Liam Neeson Cold Pursuit Interview

Liam Neeson Cold Pursuit Interview

Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, John Doman, Emmy Rossum, Tom Bateman
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Welcome to Kehoe, it's -10 degrees and counting at this glitzy ski resort in the Rocky Mountains. The local police aren't used to much action until the son of unassuming town snowplow driver, Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson), is murdered at the order of Viking (Tom Bateman), a flamboyant drug lord. Fueled by rage and armed with heavy machinery, Nels sets out to dismantle the cartel one man at a time, but his understanding of murder comes mainly from what he read in a crime novel. As the bodies pile up, his actions ignite a turf war between Viking and his long-standing rival White Bull (Tom Jackson), a soulful Native-American mafia boss, that will quickly escalate and turn the small town's bright white slopes blood-red.

Cold Pursuit
Release Date: February 7th, 2019

Citizen Criminal

Liam Neeson is no stranger to reinvention. But even by his standards, Cold Pursuit represents a surprising gear-shift into wicked new territory.

"It's about fathers and sons, and how complicated that relationship can be."
- Liam Neeson

There aren't many actors whose CV include everything from an Oscar-nominated turn in Schindler's List to a Jedi, a Batman villain, a shady cop made out of Lego and a talking Lion. But then, Liam Neeson isn't like many other actors.

With an astonishing 126 credits to his name, the 66-year-old famously saw himself unwittingly reinvented as an action star a decade ago, with his starring role as Bryan Mills in the huge global smash that was Taken. But while that movie's plot, of a father out for revenge against the men who have put his offspring in danger, may sound like it shares some DNA with that of Cold Pursuit, the latter sees him deliver a performance unlike any in his already storied career.

"On the one level, Cold Pursuit is a great, classic revenge thriller," says Neeson. "But what was really appealing to me was the dark undercurrent of humour that runs through it." Or, as his director, Hans Petter Moland puts it: "Basically, this is Liam Neeson like you've never seen him before. It's a very special, unique performance."

Question: Between its mash-up of genre, and the fact that it's an English-language remake from the original Norwegian director, this movie is a real one-off. How did you first come into its orbit?

Liam Neeson: I was sent a script, and… No, I tell a lie. I say that all the time. It's absolute bullshit! It was Michael Shamberg. I'd worked with him before, and he's a wonderful producer. He asked me to go and see a screening of a Norwegian film called In Order Of Disappearance. And I saw it, and I thought it was good. And he said they were going to adapt it for the American market, put it in Colorado, and would I be interested? And I said yes. You know, this is a very good, character-driven revenge thriller, with very, very interesting bad guys and a very dark undercurrent, with an element of humour that runs through it that's really appealing.

Question: What can you tell us about your character?

Liam Neeson: I play a guy called Nels Coxman. He's just a regular guy. Happily married, one child – a boy of 21. He lives on the side of a mountain outside this little ski resort called Kehoe. And his job during the winter months is to keep a section of the road open, because they get incredible amounts of snow. So he has his own little industry, his own little workshop where he keeps a snow-blower, snowplow, various machines like that, to keep these roads open. That's his job. And as he says in the script, he keeps a strip of civilisation open through the wilderness for people. That's his life. That's what he enjoys. And as a consequence of that, he gets voted Kehoe Citizen of the Year. It's an annual award, and this year he's the proud recipient.

Question: As a man, he has taken a very different path to his family, hasn't he?

Liam Neeson: Yes. His father was heavily involved in underground crime, in his younger days. And Nels' elder brother, beautifully played by Bill Forsythe, is also in his father's trade, let's put it that way. But Nels, for some reason, has chosen the righteous path of keeping to the straight and narrow and not being involved in any crime, until something happens that sends everything spiralling. Before that, Nels is happily married to a wonderful lady called Grace, played by the magnificent Laura Dern, who I'm so thrilled that we got for this film. To all intents and purposes, they're very happily, contentedly married. They have one son, a 21-year-old called Kyle. I wouldn't say their relationship is hot and heavy at this stage, but they're very content with each other. And then the S.H.I.T. hits the fan, and the relationship breaks down.

Question: Did you know Laura well before this movie?

Liam Neeson: I didn't. I had dinner with her and an ex-boyfriend of hers years and years ago. Her, her boyfriend, me and my wife, Natasha [Richardson]. Laura and Natasha had been in a film together, Fat Man And Little Boy, a Roland Joffe film that Paul Newman starred in, back in 1986/87, I think. So they were friends, but I didn't know Laura terribly well. But I've been a huge fan of hers for many, many years. So it's something I can tick off my bucket list, you know? I got to work with the great Laura Dern. She's a wonderful lady, too.

