would come in through, a very non-descript entrance, but once inside it was a nice place."
The homeless shelter where Luke Wright is living when the movie opens required a massive space to fit 500 beds. "Originally it was slated to be shot in Philadelphia in an empty cafeteria of an old school. We were going to do some painting and some murals, all the things that are common in current homeless shelters. Then we wanted to save money and we were looking at actual shelters and that didn't work out. I forgot the name of it now, I want to say St. Thomas, but there had been a fire in a church about five years ago. And they had this one floor Catholic Cathedral, they saved part of the altar and part of the nave and put in new concrete block walls and left the rest of the congressional untreated. So the back two thirds of the congressional area was a big empty void. When I saw it the first time it was absolutely stunning."
"The Mayor and the city of Philadelphia went out of their way to accommodate us, "said Boaz Yakin. "They would let us shut down streets and they were always asking us what they could do to help as opposed to making us feel we were a burden. Shooting there turned out to be great and I'm grateful for the help they gave us."
Other locations included Luke Wright's home, which was filmed in Holmes, PA, a casino in Bensalem, PA, and The Bellevue Hotel in downtown Philadelphia. The Bloomfield Estate in Villanova filled in for New York's mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion.
"There's a certain quality about the film The French Connection that Boaz liked, and we wanted to keep that in mind," said Joseph Nemec. "We took out a lot of the greens, a lot of the blues and kept things more browns and tans and creams. We separate ourselves from when we're in Chinatown at the beginning of the film."
Joseph Nemec doesn't make his creative choices based on the film's genre, but rather more on the style and the way the director shoots. "You try to make the most interesting environment you can with what you have to do it with. And I think that was the biggest challenge on this." The Editing and the Music
Lawrence Bender and Boaz Yakin hired Frederic Thoraval to edit the film. "Frederic Thoraval edited Taken," said Boaz Yakin. "I saw it and what really impressed me was the editing. Frederic Thoraval has a way with editing action, and not just action, but pace and a combination of real French wave looseness, jump-cutting and all that, with an eye on keeping the emotional focus on what's going on that I just love. I would work with Frederic again in a heartbeat."
The director was equally thrilled to have the prolific Mark Mothersbaugh on board to compose the score. "I would never have thought of Mark Mothersbaugh for this film," said Boaz Yakin. "He's known for his charm, lightness and humor. He's done all of Wes Anderson's movies."
But Mark Mothersbaugh was looking to stretch out "I had never worked with Boaz Yakin before and when the offer came up I was very excited about it. Boaz Yakin gave me a script and I looked at some scenes and we talked conceptually about it and I went and did some sketches for it - music sketches that I recorded in my studio on electronic instruments, samplers, guitars…things like that. And I went and put it against some pictures and said let's give it a try."
Mark Mothersbaugh's sample score proved to Yakin that Mark was the right person for the job. "I think he's wanted to spread his wings and show that he can do other things and when he was suggested, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to meet him because I am one of the bigger DEVO fans. I own every record. I was just thrilled to meet him. He actually wanted to do the film enough that he did some temp scoring. The music was just really exciting. Mark Mothersbaugh really proved that he has the range."
"We do have an orchestra in it," said Mark Mothersbaugh, grinning. "We squeezed the value out of our dollar and ended up with a very nice orchestral sound. A little bit reminiscent of 70's chase movies in a way. A little bit 70's and contemporary. I mixed the best elements of both. The film is not just a mindless chase movie, it's a very interesting, well-written script."
Mark Mothersbaugh was brought in during the editing process, and so he was working around sound design that had been completed. "It was tricky not being in the same room as the sound designer," said Mark Mothersbaugh, "because he did a lot of interesting sounds effects and at some points we take turns being in control of the scene. We definitely had to talk back and forth and exchange files and that was kind of interesting way to work."
"I've worked with a lot of directors and I found Boaz Yakin to be really refreshing," Mark Mothersbaugh continued. "It's nice when you find a director who knows what he wants to hear. He was always very enthusiastic and he brought a lot to the project. He's someone I hope I get to work with again." The Costumes
"We had the great Ann Roth as our costume designer, and she is as good as her reputation," praised Boaz Yakin. "Ann Roth was a revelation. I've worked with some really good costume designers in the past, but Ann Roth has this way of working with an actor, helping the actor's performance. She has a strong esthetic sense, but she mainly focuses on character."
"When she costumes someone," he continued, "that costume contributes to the character's inner-life and I've never quite seen someone do it the way she does it. An actor that would do good work in rehearsal, and would come in wearing her costume and suddenly it was- bang- that's the character. I was just knocked out by her work."
Ann Roth wanted to convey Luke Wright's desperation but also to separate him and Mei from the gritty look of the city. "Jason Statham's character starts out in the fighting circuit in Atlantic City," Ann Roth explained. "He gets into trouble, his wife is killed, and he comes to New York City. When we see him next it is a year later and he's been on skid row, bumming around, painting houses, fixing cars, whatever he had to do. And I would say numbed and helped by alcohol. So while he started out rather clean with a leather jacket and clean shirt and pants and shoes, by the time we see him in New York one year later, he's basically a bum and in very, very bad shape.
Because the story takes place over 24 hours, Luke and Mei wear the same wardrobe throughout the film. "Jason Statham's in a dirty grey T-shirt, grey sweatshirt, and light colored trousers," said Ann Roth. "Catherine Chan wore a yellow dress. I wanted Jason Statham and Catherine Chan's characters to walk through the city, which is grey and black, in clothes that were very pale compared to the Asian gangsters and the Russian gangsters."
"The Russians were the easiest to costume," Ann Roth smiled. "One only has to go to Coney Island. They are mostly in black with some silver and turquoise, all the predictable street ware. It's not just predictable, there is no choice."
"And Jason Statham…all of Jason Statham's clothes had to be made for him, he has that kind of body," she added. "The trousers have to be made and then stretched out because of all the action that is required of him during the film."
Sarandon has also appeared with the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival in Canada, portraying Laertes in Hamlet and Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I. Sarandon received an Oscar nomination for his first film Dog Day Afternoon. Since then his more notable films have included Lipstick, The Sentinel, Cuba, Fright Night, The Princess Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
On television, he has appeared in starring roles in You Can't Go Home Again, as Jesus in The Day Christ Died and one of the leads in the miniseries Liberty. Sarandon also had a regular role on the television drama The Guiding Light and, most recently, on Felicity as Dr. McGrath.