Blacklight Director Mark Williams Talks Tearing Up Canberra and Melbourne, Working with Liam Neeson, and More in This Interview

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As had become the norm during 2020 and 2021 due to COVID, Hollywood productions migrated south for the year to seek some kind of COVID-free safety. One notable production was Mark Williams Liam Neeson-led conspiracy thriller, Blacklight, which was filmed in Melbourne and Canberra. One of the films early action sequences see Liam Neeson tearing it up through the streets of Canberra in a high-risk car chase.

In this interview, Mark Williams talks about making an American set film down under, the feeling of making the film as the events of January 6th took place, and working with Liam Neeson. We start our discussion by referring to the joys of physical media.

How are you doing today?

Good. Good. I see you’re a collector of items in the background. That’s nice.

Yeah, I do like to embrace the physical media, got to keep it alive in some capacity. It is very useful and helpful in both research and entertainment, that’s for sure. Are you a physical media fan?

You know, I have them tucked away somewhere. But I seem to be losing track of them. Sometimes I have a hard time finding my own movies and getting them. So it’s a new wave. A new generation.

Yeah, it is. I guess for you streaming is going to be helpful though because you’re making films all around the world. I mean, doing Blacklight here in Australia has got to be pretty exciting. How did that come about, the whole concept of ‘we’ve got to make a film about America but we don’t have a place to safely shoot it during COVID, so where do we go’?

That was part of the conversation, that was actually the impetus of going to Australia. We were looking for the best place to shoot it that could really make it as big and exciting as we wanted it to be. And I have a friend, Paul Currie, who’s a producer on the movie who lives in Melbourne and has been trying to sell me on Melbourne for about ten years. And so finally I was like, well this makes sense. And even when we chose to go to Melbourne, that was when Victoria was in total lockdown. And it was a mess.

So, when I landed in Sydney and sat in a hotel room for two weeks, and then from there, I went to Canberra for ten days and sat in that hotel room there because I couldn’t go to Victoria. There was no guarantees that it was going to be Victoria or Melbourne. But, it felt right. And I was looking for a modern city that could double for Washington DC that had some cool buildings and a cool look. And obviously Melbourne has that. And so it made a lot of sense. And the crew is fantastic. So it was a win-win for all of us.

How do you go about scouting for the locations? Do you have somebody already on the ground who knows the city quite well and they’re sending you pictures of it? Or when you get here, as you’re saying you’re spending ten days and two weeks in quarantine, when you get out in the world, do you go and have a look around and say yes, this is the place that I need to make the film?

You got it. So they sent me a lot of photos, especially a lot of them were photos they’d taken of other movies because they weren’t allowed out of their houses, right? So they’d send me old photos. And then I would at least give them a feel of ‘this is right, this is wrong, whatever’. And then when I finally made it to Melbourne, we went driving around. We had permission to at least go out in the streets and drive around and look at things. It made it challenging because we couldn’t necessarily go into every building we wanted to go into. But you have to stand there and feel it before you really know.

A lot of the people who love Australian films and seeing Australian films being made were really excited to be able to see Canberra onscreen here, especially in an international film. Canberra doesn’t really get that kind of exposure all that much. And it’s really interesting to see the massive action sequence that Canberra features in. How did you go about logistically planning that in the nation’s capital?

I was in Canberra for ten days, waiting to figure out if I was going to go north, south where — I didn’t know where I was going to go to shoot the movie. And so I spent some time there. And I did notice the downtown loop looked a lot like Washington DC. And Guy Norris, who was our amazing stunt coordinator, who has done all the Mad Max’s and such flew down from Brisbane, and we walked the streets of downtown Canberra. And there’s like a perfect loop for us to be driving in.

We said to the government officials, “Hey, do you mind if we use this? But we just need it for four days.” And they actually were very gracious and said ‘sure’. And so we basically designed the chase around the streets that we were given which were downtown and made it everything it could be. What we really wanted to do is make it a live action shoot with very few visual effects, we wanted to reproduce it in a way that was not fake in any possible way. So, we actually used the streets as they were given to us and then figured out ways to really cause mayhem.

I was there a couple of years ago and I walked those streets every day while I was there. So it was kind of exhilarating to see them in this way. But then in the same capacity, I know that it’s Canberra and people who are from Australia would know that it’s that, but then on the same hand, it doesn’t look like Canberra. How do you make Australia look like America?

I just had a fantastic art department that you know that would look at something and I wouldn’t even see it, you know. I wouldn’t go ‘Well, that looks very Australian’, but they would know. And they’ve worked on plenty of American movies and television shows, so they would know, ‘well, that’s not a bench that you would see in the US’, so they would end up replacing a lot of things that Canberra has and make them more American. That was very helpful for it to just have that little bit of feel. And frankly, if you’re watching the background during a chase like that, you’re probably missing the point. Really, it’s about keeping the audience in the action with the characters and keeping the emotion running high as opposed to analysing the backgrounds.

I must say that was one of the luxuries of being able to watch it on a screener at home, to be able to pause it and go, ‘Oh gosh, I know that place’. Obviously, a little bit of navel-gazing there in the Australian department, but it is very exciting. We all get a little bit excited when big productions come to Australia, especially one with Liam Neeson. By now, we know what Liam Neeson films are going to be like. What was it like working with Liam Neeson and getting to work in that kind of older action man template with him?

