Pushing yourself and the lengths you’d be willing to go in order to protect yourself and the people you love, no matter how dangerous a situation, is often the most telling and insightful way of determining the most important aspects of your life. That’s certainly the motivating factor with the main protagonist, Ava, in director John Stockwell’s indie action drama, ‘In the Blood,’ which is now playing in select theaters and on VOD. With the help of former MMA fighter, Gina Carano, who has been making a name for herself as an actress in the action genre over the past few years, the helmer vibrantly incorporated creative, daring stunts into the film to emphasize the extreme lengths Ava would go to protect her family.
‘In the Blood’ follows Ava, a newlywed who travels to the Caribbean for her honeymoon. When her husband (Cam Gigandet) mysteriously disappears after a zip lining accident and some foul play in the forest, Ava goes on a one-woman quest to seek revenge against those who took her spouse. However, Ava’s wealthy father-in-law, Robert (Treat Williams), and local gangster Silvio Lugo, (Amaury Nolasco), don’t know she was trained as a child how to fight for survival by her father (Stephen Lang). She uses her survival skills and strong will to prove she’s not only determined to get her husband back, but also hold the men who took him responsible for their crime.
Stockwell generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘In the Blood’ over the phone. Among other things, the helmer discussed how the action drama’s sense of mystery surrounding Ava’s intense search for her husband encouraged him to direct the film; how he agreed with the movie’s writers, James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin, that Carano, a former MMA fighter, was the one actress who could convincingly pull off the story’s action sequences, and be completely credible in the role; and how he encourages his actors to rely more on improvising and less on rehearsal, as he feels the first time they speak the words are the most honest, spontaneous and organic.
Question (Q): You directed the new crime action thriller, ‘In the Blood.’ What was it about the script that drew you to want to helm the film? How did you become involved in the project?
John Stockwell (JS): Well, I think I was drawn to the mystery and simplicity of the story. I liked the idea of what if you were an American couple, honeymooning in a third world country, and the husband had an accident, got into an ambulance and was never seen again.
I really liked the set-up. I’ve always liked the movie ‘Breakdown’ with Kurt Russell, which has a similar starting point. So that initially drew me to the script. Also, I liked the opportunity of working with Gina Carano, which sealed the deal.
Q: Like you mentioned, Gina plays the film’s main character, Ava, a trained fighter who sets out to take down the men she thinks are responsible for her new husband’s abduction. What was the casting process like for Gina?
JS: The writers (James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin) told me they always had her in mind when they were working on the script. So it wasn’t much of a casting process, because she was the first person we thought about and went after. She was the one actress we knew who could convincingly pull off the action sequences, and be completely credible in the role.
I had not seen (her first starring role), ‘Haywire,’ and I had limited exposure to her as an MMA fighter. But I was completely smitten, mostly by funny, charming and feminine she is. Of course she can kick my ass. She’s also a great seductress, and she had everyone on the set in love with her.
I think the most challenging part about working with Gina was getting her to stop smiling. Unlike what you see in ‘Haywire,’ where she’s a cold, somber assassin, she has a lighter, looser side. I was interested in bringing that side out, which I think we did with this movie.
Q: Like you mentioned, Gina is a former mixed martial artist, and previously starred in such action movies as ‘Haywire’ and ‘Fast and Furious 6.’ How did her previous experience, both with mixed martial arts and in the action genre, influence her portrayal of Ava?
JS: Not only did she insist on doing all her own stunts, but she ended up choreographing all her stunts. The biggest challenge for us was that her stunt people and her doubles had a hard time doing the stunts as well as she did them.
The danger with your lead actress doing her stunts is that she’s going to get bruised, or a black eye. Even a small bruise on her face would be a problem for a lead actress, as opposed to a stunt person. So I had to stop her from doing certain stunts, because they were hazardous to the overall production. But in the end, we generally put her back in, because she said, “I can do my own stunts.”
Sometimes it’s hard because real fighters know how to make contact and fight in a ring. When they fight for a camera, they have to sell pretending to take a hit or miss. But since she worked with (Steven) Soderbergh on ‘Haywire,’ so she understood how the camera worked.
Q: What was the experience of creating the stunts and action for the film?
JS: Our stunt team had ideas about what we were going to do, based on the script. Gina came down to Puerto Rico, where we shot the film, a few weeks early, to work with the stunt team and choreography. But inevitably, she tossed things out and started again.
We would walk the sets together. For the most part, we were in practical locations. She would see a crumbling building, and would take a brick from it to use. She would also say, “What if I took this jagged rock?” She was very pragmatic about the objects around her, to make the stunts as honest and organic as possible.
Q: Like you mentioned, ‘In the Blood’ was shot in Puerto Rico. What drew you to film the movie there? What was the overall experience of shooting on real locations?
JS: Well, the movie was set in an unnamed Caribbean country. We chose to film in Puerto Rico because of their generous financial incentives and they have a great crew base there. In the movie, we’re not in Puerto Rico; we’re in a place more like Honduras.
The most difficult thing about shooting there for us was that it’s pretty built up. So we had to make it seem as rural and undeveloped as it appears in the movie.
