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Retribution Director Nimród Antal on Driving Around Berlin With Liam Neeson and Why It Pays to Direct TV

Two decades after Nimród Antal broke out with his Hungary-set thriller Control, the 49-year-old filmmaker has established himself as an effective director of slick action-thrillers, from the cult favorite Vacancy to his last studio movie, Predators.

Though 20th Century Fox released that film way back in 2010, Antal has worked steadily throughout his 20-year career, directing episodes of Stranger Things and M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant as well as the unique concert film Metallica: Through the Never starring Dane DeHaan, and the 2017 Hungarian thriller The Whiskey Bandit, which didn’t receive a proper release in the States.

Antal returns to U.S. theaters this week with Retribution, a slightly different action-thriller for Liam Neeson given that it takes place largely within a single location and finds its hero stationary, for the most part.

Neeson plays Frank Turner, a financial advisor driving through Berlin with his two teenage kids (Jack Champion and Lilly Aspell) when he gets a phone call telling him there’s a bomb in his car, and it will explode if anyone tries to get out or if he calls for help. Over the course of 90 nail-biting minutes, Frank must figure out who has it out for him, and how to outsmart an opponent who always seems to be one step ahead of him.

As I said above, Retribution is not your typical Liam Neeson thriller, mainly because of what Antal brings to the table as a filmmaker. The director takes full advantage of Berlin as Neeson drives across the city trying to survive in between action beats.

Above the Line spoke with Antal over Zoom last week about his return to “Hollywood” filmmaking after a number of years directing television, as well as the different ways he approached those driving scenes and his experience working with famed composer Harry Gregson-Williams.

Nimród Antal

Above the Line: Retribution is quite a high-concept thriller, and I read that Jaume Collet-Sera was one of the producers, so was he going to direct this at one point?

Nimród Antal: I can’t speak to that. I don’t know which one it was, but I think he was [already] directing a project and finishing that up and his capacity was limited. I think that’s why they brought me in.

ATL: But he was producing, too, so did you work with him at all?

Antal: Andrew [Rona] and Alex [Heineman] were primarily the [producers] that were there with us as we were making the film, but Jaume came in post. He was very thoughtful and gave us some great ideas and thoughts as we were putting the film together. We had conversations even before we ever started, so he was certainly someone [who] was trying to help me figure things out as we were going.

ATL: When did you get involved and when did you actually shoot the movie?

Antal: I think I was on Servant [and] about to go onto Stranger Things when I got hired. It was a really great run for me because I went from a few episodes of Servant to a few episodes of Stranger Things. I think I came home for, like, 10 days, and then flew out to Berlin to start the film with Liam.

ATL: Was the script already set in Berlin, or did you have to alter the location once you decided on shooting in Germany?

Antal: No, Berlin was always the location within the screenplay, and then, also, Andrew and Alex, our producers, had done a few other projects there as well. They had an infrastructure in place and a familiarity with the city. I love the idea that it was abroad. I’d never been to Berlin, so that was exciting for me to go and hang out in Berlin, but the concept of the city not being an American city — the concept that they were abroad somewhere while all this scary stuff was happening to them — was appealing. The isolation is even more enhanced just by virtue of where they were.

ATL: It’s cool that you got to work with production designer David Scheunemann, who did Bullet Train. I believe he’s local to Berlin, too. But anyway, when you came aboard Retribution, was Liam already attached or were they looking for their star?

Antal: Yeah, I boarded a Liam Neeson film.

ATL: With that in mind, when you first read the script, was there anything you wanted to change or add or things you wanted to bring into the mix?

Antal: As with most films, there’s always something that you notice that you feel you could enhance or you could maybe offer more clarity. With Andrew, Alex, and the writers, we were able to figure things out as we were in prep and adjust things accordingly.

Jack Champion, Lilly Aspell, and Liam Neeson in Retribution/Stephan Rabold/Lionsgate

ATL: Berlin has a great infrastructure for crew, and I know they have great stunt people there, including some skilled drivers.

Antal: [Billy] Buff was our stunt coordinator in Berlin, our German stunt coordinator, and he was one of my favorite people on that movie. There were some difficulties, as with any film — practical difficulties that you run into — but he not only gave us his services as a stuntman, he gave me his friendship as well. That meant a lot to me trying to maneuver in some difficult times.

ATL: Liam Neeson spends most of this movie behind the wheel of a moving car, and I’m not sure anyone is going to actually think Liam was driving the whole time, but how do you approach that aspect of it? I know there’s virtual production these days that will allow video of Berlin to run behind him on LED screens, for instance.

