Director Rob Cohen On 'The Hurricane Heist' And The Evolution Of 'Fast And Furious' [Interview]

Director Rob Cohen has been shooting car chases, explosions, and shootouts for years now. The director behind xXx, The Fast and the Furious, and The Boy Next Door enters new territory with his latest, The Hurricane Heist, which has its shootouts and chases unfold during a category five hurricane that brings brothers, played by Toby Kebbell (A Monster Calls) and Ryan Kwanten (True Blood), together.

It's an entirely self-aware disaster movie and exactly what a moviegoer would expect from something called The Hurricane Heist, which Cohen takes as a compliment. We recently spoke to Cohen about the challenges of making the effects-heavy film, defying physics, his thoughts on critics, the evolution of the Fast and Furious franchise, and more.


I think you got the tone of this movie right.

That's always the director's battle. If you do a movie like this and you take yourself too seriously, you're fucked. Take it just seriously enough. If you take it like nothing matters, then you lose in another way. You've got to create enough reality, enough grounding, and then really have fun with the idea.

You're very well seasoned when it comes to shooting action. What challenges do you face these days with set pieces?

I've been offered many, many heist movies. I could have just done a heist movie, you know, that may be more complex than this heist, more involved and so on. I love those movies like Ocean's 11The Italian Job, and all that, and you could do that, but what made this amazing to me, when you're having a gun battle in a 140 mph wind, that gun battle is no longer a gun battle as in a normal action film. Now it's become something else. There's another character force acting on all the action tropes, car chases, gun battles, and explosions. It's all changed because of this other element layer that you're adding. To get some likable, relatable characters and to balance the storm and the story was new to do. Just technically how to do a hurricane in front of the lens was a challenge, and I love those challenges.

Obviously you can take liberties and have some fun with a concept like this, but how much research did you do?

A lot. I had meteorologist advisors and so on. We'd go out with our 100 mph fans and I would throw hubcaps and I'd see what happened. The truth is, a lot of the shots where you see Toby hurl those hubcaps and they kind of make a dog leg and then shoot off, that's because they're hitting our wind bank. Out on that street we're creating a hundred mile an hour wind, and when that prop hits the wind, it does just what you say it's going to do. Not that I hit anybody with a hubcap, but I was experimenting with a real one, not the heavy plastic ones we use for safety – but with a real one and I threw it out there.

This was before we were shooting, just testing, and it went and it started to torque and it hit one of those parking meters and put a dent in the parking meter. We knew we had a great idea and we're not going to test any more real ones. I now believe it will work. Yet I did a shot where it hit the thing and put a dent in it, like it happened.

You got to keep real, and yet you have to find a way to keep it entertaining. You know, the audience does not want to be lectured about hurricanes. I gave a speech because I had to. You have to talk about man-made climate change. I don't give a fuck what Donald Trump and his shit heads say. You have to address it in a movie like this, otherwise it's like what kind of movies is this?

You don't want too much of that in a movie, either. I was just watching Geostorm and there's a surprising amount of standing around and exposition. Usually not what you want from a disaster movie.

I know, I know. Believe me, they spent a lot more on that movie than we did.

$35m, right? How'd you stretch that?

It's a lot of things. First of all, my years as a producer always helps, but I had just done The Boy Next Door for $4.8m. Now when you do a $4.8m movie with a nice movie star, like Jennifer [Lopez], you got to learn a few things. You got to go, "Wow, you mean I have to count how many extras? It makes a difference whether I have four or six?" Suddenly you're making those decisions, but the value is that you order your priorities really severely. You go, "I need to cut this, this, and this. I need this techno crane on this one day for this one shot, and I have to have it." So they go, "Well, we can't afford a techno crane. I mean, that's $20,000 a day." So you go, "Then I have to cut $20,000 to get that crane." So then you go through your script, which you've already mutilated a number of times, looking for ways to make it for the money. You have to find another pocket of fat that you're willing to live without.

When you do that kind of Haiku of production where you're trying to fit it into 17 syllables instead of your normal novel, you take that with you to a movie like this and you go, "Oh no, I can do this and no, no, no, no, you don't have to build all of that, just build me the two walls." You do all the tricks, because you know what you've got to achieve and you know where you want to spend the money.

We happened to partner with two effects houses that really came in kind of as producers, so they basically did more effects work for the money I had than what I could afford. You make deals, you cut corners, you try everything, and you keep your eye right on your story and on what's important.

Do you prefer that to working on a big production and throwing money at a problem?

That's a problem with some of these films. You know when you look at... I mean, I was the godfather of a certain franchise about cars. You look at what they do and they spend $350m and, yes, there's a lot of spectacle on the screen, but it feels wasteful. It feels like certain things have been lost in order to get the spectacle. You know, I think the audience has a very good sense of when a movie is overproduced and when it's too raw and too under-cooked. I like to think that this movie, for $35 million, got to a place where it felt solid, didn't feel cheap and got you going.

How tough is it getting action movies that cost $35 million made?

Impossible. This is a movie that studios would never make. They would have to have a film that cost over $100 million to do the same script, and they would throw money at everything. They'd demand, of course, bigger names, and the bigger names would not want to put themselves in harm's way the way I asked these actors to do. It's not fun to get out and to work every night and have a 100mph wind and debris and, you know, fucking 6,000,000 gallons of water dumped on you week after week, month after month.

