Exclusive: Sylvain White discusses directing ‘The Losers’
As a huge fan of Sylvain White’s Stomp the Yard, a surprisingly thoughtful addition to the growing legacy of urban dance movies that proliferated in recent years, I was intrigued to see what he would do next. Too often, filmmakers with even a little bit of style show a lot of promise but quickly disappear into projects that afford them plenty of visual exercise but precious little else. But it’s a testament to White’s dissatisfaction with a potential career status quo that makes The Losers, his latest film, such an effective piece of entertainment: he clearly not only wanted to bring a strong visual sense, but a measured amount of character development and genuine, coherent storytelling in order to elevate what otherwise might be a thrill ride that is forgotten by the time the credits have rolled.
Hollywood News spoke to White earlier this week via telephone to talk about the film, which is being released nationwide today. In addition to exploring his own artistic impulses, he talked about the film’s uniquely multiethnic cast, and finally hinted at what might be to come if The Losers turns out to be a box office winner.
Hollywood News: In Stomp the Yard, you managed to deliver the meat and potatoes of a dance movie but still made it about the character’s journey, and didn’t overshadow, say, the education and fellowship that the character needed to discover. In this film how did you juggle the demands of delivering action and fun and energy and yet retain the dimensionality of the characters?
Sylvain White: Well, that’s the whole bag of tricks right there. There was a multitude of challenges with this movie; the first thing that was the trickiest was to find the tone of the movie. The comic book has this great combination of action and comedy, and it’s done in kind of a unique way – it’s not Bad Boys, it’s not Lethal Weapon, it’s something different. It’s very unique in that sense, and I wanted to make sure that I was going to be able to translate that into cinematic language in the right way. That was my first task. Second, this was my first action movie, so I had to study very hard to get ready for it just like I studied very hard before making Stomp the Yard, when I studied every dance movie that had been made. For this, I went through all of my top action films that I liked and really tried to study what was good and what was bad about them. I also had a really strong inspiration with the action that came from playing video games; I play a lot of first-person and third-person shooters, and I was really trying to bring in a lot of that aesthetic to the action.
Thirdly, which was the meatiest part out of all of this, was to level all of these characters and work with all of these actors. It’s not like there’s two leads and a bunch of sidekicks, it really feels like all of these five or six characters are important, so I had to make sure that all of the chemistry was working and that was very difficult. Or at least I thought it was going to be, but all of the actors got together and the chemistry was so great that it actually worked out nice. But overall, it was tricky because it had a sort of unique tone and had I feel a pretty original quality that we haven’t seen in a while, and finding that balance took a lot of work.
Hollywood News: You have a really vivid, muscular directorial style. What’s the secret to being able to focus those visual flourishes, such as the freeze-frames in the opening sequence, and make sure they mean something? Or do they need to?
White: There’s a lot of thought that goes behind every frame, and it’s funny how you bring something like that up, because I would sit there with my editor and talk about how long those freeze-frames should be so that you notice them but they don’t call too much attention to themselves, or they don’t feel too gimmicky. But every edit matters, and I spend a lot of time in the editing room; I’m a very hands-on director when it comes to the camera and when it comes to editing. Those things, I love style and I love visuals, and I try to pay close attention to that, but at the same time I’d like it to not take people out of the movie. I don’t want it to be obtrusive, so I ride that line where it feels super-stylized and beautiful; and cool, but at the same time it doesn’t distract you. Hopefully I’ve accomplished that, but that’s what takes so long when you edit – to find the right balance to illustrate your vision.
Hollywood News: As a screenwriter, Peter Berg excels at being able to distill sort of ‘80s action tropes into something fun, contemporary and fresh. Were there any films you looked at, or wanted to draw upon, as you developed the style and tone of the film?
White: Peter Berg was of course a writer on the script, but Jamie Vanderbilt was the main writer; he wrote Zodiac and he wrote The Rundown, interestingly enough, for Pete Berg. But I watched so many films in preparation for this, but I watched everything – all of the action stuff from the last 20 years, a lot of James Bond stuff, a lot of the Bourne movies, Traitor, The Kingdom, all kinds of stuff. And references that you may not even think of, like 21 Grams; I go and I look at lots of different things, and I try to see how things have been done before so I can do them differently. In terms of action, I really looked at everything tonally: all of the Lethal Weapons, I checked, and all the stuff Joel Silver sent, I checked it.
Hollywood News: Given the fact that in a way everything has sort of been done before, how do you gauge the idea of doing something original or unique?
