‘Now You See Me’ Director Louis Leterrier: ‘Movies Are Never Finished’

By  · Published on May 31st, 2013

Now You See Me must’ve been director Louis Leterrier’s way of cleansing his palate. He’s coming off Clash of the Titans, a movie’s which problems were well covered upon its release. That hokey 3D conversion aside, it’s a film Leterrier doesn’t sound exceedingly pleased with. He’s not ashamed, as he points out in our chat, but the final product isn’t a representation of who he is as a filmmaker: someone who wants to make adventure movies, not “action” movies.

Now You See Me is more in tune with Leterrier’s interests. It’s a movie that doesn’t rely solely on set pieces, but rather the charm of its cast and the strength of the script. If there’s a dull spot, a big ‘ol Kraken or a heavily bearded Liam Neeson can’t show up to provide the missing energy. It has to always be there for this type of movie to work. Good thing Leterrier’s movie is chalk full of actors who can make IKEA directions sound exciting.

Speaking of excited, that’s something Leterrier certainly was in our extended chat with the man. If you want to know why he never needs to own a suit, read ahead.

For a summer movie, Now You See Me is different in how it’s less about set pieces and really relies on the charm of its cast. Have you been looking for a project of this scale for a while now?

You know, it was never meant to be a summer movie. It’s a little movie that was supposed to come out between the big movies [Laughs]. I remember after Clash and working with James Cameron on Fantastic Voyage, which was a big one, there was this special project for me, Now You See Me. It was this great, great script which I just loved. When I signed onto the project, it was a 40 million dollar movie, so it was never big. It grew with the cast, but the money we had to make the film remained the same. It was originally set for March, right after the winter movies. Then it tested well and people liked it, that’s when they decided to move it to the summer. If you think about it, it has set pieces, but it’s more of the magic trick set pieces. Each trick has a three act structure, like a great action sequence does. They are just very different.

As a director, does it feel different making a movie like this versus The Incredible Hulk?

No. I mean, I approach all the movies the same way. You try to get the best performances, make a kinetic and immersive experience, and use the camera in a way the audience feels like they’re inside of the movie. Since Transporter it’s always been about making things as fun and exciting with the actors.

Since the Transporter was your first movie and you collaborated again with Luc Besson afterwards, I have to ask, what did you learn from that experience?

He’s a great producer/filmmaker. I miss that as a director. When I was an operator or editor, I got to work with a lot of directors, always learning on the job. I never thought I would become a director. I always thought I’d do everything else. In a sense, I was always like, “Oh my God, this guy is great or horrible talking to the actors! Why did he put the camera there? That makes no sense.” I miss that. Working with Luc in a director/producer relationship, it’s very interesting because it’s very…he’ll be, like, “Let me tell you how I would shoot this scene,” and then I’ll come back with with an idea. We help each other.

There are many great producers, and more great ones than bad ones. Sometimes with a producer you’ll think, “Why are you on the set? You’re doing nothing. You’re not helping me.” With Luc, it’s not like that. The final product is the most important thing, trying to put as much money on the screen. I love working with him, and it was the same feeling with Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci. They know how to tell a story, and a story is what’s most important. This J.J. Abrams school of thought is very interesting to me, with one shot being able to tell 10,000 things or how to save money on a shot of four people eating around table. You don’t need a crane to shoot that stuff, so put that money into this gigantic opening shot of Las Vegas. These are the great collaborations I strive for and want to happen over and over again.

Since you didn’t see yourself becoming a director, when was the first time you said “I am a filmmaker”?

[Laughs] Well, it hasn’t happen yet! You know, you’re like the second interview I’ve done for this, because I’m not a publicist whore or something. Nobody recognizes me on the street. I’m just a guy in the shadows making movies, and I like it that way. Also, the way I happened to become a director was very fortunate but strange. I’m still kind of ashamed about it. For The Transporter, I was the second assistant director on that movie. The director never showed up, and because the first AD didn’t want to, I ended up directing the movie. You know, from that day, I never really feel like I’ve started. I was never, you know, here’s “me” [as a director]! From movie to movie to movie to movie, I feel like the guy people think about as, “What is he doing?”

The other night there was this dinner at the DGA with all the directors in the world. You’re around a table with Chris Nolan, Kathryn Bigelow, and other amazing directors. It’s funny, I want them to know who I am, but no one knows! I feel like there’s someone there going, “Who is this guy? Get him out of here! This is an exclusive club for very talented people.”

[Laughs] You do have some critical cred with Unleashed.

