IRISH writer-directors Stephen St Leger and James Mather came to attention in 2004 when their short film Prey Alone was a hit.
The Dubliners, friends since college in Dun Laoghaire, were carving out impeccable careers — St Leger as a director of slick TV adverts, Mather as a cinematographer on films such as Adam and Paul. Their punchy action short, and its expert special effects, earned them the attention of Hollywood.
“The short had jet-fighters going through subways, which is not normal fare for Irish filmmakers,” says St Leger.
One of those charmed by Prey Alone was iconic filmmaker Luc Besson. The Frenchman — whose films Nikita and Leon they had adored — has produced St Leger’s and Mather’s feature debut, Lockout, an enjoyable action flick which pits laconic hard man Guy Pearce against psychotic bad guys. In a prison. In space.
“It does what it says on the tin,” says St Leger. “It’s very obviously indebted to the ’80s and the early ’90s and the kinds of action films that I grew up on as a teenager. There was such a good spirit and level of fun to those films that just overwhelmed you.”
Lockout is in line with action classics such as Die Hard, as well as Besson’s own films, and the cult action fare of director John Carpenter. By far its strongest suit is Guy Pearce, who puts in an amusing and charismatic turn as a jaded and pugnacious special agent, Snow. It’s the kind of anti-heroic part that Kurt Russell used to do with such aplomb, and Pearce revives it brilliantly here, spitting out one-liners and reluctantly saving the girl (Maggie Grace) in between ruckuses.
“I liked the idea that Snow doesn’t even want to be there,” says St Leger.
“He doesn’t want to do anything. And he’s vulnerable. When he gets hit, he hurts. He stumbles around. He’s not really good at what he does.”
St Leger credits Besson with recognising Pearce as perfect for the role.
“Luc has a knack for that kind of thing,” he says. “When he cast Liam Neeson in Taken, everybody was a little unsure about the idea of Oskar Schindler in an action movie. It didn’t seem appropriate casting.
“But Liam Neeson is amazing in that film and he’s doing more films of that sensibility now. With Guy Pearce, there was no doubt about whether he could do the role or not. The question was: would he do it? Would he take it and run with it? And he did, and he does run with it. Guy hasn’t done this kind of role before. He’s used to playing very earnest, very serious characters in some amazing films. Snow is the complete opposite of all that. He couldn’t give a toss about anything.”
Despite their use of digital effects in Prey Alone earning them their break, St Leger and Mather minimised use of green-screen in Lockout. Instead, they focused on generating a similar feel to action films of old.
“We’re not big fans of green-screen at all,” says St Leger. “On Prey Alone, there was no other way. Nobody is going to give you jet fighters to fly down through New York. On Lockout, we wanted to do everything we could in camera. Certain sequences had to be green-screen, but overall we wanted the look of those older films where the textures are quite credible and you just get a certain sense of atmosphere.”
All told, what is impressive about Lockout is the sense of genre control and composure that Mather and St Leger bring to bear on it. There’s no question that the narrative is formulaic, yet — as happens in the better genre films — the directors freshen up the well-worn and trusted joys of the formula. It helped Mather and St Leger to have Besson as an angel on their shoulder.
“If you’re referencing those movies from the ’80s and ’90s, well, he was there, you know?” says St Leger. “It’s as much a Luc Besson movie as it is ours. In fact, I would have thought that in some ways it’s even the definitive Luc Besson movie.”
With Lockout opening in 2,500 cinemas in the US this week, it may prove to be definitive for St Leger and Mather, too.
* Lockout goes on general release from tomorrow.