Welcome to the Punch – Eran Creevy interview

Director Eran Creevy discusses channelling John Woo and Michael Mann for his stylish second feature, Welcome to the Punch.

Samuel Wigley
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James McAvoy in Welcome to the Punch

James McAvoy in Welcome to the Punch

London-born director Eran Creevy’s second feature, Welcome to the Punch, finds him moving beyond the social realist terrain of his BAFTA-nominated debut, Shifty (2009), in a bold attempt to create an international-style action movie on home soil.

A crime film set amid the gleaming surfaces and thrusting vertical lines of Canary Wharf, it stars James McAvoy as cop Max Lewinsky, whose career has faltered after taking a bullet in his leg from gangster Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). When his son is injured in a heist gone wrong, Sternwood returns to London from his Icelandic hideaway, giving Lewinsky and his partner Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough) the opportunity to settle a score.

Did you find it was easier to get your second film made based on the success of Shifty?

I think the BAFTA nomination made it so that when a script of mine was put on someone’s desk, it meant that there was a certain amount of interest already there. It wasn’t just coming from someone cold, who’d never done anything before. But having made a film for 100 grand, it was tougher because we wanted to make this film for a few million.

Welcome to the Punch wasn’t necessarily the film that I should have done next. I got offered a lot of similar films to Shifty, working within social realist drama. But I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to do something that was a bit more aspirational. I’m a massive fan of the ‘heroic bloodshed’ era of John Woo in the late 80s and early 90s and I wanted to make some kind of homage to those and Infernal Affairs (2002).

Infernal Affairs (2002)

Infernal Affairs (2002)

There’s a next generation of filmmakers who’ve grown up on a diet of different movies. There is that expectation that you can go into another social realist drama in the vein of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. You had the same thing with Paul Andrew Williams when he made London to Brighton (2006) and then his second film was The Cottage (2008), and Gareth Evans, who made The Raid  – a Welsh filmmaker doing an Indonesian hardcore action movie!

We got the financing based on the screenplay, but it was quite difficult to get traction on the project, to get it moving and get actors attached. That’s why we needed someone with the cachet of Ridley Scott, who came onboard as executive producer.

How did he get involved?

We heard that Scott Free were looking for London-based action cinema screenplays, so we sent the script to Liza Marshall [Head of Film and Television] at Scott Free, who forwarded it on to Ridley. He watched Shifty, read the script and really responded to it, so I flew out to Los Angeles and met him and when I got there he was all ready to go. I thought I was going to have to pitch it, but he was like, “OK, how are we going to get this film made?” So he helped us take it to the next level.

Extract: the heist

Where did the idea for the story come from?

I was recce-ing locations for Shifty and I saw a pub called The Suffolk Punch and I thought it was a really interesting name. Turns out it was a horse, but it sounded like a James Ellroy novel. I changed it to Welcome to the Punch because I remember watching Jarhead (2005) and the tagline was ‘Welcome to the Suck’. I just put the two together.

Often I work backwards and create a film from the title. There’s a few other things I’m writing at the moment: I came upon the phrase ‘Cry Havoc’ from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.” I really liked the title so I started to create a Korean-style revenge tragedy in the vein of Park Chan-wook and Old Boy (2003). I’ve heard that other directors do the same thing: they really like a name and then start to think of scenes and ideas [around it].

In many ways I worked harder on the screenplay for Welcome to the Punch than I did for Shifty. Even though it’s a cops and robbers movie, I was coming at it from a theory angle. When I was shooting the film I was trying to figure out how I could visually represent these two men steam-training towards one another. I wanted to shoot in deep space, with lots of converging lines, concentrating hard on mise-en-scène and trying to make the theme of justice run through every character.

Eran Creevy on set with James McAvoy and Mark Strong

Eran Creevy on set with James McAvoy and Mark Strong

If Michael Mann was a Londoner, he’d probably want to go and shoot a film in Canary Wharf too. Was he an influence?

I grew up a massive lover of Michael Mann, but I get nervous about the comparison to Heat (1995) and Michael Mann. Mann made that film when he was in his 50s and had made multiple movies. A film like Heat comes from experience and being a master filmmaker, and it was made for about $80m. We’re here making a small film for £5m in London and trying to make it look £15m to £20m.

I’m using some of the visual reference points of Heat as a springboard to make my jump-off as director, but I wouldn’t ever dare compare my work to that movie. I think Heat’s the kind of movie I might be able to make in my 50s, once I’ve knocked out five or six movies and have made enough mistakes and I know how to tell a story. Welcome to the Punch is a good cops and robbers movie, but I think, the more I learn, that one day I’m going to make a fucking absolutely blinding cops and robbers movie!

What was filming in Canary Wharf like?

Rory [Aitken, producer] said he thinks they have someone employed just to turn down film companies that want to film there! Because they don’t need the hassle of closing the streets down, and financially they don’t need to do it for obvious reasons. A month before they’d turned down World War Z (2013), so we thought there’d be no way we were going to get permission. But because I live around that area and was ambassador for Canary Wharf Film Festival, I think they wanted to champion a young filmmaker that had lived on the island.

