Exclusive interview: Martin Campbell makes Jackie Chan serious in The Foreigner

The Foreigner premiere
Martin Campbell and Jackie Chan at the LA premiere of The Foreigner. Pic: Andrew Hreha/STXfilms

Martin Campbell introduced the two most recent James Bonds as the director of Goldeneye and Casino Royale. Now he’s introducing fans to Jackie Chan’s serious side in The Foreigner. Chan has dabbled in drama with his Chinese films, but The Foreigner will be the English speaking region’s most dramatic exposure to serious Chan.

Chan plays Quan Ngoc Minh, a Chinese man living in England when his daughter is killed in an IRA bombing. When Quan sees former IRA agent and now Deputy Minister of Ireland Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) on TV, Quan comes directly to Hennessy for answers. Martin Campbell spoke with Monsters and Critics about his latest film and his memories of Goldeneye and Casino Royale. The Foreigner opens Friday.

M&C: Had you always wanted to make an IRA thriller?

Martin Campbell: Certainly it did interest me given that I lived in London for 21 years. I was there while the IRA were doing their bombing campaign and everything else, so there was a certain element of that that attracted me to it because I knew a lot about the Irish and about the Irish problems.

M&C: How did you want to make it exciting while having something to say?

MC: I was more interested in the action stuff. For example, the bus on the bridge which was an exact replica of what the IRA did in one of the London squares. They did precisely that. They killed 56 people by putting a bomb on a bus and blowing it up so it was literally a replica of that explosion.

What really interested me in it was the politics between Pierce Brosnan and [his former IRA cohort], that whole internal war as it were between clearly two who were once friends who now you had the character who always wanted to continue the war and Hennessy, Brosnan’s character, who was part of the piece negotiations in 1998, coming together and literally going head to head. That whole aspect of it interested me.

Pierce Brosnan in The Foreigner
Pierce Brosnan as Hennessy at the Farmhouse gate in The Foreigner

M&C: Did you keep in touch with Pierce since 1995?

MC: Oh yeah. In fact, last year I was going to do another movie with him immediately following this, the Ernest Hemingway Across the River and Into the Trees. I don’t know if you ever read that book, but it’s set in Venice. The film fell apart for financial reasons but now has come back together again, so that may well be something I do with him in the near future.

M&C: Do you work any differently together now that 22 years have passed since Goldeneye?

MC: Probably because we know each other, we’re more comfortable if you see what I mean. Obviously a Bond film, even though there’s action in this film, his part is very differently quite clearly.

M&C: Any movie has pressure obviously but is there any less pressure doing The Foreigner than a James Bond movie?

MC: It was more pressure really. First of all, you’ve got to realize that Bond movies, you get a decent schedule on Bond movies although on Goldeneye it was tight because Bond hadn’t been done for six years. There was a legal problem to do with Paretti of MGM so legally they couldn’t make a film.

So when we did Goldeneye, they didn’t know whether Bond was even relevant or whether an audience was actually going to see it. Bond was a bit of a relic, so on and so forth, and then Pierce came in. It’s all heightened reality in a Bond movie, fantasy really.

We’d all love to be Bond and screw as many women as Bond does. So you have much more time to film it. You have more money in the budget to do it whereas a film like The Foreigner is a tight budget. It was a tight schedule. Jackie was available for X amount of time. He had to be out really on the day he was contracted to be out. All of those reasons make it a much tougher film to make really.

Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan
Jackie Chan as Quan and Pierce Brosnan as Hennessy in a hotel suite in The Foreigner

M&C: When we see pictures of young Quan in The Foreigner, were you able to use pictures from classic Jackie Chan movies?

MC: Yeah, I can’t remember which one but obviously from an early Jackie Chan film.

M&C: Did you still use Jackie Chan’s stunt team in The Foreigner

MC: No, we actually have an English stunt arranger too. What I wanted to do was I was a little worried we would get the Jackie Chan pull the table napkin out, the classic Jackie Chan which is brilliant.

But I didn’t want any of that. I just felt it wasn’t the character. So we had an English stunt arranger and he worked with Han [Guanhua] who was Jackie’s arranger – Jackie himself was brilliant of course – to try an neutralize, if you see what I mean, the action.

M&C: He still uses some props, like grabbing a chair, but were there debates on set about what might be too comedic for the tone of The Foreigner?

