RUNNING SCARED: A CONVERSATION WITH WAYNE KRAMER
Ten years later, the visionary writer and director discusses Running Scared — his proudest film to-date
“Running Scared is the film I’m most proud of that I’ve made.” — Wayne Kramer
Wayne Kramer — the writer and filmmaker born in Johannesburg-Kew, South Africa — delivered an unforgettable cinematic experience ten years ago with Running Scared, his second full-length feature film. Written and directed by Kramer, the film stars Paul Walker in the titular role as Joey alongside Vera Farming as his wife Teresa and Chazz Palminteri as the corrupt Detective Rydell amongst an eclectic mix of future stars and Hollywood veterans.
Noteworthy for being considered the late Walker’s favorite role, Running Scared is a non-stop adrenaline rush of a film — beginning and ending with dramatic shoot-outs and filled with the journey of a boy on the run with a gun. Constructed by countless influences yet still a one-of-a-kind film, Kramer handled the writing and directing as nothing short of an expert — the details in the character development combined with the oft-hilarious yet sparse bits of comedic dialogue strengthen an already-thrilling adventure.
Ten years later, the film has recently received a refreshing amount of criticial appreciation from the masses; initially mis-marketed, Running Scared flew under the radar despite the all-star cast and unique presentation.
While working on his next feature entitled Ecstasia, Kramer took the time to speak about Running Scared — ten years later.
ON DEZ & EDELE SEQUENCE
I saw the film as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale nightmare and around each corner was always some escalating evil lurking. Oleg (Cameron Bright) was a version of Pinocchio and he’s on a journey to find his way back home to a real family where he can be treated like a real boy (unlike in the abusive household of his stepfather, Anzor).
Along the way, he encounters iconic fairy tale-like characters representing both good and evil. We meet Divina the hooker who is a representation of the Blue Fairy (from Pinocchio) and a force for good. He also encounters the psychopathic pimp Lester, who represents the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. To me, Joey (Walker) was always the Big Bad Wolf who turns out to a sheep in wolf’s clothing and Oleg’s real protector.
And then there’s Dez and Edele, who together represent the evil witch from Hansel & Gretel.
In the case of Dez and Edele (who inhabit a modern-day version of the Gingerbread House — only instead of a house made from candy, it’s videogames and toys), I wanted to give Teresa (Farmiga) a reference point for absolute evil in a world where her husband was involved with mobbed-up bad guys — but even these bad guys operated with some kind of code and didn’t just commit evil for evil’s sake.
They were more about business and protecting their interests, whereas Dez and Edele are the purest form of evil: child predators and murderers.
Teresa (who herself is a version of the protective Blue Fairy) fears that Joey has intentions to hurt Oleg, possibly even to kill him to silence him (playing into the theme of “nobody knows nobody” as Tommy says in the junkyard before shooting Sal).
Discovering the atrocities committed by Dez and Edele and coming face to face with the purest form of evil, it puts things into perspective for Teresa.
She knows in her gut and from having lived with Joey for so many years that he’s not “evil” and could never really hurt a kid. She wants to believe this in the beginning, but it’s reinforced by her encounter with the pedophile couple. It also gives her the strength to call Joey out on his behavior that night (in the dialogue outside the ice cream store).
As for the playroom floor in Dez and Edele’s apartment, it has always puzzled me why viewers think there is something buried under the floor or that they don’t understand the point of the construction plastic. They live in an apartment, so there wouldn’t be much space to hide any bodies under the floor.
The plastic is so that they can protect the carpet from blood stains when they murder the kids and then they can wrap the bodies up in the construction plastic and dispose of them.
The plastic is taped down to the carpet, so it’s easily removable; I think I discuss this on the DVD commentary. But a lot of people do indeed think that they’re burying the bodies under the floor. As for the texture of the carpet, that’s just the material. There isn’t anything diabolical about it — other than the child-like puzzle design to the floor itself.
Everything in the playroom was conceived to be super-creepy with an emphasis on bondage and entrapment. Also, inside the closet is rolls of tape and cleaning products — and body bags and weird little dress-up costumes. There are also hanging devices and ropes around the room.
