Director Michael Bassett loves to blow stuff up. That's why Cinemax's "Strike Back" was the perfect choice for his first TV directing gig.
"I blow up an ambulance and it's one of the biggest indoor explosions I've ever seen," Bassett told me at San Diego Comic Con. "When the shockwave hits you—you're sitting at your monitors 50 yards or 100 yards away—and then suddenly you just feel this wallop of air. Your crew is like, '[gasping sound].' It's total excitement."
Viewers will see that explosion in the current season's eighth episode, debuting at 9 p.m. Sept. 28. (See at photo here.) It's the second of Bassett's two-episode arc that began last week with military ops unit Section 20 chasing the nuclear devices stolen by Conrad Knox (Charles Dance) to Zimbabwe, where Knox broke opposition leader Walter Lutulu (Eamonn Walker) out of prison to lead a coup against the regime of Robert Mugabe.
Knox's unpredictable moves have kept Section 20 operatives Stonebridge (Phil Winchester) and Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) in the line of fire throughout Bassett's episodes, which is exactly what the director had in mind when he signed up for the job.
"It's just relentless action," he said. "For a show in which two episodes shot in 24 days, it's more action than I've ever done."
When it came to pumping up the action, Bassett had a willing cohort in Winchester. The two had worked together previously on the film "Solomon Kane," which incidentally opens this weekend in theaters. Winchester suggested Bassett come onboard to direct "Strike Back," and he was pleased with the result.
"He had me doing things like jumping out of a moving jeep onto the back of another moving jeep. So I liked him because he ramped up my stunt quota quite a bit, and stuck me in a parking garage with an exploding van and things like that," the actor told me. "He single-handedly gave me more dangerous stunts in one episode than I had the whole year."
As much as Bassett, whose film "Silent Hill: Revelation 3D" opens Oct. 26, was living a "childhood dream" getting to blow things up, he was also happy to have the chance to work with acting greats Dance ("Game of Thrones") and Walker ("Oz," and currently in Chicago filming "Chicago Fire").
"I got to put Eamonn Walker and Charles Dance together and they're fantastic," he said. "[Watching] two heavyweight actors doing their thing, which is a real privilege."
Bassett and I talked more about filming the action and character moments and how his research and real-life events in Zimbabwe altered the scripts for his two-episode block.
How did you get involved with this?
I knew the [Sky TV] first season [which aired in the UK] and I knew Phil Winchester because I directed him in a movie I made called “Solomon Kane.” He's terrific and I actually auditioned Phil for stuff years before, which was for movies that never got made. I always thought he was wonderful, so as soon as I got an opportunity to work with the guy, a role comes on that they're right for you cast them. Phil was in “Kane.” I went off, did “Kane.” Then I did a movie called “Silent Hill,” which comes out Halloween. I finished that movie in Toronto and Phil and I were emailing over Christmas and I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I'm doing a new series ‘Strike Back.’ What are you doing next year buddy?” “Nothing really. I'm going to take a bit of time off.” He said, “No, no, come do ‘Strike Back.’” Which I thought was a bit of a joke and I said, “All right, I'll do it.” And a week later I got a call from the producers saying, “Would you come in for a meeting?”
Now, I had never done television before. I just did features, but I love the format of the show. I like the action, adventure. I like that it's strong military. It's kind of real and gritty and it's got these two great characters at the center of it, Scott and Stonebridge. My childhood in the UK there was a show called “The Professionals.” Americans won't know this, but it was a similar kind of thing. It was about MI5 and two guys who go out and fight terrorists and criminals. To me “Strike Back” was like a modern version of that, so it's was my opportunity to kind of relive a childhood dream of making a show that was like that.
I met the producers. I pitched them what I'd do with it. I said I think we can make it cinematic and bigger and more action packed and more character driven. They seemed to like what I said. They said go to South Africa and we'll give you some episodes to do ... I signed up for scripts, which ended up getting changed. I thought I was doing a jungle adventure, which is what I really wanted to do. They got changed and ended up working into a different storyline, but it turned out that I get to work with Charles Dance, who is the principle baddie for the season. He's brilliant.
He’s so scary in this.
Charles is brilliant because he brings gravitas and charisma and power to whatever you give him to say. If you give him good stuff to say as well then he's really good. And of course he's Tywin Lannister in “Game of Thrones,” so to have that guy, you know? The first time I met Charles we had dinner and we talked about “Last Action Hero” and “Golden Child” and all those, the movies from the 80s when he was really doing stuff—“Alien 3.” For me it was an opportunity to work with an actor I wanted to work with for a long time. So Charlie was terrific.
