The Protege Director Talks Balancing Action With Humor in the New Assassin Film

Filmmaker Martin Campbell has the distinction of having brought two different James Bond actors into the world, having introduced audiences to Pierce Brosnan's take on the character with GoldenEye and Daniel Craig's interpretation in Casino Royale, but with his latest film, The Protégé, he's bringing entirely original material to life, though he surely doesn't skimp on embodying the signature style that fans are looking forward to. With a cast featuring Maggie Q, Michael Keaton, and Samuel L. Jackson, audiences are given characters that are just as explosive as any of the action, requiring Campbell to find a specific blend of humor and intensity to craft a unique experience. The Protégé hits theaters on August 20th.

Rescued as a child by the legendary assassin Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) and trained in the family business, Anna (Maggie Q) is the world's most skilled contract killer. But when Moody – the man who was like a father to her and taught her everything she needs to know about trust and survival – is brutally killed, Anna vows revenge. As she becomes entangled with an enigmatic killer (Michael Keaton) whose attraction to her goes way beyond cat and mouse, their confrontation turns deadly and the loose ends of a life spent killing will weave themselves even tighter.

ComicBook.com caught up with Campbell to talk the new film, the impressive cast, and what he sees for the future of James Bond.

the protege maggie q martin campbell interview
(Photo: Lionsgate)

ComicBook.com: I think a big component of what makes this film so charming and such a blast to watch is the cast. This cast is so entertaining, they're phenomenal. Could you talk a little bit about the casting process and how you knew these folks were the right people for the job? Or if they were involved a little bit earlier than you?

Martin Campbell: Well, to be honest, you never quite know they're the right people for the job, because I'd never worked with any of them before. Maggie, I just happened to see a little clip with Ethan Hawke that she did, I think it was a love story film, where I thought her performance was excellent. We needed someone who was Vietnamese, so she is half Vietnamese. On top of that, she's terrific at action, which I learned after I cast her.

Michael Keaton speaks for himself, in the sense that he is such a terrific actor and he's always got a sense of mischief. There's a left-field, slightly quirky personality he's got, which is on-screen. Sam Jackson speaks for himself, terrific actor, always, which is why he works so much because he always elevates the film, along with Michael, and, obviously, in this case, Maggie. Between them all, I think we just got very lucky and had three terrific actors who slotted into their parts perfectly.

What draws you to this project, what draws the cast to the project, is that script and that story. You don't want to deviate from it too much, but once you actually got the cast involved, did the film go through any major evolutions, how they went from the script to screen? Or is it still pretty much close to how the script described them?

No. I always like to go on set, when we start shooting, with a finished script. I hate this whole business of writing as you go along. Of course, when you do rehearsals, you adjust lines, all the usual. I mean, that, you do, right? The thing is that we pretty much, that was the script and that's what we did.

You talk about, especially someone like Michael Keaton or Samuel L. Jackson, Maggie has to keep things a little more straight and narrow, whereas Sam and Michael, they get to amplify a little bit of the silliness, a little bit of the fun. How do you find that balance of not turning it into a comedy, but there's genuinely funny moments? How do you find that right balance?

Well, you just have to sense it. The point is you've just got to, as you go along, in directing the scenes and directing [the actors], you're just trusting your instinct of what you're doing is correct to make that balance, to try and get the ideal balance.

I think what's so cool about The Protégé is, especially in a world of blockbusters, you look at the big comic book movies, there's all this CGI that's making anything possible. But The Protégé felt very restrained and contained and it felt like mostly practical stunts and very few visual effects, which grounded the characters and the journey and that adventure. When it came to the stunts in the film, was that an active choice of wanting to keep it grounded, wanting it to be person on person as opposed to car chases and giant explosions?

Absolutely. The whole point was to keep it person to person, keep them character-motivated. Very little CGI, a little cable removal here and there, the odd face replacement. Beyond that, nothing. It was all done between them, if you know what I mean. Apart from those I just mentioned, no CGI at all with the action.

Someone like Maggie, you could see how often it was genuinely her face doing these stunts. Whereas Michael, Sam, they're a little bit older, so maybe a few more times they had a double come in. When it came to actually shooting those scenes, did any actors specifically surprise you with what they were capable of, as far as the stunts were concerned?

Well, Michael had the brunt of it, to be honest, because he had a couple of big action sequences, the one with Maggie and the one in that alleyway. And even though Michael, to be honest, wasn't as trained as Maggie was, the point was he committed to doing it and he went to rehearsals, stunt rehearsals and so forth, took it seriously, and came out and gave it his best shot. So a lot of that stuff is him. Obviously not the bigger elements, you don't put him through a window or have him flipped upside down. But a lot of the other stuff he did himself, which is to his credit. He really went for it and getting actors to be committed to action, it makes a big difference.

You say, "Oh, you're not going to flip him upside down and throw him through the windows," did Michael want that to happen and to do those stunts?

No, one thing about Michael is, he's not stupid. The point is, and I'm not stupid either when it comes to that. There is no way I'm going to risk him damaging himself and there's no way he's going to have that either. So there's a line, of course, you draw. And, on top of that, the insurance companies would go nuts if you actually did that and they were injured. It would bring the whole production to a halt. So, no, but having said that, he did a lot of the hand-to-hand combat stuff and stuff like that. So, all credit to him, actually, for really being prepared to get in and do it.

I personally like the entire high-rise escape scene that Maggie has, that you're going through all these different layers and so many different things are happening. Was there a specifically difficult scene for you to shoot, either because the action was so big or action was so choreographed? Or even Maggie having the dinner with Michael, where you really have to precisely dial into that banter and that relationship that they have?

That big action scene you're talking about, that took quite a bit of work to actually get that to happen. But, again, Maggie was so bloody good at throwing, she was trained by Jackie Chan. She knows exactly what to do. She knows just how good you've got to be to make that convincing. And so that sequence was, with all the sprinklers going and everything else, and then electrocuting everybody, all that stuff, and then finally jumping over the rails, which she did, that was her. That was a little tricky to do, but they're all a bit tricky, to be honest, too.

The ending, we won't give it away. There's some open possibilities. When you took on this job, did you think of it as, "Oh, and then we can do The Protégé 2 or a prequel?" Do you think this could have spinoffs or are you just going to stick with this one?

It could have, but the truth is that nobody's mentioned it and none of us have discussed it, to be honest. So I just assume it's just one at the moment. Maggie would be terrific, I think, in a sequel. But ... it's difficult to know where a sequel would go. Is it with Michael? Is it with Sam Jackson? But ... it would be difficult to, and, always the problem with sequels, is they never really live up to the original. They're always made and most of them are bigger and considered better, but they never are. Die Hard, the best one was the first one. And it went downhill from there, quite frankly, and the first one was the most contained.

Since you have introduced the world to two different James Bonds, do you personally have a pick of an actor you really love that you could see being Bond? Or is there even any talk of coming back to the series to introduce the next Bond?

No. I think, at the moment, [the studio is] determined to get the one that's been sitting on the shelf for a year and a half, whatever it is, to get that out. And, normally, Bond's cycle is two years or three years. Every two years, it used to be a new Bond would come out. I think with Daniel Craig going, I think with the one that they've got on the shelf that I think is coming out at the end of October, I'm not sure, but they've given a date for it and they've had two false starts already.

So I think they'll get that out and then they'll just take a big deep breath and it'll probably be maybe another three years before the next one comes out because they have to cast a new Bond and that takes some breaking in. And it has to be scripted and everything else. So, now that Daniel's gone, of course, where do you go with it? That's the other question.

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The Protégé hits theaters on August 20th.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.