Following the worldwide success of Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night, Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra reunite for a fourth time with explosive thriller The Commuter about one man's frantic quest to prevent disaster on a packed commuter train. The screenplay proved irresistible to both the director and Liam Neeson, not just for the bravura of the action and the thrill of the suspense but for the moral conundrum the protagonist is faced with and the consequences it has on him, the passengers on the train and his family at home.
"The Commuter asks the audience, if someone asked you to do something that seems insignificant but you're not sure of the outcome in exchange for a considerable financial reward, would you do it?" says Jaume Collet-Serra. "That's the philosophical choice that our central character - a man of 60 who's just been fired, has no savings and is mortgaged to the hilt - is faced with. Is he thinking just about himself or is he going to take into consideration the possible moral consequences of what he's asked to do? That's the question we want the audience to ask themselves."
For Neeson, it was also the story's real-time narrative that gives it a thrilling momentum. "The story almost plays in real time," says the actor. "The main character realises what he's set in motion and sets out to identify the person that holds the key to the conspiracy. So the tension cranks up at every stop at a station as new passengers get on, and another clue is left for him. The danger gradually gets greater and greater and the film becomes this really fast-paced psychological thriller along the lines of a Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest."
Producer Alex Heineman agrees: "Andrew Rona, my partner in The Picture Company, and I both read the script and just fell in love with it. We loved the Hitchcockian scenario where an everyman gets caught up in extraordinary events. We made Non-Stop and Unknown with Liam Neeson and Jaume and we thought this could be another thriller in the same vein both in terms of narrative, character and style."
The story centres on Michael MacCauley, a middle manager at a faceless insurance company, who lives with his wife and son in Westchester in New York State. Like so many hard-working family men, he is facing financial breaking point, trying to make ends meet on a pay-cheque that is stretched to the rafters. His son is about to go to college and his wife doesn't know how the family is living beyond its means.
Then one day, his situation suddenly gets so much worse: he goes to work and gets fired. That, however, is not the only thing that's going to spoil his evening. On the commute home at the end of the day, the passenger sitting opposite him introduces herself as Joanna and puts a proposition before him: find a passenger on board the train who doesn't belong, in return for a handsome reward. An easy deal, you'd think. But not if you're an ex-cop who has a strong moral sense of right and wrong. Michael eventually agrees to find the "suspect" amongst the sea of passengers, using his wit and skill to uncover their identity, but soon comes to realise that he is at the centre of a deadly conspiracy that will end in the murder of everyone on the train and he is the only person who can stop it.
As he weighs up who among the regular commuters on the train he can trust, he is forced into a nail-biting chase to thwart the conspiracy, entrap the killers and bring the train and its passengers to safety.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson already had an enviable track record with NonStop amassing $222.8m worldwide in 2014 and Unknown's $130.8m in 2011, so teaming up again for another thrill ride, this time on a train in New York, was a no-brainer.
When he read the script, Collet-Serra saw the parallels with Non-Stop. "It's a spiritual sequel to Non-Stop," says the director. "With a mystery evolving around your central character, it has more impact if your protagonist is a normal guy. That's very Hitchcockian - you think of North by Northwest, The Lady Vanishes or Rear Window - and like in Strangers on a Train we wanted a normal guy to be faced with a moral choice. How much is he willing to do for money without knowing the consequences of what he's going to do? When extraordinary events happen to regular people, it's important that the first choices that these characters make are choices that we as an audience agree with and that the action escalates plausibly from those choices."
The story also appealed because of its narrative perspective. "I like movies played from the main character's point of view," says Collet-Serra, "so we know exactly what he knows at the same time that he knows it. The audience is with him every step of the way so we learn that his family is in danger only when he does. We wanted to keep the camera on the train but imply that his family was in danger without showing it. That's another very Hitchcockian device and it really dictated the visual style because we had to have enough going on in the train to justify us staying there."
Jaume Collet-Serra was keen for The Commuter to have a different narrative point of view to the previous films Neeson has starred in. "I wanted people to identify with the lead character in this movie a little bit more than in some of Liam's other films," he says. "Michael wakes up every day and goes out there to fight for his family, and no matter how hard the fight was it's all worth it, because he's protecting his family, and that's what every person does daily. But one day he's offered a proposal which puts him between a rock and a hard place - he's offered money but it involves something that he suspects is wrong - and he has to figure that out. And he gets help from the other passengers. They're not in control, they're not driving the train, but they find strength in numbers."
For producer Andrew Rona, the genius of scriptwriters Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi was in keeping the audience gripped: "When I read the script I was really amazed at how the writers were able to keep you invested in the story," he says. "We've seen movies like this before where guys are propositioned or get caught up in something. In movies like Speed, they have no choice but to stay and figure it out. But with The Commuter, I was amazed by the level of depth of character, the level of mystery, the level of suspense and the level of action."
It was the everyman quality of the lead character that appealed to Neeson who knew it would also appeal to the audience. "Michael has been taking the same train for 10 years, five days a week and then one day gets fired because he's hit the age of 60," says the actor. "He doesn't know how to tell his wife, and he's double-mortgaged on his house. After having a drink in the local bar with an excop friend of his, he takes the commuter train back to face the music and tell his wife and his son, who's about to go to college, that they have no money. On the train a mysterious person sits beside him and asks him 'Would you do one tiny little thing for $100,000?' He's not sure, but tempts him by asking him to find a bag with $25,000 in a compartment on the train. He finds the money and sets in motion the drama."