Basically, everything is intended to get under your skin and leave you feeling absolutely creeped-out by what goes on in that room. Which is exactly what Teresa vibes when she barges her way in there.
The apartment was built as a set and we made sure it had no corners, so like trapped mice the children couldn’t hide anywhere. There are also very few-to-no shadows in the apartment (other than in the children’s bedroom) — and the Nosferatu-like shadows of the couple through the bathroom window, suggesting Oleg’s impression of their inner evil.
ON ANZOR YUGORSKY
I try to avoid stock villains in my work. Alec Baldwin’s Shelly Kaplow in The Cooler was a villain that I tried to weave out of somewhat sympathetic cloth as well. Very few people are truly evil. There is a difference between people who do evil and completely evil people like Dez and Edele.
The people who do evil, like mob guys and hitmen and dirty cops, they all love their families just like we do.
I wanted Anzor to be a fully-rounded character and for the audience to understand how he got to be the person we are introduced to in the beginning of the film.
Anzor represents the failure of the American dream, or the failure for someone to achieve the American dream as mythologized to a young kid back in Communist Russia. Anzor is a life soured and lived unfulfilled.
He did the decent thing by saving Mila’s life and he paid a steep price for it, losing his standing in his uncle’s criminal enterprise. As such, he resents Oleg because he projects his own failures and shortcomings on the child whose life he saved, along with Oleg’s mother. Anzor did a selfless thing in marrying and saving Mila, but can’t come to terms with the consequences, so he takes his rage and frustration out on the two of them.
Anzor also lives with an idealized version of America in his head.
It’s a version where heroes like John Wayne don’t get shot in the back. The ‘good guy’ always wins in the end. He fails to understand the selflessness of Wayne’s character Wil Andersen in The Cowboys that gets him shot in the back at the end of the second act — that’s he protecting the kids (which is ironic since that is what Anzor did for Mila when he stood up to his uncle).
Anzor has this epiphany on the ice rink at the end and finally understands the power of Wil Andersen’s sacrifice and it’s like a white hot light hitting him. He decides to make a stand against his uncle and comes full circle on his original selfless act.
He decides to go out as the good guy, just like John Wayne — rather than commit evil and kill a child.
I don’t think there was Super 8 cutdown of The Cowboys for kids. I made that part up — although maybe some abridged version did exist; I never had a copy. But I did collect Super 8 edited versions of feature films when I was a kid. Growing up in South Africa, I never had all the great stuff that I saw advertised in American and UK 8mm collectors magazines, like Jaws or The French Connection or The Exorcist or Alien. I just never had access to it and they were also super-expensive.
My family never had money and there was no way I could afford some of these titles — and you couldn’t legally import them since a lot of these films like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were banned in South Africa. I had older Super 8 excerpts like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (the squid scene) and Westerns like The Virginian and The Spoilers (starring John Wayne).
I knew that even if I could get my hands on Super 8 titles like The Exorcist, Deliverance, Bullitt, etc., they wouldn’t have the entirety of the story and lots of important bits would be cut out. At the same time, I remember seeing The Cowboys in the theater when I was a kid and being shocked beyond belief that John Wayne died in the film.
That was never supposed to happen! I kept thinking he was going to come back to life. It ruined the whole film for me because I couldn’t get over the fact that the hero didn’t make it. It was my first brush with seeing an iconic leading man not survive on screen. It would be like Sean Connery dying in a Bond film. That moment stuck with me and resonated for many years.
I guess the combination of that movie awakening for me, that heroes and leading men could die in films, and the fact that I collected Super 8 cut-downs just converged in my subconscious and the Anzor backstory was birthed out of it.
The more I played with it, the more it became a metaphor for disillusionment with the American dream, which is something as an immigrant to America I completely understand and identify with.
America itself is one huge commercial to the rest of the world and it arrives via our movies and TV and popular culture. You can’t help but be infected with it as a child who doesn’t have access to a similar culture. That is why movies have such a powerful effect on us in our formative years.
Even though I didn’t become an American until 2000 when I got naturalized, I had already become an American when I was a kid in South Africa watching American films and wanting to be apart of that culture. I think Anzor felt the same way — only his path to finding “America” was paved with disappointment and bitterness. I think he dies finding his America in the end.
