Get The Gringo releases in Australia May 31, and we spoke with first-time director Adrian Grunberg about working on a project that really took him south of the border.
Get The Gringo was released on Video On Demand in the United States, but has enjoyed a theatrical release around the world with positive reviews.
Adrian Grunberg was interviewed by Popcorn Taxi’s Oscar Hillerström.
Popcorn Taxi: Hello Adrian.
Adrian Grunberg: Hello.
PT: You’ve been working as a First A.D. (Assistant Director) for a long time and this is your directorial debut. Can you tell me about taking the leap from being in charge of the set to making all of the decisions?.
AG: It was a leap of faith, and a great leap at that. I’ve always wanted to direct and I had actually met Mel as an assistant director. It’s been an amazing journey for me. Not only in taking that leap but in how I was able to take it. The first couple of weeks were maybe the hardest part. I was slapping myself for getting away from the ADing, but once I found my groove I felt really comfortable.
PT: Do you find yourself still trying to tell people to be quiet on the set while you’re also trying to direct?
AG: (laughs) Funnily enough, no. All of the crew were hand-picked by me and were all people that I knew and trusted, so it was easy and very welcoming for me to hand that over to somebody else. So no, I had no trouble with that at all.
PT: So what was the biggest shock? Was it the constant decision-making or was it dealing with a Hollywood star? I mean, obviously you’ve worked with Mel Gibson before and I imagine you wouldn’t have been awestruck, but were there times where you said ‘I want you to do it like this’, and then had to second-guess yourself?
AG: Well, no. I think that maybe if it had been some other star other than Mel, I think that might have been the biggest issue. But having known Mel for so many years and having lived this film with him, it was actually very easy. So I actually have to say it’s been the contrary. If I ever second guessed myself—which I’m sure I did because it’s part of the process—it is great to know that you have somebody like Mel behind you to go over things with if I need to. So I’m not sure what the biggest shock was. I enjoyed every single day. I enjoyed the process even though it was a really hard one. Every movie is [a process] and being my first one, it made it an even better experience. In terms of the size of the movie and what we were doing, I’ve worked in that type of process before and, like I said, having been able to live that process with Mel—from the idea, the lighting to the shooting—just made everything much easier.
PT: Stacy Perskie is credited on the script as well. Can you talk me through the process of how the script came to be when you and Mel got together? Did you and Stacy work on it and then bring it to Mel to work on? How was it written?
AG: Stacy and I have known each other for many years. He’s been my friend and has produced stuff and we’re very much alike. The project was born out of an idea that Mel had. Mel had this idea of an American in a Mexican prison. At the time when we were going to start the whole process, I was actually shooting a movie in Spain. So I talked to Mel and said: ‘Why doesn’t Stacy go off to LA for a couple of days and he can offload to him what you want in full, then we can start processing that and put it on paper?’ And that’s how it had started. Stacy and I had distilled the right stuff and then teared it apart and put it back together and then repeated the whole process for like a year and a half. Then, obviously, he ended up helping to produce the movie, which I was happy with because my working relationship with him is fantastic.
PT: So obviously you’re in a very tight-knit group and it has been a very straightforward process, creatively speaking. I’m interested in that creative process. Some people say that this film is a spiritual child to Payback (1999), which kind of makes sense. There’s also a fairy-tale element with the characters of The Driver, The Kid, The Kid’s Mum. Was that your approach or is that just how it ended up?
AG: It’s funny that you mention the fairy-tale aspect because I hadn’t heard that one before, but it was always in our mind. For us it was always like this improbable fairy-tale story. But this is the first time somebody has ever told me that about the film. In terms of the Payback thing, over time I’ve obviously seen a lot of comments (about that). It was never our intention and we never talked about this being attached to Payback. But I see the similarities that people see in it, and they both star Mel Gibson. So I see where it’s coming from, but there was never a conscious effort to do that. Not at all.
PT: Well, in terms of the fairy-tale aspects of this film, you have the bad man who we connect with through his cunning and single-minded purpose—which is obviously the same hook as Payback. But I want to go back to this character of Driver. There’s that balance between him being a bit of a shit, while at the same time wanting audiences to identify with him. I want you to tell me how you kind of walked that tightrope between portraying him as a scumbag while allowing people to like him. What do you write into the character specifically in order to get people to connect?
AG: Well, if you think about it, it’s not only Payback. When we were originally writing the script, it wasn’t even being discussed that Mel would be in it. Mel had this idea for a movie which he wanted me to direct and it sort of grew into a Mel character. When you have somebody like Mel, you’ll find that there’s probably elements of Riggs from Lethal Weapon (1987) in there and Mad Max (1979). When you’re writing and you know who the actor is going to be—which we not only happened to know, because Mel was the recognisable element of this movie—but there are also a few of the Mexican actors who I knew I wanted because I was writing for them. You already picture a face, so for somebody like Mel, whose movies I’ve seen, he becomes this figure that we all know; he’s been in our living room for so many years that you sort of know the guy even if you’ve never met him.