Quite apart from the appeal of the script and playing such a multi-layered character, Neeson was thrilled to be working again with Collet-Serra. "I love working with Jaume", says the actor. "I met him six, seven years ago when we did Unknown and he and I just clicked. We don't analyze scripts too deeply; we just have a really good dance partnership and each time I work with him our little dance routine gets more and more intimate. He makes my job easier and he says I make his job easier, which is the ultimate compliment to me. Jaume's a real filmmaker; he's always thinking of the overall arc of the film and where the story's going. He devours cinema, he just loves it and has a real intuitive feel for how a scene's going and how it should be played. He reminds me very much of Steven Spielberg. I totally trust him, he's very, very, very special."
Collet-Serra's talent as a director was plain for everyone to see. His assiduous preparation, imaginative approach to filming and skill at juggling the many different elements to create thrilling action scenes impressed everyone. Says producer Alex Heineman: "When we had our final production meeting, it felt like a film class that you'd go to at Columbia! Because Jaume is so meticulous in his planning, he was able to show the entire crew how every single shot of the movie was going to be manifested. It was really impressive. Every day when we came to set, he had an incredibly detailed plan of how he would accomplish every shot. Our cinematographer Paul Cameron was great and it was always a seamless process even though we faced very challenging shots every day. Jaume's very confident in his vision; he's not a director that shoots with more than two cameras. He's really knows what shots he wants and knows how the movie's going to cut together."
The audience gets a taste of Collet-Serra's imaginative approach as soon as the credits roll. Jaume Collet-Serra describes the creative conundrum he faced when confronted with translating the opening of the story into an engaging screen narrative: "The film is called The Commuter which suggests routine and monotony and in a way that routine is also our protagonist Michaels' power, in the sense that for some 20 years he has been waking up every day at 6am, has waited on the same platform at the same time every morning, has taken the same train to work every day, and then 12 hours later at 6pm he has taken the same train back home. That is something so normal, so common, something everyone can recognise and relate to.
"One of the struggles that I, as a director, had was how do I show this routine," continues Collet-Serra. "Obviously you can do a standard shot of him saying hello to some other commuters and the audience will get the impression they know each other but only doing that doesn't show how monotonous the journey is. So I came up with the idea of opening the movie with a shot of each day of the week. So the first shot is Monday, the second Tuesday and so on and as the shots are cut together the only thing that changes is the background, the clothes change and the weather and his behavior during the shots is exactly the same because he's been doing the same thing day after day. So the images blend together. It's a very interesting way to open the movie because it immediately gives the audience the sense that they've been there with him for a year taking that train, day in day out. To me it was important to start the movie with a sequence that put us, the audience, right on that train with Michael."
Producer Andrew Rona was struck by the director's inspired decision: "Millions of people use travel by train to work every day in the New York area. The way Jaume showed the monotony of an everyday commute - the fact that every day you wake up, you get dressed, you go to work, you ride the train there, you ride the train back - and showed that over a year was inspired. It shows the passage of time - covering the whole year with the seasons changing outside the window and in the passengers' clothing - and completely takes the audience into Michael's world. As soon as the credits finish, the film switches to real-time. The whole film takes place in one train ride, 120 minutes!"
Collet-Serra now has three films with restricted locations under his belt - Non-Stop, The Shallows and now The Commuter. And all three have successfully taken their audiences on compelling and suspenseful journeys despite the limits of their locations.
Producer Alex Heineman points out the head-spinning energy Collet-Serra injects into his filmmaking despite their being set in one location: "Jaume doesn't waste a second of film. His movies have a great pace and they're just so suspenseful and tense, you just don't know what's going to happen next. You see that in Non-Stop and in The Shallows and he's brought it to The Commuter. Jaume is really a modern day Alfred Hitchcock: he takes these high concepts and builds them into exciting movies. He knows how to put his lead character in a situation which keep the audience guessing how they're going to get out of it, whether it's The Shallows with Blake Lively or Unknown and Non-Stop with Liam Neeson. Jaume's terrific at crafting suspense with an everyday character at the centre."
Andrew Rona takes up the subject of the similarities with Hitchcock: "Hitchcock often made one set movies or movies which rarely strayed from one set - one thinks of Rear Window or Rope or Dial M for Murder. The concept allows you to have a good time with the characters because you're not constantly worrying about locations and things of that nature. Jaume approaches it from that Hitchcock thriller aspect. He's a modern master of suspense and thrills."
Unlike Non-Stop, which locked the audience with the characters inside the plane for those whole film, The Commuter takes the audience out of the main location of the train to the outside world into the main character's family home and into the office and bars: part of Michael's daily routine. Says Andrew Rona: "There's bigger scope to this film; it's not such a closed room so the action has a more realistic feel to it. But at the heart it's still whodunit; there are a lot of suspects and you go through the story following Michael, trying to figure out who's the bad guy and what they're after. So not only is it action thriller, it has a real sense of mystery and you're with Michael in real-time trying to figure out what's going on, so it'll keep you guessing right up until the end.
The Commuter marks the third film Andrew Rona and Collet-Serra have worked together on so it comes as no surprise to realise that the producer has seen the director grow and mature as a filmmaker over the intervening eight years. "I first met Jaume on Orphan," says producer Andrew Rona, "and I'm really impressed with how far he's come as a filmmaker. He did a great job on Unknown and with Non-Stop, really elevating that material by taking a very simplistic idea and making it interesting and compelling. With The Commuter, he's really come into his own. I can't think of too many directors working right now that can take this kind of material and make it a modernday thriller and action film and really get inside there and do something interesting and different with the material.