White: I think that’s the trick, but you have to find the right material. I was able to create original visuals because the tone of the movie, from the writing of the comic book was original, and that’s what really sparked me. Like when I read the comic book, I thought, this is something I haven’t seen, and so that shapes how I see the movie, and then I can apply it. But if I got a derivative script, it might be more complex, but there was a seed of originality in the source material that really helped me expand the vision for the aesthetic of the source material, and the tone. Before the visuals for me, it’s the tone of the movie that makes it unique, and then the visual thing is something that comes easy to me. I apply my visual aesthetic and my vision on top of it, but the tone was what really dictated the uniqueness of the film.
Hollywood News: How important is the multi-ethnicity of your cast, either in this film or in your films in general? Is there an impulse to deliberately introduce that variety of faces, or does it just come down to serving the story the best way you think possible?
White: Well, you always want to do that first – you want to serve the story as best as possible. But it is a personal agenda of mine to make movies that at least appeal to a multicultural audience. Not just a multicultural American, audience, but I want to make movies that appeal to a world audience. So having multicultural characters is in fact the way to go, and I am myself multicultural, multinational, and it’s something that’s a sensibility I feel that shapes who I am and I absolutely try to bring to the movies that I make. Especially Stomp was perceived as a very niche film initially, and it was supposed to only get a small release domestically, and I fought really hard because I thought, yeah, it’s about African Americans in the South, it’s about a relatively obscure art form in the mainstream, but let’s use that. It’s new so it’s like a sense of discovery, and kids in Japan can discover what stepping is as well and what it’s like to go to college in the South. I had to fight for that to open the movie up and make it about more than just what it was, and the same thing for me with The Losers. I really pushed for the multicultural cast, and it’s interesting to me because if you look at six of the main cast members, three are African-American, two are Caucasian and one is Latino, but you don’t really watch the movie and think about it. I don’t know how I do that, where it comes from exactly, but I feel like that’s something I bring to the table and that’s from the experience shaped who I am and that it’s reflected in my vision.
Hollywood News: Jason Patric, suffice it to say, doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a film like this. What did you say to him or what sort of brought you two together, especially since he’s really great in the film?
White: Well, interestingly enough, I got really fortunate in how supportive the studio and producers of my choices for cast, and that’s kind of how it went with all of my cast. I really tried to go against type; you know, you could have cast this movie very commercially, and obviously, with all of the usual suspects. But I really wanted a young, up and coming, edgy type of cast, so that was my approach for everyone. The only one I had set in my mind was Columbus Short because I had worked with him [in Stomp the Yard] and from the point I read the screenplay, he was Pooch to me. But Jason Patric was a great example of where I really wanted to cast somebody that had never played a villain in an action movie before, or in fact, in any type of commercial movie. Him kind of being sort of an icon from the ‘80s as well was actually kind of cool, because it helped me bring back that nostalgia, that sort of feel for the ‘80s I think as well. I had seen him in some other independent films – of course I loved him in Narc, where he was absolutely brilliant – but he’s also done a few movies since then in the independent world that were amazing.
He’s such a great character actor, and I thought, I would be so fortunate if I could get this guy who’s an amazing actor to come in and play the villain in a commercial movie. That’s going to help me set it apart again as it was really my intention with every facet of the movie. So I met with him over a basketball game at a bar, and we talked about the character, we talked about the script, and we got along. He’s a really smart guy, and he had some interesting, cool ideas to make the character feel more eccentric, and it was pretty well-written, but he helped bring that edge, that sort of eccentricity that makes him so fun.
Hollywood News: Suffice it to say you wanted to make something self-contained with this film, but it does end ambiguously enough that you could move pretty fluidly into a sequel. How much did you think about either hinting at or holding back should the possibility to make a follow-up arise?
White: The movie is based on the first two volumes of the series, and there’s multitude of volumes in the series. In fact, the comic book offers a lot of opportunities to develop the story further and the characters further, and there’s a really cool character arc and stuff that happens in subsequent volumes, so we actually end the film kind of close to how the first volume and a half ends. We’re kind of following the story in the comic, so of course we’re leaving it open… and I’d love to make another one. It’s such a cool movie, the comic books are so great, the stories that develop in the comic are so cool, and I’d love to do it. I’d love to work again with this cast and I’d love to do this movie again and do a sequel for it. But we’ll see; it all depends on if people like the movie this weekend.
DIRECTOR SYLVAIN WHITE ON “THE LOSERS”