“Shoot ‘Em Up”: blood, wit and tears

NEW YORK – One is a rough-around-the-edges Brit who permeates a masculine musk from every pore. The other is a balding schlub who could pass for your local postman. Yet despite these differences, Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti are both equally cool and have two of the most dynamic new careers in Hollywood. So what happens when they team up in a movie? People get shot – many, many people.

“Shoot ‘Em Up,” which hits theaters on Sept. 7, is a farcical action film about a loner, Mr. Smith (Owen), who finds himself with a newborn baby in his arms, out-running hundreds of gunmen who want to kill it. The thugs are sent by a stock-trader-by-day,psychopathic-hitman-by-night, Mr. Hertz (Giamatti). Sounds exhausting, right?

It is.

And so was filming for the two Oscar nominees, who both mark it as their most strenuous and wildest film to date.

“The action sequences are about pulling all the bits together. You need all the coverage, all the beats. The rhythm has got to be right,” Owen said. “You progressively go through it. You’re doing an enormous amount of set-ups. You just nail it and move on. It’s quite straight forward. It’s not like doing a four-page dialogue scene that has nuance and subtext… [i]t’s clear what you’re trying to achieve. There was something satisfying about that.”

Owen plays a darkly comical character who claims to be “the angriest man in the world” and whose favorite vegetable (and weapon of choice – just see the movie) are carrots.

At random points throughout the movie, including some of the most action-packed parts, Owen pulls out a crisp carrot and chomps on it, Bugs Bunny style.

“That was the challenge of the movie – trying to make carrots cool,” Owen said.Giamatti also steps into an off-beat role, especially foreign to him, since his Hollywood persona doesn’t exactly scream “villain.”

But the 40-year-old’s versatile acting skills make it so he can play any part that’s set before him. He succeeds in this new skin.

“I feel like all [my past characters] are raging psycho killers, they just don’t have a gun,” Giamatti said.

And even though Oscar-nominated actors Owen and Giamatti were strange choices for this pulpy flick, they were director Michael Davis’ first choice – and he got them on his first request.

How did Davis, a small-time director whose last film “Monster Man” had a tagline of “On this highway, the road kill is HUMAN,” land two of the best actors in the film industry? He drew 17,000 drawings.Davis knew he wouldn’t be able to get production studio United Artists’ attention
without something tangible. So he storyboarded 17,000 frames of an action sequence to give them an idea of the level of insanity he wanted to portray on film.

Since it’s extremely rare for a director to ever show up this prepared, the studio granted him his wish and Davis set off to impress Owen and Giamatti the same way. It worked.

“It was like he was bursting to make this film,” Owen said. “Every practical question about shooting, timing and how we were going to achieve this – [Davis] had the whole thing down.”

“I thought, ‘Clive must know that this isn’t going to suck,'” Giamatti said. “So I trusted that if Clive was going to do it, he must have real confidence.”

Yet throughout carrot stabbings, shootouts while holding an infant and insane, improbable action, Owen attested that just because he’s working on an action film set doesn’t mean it’s all right to let his skill level down.”Your job as an actor is to try to achieve what the director wants,” Owen said. “Of course, [directors] are completely different in their styles, but the same things are demanded of you as an actor, which is to try and fulfill what this director wants.”

“Part of the reason I liked acting is that it is more a gut thing,” Giamatti said. “That was one of the reasons I liked it, was that I didn’t think. I spend a lot of time over-thinking things, but I don’t over-think the acting thing.”

Jesse North can be reached at jesse.north@temple.edu.

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