Pierre Morel began his career as a camera operator, steadicam operator, and cinematographer, shooting movies for singular filmmakers like as Luc Besson, Jonathan Demme, and Nancy Meyers. "I learned a different style from everybody I worked with," says the French filmmaker. "They all have very different styles and very different ways of working."
"Luc, for instance, he has a vision. He has a way to place his cameras. He's setting up the frame himself, and then he has that capacity to put everything in one frame. He is brilliant at that," Morel reflects. "Jonathan Demme has such a humanity in the way he directs things, and I learned a lot from him directing from a human perspective. And Nancy is a fantastic comedy director. I learned a lot watching her direct great actors like Jack Nicholson and Keanu [Reeves]. So, it's always a different approach."
Morel made his own feature directorial debut with 2004's District B13, a French actioner co-written by Besson. But it was 2008's Taken that proved he had a very particular set of skills when it came to directing action, also on display in 2010's From Paris with Love, 2015's The Gunman and 2018's Peppermint. "The secret to directing action is not directing action," says Morel.
"When you direct a movie, at least for me, it's not about the action. If it's action for action's sake, I don't care," he explains. "It's all about the emotional connection you have with your story or with the characters, or the emotional journey, or with the comedic journey — whatever it is — but not the action. The action then folds within that frame."
His latest is Freelance, an action comedy starring John Cena as an ex-special forces operative tasked with protecting a disgraced journalist and a ruthless dictator during a military coup. "It's not like the things I'm used to directing," Morel says. "My previous movies were very dark, intense, emotionally-driven movies and not about the action. But from the get-go, this is an action comedy, and comedy is something I've never done before! So, I like experiencing different things."
Below, Morel shares with A.frame the five films that have most influenced him.
Written and Directed by: George Lucas
The movie that triggered my envy to make movies was Star Wars. Star Wars came out in '77 in Europe, I was 12-ish, and it was the first movie I actually saw in that genre. It was the first for many of us of that generation, but prior to that, because my parents were not American movie fans, we were mostly seeing French comedies. Then I went to see Star Wars with a friend of mine, and a brand new universe opened in front of my eye. I was like, 'Whoa, that's possible too!' From that moment, that's what triggered my urge to make movies. I didn't really know how at that time, but I loved it.
Directed by: Ridley Scott | Written by: Dan O'Bannon
Alien and Blade Runner are masterpieces to me. And obviously, Ridley is a master for all of us. I love sci-fi. I've seen them like hundreds of times. I love them both, so these were really marking moments. I don't know if they, in any way, influenced my way of shooting, and I would not pretend that they did! But to frame things, to shoot things, they really influenced me somehow.
Directed by: Ridley Scott | Written by: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples
Directed by: Jacques Tati | Written by: Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange, and Art Buchwald
Movies by Jacques Tati, who is a French director, influenced me a lot in terms of framing and timing. There's almost no dialogue at all. It's all visual humor. His films are very different and way less known.
Directed by: Edward Zwick | Written by: John Logan, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz
I have a great admiration for Edward Zwick, and both The Last Samurai and Legends of the Fall are movies that I love. I will remember those movies forever, because there is action in both of them but it's not about the action. Even in the biggest, craziest samurai battles in The Last Samurai, it's epic, it's huge, it's action-y, but it's not about that. You watch these movies and you cry in the end, and it's all about the emotional journey with the characters. Both Legends of the Fall and this one are some of my favorites for the emotion.