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Early in his career, Boaz Yakin made a name for himself as an action writer – he wrote the screenplays for ‘The Punisher’ (1989) and Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Rookie’ – but he’d never directed an action movie himself. After making the sobering, emotionally exhausting drama ‘Death In Love ‘in 2008, Yakin was ready to try his hand at a genre piece.
“I wanted to make something that had a broader appeal, so I thought, ‘Let me see if I can write one of these scripts the way I used to write when I was starting out.’ As the story developed, I started to identify with the main character quite a bit, the process of pulling himself out of a dark place, putting one foot in front of the other and finding a reason to live and connect to life again.”
For Yakin, the upcoming action thriller ‘Safe’s vivid central relationship between Luke and Mei is the driving force of the film. “The idea of directing an action film was interesting, but unless there’s a strong emotional motivation for the action, it can be a lot like directing traffic,” admits the director. “I wanted every action scene in this film to come from an emotional need in the character.”
When he had finished writing the script, Yakin approached his friend and colleague, Lawrence Bender, with whom Yakin had made his debut feature, ‘Fresh’, and the Renee Zellweger-starring ‘A Price Above Rubies’. While he and Yakin hadn’t worked together in over ten years, Bender was eager to find something to rekindle their partnership.
“Boaz has a great style as a writer and he’s a wonderful director,” says Bender. “So when he told me he wanted to make an action film that had an intense emotional through line, I couldn’t wait to read the script.” Bender, who has also produced some of the most original and successful action films in history, including ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’, ‘Kill Bill: Vols. 1’ and 2 and ‘Inglourious Basterds’, immediately took on the project and approached Statham with an offer.
Finding the right 10-year-old actress to play Mei was the task of casting director Douglas Aibel, who worked with Yakin on ‘Fresh’ and already demonstrated his extraordinary gift for casting children in films such as ‘Signs’, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and ‘The Squid and the Whale’.
Catherine Chan walked in on the first day of auditions and made a lasting impression on the filmmakers. “We auditioned many, many girls,” recalls Bender. “Catherine had the right amount of vulnerability but the right amount of fire, too. Her character moves from innocent to depressed to ‘Let’s do this!’ and that’s a lot of personality for a twelve-year-old.”
“It was exciting; because it was my first time auditioning for a real movie,” remembers Chan, who is appearing in her debut feature film. “I was a little nervous, but I gave it my best shot. I was so happy when I got the part.”
“One of the charming aspects of working with Catherine is she’s only twelve, so she doesn’t have the baggage, all the layers of falseness that you can build as you spend years being an actor,” says Statham. “She has such purity. She’s not self-conscious in any way so she brings something really fresh. It was a pleasure to be around.”
Yakin agrees. “She doesn’t feel like an ‘actor;’ she feels like a real kid. She’s very powerful in her stillness. For me that’s one of the most important things: to find kids who can act when they’re not acting. Listening is the hardest thing you can do as an actor.”
Veteran actor James Hong plays Han Jiao, the Triad boss who uses Mei as the guardian of his most valuable assets. “I was extremely glad that Boaz chose me to do this role,” says Hong. “It was a challenge, as Mandarin is not my first language. But upon seeing footage of the film, I was very happy with my performance. Han Jiao comes across as a mean Triad boss, but with a very business-like sense of humor.”
“It was important for the film that you feel an almost mythical presence to the part of Han Jiao,” says Yakin. “I needed someone who felt a little bit bigger than life, and James really brought that.”
Quan Chang, Mei’s guardian, is a slick Triad gangster – played by Reggie Lee – who adopts Mei to make her legal in the US. Lee explains, “After a year of fostering her in the US, my character begins to develop a fatherly instinct for her. At the same time, I still have to fulfill my job, which involves using her in very dangerous situations to get what Han Jiao wants.
I’ve done action films before, but never one with a character that had as much depth and nuance as Chang. Credit goes to Boaz Yakin for making the characters in this action film have so many colors and emotional challenges.”
“Reggie is a very talented actor,” reports Yakin. “He would walk on the set and start doing his scene and everyone would just stop what they were doing to watch him.”
Image Courtesy of SAFE