MC: No, I monitored that very heavily. In all honestly, by the time we’d gotten to that sequence, we’d already established who Quan was, what the limitations were. We couldn’t go out and suddenly do backflips.

When we shot that sequence, we’d already established that sort of rapport. Even though Jackie loves to tell the story “[I’m] not allowed to do this…” he had signed on for all that.

Jackie Chan IS The Foreigner
Jackie Chan as Quan gets out of a car in The Foreigner

M&C: Were any of the Irish agents he’s fighting in The Foreigner members of the JC Stunt Team?

MC: No, they were all English stunt people.

M&C: Did you find all the angles that really emphasize the height, especially in the stairwell and rooftop sequences?

MC: Yeah, the bit on the rooftop I thought was quite fun because I’ve never seen that before. Where do you go when you’ve got nowhere to go? Really, it just works its way down to the bottom. It’s a bit like when we did Casino [Royale], I sat there in that opening action sequence, which was by the way a six line description in the script.

You go to that construction site and you say, “Okay, all I know is that Bond is on the ground and I know he has to get to the highest point which is the top of that crane and he’s got to get down again.” It’s rather the same way with the house. We’ve got this house, we’ve got five floors, we’ve got to get from there to there.

M&C: Jackie also tells the story of doing the makeup where you kept making him look older and older. Was there a line where he looked too old and you pulled it back?

MC: No, it was just adding a little more gray to his hair. It was giving him scars that he would’ve had when he was in Vietnam. It was that kind of stuff that we added. Although it’s not noticeable, if you look at him coming into the terrorist flat at the end, he’s younger looking in that.

I just wanted him to progressively look a little younger as it went along. He straightens up a little more. He’s got the round shoulders, the stoop as it were to start with. Gradually, throughout the film, as the warrior in him permeates through his character, he starts to straighten up and he looks a little younger.

Jackie Chan in old age makeup
Jackie Chan as a greying Quan looks out from amongst a wooded area in The Foreigner

M&C: Chinaman is obviously not a word we say anymore so it makes sense to change the title of the book to The Foreigner. Did you want to still have some characters say Chinaman in the movie to pay homage?

MC: Yes. I was told that the Chinese themselves in China are not offended by the word. Chinese people outside of the country are offended by the word so we couldn’t use the word Chinaman [in the title]. But Hennessy, Pierce’s character, uses it in a derogatory sense. He’s so frustrated with Quan.

M&C: The people who say it in The Foreigner could be seen as bad guys anyway.

MC: I never saw Pierce as a bad guy. I think he’s tragically misguided. He wants to get those people back and in order to do so, wants to hit a few soft targets but of course gets, as it were, completely conned by his once best friend into the situation. I never saw him as bad as such. Flawed, yes, tragic, yes.

Director Martin Campbell
Martin Campbell at the LA premiere of The Foreigner. Pic: Andrew Hreha/STXfilms

M&C: You mentioned when you did Goldeneye you and the producers weren’t even sure Bond would still be relevant. The interesting thing about Goldeneye is it’s both retro Cold War and post-modern ‘90s Bond. Now both of those are retro. Post 9/11 the post-Cold War era where we thought there were no bad guys left is quaint. Have you thought about that since Goldeneye?

MC: I haven’t seen Goldeneye for a long time. I do remember it was 1995 we shot it. We sat down and said, “How is it relevant? How are we going to make it?” First of all, we cast Judi Dench, making a woman [M]. At the time, Sarah Rimington was the head of MI5, a woman in England in charge of the most powerful security establishment in the business.

We did that and also casting someone like Judi Dench who is a marvelous actress helped. I think the scene with Judi Dench where she rips him a new one basically kind of got us over the hump at the time. “You’re a misogynist dinosaur who frankly has got no place in the world,” she calls him. That one scene got us over the hump for that.

M&C: Did you get to work with Tina Turner and the late Chris Cornell when they did the songs for Goldeneye and Casino Royale?

MC: I didn’t work closely. The thing about Bond is it’s a juggernaut really. First of all, there’s a panic to get it finished because we start shooting in January, it’s in the theaters in November. You have four units. The song is done as you’re going along. It was so tragic about Chris.

The Foreigner is released in theaters on Friday October 13.

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