Then I got to cast a British actor called Eamonn Walker, who is very, very powerful. He was one of the leads in a show called “Oz,” which was one of HBO's first original series. He played a Muslim leader in “Oz” and he's incredibly charismatic, terrifyingly charismatic. Again, as soon as I saw in the script there was an opportunity for this character and I thought I've got to get Eamonn Walker into this.
When you step into this thing do they—were you able to see the scripts for everything before, of the season before your episodes, so that you knew sort of the whole arc or did somebody explain it to you?
Yeah, I mean obviously they have a full arc for what they want to happen in the 10 episodes. I read the first couple of episodes and then I got outlines for the next two, three, four. You're supposed to know where you're picking up from. .... There is a kind of structure to build towards. I came at mine thinking I know what the boys have got and I know what the story is, but I'm treating mine like it's a movie, so I'm doing a 90-minute movie and it's just action for 65 of those 90 minutes. There is stuff happening all the time.
That's why they're doing blocks because you're doing these two episodes at once.
So I treat it like it's a movie. I treat the script like it's a movie script. And though it's a serial element, the boys know what they're doing with the characters and there is an overarching element of “OK, this is how the relationships are changing and developing.”
I think it's a competition. I want to make the best blocks. I want the whole show to be terrific and we're all working together. I want people to sit down and watch mine and go, “Boy those stand out. This is good stuff; he’s doing a great job.” It's my job as director to come onboard and say, “Everybody right, OK, now you've done what you've done before; this is great and I'm very pleased for you. We've got to change gear. We've got to make it better. We've got to just keep making things work better and faster and more efficiently and more exciting.”
There is no show like this on television—big budget U.S. TV stuff, the UK TV stuff, there is nothing which puts this kind of intensity of action on the screen and that's why it's exciting to do as a director. It's incredibly exciting. Coming off a slow 3D horror movie, which is very particular and there are lots and lots of special effects to suddenly kind of make a rock-and-roll action adventure military show it's wonderful.
And because of the shooting schedule too.
Yeah, you’ve got to know what you’re going to do. But the great thing is that Phil and Sullivan are so well trained from the military point of view and we have fully professional military advisors on the show all the time. We have ace Special Forces guys standing next to me saying, “We would not do it like that.”
So you go, “OK, how would you do it? Talk to me about tactics. The script calls for this bit of action.” They say,” We’d do this, this and this,” and great, that looks even better. It's more realistic. Phil and Sully are all over that, the precision of the military stuff, how they hold their weapons, how comfortable they are with the guns and Rhona [Mitra] is like that and even Liam [Garrigan] and Michelle [Lukes]. They're all good with their firearms. They go off and do firearm training. ... They can say, “OK, this is how heavy this is. This is how long it takes to reload and this is how hot a bit of shell casing is when it hits.” Just the reality of those little moments is great.
Did you find that there was just no way you could do some things the way the military advisors would do it because of filming constraints?
Sometimes. You'll ask a military advisor how they would do something and they'll say, “We would bring in 10 Black Hawks [helicopters].” You go, “Yeah, can't do that.” [Laughs.] “Let's think about another tactic.”
Some things won’t work visually, so I'd offer another option and they'd say, “That's OK, we would do that.” It's a question of picking the stuff which works visually. It's an entertainment TV show. That's its first job. It has to be credible because that's the aim of the whole thing, to make it real. It's really about a potential coup in Zimbabwe. It's really about how these boys would operate in military unit.
So if we can make those two things match and be the best version of that then you've got a show. I think you've got a show which is like nothing else. It's not “The A-Team.” Bullets hurt. People get killed. It's violent and it's aggressive and there is lots of bad language and there are lots of naked girls.
Now this is like a perfect television show I just described and if it didn't exist I would want to invent it. [Laughs.] The privilege is just coming in, plugging into the show, basically doing a holiday for me. You get to go to South Africa for a few months. You get to do all the really cool things which you dream about as a kid. Working with actors who are great fun and they know their job. We're all having—it's not a great time in the sense that we're all laughing—it's intense. You're focused and you've got to keep the machine moving, but at the end of the day you’re smiling thinking we did some good stuff, we blew up some big things and the truck chases and the gun fights and in the middle of that there are two great characters that you want to spend time with.
How much planning of yours is spent on the explosions?
Yeah, sometimes an explosion is written into the script and sometimes you go, “Oh I can get an explosion in here.” Sometimes it will say “and there is a gunfight” and you go, “OK, well this is the environment; this is the number of people they're fighting; how would you do it?” And the military guys say, “Well we would throw some grenades in there” or “We would use some C4 here and you go, “Oh great, let's do a bang.”
