CS Interview: Co-writer/director Mark Williams talks Honest Thief
ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with Emmy nominee Mark Williams (Ozark) to discuss his work as co-writer and director on the Liam Neeson-starring action-thriller Honest Thief, which is set to hit select theaters this Friday!
Looking back on its journey from his mind to the screen, Williams described the development process for the Neeson vehicle as “a long road, as all things are” and that a lot of the time spent evolving the script and characters came from “really trying to figure out a way to walk that line of gray.”
“You know, we’re all good, we’re all bad, for me, it’s really like, ‘Can you be bad and go good and can you have a second chance in life,’” Williams pondered. “So, for me, it was really just figuring out what kind of character that would be great to explore. Obviously within a genre that we’ve all seen a thousand movies of, and so, it’s like, how can we have the stuff that blows up and do the fun shootouts and car chases, but also have a character that has a moral compass that’s a little bit different than we’ve seen before. So from there, I ended up bringing on a writer to do a draft of the script, and we worked that over for a while. And then, at some point, I’d been debating on who would direct it, and then at some point, I’d end up directing Family Man, which then like, well, maybe I’m going to direct this. So I ended up doing a big rewrite on it to get it to where it was. Then, I got lucky that my guy who I had in mind when I was thinking about it was this guy Liam Neeson, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but I thought, yeah, he might be good for it. I sent it to his agent, just knowing how ridiculously a long shot that is, and I got that crazy call one day of like, ‘Liam likes your script. He’d like you to sit down with him and talk about it.’ I was like, ‘Oh, oh wow. Okay.’ So then I hopped on a plane, flew to New York and sat down with Liam and talked about it, and then, from there, you go very fast.”
In addition to having the 68-year-old action veteran leading the cast, the roster for the film includes everyone from The Suicide Squad‘s Jai Courtney to The Umbrella Academy‘s Kate Walsh, Terminator 2‘s Robert Patrick, Hamilton‘s Anthony Ramos and Jasmine Cephas Jones and Burn Notice‘s Jeffrey Donovan, all of which he credits to landing Neeson to star.
“Once I got Liam, I think it opened up the floodgates a little more than the average actor, so the opportunities were there for quite a few,” Williams expressed. “For me, it was all about finding that right chemistry between the different characters, and we started with trying to find Annie’s character because as much as this is an action thriller and everything else, it’s a love story. If the love story can work, that’s what may make it different than the other action movies that we’ve seen of the same ilk. So it really was about finding that perfect Annie, and Kate is such a lovely human being, that just she’s fun. She’s what you might expect out of her, but to the Nth degree of like, just caring and loving and always with a joke, and obviously gorgeous and everything else. So when we got her, we knew we had the love story piece. So then really it was about finding who are those different FBI agents, and I have four of them, so I wanted to give a variety and a different feel to them. Jeffrey Donovan, he’s just a genius in his abilities. I mean, every take he would do, he would do something different, and just on the turn of a dime, he’s just so smart and so clever and always a good take. And it’s — the hard part is you can’t edit between the takes because they’re all different, but they’re amazing in themselves.
“Jai Courtney is just a stud, and that was really important, to have somebody that is formidable to go up against, and he works so hard,” Williams continued. “Robert Patrick is always fun because Terminator 2 is probably my favorite movie of all-time, so, it was a joy. Really my casting directors, Mary Vernieu and Michelle Wade Byrd, they were like, ‘You’ve got to really pay attention to this Anthony Ramos guy.’ I’m like, “I haven’t seen Hamilton. I mean, I see the clips you’re sending me, but’ — they’re like, ‘No. You need to pay attention to Anthony Ramos.’ Finally, after I passed on him I think maybe three or four times they said, ‘Trust us,’ and I said, ‘Okay, I’m trusting you.’ He was unbelievable and really what a great human, but also, he came to work so hard every day. Not to give anything away as you write this, but obviously that scene in the garage, he went toe to toe with Liam, and it was something to watch, just even when we were watching him do it in person, so it was kind of great to see.”
The casting of Burn Notice alum Donovan also brought a star looking to collaborate even further with the minds behind the camera, looking to fill out the backstory of his character in order to better bring him to life on screen, and Williams found it to be an “awesome” experience from his end as the 52-year-old star had “so many creative ideas.”
“It was almost more about wrangling like this idea and really kind of putting it into a box,” Williams brightly explained. “I mean, as you know, back story is back story, so it was more about what he needed to bring to the character. You know, it was how he could figure it out. But he’s the one that actually we know the most about back story because we learn about his ex-wife and the divorce and the reason why he’s got Tazzie. So for him, his back story was actually really, really important to give a sense, otherwise it would just be weird to have him carrying a little dog everywhere he went. So it was really important. But no, he has such good ideas, like I said, that it was a fun process, and he’s become a good friend in that process, too.”
