Alex Cross follows the homicide detective/psychologist from the best-selling novels by James Patterson, as he comes up against psychopathic serial killer Picasso (Matthew Fox). This time, the story takes a younger version of Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) back to the origins of the character while the two men face off in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse that will push Cross to this edge of his moral limits. The film also stars Edward Burns, Cicely Tyson, Carmen Ejogo, Giancarlo Esposito, John C. McGinley and Jean Reno.
At the film’s press day, director Rob Cohen (The Fast and The Furious, xXx) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what made him want to reboot the franchise, the changes he wanted to make to the script, his process of collaborating with Matthew Fox on the Picasso character, what author James Patterson was like to work with, and keeping the PG-13 rating in mind for the subject matter. He also talked about the found footage action film he’s developing, as well as a feature about Isaac Newton and his time as a detective. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did this film come to you?
ROB COHEN: I got a call on Martin Luther King’s birthday from (producer) Bill Block. He said, “Are you familiar with James Patterson?,” and I said, “You’d have to pretty much be brain dead not to be?” He said, “What do you think about Alex Cross and doing another film?” I said, “With Morgan [Freeman]?,” and he said, “No, we actually are talking to Tyler Perry.” I said, “That’s a great idea!” I had met Tyler a year earlier, and I was amazed at how big he was and how much he was like a football player. He was 6’6″, 240 pounds. When I met him, I jokingly said, “You could be an action star,” but I meant it. I was totally stunned by his size. And he laughed and said, “Yeah, well, find me a xXx,” and we part on that. So, when I heard they were discussing this, I said, “He’s perfect! He’s what’s written in the book. Tyler is that guy. Plus, he’s Tyler Perry and he’d be making his transition, which I think would create a lot of curiosity.” I thought it would be great, on both a commercial and an artistic level.
Was there already a script, at that point?
COHEN: There was a script that Jim [Patterson] had had some input into, and a woman named Kerry Williamson had written, but it felt like it needed more. So, we brought in Marc Moss and I worked closely with him for the first three months of the project, and we got a more contemporary script.
How challenging was the balance of gritty drama with the family story and the action?
COHEN: The balancing went all the way through the post process with the editing. It’s a few different tonalities within it. You have the Cross family, where all the pipe laying you do with that may not seem important until you begin to realize that, if you don’t know what he had, you won’t understand what he lost. That man is one part of the movie. The journey of that man to the darkest of dark sides is the journey of the character and of the film. So, you have to know where he began and you have to believe it, so you have to establish all of that and keep all of that alive. And then, there is the cop procedural part of this, which is finding the bad guy and tracking him down. And then, there’s the action layer, which I largely injected. That wasn’t in the early drafts, but I felt like just a procedural, in the world of CSI Miami, New York and Las Vegas, you’ve seen before. So, what we needed to do was frame it with a larger action tapestry. Then, it became, “With $23 million, can you do the action that’s written?” I said, “I know how to do it,” and I did it.
Did you intentionally want very strong female characters in this film?
COHEN: Well, I like strong women. In Jim’s book, Nana Mama (Cicely Tyson) was quite feisty and strong. The wife is played by Carmen Ejogo, who’s beautiful, but also really intelligent. You get the feeling that, because he had a strong mother, he’s chosen a strong wife who’s an equal partner that can call him on his shit and stand up to him and is not intimidated by his size. And with casting Rachel Nichols, who I loved from meeting her for another film, I never forgot her. She’s a modern woman, who’s very frank, very earthy and very up-front and level. She looks you in the eye. What a nice thing to have all these men surrounded by equals, as opposed to characters that you have to have because the plot demands it. I wanted Monica (Nichols) to be toe-to-toe with Tommy Kane (Ed Burns), and I wanted Maria (Ejogo) to be toe-to-toe with Cross, and I wanted Cross to be struggling to be toe-to-toe with his mother (Tyson).
What was your process for developing Picasso, as a character, and deciding that Matthew Fox was the actor to bring him to life?