Again, there is some good stuff and bad stuff in every movie. Scorsese says watch every movie, because there are moments of genius, whether it’s the entire movie, the first act, the final scene, one scene, or one shot. Really, everyone is giving their best to the movie. But, you know, between the actors and the reign of a studio…a scene could get cut if an audience doesn’t like something, and it’s just one audience’s opinion. At the end of the day, every movie changes.

Politics are very heavy in this town, which is why producers are very important. You need to be protected. If you’re not protected, everyone is slashing at every idea you have. Ultimately, the end of a movie is the profit, with everyone wanting to make a buck. You know, it depends. I know what kind of movies I’m making, which I like making too. I feel like you can make greatly entertaining but critically popular movies, and I’m always looking or striving for those movies. It’s not me saying, “Well, I’ll go this far.” No, I’ll do this or that.

I’ll tell you what, I had complete control on Unleashed. I directed, produced, chose the musician, picked the costumes, and everything. I never had anyone saying, “I don’t like this and I don’t like that.” The studio, Universal, were easy. It was this weird movie no one cared about. That’s the one people like the most, because they recognize it’s a real part of you. This is as close as I’ve gotten to that, from cast members to locations to the way we wanted to shoot. Again, it’s really all about freedom. You can make good movies about freedom.

I find your DGA story funny, because, when you think about it, your movies have considerably higher box-office numbers than Kathryn Bigelow’s.

Well, she did Point Break! [Laughs] Yeah, it’s true, I’m the youngest highest grossing French director. I have a few records, but no one knows or simply doesn’t care. That’s good, because I like that. Ultimately, I want to keep working, making a lot of movies, and get better at it. It’s about finding great scripts and bringing them to life. For me, it’s a chase. If you start doing stuff for box-office success, that’s when you start opening yourself up for failure. That’s when you fail.

But it’s good having box-office success, though.

Of course. That’s the thing, I don’t know. Yes, it’s great, but I got less out of Clash of the Titans than, say, Unleashed and hopefully this one. Clash of the Titans made 500 million dollars, which is a lot of cash for a movie that didn’t cost that much. I think Warners made more money on that than they did on Inception. You know, it just cost less money. Look at Blade Runner. As you know, it made no money. No one went to see that movie, but if it wasn’t Ridley Scott or someone obscure, the guy would still be working constantly off that revolutionary movie which made no money. No one remembers the box-office after the first week, unless you’re Avatar.

Do you remember the box-office? Is that important for how you view your work?

Well, no [Laughs]. It’s funny, a lot of people went to see Clash of the Titans, but a lot of people really didn’t like that movie. I don’t think it’s because of the movie…they hated the conversion and just didn’t like that character, Perseus. He was just angry for so long. Both are my fault, and I accept that. My favorite moment is when someone says, “I like Unleashed. Now You See Me is so much fun.” That’s what I want to do: smart, fun and big movies. I cannot lie, I love working with those big paint brushes. I have a blast doing these movies.

Based on what you’ve said and what I’ve heard, there’s generally a condescension towards action directors. Have you seen Iron Man 3 yet?

No, I haven’t. I’ve been so busy. I will see it.

Shane Black has said when starting off, he was very much looked down on by his peers for making action movies. Do you feel that way?

Yeah, yeah, the critics do, but the studios…I mean, we’re the first guys they go to for the big stuff. None of us own a tuxedo, though, because none of us need one [Laughs]. We’ll never go to the Oscars! I have to say, I’m not an “action” director. I don’t love action movies. I haven’t seen Iron Man 3 because I don’t run to see those movies on their opening, but I’ll run to see David Fincher’s next movie or something. Those are the movies I’m a true fan of. Like, Korean cinema is the most amazing cinema in the world. I don’t love doing action and making those shot lists, you know?

I hear what you’re saying. We’re not regarded well. It’s funny, I’m in that box, but slowly getting out of it. Clash of the Titans got me back into it, since it was more of an action movie. With The Incredible Hulk, I’ve been trying to get out of it and the same with Now You See Me. You know, there’s magic fight scenes, but it’s not really an action movie. I don’t want to do an action movie. I know it’s semantics, but, to me, my movies are more adventure movies than actions. By adventure, I mean the characters are at the center while the big action happens to them. I saw Star Trek Into Darkness yesterday, and that’s more of an adventure movie than an action movie, even though there is wall-to-wall action. Again, it’s semantics, but it helps me feel better about myself [Laughs].

[Laughs] It makes sense. You could argue Now You See Me represents this kind of film to a degree, but do you have the desire to make a “characters talking in rooms” type of movie?

