Director's Cut: Courtney Solomon ('Getaway')


You'd certainly be forgiven for thinking that "Getaway", an original action property with a late August release date and a grim industrial color palette – is little more than a blank studio write-off destined to be buried deep in the pet cemetery into which Hollywood has transformed the dog days of summer, but – at least on a technical level – Courtney Solomon's film might ultimately prove to be the most interesting action spectacle of the season.  The story is simple enough: Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is a retired racecar driver whose wife is abducted from their apartment. In order to get her back, Magna is forced to steal an armored 2008 Shelby Super Snake and follow the increasingly dangerous instructions that are piped into the vehicle by a mysterious villain known only as "The Voice" (a rich maniac who has outfitted the speedster with digital cameras that point in all directions). Along the way, Magna picks up a spunky American passenger (Selena Gomez as "The Kid"), whose involvement in this mess may not be coincidental.

Shot entirely in Bulgaria, "Getaway" isn't your typical car chase flick. An admirable (and kind of nuts) attempt to use digital technology to reclaim a genre that has traded bravado stunts for computer-generated spectacle, "Getaway" is a staccato symphony of twisted metal, using uniquely computer-age tools to capture unmistakably analog (and shockingly dangerous) feats of daredevil driving. In a time when our biggest movie moments are engineered from 1s and 0s, "Getaway" feels like an almost Herzogian bit of madness – one shot towards the end is so insane (and profoundly illegal) that you won't believe your eyes, even though you'll know what you're seeing is impossible to fake.

I sat down with Courtney Solomon, who for the last few years has been serving as the mastermind of Dark Castle Entertainment, to discuss Selena Gomez and all of the other people that were almost killed making this movie.

FILM.COM: You’ve been doing a lot of producing work over the past few years, and quite prolifically – “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” in particular was fantastic.

COURTNEY SOLOMON: You liked that one, huh?

Yes sir. 

I love John Hyams, he’s a great guy. I’ve done a couple of movies with him.

I’d love to see him do more.

He’s going to do more, for sure. He’s tough with the material he picks, though, he sort of beats himself up a little.

He certainly brings a unique vision to his projects.

He comes from that whole documentary world, and they have a very different way of doing things. So yeah.

So it’s been eight years since you directed something...

Well it’s been seven years, and “Getaway” has been two years in the making, so it was really five years until I finally said “yes” and got behind the camera. The thing was that I had a contract that said I would produce movies for a certain period of time and not direct movies, because directing something takes you out of the producing world for too long. You can produce one or two movies while you’re directing something, but you can’t produce as many as I’ve been producing, which is hard enough on its own, trust me. So it was sort of like I didn’t have a choice, I couldn’t direct during that time, and it was just happenstance that this script came in at the same time when I became free, and I really liked the opportunity it presented. I thought “Hmm, I might give this one a shot.”

I get very interested in some things technically, and I loved the idea that I could tell the story of one big huge wild car chase with all of these angles but incorporated into an actual story point, which is that The Voice is watching them from inside, outside, and every way so it wasn’t just like I was placing cameras everywhere and cutting like crazy for no actual story purpose. The geek guy director in me thought “that’s really cool”, and then it was just the simplicity of the whole thing: it is what it is. A guy comes home, he’s faced with a very serious problem, and that’s it. You don’t even know who this guy is, you don’t get the obligatory 20 minutes at the beginning so you can see him at work and you can get to know his wife and you can see them together and then you can see Selena and you can see her polishing her car and then it all comes together.

It makes something like “Taken” look very long in the tooth by comparison.

Well it’s interesting because I watched “Taken” recently and I forgot that they took a long time to really set that up, but I think in “Taken” it’s a different story because he’s protecting his daughter. So I think the setup is really good in “Taken” and grounded because once he gets off the phone and accepts his mission, the story has more resonance that way.

In this particular case, you catch up. And I think that’s good, because people don’t want to see “Taken” again, this is a different animal. My idea was that it’ll be more of a roller coaster this way, and if this really happened to us you wouldn’t be wasting time screwing around, because this guy has kidnapped a loved one from you. I mean, what would you do if your writing could save that person?

It couldn’t.

But you understand what I’m saying.

