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Film Spotlight: The Filmmakers Behind the Killer Action-Thriller The Protégé 

August 20, 2021 08:30 | By
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Maggie Q in The Protégé

When her mentor is attacked, elite British assassin Anna (Maggie Q) returns to her childhood home in Da Nang to avenge him. But her mission is complicated by Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a rival killer, in the Lionsgate release, The Protégé, opening in theaters on August 20. Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Patrick also star.

Over his forty-year career, Martin Campbell directed award-winning TV series like Reilly: Ace of Spades before building a reputation for box-office blockbusters. He helmed not one but two James Bond debuts: Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye (1995) and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006), and worked with action icons like Mel Gibson (Edge of Darkness, 2010) and Jackie Chan (The Foreigner, 2014). 

Martin Campbell

Martin Campbell

Producer Arthur Sarkissian collaborated with Campbell on The Foreigner, and produced the three Rush Hour films with Jackie Chan. His next project, Memory, starring Liam Neeson and directed by Campbell, is in post-production.

The Protégé marks a turning point for Maggie Q, previously cast in striking supporting roles in films like Mission: Impossible III and Live Free or Die Hard. Born in Hawaii, she went from a modeling career to acting in Hong Kong films like Gen Y Cops. That film caught the attention of Jackie Chan, who helped mentor her subsequent career.

“I’m not just saying this because I want to hype the movie, but Maggie Q is an absolutely incredible person to work with,” Sarkissian said in a phone call. “Nothing was ever difficult. She offered to do anything we wanted.  Shot-wise she did most of her stunts. She’s so smart and tuned-in, she should be far, far more recognized than she is. I can’t wait to do another movie with her.”

The real surprise in The Protégé may be Michael Keaton, who plays a ruthless killer with an unpredictable sense of humor. While Maggie Q has had extensive martial-arts training, Keaton has not had much experience in the action genre. 

“Michael keeps himself fit,” Campbell said via a Zoom call. “He’s in very good condition. And if actors commit to doing action, that’s a huge advantage. Some actors merely say, ‘Well you can use my double here.’ Michael really got into it. He worked very hard to make it convincing. A lot of the punch-ups and so forth, he did them himself.”

But it wasn’t Keaton’s action skills that got him cast in The Protégé

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Michael Keaton (L) with Q

“First of all, we got Michael Keaton because he is a terrific actor,” Campbell said. “That’s number one. He’s slightly quirky, slightly left field. You never quite know what kind of delivery you’re going to get, which makes it very exciting. That’s why I hired him.”

The bulk of The Protégé was shot in Romania just before COVID-19 shut down the movie industry.

“Originally it was going to be all Romania,” Sarkissian said. “They have very good crews. We just had to bring the heads of departments together and build our crew around them. They were very competent, exactly what I was hoping. Of course, we were lucky because COVID was just percolating at that point.”

“We got out one day before they closed down Romania,” Campbell recalled.  “I finished with a night shoot and then literally raced for the hotel, grabbed our bags, hopped on a plane to London. I had to do three days in London, which we managed to do, but COVID was just closing in, at that point.” 

Arthur Sarkissian

Arthur Sarkissian

Principal shooting lasted 60 days, followed by five months of post-production. Campbell edited the film remotely in Los Angeles, working on Evercast. Still waiting to be shot was a sequence set in Vietnam.

“We were waiting for their permission and they didn’t give it to us,” he said. “So we then had to go back to Bulgaria to shoot the final material.”

“If I’m not mistaken, when we shut down in Romania, we had two more weeks left,” Sarkissian said. “We sent a skeleton crew to Vietnam to do the plates. I knew the Millennium studios in Bulgaria were very well-equipped, and the crews there were great.”

Maggie Q’s encounter on the back roads of Vietnam with a motorcycle gang led by Robert Patrick was actually filmed in Bulgaria, as were scenes on a plantation substituting for a French colonial estate.

Despite the production setbacks, The Protégé has an impressive scope and scale. Action unfolds in crowded marketplaces, high-rise office buildings, and fortress-like estates. Remarkably, Campbell chose not to pre-viz the fight sequences.

“I’m kind of used to planning everything in my head,” he said. “By the time I see the action, I’ve run through the whole idea. The action sequences take a bit of time to do, because they’re shot in sections. but it’s all in the preparation.”

“Martin doesn’t like to leave the second unit by itself,” Sarkissian said. “He’s involved throughout, it’s basically him directing the second unit, except for scenes here and there like drive-bys. 

“He knows exactly what he wants,” Sarkissian continued. “I’ve known him for years, and the one thing about him is he’s very well prepared. He’s constantly living the movie he’s making. That’s a comfort zone for a producer.”

Campbell singled out Stunt Choreographer/Coordinator Georgi Manchev, who rehearsed with the actors on their off days.

“So they’re prepped in detail,” Campbell added. “Then on the day of shooting, we stick to the construction of the sequence.  We don’t change the stunts so much as refine them. Maybe we can do this in one move instead of three, that kind of thing.”

“The action sequences went pretty smoothly,” Sarkissian recalled. “It didn’t feel like we needed any extra time scheduled. We didn’t hit any snags, we didn’t go over budget.”

Many of the stunts in The Protégé are practical. Asked how many visual effects he used, Campbell replied, “Virtually none. Wire removal when they have to do big jumps, or when it’s required for safety purposes. 

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Samuel L. Jackson (L) with Q

“For example, in the fight between Michael and Maggie, you can’t have them flip on the coffee table and crash through the glass. Not only won’t insurance cover that, it’s just too dangerous. What we did was use face replacement software.”

The effect allows the filmmakers to place the actors’ faces onto the stuntpeople performing the action. 

“There’s a scene where Maggie is hit by a car,” Campbell said. “That was actually a guy who dressed like a woman. I’m sure Maggie would have done it if we asked her, but we can’t risk hurting the actors in stunts.”

Technology may make it easier to shoot some stunts, but it’s no substitute for the skill Keaton and Maggie Q bring to an elaborate sequence in which they attack each other in an apartment. Their initial fight swings from violence to lust and back, with kicks and punches serving as a kind of foreplay. 

Campbell has already completed shooting his next project, Memory, starring Neeson, Monica Bellucci, and Guy Pearce. It was adapted from a 2003 Dutch film, The Memory of a Killer, or The Alzheimer Case

“We shot under COVID-19 protocols,” Campbell said. “We were tested every day. Every crew member was tested before calls. That adds a good half-million to the budget, of course, but that’s the world we live in.”

Campbell pointed out that not one crew member was infected during the shoot.

The Protégé is now playing in theaters nationwide.

All pictures courtesy Lionsgate – Photographer: Simon Varsano, except where noted.