Michael Lee Simpson
EDWARD DRAKE ON DIRECTING HIS NEW FILM “AMERICAN SIEGE" WITH BRUCE WILLIS
Filmmaker Edward Drake discusses his career, the creative process, and his new film, 'American Siege' with Bruce Willis and Timothy V. Murphy.
Edward Drake is an award-winning Australian writer and director based in Los Angeles. Starting as an assistant to Mark Romanek and Academy Award-winning producer Michael Sugar at Anonymous Content, Drake went on to direct music videos for artists including Skrillex, Diplo and The Fratellis. Drake’s feature film credits include Gasoline Alleystarring Luke Wilson and Devon Sawa, Broil (Winner of Best Feature award at the Kanab Film Festival 2021), Breach, Cosmic Sin and Apex starring Bruce Willis and Neal McDonough. In December 2021, Drake recently wrapped filming on the KNIGHT trilogy for Lionsgate with Bruce Willis and Jack Kilmer. In our interview for Script Magazine, Drake discusses his career, the creative process and his new film, American Siege with Bruce Willis and Timothy V. Murphy.
You worked as an assistant for Academy Award-winning producer Michael Sugar and director Mark Romanek. What are some of the key takeaways you learned that allowed you to segue into being a director yourself?
Working with Mr. Sugar and Mr. Romanek was incredible. They taught me a discipline that I carry with me through to today. I loved the collaborative nature of both of them and how singular and decisive they would be at key points in a project. They would both make very smart decisions and trust their instincts, and I really admire the way that they walk through the industry. So, it was amazing getting to work with your heroes. I highly recommend it.
When you sit down to write a screenplay, what is your process? As a storyteller, do you start with an outline? Treatment? Or does it just all come to you?
I read Stephen King's On Writing when I was younger and it really helped me understand my own process. It's always starting from a place of character and letting the character dictate the story. So as soon as you understand the character and their fears, desires, dreams, hopes, everything else is fun. There's an element of outlining to it, for sure. When I'm pitching, I definitely go in with a fully formed vision for the project, for the story that we want to tell and the genre and understanding the audience expectations of the genre as well and working with the request of the stars and the producers. However, when I'm just writing a spec, it's totally free play. It's opening up a blank document and going from there. It's really fun. You discover things in the process that surprise you, and I love every moment of it.
Do you worry a spec script won’t get made the whole time you’re working on it as opposed to writing on assignment?
I write every day and I love the process and it has to be something that you fall in love with because you learn so much about yourself and what you're going through. There are so many ways projects can get made now and different forms they can take. I've seen feature scripts turned into audio plays, podcasts, features get flipped into TV shows, that sort of a thing. I'm writing to tell stories and one day I hope to create—I don't know what the market would be—but a little compendium of a lot of these scripts that I've written just for myself. And there are some projects that I write on my own time just to push my own writing abilities. So, it's a long road and there is no second that I spend writing that I'm not grateful that I'm here doing what I love—and it makes me a better writer. Yes, there are definitely projects that I know when I start writing them that would be quite difficult to be made, but oftentimes they're the most rewarding because they show you the most about your own process and about the stories you want to tell.
So, you read as much as you write.
Absolutely. Reading goes hand in hand with writing for me. Not only is it a way to see how other people walk through the world, but it's also something that's been with me ever since I was a kid. And it's an amazing gift.
As a director, do you try to match your original vision when you were writing, or does it take a life of its own?
There's definitely a clear delineation for me between writing and directing, and oftentimes those two worlds will try and bleed together on set. The key part for me when it comes to directing is being able to adapt to the realities of a production. There are things on the page that perhaps the production can't bring to life in that moment, and so you have to do right by the story and the characters and where the active performance is pulling the story and work with who you have and the team to bring these films to life—especially when it comes to someone like Bruce Willis, where you work with his energy and who he and his legacy is. He's an iconic figure in cinema history and you can have a bit of meta fun now because the way that we view stories and characters that he's played is so entwined with the history of cinema that we can subvert and remix, and just really look at what he's created over a lifetime of making movies and telling stories.
Tell us about your new film, American Siege.
American Siege is a story about truth and justice in Southern Georgia. I had filmed in this town called Fitzgerald, Georgia for I'd say about six months in the space of two years. I really got to know some of the local heroes and the battles that the people in the street and citizens of the town were facing. It was a way to look at this idea of justice I'd never seen attempted before. Hell or High Water by Taylor Sheridan was a key point of influence in the way that it approached the east Texan mindset of doing anything to survive and standing up to the forces of, authorities even when it meant you were on the wrong side of the law. So, I wanted to tell a story that was about a search for truth, but then the truth might not be as clean and neat as the main protagonist hoped it would be. They have to wrestle with the fact that their idea of the answer that they wanted isn't the one that they got, but they got what they needed, not what they wanted. I think that's a really interesting dilemma for the day and age we live in.