"The Commuter is an action thriller," continues Rona. "Some of the films that we reference when we're making the film are The Fugitive and Speed, obviously Non-Stop, all mixed with a bit of Hitchcock and Agatha Christie. It is pretty much a whodunit, a contained movie on a train. But has the huge scope and spectacle of an action movie. And because we all made Non-Stop, we all had extra pressure to ensure we didn't repeat ourselves here. We really pushed ourselves to come up with new and fun ideas on how to give the audience a fun ride.
Rona was particularly impressed by Collet-Serra's approach to filmmaking. "Jaume looks at a script very methodically," says the producer. "He really rips it apart and tries to figure it out from every angle. He gives every character a thorough back story; he knows their motivations. So when it comes to making the film, Jaume has done all the research, and he knows everything about the film and on the day we can just have fun with it. He uses the camera almost like a character. And he picks up every nuance, all the little things that you might not get in the script and he adds another layer to it. So it's not just about the action or the characters, but it's about the mood and the tone and the way he shoots it."
One of the key elements to keeping the suspense cranked up to maximum levels was ensuring the protagonist was someone the audience can relate to and identify with. It is, after all, through the main character's perspective that the narrative unfolds: the audience learns what's happening at the same time as Michael does.
When it came to choosing that leading man, Rona and Heinman knew only one man would be up for the job: Liam Neeson.
"Liam is a modern day John Wayne in some ways," says Alex Heineman. "He's also got a bit of Jimmy Stewart. Jaume's created this heroic version of Liam but he's also tapped into the Liam's pathos so he's a very sympathetic heroic character but with a quiet reserve. There are not many actors that can do things with a look. But Liam can do things with one look; he's great at conveying emotions with very little. That's why he fits so well with these thrillers, because we want to show things rather than say things. Jaume is a great visualist and with Liam being such a great actor, the combination of those two things really brings that to life."
Andrew Rona reflects that it's Neeson's empathy that makes an audience love to see him in this sort of role: "I love working with Liam," says the producer. "He's really easy-going and a true professional and he really commits to the film. There are very few actors today that can really carry a movie like this but Liam's got that unique likability factor; he's masculine but really empathetic and you're instantly invested in the character he plays. The Commuter is pretty much a camera following him around the entire time, almost in real-time so he's literally on the screen for almost the entire movie. That means the audience has to really invest in him."
Jaume Collet-Serra was thrilled to be working with Neeson again and even though The Commuter is their fourth collaboration, the director was still surprised every day by the actor's talent. "Liam can do no wrong," says the director. "He's an amazing actor. On every movie I've done with him I'm like a kid on Christmas morning on the first day of shooting, waiting to see what character he's going to show me. He has the character so fleshed out from shot one, day one, and I can see his mannerisms, his eyes. I know every detail of Liam's face and behavior obviously, but he still surprises me in every movie that he's able to completely change and create new characters with different subtleties."
Supporting Liam Neeson is an ensemble cast made up of a diverse array of international actors, from established talents to up-and-coming stars. The key role of Joanna is played by Vera Farmiga, who starred in Collet-Sera's horror film Orphan. At the end of his last day in the office, Michael gets on the train ready to face his family and admit that he has been fired and the family faces bankruptcy. Into the seat opposite him slides a woman, who is not one of the regular commuters Michael knows to nod hello to. She introduces herself to him as Joanna and before very long makes him a strange offer: something of hers has been stolen from her on the train and she needs help finding it. If he agrees to help, he'll be richly compensated.
Farmiga recalls how she was approached to board the project: "Jaume sent me an email asking 'Do you want to spend some time on a train with Liam Neeson?' and I replied 'I thought you'd never ask, but do I have to pay for the ticket?!'" she explains. "What struck me about this film is that it is a morality tale," continues the actress. "To me, it is "The Devil and Daniel Webster" disguised as a full-throttle, high-octane, action-packed thriller, and I love that. I loved that The Commuter disguises a morality tale as a genre film. Michael strikes a Faustian pact with this mysterious woman and, once he's agreed, the film plays out his deep regret. Joanna is the catalyst, a temptress who entices him, coaches him and pulls his strings throughout"
Playing such a character called on Farmiga to flex her acting muscles. "I wanted to infuse the character of Joanna with a kind of a supernatural mischief," she says. "I don't see her as a good guy or a bad guy. I see her as this avatar of vice and virtue. For me, she is literally shaking up his otherwise mundane existence. We all come to a fork in the road at times where we're quizzed on morality versus need, and she's that quiz master. I don't think she's the devil; indeed Jaume said "No, she's God!'"
Farmiga was thrilled to be working again with Collet-Serra, whom she hadn't seen since they worked together on Orphan. "We picked up where we left off," she says. "I have a really affectionate working relationship with him. What makes him so unique as a director is that gets behind the camera and he's visible all the time, he's right there with you. So even if the film is huge with a huge production that comes with that, it feels as though we're making a home movie with a camcorder. It makes the filmmaking such an intimate process."
For his part, Collet-Serra knew that she would make an excellent match for Liam Neeson. "I love Vera," he says. "We had an amazing experience on Orphan, and I've wanted to work with her ever since. And I wanted to work with Vera and Liam together so when this character came up she was my only call. I literally begged her to do it and she graciously accepted and did a wonderful job obviously.
"She manages to infuse scenes that are basically a lot of exposition with character and energy but so effortlessly," he continues. "She mesmerises the camera and, through the camera, the audience. Seeing her and Liam together is the most fun that I've had in a long time."