Question: That's good. Because she says a lot of nice things about you too…

Liam Neeson: She got my cheque, then? Good.

Question: The tipping point for Nels in this movie is, of course, the death of his son. What can you tell us about him?

Liam Neeson: They're pretty close, Nels and Kyle. I guess it's like a classic father and son. There's a bond between them that's kind of unspoken. Kyle is a big American football fan, Broncos to be precise. And Nels isn't quite as big a fan. And Kyle's job is to handle baggage at Kehoe airport, the ski resort's little airport. And everything is normal. Until my son meets a horrible death at the hands of these drug dealers, and it completely makes my relationship with Grace disintegrate. She can't handle it at all and goes inward and eventually leaves. So Nels suffers a kind of a double-death – the death of his son, and the death of this very special relationship. And it prompts him to contemplate his own life, and also contemplate a path of vengeance. And that's what he sets out to do, to avenge, in some way, his son's death. And get some form of justice.

Question: Yours and Kyle's father/son dynamic isn't the only one in the movie, is it?

Liam Neeson: No, there are three sons, and three fathers. There's me and my boy. There's [cartel chief] White Bull's [played by Tom Jackson] kid, who works for his father so is a criminal as well. And then there's Viking's [played by Tom Bateman] son, who's this very sweet, quite intellectual kid of 11 or 12 years of age who's really not a chip off his father's block. He's very, very bright, very astute. Likes listening to classical music, and likes playing FIFA, which every other kid in the world does, I know. But he's quite an unusual child. And so – without giving the game away – Nels kind of befriends him, and sort of takes him captive. So the script does touch on the relationships between fathers and sons, and how complicated they can be.

Question: You've starred in revenge thrillers before, but is it fair to describe this as unlike any of them?

Liam Neeson: Definitely, yes. Nels isn't prepared for any of this. It doesn't come naturally to him at all. When Nels goes out on his path of vengeance, he doesn't realise that he's opening a whole can of worms, especially with the drug industry. He thinks he's going after one guy that killed his son, and in actual fact this guy works for these other guys, who then work for this other incredibly vicious young criminal called Viking. He runs one drug cartel and White Bull runs another drug cartel. And Nels gets caught in between all this. So this whole vengeance thing escalates into a kind of a whirlwind of vengeance and violence, while still having this grain of dark humour running through it, if you can imagine that! It's a classic revenge movie, but with a deep thread of dark humour running through it, with some very, very interesting, well-drawn, three dimensional bad guys who give the film its humour ballast.

Question: How did you find working with Hans Petter Moland, remaking his own original movie?

Liam Neeson: He's terrific. I want to say he's got a European sensibility, which he does, because he's European! And there's something very laid-back, very calm about him. He is also very, very prepared. He's an ex-actor himself, he's directed in the theatre, and he just knows the actor's process, as well as how to tell a story on film. He mines the script for the little subtleties that we as actors can bring out to enhance the story, to enhance the humour, enhance the pathos. He makes some very, very interesting choices, and he's not a taskmaster at all. I'd work with him again in a second.

Doubling-Down On Action And Attitude

Why Hans Petter Moland, AKA "the Ridley Scott of Norway," remade his own gangster noir.

With cold pursuit, Hans Petter Moland joins a short but superb list of directors – a group who have deliberately flown in the face of accepted movie wisdom and come out the other side, triumphant. "They always say you should never remake your own film," Moland notes wryly. "But when I thought about it, I thought, 'Why not?'"

Like Michael Haneke with Funny Games, Takashi Shimizu with The Grudge and George Sluizer with The Vanishing before him, Moland's Cold Pursuit – his brilliantly bloody and darkly hilarious roaring rampage of revenge – sees him remake his acclaimed Norwegian original, 2014's In Order Of Disappearance, and this time in the English language. "It's not that I wasn't happy with the original," says Moland. "But I looked at it as if I was, say, a theatre director who had made a successful production in Oslo, and now had the chance to make a new production on Broadway, for a new audience and with a cast of amazing new actors. It was such an opportunity that I couldn't say no."

Here, the director who respected British film historian Peter Cowie once described as "the Ridley Scott of Norway" for his array of award-winning commercials and impeccable eye, talks escaping your past, cheating on Stellan Skarsgård and the nuances of Norwegian versus American humour.

