Adrian Grunberg has made that shift from his role of 1st AD (he’s worked on a number of big-budget action-orientated Hollywood features including Man on Fire, Apocalypto and Master and Commander) to director for the new Mel Gibson comedy shoot em’ up, How I Spent my Summer Vacation.

He spoke to us recently about making that transition and working alongside the famed Hollywood A-lister (this is his third venture with Gibson, following the aforementioned 2006 Mayan epic and Edge of Darkness).

HeyUGuys: You’re credited as one of the co-writers alongside your star. Where did the idea come from?

Adrian Grunberg: It came from Mel originally. He thought up the idea of an American ending up in a Mexican prison, so from that we started researching and came up with the gringo [Gibson’s character] and worked our ideas around. Little by little the story started developing.

The film’s prison infrastructure is really interesting and visually striking. Presumably it’s a real location? How did you find it?

The prison was real. It was active up until a couple of weeks before we took it over. It just had the right feel to it. We designed specific areas and constructed some additional sets within in. We basically took an existing space and an existing feeling and built on top of that.

It has a similar feel to the Brazilian favelas which were showcased in City of God, where everything is self-contained within its walls.

Indeed, and that was the idea. Obviously, we used a bunch of extras but we were also fortunate to have some who had been inmates of the actual prison itself. They were able to breathe life into it, alongside the art department, who also made an amazing job. It’s definitely one of the principal characters of the movie.

This is your debut as director. How did you find the role?

Incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. It was something I has always wanted to do, although I never imagined it would be something like this. It was challenging for the first couple of weeks as I was finding my bearings and finalising that transition. After that, it was great.

Having directed features himself, was Mel very hands-on during the shoot?

Mel was fantastic in standing back and allowing me to do my thing. The fact that we wrote the script together meant that we had established his character way before we went into shooting, and I always knew I had him there if I was ever in any doubt of how to shoot a certain scene. Discussions always came about with both Mel and all the actors, but he was great in leaving me to do what I wanted.

You also had a great DP in there [Gasper Noe’s regular Benoît Debie]. How did he inform the look and style?

We always talked about wanting to move quickly in the shoot, and that involved using the sources of light the
prisoners would actually have available to them in there. Benoit was fantastic at grabbing light bulbs and putting material over it, giving him the ability to have many light sources within the frame as set dressing, and not just as practical lighting.

It’s known as Get the Gringo over in the States. Do you know why they’ve changed the title for the UK?

Not specifically, but I’m sure it’s a marketing thing. I’m guessing test audiences were having trouble understanding the tone of the film and were maybe not as attracted to it. I loved the original title, which is the one they’ve gone for with you guys. I think it sets the tone right away. Just watching the trailer and seeing that title, you really get what the film is about. I guess every culture is different in that way.

The violence is pretty full-on at times amongst the laughs. Was it always the intention to mix those elements?

It sort of developed into that. With the type of movie we wanted to make, it was clear it couldn’t all just revolve around the violence. We made it a point to pepper in some comedy relief around the more gruesome moments. The film’s title and the comedic beats are there to help let the audience know they’re allowed to laugh. I think that’s important with this type of movie.

You’ve worked with a number of distinctive directors in the past. Were you influenced by their working methods in that role?

I can’t pinpoint where, but I’m sure I was. Watching all those people work and their different styles, I’m certain it influenced me. I can’t say exactly where, but the same way events in your own life inform and shape how you see the world through the lens, by the same token, the directors I’ve worked with have also given me that.