Freelance director spills on new John Cena film, Liam Neeson’s post-Taken career

One of the formative movies of my youth was Taken. I was only seven at the time it came out (don’t worry, I didn’t watch it that young), but the Liam Neeson-led thriller changed how I viewed movies.

It was a film that I bonded with my dad over — even getting us to endure the subsequent sequels. Taken also launched the second half of Neeson’s career, making him an action hero who has done countless Taken riffs in the years since.

Pierre Morel directed that film, and it was a pleasure to speak with him. He spoke with ClutchPoints about his new John Cena and Alison Brie-led action film, Freelance.

In the film, Mason Pettits (Cena) is a retired Special Forces operator who is tasked with protecting esteemed journalist Claire Wellington (Brie) as she interviews Juan Venegas (Juan Pablo Raba), the president of Paldonia. A military coup breaks out, and it’s up to Pettits to lead them out of the jungle.

During our chat, Morel discussed Freelance, the memories he has from set, the seismic shift that casting Neeson in Taken caused, and the difference between John Cena and Liam Neeson.

Pierre Morel-Freelance interview

A still from Freelance courtesy of Relatively Media.

ClutchPoints: You’ve had a long career and you’ve been a cinematographer for a lot of directors, including Louis Leterrier, who has done such big blockbuster films. What was something that you’ve learned from working with him?

Pierre Morel: We grew up together. I think we learned from each other [laughs], because we literally grew up in that career simultaneously. Louis was a second assistant when I was a camera operator, he became a director when I was a DP, and then we both got on.

But we [have] known each other for a very long time, so we grew up and learned together, I think [smiles].

CP: Because you have done a lot of action movies throughout your career, is there something about that genre that really draws you to it?

PM: Yeah, I’m like you — I grew up with those movies. I mean, I grew up watching [the] Lethal Weapons and Die Hard, so I enjoy those movies as a spectator, [and] as a viewer. So I have fun making them. I think it’s a guilty pleasure as a director to, you know, blow up things [laughs] and the appetite for destruction, and you can do that on set.

You can’t do that for real, [but] you can do that on set, so it’s a lot of fun [smiles].

CP: What’s something about the behind-the-scenes work on Freelance that maybe most moviegoers don’t know?

PM: This one’s a bit different from the others because most of my previous work, you mentioned Taken, but all of the others [as well] are actually more dark and they’re thrillers. This one is an action-comedy. There’s a lot of action, but it was not all about the action. It was really about the banter, the fun, comedic aspect of it.

So it’s a different way of shooting. It’s a different ambience on set. And I was blessed to have three fantastic actors who off-camera were having a lot of fun [with] each other. And the banter was going on [off-camera]. All three have the crazy sense of humor. So it was not only on-camera, but between takes, it was a lot of fun on set.

There [were] some hard moments where we [had to] shoot in the jungle and there [were] like mosquitoes and rain, you name it. It was not always comfy, but at least you’re facing the same elements and the same issues and you bond over it. So it was fun.

CP: Do you have a favorite memory with John Cena and Alison Brie?

PM: Way too many! I don’t know. I think there’s that very short shower scene where they’re all supposed to get out of showers and I’m not going to spoil it, but they’re all naked, basically, and there was that really awkward moment and everybody had a blast shooting that scene. Because of the awkward situation, which was not salacious at all, it was just awkward and fun.

CP: I don’t know if anyone has ever brought it up, but do you ever think about how you launched Liam Neeson’s second-half career resurgence with Taken? 

PM: I think what was interesting in Taken and what Liam’s career became afterwards [is that he] was already a fantastic actor known for non-action stuff. I mean, you remember Schindler’s List — this guy was amazing.

And what changed maybe a little bit [in the] industry after Taken [was that] productions would stop hiring already established action heroes and use actors who had another career before or more drama actors, for instance, and bring them into action. And it does change the perspective and the feeling of the audience.

If you hire either Sylvester Stallone or [Arnold] Schwarzenegger in an action movie, you know what to expect. When you hire a Liam Neeson or a guy of that caliber, you know it’s not going to be just about the action, but also about the character.

So it’s just a different way to cast, and I think it has changed the way we cast [actors in] movies and [the way] we wrote [that] movie (Taken).

CP: When Liam Neeson did Taken, I think he was in his 50s, and he hadn’t done a lot of action as you noted. But John Cena, he’s in his mid-40s, but he has done a lot of action. Can you compare the experiences of working with those two actors

PM: [It’s] totally different because, yes, John obviously has been doing that all [of] his career. I mean, after years of wrestling, he’s a physical guy and he can pull off a lot. But again, I think it’s not just about the action. It’s just about the characters. And that’s why I make movies, too.

If you offer me a movie [that] is like all-in [on] action, but there’s no story, I’m not interested. So the experience was interesting because beyond their physical capacity, they are amazing actors, entertainers, and there’s a very similar experience with both of them because it’s about their characters, about the lines, about what they can deliver outside of the action, which was interesting.

Freelance will be released on October 27.

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