COHEN: If I contributed anything to the script, it was the character of Picasso. I didn’t want him to have a name. I didn’t want him to have a background. I really wanted a scary cipher, but a guy who had such high standards of perfection, to which he held himself, that when he starts to not be perfect because of the opposition of Cross and company, he starts to cleave apart. The psychotic serial killer part of him comes into conflict with the cool assassin part of him. So, in working that through with Matthew, and in playing with the edge of it, I found that all of our interpretation work, in the beginning, paid off. I never had a moment where I said to him, “Bring that down.” He did a number of these twitchy things and, in the editing, I trimmed that back because sometimes it was just too much. But other than that, the performance came out so undistilled and so terrifying, and he was so dedicated to that role. They all were, but Tyler and he worked harder and deeper than I’ve seen actors work, in a long time. When we did that rooftop scene, where Picasso is talking to Cross at the funeral, I just said, “Let’s take a chance. I want you to look right into the camera. Right on this line, I want you to turn and look at the audience and go, ‘If you’d just kept your mouth shut, you wouldn’t be feeling any pain at all,’ and aim it right at the audience, so we feel what it’s like to be in the target of that rage.” He debated that with me for awhile, but I said, “Trust me, just do it and it’s going to be a great moment,” and I think it is. So, we had a really good working relationship. We shot the MMA fight last. That was his last big thing. And when you see a guy so prepared that he can go into the ring with a genuine middle-weight mixed martial arts champion fighter and believably hold his own without any stunt doubles or tricks, and fight him and look like he could win, that’s when you just kiss actors and go, “Thank you for your talent and your dedication ‘cause you’ve made what I’ve conceived truthful.” That’s really something. His performance is so transformative that you don’t see Dr. Jack (from Lost). Actors are amazing people because, for the five or six years that Lost was on, he could be Dr. Jack, and you think of him as the hero who’s very helpful. But, he can be quite the opposite, within the same body. Within his character, he can create this other reality.
What was James Patterson like, as a collaborator?
COHEN: He was pretty good. He wanted to stay involved, but he didn’t try to force his will on me. Whatever misgivings he might have had, when I was changing the script, the minute that the actors started responding to the screenplay, he really did say, “Well, I was wrong.” I told him who I was going after and his attitude was, “You’ll never get those people.” And then, when we got each and every one of them, I think he went, “Oh, okay, I get it. You actually do know what you’re doing.” From that point on, when he stepped in with the money, I felt much closer to him. I showed him each cut, and he saw all the dailies. When I was ready to show the producers, I made sure he saw everything. He was really supportive. He came to the set twice to visit. I loved seeing him because it was always cool when he was there. I took John Updike’s book, The Witches of Eastwick, and turned it on its ear. Updike’s attitude was, “My book is still on my shelf, and your $50,000 is in my bank.” He didn’t want to be involved, at all. When an author is involved, you feel like he’s going to have a death grip, but Jim didn’t.
Were you always conscious of the PG-13 rating, or did any trimming need to be done?
COHEN: There was trimming that needed to be done, but I was very conscious of it. You’ve got unrelenting violence and intensity, as they say. I love “unrelenting intensity.” You have to know, up front, what their bugaboos are, and you have to do the dance. I knew that, when you take a scantily clad girl and tie her up with her own stockings, and she’s thinking she’s going to have some rough trade sex, you’re already in very dangerous territory with the MPAA, so I shot extra stuff and it wound up being cut back. I looked into that world of S&M and B&D, in my own life, and it’s erotic. The whole thing is great, cinematically. I definitely made the scene about control and not about sex. We went back and forth on that sequence, two or three times, and then got the PG-13.
Do you know what you’re going to be working on next? Are you someone who likes to keep multiple things in various stages of development?
COHEN: Yeah. I have a found footage movie with (producer) Jason Blum, the guy from Paranormal Activity, which will be a found footage action film. I’m excited about that because it’s so different. That’s a movie that’s going to be made for $2 or 3 million dollars, for the whole thing. And I have a project about Isaac Newton and his time as a detective, working at the Royal Mint. That’s an expensive, larger action-y period film. So, I’ve got a bunch of things, but I haven’t committed to anything quite yet. I was working on a project I dearly loved, called 1950, which was set during the Korean War and was about the first woman combat journalist, Marguerite Higgins. I loved that project, but the money fell apart. We’re still trying to piece it back together, but who knows. I worked on that for six months, and I was certain that was going, but suddenly people didn’t have what they said they had. That’s how it goes, in the independent world. I didn’t know this was going on, but some New York investors dropped out of Alex Cross about a week before we started shooting. It was Jim Patterson who stepped in with the money, which was the highest compliment I could get. By that point, the film was really headed to be. We hadn’t shot yet, but the cast was all in Cleveland and we were ready to role, and he stepped up and covered the gap.
Alex Cross is now playing.