Famke Janssen on her directorial debut, the X-Men films, and Taken 2

Famke Janssen on her directorial debut, the X-Men films, and Taken 2

In Taken 2, Famke Janssen spends much of her screen time in a stupor, lying semi-conscious while Liam Neeson fights to rescue her from Albanian lowlifes. But there’s a substantially more bright-eyed Janssen in theaters as well, albeit not in front of the camera. Bringing Up Bobby, whose limited release intentionally coincides with Taken 2’s pre-release publicity, marks Janssen’s directorial debut, a return to the craft she was studying at the American Film Institute before she was cast as villainess Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye or Jean Grey in the X-Men movies. Starring Milla Jovovich as a Ukrainian con woman on the lam with her 10-year-old son in rural Oklahoma, Bobby is a brightly colored fable that crossbreeds a ’70s road movie with a screwball comedy. Just before the film’s release, Janssen talked to The A.V. Club about her love of Hal Ashby, being a stranger in a strange land, and why she’d rather not put on a fake nose again anytime soon.

The A.V. Club: Bringing Up Bobby started with your position of being a foreigner living in the United States. How did that experience lead to this story?

Famke Janssen: It was a combination of many different things. I’ve lived in New York for a really long time. I came from Holland about 25 years ago, and what struck me initially was how much my ideas of the United States had been formed by movies. Of course the reality is so different from what you take away from films, because films often are really violent, especially in a city like New York, where you’re watching movies with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. You get a very specific impression of what the place is. So I wanted to play around with the idea of a foreigner who comes to the United States, and her impressions have been informed entirely by films—in this case, I chose two particular eras, the ’30s and the ’70s—and she is living out her version of the American dream. What does that look like?

AVC: Milla Jovovich’s character plays a game with her son where he has to identify dialogue from different movies. Gone With The Wind and Bonnie And Clyde are referenced frequently.

FJ: This is really for the movie geeks who watch movies obsessively, like I do. There’s shots in there where there’s specific staging, or shots inspired by other movies. The caboose, for example, which is in Harold And Maude, and the way that in Gone With The Wind, she’s surrounded by all the men, I have exactly that same staging in the scene where they’re scamming the church group. So throughout the movie, there’s stuff like that, that’s really for silly people like me who like films in that way.

AVC: Was the character Ukrainian originally, or did that come when you cast Jovovich?

FJ: No, and she wasn’t Dutch. I never made her Dutch like me. It had to be somebody who comes from a very different background than I came from. Holland is not a poor country, and our culture… I mean, it’s different from the United States, but it wasn’t that interesting to deal with visually, emotionally, and culturally. So once it became Milla, then Ukrainian seemed to be the perfect fit for her, so she could just do an accent that was close to her. She imitated her mother, in fact. So that became the goal at that point, just to make it perfect for Milla. 

AVC: You and Jovovich came to film through similar routes, starting out as models and moving into acting. Did that factor into your relationship?

FJ: It’s funny, because of course, once she was cast and once the movie was made, people were drawing parallels between our lives and all that. It’s not something I ever consciously thought about in casting her. You learn very quickly, and it’s good to see it from different sides. When you’re an actor [you think], “Why on Earth did I not get cast for this part? I auditioned, I was good.” You realize in the casting process, when you’re now the writer/director, that there’s a very small group of people, for many different reasons, that you can choose from. We had a foreign sales agent, and they want to do pre-sales. It could only be a list of five women or something, and four of them were probably not right. There are many other aspects to casting.

AVC: Some of your crew is Dutch. Were they people you knew from the past, or was that a requirement of getting funding?

FJ: I’m the writer-director. The DP is Dutch, and the editor is Dutch. I didn’t know them beforehand, but we got some money from Holland, from the Dutch Film Fund, and one of the conditions was using a Dutch cinematographer and a Dutch editor, which ended up being the greatest thing ever. The whole point was always to have an outside perspective on the United States in the same way that in Paris, Texas, for example, you’ve never seen Texas in that way, just because it was done by foreigners, and they had a different take on what that would look like. That was very much something we wanted to play with. So there were many different references that we used. Everything from art, photography books, like The Americans by Robert Frank and many different other photographers that we referenced, too. A lot of different movies. So Guido [van Gennep], the DP, and I, we shot-listed forever using Skype before we started shooting. I also had multiple visits to Oklahoma beforehand, so a lot of the locations I got in pre-production, so I had a real head start. For a 20-day shoot, it’s priceless to have something like that. 

AVC: You’ve also mentioned William Eggleston, whose work definitely seems like an influence on the film’s color palette.

