The new thriller Premium Rush (read our review) offers something that most other films in the genre don’t: a look at the frantic and often dangerous world of New York city bike messaging. As star Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character (Wilee – “The Coyote Man”) points out at the onset: bike messengers work within the punishing gauntlet of NYC street traffic, face nearly impossible deadlines, and are pretty much reviled by much of the citizenry, who consider them annoyances on two wheels. If that all wasn’t enough, Wilee is handed a parcel that puts him in the crosshairs of some very bad people, turning an already hazardous job into a life-or-death race across town.
In our interview with Gordon-Levitt and Premium Rush writer/director David Koepp, we discussed the fascinating sub-culture the film explores, and the very real hazards of trying to film a movie in the streets of New York City.
The last few years have seen Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s star rise considerably, thanks to starring turns in acclaimed dramas like 50/50, blockbuster behemoths like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, promising genre fare like upcoming sci-fi film Looper – and, of course, Premium Rush. Koepp, on the other hand, has a long and famous track record, both writing scripts for films like Mission: Impossible, Carlito’s Way, Spider-Man and Jurassic Park, and directing genre fare like Stir of Echoes and Secret Window.
However, despite the collective experience of the star and director, Premium Rush definitely presented some new filmmaking challenges and experiences – not least of which was trying to construct a movie that uses the bustling streets of The Big Apple as its playground.
SCREEN RANT: So much of this movie takes place in actual New York City streets – what was it like trying to film in one of the busiest and most congested cities in the world?
DAVID KOEPP: …We got huge cooperation from the city and the cops and still it wasn’t nearly enough. It was really ambitious: We were on the streets – I think we shot for fifty-one days, with thirty days of second unit – I think that there were maybe three days of [interior shoots]. The rest was all on the streets – and not on the sidewalk, you know? Moving, on the streets. We’d had this genius moronic idea of having all [the characters’] conversations be on phones, while moving through different parts of the city – you never had just two people in a room talking; like, never.
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: [Interrupting] Which was fun for me.
DK: It’s fun! But it takes some planning [Laughs with Levitt]. It was a challenge.
SR: Did you ever fear the wrath of New Yorkers who might be a bit peeved that your production was, say, holding up traffic?
DK: Yeah! One thing I did when I started screening it in New York – the first thing I’d do to the audience is I’d apologize. I’d say, “I’m sure that 50% of you were inconvenienced by this production at one point or another, and thank you for your patience.” [Laughs]
Not everyone was patient, you know? People lost their sh*t on us. There was one time some pedestrian got mad at a [production assistant] because the PA wouldn’t let him cross the street – which was a good decision, because we were barreling down it and we would’ve hit him. So the guy head-butted the PA and broke his nose and put him jail – I mean in prison (I was thinking of where this guy should go) – wait, not prison, or jail – the hospital. So he breaks the PA’s nose because the guy tried to protect him, and I thought, ‘This is so outrageous!’ It’s like if someone was building a building on the corner, and they asked you to cross the street so you didn’t get hit by the crane – you wouldn’t get angry with them! Movies are part of the New York economy… I don’t know… That guy made me a little upset. Then the ‘New York Post’ – god bless ’em – wrote an editorial: ‘It’s About Time Somebody Hit One of These Movies in the Nose.’ I’m like, ‘It’s a felony!’ I don’t know…
SR: Good ‘ol New York.
DK & JGL: [Laughing]
SR: Let’s talk about New York City bikers and maybe what attracted you both to exploring this particular sub-culture.
DK: Honestly, I was attracted to the images before the sub-culture. I was attracted to the idea of a guy on a bike going from the far Upper West Side to far Lower East Side, because I hadn’t seen that before. The idea of putting cameras in traffic, in the point of view of a bike, and moving as fast as we possibly could, I thought was really exciting. And then, pretty soon, logically that [character] becomes a messenger because you don’t just want somebody out for a pleasure ride – you want somebody with purpose. And then [bike messengers] just turned out to be a fascinating species. They’re really interesting people who are driven and have a real ethos; they want to ride their bike, if they get paid to ride their bike that’s great, but also it is a culture, you know? It’s like their lifestyle choice: that bikes are better than cars, and moving around by bike is the right thing to do. So I found it all pretty fascinating.
SR: Joseph, in preparing to play Wilee did you focus more on the physical challenge, or were you concerned with immersing yourself in the culture as well?
JGL: Both. I mean I had to spend probably more time physically – just to make sure that I was going to be in shape and able to do twelve-hour work days on a bike and not make the crew wait for me to catch my breath. I did a lot of that training at home in LA for six weeks, but once I got [to New York] – because there aren’t really bike messengers in LA; it doesn’t work, LA is too sprawled out – once I got here I made friends with a few guys who did it, and I would echo what David said: I was struck by the fact that there really is an ethic to it.
I found a lot of environmentalism, a lot of wanting to support local commerce – a real conscious and positive and progressive way of thinking about life. All of which stemmed from the simple love of riding a bike, which probably comes from when they were kids, well before they were thinking about any of this stuff. But it’s true that if more people rode bikes and fewer people drove cars, the world would be better for it. And I would certainly hope that if people coming out of this movie are itching to ride a bike, then it’s certainly done a good thing.
SR: Do you have any crazy stories or anecdotes about what you experienced while riding around with actual bike messengers in the city?
JGL: I mean, I think it was more just riding around, seeing the city. I have four doubles in this movie – there’s five of us who play Wilee. It’s me; Austin, who is a real bike messenger and one of the fastest – if not THE fastest – in the world; a Hollywood stuntman whose job it was to get hit by cars; then there was one guy who is really good on a track bike and one guy who was really good on a trial bike. So five of us. And just riding around town with Austin, and sort of getting a sense of, ‘Oh, this is what a Saturday is like,’ when it’s all centered around the love of riding a bike around – it’s a different kind of Saturday. It really does put your focus on the journey more than the destination – and it does make you focus on the city itself, and the communities of people in that city. Riding around Manhattan and Brooklyn is mostly where we would go, and you end up in cool places you wouldn’t have ended up otherwise. Sorry if that’s not specific.
SR: David, how did you come up with the idea for the “biker vision” technique used in the film? And what was it like trying construct those sequences?
DK: We called in the script and prep “Bike-o-vision” – which we trademarked with a little “™,” not that it means anything. But the idea was to have a cinematic way to illustrate those split-second decisions that you make when you’re coming up to an intersection. When we were getting ready to write the script, I got my bike out and rode around – but I rode around as I felt those guys did. And I only wanted to do it once – because, you know, I got kids and I’m not that good on it – but [the bike messengers’] self-defense skills are so highand you can’t do that if you don’t know how to do it.
But I rode around and just thought ‘don’t stop,’ so I’d run lights and what not. As you approach an intersection I noticed that your senses – it’s like rock climbing, when you’re not thinking about anything else – there’s nothing else from your day, you’re just thinking about that hand-hold. And as you approach an intersection and you know you’re going through, your eyes are darting around and soaking up so much information; you’re getting reflections off the car next to you that let’s you know there’s a guy coming from there; you’re looking at a pedestrian and you’re thinking, ‘he’s hesitating and he’s texting – does that mean he’s about to turnaround and go the other way? Or is he going to keep coming this way?’ And I thought that was one of the most cinematic things I’d ever seen in my head. How to get that onto film was the challenge. So we came up with ‘Bike-o-vision’… Then trying to get that into reality, it was just a logistical nightmare.
Premium Rush is now playing in theaters.