ON CASTING PROCESS
I was absolutely involved in every aspect of the casting. Paul’s agent at the time was very insistent that I consider him for the part. I was only familiar with Paul from The Fast and The Furious films and wasn’t sure he was the right physical type, although I thought he was very charismatic on screen.
I met with Paul a few weeks later and was hugely impressed with him.
He had an intensity about him in person that I wasn’t expecting and I also found him to be quite earnest, which was refreshing for someone who was already a movie star (or well on his way to becoming one).
All my doubts about whether he could play the part went away after that meeting.
I was already friendly with Chazz Palminteri going back quite a few years. He was the first actor that ever became attached to one of my (still unmade) projects and we stayed in touch with one another. I even wrote the part of Shelly Kaplow in The Cooler with Chazz in mind, but Chazz was unavailable at the time. Chazz had just directed Paul in a film called Noel and I called him up and asked him what he thought of Paul for Running Scared and how his experience with him had been.
Chazz right away said, “Cast him. He’s terrific. He can do it and you’ll love working with him.” At the same time, I guess Paul had called up Chazz to ask him whether he should do Running (he had a lot of respect for Chazz) and Chazz said to Paul, “Are you crazy? You have to do this film.” and he vouched for me as a person and a filmmaker.
Soon after Paul signed on, we started talking to Chazz about coming on to play Detective Rydell. By the way, the character’s name is a tip of the hat to the filmmaker Mark Rydell who directed The Cowboys, which Anzor is so obsessed with.
I had another actress in mind for Teresa when my casting director, Annie McCarthy, sent me a copy of an indie film Farmiga has just acted in called Down To The Bone. Vera had put herself on tape for the Maria Bello role in The Cooler and I was quite taken with her, but felt she was too young for the character — but I made a mental note to find something for her in the future.
After I watched Down To The Bone, I was convinced Vera was perfect for Teresa and offered her the part; I had no doubt that she was going to kill it and, in my opinion, she absolutely did. I was thrilled to see her career heat up shortly after, especially after she was cast in Scorsese’s The Departed.
The last time I saw her (which was a few years ago) she told me that so many people come up to her and tell her how much they love her in Running Scared.
I do think it’s one of her best performances and I absolutely think it’s the sexiest role she’s ever played (along with Down To The Bone).
She totally brought Paul’s game up anytime she was on-screen; he loved working with her, as well.
I think Vera’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with.
We looked at a lot of young actors for the roles of Oleg and Nicky. Cameron Bright was just making a name for himself with roles opposite Nicole Kidman in Birth and Robert De Niro in Godsend, and he was perfect for the part. I cast Alex Neuberger off an audition tape — I don’t think he had acted in a film before.
Our big concern was would the parents of these young actors let them do such an intense film like Running Scared. Both boys were extremely mature for their age and Cameron (despite only being 11 at the time), completely understood the darker nature of some of his scenes.
Early in the process when I was discussing the script with Cameron, I referred to the pedophile couple as ‘kidnappers’ to him and he looked me in the eye and said, “I know they’re not kidnappers.”
I didn’t try and dumb down the content or speak down to either of them after that. Thankfully, both sets of parents were cool about it and Cameron and Alex had the best time making the film. The crazy thing is, I didn’t meet either Cameron or Alex until they arrived in Prague to start shooting Running Scared. They were cast off their audition tapes and the first conversation I had with Cameron was just days before shooting.
Johnny Messner was a late addition to the cast. Another actor had fallen through and my producer, Michael Pierce, knew Johnny and pushed for him. I didn’t know Johnny’s work and I cast him off a few seconds of his work in Anaconda 2.
I couldn’t have been happier with the choice and Johnny was a blast to work with.
Johnny and Paul really got to mix it up and they were both tough guys, so their on-screen clashes pulled no punches.
In the scene in the junk yard, Johnny was really hitting Paul in the face with the gun and Paul was getting super pissed-off which was really playing into his character. I think they ended up respecting each other a lot.
Michael Cudlitz was suggested to me by Annie McCarthy and was also a last-minute addition, if I remember correctly. He’s the real deal and he brought a lot to what was, admittedly, a small part.
I try to cast Michael in all my films, if possible.