Certainly Farmiga herself found working with Neeson one of the pleasures of making the film. "I didn't know Liam before this film," says Farmiga. "Liam was just a myth, he was a legend! Boy, he is grace on two feet! He's everything I anticipated - he's strong, he's steadfast, he's kind, he's open. He is so warm and he's very curious; he's very tender but he's a big oak in stature. You just want to wrap your arms around him and climb him like a big tree and swing from him. He's that guy. He's wonderful."
Neeson returns the compliment: "Vera plays a very mysterious character and she's such a wonderful actress that you're never quite sure if she's all that she makes out to be," he says. "Is she a cop? Is she FBI? Is she a baddie or what? She plays it very, very close to her chest. She's always been on my bucket list of actresses to work with"
Producer Andrew Rona concurs: "We're lucky to have Vera Farmiga playing Joanna. Vera's amazingly talented and incredibly versatile so she's played good and bad characters. She's bringing that to the performance as Joanna who is a puppet master, the one pulling all the strings. She has this level of detail in her performance that you don't know if she's good or bad. And it's really important to the film that you don't quite know where she stands."
For the supporting cast, Jaume Collet-Serra was keen to have a cross-section of society. The commuter trains into New York travel from the suburban areas into the inner city terminating in the Financial District. Along the way they pick up all kinds of people from every strata of society and because there's no first class, the passengers all mixed in together. That provided inspiration for Collet-Serra. "I took the train for real and did the journey in the movie," he says. "I was able to see this cross-section of society and the film had to capture that. It was also really important to have Michael as someone who belongs to both worlds - he works in the financial district and but he's a real man who's probably from a blue collar background and he has fought his whole life to give his family the best possible life. Suddenly he finds himself out of a job and on the scrapheap. And on train ride home he's with a bunch of strangers who are also going through their own personal dramas, large or small. They all start off as strangers but by the end there's a real sense of community between them all and it was very important to me to end it that way."
The diverse make-up of the supporting cast was also a crucial way to engage the audience. "It was key that we could all recognize a little bit of ourselves in the characters," explains Collet-Serra. Of the hundreds of people on the train, most are just normal people who are innocent bystanders. He elicits the support of a handful who help him who he is forced to trust. One is Walt (Jonathan Banks) a commuter pal, another Tony (Andy Nyman), a regular New York guy who's always on the train, who lends Michael his phone. Others who fall under suspicious include college girl Gwen (Florence Pugh). There's Dylan (Killian Scott) a young guy with a tattoo who Michael vaguely recognises, Vince (Shazad Latif) a Wall Street type, Jackson (Roland Moller) a burly construction worker, Oliver (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) a tired-looking guy with a guitar case and Sam (Colin McFarlane) the train's conductor.
Collet-Serra saw the potential for cranking up the tension by introducing notes of mystery around some of Michael's co-commuters who may or may not be players in the conspiracy engulfing Michael. "I wanted there to be lots of smaller mysteries in the film," he says, "so when you meet a new character, you're not sure why they're on the train or what's in their bag or why they're acting the way they do. They're rounded characters so you care about what they're thinking or what they're up to. It was very important to keep our interest in them going throughout the movie so the pay off at the end is more satisfying."
A mix of established talent and bright new stars make up the supporting cast headed by Australia's Sam Neill, Denmark's Roland Moller, the UK's Florence Pugh, UK-Ghanaian Kobna HoldbrookSmith and Spain's Clara Lago alongside Americans Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Banks.
Patrick Wilson plays Murphy, Michael's former colleague from the New York Police Department. He was easily persuaded to join the film. "Liam Neeson was the first reason I wanted to do the film," says Wilson, who co-starred with Neeson in The A-Team. "I didn't know Jaume Collet-Serra but Vera Farmiga is a dear friend and said he's the best so it was an easy decision."
It was Neeson's generosity both as a person and as an actor that made working on the film such a pleasure for Wilson. "Liam's resurgence as an action star comes from the fact that he's got such a giving soul," says Wilson. "Every character he plays, you pull for him. You always want his character to succeed whatever distress or turmoil he's in. What I loved about this is that it's immediately clear that Michael has really lost a lot and he's not in a great place in and he's trying to face his future as a 60 year old man."
That the cast was such a multi-national mix made it a richer experience, says Jaume Collet-Serra. "It's hard making a movie in a different country to where the movie is set. We shot The Commuter in the UK so we had to bring some people from the US but most of the cast are Brits with flawless New York accents. Finding a group of up and coming actors was a lot of fun, some of them are already on their way to bigger roles in bigger movies, but I really enjoyed working with this great ensemble."
With the cast in place, the ten-week shoot began on the sound stages at the UK's world-famous Pinewood Studios with location work taking place at Longcross in Surrey standing in for New York State.
With the film almost entirely set on a moving train, director Jaume Collet-Serra and his behind-thescenes collaborators were faced with two huge challenges: how to make the story visually interesting with a backdrop which hardly changes during the course of the film; and how to wrangle the logistics of the shoot. "How to make the film visually arresting was an issue for me," says ColletSerra. "Trains can be very boring on film but the Hudson North is an older type train and is a little more aesthetically interesting. It makes a lot of noise and has a very archaic ticketing system which asks passengers to punch the tickets in a machine as they get on and I found that fascinating. What was also a help was that the train's route goes from the underground tunnels and platforms of Grand Central through the Bronx and the Hudson River and the canal before opening up when it leaves the city. So there are lots of different types of light and backgrounds that we could take advantage of visually"
Collet-Serra is well-versed in the pros and cons of shooting on public transport in general and rolling stock in particular. The director's films have taken place on airplanes (Non-Stop), on the German railway/metro (Unknown) and on the US railways (Run all Night). That experience has taught him that shooting on a real train is a no-go and the only realistic way to film is using sets on a studio.
