In Honest Thief, an Open Road release opening in theaters on October 16, Liam Neeson plays Tom Carter, a bank robber trying to make amends. When Carter confesses his crimes to the FBI, it unleashes a desperate chase after $9 million with Carter the prime suspect in a murder. Set in Boston, the movie also stars Kate Walsh, Jeffrey Donovan, Jai Courtney, Anthony Ramos and Robert Patrick.
Honest Thief is the second feature from director and longtime producer, Mark Williams, one of the creators of the series Ozark. Williams spoke with Below the Line from Australia, where he is prepping his next project.
Below the Line: When you cast Liam Neeson, his fans are going to expect a certain type of movie.
Williams: They absolutely expect a certain type of film, and if you don’t give it to them, they’re probably not going to be very happy. Here, he’s a bank robber — he’s not the classic Liam Neeson good guy who’s going to save the day. He’s a bad guy, someone who’s looking for redemption.
BTL: That’s something Kate Walsh’s character Ann doesn’t discover until well into the story.
Williams: We all have our secrets; we all have things in the past that may or may not be good. For Ann to discover who Tom is as we do, sort of on the run, is a curve ball. Their love story for me was the most important part of this story. I love fights, I love car chases, I love blowing stuff up, but if it’s their relationship that sticks in the end, I think we’re doing well. If you love someone, can you forgive them for their past?
For the most part, my themes run that way, if you look at Ozark and The Accountant. I like playing in the gray space. We’re not all black-and-white, we all have our grays. In a way the style of Honest Thief matches the characters. My DP Shelly Johnson and I were going for a style, but not be stylized, if that makes sense. The idea was to have fun with the camera and lighting, but not make it look hyper-real or comic book.
BTL: How do you collaborate with Johnson?
Williams: We’ve worked together before [on A Family Man in 2016], so we have a shorthand. Before we go on set, we’ll go through each scene and decide the general framework of the shots. We don’t storyboard, because we feel it’s more about reacting to the actors and the blocking. For me, it’s important to find the right angle to elevate the emotions. We will come up with a shot list, and once we’re on set we’ll adjust accordingly, but we’re both very much detail-oriented in the type of shots we want, where to hit the emotional beats. We usually know before we shoot when we’re going to cut to the close-ups, for example.
BTL: Did working on a series like Ozark help with your approach to Honest Thief?
Williams: No, not specifically. I’ve produced over 20 movies, so for me it was really having a good understanding of production to go along with directing. A lot of directing is producing, and then picking and choosing when to really focus on being a director.
Making a movie is very much dealing with issues and problems, figuring out how to do certain things given your situation, your resources, your time. For me it’s about trying to overcome problems to allow for creativity to shine.
There are always issues with movies, but the crew here was fantastic — everybody jumped on board. Liam’s a team player as well. He really gets down and dirty to get it done. He’ll go and fight train after a full day of acting — that’s how dedicated he is. It really sets a tone for everybody.
BTL: You can see that reflected in Kate Walsh’s performance, in particular her fight with Jai Courtney in a storage facility.
Williams: She was adamant about wanting to do her own stunts, because she hasn’t had that much experience in her career until this opportunity. We brought her into the stunt room with the coordinator and team to work through the elements of the stunts. Jai is a big guy, and when he threw her, he was really throwing her. There was a scary moment when I saw her flying through the air heading toward a bookshelf. She hit it pretty hard.
BTL: Do you think she knew how demanding the stunts would be?
Williams: No, she was a little bit stunned as things progressed. It definitely took her by surprise, but she is a dedicated actor, she wanted to keep going and get it done. She’s great, and that scene plays well. When you see her kicking, fighting back, that’s all Kate Walsh committing herself to being an action hero.
BTL: One thing about the action is that the fights and chases seem organic, spontaneous, like the encounter in front of a church between Liam Neeson and Jeffrey Donovan.
Williams: The stunt coordinator Mark Vanselow and I planned it as a fight between two men of a certain age. Real fights can get very scrappy very quickly. It’s not surprising for people to be struggling on the ground. They’re not doing these big flying kicks.
BTL: Can you talk about the scene in the hotel room where Neeson’s character is caught in a showdown?
Williams: Basically, that was a Mexican stand off with four people: Liam, Jai, Anthony Ramos and Robert Patrick. We had two cameras, I think handheld for that scene.
It was tricky. How do you light four people in a room at the same time, and have the camera moving? Shelly Johnson stepped up with the idea of having a centralized light source that we could tone to certain levels.
We wanted to get the intensity and keep it flowing, not make it choppy. It was a coordinated dance with the camera work on top of the actors, and we were trying to give the action a point of view. When we’re with Robert Patrick, who plays agent Baker, we came behind him so we could reveal the look Liam gives him. When we go back around Jai, we needed a more menacing look.
The scene was something Shelly and I talked about a lot, but I didn’t have any rehearsal time on that. That was really about knowing the blocking. When the actors showed up and we could explain the blocking, we were ready to go. We got it in one day.
The closing bit out the window and down to the street was another thing. We had to find the right location for it, because there were different levels to the stunt: the fall where they’re hitting the awning, then the trees, then the ground. That was all calculated, it took a long time.
BTL: Could you have filmed Honest Thief under the new Covid-19 protocols?
Williams: You have to take into account a lot of things. We’re all learning and dealing with it as we go. I happen to be in Australia where there are very few cases. But here we are just as protocol-oriented as everybody else on the planet. I’m producing a movie in Atlanta right now called Cop Shop. We’re getting through that, too. It has fights and everything else. It just takes caution.
Honest Thief will be in movie theaters on Friday, October 16.