Question: You once described the process of making movies as "one long journey through a valley of compromises". Given that, why on Earth would you go back and remake one that you've already survived once?

Hans Petter Moland: Yes, I guess I did say that. [Laughs] That being said, I also think that allowing yourself to be challenged by things you previously haven't mastered is another part of that equation. When Michael Shamberg [Cold Pursuit's producer] got the rights to this remake he said he wanted me to do it. And that forced me to re-examine the accepted wisdom that you should always get someone else to remake a film. I started to look at why I really wouldn't want to do it. It's not that I wasn't happy with the original, but I tried to look at it the same way as if you had made a successful theatre production – in Oslo, say. And then somebody asked if you wanted to make a new production of the same play on Broadway, for a new audience. And that's an interesting proposition, to speak to a different audience, to make it with different actors, amazing actors. When I thought about it like that I couldn't not do it.

Question: The list of people who have remade their own "foreign-language" movies in English is very short. Did you look at any of those movies, to see what those directors did?

Hans Petter Moland: I deliberately didn't look at them. Because I think most directors who remake their own movies aren't necessarily happy with the outcome, or the process. There are many reasons for that. I focussed more on two things: one, finding a process that could work for me and, two: retaining that tone from the original. And that meant being allowed to make the film in the way I know how to make a film. There are many other ways to make a film, but if you're hamstrung by the process you're not at your best game. And with this I was very much encouraged and allowed to make the film the best way I know how to. And because I lived in the United States for many years, I feel comfortable and at home in American culture. So it was a landscape that I wasn't foreign to.

Question: Having lived in the US for 11 years and being from Norway, what would you say are the differences between American and Norwegian humour?

Hans Petter Moland: There are cultural differences, obviously. And there are great similarities, too. But when people talk about my films being typically 'Scandinavian' in humour, I don´t neccesarily agree. [In Norway] we jokingly say that Danish people don't know how to make comedies. So, being lumped together with them is not necessarily a compliment. But, more than anything, my humour is also influenced a great deal by American filmmakers – Billy Wilder, for instance. And living in New York in the 70´s and 80s, that deadpan, grotesque, dark humour was always very prevalent for me. So whatever is typically 'Scandinavian' about me is also very heavily influenced by that.

Question: Billy Wilder is a great reference point for Cold Pursuit. The Apartment in particular has that astonishing mix of darkness and light…

Hans Petter Moland: Yes, absolutely. I'm a huge fan of Wilder's, and his ability to blend those two things. It's no great mystery that none of us live in a vacuum, that we absorb things and we respond to them in our lives and work. My upbringing certainly had a lot of gallows humour to it, that was part of my upbringing, so I really connected with his movies, when I was in the States.

Question: The casting of Liam Neeson in Cold Pursuit is a masterstroke, because on paper you might think that you've seen him do revenge movies before, but this is very different. Was that deliberate, playing with that expectation?

Hans Petter Moland: I relished the enormous expectation that Liam carries with him – because he's such a fabulous actor. And that's a great expectation to bring to the table. And the humour in Cold Pursuit was something he really responded to and said he would like to do. I'm delighted I got to work with him. Basically, this is Liam Neeson unlike you've ever seen him before. It's a really special, unique performance. Not only has he always broken the norm with the films he's made before, he's also still a curious and hard-working actor. And the big difference, between this and the revenge movies he's made before is that this isn't about him saving his daughter. There's no son to be saved here. He's already dead. So it's the rage and the mourning of loss, more than anything else.

Question: It's also a movie about fathers and sons, isn't it, and the futility of revenge?

Hans Petter Moland: Yes, it is. It's focussed on revenge as being not a very viable strategy for a fruitful life, for the men and for their families. It's just not a very good idea, even though it's fun to see people do it.

Question: You've talked about having your cake and eating it, about making a violent film that is ultimately anti-violence. Were you conscious of that dichotomy?

Hans Petter Moland: I was very conscious of that dichotomy, because if you're doing anything satirical then the dichotomy is a very big portion of the satire. That incongruity of motive and action. This is a movie inhabited by a lot of people who are short on insight, in particular [cartel kingpin] Viking. One way to look at it is that all the people in this film are either dead serious, or dead. They are oblivious to the humour that surrounds them and the result of their actions.

Question: The exception to that being the female characters, of course…

Hans Petter Moland: Yes, those three characters [played by Laura Dern, Emmy Rossum and Julia Jones] are the only ones who are really smart. It was deliberate that it's the women who aren't domineering in the film but they dominate in the way that they distance themselves from the actions of the male characters.

