Wayne Kramer's two features both meld fairy-tale narratives with gritty mobland concerns. 2003's The Cooler garnered attention for its lauded performances by William H. Macy, Maria Bello, and Alec Baldwin. Kramer's follow-up casts Paul Walker as Joey Gazelle, a low-level Jersey hood in trouble. Walker's role as Skip Martin in Pleasantville made good use of the up-and-coming actor's well-bred looks, and leading roles in The Fast and the Furious (and sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious), Joy Ride, Timeline, and Into the Blue followed before long. Along with Running Scared, Walker appears in Eight Below and the upcoming Clint Eastwood epic Flags of Our Fathers. I spoke to Walker and Kramer during the 2006 WonderCon at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center. [Paul Walker photo courtesy of Derek McCaw—Fanboy Planet.]
Groucho: You guys obviously made a great first impression on each other before you started filming the movie. I wonder if you remember—from while you were filming the movie—if there was a moment that sticks out in your brain for: you knew that your faith in each other had been correctly placed, when you really had it going.
Wayne Kramer: Well, it's funny. The first day, we shot, like, the sex scene, on the very first day. And neither of them went running, so—. You know, but I—I mean, the one thing about this guy, which is great to make a film with—it's one thing to take a guy who—you know, a good actor, but who doesn't have the great physical skills, but [Paul] had to do so many running and—I mean, he had his face on an ice rink for six days, seven days straight. You know, the real ice rink; it wasn't fake, and he wasn't complaining about it. He had to stick a gun in a woman's face holding a baby. You know, and people on the set were going, "Whoa-oh, wo-o. We're terrorizing the baby," but the baby was fine. But he could come up—like, he'd come running up to me after each take, and I'm thinking, "Oh, God, yeah, this is it. I've pushed him too far; he's walking off the set now," and instead he'd be laughing. He's like, "This is fucked up, dude"...
G: In some ways, [Running Scared is] probably the most challenging work you've done, which has got to be very exciting. How did you prepare, including—from the ground up—the accent—
Paul Walker: Mm-hmm.
G: The physicality of the character—
PW: My lifestyle is active; attitude is attitude, whether you're a West Coast gangster or East Coast gangster, you know? I grew up in the Valley and, you know, it's mixed racially, also. I had Latino friends. I had black friends. And they thought they were thugs. A lot of them weren't half the thug they thought they were, always getting into trouble. But I know the attitude, you know. I know the personality. My dad's a biker. I mean, all the guys he comes around, most of them got priors. They're been in and out of the joint, you know? Those are the guys I grew up around, so there's a lot to pull from. And then, you know, I worked with Chazz Palminteri. He was in this movie; I worked with him on Noel. You know, he's got his mobster crew buddies out there, and—
WK: Arthur Nascarella was a great source.
PW: Yeah, Arthur. I had guys to pull from at any given time. If there was ever a time I wasn't comfortable with what I had to say, they were right there. They were the bullshit police for me, which was great. And I grew up on gangster movies. I loved the mobsters, man. I mean growing up as a kid it was cowboys and Indians and it was mobsters. I mean, that's an American childhood, you know? (Laughs.) Those are the movies you grew up on.
G: Well, I wanted to ask both of you about kind of the hard-R sensibility you share, and maybe what were some of the seminal films in that respect. And also, following up on that, there's a theme in the film, I think, of the satisfaction of revenge that's very visceral, and I wonder what are your feelings about the interaction you get there with an audience.
WK: Well, you know, I've always said that this film is very interactive. I mean, I've been to a couple of audience screenings, and I can tell you the beats where they start like talking back to the screen. You know, the whole pedophile scene, you can just start to feel sort of the anxiety building and sort of the silent chanting, which then becomes vocal like, "Do it, do it. Do it!" You know what I mean? And I totally miss these kinds of movies that are these visceral, adrenaline-rush experiences because Hollywood has become about the PG-13, watered-down film. And I remember growing up and seeing The Warriors. Or even 48 Hours was a tough movie. You know, we think of it more as comedic today, but that was an R-rated—just on language itself. And the Peckinpah stuff and Scarface, which is a classic. And I felt like the momentum of a movie like Carlito's Way, you know having to make it through the night and stuff like that. Dirty Harry or, you know, the Don Siegel films.
G: There's a Bronson one-off line.
WK: Oh yeah. It's definitely got a Charles Bronson vibe. And I don't want to sound cheesy at all here when I mention this example of a movie that kind of seemed like wired through my brain on a subconscious level, but it was a Steven Seagal movie, Out for Justice, you know where it takes place over the course of a night, and he's got to find the guy who's killed his buddy. And I'll tell you, that is a bad-ass movie, that movie. Young audiences—
PW: I like Steven Seagal, shit.
G: There's no shame in that.
WK: To me that was the last like really real movie he made. I mean, they called it Out for Justice, but I remember that movie's original title was The Price of Our Blood. I thought that would have been a much better title...
G: You also mentioned, I think, that the ending of the film is a release after so much pent-up, almost claustrophobic intensity.