When it came to balancing the more darkly comedic elements of the script with the love story and action-thriller aspects, Williams laughed and found it wasn’t too difficult as “it’s kind of me” and that it was a smooth process of infusing the “wit or sarcasm” into the characters while ensuring he tried hard to “pull it out in the right place.”
“Jeffrey Donovan did me so many favors because he’s just that way and he is so funny and smart, he played it very well,” Williams stated. “You know, he is almost the comic thread to — I mean, it’s not comedy, but he’s the humorous thread throughout the whole thing. Really when I was trying to figure out how to layer his character up a little bit more, I was like, if this FBI guy is what we always see, how do you make him a little bit different? And then, to give him a 15-pound dog that he just doesn’t want and watch him play off Tazzie, it really kind of sparked, and then I watched them on set, too, how they built their relationship as it went over the course of the movie. So it was kind of just working. Obviously, you know, Kate has a really good sense of humor, she’s very fun, and Liam’s hysterical in his own kind of Irish way, not the same as Jeffrey or Kate for sure, but he’s a very funny guy. So they all helped, obviously, bring out those moments, and when there were times to stop, because obviously as you say, once it goes, it goes, and you have to steal moments to breathe, really.”
Though the casting and the writing remained a mostly smooth process for Williams, the real challenges arrived as production got underway and proceeded in a quick fashion, leaving him to “figure out a lot of things in a hurry” while prepping to begin shooting.
“We basically started prepping, let’s say August and we were shooting at the end of October, so it’s a pretty fast prep, and the weather was changing on us pretty drastically,” Williams recalled. “I think that was one of the biggest hurdles that we faced. In fact, one night we were inside the house — actually, it was the night we were shooting the garage scene and somebody said, ‘It’s snowing outside.’ This is, you know, early November, I think, and we’re like, ‘Okay, whatever, we’re inside. It’s fine, whatever.’ Then I walked outside and there was that [motions with hand] much snow on the ground in about an hour and a half. Then you’re like, ‘Oh that’s not snow. That’s like a serious storm.’ We couldn’t get out of the house. All the trucks were trapped. It became a real event. Then you’re like, ‘Okay, we got through that.’ Then what you realize though is there’s snow everywhere, and this is the only part of the movie that has any snow. There’s no snow in the movie, and all of a sudden you’re like, you’re clearing streets and having to get rid of snow banks on the sides of the roads. New England weather is not always friendly, so that was part of the biggest challenges. But other than that, I think it was just fairly normal challenges of having enough time and getting everybody to stay focused when we’re shooting in the middle of the night one night in a park and it was cold and our generator went down and all the lights were out. We’re just standing there and going, ‘Uh, it’s two in the morning. We have no power’ and that kind of stuff.”
The New England setting and shooting locations spawned from a lot of conversations with co-writer Steve Allrich as the two went back and forth on a number of possible big cities across the country, including Chicago, where Williams previously made his directorial debut.
“As you flip around the United States, there’s only so many big cities that you really want to see, I think at one point we talked about Chicago, but then I had just shot Family Man in Chicago and I’m like, ‘I don’t think I want to go back and do the same thing,’” Williams noted. “So, I was just looking around on a map and going, you know, Boston’s a really cool city because it’s got its own character. It’s a specific city in the US, whereas a lot of cities are fairly interchangeable, and Boston has that certain style. We used the architecture a lot, you may not catch that, but there’s a lot of churches in New England, and there’s a lot of churches in the movie, which again, comes back to the theme of the movie of redemption and everything else. So I sneak it in there, even if people aren’t paying attention. But it wasn’t even hard to do because every other corner has a church on it in New England.”
Written by Steve Allrich (The Canyon) and directed by Mark Williams, the co-creator of the hit Netflix crime thriller Ozark, Honest Thief will follow a bank robber (Neeson) who after attempting to turn himself in after falling in love with an employee from where his loot is stashed must deal with the complications that arise when his case is taken on by corrupt FBI agents, played by Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos.
Williams produced Honest Thief alongside Tai Duncan, Stephen Emery and Myles Nestel of Solution Entertainment Group, which sold the international rights to the film to Briarcliff and Open Road in June.
Neeson has found large success in recent years in the action genre, starring in the fan-favorite Taken trilogy and starring in this year’s box-office hit The Commuter, the fourth collaboration between him and director Jaume Collet-Serra. The 66-year-old actor will next be seen in the upcoming comedy Made in Italy, the directorial debut of James D’Arcy (Avengers: Endgame), which is scheduled for an August 7 release.
Honest Thief is set to hit theaters on October 16.