They're too smart. And that goes for Viking's son as well. He's much smarter than his father. He's also someone you think, by the end of the film, 'He's going to be okay. He's got a future. And he's probably better off without the baggage of his father, who is such a stupid and destructive guy.'

Question: A lot of the actors have said that when they first read the script there came a point where they started to ask themselves, 'Am I supposed to be laughing here?' Do you enjoy that, playing with the preconceived notions of the audience?

Hans Petter Moland: That was definitely one of the challenges, to make this unusual and different. Obviously, losing a child is a very serious and tragic event, but this is also a humorous film. But that humour has to unveil itself, along with the characters and the story. The film has a very serious departure point and then it unfolds and expands into these new arenas. The absurdity has to grow. It has to spring out of that source instead of splatting it all up on the wall, saying, 'It's a comedy!' You have to allow people to discover it for themselves and laugh when they want. There's a moment in the scene in the morgue where a large part of the audience start to suspect there's something fishy about this film. People tend to realise then that it is permissible to laugh.

Question: What was that departure point?

Hans Petter Moland: It was me thinking about what would happen if I was subjected to something like that – if, let's say, and we´re speaking hypothetically here- one of my sons died of an overdose. It was during a period when there were a lot of overdose deaths in Oslo. Heroin flowed in from Balkan during the war, blind-siding a culture where heroin had been non-existant. Would I just accept that it happened, accept a non-conclusive police report, or would I want to find out what happened? Would my sorrow and pain be tinged with rage? And how would I make and effort find out? And where would I start? I'd probably go to one of the boys´friends, find out what he knew, perhaps get a name of somebody who had sold the drugs. Then from the low-level drug dealer you'd most likely not get an eager response about where the drugs came from, so then you'd probably have to beat the crap out of the guy in order to get a name of someone higer up. And once you did that, you'd either have enemies or you'd have to cover your tracks. So I was toying with, 'Would it ultimately be successful, or would it just be an escalation of violence?' I realised that eventually it would just lead to mayhem, like most wars do. Each revengeful action would create a response. Then you'd up the ante… And eventually you'd just have a misery on your hands. And something potentially very humerous. I thought, 'What would tilt the tables for anybody in such a circumstance?' Clearly being an outsider, newcomer or an amateur gives you an advantage. For instance, you could have beginner's luck, or odd behaviour modes that are unrecognisable to your opponent. Most criminals have rivals and enemies who are already in their mind to begin with when they have been slighted. So their normal instincts would be to go and blame somebody they already knew, somebody they hate. Which is, of course, exactly what these guys do [in the movie]. They jump to a conclusion, a wrong one, and the situation escalates to a stage of warfare where it's out of hand and unpredictable. So that´s the nature of revenge, and where it leads to.

Question: In the movie, Nels has long ago chosen a different path from his dodgy father and brother. He's a good man, who nonetheless gets sucked into this violence. What are you saying with that? That you can't escape your past?

Hans Petter Moland: No, I don't think the film is trying to say that. That detail is there to at least give Nels the possibility to access some tools that a complete outsider wouldn't have access to. And also it offers an insight into his character and into his choices in life. Unlike his father and brother he´s chosen an honest life, as snow-plow driver. The real irony is that he's named Citizen of the Year, and then the first thing he does is go out and kill people. [Laughs] It says something about how civilised he is at heart. I think Nels considers himself a more upstanding or more civilised man than he really is, which I think actually goes for most of us. It's easy to have high thoughts of yourself until you're really put to the test.

Question: Obviously your original version of this starred Stellan Skarsgård, who you are now directing in your next movie, Out Stealing Horses. Did you talk to him about remaking this with Liam Neeson? Was he jealous? Does it feel like you're cheating on him a little, or like you've gone on holiday to the same place, with a new partner?

Hans Petter Moland: [Laughs] No, not at all. Although Stellan is very happy with the original, he has a very good life and has plenty to do in other films. He´s very well respected among his peers as a fantastic actor – including Liam, by the way, who is a great fan of his. So I think they both respect each other's work. More than anything, the fact that the film is being remade with a terrific actor is a compliment to Stellan, because it says it needs someone of the calibre of Liam to pull it off. We did talk about it and he was quite fine with it. He just said, 'Be brave. Go make a great film.'

Tales In The Snow

Screenwriter Frank Baldwin had a killer assignment: Transfer a great Norwegian thriller into America's crime subculture " and make it feel dangerous and funny.