Karel Roden was also cast down to the wire when another actor dropped out at the last-minute — we had a lot of that happen to us. Poor Karel had to learn a shitload of dialogue literally overnight — and English isn’t his first language — so he was basically learning his part on set the first day.
But I think he’s amazing in the film and the nicest guy on the planet. Karel is acting royalty in the Czech Republic, so it was a thrill to work with him.
Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell as Dez and Edele were also cast fairly late in the process. The initial idea was to re-team Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern from Blue Velvet and have them play Dez and Edele. Kyle was open to it, but Laura wasn’t, so Kyle didn’t want to do it without her.
I still think it would have been a fun approach, but I couldn’t be happier with what Bruce and Elizabeth brought to these fucked-up characters.
I have such enormous respect for both of them taking on the roles, because nobody — and I mean nobody — in Hollywood wants to play pedophiles. They were both amazing and creepy and very thoughtful in their approach. Elizabeth told me that she wanted to play Edele by never actually touching any of the children on-screen (which was actually creepier) and I was okay with that.
I told them they were essentially playing alien beings inside human bodies and they should appear stiff and awkward as if they were being controlled by these aliens from inside.
Elizabeth even had little plastic surgery scars applied to the back of her ears (which you can’t see on-screen), because she felt that Edele had had a facelift, which would also account for the stiffness of her facial movements. Bruce had never been squibbed before and was having anxiety over being shot on-screen. When he cries out, that is real panic on his part from having the squibs explode.
They were both a pleasure to work with and I’ll always be grateful for their courage as actors in taking on the roles.
John Noble as Ivan Yugorsky was a total pro and as nice a human being as his character wasn’t. John was coming off the The Lord of the Rings films and, again, it was a pleasure to work with him.
Arthur Nascarella had played a mob boss in The Cooler for me and now he was playing Frankie Perello — another mob boss in Running Scared. I love Arthur. He’s an absolute hoot and a joy to work with.
Arthur is the real deal — a retired NYPD narcotics detective, so he knows his shit when it comes to these guys.
He says to me, “Wayne, why can’t you ever cast me as a regular guy?”
ON BACKSTORY OF JOEY’S FATHER
Basically, to create a bond between Joey and Oleg. Joey understands what Oleg is going through because he’s been through it himself. He doesn’t want to relate to it in the beginning of the film — complaining to Teresa, “Why is he always playing with that Ruskie kid?” — because he doesn’t want to deal with the past. It brings back bad memories to him, so he just pushes it aside.
But when Oleg steals his gun and goes on the run, he has to deal. It’s almost like he’s chasing himself. He knows this kid. Even though we’re not sure of Joey’s intentions for most of his pursuit of Oleg, we sense that he could never hurt this kid.
Before even being revealed as a Fed, we sense that he has an inherent decency to him, which is amplified by what Paul brought to the role, because that’s who Paul was:
a straight-up, decent guy who you never wanted to mess with.
ON FILM’S TITLE
More to Joey (than Oleg): he’s the one with all the pressure coming down on him, with each twist and turn, bad turns to worse. He finds himself like a deer — a “gazelle” if you will — in the headlights.
He has to find Oleg before the Russians, the Italian mob, the Feds and his own wife figure things out. It’s coming at him from every direction.
But it could definitely be Oleg as well, given what he goes through.
ON ELEMENTS OF HUMOR
I’ve always found humor finds its way into some of the tensest situations in life and this is especially true with some of the darkest films. Even bad guys and sickos can be funny and often at the most inappropriate times. But it especially humanizes the characters you most want to identify with.
De Palma always uses a lot of subtle humor in his films, which is particularly evident in Scarface and Carlito’s Way — for example, the “Here comes the pain” scene from Carlito’s, where (Al) Pacino is hiding in the bathroom after the shootout in the pool hall and he doesn’t know all the bad guys are dead or incapacitated. He comes out so wired that you can’t help but laugh at it when he realizes there’s no longer a threat.
I don’t really overthink it. If some smart-ass comment (from a character) occurs to me while writing, I just go with it.
Most people don’t point it out or even notice it; I think they may be too freaked-out or disturbed to remember it. Or they don’t think it’s funny. I tend to have a warped sense of humor, so most of my humor comes out of dark situations.
