With Sleepless in theaters this weekend, Collider spoke with German director Baran bo Odar about making the transition from smaller foreign-language films to a big American action thriller starring Jamie Foxx and Michelle Monaghan. Odar attracted the attention of the film’s producers for his critically acclaimed crime thrillers Who Am I, a huge 2014 hit in Germany, and The Silence, which landed him on Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch” list in 2011. His new film is a gritty, tautly plotted, character-driven story based on a screenplay by Andrea Berloff that takes place in Las Vegas but was shot mostly in Atlanta.
At our roundtable interview, Odar revealed how he first came aboard the project, what it was like shooting Atlanta for Las Vegas, why casting a strong actress like Monaghan opposite Foxx was essential, their intense fight sequence that chipped Jamie’s tooth, why he feels collaborating with his actors makes for great moviemaking, the gender politics that inform the movie, why doing an American action film was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, his favorite movies: Lawrence of Arabia, Blade Runner, Heat, and Fritz Lang’s M, and his exciting new Netflix series Dark that he’s currently shooting in Berlin.
Can you talk about how this project first emerged?
BARAN BO ODAR: Jamie was already attached to this project when I came on board. The producers were looking for directors, and my movie that came out in Germany was a big success there, and then of course it’s Hollywood. They look at big successes and watched the movie. They liked it and screened it everywhere. I guess that’s the reason why they found me. Then, I met Jamie in London where he was doing press for another film. We met there and we liked each other. Then, it took them two weeks to finalize this whole project.
You shot this in Atlanta, but aside from the chase scenes on the Strip, it’s pretty much confined to this one casino. What were some of the challenges of shooting Atlanta for Las Vegas and creating a big action movie that’s somewhat contained?
ODAR: I love Atlanta. It’s a great city with great crews there, but it’s really hard to make it into a Las Vegas version of it because it doesn’t look at all like Las Vegas. There’s no deserts. There’s only trees. So, we decided to get as much as possible in interior set-ups and build up the casino floor. As you know, the movie is based on a French movie (Nuit Blanche) that’s set up in a club, which is also a nice location, but we always felt like it’s too small for 90 minutes. You can’t really do much in just the club. We liked the idea of having this entire casino tower, which still feels like a prison for Jamie. It’s a bit like a fairytale. You get the knight that goes into the castle and has to fight the bad knights to get his son back. We also felt like sometimes you have to get outside of this entire thing. There were also draft versions where the showdown was outside, taking place in Vegas on the monorail. We always felt because we were so grounded, as least I think with this action movie, that we didn’t want to have this typical big Hollywood showdown, but rather something that was very rooted in the characters. We felt that going into that garage was like going into your dark side or a metaphor for that. We felt it fit better than having a typical huge Hollywood explosion.
Michelle Monaghan is Jamie’s equal co-star in this movie. They’re really the two leads. Did you cast her or was she also on board when you came on?
ODAR: No. We cast her once I was on board. Jamie was the only one who was on board already. Then, we started casting with Avy Kaufman. I’ve loved her work since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and also Gone Baby Gone. I think she’s a fantastic actress and very likeable, but also edgy. She’s not just a pretty woman, but she’s also a really good actress, and we felt like she was a perfect fit to Jamie, because Jamie is such a good actor. You really have to have someone who is a good supporter of that.
Was it Jamie’s idea to cast Gabrielle Union as his wife?
ODAR: Yes, he mentioned her. Then, I met her and I think she’s brilliant, but that was Jamie’s idea.
What was it like to work with Jamie?
ODAR: It’s always fun. He’s a big entertainer. For a director, sometimes it’s awkward if your actor is such an entertainer, because you want to stay focused. But, in the end, I really enjoyed it. There was one day we shot where it was a very long shooting day, and Jamie was so tired. I could tell. We were shooting a shot where he’s in the car and he tries to escape the other car that’s chasing him. He was really tired because of the fighting and the stunts that he did all by himself. He was so, so tired. I was like, “Oh my God, we’re never going to get through this scene, because it’s already the 14th shooting hour, and we have to push that scene. Let’s try and see if we can do it.” He literally almost fell asleep at the wheel. Then, I yelled “action” and then he was wide awake. That’s the greatness about Jamie. Once you yell “action,” he’s so focused and he’s in the role immediately. Then, I yelled “cut” and he fell asleep again. I love that. He’s a great guy.
