What starts as a particularly bad day for insurance salesman Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson) takes a dramatic turn for the worse during his ride home. While on his daily train ride, he’s approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who asks him a theoretical “what would you do” scenario. After she abruptly exits, Michael is tasked with finding someone on his train who doesn’t belong. Should he succeed, he gets $100,000. If he fails, he risks the safety of his family, his fellow passengers, and himself.
A blend of mystery and thriller, with popcorn movie sensibilities, The Commuter marks the fourth collaboration between Neeson director Jaume Collet-Serra. We recently got the chance to sit down with Collet-Serra to talk about why he likes to limit his film’s locations, creating the best experience, and making Neeson an everyday hero.
When did the script for The Commuter first come on your radar?
After doing Non-Stop, which we had a great time doing and it was a big success, we wanted to do a sequel. [But] we were like, how can we repeat the experience for the audience? You know, it’s a thriller, has some action in it, has an ensemble cast, and there’s a mystery at the center of it. We couldn’t figure it out, and one day this script crossed our paths, about this mystery on a train, and we felt we can adapt it to a repeat experience for the audience. So we changed a few things, and even though it’s not a direct sequel to Non-Stop, it’s sort of a spiritual sequel.
Is there an innate appeal to having a story almost entirely confined to single settings?
Sure, I mean, I specialize in that these days, with Non-Stop, The Shallows, which [are] also one set, and this one. But none of those scripts originally were set in one location. I’m the one that makes them be in one location. Because that’s the last thing that a writer wants to do. A writer wants to sell his or her script, so when they write it, they want to make sure that it has all the elements so nobody freaks out. “Oh, my God, there’s just one location.” Some people have an aversion to watching movies that are not full of locations because they might feel like it’s too claustrophobic or whatever. But I think the opposite, I think that when you try to confine things, the purity of the concept comes to light.
So, this particular script, when it first was written, it had car chases, it had people kidnapping, you had cops, [you] had FBI, it had a whole range of things, and I just stripped all of that away. And by stripping those things away, I have to actually create a script that would be interesting, to be on the train. So I’ve added other elements that were not originally in the movie. Like the role of Vera, that was not in the original script.
So, creatively speaking, you prefer limited settings?
It’s not like I’m a masochist, but I feel like it’s a big effort with a really big reward at the end. It is my particular belief that those things help the viewer relate to what’s happening. Some movies, when they’re written, they’re just looking for one type of experience, and when I get them, I’m like, “The concept is good, but the experience is wrong.” So I take it, and I change the experience, and I make it a bit more thrilling, mysterious. A simple concept everybody can relate and understand. That’s my style.
You also manage to convey the same kind of claustrophobia with the opening sequence, which crams 10 years of Michael’s life into a few minutes.
I came up with that because I needed to convey to somebody that had never been a commuter what it’s like because that’s his power, even though he doesn’t know it at the moment. He’s taken the same train at the same time every day for 10 years. So you can say that to an audience, but you have to show it for them to understand it. So when this mysterious woman sits across from you and tells you, “You’re the only one that can do this because you have this experience,” the audience has witnessed it with him. Otherwise, I felt like they wouldn’t understand. They would understand it logically, but not viscerally.
It also gives you a window into Michael’s life as an everyman. Even if you don’t take commuter trains, the day-to-day redundancy of waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, all that, is something everyone will find relatable.
Exactly. Everybody can relate to that. But there’s so much information in those five minutes; the relationship with his son, his wife, married life, sort of this train becomes like his nexus between your personal life and your professional life, and it’s this vacuum in which you’re not in control. You’re not even driving, and you’re just trying to use your time by talking to people. Or nowadays everybody’s on their phones. [But] he’s an old-school guy, so he reads to help his kid, so you immediately relate to him, and you want him to win.