You get a certain actor that'll go, "Send in my stunt double or shoot it from the back. It'll be OK." You tell them that's not what's going to resonate with the audiences, and they go, "Well, call my agent and I don't want to do this." With this, I sat down with the actors before we started and I said, "Look, this is how I'm doing it. So if you don't want to be in this movie because this is how it's going to be, you should not do it. You know, or suck it up and know that I'm going to help you create the reality. You're not going to have to wonder what it feels like; you're going to get out of the dominator and you're gonna get hit with that storm. You're going to fucking know what it feels like."

Talking about the filming conditions for the actors, what kind of challenges do they create for you and the crew?

All technical challenges are booby traps, because you can so easily step on a landmine of technical obsession and forget that what really carries people are the story, the characters, and having a story. I was probably guilty of that to some degree in Stealth where I got so fascinated with what I could do with jets and all of this that I kind of never looked at the script and said, "I need more story here. There needs to be more humanity here. I have too much chasing planes around and flying stuff and I need more story." You learn those lessons.

So now I'm more like, OK, I wanted to take an action film and plunk it in the middle of a category five hurricane. But I also wanted it to have relationships, which is why I created these estranged brothers that weren't in the original script and to understand their past and why they don't get along, because one blames the other for the death of the father.

Putting their lives on the line for each other and then realizing that they can have a new relationship free of the trauma of the past, that was one story that was very important to me. The other story was to do a male-female story in which it never becomes a love story, you know? They don't trust each other and then they work together and they start cooperating and then they begin to bond, but it never becomes a kissy, gooey moment. It's just two people that come to like each other through cooperating and risking together.

I said to both of them the whole story takes place in eight or nine hours from the early morning and it's over by sunset. So who's got time to fall in fucking love, right? Right. I said the two things that bug me in action movies is nobody stops to take a leak, and nobody ever eats. So I said, in this movie, we're going to have one scene where they take a pee break.

Which gets some exposition out of the way.

[Laughs] Which gets some exposition out of the way. We tick that box. With all that rain, you probably had to take a leak 50 times that day, and we get that done. Then when they get to the peanut butter and Jelly, it's a bonding, but it's a quiet scene. After eight hours of running, jumping and fighting these villains in the storm, you'd probably have an appetite.

Getting exposition out of the way like that, that's the kind of thing I don't think maybe gets enough credit in reviews.

I wrote those scenes, so I'm proud of them. I just feel like the critics just don't get action films. They don't like them. They don't open their mind to them. Once in a while they get behind Ryan Coogler and Black Panther, which everybody should. It's a wonderful, exciting movie, I think, and he's a wonderful director, but if it didn't have the Social Patina, you might not find a lot of these Peter Travers and these people having paroxysms of orgasmic joy for a Marvel movie, but they've learned that Marvel is here to stay and if they don't get behind these things, they're going to look square and old.

When it comes to your action movie that hasn't got any social relevance in terms of race and all that, they're very harsh on them, because they don't like them. They don't think they should be made. They resent every time one of them is made because they think every time I make Hurricane Heist somebody doesn't get to make Ladybird. You know, that's they're thinking. I really believe it.

We talked a couple of years ago about this for Alex Cross, and at the time, you seemed comfortable with not pleasing critics.

I mean, they have their opinions, but you know, there was this thing that happened to me with Vincent Canby years and years ago. You know Vincent Canby?

He was the critic for the New York Times, right?

Yeah. Well, you know, my first movie came out and he trashed it. A few weeks later I ran into him at a restaurant, in New York, and my friends go, "Don't go over there. Don't do anything. Don't say anything." I go, "No, I need to talk to this guy," so I went over to his table. I said, "Mr. Canby, I'm Rob Cohen. I directed Small Circle of Friends, which you trashed two weeks ago." He said, "Yes, it wasn't very good, was it?" I said, "Well, let me tell you something. See, Mr. Canby, you're old and you're going to die soon, and when you die, no one's going to remember one thing you ever wrote. All your life's work will be as forgotten as any other newspaper article that got flushed into the gutter. Me, this film you trashed, it'll be showing somewhere. When I'm dead, it will be showing somewhere and people will be reacting to it, whether they hate it or love it or it's memorable to them or not. It's going to be out in the world where you're basically going to be forgotten. Then I walked away from him.

Do you ever take it personally? I know sometimes reviews can turn into mocking years of work.

They'll go after me personally. I mean, the shit they said about me and Alex Cross, it was like, "What did I do, fuck your sister?" I don't even know who you are and you have no idea who I am, so what's with the personal attack? If you don't like the movie, then don't like the movie. Tell people not to see it. Tell people whatever you want, but what is with the personal attack? No need for it. You're not classy enough to understand that, and that's what I feel about a lot of them. They're lost in their own little world and they all talk to each other and decide which one's going to get a lot of good reviews. You know, there was one critic who liked Stealth and he told me afterwards that he got so many call angry calls from people saying, "How dare you like that film." You know, they are what they are. At first it hurt me, but then I went, why is it hurting me?

As long as people come, that's all I care about. As long as people come and say that was fun, that was entertaining, and they had a good time. Once in awhile, like Fast and Furious, it has a resonance that transcends my Gonzo nuttiness and my sense of how to construct an action film that has a fantasy edge with gravity and Newton and all the things that you look for or I look for. I've almost always gotten an A cinema score, so that's my review. If the audience comes out and goes, "I love this movie," then all I care about is what these people say.


The Hurricane Heist is now in theaters.