When you’re working with an Academy Award winner like Jamie Foxx, do you allow him any kind of leeway to do things that he would like to do? Did he ad lib anything that actually made it into the movie?
ODAR: It’s always a collaboration. It doesn’t matter if you work with an Oscar winner or if you work with an unknown actor. There is always a collaboration between the director and the actors, and you always have to listen as the actors have to listen to you as a director. In the end, you as a director, of course, are the captain on the ship. You have to say, “Well, we’re sailing to the left and not to the right.” But, you always have to listen to everyone, because I’m not always right and other people have great ideas, too. I think that makes great moviemaking.
Did you have any issues with the paparazzi while you were shooting the film?
ODAR: Not issues. Everyone loves Jamie. When we were shooting on the street or wherever people could get closer to the set, there were always 200 people yelling, “Jamie, Jamie!” But I’m fine with that. In my German movie, Who Am I, I was with one of the biggest stars in Germany and we had the same issue. I just got used to it. His name was Elyas M’Barek. He’s like the Tom Cruise of Germany. Everyone loves him, especially the women and girls. You always face a bunch of hands trying to stop you from working.
We hear Jamie chipped his tooth when he was fighting with Michelle. How did you direct them in that scene where they go at it with each other?
ODAR: You choreograph it like a dance, but in the end, you hit each other and accidents happen. They went through it all and wanted to do it by themselves. It was very important to me not to have stunt doubles, because I don’t like that so much. That’s why we also said all the extras should feel grounded, too. No one is really capable of doing martial arts. What they do is kick ass in the end. She punched him. Usually, you try not to hit someone, but sometimes it happens. If it’s just one step too close, then you hit someone.
Did you have to stop the scene?
ODAR: No, we kept doing it.
Did you worry about alienating audiences because of how Jamie’s character is portrayed at the beginning?
ODAR: Well, I’m from Europe, so we really love flawed characters, and that’s what I liked about the story. You actually follow a corrupt cop who is very flawed, who has a lot of issues, and who doesn’t focus on the real things. He has to learn during the course of the story that he has to focus on other stuff. Basically, Jamie is a flawed character that just got lost in his job. If you’re undercover for two or three years, I think you lose your private life. That was always the basic idea. We always said from the beginning that we don’t want to like Jamie from the beginning. We just want to, during the course of the story, understand why he became that person. As you can see at the end, there is a redemption, and he realizes he has to be there for his son, and he has to listen to his son.
This is your first big Hollywood production. What surprised you the most about doing this?
ODAR: It’s actually very professional on set, but what surprised me the most, I have to say, was the quality of actors here. Even the extras in the background, they are so focused and so willing to give everything, while I’m like, “Guys, you just earn $75 a day. Relax!” They really think about a character and try to play something. That surprised me the most, to be honest. I enjoyed that the most. I was born in Switzerland. Everyone thinks I’m Swiss, but I’m actually German. I’m from Germany. It’s a small country. You don’t have as many great actors there, of course. Extras are very different in Germany. They are more annoyed and always pissed that they have to wait. We had 600 extras on the casino floor, and they came there every day for two weeks, and they were cheering. We treated them really badly. It was 8 hours of running from left to right and chasing them, but they had fun. I really enjoyed that because that’s the great thing about America. People really love movies here and it’s part of the culture. Even in Germany, still sometimes, the theater is always bigger than movies. It’s more art. Movies are more popcorn. Here, movies are really an art form. That, I think, is right, because it’s the most challenging art form that you as an artist can create. It’s easier to paint a painting because you’re very alone. You just have the canvas in front of you and then you do stuff. I’m not saying it’s easy to paint, but it’s a solitary thing. Whereas movies combine so many different things from pre-production to production, sound design, production designing, leading, organizing, while still being creative.
Can you talk about the gender politics that are in the movie?