You’ve worked with Bruce Willis many times now, one as solely a writer and three as a writer/director. Other than his superstardom, what is it about him as an actor that influences you so much?
American Siege was the fourth project that I've worked with Mr. Willis and his team on, and I was able to lean into the relationships and bonds that we forged through that time to really tell our story that is full of antihero and looking at ways we can view situations through different perspectives that I haven't seen or attempted in films like these. There's an expectation from a lot of the audience that watches these films that they're going to be straight-up low-budget action movies and I really wanted to go deeper and explore what makes these characters tick in refreshing ways. I'm so damn proud of American Siege and the team that rallied to bring it together. Willis is so truthful with what he brings to a character, and I love the kindness that he has as a human being. He's a generous, soft-spoken, very smart actor who chooses interesting roles that he can subvert in fun ways. A lot of people see it as him taking the same role over and over, but if you watch carefully, there's so much more going on under the surface than perhaps he's given credit for nowadays. And I love working with him and his team. The film would not have been possible without Tyler Eckels. Tyler was our second unit director of photography, and he was responsible for helping us pull together, I'd say 75% of the crew during COVID from all corners of the east coast of America and Tennessee. He is an incredible cinematographer and has a very singular eye and understanding of action. Without Tyler, this film would not have been possible. I also want to thank, Corey Large, our producer, Johnny Messner, and the whole production team. This was a film made in eight days. Anna Hindman came on to play the Grace role, and it was one of her first times in front of a camera and she absolutely blew everyone away with how professional and subtle her performance was playing such a character with a big energy. I think that there's going to be a lot of great projects in her future as well.
You only shot for eight days?
Eight days, major in the heart of COVID. This was pre-vaccines, so our AD team worked with local authorities and our COVID officer very closely to ensure that we had zero COVID cases across the board, which I'm very proud of. My number one metric for a film is making sure that our cast and crew can go home each night to see their family safe and sound. I am so moved by the fact so many people came together to bring this story to life. I think there's a lot of films out there that are being made right now by incredible crew members and cast that are understanding how important storytelling is to our culture now more than ever as we're faced with lockdown after lockdown in different parts of the world. I really hope American Siege is a story that can entertain and enlighten audiences during these dark times.
About the story of American Siege, you mentioned “antihero.” What does the antihero of a movie mean to you?
The conventional idea of a hero is something that's being challenged in the world that we live in every day; what someone says and what someone does can be two very different things. So, for the three hostage takers in American Siege, what they are doing is breaking the law, but they are in search of a greater sense of justice and truth to learn about the disappearance of a loved one. When the sheriff, Ben Watts, is confronted with the boldness of their actions, he also must look at the way he's empowered by the corruption in his small town and have a reckoning with his own sense of justice.
Can you talk about some of the other cast members?
Trevor Gretzky's growth as an actor has been one of my proudest parts of the journey to witness. Trevor is an incredible human being and he's just getting started in his acting career. He absolutely had the hardest role on set playing the deputy, who has been seen his entire life to be a bit of a lackey and subservient to the winds of his father and to the sheriff. To be tested under these situations that he's confronted with in American Siege changes him profoundly. I asked him to really search for a greater sense of meaning to what it means to be a law enforcement officer in Southern Georgia. I'd also say Joshua Cole and Robert Laenen, who played two members of the militia, were also standouts. And of course, Timothy V. Murphy, one of the gracious living actors of our generation. I mean, Tim Murphy is a hero of mine and I've had the chance to work with him three times now. Any production would be lucky to have him. When he walks into a room, everyone stands up a little straighter, and I don't think I'm alone in saying this, but he's truly a gift to cinema and I'm so grateful to call him a friend.
Can you talk about some of the projects you have in development now?
I recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for an incredible documentary called Mandy Lady about the story of Mandy Horvath and her ascent of the world's highest freestanding mountain. On her hands, Mandy is a bilateral amputee who has survived more than most people will face in ten lifetimes. It's an incredible privilege to be part of that journey with Commander White and the people of Tanzania, the guides, the climbers, the minister for tourism, everyone came together to help her dream come true of being the first female bilateral amputee to ascend Mt. Kilimanjaro on her hands. There are a few projects under wraps at the moment and when the time is right, I will be praising them from the rooftops. I'm very excited about what 2022 has to offer!
-Writer’s Digest, Script Magazine