As producer Andrew Rona explains: "Unsurprisingly, the Metropolitan Transit Authority didn't want us to shoot on their train rails, use any of their equipment or shoot at Grand Central. Everything had to be completely built."
Production designer Richard Bridgeland takes up the story: "One of the producers said, 'It's simple. It's just a train'. I knew that we were going to shoot in a studio in the UK even though the film is set in New York and that the train was travelling through and stopping at various stations in New York State before terminating in Grand Central Station. I knew that this was going to be an extremely complex task to fulfill."
But Bridgeland was certain of one thing: that the train and the set be entirely believable. "My early discussion with Jaume was that it had to be absolutely authentic," says the designer."This movie would only work if the audience really believes in the world that we were creating. We tried to avoid as much movie gloss as we could, the train really had to be kind of grungy like a real New York Metro train. I went to a train scrap yard in Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, where they scrap all of these metro trains so I could take the seats, the fixtures and fittings, etc. That added a whole layer of authenticity of my designs."
Bridgeland's previous experience of collaborating with Collet-Serra was uniquely helpful while he was designing the set. "I knew from working with Jaume on Unknown that he loves to really use the camera," he explains, "that he's a real shot maker. He thinks a lot about how he can get scenes in one shot. And he wants to use the crane a lot and have big sweeping movements. I was designing a set that was 850 square feet and was 11 feet high! That was the space available to him which presented big challenges. He also wanted to get the camera to go from inside the train to outside the train and do that seamlessly."
Armed with this information, Bridgeland's first task was to design and then build a convincing and accurate set on the sound stage at Pinewood Studios. New York commuter trains usually have six or seven passenger carriages of between 70 and 80 feet long. Obviously building a set of such magnitude was an impossibility so the filmmakers decided on one and a half carriages surrounded by blue screens.
Built with solid walls, windows and doors, which allowed the train to be moved both up and down and from side to side to simulate the motion of travel and to be filmed from both inside and outside, the train fitted with seating on either side of a central aisle. The final set weighed some 30 tons. To ensure it could move realistically during filming, the set was mounted on an enormous set of wheels on a guide track. In the middle of the train was set an hydraulic ram which could jerk it back and forth just like on a real train. To enhance the sense of movement, tricky to portray on camera, things on tables and seats move with the train and the doors open and close. Another ingenious trick was the sense of the train going round corners created by having the adjoining carriage slide in and out of view through the windows.
The set of the train was modular so that it could be taken apart piece by piece as and when necessary. It meant that on any particular day of the shoot, the train could be broken apart and each part - half a carriage or one section of the carriage or the end of the carriage - could be mounted onto separate rigs for the day's shoot. This system also meant that the camera crane could emerge through a window or come out of a wall that popped out, and in one movement would show the exterior of the real train. This avoidance of visual effects for such scenes adds a real note of authenticity.
"We wanted to create as much as we could that was real in the camera to make it feel as real as possible," explains Bridgeland. "It was also a great help to the actors because they could walk on to a train and it practically had the smell of a New York Metro train."
The team would dress the carriage appropriately for each day's shoot, with the actors and extras in the correct seats. The continuity logistics of ensuring the set looked exactly the same for each carriage it was representing tested the skill of everyone involved, not least Jaume Collet-Serra's. "It was very complicated from a director's standpoint because every day you'd arrive and be confused," he laughs. "You're saying, 'Okay, which carriage is it today? Are we travelling this way or that way? And where am I sitting?'. So I had to have a very clear plan for the entire movie. I had a floor plan of each carriage, where everybody was sitting, where everybody would be moving, and plotted Liam's moves for every scene so at the start of a day everybody was clear about what was going to happen that day. Sometimes it was even more complicated because you'd be shooting a scene on one day which had an actor climbing out of the window of carriage 1 and you'd shoot them climbing in the window of carriage 2 a week later and it's all shot on the same train set but from a different perspective. So that required a lot of preparation."
Bridgeland was keenly aware of how shooting on a stationary sound stage would impact on the lighting as well as the design. "One of the biggest challenges was getting the movement of the train and making it authentic, because the way the light comes through the window changes depending on how the train is moving. We wanted to keep the camera very much in the set and not to have to rely on that very contemporary device of constant handheld. Jaume also wanted to get some very graceful fluid shots throughout the train. That meant that one of the first things I had to address was how we could get a camera rig into the train without having to have green screen ceilings that we had to remove, but could work with the real train ceiling." To ensure the set would be completely realistic and allow the camera to move independently throughout it, Bridgeland created a rig that was mounted through the air conditioning unit which went on rails through it. The rig could then move both from side to side and up and down. "This way we were able to have some really graceful shots and the camera could turn 360 degrees and it was always invisible," says Bridgeland.
Jaume Collet-Serra was in awe of what the designer and his team created to allow the camera to move seamlessly, given the spacial confines and the aesthetic demands imposed on them: "Because we were on a stage and we had to be able to move it physically, the train set had to be made out of metal, and that made it very difficult to remove the doors and windows and walls if we wanted to shoot across the actors in the corridor," says the director. "So with the dolly hidden in rails in the ceiling and everything controlled by remote, the camera could travel on its own. We had two men controlling the camera: one controlled up and down movement and the other controlled the swinging of the camera arm. That way we had a minimum crew inside the train and the space didn't become too crowded for the actors."
In addition to having to create the train and its interior, the filmmakers had to ensure that what the audience sees out of the windows and at the station stops was completely realistic and true to real life. Using British railway stations was impossible because they are so different in design from American subway and local stations, so the team constructed replica stations on the sound stages at Pinewood. Grand Central, 86th Street, 110th Street and 125th Street stations were all constructed while the end of the line stations of Tarrytown and Cold Spring were filmed at real stations in southern England which were dressed appropriately.