ODAR: We felt that both female characters were very modern women. We felt that Gabrielle is not someone who’s waiting for someone. She’s taking action and basically throwing it into Jamie’s face saying she’s tired of waiting for him. If he can’t handle this and he can’t handle his life, then she will move on. It’s the same with Michelle who doesn’t want to just be the nice girl. I always told Michelle, “You have to be the badass cop. You have to be so masculine here because you’re working and living in a masculine world, and everyone still treats you like that girl, and you’re so sick of that.” I always give one actor an emotion to make it very easy so he or she can root to it, and her emotion was always anger. She’s so angry at the world, at her colleagues, and everyone. I think it’s very hard for a woman – I mean, look at Hillary, for example — to be treated as a person and not just as a woman who tries to become a politician. That’s why we felt like these two characters are very modern in this movie.
This is perfectly set up for a sequel at the end. Would you want to come back and do a sequel if the opportunity arose?
ODAR: Sure. I would do that. Let’s wait and see how it does at the box office.
Did you aspire to come to Hollywood from Germany? Was that something you always wanted to do?
ODAR: It was always a dream. I studied at film school in Munich. I think every filmmaker in Europe would be lying if they didn’t say one day they just wanted to make a movie here or at least try it. It’s very different from European filmmaking, because here it’s like a real industry. It’s very much about money and making money, which I think is fine, because it’s very expensive to make movies. In Europe, where we have all these different forms of financing and cultural funds and systems like that, it’s a good mixture of supporting artists to make movies. But, on the other side, everyone still wants to make money making movies. Again, even in the European film business, it’s expensive to make movies.
Do you want to stay here or would you like to go back and forth?
ODAR: I would like to go back and forth, to be honest, because the platform is just bigger for a filmmaker. You can do certain movies here which I really admire. All my favorite movies are American movies since I was a kid.
All? No German movies?
ODAR: Most of them. There’s only one – Fritz Lang’s M. That’s the only German movie I really like.
What are your favorites here?
ODAR: Lawrence of Arabia, Blade Runner and Heat since I was 12.
Well Lawrence of Arabia is really English.
ODAR: Yeah, it is English, but still in an American context.
Do you know what you’re going to do next?
ODAR: Right now, I’m shooting a Netflix series. I’m a showrunner. We are halfway through. It’s a 120 shooting days. We’re shooting in Berlin. I have a break of three weeks. I’m very tired. I’m doing all the episodes. It’s called Dark. It’s very different compared to Sleepless. It’s basically a mystery show about four families in a small town, then children disappear, and there is something bigger to it. It’s kind of sci-fi. I’m not allowed to spoil it. There’s more to it. It comes out around November.
What is it like doing a long form piece like that where you’re in charge of all 10 episodes?
ODAR: My wife is the writer of the show. (laughs) That made it easy to get the job. I decided to direct all the episodes because it’s a very complex story, and we felt a little bit like True Detective with Cary Fukunaga. It has to be done by one person, which I should have thought through a little better, because actually it’s really a beast. I’ve never done 120 shooting days, and there are three timelines in the 50s, the 80s, and the present time. We’re not shooting in an episodic, chronological way, but in a location chronological way, because it’s better for the budget. So, we have to think like what happened in the 50s? What’s happening in the 80s? Now we’re going back to the present time. Each shooting day is a big challenge, but it’s also fun. We have 72 characters in the show. I hope it’s good.
Are there any actors in it that we know?
ODAR: No. They’re all unknown German actors. It’s going to be in German, and like Narcos, with subtitles, but it will be released all over the world.
What do you make of the success of the new dark German comedy, Toni Erdmann, that’s been really successful?
ODAR: Maren Ade (the film’s writer/director/producer) is a good friend of mine. We went to the same class at film school. I think it’s successful because she has always been very honest. It’s a very honest movie and the performances are very honest. It’s very honest to make it a 3-hour movie as a comedy. Because I know her so well, I know it was a big discussion with the distributor, and they even tried a 2-hour version which didn’t work. I think she combined it in a very good way. It’s like arthouse meets comedy which is very rare. It has those three important moments you always have to have in a movie and those are very brilliant.
Sleepless opens in theaters on January 13th.