Yeah. It depends what, though. I don’t know if I’d be great at it, but I’d just need to find my stride. I don’t know if I’d be great at doing Downtown Abbey. There’s a script out there called Looking Glass, which is three people onboard of an airplane. There’s zero action in the script. That’s interesting to me. I love Moon, for example. That’s a great, interesting movie.

Even though you’re a few films in, are you still learning everyday?

Oh yeah, everyday is the scariest day of your life. You make it look like you know what you’re doing and you’re sure with your shot lists, storyboards, and everything, but, ultimately, it’s the scariest thing ever. On the kind of movies I make, you have two or three units and, with this cast, they can smell bullshit [Laughs]. If someone doesn’t know what they’re doing, they’re out of there. You have to really know your stuff. At the same time, you need to allow for improvisation and seed the moments, to find a great moment or what have you. Basically, you’re always driving 80 miles an hour on an icy road. You may be going in the wrong direction, but you’re always heading towards the end of the movie. There’s always the feeling of being amazed, but you need that safety net, that little patch on the road without ice. We’re ice road truckers, where things can be terrifying and exciting.

When you have this unbelievable cast and you talk to them ‐ and they know your name, kind of ‐ you find a communication. It was smooth on this, where everyone was on the same page. It was like harmony in a glee club. You’re just like, “That’s amazing! Hold that note everyone!” I’m the conductor with these amazing musicians.

You know, it is sometimes pretty scary. This stuff happens. You find a way to get through something, though. What was tough on this movie was everything was very technical. Everybody was playing stuff they’re not used to playing. Michael can play whatever, but this wasn’t something where everyone was in their comfort zone. Woody wasn’t playing Woody, Jesse wasn’t playing Jesse, and all that. There was some doubts, because it wasn’t like everyone was used to doing this sort of thing. This wasn’t a very expensive movie to make, but we shot it in 69 days in four countries and four cities, moving the whole crew around. This was a very fast shoot.

When are the days where directing doesn’t feel like you’re an ice road trucker? Are you ever fully satisfied after a day’s work?

There are small victories. As a filmmaker…it’s interesting, think about a mountain you have to climb or whatever you have to reach, you can never do it. You are stricken by paralysis. I have seen that happen with directors, assistant directors, and people who go, “We can’t do it. We don’t do it.” And then…my assistant is going to go to the bathroom! Goodbye, enjoy!

[Laughs] I’ll make sure to include this.

Yes, please include that! You can be stricken by paralysis, but I don’t feel that way. What’s very satisfying is when you get your shot with one or two takes. Everyone will tell you they scratch their storyboards, and I do like a maniac. I like filing stuff away. I start a movie with a big headache. When you get that one shot, then the first week, the first month, and then the second or third act, it’s over. You find those small incredibly satisfying moments, especially when you see it all in editing. There are times where you’re going, “Oh, why did I shoot it this way?” There are also times where the stuff you hated you become pleased with. You discover new things. This is what I like about this job: it’s scary and rewarding everyday. There is never a dull day [Laughs]. There’s always something to do. It’s not just a job, it’s a passion, religion, a way of life, and, as James Cameron calls it, it’s war. You don’t win every battle. Even a great general has to lose some battles, whether it’s the cast or whatever.

What you take as a loss can sometimes turn into something fresh or new. You can get an idea from an actor. With actors of this level, they come in tremendously prepared. Rehearsing is when the craziest ideas can be totally exposed and explore, but on the set, you can still come in prepared and try new versions. For the actors, I’m extremely respectful. Sometimes if a line doesn’t feel right, they can change just a little thing to make it more comfortable. They give you options.

I haven’t done the best movies ever, but I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done. There are directors who go, “Oh, I hate that movie. The studio did this!” That movie is your identity, though. You carry that for the rest of your life.

Do you still have that headache once the movie is over? And, for you, when is the movie truly finished?

Movies are not finished. They are abandoned. A movie is never finished. Right now I’m here at Skywalker Sound doing a remix for the extended cut of the movie. I’m not one of those directors who thinks, “This is genius! Don’t ever touch it again!” I’m, like, “Oh, yeah, we can evolve.” Something can always be better. It’s not really a headache I start with, but more of a stuffed head, an excitement. It’s, like, I’m hungry. I’m ready to devour filmmaking. Being on set, there’s a weird energy. On my sets, it’s fun and fast. We shoot stuff all the time. It’s a really great time, like, summer camp. You’ll start a movie thinking, “This guy looks like the worst AD ever!” By the end, you’ll be thinking, “I don’t ever want to do a movie without you! You’re my best friend!” It’s always like that. By the end, it’s more personal. They’re like your family.

Now You See Me is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.