Resurrecting The Rock: George Tillman, Jr., Talks ‘Faster’

After a seemingly endless run of family films, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has made his long awaited return to the action genre with Faster, a gritty revenge thriller about a convicted felon who, upon his release from prison, hunts down the men responsible for the death of his brother. The man tasked with shepherding The Rock’s exodus from kiddie-flick purgatory is George Tillman, Jr., director of last year’s acclaimed Biggie Smalls biopic, Notorious. We caught up with Tillman recently to talk about his collaboration with the pro wrestler-turned-movie star:

One of the more intriguing aspects of this film is that it’s built around three complicated characters, each of whom are given very simple titles: Driver (Johnson), Cop (Billy Bob Thornton), and Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).

Yeah, that was interesting to me, because I felt like Driver, that could be anybody. Or Cop, trying to get back his family, trying to win back respect, that could be anybody. Titles, names, they don’t mean anything. I tried to create the sense that any one of these characters could be one of us walking around today, just to add a little bit more depth that you usually find in an action movie. And I really felt that structure worked. It’s one of the things that really connected me to the material.

What’s the significance of the film’s title?

To me it’s about what the characters are doing in their lives. Sometimes you’re so much about achieving your goal as quickly as you can, and sometimes you stop and wonder how you’re affecting people around you with the choices that you’re making.

I couldn’t help but notice a bit of Eastwood in Dwayne’s performance in this film. What sort of references did you give him in terms of framing his role?

One of the things we talked about early on was Steve McQueen. Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were those guys in the ‘70s who did the most with the fewest words. McQueen, if you look at Bullitt, The Hunter, and his earlier films, he didn’t say a lot, but he got everything across. I just told Dwayne that I think it’s important if you’re a guy who’s going out to assassinate, going to kill, how do we get the audience behind you right away? A lot of that was dictated by whatever the feeling was, and putting emotion behind his words. Clint Eastwood was able to do that a lot, especially in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, which is referenced by our structure — Killer, Driver, Cop — and how these three lives intersect. But those were the guys we thought of who did it well.

How do you effectively convey that character has undergone a change, like Dwayne’s character does in Faster, without resorting to some kind of grand epiphany scene?

The key is to stay grounded, in the dramatic sense, in reality. Because I really feel like, when something major happens, we change, but we don’t really go 180 degrees. It’s a little bit at a time, and I think that’s all you really need.

At the end, when you see him driving off into the sunset, you feel like he sees things in a different light, but he could go back, he could do something if you set him off on the wrong path. But you do sense that he learned something.

On one end you have Dwayne, who appears very patient, very measured. On the other you have Billy Bob Thornton, who looks like he could go off at any moment.

That’s the kind of personality that I love. You never know what you’re going to get, you know what I mean? The good thing about it is the positive is always great. We had a great time working together throughout the whole shoot. This will give you a good example: We had a script supervisor that we brought in later in the movie, and she was always telling Billy Bob things like, “Okay, you’ve got to hold this here, and do this there.” And he’s like, “Hey, I’ve only been doing this for like 25 years. But if you want me to, George, I’ll do it.” Then she came back again with something else, and he was like, “You know what? Let’s do the next take.” And in the next take, he just started talking about some s**t in Arizona, some s**t that he did when he was a kid, and I was like, “What the f** is he doing?” [Laughs] But he was just upset that someone was trying to tell him how to do all his things. And I was like, “You know what? That was on me. I wanted you to that.” Just to get it off her. And he was like, “Ahh, cool.” And him and the script supervisor became great friends. There’s just a certain way that things have to be done. But you know what? The thing about it is he was always there, joking around with the crew, with the guys. He’s just a great guy, and I like guys that bring it.

Faster is now playing in theaters everywhere.