I always thought my funniest line in the film was when Manny the mechanic asks Lester the Pimp who got over on him (when he sees his face) and Lester says, “Some puta who’s forwarding address gonna be in ten different zip codes. All of ’em dumpsters.”
But the audience doesn’t really laugh at that line — so what do I know?
ON CONTRAST BETWEEN TWO FEMALE LEADS
I don’t know if I consciously thought about that, but it certainly turned out that way. Like Joey, Teresa knows that some bad shit is going on next door, but she chooses not to get involved with it until that ‘bad shit’ hits the fan. But Teresa is every bit as tough as Joey, if not tougher, so there’s no way she would allow a man to put his hands on her (in a way that she didn’t want) unlike Mila, who puts up with years of abuse.
I think the contrast I was going for was more the difference between Teresa being an American woman who stands up for herself and Mila being an immigrant whose very existence in America is one based on exploitation and subjugation: she arrives in America owing a debt to the Russian mob (as a hooker) then after Anzor saves her from his uncle, she’s paying off a different debt — this time to Anzor for ‘ruining’ his life.
Mila has never had a moment where she’s been ‘debt-free,’ so she doesn’t know how to live with her head held high — which is how Teresa conducts her life. So they do contrast each other very well.
On the other hand, both Teresa and Divina are versions of the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio for me. They’re both super-tough, both wear blue and both represent the forces of good in the film. They are both protectors of Oleg on his journey. Mila tries to protect Oleg (as in the pizza scene), but she doesn’t have the toughness of Teresa and Divina. She doesn’t have it in her to fight back. In the end, her only escape from victimization (and because she believes she wasn’t able to protect her son) is to take her own life.
Both Mila and Anzor are tragic figures and represent the dark side of the American dream unfulfilled.
ON “SAY I’M AN AMERICAN” SCENE
This was a bit of dialogue that I could have easily cut for time and pacing, but it was personal to me because as a naturalized American, I love America (flaws and all) and I wanted to give a shout-out to the country which is so often portrayed in a negative light.
I knew this exchange could be (and often is) interpreted as being jingoistic by some, but my attitude was, “Fuck it.” When it comes down to it, I’m happy to put a bit of flag-waving on the screen. But it also represents who Joey is: he’s Jersey proud, blue collar, loves his country and loves being an American.
He has a Cold War attitude about Russia, which you tend to still hear among a lot of blue collar workers — and, ironically, it’s more apt today since the relationship between America and Russia has deteriorated significantly since we made the film.
We have definitely entered a second Cold War. I also think the East Coast American crime film is a unique beast and so many of these characters, even the full-on scumbags, are super patriotic.
On another level, my films are always looking at America from an outsider’s point of view and I’m interested in capturing on film the “America” that I saw on the film and television when I was a kid and a teenager growing up in South Africa. I don’t think natural-born Americans are aware of it because they’re living ‘inside’ of it, but outsiders like myself and other foreign born filmmakers like Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco), Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne, Tony (R.I.P.) and Ridley Scott and many others, I think we’re super-conscious of capturing that quintessential ‘America’ that illuminated our childhoods.
Which is why I’m so attracted to urban thrillers with their decaying, rundown cityscapes or the old school glitz of Las Vegas, or the L.A. private detective genre with films like Chinatown, Night Moves or The Long Goodbye. These films just don’t resonate the same with me when they’re not rooted in some version of the American landscape.
Ultimately, it is a bonding moment between Joey and Oleg. It’s Joey, once again, saying to Oleg, you and me are the same. And you belong. You belong to this country. Stop presenting yourself as an outsider. And, of course, by the end Oleg has joined Joey’s family, so he has found his place in the world.
ON ICE RINK SCENE
It was very expensive to light and the producers were trying to talk me out of it — which I’m glad didn’t happen. I was doing some ice hockey research on the internet and came across this Jet Ice black light paint and immediately thought that would be amazing to capture on film.
I don’t think we quite executed it the way I had in mind — due to technical difficulties and lack of time — but I envisioned more bullet impacts in the ice with the ice shattering into different colors and exploding through the air. I think we got just a hint of that; we were more successful with the fluorescent pucks and the DayGlo jerseys.
