Director Stefano Sollima directed television in his native Italy for almost a decade, including the popular Gomorrah TV series. He directed two Italian movies that maybe didn’t get released in the States, but his work definitely caught the eye of the right producers, who hired him to direct the 2018 crime sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado.
Sollima has followed that up with an even higher profile movie in Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, an adaptation of Clancy’s 1993 political thriller that puts Michael B. Jordan in the role of Navy SEAL John Kelly, who returns from the war in Syria only to have his pregnant wife killed by Russian soldiers as revenge for his role in a top-secret op. With a fellow SEAL (Jodie Turner-Smith) and a CIA agent (Jamie Bell), he takes a mission to find out who murdered his wife to uncover a secret plot to throw the U.S. and Russia into a new cold war.
It’s the first movie to focus on the origins of the character John Clark, played in previous adaptations by Liev Schreiber (The Sum of All Fears) and Willem Dafoe (Clear and Present Danger), but it’s also another chance for Sollima to flex his muscle as an action director with a number of impressive action set pieces.
Below the Line got on a Zoom call with Sollima for the following interview:
Below the Line: What first got you interested in directing a Tom Clancy movie? I know Without Remorse has been something they’ve been developing for a long time, so when did you come on board?
Stefano Sollima: The first time I had the meeting on Without Remorse, I met Paramount and then I met Michael B. I am a huge fan of Tom Clancy, so I’ve read all his books and watched all the movies based on his books. I liked John Kelly/John Clark a lot as a character, and I was kind of surprised they never made a movie on him. Because they usually rep Jack Ryan as a believer in the United States of America, but he doesn’t like the action, for example. I feel that John Kelly or John Clark has much more nuances and he has a lot of shades of grey. He does everything that’s needed to get the result. And no matter if he has to be brutal and violent, so I think it was an interesting character.
BTL: What sort of shape was the script in? As I said, they’d been developing it for a long time to get the movie made. Was it in pretty good shape or did you work with the writers to get it ready to shoot?
Sollima: The first script I read was by Shawn Ryan, who is the creator of The Shield. That of course was written I think in the early ’90s, and then we had the book that was written in the ’90s that was set-up in the ’70s. From the beginning, it was clear that we didn’t want to make a period movie, so we decided to modernize it. Keeping the evolution of John Kelly into John Clark, the death of his wife, the revenge kind of plot, and the geopolitical contest of the US and Russia, fighting an unofficial war, one against the other.
BTL: Which ends up being timely again now, because the U.S. and Russia are kind of having issues with each other again.
Sollima: This was essentially the reason why I liked the script, and it was important to make it because if you read the book, it has this kind of old-school first impression of a spy thriller, I’m talking just about the geopolitical background. In the end, even though it’s a movie about a soldier, the book had this part that was more about when we make war, what’s the reason behind war? I feel that the reasons behind the war are always the same, and this is the reason why even if you change a few elements, they become actual and relevant again today. In January, February, I was shocked by how relevant some pieces of our movie were for our society nowadays.
BTL: I try to talk to directors about how they put together their teams. A few of the people on this movie like Production Designer Kevin Kavanaugh and Editor Matt Newman, you worked with on Sicario, but this was also filmed by Philippe Rousselot, who is a bit of a legend in cinematography. What were some of your conversations with him about filming an action movie?
Sollima: I’m a huge fan of Philippe from when he did The Bear. Do you remember that film from Jean-Jacques Annaud? Then after that, he did an incredible amount of big Hollywood movies. I wanted to make a movie that has a special approach to the action sequences. I wanted to have someone with enough patience to wait until the bear does something that is exactly what you want, but on the other hand, who is able to deal with the heavy gear that is needed to make a big movie. Most of all, he’s a decent human being. I had a lot of conversations with him, and he’s really a super nice guy.
BTL: He’s one of those DoPs that you can trust — you don’t have to micromanage him. You know that he’ll make your movie look good. What about working with Kevin on production design? Like Soldado, this has a lot of locations all over the world.
Sollima: We work together, and I absolutely trust him, because he usually does a lot of research. He has beautiful taste, and he’s a practical guy. We already worked together, so it was easier to have him working on everything, because I already trusted him. This is one of the advantages of working with the same people that you already know, that you can trust them. You don’t lose time in the process. You already know that you’re going to get what you want, what you need.
BTL: How about doing the action in this one? Soldado obviously had a lot of action, also, but this one has even more. How do you deal with the action in terms of preparation for stunts and right up to the editing?
Sollima: My pitch and my proposal to Michael, for example, on the action, was to create more intimate action without just showing the action for itself. I’m trying to find a way to portray an action that you watch more for the effect of how it changes the character. The idea was to be really close to your character, and not to see everything but to see and to feel, what he says and what he felt. So I asked Michael to do all the stunts without the stuntman or a double, because that was part of the storytelling process, to be really close to him to the point that he has to do everything, and he accepted. He said, “Let’s do it, ” so we built all the action sequences around the notion that he’s going to be playing everything. We decided to shoot the movie almost entirely practically, using the VFX just a little bit to enhance some situations but physically, having the airplane rotating and Michael being there in the real location. That way, you create something that’s much more complex, to prep and put it together, but it gives you a completely different experience. You feel what it feels like, and you are literally in the middle of the action.
BTL: Michael’s a great actor, but I feel that he’s also quite physical and athletic, so I’m not surprised he would do many of his own stunts. Shifting gears, I’m curious by how the COVID pandemic hit the film industry in Italy and how Italy has been dealing with it.
Sollima: I’m not actually shooting, but there are several movies still shooting, of course. We shot four days during the pandemic in L.A., some small reshoots, and you have to be really careful to do so. But technically, and being really careful, you can do it. I mean, you can keep shooting. Of course, it depends also on the scope, and how many people you have around the machine, but they’re still shooting. Of course, all the theaters here are shut down, so it’s almost a year now.
BTL: Have you started prepping another movie or have you started thinking about what to do next and either prepping or writing?
Sollima: I’m working on a Western, basically it’s called Colt, and it’s based on the latest treatment Sergio Leone wrote before dying. It’s a Western with kids. It’s really beautiful, and Dennis Lehane wrote the script.
BTL: Is that in English and filming over there or here in the States?
Sollima: It’s going to be a mix, I think.
BTL: When do you think you might start shooting it, and do you have to wait for COVID or are you still putting the pieces together in prep?
Sollima: I want to shoot it in the wintertime, so we’re to shoot next winter.
BTL: Before we wrap up, I was curious about your transition to working on Hollywood movies. I know you directed a lot of television in Italy before doing Soldado and this one. Did you find the transition to be fairly effortless?
Sollima: It wasn’t really difficult, because also here, I did many technically complex jobs, so it wasn’t a big difference technically for sure, a little bit. I’ll say the biggest difference is that the tendency here is that the director is a little bit more than the driver of everything. In Hollywood, the director tends to be a little more one of the parts of the system. It’s probably by dealing with more money, you have more pressure, but everything makes sense, of course. The more you have money at your disposal, of course, on one side the creativity one that you can do almost whatever you want. On the other side, we have a responsibility to have this money coming back to the investors. Of course, you have a lot of different pressures, but I felt at home. I didn’t feel like there were really big differences.
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse will stream on Amazon Prime Video, starting Friday, April 30.
All pictures courtesy of Amazon Studios.