'Peppermint' Director Pierre Morel Says It's A Justice Movie, Not A Revenge Movie [Interview]

Peppermint is the fifth movie Pierre Morel has directed, but "from the director of Taken" will likely follow him forever. The landmark action film turned acclaimed Oscar-nominee Liam Neeson into an action hero just as prolific than Schwarzenegger and Stallone in their day.

Now, Morel is trying to do the same with Jennifer Garner. When drug dealers murder Riley North's family, the legal system fails her. So she returns five years later to take out the cartel and the corrupt system.

Morel spoke with /Film by phone on his way to record the DVD commentary for Peppermint. He talked about the film's action style, its take on revenge, and concerns that a villainous Mexican cartel would perpetuate negative stereotypes. Peppermint is in theaters now.

When you did Taken I imagine Liam Neeson had to learn how to fight. Did Jennifer Garner already come with those skills?

She had to train. She had to learn. She'd done it before. She was pretty action-y already in series like Alias or like Daredevil. She did it before but she had to train really hard physically and she had to learn all those fight choreographies. But she was a dancer earlier so she has incredible body memory. She's really good at it but she trained a lot. Oh yeah, months in advance.

Was it a different style of fighting than she'd done on Alias?

I think the whole idea was to be as realistic as possible. The movies I like to make, although they are action, are not about the action. It's about the story. It's about the emotional connection with the character. If you go over the top in the action pieces and they don't connect with what the character is and what his human capacities could be, then you lose the connection. You lose the reality. You use that suspension of disbelief. So we tried to make sure that everything she had to do would be realistic and feasible. She's not a superhero in this movie. She's not going to fly in the air so we had to make choreography that made sense. That's what dictated the way she fights.

Was there a specific martial art she trained in?

No, no specific one. Our stunt choreographer, stunt coordinator is Keith Woulard who worked on many different things, but his background is actually an ex-Navy SEAL. So he probably incorporated all the military fighting style that he learned himself. It was very quick hand to hand close combat. It doesn't last. The other thing in very many action movies I see is that because you want to make big set pieces, you make those fights last forever. In reality it goes pretty quick. The first one who hits, wins and that's it. So we tried to make them really fast and he helped me a lot on that because we used those realistic moves that she would do in real life.

There are some big set pieces. Were there any you scaled back because they were getting a little too outrageous?

No, we worked from the very get go with that in mind so we adapted every choreography to these locations, trying to find cool ideas that would make sense in the location but would still keep the same style in mind. We didn't have to scale down anything. We picked some of the places together for the potential they offered, but we didn't scale down anything. That's the way we wanted it from the get go.

Are you a director who likes to previs your action?

I'm not. I'm not a great storyboarder. I do use storyboards but not as a previs tool. More like a communication tool with the other departments. It makes it easier for people to understand what's going on, especially when you do fights so fast, so quick. It's tough for the operator, the DP, for everybody to know what's going to go on. If you storyboard those moments, it makes it easier to communicate, but on the day I usually choose something different. Not in terms of action but some shots. So I'm not a big previser for those type of movies. If I had to do a CGI heavy movie I would have to previs, but I don't like to previs too much also because we're dealing with humans here. We're not dealing with CG creatures. You cannot force a human being to do something that you prevised because it was cool but that was not realistic. We just choreograph things. We take pictures or we storyboard them just to be able to know exactly what you're going to do. But then you let reality kick in and you shoot differently. That's the way I work.

I've been watching revenge films for years and we love them, but now that I'm older it occurs to me that no matter how satisfying the revenge is, these are always ultimately tragic stories because nothing will bring the loved ones back. How do you approach that issue in Peppermint?

I don't see it as a revenge movie. I don't think there's anything satisfying in revenge. I think revenge is an extremely negative and dark feeling. As you said, it's not going to bring anybody back and it's not going to make you any happier. It's always going to be sad and it's not going to bring your family back. She's not coming back for revenge. She's coming back for a certain form of justice whether it's right or wrong, but it's more of a justice movie or self-justice movie. I think when she embraces that journey, when she starts that crazy day when she's going to kill everybody, she doesn't expect to come out of there alive. She expects to do what she thinks is right and then die and regather with her family through death. There's nothing satisfying about that. The only satisfaction is not revenge, it's about doing what should have been done by the official judicial system and then disappear, not live happily ever after because nothing's going to make you happy forever after in revenge. She just wants to die. I don't see it as a revenge movie. I don't see it as a satisfying revenge movie. I just see it as a justice movie and a family story.