FJ: There was this whole idea of the exaggerated colors in the beginning of the film, which had to mirror this idea of Olive thinking she was living out some kind of movie version of a life, as opposed to a real life. Then, of course, when real life hits, we desaturated those colors and the color palette changed. We played around with all of that. 

AVC: You knew Rory Cochrane from your first film?

FJ: Fathers & Sons, yeah. We’ve been friends ever since. So I wrote the part for him because I know his voice so well. He’s so incredibly funny, and I always felt you needed some bit of comic relief in a film like this. It’s tricky, and I know that what I tried to do is hard, because the ’30s and ’70s are such different eras in filmmaking. I think the best example of movies to me that had tonally what I was trying to go for is Hal Ashby films. His first film, The Landlord, has some really heavy-duty topics, but it’s pulled with a very light touch at times. Tonally, I think he goes all over the place, and that’s exactly what I always loved in films. In studio films, everything has to be boxed in, everybody needs to know beforehand—this is comedy, this is sci-fi, this is drama—and what’s the point of independent film if you don’t get to experiment?

AVC: How does it compare to the X-Men movies, or the larger production films you’ve been involved with?

FJ: As an actor, I’ve been in more independent films than I’ve been in studio films. So I’ve been around it for a really long time, and I’ve seen how it all works. I’ve learned a lot from those experiences, and they’ve always been my favorite ones. I think that it’s great to be part of very big franchise films like the X-Men movies, and it’s invaluable to your career, because that’s really the only way to get cast—in independent films, even. You have to make a name for yourself and all of that kind of stuff. So I’ve learned an incredible amount by being in the independent films, just because you’re so much more a part of the filmmaking process. There’s very little downtime, you’re on set, and you have to go from shot to shot, so you observe a lot more, I find. It’s been invaluable.

AVC: In the X-Men movies, did you know where the character of Jean Grey was headed? The Dark Phoenix storyline was tremendously important to the comics, but there was no guarantee the movies would do it.

FJ: There have been so many of those X-Men comic books with storylines that go in every which direction, so we all were hoping it would go in a specific way. I was very much hoping in terms of Phoenix that we would explore different areas of that. But the X-Men movies are a big ensemble cast, and you can only get so much screen time, so we just touched upon it a little bit.

AVC: It must have been strange for you when you first got into film, going directly from studying at AFI to making one of the more overtly silly James Bond movies.

FJ: I had a big input in that as well, because to me, the Bond movies were comedic. You can’t take them too seriously. This idea of a man living out the dream that most men would love—having all these beautiful women around them, shooting guns and doing action sequences and all that kind of stuff. I played it very tongue-in-cheek, because those Bond women had been portrayed in some silly ways in the past, so I actually thought it was really fun to do it and to be part of it.

AVC: What about Taken? GoldenEye and X-Men were extensions of long-running franchises, but Taken really came out of nowhere.

FJ: The Bond movie, when it came out, we were after a long hiatus. We were the first one to come back with a new Bond, so nobody knew if that was going to work. And X-Men, it was Bryan Singer, who was an independent film director at that point, and nobody really knew what it was going to turn into. He portrayed it in a different way than, up until that point, all those comic-book adaptations had been done. So you really never know. With Taken, we also didn’t know, but I kind of feel that with all movies, it’s a crapshoot. Sometimes you think, “Oh my God, this is a sure hit,” and it doesn’t work, and the other times it’s the other way around. That’s the interesting and crazy and unpredictable part of the filmmaking process.

I just do it for the work. I enjoy it for the work. I enjoy working with good people. I think one thing I can be proud of over the long period of time that I’ve worked is that I’ve worked with some really interesting, very good directors, actors, and filmmakers. So that’s been something to be really grateful for. Everybody from Woody Allen to Robert Altman, you name it. Matt Damon, Robert De Niro, all these different people. You watch, you observe, and you take away what you can from it. That, ultimately, is hopefully turning me into my own kind of filmmaker, with my own tone. I’ve written my next project that I want to get off the ground. After that, I’m filming Hemlock Grove in Toronto, so I just keep moving forward and trying to express myself creatively in different ways. I keep pushing buttons and trying to grow as a person and as a filmmaker. Not getting stuck in one particular role or way of being in the business, which I think happens to a lot of people, and that’s one of the things I fought very hard over time.

AVC: Looking at the shape of your career, it’s hard to generalize about the roles you played in any given period. It’s not like you had a femme fatale phase, or a suffering-wife phase.