So when you’re writing with that in mind, it sort of emanates on its own. Then, add to that the fact that Mel is involved with the writing process as well. We’re all sitting around Mel’s kitchen table talking about these scenes and ideas when he’s the guy that is actually going to portray the character. So it sort of grows naturally. There are elements of Mel in there—especially the comedic elements, which are very Mel. In terms of the ‘shitty’ part of the character, every character needs some shit in their life—especially in terms of a prison, or R-rated movie, to make them interesting. It’s to make that transition into doing something good worthwhile. You never know what this guy has been through in the movie. You know, we never tell you what he’s done in the past. It doesn’t really matter because he redeems himself in the end.
And he does it in his own style, you know? He doesn’t convert to anything. He says: ‘Look, this is life, you have to play the cards you’re dealt and sometimes that means doing good deeds’. I think that’s what Mel brings to the character and that’s what made it easy for us to bring to life. You come up with a scene or you come up with an idea and you say: ‘Well, how would this character react to that?’ Then you add the actor and say to yourself: ‘Well, how would Mel do it?’ And so it’s great to have the guy in front of you, preparing emotionally in his kitchen and saying lines out loud. You become so close to that character.
PT: The setting of the prison is interesting. I think a lot of audiences unfamiliar with the Mexican prison system will be shocked to learn that all of this is based on real life prisons. In South America, Columbia and Peru, these types of prisons are slightly more common. Were there a couple of things that happened in real life that you wanted to put in a movie, that you felt people wouldn’t buy because it was too outrageous?
AG: Look, if we put a liver transplant in the movie, I don’t think we were worried about people buying it or not. I think with that fairy-tale element that you were talking about, you ultimately just have to believe the reality of the movie. Everything prison-wise that is in the movie is based on actual events. Even the raid—the prison was raided in 2002 by 3000 police officers in the middle of the night, and so we just saw that and said: ‘Wow! That is just cool. Let’s put it in the movie.’ And just like that, there are so many other things that we weren’t able to put [in] just because we didn’t have the time, and at the end of the day we weren’t making a documentary. But the research we have of the things that actually happen there is phenomenal.
It was really beautiful, you know? You had people from the outside going in to the prison to buy drugs because it was cheaper and better quality. It was just an amazing place. So I don’t think there’s anything that we didn’t put in there because people wouldn’t believe it, because once you go inside and see the prison within the first 20 minutes, you either buy it or you don’t. I think that, generally, people accept this place.
PT: I guess in entering this strange world, you have all sorts of moments where you can explore Mexico, but you don’t really have time to kind of linger on the scenery. Are there moments in the film where there were changes made that reflected the original (title) How I Spent My Summer Vacation as there is still some voice-over snippets left over from that? Are there regrets in that you wanted to change it back to the original name or perhaps change the voice over?
AG: I, personally, love How I Spent My Summer Vacation more than Get the Gringo. I might be wrong, but I think if you hear that title and you see the trailer, you immediately understand the tone of the movie. I guess in the States, with ‘summer’ in the title, people were confused about the type of movie that it was. But I think How I Spent My Summer Vaction is unapologetic; it’s in your face and says: ‘This is who we are’. But, no, I don’t think the title change affected anything. Voice-overs are really difficult because they have to inform yet you always have to debate whether there should be more or less of it, and then you start to figure out where audiences are going to like the voice-over and sort of trickle it down to stop it from taking over.
PT: Well, I guess what you’re talking about is going away from art and into marketing, which is a whole other kettle of fish. But I can tell you that I watched it with that idea of the title and it really did make sense.
AG: Good. I’m glad. I always loved that title. It came up before we started writing. It says so much about the movie. I’ve grown to like Get the Gringo, but …Summer Vacation is the first born, and is extra special.
PT: Now, people are loving this film and it’s a return to form for Mel. I guess we have to mention his recent media troubles. I’m sure you’ve been asked all sorts of rude questions by journalists and I don’t really want to do that to you, but I want to know in terms of dealing with that kind of stuff, do you guys just go: ‘You people are crazy. I’m doing my thing’, or does it affect you? Do you just take it in the chest?
AG: Look, it affects you because we’re all human. I’ve been with Mel for the last eight or nine years and we’re very, very close. I’m Jewish and it’s the same with my partner who co-wrote and co-produced the movie. Mel’s crazy. He’s got that artist’s need to have lunacy in their lives. That is why they’re creative. Now that is shown in many different ways and people have different ways of handling it. I’ve seen Mel go on rants. I’ve seen it for years. But it doesn’t affect me. It’s a guy blowing off steam and he yells a lot when he does that. But that’s it, you know? Once he gets it off his chest everything is fine. So it does affect you because you say to yourself: ‘You know what? That’s not the guy I know.’ I had never heard those words come out of his mouth. The guy has been nothing but amazing to me and I have seen him do things for other people of a grandiose nature where he’s always keeping it quiet and not wanting to make a big deal out of it. And he’s like that. He doesn’t like to put it out there. He’s a really cool guy. I think he gets a bad rap and that’s all I can say. It does affect you because you see the guy suffering and in my opinion, he doesn’t deserve it.
PT: Well Adrian, thank you so much for your time. It has been a pleasure talking to you.
AG: Thank you, you too.