Q: ‘In the Blood’ features an ensemble supporting cast, including Cam Gigandet as Ava’s new husband, as well as Danny Trejo and Luis Guzmán. What was the casting process like for the supporting actors?
JS: Well, Gina was cast first, and then we were meeting male leads to play opposite her. Then Cam came in, and they had an instant oddball chemistry. They made each other laugh. A lot of their scenes in the film were improvised.
Cam’s very athletic, so the hardest thing with him was also trying to get stunt men to do his work. When he went out on the zip line, we were supposed to have a safety line on him. I wasn’t getting out there, because it was a mile-long zip line. But he unsnapped his safety line, because it was getting in the way. (laughs)
Then other people came into the mix, including Luis Guzmán, who I love and have always wanted to work with. He’s actually from Puerto Rico, and so is Amaury Nolasco. So it was really fun to have those guys in their native land. Gina was really the starting point, and then all the other pieces fell into place.
Q: Speaking of improvising on the set, how much of the scenes were improvised? Did you encourage the actors to improve while filming?
JS: Yes, I’ve always relied on improv in my films. We’ll usually do a take as scripted, and then I’ll say, “Okay, we got that. Now let’s play around with it a little.” With a lot of the situations, like when they were out on the zip line, they were really reacting to what was going on. Half the time I couldn’t here, because they were a mile out. Gina and Cam really developed their own rapport, and I wanted to bring that to the screen, as honestly and realistically as possible.
Often times I would let the actors speak in Spanish. I was really interested in stressing having the characters speak Spanish in this world. A lot of the sequences were originally written and meant to be spoken in English, but we turned it into Spanish. It annoys me when characters are supposed to be in Spanish-speaking country, and everyone’s speaking English. (laughs)
Q: Were you able to have any rehearsal time with the cast before you began shooting the film, to help build the actors’ working relationships? Did you work with the actors to build backstories for their characters?
JS: I think on ‘Crazy/Beautiful,’ my first film, which starred Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez, we had a rehearsal period. But inevitably, the first time they said the words as they rehearsed, was their best performance. From that point on, I was like, “I’m going to rehearse on camera.” In this digital age, that’s how I do it-the actors rehearse on camera. Sometimes the first time the words are spoken is the most honest, spontaneous and organic. So in fear of missing that, I don’t do a lot of rehearsal, except for stunts or intriguingly choreographed camera moves.
Q: ‘In the Blood’ was simultaneously released on Friday, April 4 in theaters, On Demand and on iTunes. Are you personally a fan of watching films on VOD? Why do you feel the platform is important for smaller and independent movies like this one?
JS: That’s where everything’s going. Often times, people’s home theater systems are superior to the multiplex. There’s a convenience and comfort factor to it. You’re not going to get into a fight with the guy next to you about texting.
To a certain extent, a theatrical release has become a marketing device for the VOD market. That’s just how things are playing out today. I’ve never released a film this way before. But I have another movie, ‘Kid Cannabis,’ that we’re doing a similar release strategy with. Unless you’re a film like ‘Fast & Furious’ or ‘Spider-Man,’ this kind of release is always going to be considered.
Q: Before helming ‘In the Blood,’ you directed several other action thrillers, including ‘Blue Crush,’ ‘Into the Blue,’ ‘Dark Tide’ and ‘Turistas.’ What is it about this genre that you find so appealing? Are you interested in making more of these films in the future?
JS: I think this film would be the most action-based one I’ve done. But I would hesitate to call it an action movie; I consider it to be more of a suspense thriller, and less of an action movie. ‘Turistas’ had some action, but action kind of scares me.
I’m always trying to figure out a way to make it original and unique. But with the budget we had, how could we compete with the ‘Bourne’ and James Bond films? It’s difficult, so you try to find a degree of originality. Out of deprivation comes innovation. I usually favor characters, suspense and tension over wall-to-wall action.
Q: Did shooting the movie independently pose any challenges on the set?
JS: Of course it creates certain challenges. We tried not to get people hurt, since we were moving so quickly. We have guns and blanks and other things in a sequence that on a bigger-budget movie would take four days to shoot, that we would film in one day. We had to move at a certain pace, and I like moving quickly. I like the guerilla-style, run-and-gun approach.
If you were filming a drama with two people sitting in a room, talking across a table, the studio version would take four days. I could shoot that in two hours.
With action films, you always have a stunt coordinator and the First AD (Assistant Director) running the set, to a certain degree. They make sure everything is safe on the set.
Q: Besides directing films, you’ve also written several screenplays, including ‘Kid Cannabis,’ which you mentioned earlier. How does helming a movie you also wrote compare and contrast to just directing a film? Do you have a preference of both scribing and directing a film, or just helming a movie?
JS: I think I would prefer to just direct, but it’s easier to find things you like when you write them yourself. (laughs) Writing is a process that I only go through to get material I want to direct. I would prefer to get a straight submission from my agent.
In terms of ‘Kid Cannabis,’ that was a Rolling Stone article I adapted. That’s a true story, and I’ve had a history of working in bringing non-fiction stories to the screen.