Interview – Chuck Russell

When you are good at something people tend to like to keep you boxed in that corner. Take Chuck Russell for example, a filmmaker who first made his way as producer on Horror films such as 1980’s The Hearse and 1981’s Hell Night. From there Russell dabbled in Comedy with production credits including 1986’s Back to School, but Horror knocked on the door in a big way when he was called on to make his directorial debut with 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors; the most acclaimed sequel in the franchise.

Seeming as if the future had been plotted out for Russell, in 1988 he directed The Blob, however he refused to be pigeonholed and soon went on to major blockbuster success as a director with 1994’s The Mask, 1996’s Action flick Eraser, and 2002’s Scorpion King. Now spreading his wings yet again, Russell returns to the director’s chair for the new film Paradise City; an Action Thriller featuring a cast led by John Travolta and Bruce Willis. Released on November 11, 2022, Paradise City takes us back to a time when film’s focused on entertainment, and Chuck Russell recently sat down to chat about it, his diverse career, the lasting impression of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, plus more. 

Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in film for nearly five decades and, in that time, you have worked on some really interesting projects as a director, producer, as well as writer. Tell us, how would you describe your career in film to this point?

Chuck Russell – A bit of a magical mystery tour and a bit of an adventure. I always compare a career in films to running away to join the circus; every movie is an entirely different experience. There are amazing people to work with; from truck drivers to ballerinas to movie stars, everyone is essential to the process and eternally fascinating to me. People have mentioned in my career how people have done different genres. I started in Horror, so people thought I was going to stick with that and become like a John Carpenter. I love movies, I’m a movie fan, and I think I would get horribly bored if I just stuck with one genre though. So, I’ve tried Action, Comedy, and Thrillers, but I’m looking to do a Sci-Fi film now too. It’s been a joy in that regard.

Back to School Movie Poster / Orion Pictures
New Line Cinema

Cryptic Rock – And you certainly have not pigeonholed yourself because you have worked in a diverse mix of genres. To many their first introduction to you as a director was with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors in 1987. Not sure if you are aware of this, but beyond Wes Craven’s original classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street fans look to Dream Warriors as their favorite. What does that mean to you?

Chuck Russell – I get a kick out of that because that was my first directing gig. I was so deadly serious about making every shot as great as I could and about getting the best performance out of my actors. I had previously been writing and directing one-act plays back in University of Illinois in the Chicago area. I had spent a couple of years assistant directing, getting coffee for people, and working my way up to directing. When I had my first chance to direct, I was armed for it; I had my storyboards and my ideas.

I was very inspired by Wes Craven’s original, but I also knew not to try and duplicate it. I wanted to take Freddy into a scarier space, but also a funnier space. I certainly wanted to take him into a more hallucinogenic space where he can appear in a tuxedo or as a snake creature. I wanted to use more imagination that I think is natural to dreams.

That was so successful financially for New Line Cinema, they copied that formula, and I think made Freddy almost a little too funny after that. They beat a dead horse at a certain point, but Robert Englund is so brilliant, he always brought something to the character of Freddy. I’m shocked that I still get requests for interviews specifically about A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 this many years later! That’s an honor and a big surprise.

Cryptic Rock – Well the film left a major impression on viewers. From there you went on to other big films as a director; you worked in Comedy with 1994’s The Mask, as well as in Action with 1996’s Eraser. Do you have a favorite genre to work in, or do you just enjoy the diversity?

Chuck Russell – It just depends on what I haven’t done lately. To be honest, a lot of my work is inspired by the stars. In many cases, in my films, they weren’t necessarily a star to start with. With Dwayne Johnson, The Scorpion King (2002) was his first leading role. He had done a couple of days of work working on The Mummy (1999) playing an exotic villain/creature. He was well known in wrestling circles, but The Scorpion King was his first leading role. I knew Dwayne Johnson would be a big star and I had a lot of fun trying to develop his brand (for a lack of a better way to put it) in a big Fantasy Adventure in The Scorpion King.

