April 25, 2024

How Jason Statham’s ‘encyclopedic’ action knowledge boosted Beekeeper

The new Jason Statham January action movie The Beekeeper is what it suggests on the tin: a tongue-in-cheek, bee-themed action comedy where Staths doles out punishment to any bad guy who has the misfortune of buzzing his way.

It’s classic Statham stuff, but it’s a different kind of project for director David Ayer, best known for gritty crime dramas like Street Kings and End of Watch, and for 2016’s Suicide Squad. Ayer spoke with Polygon about working with Statham, his excitement around taking on a different kind of genre project, and his favorite bee joke from a movie that has a veritable hive of them.

Polygon: What first drew you to the project?

David Ayer: I got the script, Jason was attached. And the script had amazing character, this really interesting plot structure that just kept crescendoing. I read a lot of scripts, and I already know what’s going to happen before I turn the page. And this one got ahead of me. So I knew there was something there. And it was an opportunity to work with Jason, who I’ve always esteemed as an actor. Great performer, great physical action guy, I think he’s the best. So the opportunity to build a fun, soulful movie around him was a no-brainer.

What was your collaboration with him like?

What I really had to understand is, he almost has this unspoken contract with the audience about how he plays and what he’s going to do, and what he doesn’t do, and how he’s going to deliver for them. I had to learn his language as an actor, and then do my best as a director to showcase that and elevate it. He’s really normal and humble off-duty. He’s just a regular guy, and he’s kind of quiet. But then on set, he’s A-plus-game all the way, and demands everybody else brings their A-game.

I actually ended up learning a lot about action. I’ve shot a lot of action, but I’ve learned more about action from working with Jason Statham than all my other films combined.

Like what?

He has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic action. So you can do a piece of fight choreo, and he can tell you where he’s seen that in another movie 20 years ago. He knows body kinetics, in how it plays on camera, better than anybody I’ve ever met. And so he already knows if a punch is going to sell — he knows it instinctively.

So we’ll be on set. He’ll do his thing, and he’ll know it’s not to his standard. And he’ll [say], “We’re going again, we’re going again,” and [I’m like], Yes, sir. And then you go and look at the monitor, and he knows when it’s right without looking at the monitor, which is a really rare gift.

Photo: Daniel Smith/Amazon MGM Studios

Second unit director Jeremy Marinas is one of the absolute best. What was working with him like? What did he bring to the table?

Jeremy is a great guy. Bay Area kid, just a total martial arts, karate geek. From the 87eleven school of hard knocks of stunt performance, he has this visual understanding of how to get the look and the choreography needed on camera.

It’s a tough game now, because the bar on action is so high these days. You go watch a movie 20 years ago, and it’s like, Wow, I remember that differently. The audience is so sophisticated, and has such a sophisticated eye. You’re always trying to exceed that. And with Jeremy, you can see it. There’s a lot of action. There’s a lot of fights, there’s a lot of stunts, and it’s progressive, it just keeps getting bigger and better as we go.

Which was the hardest action sequence to execute?

I’d have to say the gas station scene. We did it early in the schedule. And in any film, you’re kind of finding your sea legs, and you get better every day as you work together. I didn’t have much time to shoot it at all. So it was, OK, how do I creatively compress this much work into that much time? And I didn’t know if I had pulled it off. I was actually really worried about it until I finally saw the scene cut together and it played beyond my expectations.

It’s scary sometimes. Sometimes, you just suck it up and plow forward and hope for the best. That’s what I think people don’t understand about movies, is they become their own thing. They unfold the way they’re going to unfold, and you can’t always control that.

One of my favorite things about the action in the movie is how prop-based it gets. You have an old-school, almost Jackie Chan vibe, especially when Statham is using the beekeeping equipment as weapons, or in the call center sequence, with the monitors and keyboards. What did the prop-based action bring to those sequences?

That’s everything right there. Jason Statham is playing the Beekeeper. He’s not [playing] a tactical action guy, with the pistol shooting. He’s more about using the environment and always knowing where to put his hands and what to grab next, and how to use the tools that are available to him immediately.