So was your initial attraction to the film because you were always a car guy, or was it because you saw a certain cinematic opportunity with this script?

I was never a car guy. I’m much more of a car guy now and really appreciate them, because the Shelby is really a character, and I had to find my actor because there are a lot of cars. But it was the cinematic challenge of it, and on multiple levels. Because the cameras are one thing, and then there’s the fact that we did all of the effects practically. There’s no CG. I wanted it to be very hyper-real that way, so we killed 130 cars making this movie.

And how many cameras lost their lives?

62 cameras got killed, an $180,000 lens got totally wiped out...

Only one?

Miracle of miracles, only one. Two got repaired, but they lived. We were doing these things in “lived”, “dies”, “damaged”, in the hospital. It was just the mass organization of setting this stuff up in the first place, and choreographing it, and orchestrating it, and then actually shooting it. And then we got into post-production and it was a whole other challenge, where – first of all – if we did use CG, it was only to take cameras out of the frame, because they were everywhere, so that was a challenge. 630 hours of source footage, that’s 20 movies. 6,000 cuts, that’s four movies. It took seven and a half months just to do the first cut of this picture.

And the sound mix and sound design on this movie was a Herculean task, it was just crazy. I loved the challenge, just as training for doing something bigger in the future, but doing it in a genre where it was something you could get away with. You know, car movies to some extent are contained. The “Fast and the Furious” movies are monolithic, but we did it more like they did the first one. Rob Cohen shot that 90% practical, so we sort of just went back to that. And then to throw these actors into it was like a whole other challenge and dynamic to it in the context of this crazy action. We had to shoot the action first so I had rough-cuts ready sot hat when Ethan got there they would actually know what to do, which way to look... the mechanics of it were crazy even before you got to the performances. Logistically, it was a lot.


All films are a very piecemeal process, but this film takes that to a new level. You’re doing one setup and then another, one crash into another crash. How intensely pre-visualized did this have to be for you to understand the latticework of what you were doing?

Well I have sort of a bizarre mind that can hold this stuff, but let me give you an example. Because it was impossible to pre-viz in the usual way with so many cameras, so what we did was used simple cardboard pieces and built the basic streets we were using, and then literally with matchbox cars we would sit and design these things, me and the stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni, and then we’d take a small camera and actually pre-vis them literally with an iPhone.

With the matchbox cars?

With the matchbox cars.

Are you going to put that footage on the DVD?

A little bit of it, yes, including the people’s hands moving them. He goes like this, he goes around like this, and this guy hits him like this... and then we’d take that as a reference and go scout the real locations and then modify from there. And then we’d make actual diagrams of the stuff, so when you’d get your sides you’d have script pages alongside the diagrams of the stunts. So that was pretty much the process, it was actually old school and pretty basic but using a little bit of the technology.

I’ve seen films like “Leviathan” but this is the first larger, mainstream film I can think of where it felt like this digital technology was allowing for otherwise impossible cinematic sights. Do you think that these tools and your approach could possibly usher in a revitalized sense of what’s possible?

I hope so. One of the things that interested me was “could I have done this ten years ago the way I did it?” No, I would have been forced to do it the way “Fast 6” did their car chase sequences with CG. And they wouldn’th ave been as good 10 years ago as the stuff that they’ve done. And on my budget, which wasn’t their budget or even remotely close, dare I say, my CG would have lookd like crap and I would ahve been blasted for that. So now these cameras and the resolution you can get and how you can switch from a go-pro to a RED and everything in between, I’m hoping other filmmakers think “I can do this” in the context of this movie, or a dramatic piece, or a thriller, or whatever.

And with these larger resolutions, you can successfully blow the image up to fit on a movie screen without degrading the quality too much.

Correct. It’s getting better and better every day. Do I still love film? Yes. Do I still love when I was sitting at Fotochem looking at the film version of this movie? Yes. But we have to adjust to the times. And I think the cutting style of this film is sort of the future. It’s maybe even going to be a little too advanced for some people, because it cuts so quickly that it might be a little like sensory overload. But on the other side, what are films going to cut like in ten years, or even five? Because everything moves like that now, it’s just a massive amount of information.