Antal: I’m someone who really does respond to just getting it in the camera, and I’m a proponent of, “Let’s get, practically, as much as we can.” This film was a mishmash of different things. One or two days were on green screen because we got rained out, and the volume, the virtual setting, wasn’t completed quite yet. Then we had a bit of the volume, which is the virtual projection, essentially, where for those [who] don’t know, you capture plates, and then you project those plates onto backgrounds. We had a bit of that, but then for the more French Connection-akin, frenetic energy moments, we used a process trailer. But we [also] had a few moments where it was Liam behind a steering wheel, and the stunt performer was either on the roof or in the backseat driving.

ATL: It’s amazing how Liam is still cranking out these action movies — which are quite popular — at 71 years old. He must have incredible focus and energy…

Antal: He’s got more energy and more strength and agility than most dudes younger than me, and his passion is palpable. He comes with such focus and such passion every day. It’s really inspiring. That’s what I respond to, in general — someone who really loves what they do. That is the magic, and Liam loves it.

ATL: You cast Jack Champion as Liam’s son, so I assume he had already finished shooting his role in Avatar: The Way of Water at that point?

Antal: [This was] post-Avatar. Jack Champion and Lilly Aspell really are the linchpin of this film. If Jack and Lilly weren’t as talented as they are, and if they didn’t bring that energy that they brought every day, this film wouldn’t be what it is. Liam is definitely leading the charge, but I have to say, Lilly and Jack were able to match what Liam was bringing every day, and that was really cool to see. I love those kids. I’ve said it a few times — they’re really great. Not only as actors, they’re just really down-to-earth, cool kids, and that was also super, super appealing.

Retribution image via Stephan Rabold/Lionsgate

ATL: When you’re shooting from the process trailer, are you able to get all the coverage you need, or did you also have a cameraman in the car for stuff like that?

Antal: If we’re doing some complex action beats or something, I’ll throw a lot of cameras down, but if we’re talking about performance, I’m pretty singular, in my approach. I have a logic as to why, but I won’t bore you guys with that right now. We made a point very early on, even if they didn’t have lines, just to be on them to ensure that we’re catching those moments where they’re just listening and reacting. It takes a little more time, but [it’s] well worth it, ’cause when you’re in the editing room and you have the option to go to Jack or to go to Lilly, it’s really cool.

ATL: As a filmmaker, how was it shooting and driving around in Berlin? You said the producers worked there before, and lots of movies are made there, obviously, but how easy was it to close off streets and things like that?

Antal: Berlin gave us a lot of the city itself and the infrastructure that we were offered, [so] they were very supportive from the get-go. Listen, not even on a professional note, just as a human being, Berlin is a really cool city. They’ve got a lot of things that they’re doing right in Berlin. I like the vibe, I like the energy, [and] the folks are really cool. The Babelsberg [Studio] was also somewhere we spent some time, and they were also very supportive. I really enjoyed being there and working there.

ATL: I have to ask about getting Harry Gregson-Williams to score the movie. He scored Ben Wheatley’s new movie, Meg 2, which just came out, and that was Ben’s first time working with Harry, too. What was your experience with him like? Did you find it easy to talk to him and get what you wanted?

Antal: I just called him and asked him if he’d join me on something else. He’s someone [who] is, I would say, one of my best experiences in post-production — [just] working with Steve Mirkovich, the editor, and Harry, our composer. Those two men really, really elevated the film… and elevated me along the way.

Retribution movie
Liam Neeson in Liam Neeson in Retribution/Stephan Rabold/Lionsgate

ATL: These days, are you still bouncing between TV and film? Are there aspects of TV that you enjoy and make it worth going back and forth between mediums?

Antal: 100 percent, and it’s not only a question of the experience that you gain, but some of the actors you have an opportunity to meet… working with [Robert] Rodriguez on Predators and working with M. Night on the Servant series, you learn quite a bit from those guys as well. There are also a lot of good feelings that I incur when they place their faith in me, and having them recognize my work when I was a fan of theirs for so long. It’s really cool.

ATL: The 20th anniversary of Control is coming up very soon, so is there going to be anything to commemorate it?

Antal: No. They did some cool stuff in Budapest, though. There was a screening in the metro, which I thought was really cool, and they brought some of the actors together. I’m doing this right now to promote this film, but I’m generally not someone who feels comfortable in this role. They invited me to a few things, but the whole celebrating yourself thing is kind of weird.

ATL: You’ve been attached to this movie, Afterburn, which I’m really curious about since one of my colleagues at Coming Soon wrote the original comic book. Is that something you’re still developing?

Antal: It’s in the air. It’s something that I’ve worked on for quite a bit, and I’m completely open to it if we’re able to bring it to fruition. Of course, [given] our current state of affairs, it’s difficult to navigate those waters right now. But I want to work on as many cool projects as I can, my friend, that would make me very happy.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions will release Retribution in theaters nationwide on Friday, Aug. 25.

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