David Koepp is no stranger to a solid action movie — he was the screenwriter for Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man before he turned his eye towards directing — and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, 500 Days of Summer, and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises) is slowly becoming a familiar name paired with Hollywood’s best movies, big and small. The duo of creatives have joined forces for this week’s Premium Rush, a chase thriller that leaves behind the usual over-the-top tropes in favor of crazy stunts and a unique world: New York City bike messengering. If anyone could pull it off, it was these two, and the off-beat premise works. Koepp’s intimate action flick wows with on-location stunts and zippy dialogue to match, with Gordon-Levitt and an army of stuntmen making it all look easy as pie.
Turns out, Premium Rush wasn’t so easy to actually get in the can. Unless you think flying through the window of a taxi cab is “easy.” I sat down with Koepp and Gordon-Levitt to discuss how the two brought the innovative stunts to life without spending too many days in the hospital:
Hollywood.com: Premium Rush is about the thrills of zipping through New York City traffic on a bike, but it’s also about being absolutely in love with that feeling. It made wonder: do the two of you remember when you learned to ride a bike?
David Koepp: I remember vividly my kids learning to ride, because it happened recently. I remember my son Nick was learning to ride the bike and it was just killing him. He just kept falling. He could hold the bike, but he couldn’t stay up. It was one wipeout after another. I remember he brought it back to the house at one point and threw it on the porch and said, ‘Don’t ever make me go on this horror machine again!’ I love ‘horror machine.’ He got it one day.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I was probably six or seven, something like that. Growing up with an older brother… they can do everything, you can’t do anything! There was that. I remember it as a truly magic moment. And I mean magic as in unexplainable. You don’t know why now it’s working and ten minutes ago it wasn’t. It’s not like you figured it out in your conscious head or anything. Now it works, now you can do it. So quickly this thing that was impossible… you don’t remember why you would fall over. It’s just natural.
And then (no pun intended) you feel ‘the rush.’ Which is why I love your character in the film. He just loves biking so damn much. David, how did you become enthralled by this love and the world of biking?
Koepp: I live [in New York City] and you see bike messengers and they almost hit you all the time. And you wonder, who are those a**holes? And I like a movie that takes place in a contained period of time or a contained place. I had this image in my head of what I called a ‘map movie.’ I wanted to see a map and a guy who had to get from point A to point B.
Gordon-Levitt: So that’s the reason the movie takes place between Harlem and Chinatown?
Koepp: Kinda [Laughs]. It takes you all the way down and all the way across. Columbia [University] and Chinatown, and that’s how those evolved among other reasons, then I wanted him to do it on a bike because I hadn’t seen bikes going through the streets of New York and it seemed like an incredible cinematic opportunity that I hadn’t seen since Quicksilver [dir. Thomas Michael Donnelly, 1986].
I was surprised to see the bike messengering community being so close-knit and vivid.
Koepp: They’re really tight. Online there is the New York Bike Messenger Association and I just started reading that. It’s a really tight community. So we then started meeting a few of them. As advisors for the movie, but they’re also in the movie. What I loved about it is that they have an ethos, and a really simple one. ‘I want to ride my bike.’ And that’s it. You look for more, but it isn’t there. ‘I want to ride my bike. If I can get paid to do it, all the better.’
Gordon-Levitt: I found strong sentiments in that community of environmentalism — more bikes, less cars. I found a lot of people really quite conscious of the fact that riding a bike, which comes from a basic love from when you’re a kid… that if more people rode bikes and less people drove cars, that the world would be a better place.
It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.
Gordon-Levitt: And a statement.
We featured a video on the site where real life bike messenger/your stuntman Austin Horse…
Koepp: Isn’t that a great name?
The perfect stuntman name, in fact. Watching him speak, Horse exudes that lifestyle. Did you learn about the biker character through him? Did he bleed into the performance?