Creating the narrative scaffolding for a collection of characters to not only face each other, but face the issues and indignities they carry inside of them, was no small task. Luckily, novelist and screenwriter Frank Baldwin had a handle on Cold Pursuit from the get-go. When producer Michael Shamberg approached Baldwin with the assignment, Baldwin's first duty was to see Hans Petter Moland's In Order of Disappearance, and then reimagine the story in the modern American West. As the pieces came together, maintaining the tone and humor of Moland's original film was crucial, as was weaving a rich, new tapestry that did justice to American characters living in complicated scenarios.

Question: This story, and Nels Coxman's journey, has a lot going on besides a search for justice, doesn't it?

Frank Baldwin: It does. It has a lot of layers in it, all of which were baked into Hans Petter's original film. For me, it was important that you not lose those layers in its transference to an American movie. And there were all sorts of things that I thought was subtle in the story that worked " including that Nels has to kidnap the son of the villain, and has to break the cycle that he couldn't do with his own son, by essentially saving the villain's son. And that's at a point in the movie when Nels appears to be a character who's almost irredeemable, and has stooped low, and yet that is the source ultimately of his redemption, if he has it.

Question: Nels is a man who tried to redeem himself, but after his son's death is on the precipice between the good and bad sides of life.

Frank Baldwin: What helped me conceptualize the story is when I thought of Nels as a guy who has violence in his blood. His father was a gangster, his brother is a gangster, and he turned his back on that road. He shoved that down inside of him and has lived a peaceful life out in the wilderness, working his honest job and doing his simple task. He's kind of a simple guy. And so the journey for Nels is he has to take the road not taken and in this late stage in his life, go into the life that he turned his back on. And it's terrifying when someone like that finds out, 'Oh, I can do this.'

Question: The connection to White Bull " it's almost an emotional parallel, or maybe a matter of connected but not quite similar paths " is fascinating. In the original film, this gang that opposed the main villain were Serbians. White Bull's motivations are much more complex, aren't they?

Frank Baldwin: Well, the idea of turf and territory has special meaning when it comes to Viking and White Bull. Because here's Viking thinking, 'This is my turf, my father was here before me' " and of course White Bull's gang has a special sensibility to being screwed over, and to defending what they know is theirs. If you harken back to the old, the idea of the West, White Bull's white gang is indigenous to Colorado and has been for a long time. So you have this uneasy truce that's existed for a long time between White Bull and Viking due to a misunderstanding involving Nels's son that winds up making White Bull upset, and it results in total war.

Question: Even Viking's nickname evokes a colonizing force coming into existing lands, and the violence that accompanies that. Whereas White Bull is a man of honor.

Frank Baldwin: That's right. And at the end of the day, he made a deal and he upheld it, and the deal was broken on him. And ultimately he is a criminal who sets out to do what he said to do " without giving anything away " but in a more powerful sense. One of the major points of Hans Petter's movie, here as in the original film, is that revenge is not worth it.

Question: The way the film develops its sense of humor, which can sometimes be snide or edgy, is crucial to understanding their tension and especially how in this tough, often villainous world, there are barriers between people that rear up and are even used as a sort of bargaining chip, correct?

Frank Baldwin: Nels' intention, in Cold Pursuit as in the original film, is that it's good to 'take the piss out of everybody,' to use the British expression. Nobody in the film is exempt from being made fun of, including the Native American characters, and including Nels himself. It all serves a purpose. Like when they go to a morgue and they're raising Nels' son's body up on a gurney, and it's the worst possible moment, but while it's not being played for laughs, there is also the idea that, this is taking too long to get the body up so they can see it. Throughout the movie is a sense of nobody is exempt from the perhaps awfulness of things, the folly of human existence.

Question: It's a terrific mix with White Bull and his gang, because for instance, in a scene at the hotel, they raise their eyebrows when a hotel employee uses the word "reservation." They're using this to get what they want. It's irreverent. And later White Bull is in the hotel gift shop, and he quietly looks at Native American clothing being sold that we see is actually made in China, and White Bull looks at some of the cheesy sculptures in the shop that turn his tribal legacy into something kitschy to be sold cheap to tourists. The line between all of that is well-handled.

Frank Baldwin: Yes, and remember, the Native Americans in the film are a crime cartel too, and while they and their history were handled respectfully, it was still important at times to see that their personalities and quirks were able to provide a bit of fun, just as with Viking's gang….The film has a balance of both real stakes and irreverent humor.

Cold Pursuit
Release Date: February 7th, 2019