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August 2007
WAR: An Interview with Director Philip G. Atwell

An Interview with Director Philip G. Atwell

By Wilson Morales

August 20, 2007

When you have an action film that stars Jet Li and Jason Statham, you don’t have to go far when hiring a director. All you want is someone who can effective execute scenes and make the film work, almost like a video. Philip G. Atwell is a director who’s known for directing music videos for 50 Cent, Xzibit and others, but he’s also directed TV episodes for ‘The Shield’ and when the time came to step up to the big leagues, it doesn’t get any better than doing an action packed film. In his making film debut with ‘War’, Atwell has the story centered on a An FBI Agent seeking vengeance on a mysterious assassin known as "Rogue" who murdered his partner. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Atwell talks about the transition from videos to film, working with Jet Li and Jason Statham, and working the fight choreographer.

How did you do from directing music videos, to doing TV episodes like ‘The Shield’ to directing a film with Jet Li and Jason Statham?

Philip Atwell: It was a little behind the scenes hard work that has paid off. As you said, I did a couple of episodes of ‘The Shield’ and I also got to do some second unit directing on ‘National Treasure’ that turned out to be another successful hit for Jerry Bruckheimer. In terms of myself, I was just doing things that build and lead to doing this film. I was developing a script with Steve Chasman, who’s a co-producer, that had Jason Statham in mind for it specifically. We spent a couple of months working on it and then decided to put that project on the backburner at the same that a script came that started to develop some momentum. Based on my relationship and the work that we were doing, he asked me if I wanted to look at it and that we could approach Lionsgate together about me directing it. I read the script and was told that Jet Li was attached to it. I don’t know who turns down a Jet Li film, so I wasn’t go to be one of them.

How has the transition been so far?

PA: Well, I feel like… the reality for directors that come out of the music video world is that there is a lot of wait and see by the industry. A lot of people are a little hesitant. I think that there have been some directors thatr have come before and unfortunately their films weren’t that successful that people would have liked them to have been. It sort of cast a view of music video directors and there are lot of these guys that can easily make the transition in film world, but there’s a certain stigma that goes along with it and it makes it tough for everyone else. With respect to myself, I personally feel I’m still part of that conversation that goes, ‘He hasn’t done a film yet’ and ‘We want to wait to see how your film does’. I’m excited that the film is coming out and that I got the first film out of the way and let’s see what happens with the next one.

Does it make it a bit easier to do a film where most the story is all action?

PA: Most of the videos that I have done and a large majority of it, especially the ones that I gravitate to the most, they were all narrative and it was really about the music and we were really trying to tell a story, and in most cases, without dialogue. If you are to tell a story within three minutes and then make a film for ninety minutes, I don’t think it as difficult as some may think. I always had it in the back of mind to do something difficult. I haven’t met anyone who only wanted to do music videos. Folks have aspirations to moving on and doing films or TV work or other aspects of production and not being stuck with music videos. Videos are a great training ground and it’s a place where you can actually do some real life experience where… some film students don’t really get to do the same thing that you can or that they don’t have the same pressure when doing a music video.

How was working with Jet Li?

PA: Both of those guys are class acts and very professional. I’ve been very fortunate to be around people and realize that when it’s about the work, the work comes out so much more important and when you’re not the focus of it, and there are no egos that get in the way in terms of ‘the camera needs to focus on me’ or ‘this needs to be focused on me’, it’s a good thing, a good situation.

What would you say was the hardest shot to do?

PA: I’ll be honest and say that I’ve been that questions a few times and I don’t if I did anything in the film that was hard from a directorial standpoint. From a producer’s standpoint, they had more challenges than I did. My difficulties came with trying to fit in as much stuff that I wanted to do in the compounds of the budgetary constraints. Most directors want to do a lot than what we are allotted to do.

How was working with martial arts choreographer Corey Yuen?

PA: That was cool. Corey and I worked hard in trying to come up with a unique style to the fighting and to some of the action scenes. He’s receptive and at the same time when you hire someone like Corey, you also have to let him do his thing as well. I try to be as open and honest to the thing that you want and I’m always one to be open to interpretation and creativity from the people I work with. Corey has worked with Jet and Jason before, and there already an established relationship there and I felt comfortable because they knew that he would be doing the fight choreography and no one had a problem with that so I felt really comfortable with that.

Who do you think the audience will root for? Both Jet Li and Stathan are well liked.

PA: Well, you have to remember that Jet Li was introduced to America as the bad guy in ‘Lethal Weapon 4’, and really was in a position to steal the movie away from two big actors and became the thing that you wanted to see; and then in own right, he took on his own projects where he was the good guy. Now, he’s the bad guy again and he hadn’t done this in a while. That was really cool. With Jason, he and Jet have captured a certain demographic of audiences that appreciate the work that they do. As the story unfolds, it calls for certain actors to do certain things in certain moments. I try to stay out of who’s going to get the best of who. What stands out is the story as oppose the battle between Jet and Jason.

What’s next for you?

PA: I’m doing a lot of reading now and looking forward to doing something fresh and that speaks to me. There’s a multitude of reasons why you take your first film. A lot of it is to get somewhere else and I’m looking to my voice in the business.

WAR opens on August 24, 2007


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