The Canary Wharf skyline in Welcome to the Punch

The Canary Wharf skyline in Welcome to the Punch

It took a bit of wrangling but eventually they let us do it, and we closed down the south colonnade to shoot the action sequence. But we had to be really careful: when the bikes were going down the marble steps, we had to build a case that would be capped over the top of the steps so that the wheels didn’t actually touch them.

How did you find working with big name actors for the first time?

I remember the night before shooting I was very nervous about working with people like Mark Strong, James McAvoy, Andrea Riseborough, Peter Mullan. I was lying in bed thinking “I’m a fraud, I’m a fake, and they’re all going to figure me out.” But you just have to get there, be as prepared as possible, and have a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve. I remember showing them all sections of Infernal Affairs and Hard-Boiled (1992) and Bullitt (1968), examples of the cinematography, and I played them sections of Shigeru Umebayashi’s music for 2046 (2004) and In the Mood for Love (2000), so they had a good feel of what we were trying to do.

Mark Strong in Welcome to the Punch

Mark Strong in Welcome to the Punch

The tense scene where Dean Warns (Johnny Harris) returns home to find his nemeses having tea with his elderly mother, and is forced to keep up the pretense that they’re his old army friends, reminded me of certain scenes in Hitchcock’s films where something very sinister is going on under the surface of something very innocent. Was Hitchcock an inspiration?

When we were developing the screenplay, Rory used to talk about Hitchcock a lot. Hitchcock was a master of scenes like that. When I came to think about how I was going to pull it off in a visual sense, I looked at the scene in Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible (1996) where Tom Cruise is sitting in a restaurant and he realises that everyone around the room is CIA. The conversation starts to become a lot more intense and he realises he’s being set up.

Brian De Palma is one of my favourite directors: sometimes he can fall really badly, but when he soars he soars high. I studied the structure of the restaurant scene and it starts very wide and very loose, but then it gets much tighter, going to extreme Dutch angles that create a great unease in the viewer.

So I paid homage to that scene: we had the camera tilted and right up close to their faces. It was a combination of talking about Hitchcock and rewatching Brian De Palma, and De Palma as we all know has been trying to emulate Hitchcock his entire life. Probably that whole scene in Mission Impossible was a reference to Hitchcock.

Tom Cruise in the restaurant scene from Mission Impossible (1996)

Tom Cruise in the restaurant scene from Mission Impossible (1996)

You’ve now made two very different films set in urban London. Are you wedded to London as a location?

I’d seen films made by EuropaCorp in France, and they seem to be able to knock off lots of great little action films and be self-sustainable and the films are hits at the French box office. And you see films from Hong Kong and Japan, their own action films for their own market. I’d grown up never really having that from our own industry; I’d always sought out films from Hong Kong or America.

So when I went for my second film I thought, why can’t we do that here? As I was writing the screenplay, the Olympics was on its way and this very aspirational, beautiful metropolis was sprouting up all around me. And there was lots of stuff going on in the press about the London riots, which actually closed down our shoot. You had this policeman going completely over the top and shooting a young guy, and Boris Johnson trying to put armed officers on the Hackney Estate. And you had the Milly Dowler case, where the police had taken bribes from journalists. All this stuff that was going on bled into the screenplay. We had a political consultant working on the film. I told him about the [plot’s] conspiracy and he said he’d be surprised if that hadn’t happened already.

We’ve now got this beautiful city for young filmmakers to perhaps make more films like Welcome to the Punch to make more of this sexier city. I don’t think directors like Ridley Scott and Tony Scott grew up in a London like this – you wonder why they never returned to make an action film here now.

I’d love to be able to make more films here. I’m writing a treatment at the moment for a very fast-moving action thriller about a guy who escapes from prison and has only 24 hours to track down a serial killer. It’s fast and dynamic and set within that kind of Gothamesque city that I created in Welcome to the Punch. Then there’s the one I’m writing for the BFI called Cry Havoc, which is set in New York. So I’m not going to stay particular to London, but I’d love to return in and out of the city.

Extract: Peter Mullan and Mark Strong 

You’re working with the BFI again?

There was a possibility that we could have set Cry Havoc up with a studio, and we sat down and had a discussion with my producers. Cry Havoc is based on my love of Korean revenge tragedies and it needs to exist within that world of hyper-violence and it’s a very auteur-driven screenplay. You need to have that kind of creative freedom to go and make the film you want to make. The BFI will allow that to happen. If they finance something they will want to push the final product towards that place. If we’d taken it to a different financier, they might have tried to manipulate it and you could have too many heads trying to shape something into what it was never intended to be. The BFI will always try to support the original vision.

All the best with the film’s release this week…

Thank you. It will be interesting to see if the British public are wanting action movies from their own country, or whether our market is too saturated by American action movies.

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