And it’s also pretty fun. It’s like, Oh, well, we can use a stapler, or we can use the phone, we can use the chair. And Jeremy was great at building that out. It was also represented in Kurt [Wimmer]’s script, the idea that a gun is a temporary weapon for the Beekeeper, and he’s gonna find something to hurt you.

Photo: Daniel Smith/Amazon MGM Studios

You have this tragic revenge story, but it’s called The Beekeeper, and there are a lot of silly bee references and jokes throughout the movie. How would you describe the movie’s tone, and how did you balance those two disparate elements?

That was the hardest thing for me. I knew that was going to be my big challenge going into it, because I come from a lot of straight, intense, gritty drama. I wanted to make a broad-playing movie. I wanted to make a movie grandma would watch, I wanted to make a movie young people would watch, and everyone in between. I really studied a lot of ’80s movies: [Richard] Donner, Walter Hill, [John] McTiernan. You see it in Die Hard, you see it in Lethal Weapon, there’s a place for the gravitas. There’s a place for a human truth that’s grounded. And there’s a place for absolutely just going nuts.

I think that’s another element where having Statham really helps, because he’s such a funny performer. A lot of people learned that with Spy, but for those of us who have been watching his action movies forever, he’s a really funny guy. And he’s able to deliver a lot of those bee-centric one-liners in a way that few other leads really could.

That’s the thing. He can say anything and you’re gonna buy it, you know? And he has that voice. That voice is so distinctive, and that on-camera presence. He has that movie star magic. And I feel like so much of that is just missing from cinema right now. You know, that sense of fun and adventure and Hey, let’s eat popcorn and escape from the problems of the world for two hours.

And it’s not just being quip-based, right? Because there are a lot of quippy action movies, but this movie better integrates it into the action, which makes it a lot more fun.

That’s the thing, it’s getting everything to work together. And, you know, I had a lot of fun making a genre movie. I’m not gonna say I wasn’t scared going into it.

Do you have a favorite bee joke or reference in the movie?

Oh, man. I kind of like Anisette’s [Megan Le] line “You’ve been a busy bee” in the gas station fight, because you immediately know who she is, what she’s about, and that there’s a relationship there.

The movie has a heavily yellow-and-black color palette. Was that something you thought of when you saw the script? Oh, we want to make it feel like a bee thing?

Yeah, I mean, you gotta have the warm honey tones, and the golden light is part of it. And with this one — a lot of times, my color palette’s a little more naturalistic. I had a new camera system, the Arri [Alexa] 35, which is just gorgeous, the most beautiful digital camera I’ve worked with. And I wanted to take advantage of it. Because that polychromatic, colorful feel of the movie is definitely a function of the camera. And again, just, as a filmmaker, exploring a new look, exploring a new style.

Photo: Daniel Smith/Amazon MGM Studios

I’m glad you brought up McTiernan, because I think there’s certainly some of Hart Bochner’s Ellis from Die Hard in the call center villain aesthetics, and a lot of Wolf of Wall Street, too. What did you want to evoke with that group of people?

[Big sigh] Crypto bros. People with too much money, too much going on, too much of a sense of self. It feels good to be a winner, but it’s not good to win at other people’s expense.

Action movies with short, almost silly titles have been landing well recently, like Gerard Butler’s Plane in 2023. What do you think a title like this brings to a movie?

I think it’s important. It gives you a container to put the world in. It’s so competitive these days, and there’s so many movies. The more you can have a little fun with the audience, be clever with it, but have it make sense for the project itself, have it be part of the reality of the film, it’s crucial. And I’m honestly thrilled how much people have connected with that concept and run with it. And now it’s like, Catch the buzz!

To what you were saying earlier, I think people want to have fun at the movies again, right? And something like this promises you that right from the jump.

That’s it, man. It’s like, Just have fun. I want to go to a movie. I don’t want to be lectured right now. The world’s tough. I want to forget my problems and just eat popcorn and watch people get their butts kicked who deserve it.

The Beekeeper is now playing in theaters.

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