Bridgeland's experience in theatre production came in very useful. "I treated the whole thing as a giant theater set," he explains. "We had a big blue curtain hanging outside the windows behind we built the station set. The curtain allowed us to change and redress the station so it would be ready for the next shot. One of the big challenges was that the platform was only the length of one carriage because there was no room in the studio for anything longer. So I used huge mirrors at either end to visually extend the platforms."
That the film is set on a train presented challenges also in terms of lighting. Because the train is at ground level meant to be both moving at different speeds and stationary, the audience has to be able to see what is outside the windows. "When we made Non-Stop, we were able to just close the shades of the airplane and even if they were up, all you could see was the sky," says Collet-Serra. "But on this film, we had to make sure there was a real interaction between every light and every shadow that is reflected onto the surfaces and onto the actor's faces inside the train. That took a lot of care."
It helped that Paul Cameron, one of the world's best cinematographers, was on the team. Bridgeland and Cameron worked very closely from very early on designing the carriage so that the light coming in through the windows would be completely realistic, as well as ensuring that when the train is underground, there was enough lighting built into the train so that the interiors would not be too dark. "We ended up building lights into the tops of the windows frames which is not true to the real trains but it worked great," says Bridgeland. "We had a bulkhead of lights running along the side as well so we could get a three quarter light. The lights that ran along the top had to be built very precisely to the design scheme but also to Paul's lighting scheme. It's the most technical set I've ever built because all of these different facets of lighting and movement and camera movement and camera rig that had to be built."
The extraordinary work of Bridgeland and his team certainly left an impression with both the crew and the cast. For Liam Neeson, being on the set had personal resonance. "The train in the story goes past my house in Upstate New York so I've traveled on this train many, many times over the past 20 years," says the actor. "We only had one and a half carriages so keeping track of which carriage we were shooting in every day was very complicated. It had to stand in for all the carriages of the train and be altered accordingly. And the station set had to be changed for the different stops in the film - which I know very well - and I don't know how they did it, but the art department did a fantastic job even down to the tiniest detail like mashed-up McDonald's cartons in overfilled garbage bins."
Producer Andrew Rona concurs: "It was such a interesting movie to shoot," he says. "We were making a film set in New York on a train, but we're shooting at Pinewood and Longcross studios in London. The train stays in the same place, but we move the stations. So it was almost like a theatre production when the backgrounds move in and out! We built the platforms and dress them so they look like whichever station it's meant to be and it's all happening in the same place! It was a real challenge.
"In a weird way, it's a throwback," he continues, "because when they made a film like Strangers on a Train, for example, they wouldn't have used a real train; they would've shot it with rear-screen projection on a sound stage. We're doing the same thing but with technology which is a lot more advanced. But it's the same approach: we built an incredible carriage and a half in Pinewood that we can manoeuvre and manipulate and our incredible cinematographer, Paul Cameron, came up with a fantastic lighting scheme to really make it interactive, to really make you feel like you're on this real train. What we're doing on the train set we'd never be able to do in reality; it would just be too dangerous. But when people see the film, they'll think we shot this on a real moving train. But none of it's real. And that's what's exciting about it!"
A crucial element to cranking up the excitement of the film are the fight scenes. Stunt and fight coordinator Mark Vanselow has worked 16 times with Neeson so has perfected a succinct shorthand while training the actor which, according to producer Andrew Rona, has meant "there's a real level of trust and we were able to push the boundaries of the stunt work and the jeopardy that we put him in because Liam completely has trust and faith in the filmmaking team".
Vanselow takes up the story: "Having worked together so often before is a bit of a blessing and a curse. Every time we get together all we want to do is create something new and always character and story driven. That's fun and challenging so that it's not the same piece of action all the time. We had some really interesting challenges from the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, as to how to make it interesting on a train."
Obviously, the tight confines and aesthetic sameness of the main location - the train interior - created another dimension to the challenges facing Vanselow. "Each fight takes place in a different part of the train and when the train is either moving or stationary to make it more interesting," he says. "It made keeping track of the continuity more difficult for the stunt team and everyone else, but visually it's much more impressive."
Always on Vanselow's mind is making what Neeson's character does plausible: "We try to do something that's really grounded, that a real human can do. There are tons of wonderful superhero movies where people are flying all over the place but this is much more of an everyman kind of film and it depends on Liam's character's background. He was a cop but but a long time ago so he's just a guy who has to deal with this situation in a realistic way. We choreographed the fights so that they work well with Liam's size and physicality - he's 6ft 4, after all - and for when he's interacting with the other actors and their backgrounds and physicality. In a way, we're creating a riveting dialogue between the characters. Liam is incredible, he really put the work in so the audience sees him, not a just bunch of stunt doubles."
Neeson certainly approached the fight scenes with gusto. "I don't do my own stunts, I leave that to the experts, but I love the fighting. I'd rehearse and rehearse with Mark and the stunt guys - you have to, otherwise you get hurt - after the shooting day ended and it was great fun. It demands a level of fitness so I was in the gym for 45 minutes every morning before going on set, but that's part of the fun."
