By Jim Slotek
Rob Cohen’s career in Hollywood has had sharp turns. The ex-Motown executive started out as a champion of ‘70s black filmmaking, producing films like Mahogany (with Diana Ross), The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (with Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor) and The Wiz (with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson).
Switching to directing dramas in the ‘80s, he had an epiphany when Michael Mann asked him to helm episodes of the first season of Miami Vice. Cohen the action director was born.
As a producer and director, his credits are a mile long. His latest (which wasn’t available to screen for the press) is The Hurricane Heist (opening Friday), about a team of high-tech thieves trying to rob a mint facility under cover of a Category Five hurricane.
Original-Cin’s Jim Slotek talked to Cohen by phone about working with Category Five fans and his career.
ORIGINAL-CIN: Let me begin by saying I’m sorry I didn’t get to see Hurricane Heist, but it sounds like it might not be of a piece with the rest of your work. I saw DragonHeart and was amazed by how simple it was, just stunts and story. And Fast and Furious and xXx, same thing: great stunt action films. I think of you as an analog action filmmaker.
ROB COHEN: (Laughs) “Analog action! That’s great. I love it!”
OC: And yet it sounds like an effect might be the star of this movie.
COHEN: “The truth is we did most of the effects in front of a lens. There was no green-screen. It has this primary aesthetic. Rain and wind is distorting the actors’ faces, so you know that it’s not fake or CG.”
OC: Did you use a Level Five wind machine or something?
COHEN: “We had banks of hundred-mile-an-hour fans, huge 10-foot diameter fans, blowers blowing debris, blowers blowing smoke. For the rain, probably six million gallons of water is what was the special FX people figured we used. It’s wet and blowy and crap is flying, and roofs are ripping off. And it’s all been done in camera.”
OC: So pixels aren’t you.
COHEN: “I sense to some degree the audience may be getting tired of CG. I mean, it’s one thing in the Marvel movies, which are great. But they’re creating their own universe. You know, Thor doesn’t necessarily call for having a hammer that will really come back to him.
“It’s great and they’re hugely successful. The audiences love ‘em, I love ‘em. But this is something else. If you say that your characters are trying to break up a heist or execute a heist in the middle of a Category Five hurricane, you better feel the hurricane on a very real level.”
OC: What attracted you to this strange premise?
COHEN: “I just loved the cross-genre, the change-up. I loved having to think, ‘Alright, how does a car chase change in a Category Five hurricane? How does a gun battle change? What are things a meteorologist can think of that can effectively use the hurricane as a weapon?” (Spoiler alert: hurled objects can become deadly when tossed just right).
OC: In auditions, did you explain to the actors that you’d be pointing effectively a fire hose of air at their face?
COHEN: (Laughs). “It was a wall of air, not a hose. I’m telling you, if you got in front of one of those fans — and I did this myself because it was kind of like an amusement park — but if you did, you’d land five feet behind yourself. It’s a lot of force.”
OC: I imagine after playing the damsel in distress in the Taken movies, Maggie jumped at the chance to do something proactive.
COHEN: “When I offered her the part, I said, ‘How’d you like to play Liam Neeson for a change?’ She’s the gun hero, the treasury agent. They gave her lots of combat pistol training. And she took it to heart, to the point where we’d be losing the light, and she’s going, ‘I don’t want to do a power slide. I want to be able to reload.’ And I’m like, ‘Just shoot the gun!’”
OC: I often ask people who produce as much as they direct which they would prefer if they had to choose. You may have already made that choice. You continue to direct, but you haven’t produced in years.
COHEN: “I often say, my worst day as a director is better than my best day ever as a producer. You see a film go wrong that you’ve set up and nurtured for years before this guy called the director shows up.
“I had that experience on The Wiz with a director I very much respected (Sidney Lumet). And very early in the production I saw him going off and off and off. I did everything in my power to bend it back to why I bought the Broadway show to begin with — a really fun, highly energetic black twist on the Wizard of Oz. And he took it in some crazy sad dark direction and once that was over, I just went, ‘I can’t go through this again.’”
OC: Speaking of The Wiz, you’re very much associated with black filmmaking. Whether it’s Mahogany or Bingo Long, or Tyler Perry in Alex Cross. You’ve even directed episodes of Blackish. What’s behind this connection?
COHEN: “I am very happy about the advent of African-American filmmakers. It’s been long overdue. I stand back and cheer guys like Ryan Coogler. Ryan has that beautiful post-racial attitude: ‘I’m black and I’m a director and I understand black culture, but I am not a black director. I am a director in the absolute sense.’
“He can go from Fruitvale to Creed to Black Panther and they’re all first-rate movies and the skin colour is secondary to the skill and talent of a director at work. I was advocating for that in 1973 when I became head of the production arm of Motown Records and started working with Berry Gordy. As a kid, I had worked on Head Start from elementary school all the way to high school. And the day I won the NAACP Image award for The Wiz is one of the happiest and proudest days of my life.
“I really tried in the 70s to turn the racist tide in Hollywood. And trust me, it was racist here. If I heard the word, ‘schwarzer’ one more time I was going to punch some guy in the mouth. When I showed the Bingo Long Travelling All Stars and Motor Kings to the head of distribution for Universal, he turned to me and said, ‘What do you expect me to do with this N-word epic?’
“It wasn’t even a secret out here how racist it was. I remember when Ted Mann (of Mann’s Chinese Theatre fame) wouldn’t play The Wiz in Westwood Village. I called him up and he said, ‘Those people will scare my normal clientele away.’
“People felt they could stay that stuff to me because I was white. But my heart was with my colleagues and my mentor (Motown founder) Barry Gordy. And it’s always been there. So, when I had a chance to work with Tyler and to try to nurture a dramatic performance with him, I took it. I have a lot of admiration for a self-made man who built an empire out of his own ability.”
OC: Finally, Miami Vice is well-known as the experience that turned you into an action director. Tell me what that show meant to you.
COHEN: “That was my moment of awakening. I had directed a heartfelt drama, A Small Circle of Friends and a disastrous, unfunny comedy (1984’s Scandalous) in my stutter-start as a director. When Michael Mann asked me to direct the first year of Miami Vice, I jumped at it, mainly because I was intrigued by episodic TV.
“But once I got my hands on a Miami Vice script that was mine to shoot, something happened to me. Guns, cars, tough-talking, cool guys, sexy babes. It was like, ‘I was born for this!’ And I remembered how much I had loved The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch and The Great Escape, and I realized these were the props of these movies: motorcycles, cars, guns, whatever was put into action. And then I began to realize, I’m directing motion pictures. These are things in motion!
“It’s not The King’s Speech, with people talking. I thought, ‘The world has enough fuckin' drama in it. Why don’t I do something that’s cool and entertaining?’ And it all came together in those three episodes of Miami Vice that are still shown today.”
The Hurricane Heist. Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring Maggie Grace, Ryan Kwanten, Toby Kebbell, and Ralph Ineson. Opens wide March 9.