Gordon-Levitt: Certainly. He’s a very different guy than the character I play in the movie. Austin is gentle, mild-mannered and extremely considerate, whereas Wilee is more of a balls-out punk rocker on two wheels. But once Austin gets on a bike… it’s kind of funny to see because he’s a modest dude who gets on a bike and he’s like a superhero. He turns heads. I rode around with him — we’d go for rides on the weekends — and people turn their heads and watch him.
Koepp: The first time we shot him, he said, ‘How fast do you want me to go?’ And we said, ‘Well, go as fast as you can go.’ And he says, ‘Well, I can go pretty fast.’ And I thought: ‘We have cars.’ So it’s take one and he was just gone. There was no prayer of keeping up with him. So I say, ‘Cut… eh, take a little off it.’ [Laughs] A motorcycle would do much better weaving with him. There’s a fluidity to it that’s amazing.
Gordon-Levitt: It’s beautiful. Anytime you see someone do something with a God-given talent, when they’re that excellent at it… and that’s at the core of these action scenes. It’s not some grand, CG whatever. It’s about really talented guys doing things for real.
Koepp: Being able to admire what real people can do. It was important that it was a stunt movie. The actors always wanted to do more than we would let them do. I think it’s an incredible physical accomplishment.
Reality is a key component of this movie. What were the logistics of shooting on the actual streets of New York, trying to pull off stunts while surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city?
Koepp: It was a nightmare. It was really, really, really f**king hard. I’m happy when people say, ‘It looked like so much fun!’ because that means you didn’t see us sweat. The city is tough. It’s uncontrollable. A New York City ‘lock up’ doesn’t exist. You think you have it but then a diplomat drives over the cones in your lane and makes Joe crash. Or a SWAT team barrels through [laughs]. There’s never total control.
How does that work for the acting side of things? There is a lot of talking and riding in this movie. Is having an element of danger helpful to the performance?
Koepp: [To Gordon-Levitt] You know, we never talked about that.
Gordon-Levitt: The time when the SWAT team barreled through was not helpful for my performance [laughs].
Yikes, no actual accidents I’d hope.
Gordon-Levitt: Oh no, there were accidents. One really bad one.
Koepp: Do you still have that? [Gordon-Levitt lifts up his right arm to reveal a scar.] Oh. Sorry about that.
Gordon-Levitt: This is 11 of the stitches. The other 21 of them are scattered around. What’s cool though is that you actually put it at the end of the movie after the credits.
Koepp: It was a scary moment. So we had three lanes of 6th Avenue closed. Joe’s riding uptown and all there is is our stunt cars and our stunt drivers. And the rule is the stunt cars can’t change lanes — only the guy on the bike can change lanes. He’s got weavability and no one is going to cut him off. So a diplomat in an SUV in the free lanes decides he doesn’t like the traffic. So he drives over the cones and into our lane, right as we call action. So here comes Joe at 30 mph and the guy cuts him off. Then the diplomat, who I’m sure is an a**hole from some awful country (although we never found out which), is also angry and decides he’s going to get out of his car and yell at people. Now Joe has to use his Bike-O-Vision [Wilee’s stylistic Spidey Sense in Premium Rush]: he can either go straight and hit the guy (doesn’t seem like a good idea), swerve to the right into live traffic where they aren’t expecting you, or go this way where you can’t tell what’s up there but, fingers crossed, there’s nothing and you’ll be OK. So you go with that. Except there’s a cab. He crashes through the back windshield of the cab and cut himself to ribbons. It was awful, because there was about 30 seconds between his crash and the moment I hear it, so I have to go check if he’s dead or not. That was the worst part for me.
Gordon-Levitt: You get so flooded with adrenaline that I didn’t feel any pain at all. Not until later that night. I flew off the handlebars and went through the windshield and I was immediately like, ‘Oh s**t, sorry! I’m fine.’ And then you look at it and you’re like, ‘Oh Jesus Christ, look at that!’ Dave comes running up really scared, really nervous. I told him, ‘You have to record this!’ I cajoled him, after lots of convincing, to take out his phone and shoot some video of me bleeding and the broken glass. To my delight, when I saw the movie he actually put the footage in after the credits.
Koepp: When you got it….
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[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures/Premium Rush Tumblr]