Jim Carey was not known as a star to studios when we did The Mask (1994). In fact, he wasn’t much sought after. He had done In Living Colour, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) had not been released yet… so we had an opportunity to really help him become an international star with The Mask. And Cameron Diaz hadn’t acted at all! I had quite a battle with the studio giving her the role of the leading lady. The chemistry was so strong between her and Jim in the readings, I just had to fight for Cameron in that role.

The Blob Movie Poster / Tri-Star Pictures
The Mask Movie Poster / New Line Cinema

Cryptic Rock – It is interesting how everything all worked out. All of these people you mentioned went on to become massive movie stars. Speaking of stars, your latest film Paradise City is chock full of stars; you have Bruce Willis, John Travolta, and Stephen Dorf leading your cast. Paradise City is a fun, entertaining Action film reminiscent of how films once were. So, what brought this project along?

Chuck Russell – I love that the number one thing you mention is that it is fun, that was really my number one goal. I had worked with John before in I Am Wrath (2016) where he plays the hero, and he plays a very subtle kind of character protecting his family. Now I get to use him as an iconic kind of villain in Paradise City. I think it is in one of his purest forms of a great Travolta performance. There is a zest when he has a character that he really believes in and understands. When he does, he will take it to the limit, I think he did that in Paradise City.

Cryptic Rock – Absolutely, and the entire cast does a solid job with their roles; there is a chemistry that bleeds through. Paradise City also takes place in Hawaii, and the backdrops are beautiful. What was it like filming there?

Chuck Russell – I have a family history with Maui just as a tourist; I’ve taken my kids there at different points in our lives. My Producer friend Corey Large said, “What about a Thriller on Maui? We’ve got Bruce for it.” I tried to work with Bruce Willis back in the early 2000s on a studio picture, but sometimes those pictures are developed and don’t move forward for whatever reason. I thought, well I finally get to add working with Bruce Willis to my resume. I then said, “What about getting Travolta together with Willis again and really making those two characters arch rivals, archetypes, and play them out at this point in their career?” John and Bruce were excited about it, and I developed the script further for both of those characters.

I also made it a love letter to Maui, that is why it’s fun; I love the island. There really is an aloha spirit as they call it, which is a welcoming spirit that’s natural to a lot of the islanders. They are super gracious and I wanted to legitimately bring an element of their culture into this story. That is kind of what Paradise City is all about… it’s about protecting some of the sacred land and some of the customs of the people of Maui.

Cryptic Rock – That does come across in the film. Above all, it is a fun watch, it has a good flow, and keeps moving forward. As alluded to, it is reminiscent of an older Hollywood film. Honestly, it is difficult to figure out what educates what Hollywood wants to produce for audiences nowadays.  

Chuck Russell – When you say educate, I think I know what you mean. I’m a lover of all kinds of movies, so I’m not a very good critic; there is something to enjoy in many movies to me. It’s true, I wanted to take people on an adventure with a wishful film, perhaps that is thought of as being a little old school now. I wanted to take people on an adventure as if they were hooked up with Bruce Willis. I wanted to tell a story if you were on a beautiful island like Maui with amazing people. I wanted to make it a little glamorous and warm-hearted, but I also wanted to have the high jeopardy and suspense that we expect in a good Thriller.

Paradise City Movie Poster / Saban Films

Cryptic Rock – Right, that is a good balance for entertainment. Paradise City also has some twists that we do not want to give away though.

Chuck Russell – We don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but it’s an engaging story. I cast a lot of local actors, so there are a lot of new faces. Praya Lundberg is a new star for the west; she is already a star in her home country of Thailand, is an amazing actress, and does all her own kickboxing. Blake Jenner has never done an Action movie before, but he’s a familiar face from Glee and Romantic Comedies; he did a fabulous job playing the antithesis.

I wanted to take the old school Action film archetypes with Travolta and Willis, and play them against a new kind of action hero. Blake plays a character who rather not kill a person, up to the point of using non-lethal force and up to the point of risking his own life. That is not traditional to these kinds of films with a body count. He plays a character with a conscience, who is in conflict with his own father (played by Bruce Willis), who is a character with no conscience who just wants to get the deed done. Therein lies some of the fun in that father and son relationship as well.