Well, this is my second time directing and my third movie working with Liam, so I know him very well and we’ve become friends. And it’s very helpful because I understand him as a human more so than just ‘the action star’. For me, it was really making sure that the movie has all those things that his fans want from his movies, they expect from his movies, but also to mix it up on a character, on a human level. And that’s for me what I really focused on is to find a character that could do all those things, but also was broken inside. That he had his own issues and guilt and was trying to come out of a hole that had been built up over the years. It was about finding that character that was human and that we could root for despite the things that he may or may not have done in the past.

When it comes to making a Liam Neeson action film, do you look at his previous work and say, ‘well he’s already done this, let’s find something new and exciting for him to do’?

Not directly. I didn’t go back and watch those, but if we’re looking at something, he’s the first person to go, ‘I did that in Taken 2, I did that in Taken 3’, so he tells me, ‘I don’t want to do it that way’. Not very often but every now and again, he’ll point that out. And so we’ll mix it up just based on that as we’re doing rehearsals or whatever. But no, he’s very gracious and very helpful when we talk about story or character, and we can talk about the things that — and what he relates to about the story might not be what might be the obvious thing. But he can relate to the story that’s told in the bar scene and the history. He was very much onboard for the way (his character is) the one that had the issue and did the wrong thing, per se. And so it’s really about finding that character for him to relate to and to be excited about.

I like the family component as well. It adds a nice touching aspect to the narrative. How do you go about casting Liam Neeson’s family? Do you have screen tests with them to make sure that they work well together? Or is it just finding the right person for the job?

Well, we were also living through COVID, so nobody was getting together to do anything. But no, we obviously did. We had tapes, and then we had auditions, and then really trying to figure it out. And then, it was more about me spending the time with the actors over Zoom, really. And then I would send the link to Liam to just have him get a sense of it as well. And it worked out. I mean, it was obviously just his daughter and his granddaughter here, so it was a pretty small group, but it was definitely helpful to get his input to have a feel like I could relate to that character and I could see that as my daughter or granddaughter.

There is a real political aspect to Blacklight, too. What were the thematic inspirations for making this film?

In the conception it started as a 1971 COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program). J Edgar Hoover was doing this program for twenty years in the Fifties and Sixties that was counterintelligence, very illegal. It was broken up in 1971. And then the philosophy for me was, was it? Or did they just change the name? Taking that into today, it was like ‘what was going on back then could easily be happening today’, we just wouldn’t know it because it’s not labeled. And they didn’t really know in the Fifties and Sixties either until it was exposed. So then applying it to today, what would it look like? And then as we’re making the movie, things started rolling on that with BLM and then the elections and then COVID and then the vaccine. The political elements almost got more relevant as we were making the movie than I anticipated.

Were there days that you would wake up and — obviously being on the other side of the world and having a whole day ahead of America — that you’d wake up and feel, gosh, all right, this is — as you’re saying, it’s very relevant, ‘I didn’t expect this to take place’. Were there days like that on the production here?

The big one was on January 7 2021, I was doing the opening scene. And that to me, it was like – okay… I was getting up in the morning and it was a big scene, lot of people, big location, a lot of things going on for the opening rally. And then I turn the internet on and I see the images from January 6 in Washington DC, and I’m realising what I’m doing here is small compared to that, but that’s like the big daddy version of what I’m doing and the energy that I need to bring to this equation.

It was a coincidence it was the exact same day. And even when we were shooting, people were driving by asking us if we were related to the scene in Washington DC. It was quite the coincidence but it was actually very, in a funny way, very helpful for me to see that.

(L to R) Liam Neeson stars as Travis Block and Taylor John Smith stars as Dusty Crane in director Mark Williams’ BLACKLIGHT, an Open Road Films release. Credit : Ben King / Open Road Films

The opening scene of Blacklight focuses on a far-right wing rally which Liam Neeson’s character disrupts.

I can imagine it would have been quite surreal.

It was surreal for everybody that was watching that didn’t have anything to do with it. And maybe it was doubly because that scene had been written a year before, and here it was coming out in the worst possible way.

It’s quite frightening. What are the benefits of working in a completely different time zone? I’ve heard from people that the ability to send rushes over to America once you’ve done the day has made it easier so people can prepare them for the next day in Australia. There’s like almost a twenty-four hour working cycle. Was that something that happened here?

No. I was very centralised in Melbourne, so everything was Melbourne-related, except for two things. My editor was in Los Angeles, because he couldn’t come to Australia. And we basically had a digital link like this (a Zoom meeting), and we edited the entire movie over the internet with a fancy hookup. And then my composer was in LA as well and that was again him sending me files and then us talking on the phone and FaceTime and such.

But basically, for the shoot, I was 100% in Melbourne time doing Melbourne things. The challenge became during editing when it goes from five hours to six hours to seven hour time difference and then all of a sudden I’m up some quirky hours in the morning trying to deal with it. But it was fairly seamless a process.

As we’re wrapping up, I want to talk about Australian crews. What were your experiences working with Australian crews?

I had a great time. I mean, I adore them. They worked so hard and they were for the film and they were for making the best movie possible and they had a knowledge and skill sets that were as good as anybody. They were really with it. My art department, my camera department, my locations — everybody, every department literally was going above and beyond for what I was trying to achieve, and it was great to see. I’d walk on sets where I’d seen during location scouts, and it would be ten times better than I imagined when I was there on set and saw it the first time when I went on location. So it was quite remarkable and they were a joy to work with. I’m looking forward to coming back.

So you’ll come back down under to make your next film?

I’m not afraid.

Fantastic. Congratulations on the movie and congratulations on another great pairing with Liam Neeson. And as an Australian, thank you again for making a film down under. It’s always exciting to see Australia on screen whether it’s as Australia or as America.

I appreciate that very much and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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