Stephen St. Leger seems oddly relaxed. Two days before the European release of his Luc Besson-produced debut feature film ‘Lockout’ – co-directed and co-written with his long-time collaborator and fellow Irishman James Mather - and the Dubliner displays none of the apprehension an outsider might expect at letting their ‘baby’ out into the world.
“Well it’s been so long in the making,” he says as he relaxes in the offices of Dublin’s Windmill Lane Pictures. “James and I are back shooting ads at this point so we’ve kind of been busy doing other stuff over the past couple of weeks. There’s been a good vibe, however, from the film so far. People seem to be enjoying the romp that it is.”
‘Lockout’ is certainly a romp. Set in the near future, the sci-fi adventurer centres on an anti-hero named Snow (Guy Pearse) who is sent to rescue the US president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) from an outer space prison taken over by violent inmates.
Reminiscent of 1980s action movies such as ‘Die Hard’, ‘Lethal Weapon’, and ‘Escape From New York’, the 95-minute movie is all about fast-paced action, reluctant heroes and witty one-liners. Stemming from an idea by renowned French writer/ director and producer Besson, perhaps the most surprising thing about the project is Besson’s faith in handing over the project to St. Leger and Mather, a duo whose collaborative CV is largely made-up of TV commercials and the 2004 short ‘Prey Alone’, and who had never before tackled a feature.
“Well Luc’s just sort of a guy who goes with his gut, I guess,” St. Leger says when asked about how the hook-up with Besson came about. “We did ‘Prey Alone’, which was a sort of 15-minute action movie. Short films are usually a short character study and we didn’t want to do that! What we wanted was to do a sort of balls-to-the-wall action movie in 15 minutes. So we did that and, like ‘Lockout’, it’s not really for the festival market. So we sent out some DVDs and put it all over the net, and fortunately Luc saw it. He then rang us up and we went over to see him in Paris and he asked ‘what are you guys doing?’ He had this idea for ‘Lockout’ and so we went off and wrote the script and that was pretty much it.”
‘Prey Alone’, with its plot about a special agent on the hunt for an elusive fugitive and with a witness held in a military prison, is not a million miles away from the central idea of ‘Lockout’, which Besson gave to St. Leger and Mather to develop.
“There was certainly references in ‘Prey Alone’ to Luc’s films like ‘Leon’ and that sort of thing, but I think he took a shine to the sense of humour in it quite a bit,” St. Leger says when asked what he thinks Besson saw in the duo. “I mean even though the characters in ‘Lockout’ are mostly American, I still think that there’s an Irishness to the dialogue or the attitude or the sarcasm – the general reluctance or disinterest. So I think that he picked up on that.”
That reluctance, central to so many 1980s action heroes such as Bruce Willis’ John McClane in ‘Die Hard’ was key to the style St. Leger and Mather were going for with ‘Lockout’.
“We wanted to go back to the movies of the ’80s or ’90s where the anti-hero is more vulnerable,” St. Leger says of Guy Pearse’s character Snow. “You know, they’re not a martial arts expert who go and kill 20 guys in the room in 10 seconds. Like when he gets hurt, he gets hurt and that he’s generally kind of reluctant.
“Pretty much every action movie that I saw as a teenager growing up was an influence and really anything by Shane Black, who wrote movies like the ‘Lethal Weapons’ and ‘Last Boy Scout’ and ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ and all those kind of movies. When I was a teenager they were just great fun. They didn’t take themselves too seriously and they had really sharp dialogue, one-liners and these outrageous plots and a relentless pace. They were the films that I used to go to as a teenager. I never had to go kicking and screaming either, I was always first in line! It’s really obvious that it’s a throwback to those types of movies.”
Born and raised in Dublin, St. Leger’s childhood was one surrounded by cameras and camera film. His father was a cameraman while his brother, Joe St. Leger, worked as a photographer for the Irish Times before going on to make documentaries for RTÉ and TG4. St. Leger himself began his career as a news cameraman.
“Growing up, there was always film in the house,” he says. “There was a dark room in the house - all of that sort of stuff. Then when I left school I worked for ITN and BBC here and in Northern Ireland. Then I went to art-college in Dun Laoghaire to do a film course and that’s where I met up with James. Pretty much since then we’ve been working together since, and that’s been 22 years working together. James has been DoP on feature films like ‘Adam and Paul’ and TV shows like ‘Cold Feet’ and that sort of thing. We’ve been pretty such shooting ads and writing scripts and making shorts ever since.”
Was news journalism where he initially saw his career heading? “No not at all,” he says. “I was always more interested in films. I sort of wanted to get out of the realism of Northern Ireland or the hard news (laughs). So I kind of ended up in the commercials world as a director. From there I went into writing scripts.”
With a commercial CV that includes memorable television advertisements for Donegal Catch, Amstel and Permanent TSB, he describes his working relationship with Mather as “second nature” and one of little discussion, “just that Irish thing of a nod and a wink and we’ll do that.”
He adds: “Basically James does all the lighting, the shooting and he operates. And I basically work with the cast and the performances and the dialogue and look after all the rehearsals.”
“The film essentially was quite a tough call from a budget point of view,” St Leger says, “just for the type of film that it is. We also only had around eight-and-a-half weeks to shoot it. So we were shooting from the hip all of the time and with Windmill, there was an opportunity there for them to set something up. Luc saw what they had to offer and just said ‘cool, let’s do it’.”
As for the future, St. Leger is somewhat elusive. For now the duo are continuing to work on commercials while he smiles “there a couple of scripts we’ll go to LA to look at, but they’re all top secret at the moment. James and I are still writing ourselves but there are a couple of other things we’re looking at too.”
Time will prove the main consideration for the duo, he says. “Working on a commercial,” St Leger notes, “you might spend four months on it and that’s it. But with something like this, it is two-and-a-half years altogether. You know, you prep it, write it, shoot it, edit it and then the effects are done so it’s a long time and you want to make sure that it’s the kind of film that you want it to be. If you’re doing something like this for two-and-a-half years it needs to be something that you’ll enjoy two years down the line, but it’s done now so on to the next one.”