From writer Ryan Engle and director James McTeigue, the dramatic thriller Breaking In shows what can happen when the family home of Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union) is broken into and her two children (played by Ajiona Alexus and Seth Carr) are taken hostage. Even though they are trapped in a remote house designed with impenetrable security and they’re being threatened by four very scary men, nothing can stop a mother determined to protect her family.
At the film’s press day in Downtown Los Angeles, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with director James McTeigue to chat 1-on-1 about why there should be more bad-ass female protagonists, why a mother is very much a superhero, making sure the children weren’t weak, a very strategically placed F-word, the biggest production challenge with this film, developing the antagonists, and his upcoming 10-part Netflix series Messiah.
Collider: I’m all for stories about kick-ass women, and Gabrielle Union was a bad-ass in this movie, so I had a lot of fun with it!
JAMES McTEIGUE: Oh, good! That was the thing that we wanted to do. It feels kind of zeitgeisty, at the moment. The truth of the matter is that (producers) Craig Perry and Jaime Primak Sullivan are the people who initially brought it to (producer) Will Packer, a few years ago, so obviously they were feeling it in the collective consciousness. I think that’s why it came together. And you should have bad-ass female protagonists. It’s funny that it’s unusual. I’ve been lucky enough to make a couple of films that have female protagonists at their center. This was one of them, but this is one where she very definitely was out to save.
So many of our heroes have capes these days, so it’s nice when you have one that is just a mother who wants her kids back.
McTEIGUE: Yeah, that’s right. It’s ironic to be talking on the weekend of the Avengers movie coming out, but you have to have a balance. You have to have the super fantasy, and then you have to have the grounded reality. That’s why it was important to make it just a mom, and I don’t say that lightly. I say it with all the respect it deserves because moms do that stuff, every day. I think if any mom got put in this situation, that’s what they would do. I always used to say to Ryan Engle, the writer, that it’s about the mom who’s in an accident and she gets out of the car to find one of her kids is trapped underneath, and she gets that super human strength and lifts it up. Whether that’s some adrenal blast or whether it’s some kind of mental synapsis firing, I think it’s what any mom would do for her kid.
One of the things I really liked about this is that these kids are not weak. They’re strong and they protect themselves because that’s how they’ve been raised.
McTEIGUE: Yeah. It’s nice that they don’t just sit in their room and go, “Okay, what do we do now?” When things start to fall apart, the kids are more confident than ever. These kids are very modern and present. Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) tries to think of what she can do to help them out of the situation. Even in the way she treats her younger brother, Glover (Seth Carr), hopefully you feel that there’s a real tenderness in there and a mirroring of what the mom does for them.
I noticed a very strategically placed use of the F-word. Was there a lot of discussion about where to put that in?
McTEIGUE: Yes, there was! The reality of our censorship now, with the MPAA, is that you can have one swear word, so we did place it strategically. There were a few others in there, in a previous cut, but you only get one chance, so we made sure we put it in there appropriately. It is ironic that language is still a thing. You absolutely can have violence, but language is a thing. Even though you can go to any streaming service or any late night TV, and it’s littered with that “fuck” word, film hasn’t caught up yet. It’ll get there, I’m sure. Swearing is such a part of the vernacular now, but if we keep not allowing swearing, it will probably bleed out. Future generations will be like, “Remember when we used to use the word ‘fuck,’ all the time?”
What was the biggest production challenge, in pulling something like this off and having it mostly all be in one location?
McTEIGUE: Sometimes the thing that seems like the easy thing, like it taking place in one house, over one night, if you were shooting the whole thing completely sequentially, wasn’t our situation. We had to block a bunch of scenes in one room, and then go block a bunch of scenes in another room. There are technical things that you have to get over, and if you plan them well enough, you get over them. I think the biggest challenge really was making it believable, to tell you the truth. You want to set the Gabrielle Union character, Shaun, and the family up as people that you can trust and believe in, and also have the gang members, who you don’t know yet, have relationships with each other and they’re all from disparate backgrounds. And then, once the situation gets heightened, there’s a believability in it because now you know who all those characters are and how they’ll all react or not react. You’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve of the audience because audiences are super bright and they’re on to every trope that you’re going to throw at them. The big challenge is trying to stay ahead of the audience and make the characters believable. You have to buy into the fact that this mom will do anything to get back her kids.
When you do have somebody who’s as big of a bad-ass as Gabrielle Union is, how hard was it to find the four guys that could be formidable for her, but that she could also still ultimately beat?
McTEIGUE: Good question. It’s about the mix of the gang, too. I think you want to believe that some of them knew each other, like Eddie (Billy Burke) and Duncan (Richard Cabral), and then Peter (Mark Furze) and Sam (Levi Meaden) were just conduits to get other things done. Sam was the access that told them where the money was, up in the house. Peter was the guy who, when they found the safe, they’d be able to have him break into the safe cause. Once you bring them all together and give them the head gang guy, Eddie, you feel like he has a control over them. Eddie is always trying to keep it under control against Shaun, and I think Billy Burke pulled that off pretty good. He’s got what I’d call a sleazy intellect. And not Billy, personally, but his character. So, I think they equip themselves pretty well in front of her.
So, where do you go next? Do you want to make a movie that has many locations next and that takes place mostly in the daytime?
McTEIGUE: Well, I’m doing a thing for Netflix, at the moment, which shoots all over this country and shoots in the Middle East. It’s a 10-part series, called Messiah. That is the complete opposite to what [Breaking In]. Messiah pokes at the fabric of society, in a different, larger way, but is told through very intimate character perspectives. It’s about a section of personal faith and organized religion, but it’s put in this really nice engine of a political thriller. It’s about, if someone purporting to be the Messiah came and started rocking the political balance, first in the Middle East, and then back in America, what would actually happen? How would we deal with it? What would we do?
Breaking In opens in theaters on May 11th.