Cryptic Rock – Exactly and that works well in a modern world too. Without giving more away, you initially wonder if Bruce Willis’ character is going to have limited screen time with Paradise City. We will just leave it at that. (Laughs)

Chuck Russell – I had some fun, I wanted to keep the audience informed, but guessing. There are some things I call an honest twist. Honest twists in a Thriller are the ones where the audience goes, aha! I knew that… if I had a coffee break, I might have guessed it. There are one or two moves that I consider to be honest twists to keep the audience engaged.

Cryptic Rock – Yes, and that is also fun. With Paradise City complete, do you have anything else coming up?

Chuck Russell – Sure. I tend to finish a film and see it out, and Paradise City was released November 11th. In the meantime, I’ve developed some other projects. There are two or three things, one in particular I think we will be launching right into. You will be the first to know when it’s officially announced. There is a chance I will go back to the Horror genre, and I am looking at something in Sci-Fi too… we’ll see. 

I want to work with John Travolta again. Bruce Willis unfortunately had retired, but when we got to work with him, he was still at his best; he brought his A-game to Paradise City. We shot Paradise City a year ago last May, he has announced his retirement most recently, and we all wish him well. But I hope I get a chance again to work with John, I’m looking for something we can do together as well.

Cryptic Rock – That is good news, and it would be cool to see you team up with Travolta again. It is also exciting for Horror fans that you might re-enter the genre.

Chuck Russell – We’ll see. We’re getting to the point that I’m starting to let it slip… and that’s looking pretty good. We’ll get past the holidays and really get into it.

Eraser Movie Poster / Warner Bros Pictures
The Scorpion King Movie Poster/ Universal Pictures

Cryptic Rock – Very cool! Paradise City is now available for streaming, but was there a theatrical release?

Chuck Russell – It has a limited theatrical run at the same time as streaming. That’s a new formula and a business model that works really well for people. I miss the old three thousand theaters and a very high profile of how you land this first week though. But Paradise City has its own life, its own fans, and I can’t wait to see how more people respond to it.

Cryptic Rock – Yes, and to touch on theatrical releases, do you think we will ever get back to that format again? Do you think we will ever get back to the experience of people wanting to get out there, go to a theater, and gather to watch a film together?

Chuck Russell – They do now. They showed up for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Black Adam did really well too. The theatrical experience can’t be beat. It is tribal, we gather together in the dark with 1 inch between us and a stranger’s elbows; even at these luxury theaters. But the experience of screaming, laughing, or all being in that moment cheering for that hero is a rare experience. You get it in sports stadiums, I guess. Even a person who would spend quite a bit of money for a first-class seat on an airplane, will happily sit in the dark next to complete strangers; experiencing everything from something sensual to something terrifying together.

As human beings we really need a cultural connection globally. The fact that the humor in The Mask played well in all these different countries shocked me at the time. However, I know more now from my own travels; the human condition is so common and such a beautiful thing. The gift of film is to be able to communicate with universal stories globally and bring people together for entertainment. I’m all about entertainment, I don’t want to school my audience… I think my audience can school me actually better. (Laughs) 

I want to take audiences on a journey, and that is what we do on Paradise City. It was fun. Film is work, but I’m being realistic, it was an independent team, tighter crew, fantastic cast, and we had an amazing time with the locals in the beautiful island of Maui. I think that’s quite visible in the film itself. I think audiences will enjoy that journey too. 

Cryptic Rock – Right, critics aside, Paradise City is the type of film that people are not going to walk away from feeling depressed, and that is what we need nowadays. 

Chuck Russell – I like feel-good movies. I like high jeopardy, so the thrills are there, but I like that love wins. I like that inside of us there is a hero. In the right circumstances I know it’s true. Inside every one of us, men and women, there is a great hero. One of the common themes – whether I’m doing Comedy, Horror, or Action – is the catalysis that causes us to rise up for the love of another. I find that is not corny, if done correctly, it can be compelling. That is one of the underlined themes in my work in general. 

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