Chances are you’ve seen Jaume Collet-Serra’s movies and don’t realize it. He’s become a sort of action movie auteur that no one in the mainstream really knows much about (even though you’ve totally seen his movies). His last four films combined have grossed half a billion dollars, which are numbers usually reserved for franchise movies and Very Famous Directors. Yet he’s doing it with what seems like low effects, a little elbow grease, and the presence of Liam Neeson. (Three of his last four movies have starred Neeson: Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. Orphan was Liam Neeson-free.)
Yet, according to Jaume Collet-Serra, he doesn’t want you to know him. At first I didn’t believe this and called him out on this. By the end of this interview, I think I might believe him. In fact, Jaume Collet-Serra may be one of the purest directors working today. He doesn’t want to be famous and doesn’t seem to care all that much what you think, but he does want to make movies that grip a viewer from beginning to end.
And he certainly does that with The Shallows, a movie Collet-Serra concedes is unlike anything he’s done before and is made more for a younger demographic. Eschewing the more complicated twists and turns his movies usually have, here we find Blake Lively trying her best to not be eaten by a shark for 90 minutes. And this is where Jaume Collet-Serra shows us just how skilled he is at keeping that intensity high.
Intensity is a good word for him, because he’s an intense fellow. And things below get a little heated (never awkward) but this is a director who has opinions, even though he’d rather you have no idea who he is.
The Shallows could have been very campy in the wrong hands.
Yeah, I mean, it’s a fun movie.
It is fun, but it’s not dumb.
It’s supposed to be a fun, PG-13, summer movie. It’s for young people and hopefully they’ll go see it.
Why did you want to make a movie that skews younger?
That’s a good answer.
I feel like I’m a young guy. I think as a director it’s a mixture of what you know you can do well and new elements that keep you excited. I’ve done many movies with Liam and am doing another one next – so I wanted to do something in-between that was different. I’ve never done a movie where I relied on CG.
Is that a resumé builder?
It’s not a resumé builder, because I’m up for all the things all the time.
But now you have the experience of doing that.
But that’s the new reality of filmmaking. I’ve done seven movies, but this is the first movie I shot digitally. Every other movie I shot traditionally, on film, anamorphic. This movie, I shot digitally because I’d still be shooting it if it were on film… A shark is not open for interpretation. It can be bigger, it can be smaller, but we know how a shark moves. If I can fool the audience, that’s even a bigger challenge.
You mentioned you know what you do well. What do you believe you do well?
I think I get people hooked. I grab them, and I keep people until the end. Whether they agree with me or not, I take them through the story in a way they know somebody is holding them. I don’t think people, with my movies, ever go, “I wonder when it is going to finish.” I feel I’m pretty good at hooking them and taking them through the journey.
Unknown turned out to be a movie about corn, but I was hooked the whole time.
Yeah, but for me, I love making movies I can do a bit of a big puzzle. And all of the pieces are very exciting and I can find a way to put them together.
I feel people have avoided shark movies because they don’t want to be compared to Jaws. But this is a very different movie.
It’s a very different movie.
And it’s been a long time.
I was like 1-year-old.
I could see some directors not wanting to deal with being in the same league.
I don’t think we are in the same league.
Well, there are sharks in both movies.
Yeah. But would you not want to do a movie in space because of Star Wars?
Some people might not. Some people might turn down a space movie because of that.
I don’t even think it’s even in the same anything. I mean, yes, there are sharks.
I agree with you, but people might not want to deal with any comparisons at all.
Well, people are people.
Which is a great Depeche Mode song.
Yeah. But if I thought about what people thought, I wouldn’t be here. If I cared anything about what people think, then you’d just do nothing.
That’s a nice thing to say, but your movies have done well. People like your movies.
But I don’t think people are going to see my movies because I made them.
Maybe not yet, but I think that’s going to happen…
I don’t know. People go to see the movies because they like the content.
You have a growing fanbase, but, sure, right now that’s probably true for the average moviegoer.
And I’m fine with it. I’m totally fine with that. It allows me to not become bigger than the movie. I don’t want to be. I want the movie to be the movie. And my name should be completely anonymous and it should not be at all a reason.
For the rest of your career, you want your name to be anonymous?
Yeah. That’s not why I’m doing this.
There are people like me, and others who like your movies, who want the opposite.
But why? How does that help? I already have creative freedom. I already have what I need to make the movie. It just puts more pressure…
If you have the creative freedom you want, then sure…
I have responsible creative freedom. I cannot go over-budget for millions of dollars. I can, but I’d never work again.
Very famous directors get in trouble for that now.
Recently. Obviously there’s a responsibility, but in terms of script and casting and whatnot? I wouldn’t be a director. I’m not a masochist.
The shark is completely CGI?
Well, I knew you didn’t have a real shark, but thought there might be a fin or something.
We had a fin, but it’s not camera ready. It was only for water displacement.
Did you debate how often to show the shark? It’s scary when you can’t see it, too.
We don’t see the shark because we can’t. Either because it doesn’t look good, as it happened in Jaws with mechanical problems…
Your shark looks good.
But I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford to have the shark in every shot. And I don’t have the time to do it.
You mentioned working with Liam Neeson. Are you two on a similar wavelength?
We enjoy making those kinds of movies. He trusts me. I trust him. We do movies that are very complex in the mechanics of it, because of the thriller aspect of it. But he knows I’m not going to get lost in the mechanics and not care about the character and the story. And I know he’s going to deliver the most amazing performance, like he always does. And if there is a line here or there – you know, the usual line that explains the movie – he’ll deliver it and everybody is going to be like, “great.”
So he’s good at exposition? That’s a good point. I like when he explains things.
He’s very good at delivering exposition. In Unknown, there was this scene and I’m like, “Sorry, Liam, this line, I worked and worked on it. It’s terrible, but you have to say it.” He said, “That’s why I’m here.”
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.