I also wanted the scene to be a significant set piece — this is where it all goes down, so to speak, and I wanted the backdrop to be memorable.
We actually used blue lights to convey the black light effect because actual black lights didn’t allow for enough visibility on film and would have been too dark. My brilliant cinematographer James Whitaker did a lot of testing to achieve the look we were going for.
The blue lights (they’re almost bluish-violet, really) had quite a harsh effect on people and caused some weird reactions in some of the crew. My script supervisor couldn’t handle the ‘deprivation’ and had to work from outside the rink (which wasn’t all that helpful in the end).
Even though we didn’t have a huge budget compared to similar action movies of the time, I think just to light that rink was the budget of a small indie film.
I think I came very close to achieving most of what I storyboarded for that scene. We had some extremely difficult and precise Technocrane and steadicam shots to pull off — and we were shooting on real ice, so it was very challenging for the actors, crew and stunt team. At one point, Paul Walker’s face froze to the surface of the ice. That wasn’t fake ice. He was genuinely getting his face shoved into the ice — and for take after take. Same with Karel Roden when he gets shot.
I think we were all glad to put that location behind us.
ON GRAPHIC NOVEL / VIDEO GAME INFLUENCE
I can’t say I was influenced by any graphic novels or video games. I don’t play video games, so I’m not immersed in that world. My visual style, I guess, has somewhat of a ‘graphic novel’ feel to it. I think that’s because I storyboard all my shots out precisely and I’m very conscious of having each shot connect to the next, rather than just capturing something through luck.
I like using the camera to tell the story and not just leaving it to the actors and the dialogue.
I tend to gravitate toward very visual directors like De Palma, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Park Chan-wook, as far as moving the camera. You can always see a clearly thought-out vision with their films. Their scenes have been thought through and ‘composed’ like music (via storyboards or previz) — then executed precisely on the day.
For some web marketing and also the DVD release of Running Scared, New Line had a comic book artist adapt the opening shootout and the ice rink shootout into mini graphic novels — which is weird when you think about it, because those scenes were originally storyboarded by myself and so the artist is basically just recreating my storyboards (with more artistic skill) by illustrating the finished film.
It would have been cool to see it done for the whole movie, but I don’t think anyone’s interested in adapting a one-off title from 2006 today.
DIFFERENCE IN WRITING APPROACH FOR EACH FILM
Mindhunters (which I wrote and sold at least six or seven years before The Cooler and went into production about the same time as The Cooler) was completely rewritten (by five or six different writers even though it’s only credited to myself and one other writer) — so the final movie doesn’t represent much more than a rough skeleton of my original script. I don’t think there’s a single line of my dialogue (from my original drafts) in the film.
I have huge problems with the plot holes in that film and, unfortunately, they’re credited to me and Kevin Brodbin, but were inflicted upon the script by other writers.
Stylistically, it doesn’t represent me as a filmmaker other than from a conceptual point of view and as someone who is a big fan of the thriller and whodunit genre.
The Cooler is very much my voice and I think you can see the stylistic building blocks that lead from The Cooler to Running Scared. We had a very tight budget on The Cooler and very few shooting days, so there wasn’t time to execute super-complicated camera moves — although there are some ambitious steadicam shots in the film.
I’m proud of the look of The Cooler and wish more people saw it on the big screen because the way we shot it — using a bleach bypass process — just doesn’t come across on video (and unfortunately there is no Blu-Ray release of it). Maybe if we remastered it and tried again today we could get closer, but it really needs to be experienced on a 35mm print to truly appreciate the highlights, crushed blacks and overall grittiness of the images.
Both The Cooler and Running Scared are dark fairy tales come to life. The Cooler uses magic realism to tell a gritty love story, where the presence and absence of love can manipulate luck, and “luck” is a tangible concept in the world of old-school gamblers and hustlers.
With Running Scared, I’m telling a dark crime story that plays out against a Grimm’s Fairy Tale canvas, where all the characters are fairy tale archetypes. But with both films, if you don’t pick up on the fairy tale/magic realist subtext, it doesn’t affect your enjoyment of the material. To understand that it’s there only enhances the experience.
