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Taking the Non-traditional Route

Producer-director Taylor Hackford

By Christine Bunish

Director Taylor Hackford at the premiere of Parker at West Palm Beach, Fla.’s Movieco at CityPlace. Photo: Mario Taormina
Director Taylor Hackford at the premiere of Parker
at West Palm Beach, Fla.’s Movieco at CityPlace.

Photo: Mario Taormina

Fortunately for moviegoers, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds, White Nights, Dolores Claiborne, The Devil’s Advocate, Ray) only lasted two weeks in law school.

When he walked out on classes, he lost his tuition but gained a career in filmmaking. His latest feature, Parker, brings the eponymous character from the Donald E. Westlake books back to the big screen seeking revenge on fellow thieves who cheated him out of his share of a heist. Shot in New Orleans and Palm Beach, Fla., the stylish thriller stars Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez and Michael Chiklis.

Hackford, who’s the current president of the Directors Guild of America, didn’t arrive at filmmaking by the traditional film school route.  He grew up working class in Santa Barbara, Calif., and as a student was “very involved” with sports and choral groups. Sure, he went to the movies – “who doesn’t love the movies? But I didn’t live in the theater,” he says. At the University of Southern California (USC), “home of one of the greatest film schools in the world,” he opted to study politics. In his senior year, he started to hang with film students and learned to watch films seriously. But upon graduation he joined the Peace Corps and moved to Bolivia.

Hackford had “started thinking about film politically,” however, and picked up a Super 8mm camera and began shooting in Bolivia in his spare time. Back in the U.S., he quickly ditched law school and got a job in the mail room of public TV station KCET, which “for the former student body president of USC was a bit of a comedown,” he admits. Before long, a staffer asked him if he could shoot film, “so I lied and hoped I wouldn’t screw it up too badly,” Hackford recalls. He didn’t. Hackford spent the next seven years as an investigative reporter at the station.

During that time, KCET won a Peabody Award, several local Emmys and an AP Award, and Hackford could see himself potentially becoming a producer on 60 Minutes if he pursued his career track. The station also did a lot of cultural programming, and Hackford’s 1973 film on LA poet Charles Bukowski won the Silver Reel Award for best documentary at the San Francisco Film Festival.

Soon it became clear to him that he had a choice of either continuing on the documentary path or striking out into the dramatic world. “I needed to make a commitment,” he says. He left the station and “starved for a while” until a social services agency asked him to make a short film about teen pregnancy. “I wanted to do it as a dramatic film, but made it look like a documentary,” he explains. “Teenage Father won the [1978] Academy Award for best dramatic short subject and was my ticket to Hollywood.”

Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez star in Parker, directed by Taylor Hackford. Photo: Jack English
Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez star in Parker, directed by Taylor Hackford.
Photo: Jack English

Two years later, he had directed his first feature, The Idolmaker, based on the life of rock promoter and manager Bob Marcucci who discovered 1950’s icons Frankie Avalon and Fabian. “It got great reviews but didn’t make any money,” Hackford says. “Then I did An Officer and a Gentleman, which did [make money], and I developed a career.”

Hackford’s latest film, Parker, is adapted from the Westlake novel Flashfire written under the pseudonym Richard Stark; the Parker character has previously appeared on screen in Point Blank (1967) and Payback (1999). A Westlake fan, Hackford gives kudos to screenwriter John McLaughlin who “did a great job of adapting the novel. He kept the spirit of Westlake’s characters, didn’t treat the novel like it was sacred. You can’t pussyfoot around an adaptation.”

Parker appears in 24 books and is a “very serious thief,” according to Hackford. “He’s tough; he wants to steal as much money as possible, and he doesn’t have an ounce of remorse. That was the allure.”

Nick Nolte and director Taylor Hackford. Photo: Jack English
Nick Nolte and director Taylor Hackford.
Photo: Jack English

Hackford also was a producer on Parker, a role he’s undertaken on every film he’s directed since An Officer and a Gentleman. “It’s a way to protect myself as a director,” he says. “I’m a womb-to-tomb filmmaker, from developing the material to marketing it. When I start shooting, a line producer runs the show on the set, but when I finish, I go back to being a producer-director.”

Parker was shot with the RED Elite 5K camera and HAWK anamorphic lenses, and Hackford loved the combination. “I love film – I grew up in it – but the whole process of filmmaking has always been about advances in technology,” he notes. “When nonlinear editing first came in, I had worked with three Academy Award-winning editors, great film editors. I wanted to go nonlinear, but each one of them said they wouldn’t switch. I hired another editor who cut my film on the Avid. By the end of the year, those other film editors were all cutting nonlinear. The important thing to remember is that you’re using technology to enhance the artistic process – you control the technology, it doesn’t control you.”

Parker stars Jason Statham as a thief on a mission.
Parker stars Jason Statham as a thief on a mission.

As a “performance director,” Hackford enjoys the 30-minute loads in digital cameras. “How much time do you save a day by not changing mags every 10 minutes?” he asks. “You gain efficiency but it’s more than that – it’s a lot to do with art and performance. Every time you change a mag it’s carte blanche for lighting to be adjusted, for hair and makeup to come in. Pretty soon you’ve lost all momentum. With digital you’re not interrupting the actor’s process as much.”

The challenges of shooting Parker had a lot to do with locations, he reveals. “It starts at a state fair in the Midwest, goes down the Mississippi and ends up in Palm Beach.” So he began at the Ohio State Fair, the nation’s largest, he says, drawing 40,000-70,000 people a day. That meant “we had very little control, but my actors and crew were game, so we plunged into those thousands of ‘free’ extras.”

Hackford had “fantastic” cooperation from the fair organizers and shot two “incredibly intense” days there. “We took the actors in with a skeleton crew and handheld cameras and grabbed everything we could in the middle of all that chaos,” he says. “It made a wonderful opening for the film. Shooting like that you have the least control of light artistically, but the trade off is that you get so much reality on film.”

As a former New Orleans resident, Hackford was happy to return to the city, which doubled for locations in Tennessee, Kentucky and Houston; it was also used for interiors. Film production incentives in Louisiana were admittedly a draw, but Hackford notes that the state’s professional infrastructure is impressive too. “When I shot Ray there in 2004 there was not even one professional crew in Louisiana,” he says. “Today there are six. It’s the second most active production center for feature films in the U.S.”

Hackford also was eager to shoot in Palm Beach where the final heist in the novel takes place. “I needed this big heist set piece for the climax of the film in a huge mansion as a big diamond collection is auctioned off. Lucky for me, Chuck Elderd [director of the Palm Beach Film & Television Commission] went to bat for me [to smooth the permitting process]. Chuck is a prince, and he knows filmmaking.”

Elderd helped Hackford experience amazing access to the area, including coordinating the raising of four drawbridges for aerial photography of a chase scene. “It was at night with a helicopter and police boats,” he recalls. “Chuck made it happen, and I owe him a huge debt. People like him are unsung in filmmaking.”

Parker co-star Jennifer Lopez as Leslie Rodgers.
Parker co-star Jennifer Lopez as Leslie Rodgers.

As a producer-director who’s involved with a picture from script to screen, Hackford remains a key force in post-production. “Post is the final rewrite,” he says. “There are so many things you can do in the editing room that are hugely impactful to the film.” His input continues through prepping the film for foreign distribution and DVD. “It’s my job to be with it until it’s finished.

“Every film you do – they’re all your children,” he says. “You know every detail about them as babies. Then when they’re released it’s like they’ve graduated from high school and are going out into the world. You’ve raised them and have to send them out into society and see if they survive.”