Do you think audiences may have so much frustration at the corruption in administration, they feel satisfied seeing Jennifer Garner get things done her way?

I don't know about that. I don't know. I didn't make the movie to create that sense. I think it can open lots of questions. I strongly believe that self justice is wrong. It's the basics of our democracy that you cannot exert your own justice. That's what we created the system for. If you start going against that, it's not right. It's wrong. Anyway, the question is yeah, as you mentioned, there are probably moments, because of corruption, because the system is too heavy, because of the laws that justice is not serviced the way it should be. Then we have to fix the system, not do justice ourselves. That's the question I would ask. I'm not saying I'm right or wrong. I'm just asking the question.

She has a long list of people who did her wrong and we don't see her kill every one on screen. Were there ever scenes where we saw her kill the lawyers or were those always implied?

That was going to be implied. It was never shot. It was never in the script. It was never cut. Yes, you could go on forever but I'm not trying to make a record body count. I don't care to see another guy, another guy, another guy. So no, the only one we wanted to really see is the judge and the thugs, the bad guys. The judge is the one that we see being killed and maybe back to your previous question, it is because he is the one who was supposed to be in charge of serving justice and he did not. As a lawyer, your job is to protect your client, whether you're corrupt or not. As a lawyer, that's your job so she doesn't have to kill him in a way. She does because he's a bad guy but the judge represents justice, represents the law and he did wrong. So I think it may be more satisfying, if it's ever satisfying, to see the judge disappear because he is the corrupt guy. We never planned to [show] any of the others.

There's been some concern that the villains of the film are Mexican, and no one's saying that drug cartels don't exist, but did you have any worry about making them the villains once you saw President Trump start vilifying very good immigrants just coming over for their families?

Yeah, I do see it as an issue. Honestly, it could be any other ethnicity. There's gangs of every, every, every origin everywhere. We didn't pick Mexican cartels specifically. It could be anybody else. I don't want in any way to be confused with whatever your president is doing now. I don't want to vilify the Mexican community in any way. Actually, in the LA police force there's a lot of Latino personnel. We on purpose picked John Ortiz to be our good cop and be Latino. I in no way want to vilify any community ever, ever.

What is next for you, the William the Conquerer series or another movie?

There's a few things cooking. I don't know yet what's going to be next. William the Conquerer is something I've been working on for a long time. I think he's a great hero. I don't know when it's going to happen. There's one about the Crusades. These are two medieval things I want to do at some point. I'd like to do medieval pieces but I don't think that will be next. I don't know yet. There's a lot of things coming up. I can't give you anything about that because I don't know myself.

All your films have been modern. Have you been itching to do a period piece?

Yes, I'd love to do a period piece and I'd love to do sci-fi. I'd like to step away from the contemporary now. I'd like to do something different. I'm looking for some good scripts that would allow me to step away from today's look. I'm fascinated by history so if I can find something to make a period piece, I'd love to. And I'm a huge sci-fi fan so anything in the future, I'd love to. I'm looking. I'm looking right now.

Hollywood likes to put filmmakers in a box. I know that you can do other things besides action but does Hollywood just want you to keep doing what you've done well before?

You always get a label at some point. You do action and you get more action, but I would love to do something else. Not that I don't like action, but once again, it's not action for action's sake. I'm not interested in action for action's sake and what you usually receive is a lot of action for action's sake movies. They want you to repeat the action part but it's not about the action. It's about the story. It's about the emotional connection with the characters. So if I find another cool action movie with a great emotional story then I will make it, but I'd love to try something else for sure.

Liam Neeson had quite a career doing action movies since Taken. Have you had other actors come to you and say, "Hey, can you do that for me too?"

[Laughs] No. That's not on my business card, like I'm the new hero maker. No, I just want to make good movies with good characters. I don't know what to say. No one came to me like, "Okay, make me the next Liam Neeson." No, never happened, ever.