"The great thing about Liam is he keeps saying he's getting too old to make these kind of action movies," says Rona. "And I keep saying, 'No! You still got many more in you'. Clint Eastwood's still doing it, and he's much older than Liam. Liam's very conscious of making sure that it's believable, that the action's believable, that he is able to pull off the things that we're doing, that the audience doesn't watch completely in disbelief. He really wants the audience to believe that he is doing the fights. And he is. He trained very hard. The fight choreography with Mark has been very intricate and time-consuming and Liam really put in the time, waking up at four o'clock in the morning, going to the gym, shooting all day, then training with the stunt guys at night. I'm really amazed at his energy and work ethic."
Movie-making is all about provoking emotional reactions in audiences and that's exactly what Collet-Serra hopes to achieve with The Commuter. "If my movies have something that unifies them it's the fact that when I grab you you're there with me and I don't let you go until the end!" he says. "I hope this does the same thing. It's similar to my other films but one of the reasons I wanted to do it was to prove to myself that I could basically riff on the same tune and make it completely different. It was a challenge to do a similar movie in a completely different way, get completely different things out of it, completely different themes, but have a similar experience of not knowing what's going to happen while getting real emotion from the characters."
Liam Neeson (Michael MacCauley) is an award-winning actor who has been internationally recognized for his work in both major studio blockbusters and acclaimed independent features. Neeson received Academy Award®, Golden Globe Award, and BAFTA Award nominations for his performance as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg's 1993 Best Picture Academy Award® winner Schindler's List.
Three years later, he played the title role in Neil Jordan's biopic Michael Collins, earning another Golden Globe® nomination and winning an Evening Standard British Film Award and the 1996 Venice International Film Festival's Volpi Cup for Best Actor.
Mr. Neeson garnered his third Golden Globe nomination, an Independent Spirit Award nomination, and won a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for his portrayal of Alfred Kinsey in Bill Condon's Kinsey (2004).
He has most recently been seen on-screen in JA Bayona's A Monster Calls and Martin Scorsese's Silence.
Next up he will be seen in Peter Landesman's Felt. Mr. Neeson has appeared in over 70 films, including the blockbuster Taken trilogy; Joe Carnahan's The Grey; Bille August's Les Misérables; George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace; Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins; Richard Curtis' Love Actually; and Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York.
Mr. Neeson made his Broadway debut in 1993, receiving a Tony Award® nomination for his performance in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1921 drama Anna Christie. He is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and a proud father of two sons.
Vera Farmiga (Joanna). An Academy Award® nominated and award-winning actress, Vera Farmiga continues to captivate audiences with her ability to embody each of her diverse and engaging roles.
Vera Farmiga is currently filming the sequel to the blockbuster Godzilla franchise, and will soon commence production on Jason Reitman's political drama The Front Runner, based on the real-life story of Gary Hart. Farmiga will star as Gary Hart's wife Lee, opposite Hugh Jackman. In 2018 she will be seen in Jaume Collet-Serra's The Commuter opposite Liam Neeson, in Rupert Wyatt's upcoming dystopian thriller Captive State opposite John Goodman, and in the independent film Boundaries opposite Christopher Plummer.
Earlier this year, she starred in the fifth and final season of the A&E original series, Bates Motel which is a modern-day prequel to the genre-defining film, Psycho. Farmiga, who earned a 2013 Emmy® nomination in the category of "Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series" for her role, stars as the iconic character, Norma, in the series which gives audiences a glimpse into the dark and deeply intricate relationship Norman Bates has with his mother.
Her most recent film Jordan Roberts' Burn Your Maps opposite Marton Csokas premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Last summer, Farmiga starred alongside Patrick Wilson in James Wan's box office smash The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist, the sequel to the 2013 hit The Conjuring in which she also starred. Both films broke box office records and grossed over $300 million worldwide.
Last year, Vera also appeared in Ricky Gervais' comedy, Special Correspondents, for Netflix opposite Gervais, Eric Bana and America Ferrera
Patrick Wilson (Murphy) is a critically acclaimed and award-winning actor who has quickly become well known for his body of work. Over the years, Wilson has tackled lead roles in major Broadway musicals, as well as starring in big-budget blockbusters.
Wilson was most recently seen in A Kind of Murder where he played Walter Stackhouse, a successful architect married to a woman who leads a seemingly perfect life. His fascination with an unsolved murder leads him into a spiral of chaos as he is forced to play cat-and-mouse with a clever killer and an overambitious detective, while at the same time lusting after another woman. A Kind of Murder also stars Jessica Biel and Haley Bennett. He was also recently seen in The Founder alongside Michael Keaton and Nick Offerman.
Upcoming projects for Wilson include being set to co-star by Warner Bros. and director James Wan in the much-anticipated film, Aquaman, opposite Jason Momoa who plays the title character. Wilson will play the fish whisperer's supervillain half-brother, ORM, also known as Ocean Master. The DC film is set to release December 2018.
Patrick reached his widest audience to date in the role of Ed Warren in The Conjuring franchise. The Conjuring is one of the top 5 highest grossing supernatural films of all time. The Conjuring 2, which released in 2016 and grossed an impressive $40 million in it's opening weekend.
In 2015, he starred as Lou Solverson in the TV series, Fargo, opposite Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Ted Danson. Wilson's performance garnered Critics' Choice, Gold Derby and Golden Globe® nominations for "Best Actor in a Limited Series".
Wilson's production company, Lost Rhino Films, has completed one title and has another in development, both in which Patrick stars in. Let's Kill Ward's Wife starring Amy Acker and Scott Foley, released on VOD in December 2014, and theatrically on January 9, 2015. Caught Stealing, directed by Wayne Kramer starring Alec Baldwin, is currently in development.