WK: Yeah, it's a really intense experience that—even I as the filmmaker who has lived with this film for a long time—when I see it I feel the audience going through it. I mean it really takes no prisoners in its approach. It's a very—I liken the film to kind of like a primal scream. Once Paul's character realizes what's happening it's just bam, bam, bam, you know? And I love watching his performance in the movie. It's the most exciting thing for me about the film because there's a crazy madness that plays in his eyes, where he's just crossed the line at some point. And he's in this woman's apartment, she's holding the baby, and he's yelling in her face. I really believe this man is fighting to save his life and his future and his family and everything else. It's the intensity that Paul brings to it that I doubt another actor could have come through the door with...
G: And Paul, you're a parent. I wonder what that brought to your experience of playing this character, because you don't get to play parents too often on screen.
PW: My family's really close. My father's like—growing up as a kid, let's put it this way. You know kids. As boys, you would engage "Oh, my dad's tougher than your dad. My dad has a shotgun. Oh, my dad has this," you know? I wouldn't even engage. I was like, "My dad would kill every one of your dads." I just—I knew it, you know?
PW: My father's a protector. My father's old-school. He's a cowboy. He's not much of a—you know, when it comes to words of wisdom and just the pat on the back, he's not very good. He's a drill sergeant. He's a Vietnam Vet. I mean, you get—this is the mentality, this is the household I came up in. And, uh, so when I see it, I mean it's like—hey, look: people are going to think I'm sick and I'm twisted, but when I read it, I don't think that there was anything that was unjustified. I'm sorry: this guy dug himself a hole, and he dug his family a hole in the process. He'll be damned if anything is going to happen to him. And besides, who's he smokin'? Who's he whacking along the way? They're bad guys. The world isn't going to miss them. You know? So the whole way I'm going, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, do it!" I'm reading this thing, I'm going, "Yeah, fucking kill that guy!" The pedophiles? [spoiler]If she didn't smoke 'em, c'mon![/spoiler] That's my favorite scene in the movie, and the best thing about it is that the people that don't get it, absolutely hate it. They go, "That scene just completely came out of left field." I'm like, "You're missing the point because that's the whole idea." That's my favorite scene. When I read it I said to Wayne, I said to Vera [Farmiga], I said, "I'm so jealous of you. That's the most memorable scene in this whole movie."
G: Did you feel paternal to your young co-stars at all?
PW: Oh yeah, especially to the parents. I mean, they signed on to it knowing what they're getting themselves into, but still, you know, that's got to be tough. And so I wanted to make it very clear that "I understand what's going on here, and I understand that you've accepted the environment that basically your kids are going to be in for the next while, but just know that I'm sensitive to it. And I'm great with kids. I come from a huge family. I got nieces, nephews. I'm Peter Pan, shit. I feel like I'm twelve, thirteen years old anyway—"
PW: "So I'm going to get along just fine with these kids." And so my whole point was—and I thought it was really important—it's like, you know, "Let's stay focused, and let's—" We have a job at hand here, but I'm sensitive to the fact that these kids are out of school, they're away from their friends. I've got a football. I've got a soccer ball. I got everything. And you know what? And it's good too because I establish, I build a rapport with these kids; I want them to feel comfortable around me. And, hey, who's to say Joey Gazelle wouldn't go toss the football with Oleg anyways, so it all plays in.
G: That neighborhood feel.
G: I want to commend you about the natural kid talk in the movie.
G: And just kind of ask you to speak to working with those child actors, for one thing, and also that theme that you were referring to of playing off of fairy tales and using that as a style element.
WK: Right, you know, I knew it was going to be challenging to find the right kids to be believable because if the kids did not work—I mean if it turned into Project Greenlight or something, you know, the movie would fall apart. And initially the challenge is "Is any parent out there going to let their kid do this movie?' It turned out there were a lot of them who—the parents also understood that we were not going for something exploitive in a sense that the kid was going to be uncomfortable. Even the most controversial scene in the film, you never see anyone touch a kid; you don't see a kid without their clothes on. It's really implied, but the tone is there. It's gritty and it's dark, and these kids are thrown into a violent—like it's a Grimm's fairy tale nightmare. And I thought that played really well. I mean, the subtext became more apparent to me as I was heading towards production. And I said to myself one day, 'You know what I've got here? It's a Grimm's fairy tale canvas.' Like the pimp is the Mad Hatter, and the hooker is the Blue Fairy. And the Dez and Edele house is the gingerbread house, and they're the witches. You know, and like I tried to evoke that with the silhouettes through the window in the bathroom.
G: And the music.
WK:Yeah! The music. All of it's very hallucinogenic. And using like hand-crank camera to accentuate moments of tension and violence. And just the color palettes. You know, my cinematographer James Whitaker, who worked with me on The Cooler too, I just think he does an amazing job in creating this bruised look to the film, like these damaged characters that populate this universe. But if you did not get any of that subtext, I think you still enjoy it as a straight mob thriller if you're a fan of the genre. And we do try to tie it together with the animated title sequence at the end, where it takes you back through moments of the film, but this time in a very overtly Grimms' painted way....Okay, well, thanks very much.