From Dundalk to Hollywood, John Moore has made quite a name for himself bringing action to the big screen. His feature film career began when he directed Gene Hackman in Behind Enemy Lines; he then remade the classic Flight of the Phoenix, shot a film version of Max Payne – a video game with over 11 million players, remade The Omen, an iconic horror, and has now directed the latest instalment of Die Hard.
Steven Galvin talks to the Irish director who’s making a big bang on the action scene.
You started off at Dublin Institute of Technology and spent time at Filmbase – can you tell us a bit about your memories of that time?
Well, happy, excited. Honestly, if I had stopped to think about it, I would have been terrified, would have thought ‘You better get a real job’. But there WAS this sense of ‘collective’. Remember, no mobile phones, no internet, no social networking so the only thing to do was gather at a coffee shop or at Filmbase (which was a run-down, wonderfully dusty little nook), and chat and feed off the collective belief that we could make stuff, make images, movies, music…so exciting. Honestly? I haven’t really captured that sense of wonderment since then. I think I was very lucky in that I was around a bunch of people, a little older than me and mostly Dubliners who I looked up to, thought were really smart, impressive individuals I could learn from – I felt genuinely grateful to be allowed ‘in’. It was SO damn exciting and we had nothing, really nothing: no money, not a lot of equipment… just this damn excitement that we could actually FILM something and that someone might watch it!!!
You then worked as a news cameraman and moved onto shooting commercials – that must have been a great learning curve.
Well, what happened was a short intro to video camera stuff at RTÉ, then SKY was allowing guys to be around camera, then a rejection from the BBC, and then we formed the ClingFilms collective, consisting of Harry Purdue, Paul Fitzgerald, Damien O’ Donnell and myself. We’d all been at Rathmines together and so we did our thing in music videos for a while, some shorts including the wonderful 35 Aside, which Damien wrote and directed. I started working as an assistant cameraman or clapper loader during that wonderful boom in Irish production in the early- and mid-1990s. I then did some fake commercials to get a showreel going and got picked up to go work in South Africa. They were just emerging from the apartheid regime and their economy and advertising industry really boomed. Exciting times – I didn’t really know what I was doing: 25, in a strange city, alone! But I knuckled through, fake it ‘til you make it. Then I started getting work in Dublin, London and eventually the US and that work led to the movies. I was lucky.
Behind Enemy Lines was your first feature film – there’s an interesting story behind you getting that…
More luck. I did a relatively big commercial for a new games console (which promptly tanked, taking Sega with it!). It aired to some pomp and self-importance at the MTV Music Video Awards – remember this is 1999, music vids were bigger than the Oscars®! So the story goes that an executive at Fox saw the commercial and brought it to their boss, studio head Tom Rothman and he was working on making Behind Enemy Lines happen with producer John Davis (who has made some landmark movies like Predator and Waterworld) and they were looking for a director. They literally called me – I was shooting an Eircom commercial with Riss Russell in Budapest at the time. I jumped on a plane, met them and they hired me!
And was it daunting being in control of such a massive Hollywood production for an Irishman’s first feature?
Again, I didn’t stop to think. It was too exciting to be daunting. And I had gained a bit of experience by then, so I thought, ‘Just go for it’.
What was it like working with Gene Hackman?
Quite surreal but thrilling. He was so damn professional and kind, really all you have to do is point the camera at Gene and he does the rest. And I know how to point – everyone does!
Coming to Die Hard, what do you think it is about the series that has made it so successful?
Bruce – he’s charming and unique, real and identifiable. Harry Callaghan, Popeye Doyle, John McClane…
You’ve said that you made a conscious decision not to make it ‘overly jokey’.
Well, indeed. There’s no need: Bruce provides the unique John McClane brand of humor, so no need to pile on top of that. In fact, you go the other way: make it super-serious so that McClane’s humour plays in contrast.
What’s it been like working on a film of this scale?
I was lucky to have my first movie be relatively biggish, in terms of production, so this wasn’t anything we hadn’t attempted before. But it’s not easy, there’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re trying ideas for big stunts and action set-pieces, a lot of moving parts.
And working with Bruce Willis?
I started with Gene Hackman, went on through Dennis Quaid, Liev Schreiber and Mark Wahlberg, all tough, opinionated guys, good at what they do. So Bruce was a natural progression. I know what makes these guys tick.
You opened up the set of Die Hard to Dundalk Institute of Technology student Blaine Rennicks for two weeks.
Yep, something I hope more Irish directors, DOPs, etc. will do – pay it forward, pass the break along and help someone move forward in their career. It’s essential for the growth of the business that we do everything we can to ensure guys like Blaine get the help they deserve to develop a career. It’s an obligation, not voluntary.
You used miniatures on Flight of the Phoenix and have spoken about being on ‘dodgy ground’ with CGI. How did that work for you on Die Hard?
CGI improves almost exponentially – we had a good experience on Die Hard but we still did a huge amount of stunts live-action. Always will.
When you’re working on something so massive, do you ever have moments of ‘Jesus, I’m directing Die Hard!’?
Not really. Does the pilot of a 747 ever have moments of ‘Jesus, I’m flying a Jumbo!’? I hope not!
In general can you tell us a bit about directing action sequences?
Well, that’s a whole big, fun conversation, but the rule is: get great stunt guys who’ll really put it out there for you to film. Action is editing, so lots of cameras, please! And forget masters! You always end up cutting them to bits. That’s it, in short. Oh, and invest in some good ear protection.
What’s the draw for you directing action films?
I love the planning – the idea of being meticulous in the ridiculous. It’s a thrill to plan something for months, years even, and see it all come together in 30 seconds of wonderful, loud mayhem.
You’ve talked before about the fact that story and action don’t have to be mutually exclusive – can you say a little more about this?
What I meant by that was ‘integration’. Action should be a natural, ruling part of the story. A movie shouldn’t feel like it stops for a gratuitous action set-piece – though they often do and the film is the poorer for it. I’ve done it myself and regretted it.
Are there specific things you look for in a script?
Pages. And that they be unstoppably turnable.
What is the development process within the studio system like?
You’ve read Dante’s Inferno? It’s tough, horrible, but like Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst system, apart from all the others.
How involved are you in the post-production process?
Totally and integrally – it’s the best, most creative, least stressful period of a film’s production. Get through shooting, you’ll be fine…
Would you like to take a break from action and take on a different sort of story – perhaps something on a smaller scale?
No– why would I? I love it – but I always am looking for the stories to be better. Zero Dark Thirty is an action movie.
You’ve worked outside of Ireland for most of your career – any plans to return to Ireland to make a film?
I just don’t really know how to answer that. Yes, but what use are plans? I’d love to, but it won’t come out of thin air. I need the right script, the right producer. That’s a hint for anyone reading this.
And finally, what advice would you have for Irish filmmakers working outside of Ireland?
None. Directors don’t take advice – that’s why they’re directors!
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 144 in 2013.