The name Peter Hyams may not be the mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries like Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner and Barry Levinson, but this somewhat underappreciated filmmaker is far from a journeyman. During his five decade career he has effortlessly jumping between genres, churning out some entertaining and understated work, his most fruitful period being the 1980’s which saw the likes of Outland, The Presidio, Running Scared and 2010, a brave (and pretty enjoyable) attempt at crafting a sequel from Stanley Kubrick’s seminal work, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Enemies Closer, his first film since the 2009 Michael Douglas-headlining Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, sees him reunited with aging action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme (their two previous films together, Sudden Death and Timecop, are arguably the highlight of the former martial artist’s career). Enemies Closer is a fun, unpretentious B-movie which bears the unmistakable mark of a cinematic craftsman (Hyams, like most of his previous films, also acts as DP).
We recently had the chance to chat with the director about this film, some of his earlier projects, and the rather unique double duties his pulls.
Peter Hyams: He brought the idea to me. The script originally had him playing the good guy, and I said I’d only do the film if he would be the villain, and I would have the role fashioned for him so he would be absolutely nutty and lethal, but also funny. I told him it would be a total scene-stealing part and that his fans hadn’t really seen him do that before. He signed on after that.
He’s really great in the film. Did he embrace the quirky nature of the character straight away?
It took a little talking about it beforehand, but not too much. We’ve made a couple of films together and I think he had trust in me. He knows I’m honest with him and would never do anything to make him look bad. It was after seeing JCVD that I realised he could do some really funny stuff which I previously had seen in him.
Your son John was the editor on this film. How did that working relationship go?
Well, I’m very respectful of his position, and he’s very considerate towards mine. He’d actually directed Van Damme in a Universal Solider sequel beforehand [2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration], and I was the DP on it. His birthday occurred during the shooting of the film and I bought him a really nice watch and had engraved on the back of it ‘Happy Birthday boss’.
As a film editor he’s really extraordinary, but as any editor knows, if there’s a disagreement at one point, it’s going to be the way the director wants it. We didn’t disagree much. Maybe I’d suggest taking out a couple of frames here and there, but it was fantastic working relationship otherwise.
Taking of cinematography, you’ve shot most of your films. Do you initially pitch yourself as a two for one offer?
I’ve been an art student my whole life, and like a lot of students, I became very interested in photography when I was younger. I was an apprentice for a photographer and learned many techniques during that time. I tend to sketch ideas first and then write [my scripts] from the images I draw, and I photograph the same style as I design my images. I’ve been asked on almost every film “why do you wear so many hats?” and I have two answers – firstly, I don’t have any hair, and secondly, if you grew up speaking Japanese and you found yourself working in Tokyo, would you find an interpreter or just talk to everybody in that language?
If you accept the notion that a director ‘sees’ a film, and the task is to put whatever is in your head into on film, I’m able to do that. There are people who see things better, of course. If I had shot the Godfather I don’t think it would look nearly as good as what Gordon Willis did, but on the other hand, most of the films [I made] look the way I wanted them to look.
It’s such a rare position for a director. I can only think of Steven Soderbergh as another filmmaker who does what you do.
Steven refers to me and him as ‘the committee of two’ (laughs).
Have those dual roles really helped you through the years?
It’s made filming much easier and faster for me. An example would be when picking a location – I chose it immediately knowing how I’m going to photograph it.
Enemies Closer must have presented quite a challenge as most of it is set in the woods at night.
That type of location is the most difficult. Day interiors and night exterior are, for me, where you separate the men from boys when it comes to cinematography. It was a challenge I really wanted, especially doing it with not a whole lot of money and having to work fast.
There’s a lot of fight choreography in there, too.
I do believe in fight and chase scenes that geography and orientation for an audience is very important. I am not from the school of thought where the shots are so fast and the camera shakes so much that you don’t know where you are, or what the characters are doing. I like people to see what’s going on, and I not a big fan of the shaky camera, either. I’ve always likened it to the difference between reality and Parkinson’s, because when we experience something physical ourselves we don’t view it in that way. If our vision shook every time we ran, we’d throw up. We have a steadicam in our heads. We can even lie on our sides and the human brain straightens it and puts it on a horizon position. It’s like an iPad.
Can we go back to earlier in your career? You made some really memorable films, particularly during the 80s. Is there any project in particular from that time which stands out as the most creatively satisfying for you?
I’m somebody who doesn’t think I’m good enough, so I never revisit any of my films once they’ve been released.
It’s too painful. Once I can’t make a film any better in the edit, I don’t watch it again. I love the shooting process, though. I’ve been blessed with making films with the likes of Sean Connery, Michael Doulas and Helen Mirren. I worked with so many wonderful actors and those experiences have been incredible. I love actors. With filmmaking, you’re always conspiring around how to make it better. A director’s job is to pour a quarter of water into a pint bottle. If you give [the actor] a quarter bottle, he or she will try to put a gallon in it. When you have actors who are pulling the film along with them and surprisingly you every day with what they do, that’s so much fun. The saddest days you ever have during shooting are those when you stagger back to your hotel or home and you’ve shot exactly what you expected to shoot. Those are awful days.
Enemies Closer is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD now