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A Conversation With Rob Cohen, the Man Who Makes Action Movies That Critics Hate But You Probably…

A Conversation With Rob Cohen, the Man Who Makes Action Movies That Critics Hate But You Probably Love

The director of ‘The Hurricane Heist’ on fatherhood, giving birth to ‘The Fast and the Furious’ and why surfing is almost as good as the best action sequence

In The Hurricane Heist, the new action film in which a Treasury agent (Maggie Grace) and a meteorologist (Toby Kebbell) try to stop a cadre of criminals from making off with $600 million during a ferocious Category 5 storm, wonderfully ludicrous things happen. For instance, halfway through the movie, our heroes harness themselves to the ground so that they don’t get sucked into the sky by the powerful hurricane, their bodies flailing in midair as the savage winds batter them. And for the exciting conclusion, not one, not two, but three 18-wheelers engage in a lethal chase sequence as that killer storm barrels down on them. The movie is pure, giddy ridiculousness.

It’s no surprise then that it’s directed by Rob Cohen.

In a career that began in the early 1970s, Cohen has worked his way up the Hollywood ladder, starting as a script reader. (He famously claimed to have championed the unproduced screenplay for The Sting, which went on to win Best Picture, as worthy of being greenlit.) Soon after, he became a producer on films like The Wiz. But Cohen had always wanted to be a director, and after two failed early stabs — the 1980 drama A Small Circle of Friends and the misbegotten 1984 comedy Scandalous — he found his footing by working in television, especially on the influential, neon-tinged Miami Vice.

Cohen’s film career began in earnest with 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, a biopic about the acclaimed martial-arts master, which led to a series of likeable popcorn movies like Dragonheart and Daylight before hitting pay dirt with two franchise-starters: 2001’s The Fast and the Furious and 2002’s xXx. Two decades later, both series are still populating theaters, especially Fast and Furious, which has exploded from the modestly budgeted, small-scale thriller that Cohen conceived into a gargantuan, globetrotting franchise. (The last two installments combined to gross more than $2.7 billion worldwide. The original film reportedly cost a mere $38 million to make.)

Despite his commercial success and longevity, though, Cohen (who turned 69 yesterday) has never been a critics’ darling or a revered action filmmaker. In fact, reviews of his films have often been brutal: Roger Ebert famously said of his gonzo 2005 action-thriller Stealth, “[It] is an offense against taste, intelligence and the noise pollution code — a dumbed-down Top Gun crossed with the HAL 9000 plot from 2001. It might be of interest to you if you want to see lots of jet airplanes going real fast and making a lot of noise, and if you don’t care that the story doesn’t merely defy logic, but strips logic bare, cremates it and scatters its ashes.”

Cohen knows what his naysayers think of him, and he wears their dismissiveness like a badge of honor. When he speaks to me in late February — about 10 days before The Hurricane Heist’s release — critics had yet to pillory his cheerfully overblown film, but he’s proud of the energy, joy and focus he put into the movie’s orchestrated chaos. “There’s very little accidental in my films,” he says with a chuckle.

Although his movies often have a lightheaded, check-your-brain-at-the-door vibe, they’re the product of a Harvard grad who majored in anthropology and uses the discipline’s study of human beings as the driving force behind his work. If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s one of many that define Cohen, a senior citizen still happily crafting action movies for an audience far younger than he is. Over the phone, he spoke to me for more than an hour, discussing everything from dealing with being judged so harshly to brandishing a contrarian spirit that was instilled in him as a kid. Along the way, he also sounded off on fatherhood, whether action movies are a boys’ club, why being a director means not being a nice guy and which pastime he finds as satisfying as sex.

Watching The Hurricane Heist, I was reminded how nobody makes action movies like you do. Like a lot of your films, it’s a big, happy B-movie — it takes serious pleasure in all the over-the-top genre tropes.
I like movies to take us outside ourselves and to give us 90 minutes of surreal excitement fantasy. They’re still grounded in some reality, but they definitely play fast and loose with restraint. [laughs]

I’ve kind of been an iconoclast all my life, even when I was a kid. I bucked authority and hated rules and things that were imposed on me — I feel the same way when I get to tell a story. I want to not follow rules. There are some rules with storytelling you have to follow or all you get is confusion. But for the most part, [I’m] treating it with the secret sauce, you know? [laughs]

Where did that aversion to authority come from?
My parents were a bit on the puritanical side, and that gave me something to work against. I once wrote a line in a script — the gimmick was that the character meets himself… He’s 50, and he meets himself when he’s 20. The 50-year-old knows who the 20-year-old is, but the 20-year-old doesn’t know who the 50-year-old, and at one point, the 50-year-old goes to the bathroom with his own father, who’s deceased. The father is bitching about the 20-year-old version of the 50-year-old, and finally the father says, “You know what a tough father is? He’s rocket fuel.”

And I thought, Well, that’s it. Sometimes, you get a certain weight put on you, and you can either bend under it, break under it or you can resist it. I was a resister.

I went my own way from a very early age. I almost got expelled from school: I grew a beard in high school, and I wouldn’t shave it off. It became, like, a big deal — it went all the way up to the superintendent of schools. I think that carried over into the movie business and my career. I started out as a studio executive and producer, but I always wanted to be a director — everybody told me, “No, no, no, you’ll never make it. They don’t allow that. It’s never happened. Very rarely does a producer get to be a director.” I was discouraged by people for a long time. I just went, “Hell, I’m gonna do it.”

You studied anthropology at Harvard, a decision that also seems to be part of this go-your-own-way ethos. A lot of aspiring directors go to film school.
Anthropology just seemed to me the proper study of mankind. Harvard had no film school, so it wasn’t an option. And I didn’t wanna go to film school. In fact, I urge kids not to go to film school. Film school is actually very damaging to people and their creativity — it just relies too heavily on what other directors have done in the past, and it’s kinda limiting. It’s like, “Well, this was what was decided here.” Or: “On this film, this was what was used here.” [Filmmaking takes] years of exploration that you should be making on your own and not listening to some [teacher] who was in the movie business for a short time and failed.

Were you a big action-movie kid?
I loved them: Give me The Dirty Dozen or The Great Escape on a Saturday afternoon, and I was happy as a clam in the mud. I loved tough guys, hot girls, motorcycles and Steve McQueen jumping over barbed-wire fences with a Triumph motorcycle. It’s the kind of shit that you either eat up or leaves you cold.

For me, the big pivot point was when I got to direct the first year of Miami Vice. My first films were a comedy and a sort of biopic about my time at Harvard during the antiwar movement. Neither one of those connected at the box office — certainly, the comedy didn’t connect with anybody, and that’s when I learned, “I’ll never direct another comedy.” But when Michael Mann asked me to direct as many episodes of Miami Vice as I could schedule, I went down to Miami, and for the first time, I had the elements that I’d so admired with the Robert Aldriches and the Sam Peckinpahs. I had the fast cars. I had the cool guys with the nice clothes and the guns and the drugs. I had the action sequences, the fights, the shootouts. I blossomed on that show. I felt like, “Okay, now I’m in my element.”

As we’re talking, The Hurricane Heist will open in about a week and a half. How are you feeling?
I’m a man where you have people trying to find a vein so they can execute you. These releases are very tough on the nervous system, and any director that tells you they’re not is lying, including the Christopher Nolans and the Spielbergs and the luminaries. This is a very nerve-wracking time. All you can do is talk to the press and try to put the case for your film out there. The rest is so far beyond you.

I’m working with Entertainment Studios. I thought they didn’t have enough commercials that were action-packed. There was too much dialogue, too many things on jokes and stuff. I just went, “That’s not why people wanna come to this. They wanna come to this ’cause it’s a gonzo action film.” So, over the weekend, they cut some really cool action spots. In a funny way, you’re like those crazy brush-people in curling. [laughs] You’re brushing the ice and hoping your movie will land in the circle.

That feeling of being nervous about how people will react to your work really never changes?
Yep. I’m the same guy as I was in 1992 waiting for Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story to come out. You’re going to be judged, and there’s several scales of judgment. There’s Rotten Tomatoes, and there’s the box office. A guy like me has never made movies that are the critical-type favorites, you know? So my review’s the CinemaScore and the box office — that’s where you have to hope that the ads and the nature of the story are reaching people, and that they’re gonna come no matter what score you did on Rotten Tomatoes.

Even though you don’t make movies to impress critics, doesn’t it get frustrating to almost always get bad reviews?
It’s annoying. I’ve gotten to a place in life where I don’t read anything. Once you read it, you can never forget it. Some of these people are really nasty. And especially in my history, they’ve been vicious in several instances. What they don’t ever seem to understand is how complicated it is to make an action film — how much more an action-film director has to know than, let’s say, the guy who directed The King’s Speech, which is essentially a filmed play. To mount any of the larger action set pieces in Hurricane Heist [means] interfacing visual effects with the knowledge of how to create a reality for an actor.

Like what I was trying with Dragonheart with Dennis Quaid: That guy, who was so great, acted against tennis balls with me reading Sean Connery’s part. I would rig the set with huge speakers — when I talked into the microphone, it sounded like I was 20 feet tall. I was able to create a reality for Dennis that he could move through a situation where this 18-foot dragon wasn’t there, but he could feel that it was gonna be there and what it might be like to act against this big, mythical creature. That was the first CGI acting character.

Whether it’s battle sequences or other things, [action movies] take a lot, but it’s easy for these people to write these movies off because they don’t like them. They wished Hollywood wouldn’t make them, but they go into delirium over a film like, let’s say, Lady Bird, which I’m not knocking, but they go overboard [about] a nice film about a troubled girl in Sacramento, and you don’t know what they’re talking about.

I was very happy that they had that real enthusiastic response to Black Panther, because Ryan Coogler is a wonderful director and he did an amazing job on that film, and he kept to a cultural truth. He made a hell of an action film — I was very happy that that was critically well-received. But in the long run, I’ve created many franchises that have reaped this town many billions — not millions, but billions of dollars. With Fast and Furious or xXx or Dragonheart, you find people who really love them and for whom they’re culturally important, and that’s the best review of all.

What’s funny when you think about The Fast and the Furious is that it didn’t feel like a big franchise-launching movie. If anything, it was kind of the opposite: This funky, colorful crime drama set in this novel little subculture.
You either love a story or you don’t love a story. If you don’t love a story, you shouldn’t be directing the movie. And as I created that script with various writers, I fell in love with those characters. I wanted this multicultural family to be at the center of all the racing and chasing and all the fun bells and whistles. I didn’t want it to just be a car movie.

I think that decision and that love is what’s kept it going for the last 18 years. People fell in love with that world through these characters — through Vin [Diesel], Jordana [Brewster], Michelle [Rodriguez] and Paul [Walker]. When the studio went away from my formula in [2 Fast 2 Furious and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift], they were in trouble. This franchise was wobbling. It was only when Vin made the appearance in Tokyo Drift at the very end, and theaters across America had their roofs blown off, that they finally went back to what I’d been telling them along, which is “You need the cast. You have to keep true to the original thing that I did.”

Two decades later, how involved are you with new Fast & Furious movies? Do they consult you at all?
No, I’m totally disconnected from it — except knowing in my heart that it was my imagination and hard work that got this thing launched. I get great satisfaction from looking at various [articles] that [say] my film is still the one they like the best of all eight of them. I always feel good about that, because mine was a very genuine, innovative beginning. It’s harder to [start] from zero than it is to go from the original place to spending $350 million.

That has to be somewhat bittersweet, though — kinda like watching a child leave the nest and go off into the world without you.
Well, you know, nobody wants to see a complete regurgitation or replication of the first part of an idea. [The Fast and Furious franchise] has evolved, and it’s taken that initial audience with it all the way through. It created this awareness of a multiracial cast and a world of kitchen-sink glamour. There’s this underclass doing something that the upper-class or middle-class finds fascinating. That’s one of the things where anthropology has been a great help to me. The reason I propose anthropology versus film school is that to learn a culture, [you have to] understand subcultures. Subcultures are what move the main culture. To tell a story, you need to analyze that culture.

When I was getting xXx developed, I went to the X Games a lot, and I spent time with Tony Hawk and Travis Pastrana. I wanted to know, “How do they do it?” They’ve all had broken bones and all sorts of injuries. How do you deal with the fear? What do you do with the fear? And I’ll never forget, Mat Hoffman says to me, “I’ve learned to put fear in a very small place.” I thought, Okay, see, this is a subculture. These people have learned to think a different way.

This was the [background] stuff I was able to tell Vin so that he could understand the psychology so that it’s not just posing. As an anthropologist, I went out there and interviewed the tribe and came back with a value system and the cultural artifacts that are unique to extreme-sports athletes. When you know the subject and put that into the work, that’s what gives the film some of its authenticity.

Are you an adrenaline junkie yourself?
Yeah, I find they’re kinetic, and kinetics is what makes my kind of movies worth making. It excites me — it makes me feel very, very, very alive. It’s true when you’re directing them — not just when you’re viewing them. When you’re doing some major stunt — you’re out there running around with 18-wheelers and flying cameras under the trucks and actors are jumping truck to truck? There’s a thrill of going to work every day.

How do you fill that need otherwise? I know, for example, you’re a surfer.
That gives me my adrenaline. I have a home in Bali — the waves in Bali are real waves. They’re real tough and real powerful — they’re the coral reefs. Mistakes are painful. But I do that because I want the adrenaline as much as I love the ocean and I love the experience of gliding on a wave — that’s like no other experience I’ve ever had. It’s right up there with sex. It’s a way of keeping very alive and in tune. When you’re in the water, you’ve gotta be aware of other surfers — everything in that environment affects whether you’re gonna catch a wave, whether you’re gonna ride the wave and whether you can even survive unhurt. So, you’re watching all the time, you’re alert all the time, your senses on high alert. That’s a refreshing way of making each day special — the way every day on a movie set is special.

You said earlier about having tough parents. You have kids: Are you tough on them so that they can grow up motivated like you were?
I can’t. I’m like a gush ball. I love all my four children — I have one older child and 10-year-old triplets. I just love them so much, it’s very hard for me to discipline them. Luckily, my ex-wife is a Mussolini — they can get the discipline from her. I just wanna shower them with the love that I felt like I didn’t get enough of when I was a kid.

That may not be the wisest thing to do — to love too much — but on the other hand, I’d rather they understand that they’re completely loved without any modifications of qualifications. It’s just a blanket love. [I’d rather say,] “This isn’t right. This doesn’t work. This isn’t a scenario for success. You do something like this, you’re gonna get a bad reaction nine out of 10 times. So, save yourself the grief” — as opposed to [yelling] “You did this! Go to your room!!”

The kinds of high-octane movies you make, it’s easy to assume you’re a pretty macho guy. Is that true?
I consider myself a completely laser-focused man. If I wanna make a film, you better get out of the way, ’cause I’m coming. Now, if that’s macho, then in this one context, I’m very macho, and I can be very tough.

As William Wyler once said, the hardest thing about directing is resisting the temptation to be a nice guy. Every minute of the day, somebody wants you to do something that would make their lives easier: “Oh, Rob, do we really have to have two costume changes? It’s gonna take so much of the day, and we gotta get [the actress] showered and redone and her makeup redone — can’t you just do one?” They have reasons from their point-of-view, but you’re looking at your movie in your head, so you’re going, “No, it needs those two. We’ll just have to make it work.”

Standing up to studios — which they hate — and standing up to anyone who would take the film in what you consider an unhealthy direction, it’s not ego. It’s because, after analyzing what they’ve said, I don’t think it’s good for the film.

You’re about to turn 69, and yet you make action movies geared to people a lot younger than that. Does that feel odd?
Yeah, but that’s ignoring the fact that, in my inner self, I’m still 25. You don’t take up surfing when you’re 54 — you don’t live the life I’ve lived — and consider yourself as a person of any age. I’m still joyous. I’m still curious. I’m still listening to new music. I’m still exploring, reading, thinking and exposing myself to everything new.

When I get behind the camera, I’m telling a story for the 25-year-old inside me. I’m not going, “What would the ‘young audience’ like?” I don’t think that way. I absorb and read, and then when it comes time, I select an action film that has something about it that I’ve never done before. I never made a Hurricane Heist — I’ve never done a scene where the characters [get sucked up] through the roof of a mall. I was like, “Yeah, this’ll be cool.” But I never think, “What will some 18-year-old say?” I wouldn’t even know how to think that way.

You’ve been in the business a long time. Recently, there’s been a lot of conversation about inclusiveness: What’s your take on the lack of female action filmmakers? Is there something inherently male about the genre?
I don’t think it’s [gendered] at all. I mean, Kathryn Bigelow making Point Break — that was as good an action film as anybody’s ever made, in my opinion. I loved it so much, I stole the plot for The Fast and the Furious. [laughs] If a woman loves action films — if they’re immersed in that world and they love it and they wanna tell an action story — they should go out and do it. It isn’t the fact that I have a penis that tells me how to direct these films — it’s the fact that I love the genre, and I’m excited to be working in the genre.

I cheer my sister filmmakers on to do whatever they want. Some will wanna do Mudbound, some will wanna do Selma and some will, like Kathryn… Whether it’s Hurt Locker or Detroit or anything, she’s just as tough as any guy in terms of film sensibility. She’s close to 6-feet tall, and she has this real stance that some people would call masculine. But it’s because she loves this arena and is really good at it.

You mentioned “luminaries” like Nolan and Spielberg. What’s your legacy?
I think I’ve added a new dimension to what’s possible in film. I think that I’m gonna be one of those guys that will be better appreciated later than in my own time, because of the nature of the films I’ve made and the tendency of serious journalists and serious critics to throw them aside and deride them. There’s an audience that I’ve built, and over the years, they have a deep affection for these movies, and eventually, that’s what will last.

I once said to Vincent Canby, “After you’re dead, no one’s gonna remember what the hell you wrote. But after I’m dead, these films are still gonna be shown somewhere. And they’re gonna have meaning for people.”

I’ve been privileged to make, I don’t know, 37 movies now as a producer or director — I’ve lost count, but it’s somewhere in the 30s. I’ve been able to work now constantly for four, almost five decades. I have no intention of stopping. The gifts I’ve been given are longevity — creative longevity — and a thrill of breaking into new territory. Somebody will either sum it up and people will go, “Oh, yeah,” or somebody won’t — in which case, you become a footnote. But I’m the one who had the life. The critic didn’t have the life — he didn’t go everywhere, he didn’t meet everyone, he didn’t have these resources at his fingertips to make magic happen. I did.

There’s an existential part of it, you know? Which is, I love the life I was living. I have that life, and they can’t take it away from me. And if I wind up a footnote in some film book or wind up with my own chapter, the fact is that I’ve lived my chapter — and lived it on my own terms.