But there is one moment in the film which I think really stands out which is not cut that way... speaking of impossible things, it’s one of the rare moments in recent cinema where my mind was sort of boggled by how you guys pulled that off.

Note: It's an unbroken 95-second shot captured by a camera mounted to the grill of the Shelby as it drag-races the villain’s Mercedes SUV at 90 miles per hour along the outskirts of town. It looks like this, but three times as fast and with two cars.

Everyone loves that shot by the way, and when we do the extra features you’ll see that it’s actually an eight-minute shot. We put it in at 95 seconds in the movie. We attached a RED to the front of the Shelby and it was dawn and I wanted to shoot a bunch of the movie that way, but then I thought I should save it and let it stand out. It’s also very dangerous to do what we did. We did an 18-mile shot, that’s how far they travel in that shot.

So those speeds are not faked are an illusion.

They’re ramped ever so slightly, but...

But they’re going very fast.

They’re going 90 MPH down those streets. Those stunt guys have no fear. This was their pride and glory.

And the precision, the cars miss each other by what looks to be fractions of an inch.

You will never appreciate it unless you are there and watch these guys actually do it, you just can’t until you’ve watched 70 days of car accidents. And it’s not an exact science, but they’re pretty damn exact, and they live on adrenaline, these guys. I basically said look, I need this shot and I want you to chase the SUV... there’s no way to close down a mile of road, let alone 18 miles of road, and we didn’t really know how far they were going to travel i that time, but I said “You need to be as close as you can to as many cars as you can at as many intersections as you can without cutting. That’s the name of the game.” So they did it illegally. At dawn, they just got in the car and then drove.

And you were hanging out somewhere else?

We scouted it, we had the whole area blocked and we knew what kind of traffic would be there because we had looked at it a couple times, but that part we had a general idea but the exact traffic? We had no idea, we hadn’t placed it. In the rest of the movie, every car is choreographed, they’re all stunt cars. But in this shot, every car is real. They all could have come out of anywhere and the Shelby could have just  [smacks hands] plastered them. That’s the truth of it, when you do the other stuff the streets are locked down.

Which is why I imagine so much of the film is shot at night.

Right, it wouldn’t have been possible to close down even Bulgaria during the day, but there was no opportunity to shoot this film in America.

What’s amazing about this shot is how it restores a sense of tangible danger to the sight of a car going through an intersection, something the “Fast and Furious” movies would never deign to do because it’s that simple and it has to be a plane ejaculating a car and all that. So... really, all of those cars that you almost hit are not production vehicles? 

Everything was just traffic that was happening. When he comes down the first ramp and the taxi is right there, and you see how close he comes to the taxi and he just misses it by hitting the brakes, and then goes around it? This was a RED camera on the car, so it was sticking out, the edge of the camera is even closer to colliding into these other cars than it looks. I don’t know what to tell you. I wish I could come up with some other thing to tell you, and I’m not even sure I should be saying anything, but we’re not there anymore so I don’t know how much trouble we can get in. But the reality is that... the guy who drove that car, he’s a stunt driver from Bulgaria, and every time I asked him to get in a car he’d go “Hell yeah! Let’s bust some stuff up!” And he just went down there and went crazy. When they came back with the footage I was like a kid in a candy store.

I was going to ask if you were afraid of being remembered as the guy who killed Selena Gomez, but it sounds like other people were in much greater danger.

The stunt guys were at the most risk, but no I didn’t want to be the guy remembered for killing anybody. I was holding my breath the whole movie, and when we were done it was such a relief, so relieved that nobody got seriously injured. There were a couple of small injuries, but I don’t think you can do a practical effects movie like this and get away injury-free. And look, when I saw that shot, I was like “God I’d love to do so much of the movie like this, it would just freak people out”, but I can’t keep doing this the whole movie because somehow, some way it’s going to go wrong.

You saved it for maximum potency

Well it was sort of my way of, after all of that craziness, to say hey, here’s a simple reminder of just how dangerous all of this stuff is. That’s not eloquently put, but it is what it is.

No, it does have that retroactive halo effect for sure. And I hope we’ll see the full shot on the DVD.

Definitely. But I don’t even think there is a DVD anymore.

"Getaway" opens in theaters this Friday.