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Film Showcase: Director Robert Lorenz on The Marksman

January 15, 2021 07:30 | By
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Robert Lorenz (R) on set with Liam Neeson (L) and Jacob Perez

A bankrupt rancher tangles with the Mexican drug cartel in The Marksman, a Liam Neeson vehicle opening January 15 via Open Road. Directed by Robert Lorenz (DGA, PGA), the movie pairs Neeson as ex-Marine Jim Hanson with Miguel (Jacob Perez), a young Mexican who’s the target of cartel killers led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba).

Combining elements of Westerns and road movies, The Marksman takes viewers from the deserts along the Mexican border to lush Illinois farmland. Along the way Hanson, bitter and disillusioned after his wife’s death from cancer, and Miguel, an orphan facing implacable vengeance, must find a way to trust each other.

In Lorenz’s words, he came up through the ranks, working as Assistant Director and Producer on several Clint Eastwood features, including American Sniper, Mystic River, and Best Picture-winner Million Dollar Baby. He has three Academy Award nominations for producing, but his feature debut as director was Trouble with the Curve.

Below the Line spoke with Lorenz in Los Angeles via Zoom. 

Below the Line: How much did your draft of The Marksman differ from the original screenplay by Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz?

Robert Lorenz: Their draft contained the confrontation and the road movie, which is what really appealed to me. I wanted to put my own spin on the characters. Hanson wasn’t a rancher, he didn’t have a stepdaughter [played by Katheryn Winnick], Miguel didn’t speak English. Also, it read much more of a political piece. Hanson was like a militiaman, and I wanted him to be more of an Everyman. That was the major change I made. He’s a guy with problems. His wife just died, he’s consumed with financial issues. He’s sort of indifferent to the Mexicans, or “IA’s” as he calls them, who cross his land.

BTL: How did Liam Neeson become involved?

Lorenz: One of the producers suggested him. I immediately thought he would be great. I wasn’t thinking of his Taken movies, I was thinking of how great an actor he is in movies like Schindler’s List. Another reason why I thought he was right is because he’s the right age for the part. I was trying to go for something realistic with him.

I hadn’t really considered that his Taken movies would set such expectations with his fan base. There was definitely pressure to get him throwing punches and doing the usual stuff. It didn’t ring true to me, he’s in his late sixties. I felt that the approach we took worked.

BTL: You cast Jacob Perez as Miguel even though he didn’t have much acting experience.

Lorenz: When we were casting, we narrowed down to a few people, but none of them had the look, the rebellious quality I was going for. Jacob did, but I was a little concerned about his lack of experience. I sent his tape to Liam, who was really drawn to him. He said, let me help you, I’ll do whatever I can to help get a performance out of this kid.

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Jacob Perez (L) and Liam Neeson in The Marksman

BLT: How do you shape the performance of someone who may not have the vocabulary or skills of a veteran?

Lorenz: Having worked with Clint Eastwood so much, I picked up a few tricks from him. One thing he always does is let the actors show him what they’ve got. Then go in and modify, work from there.

Rather than start with telling Jacob, “This is what you have to do,” [I] just let him show what he can do first. So the first take was always Jacob showing me how he saw it. Then I could give him something, put more emphasis here or think about this. I could tell him to turn it up a little bit, or turn it down, which was probably more of what I had to do.

BTL: What was your schedule like?

Lorenz: We had 30 days, and the day before we started, they said, “You only have 29 now.” So we had to squeeze another day out of the schedule.

One thing I fought for was shooting chronologically. I wanted Jacob to experience the scenes in order, so he could reflect back on what happened to his character. And when you’re doing a road movie, and you’re in a truck that’s getting damaged as you go along, it’s a lot easier keeping things straight if you’re doing them in order.

BTL: You decided to shoot with a real truck rather than do the dialogue scenes in a studio?

Lorenz: Green screen technology has come a long way, but I still feel I can spot it, mainly in the performances. When the engine isn’t running and the wind isn’t blowing, the actors tend to relax. It’s a pain, I have to say, shooting on a real highway with the entourage of cops and cars, getting everybody out on the road. It’s not easy, but for me it gives more authenticity, more texture.

BTL: So many settings must have been a challenge.

Lorenz: There’s a lot of pressure to consolidate the movie into one location. I said, “It doesn’t work that way. It has to start in this desolate, brown, Southwestern look and then it has to move towards the lush green of the heartland.” That’s the visual journey that accompanies the emotional journey that the characters are experiencing.

To be able to shoot in two major locations like that on such a small budget was a gift, but we were still moving constantly. I would try to find an anchor location and grab nearby things from there. I spent a lot of time on Google Maps looking for something nearby. For example, there’s a sunset shot. Before our last week of filming, I went out driving all the roads around the barn we were using. Found a road that led west and said this is where we’re shooting.

BTL: How did you collaborate with cinematographer Mark Patten (BSC)?

Lorenz: I was going through reels and saw his work, asked his agent if he would be willing to work in the United States. He turned out to be a terrific guy. He came up through the ranks like I did. We both have a kind of no-nonsense approach into understanding what goes into making a movie, and he has a great eye.

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Liam Neeson in The Marksman

BTL: You make everything sound easy, but there’s a shoot-out early in the film that must have been complicated to break down.

Lorenz: I try to make it sound easy, but I do put a lot into it. I storyboard everything. In constructing shots, I’m always asking: How are you telling the story? What needs to be in the frame? Focusing on that. I come on set with a shot list, and I know exactly which ones I need to tell the story and which ones are the extras that I’m hoping to get if time permits.

Having been an assistant director, I understand how to schedule a day, how to motivate a crew. I know what you can get out of them after lunch versus what you can get out at the beginning of the day. So I was very careful to plot out our days. I had a great assistant director with me, Paula Case — I’ve worked with her before. She’s wonderful.

On this project, where the budget and schedule were so tight, we didn’t have time to mess around. I was working two cameras, pointing one this way and pointing one that way, just back and forth, just trying to get it all. Some days we were doing 75 set-ups, like that action sequence. There were more shots I would have liked to have gotten, but I knew which ones I had to have. If you don’t have the basic elements to tell the story you’re in trouble later in the editing room.

I love all types of movies, including action, but sometimes I get annoyed, because I don’t have a sense of geography, I don’t know where things are coming from. I feel like I’m being cheated a little bit of the drama and suspense because the action wasn’t set up properly.

BTL: Did the pandemic affect the project?

Lorenz: We were nearing the end of the edit when we were shut down. After a month or so, we could finish cutting. It was actually kind of nice to take a break and come back and see things with a fresh eye.

We’re opening theatrically in quite a few places, but not in big metropolitan areas. It hurts because most people are not going to get the chance to see the movie on a big screen, and there are so many movies I’m waiting to see. I’m hoping by the end of the summer we’re back in there again.

The Marksman is now playing theatrically across the country.