There is nothing better than doing a big explosion. It's the kid in me. When I was a teenager I used to empty out fireworks and steal the gun powder. In the UK that's a big deal. There are no guns. I would fill up little toy models with gun powder and blow them to pieces on camera and this is like a big version of that. It's a childhood dream come true.
The actors are right next to most of the explosions.
I put them as close as I can. [Laughs.] The idea is you say to the special effects guys, “OK, give me the safe distance and we'll do the most dangerous thing we can do as long as it's safe.” Tthere is an incredibly fine line of pushing it, pushing it, pushing it and then you push it to the point where you go, “No, that's not safe, but by God it looks cool.” So the idea is to find that optimum distance of what's great for the audience and safe for the actors. It makes me feel like I'm making the best show I can.
And they don’t use stunt guys very often.
They try not to, but the boys are so physically capable. There’s a truck chase at the end of my episode where Stonebridge's character has to jump from a moving vehicle to another moving vehicle. There are obviously safety rigs. He's not going to fall off and go under the wheel of a truck, but he's physically jumping from two moving vehicles. We figured out how we're going to do it and Phil was going to grab this bit and climb onto the back of the truck. The truth of the matter is, he jumped from the front of the moving Land Rover into the back of the truck without touching the tailgate because he's so damn fit. It was like, “OK, well, that happened.”
They are fit. They do fight training. They come back black and blue from their physical combat training sessions. They all know how to look after themselves. ... You feel very confident handing stuff over. Pick up that gun, pick up that grenade launcher, pick up whatever, you're going to do a fight sequence now.
Did you have to do research on the real-life world events that the show covers?
What was interesting for me is that my episode revolves around a potential coup in Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe's regime being maybe taken over. You go, “OK how does a coup in an African country work? If you're bringing in Special Forces guys, mercenaries, freelance soldiers how would you do a coup?” So the first thing is you do research that, and there were writers on the show, but I want to know. I want to be able to have the input and make it work.
While we were doing it, Mugabe was supposedly very, very ill. There was rumor for a few days that he was dead, so that had a huge influence on how the show was going to work because we were using real-world politics as our basis. Then it was like no, no, he's not dead, he's OK. But there was a version of the script circulating for a few days where it was a post-Mugabe regime and how that would work. We found a document online describing how you would launch a coup in Zimbabwe. Somebody figured it out. It's incredibly hard to do.
We had to make sure our structure more or less hit that kind of reality. A few years ago, there was an English mercenary who was trying to take over a small African country. I read his book and I read about how he would do his coup and the weapons and the tactics. So you do immerse yourself in that world. I'm interested in the military aspect anyway, so bringing those things together is good.
Having said that, it's still an entertainment show and you don't want to get bogged down in that kind of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” aspect of how spooks work. These boys go out and kick ass; that's their job. That's the fun stuff, so it's about balancing the reality. Mostly in the real world things happen more slowly, not so many bullets get fired and there aren’t such big explosions, but you use the foundation of a reality to make the fantasy exciting.
Do you find directing the action stuff more fun or the character moments?
The thing about this show is you don't want a quiet character moment. You want a noisy character moment in the middle of the action because that's when it's exciting. The characters are not reflective characters. They're soldiers. They don't stop and think about what they've done. In the middle of the action is when they are the most alive. For me as an audience member and as a director, I like the action. It's great fun to do.
But I absolutely love character-driven action because that's the best kind of action. It’s driven by the characters in the middle of what they've got to do. You try and find a character in the action. The pause between the gunfights is when they're most human. To actually just stop the action and go away and have a quiet, thoughtful moment can be fun and it's a very good opportunity for the boys to do some good performances. But I would rather try and make sure that happens within the context of the action of the show itself and then just keep everything barreling along. The difficulty is you'll shoot that stuff and it gets cut in the edit because the show is about the energy and you don't want to stop and say, “OK, we're thinking and talking now.” Let’s make that contemplation happen in the midst of the chaos, which is the way I want to do it.
Right, which is I think the show does that.
I think it does and for me, and I can't speak for the other directors because I only did two episodes out of 10, that's what you want to find. That's what makes it work. It's not a stop-start show. It doesn't stop for, “Let's have a talk about what we've just done.” It’s “Let’s keep doing the thing that we do.”
The relationship between the boys is so strong that you kind of know how they feel about each other at this stage and that’s great. There is a lot of unspoken stuff and if you shoot that well enough then you get a huge amount of character from a look or from a gesture or from how their body language is with each other as well. My job as a director is to make sure that happens and their job as actors is to do it right.
The action only stops for shagging.
[Laughs.] That’s a character moment, too.
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