Additional film credits include, The Hollow Point, Bone Tomahawk, Zipper, Home Sweet Hell, Matters of the Heart, Jack Strong, Big Stone Gap, Stretch, Space Station 76, Insidious: Chapter 2, Insidious, Prometheus, Young Adult, The Ledge, Morning Glory, The Switch, The A-Team, Barry Munday, Watchmen, Life in Flight, Passengers, Lakeview Terrace, Purple Violets, Brothers Three: An American Gothic, Little Children, Running with Scissors, Hard Candy, The Phantom of the Opera, The Alamo and My Sister's Wedding.
On the small screen, Wilson also received Emmy® and Golden Globe® nominations for his portrayal of the morally conflicted Joe Pitt in the HBO miniseries Angels In America: Millennium Approaches, the much honored 2003 adaptation of Tony Kushner's award-winning Angels In America: Perestroika. He also starred in A Gifted Man, and the 2nd season of the award winning HBO original series Girls. The episode, One Man's Trash, became one of the most talked about episodes of the show's history, as well as one of the most watched episodes of the season.
Wilson has also been honored with two consecutive Tony Award® nominations for Best Actor in a Musical, the most recent coming for his performance as Curly in the successful 2002 Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, for which he also received a Drama Desk Award nomination. He earned his first Tony® nomination for his work in the 2001 Broadway hit The Full Monty, for which he also garnered Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations and won a Drama League Award. In 2006, he returned to Broadway to star in the revival of the Neil Simon comedy Barefoot in the Park, opposite Amanda Peet. His most recent Broadway credit is the 2008/2009 revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, with John Lithgow, Dianne West and Katie Holmes.
Born in Virginia and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, Wilson earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University. Starting his career on the stage, he earned applause in the national tours of Miss Saigon, and Carousel. In 1999, he starred off-Broadway in Bright Lights, Big City, winning a Drama League Award and a Drama Desk Award nomination. That same year, he made his Broadway debut in Gershwin's Fascinating Rhythm, for which he won another Drama League Award.
Patrick currently resides in New Jersey with his family.
Sam Neill (Captain Hawthorne) became widely known thanks to his work in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park and in the Academy Award® winning film The Piano (Jane Campion). Other notable work includes The Horse Whisperer (Robert Redford), Bicentennial Man (Chris Columbus) The Zookeper (Ralph Ziman), and more recently Hunt For The Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi).
His contribution to television includes notable roles in shows such as the BBC's Peaky Blinders, The Tudors, and Merlin, which won him an Emmy® nomination for Outstanding lead actor and a Golden Globe® nomination for Best Actor.
He will next appear in the long-awaited Thor: Ragnarok, in which he reunites with director Taika Waititi, and action-thriller The Commuter, opposite Liam Neeson and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. His film Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton), to be released in 2018 has won both the Platform Prize and the Special Jury Prize at this year's Toronto and Venice Film Festivals respectively.
Elizabeth Mcgovern's (Karen McCauley) career spans theatre, film and television. Elizabeth is most well known for her role as Lady Cora in multiple award winning television show Downton Abbey, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Primetime Emmy and won a SAG.
In 2016 Elizabeth starred at The National Theatre in the new Alexi Kaye Campbell play Sunset at the Villa Thalia. 2016 also saw Elizabeth shoot Bjorn Runge's The Wife.
Elizabeth has appeared in films such as Matthew Vaughn's Kick Ass and Warner Brothers' Clash of the Titans alongside Ralph Fiennes. She received an Academy Award® and Golden Globe nomination for her role in Ragtime, her second feature film, following her debut in Robert Redford's Ordinary People whilst she was still a student at Julliard. Other major film roles have included starring opposite Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America and Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage in Racing with the Moon.
Elizabeth has had a great presence on the West End Stage, winning the 2013 Will Award from the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Other notable productions include The Misanthrope at the Young Vic, Three Days of Rain at the Donmar and David Mamet's The Shawl at the Arcola Theatre. 2017 will see her return to Broadway in J.B Priestley's Time and the Conways.
McGovern also fronts and writes the songs for the band Sadie and the Hotheads and has performed globally with them.
Jonathan Banks (Walt) work as an actor has spanned five decades in film, television and theatre. He began his career with the musical Hair in 1969.
Banks is a four-time Emmy® Award nominee, garnering nominations in 2015 and 2016 for his work on the first two seasons of Better Call Saul, in 2013 for Breaking Bad, and for his role as Frank McPike in the Stephen J. Cannell-produced series Wiseguy in 1989.
Among his hundreds of film and television credits are Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs., Dark Blue, Flipper, Freejack, and the soon to be released film Mudbound.
Florence Pugh (Gwen) received rave reviews for her performance in the film Lady Macbeth, which was released globally earlier this year after its debut at the Toronto Film Festival 2016. Her performance as Katherine had critics calling her 'stunning', 'mesmerising' and 'a revelation'. Thanks in part to her performance, Florence was named a Screen International Star of Tomorrow, a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, and was awarded the Malone Souliers Award for Breakthrough of the Year at the Evening Standard British Film Awards.
Florence recently wrapped production on the feature film Fighting with my Family for WWE and Film4. Florence plays the lead role in the film written and directed by Stephen Merchant, and stars alongside Jack Lowden, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Dwayne Johnson and Vince Vaughn. It is due for release next year.
Florence made her feature film in debut in Carol Morley's The Falling. Her performance in the film garnered her widespread attention, along with a nomination for Best Newcomer at the BFI London Film Festival Awards. Since then, Florence has filmed the horror Hush, directed by Olaf de Fleur Johannesson.
Florence's television credits include the hit ITV series Marcella, in which she starred alongside Anna Friel and Laura Carmichael, and Studio City, for John Wells and Warner Bros. Television.