FJ: Everybody gets typecast, obviously, and I now see that from a very different angle, as a director. People have a very specific thing about them. And yes, you can go against type, but most of the time, you cast somebody for the way they look, or the way they appear to be, even if that’s not at all the way they are. It doesn’t matter. You give off a certain vibe as a person. You look a certain way. I look a certain way. I have a very specific kind of look. So yes, my options are going to be restricted and limited to playing certain types of characters, but within that range, I try to find different things to play a little bit.

AVC: You’ve been working under extensive facial prosthetics in Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters, which was a first for you. Getting up at 4 a.m. and spending five hours in the makeup trailer is presumably a drag, but is there an upside, in terms of not being bound by the way you normally look?

FJ: Yes, I suppose, although what I found to be the most challenging part about it is that I didn’t have the freedom I normally felt as an actor. You have a team, literally, of people trailing your every move, because every time you open your mouth, something unglues and they need to be in there with a stick of glue to put it back together. So there’s that restriction and limitation, which I found difficult to work with. And then, also, you know your own face in a way that certain things, when you act, work and don’t work, and with that ugly makeup on your face, it’s a challenge. Like, how much or how little do you do, because the makeup does so much for you already? There were different challenges that came with it. But being that ugly, wow, that was a little new.

AVC: As an actor, you want to know what your body is doing, but it’s hard to know what your nose is doing when it’s not actually your nose.

FJ: Nothing was my anything. Everything was fake: My hair, my contacts, my skin were pieces glued to me. So it was very odd, and it was the first thing I did after Bringing Up Bobby. Coming from being in charge of everything, or not everything, but leading the ship on Bringing Up Bobby to then, all of a sudden, being trapped in this chair for four hours with prosthetic makeup on my face and feeling really restricted, it was an odd experience, very strange. I haven’t seen it yet, it comes out in January. I’m very excited, but yet nervous to see what it’ll turn out to be.

AVC: You mentioned working with Robert Altman. The Gingerbread Man was quite a strange movie for him, a highly stylized Southern Gothic mystery. What was that experience like?

FJ: The experience was great. He is an incredible filmmaker, and I’m so grateful that I had the experience to work with him and Woody Allen, all these other people I worked with who are these iconic people in the business. He had a very unique style of filmmaking. It really was geared toward the actors. He gave the actor the set and in rehearsal, he said, “You go figure it out, I’ll just sit back here. You see what you want to do. It’s your set, and I’ll put the camera wherever I think is right after I’ve seen what you want to do.” You just don’t have that with anybody. Most people, including myself as a filmmaker, tell people what to do, where to stand, and how to act. But as an actor, it’s a really wonderful experience to feel that much freedom and power. It takes real confidence from a director to do that.

AVC: Maybe after you’ve been directing for 30 years, you’ll be more relaxed.

FJ: Yeah, could be. I’d have to be less of a control freak, I suppose. The good thing about being sort of obsessive-compulsive and that perfectionist type of personality is that you just keep working hard to make the best you can. Bringing Up Bobby was my first film. Twenty days is not a whole lot of time to shoot it, and there were many challenges that came with it. Hopefully the next time, when I have a little bit more money and a little bit more time and more experience, I can make a better movie. And I’m sure I’ll say that same thing again after my next one. It’s just a process, and you hope you’ll learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward and getting better.

AVC: First movies can be tough for people, especially perfectionists, to look back at. Can you see anything other than the mistakes when you watch it now?

FJ: I don’t really watch anything back. Sometimes I’m forced to watch because we’ve been going to every festival imaginable with the film, which is great. But I try as little as possible to watch it at this point, because it does get frustrating. But I think the takeaway for myself… What I, in those moments, try to say is that I’m somebody who grew up in a different country, speaking another language. I wrote a movie that’s not in my first language, I lived in a country that’s not my own. I’ve been in a business that’s extremely competitive, so I just try to focus on the positive parts. I know a lot of people who have tried to make movies, and it took five years to get it off the ground, because there was so much resistance and there’s no money. There are so many problems, it’s not an easy feat to get an independent film off the ground these days. It’s just really, super-challenging.

I guess the thing I can be proud of is the fact that I accomplished it. Whether it’s good or not good or great or terrible is somewhat irrelevant, I suppose. I mean, it would be great if it was the best thing that ever happened, but these things are a learning experience for most people, I think. Making a film under the circumstances that we made it in, 20 days in 105-degree weather in Oklahoma, it’s hard to make things great. Of course, people should never look at it that way. It should stand on its own. That’s the challenging part in life. You wish that people could go, “Wow, I never thought it was shot in 20 days,” but that’s not the way it is.