ON HISTORIC PLACE OF RUNNING SCARED
This is a hard one to reconcile. The film was essentially treated like a red-headed stepchild by the distributor and almost not released theatrically at all. The film was acquired by New Line during post-production and it basically caused a civil war to erupt within the company. The creative side of the company appreciated the film and saw the potential in it, but the marketing and distribution side of the company hated the film outright and saw no clear way to market it. When you have such internal conflict and negativity directed toward your film, you stand little chance of the studio getting behind it.
There are definite villains who got between a successful release of the film and the public. The critics (with the exception of a few notable voices like Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris) went out of their way to kill the film. Google the Los Angeles Times review to see what I’m talking about. They seemed to have a huge problem with the violence and the child endangerment theme and could care less about the performances or the subtext or the craft that went into it.
There seems to be some critical reassessment of the film today, but that certainly isn’t reflected on the fourty percent Rotten Tomatoes score that has tainted the film since its release — and continues to do so since almost every cable TV menu and online film rental/sales site quotes the Rotten Tomatoes score.
I like to think that I’m in good company with Man On Fire’s thirty-nine percent.
Maybe audiences had an aversion to seeing a Paul Walker action film that wasn’t called The Fast and The Furious, I don’t know. You certainly couldn’t tell what this film was about from the trailers and marketing. The trailers, mostly due to MPAA rules (from what I was told), couldn’t show children in jeopardy, so the entire hook of the film is missing from the theatrical trailer. It just plays like some low rent action/mob film with no edge.
I think the audiences that did take a chance on it were quite shocked by the film they found themselves viewing based purely on the trailer. New Line didn’t even hold a premiere for us, so some of the cast and crew turned up to the opening night show at the Los Angeles Cinerama Dome and it was so depressing because we were almost the only people in this huge theater.
It just died that opening weekend.
I did receive a lot of support from within the industry, from filmmakers and film executives who had seen it privately and were impressed with it. I even got a very surprising call from David Geffen, who had seen it the night before it opened and loved it and was so frustrated with the terrible LA Times review that he felt compelled to call me up and tell me that the critics could go to Hell. Quentin Tarantino was another fan of the film who reached out to me to tell me how much he enjoyed it.
Once Running Scared hit DVD, word-of-mouth helped it find a bigger audience — certainly among cinephiles — but it has never really entered the mainstream.
I would say it’s probably the most popular film I’ve directed, but comparable to similar films by guys like Tarantino, Antoine Fuqua, Guy Ritchie, Tony Scott, etc. — it’s barely been seen, so that is a bit frustrating.
It’s a shame that it doesn’t play on the big screen more often in revival theaters because it’s a beautiful-looking film on 35mm and the camera moves are so much more impactful on the big screen. I only know of it playing once at the New Beverly in L.A. a couple of years ago. It’s now available on Netflix, so I imagine it’s being discovered (or revisited) by a whole lot more people.
ON VISION COMPARED TO RESULT
Running Scared is the film I’m most proud of that I’ve made.
I was pretty much allowed to make and release the film I wanted to make. There are definitely things I would do differently with the film if I could go back and do it over, but I don’t want to prejudice anyone’s enjoyment of it by mentioning them. Like most directors I imagine, I mostly see the flaws in my own work and it makes it tough for me to look back at my films.
But I think my cast and crew kicked ass on the film and I’m pretty sure we couldn’t get Running Scared made today — and certainly not for the budget we had in 2004 (when we shot it), despite being pretty low for an action film with so many different scenes and locations.
I was coming off The Cooler which was well-received at the time, so I had that rare opportunity to get this crazy crime film financed (by this company, Media 8) that no one else would touch. That’s how these things work: it just takes one company with vision to bring something like Running Scared into being.
I think if I had followed The Cooler up with something more art house in subject matter and tone to that film, I may have a better career today — but I bet everything on black and the ball landed on red.
At the end of the day, I wanted to make a film that I would be chomping at the bit to see when I was younger (and even still today) and one that also echoed back to the great crime films of the 70's and 80's by filmmakers that I revered like Brian De Palma, Walter Hill, Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, Clint Eastwood… I probably made it twenty years too late.
But I’m glad it exists and I hope film lovers continue to discover it.