Jaume Collet-Serra was born in Barcelona, Spain, and moved to Los Angeles to attend film school at Columbia College. He began his career directing music videos, then commercials, and his stylized, often dark imagery caught the eye of producer Joel Silver, who hired him to helm House of Wax in 2005. His most recent film, also for Silver, was the horror thriller Orphan.
In his third collaboration with Joel Silver, Collet-Serra’s new movie Unknown tells the intriguing story of Dr Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) who is attending a conference in Berlin. After being in a horrendous accident in a taxi, Dr. Harris wakes up in a hospital four days later. He returns to his hotel to discover his wife Liz (January Jones) doesn’t recognize him and his identity has been taken by another man (Aidan Quinn). Alone in a foreign country, Harris must figure out what’s going on, all the time questioning his own sanity.
What was it about this movie that attracted you?
My favorite films are those Hitchcockian thrillers that have that mysterious atmosphere, where the audience is as much in the dark as the characters, and you don’t really know where the story is going to take you.
I loved the idea of this man waking up one day and discovering that he has been replaced in the world. And there was the added drama of another person being able to prove he was him, which the protagonist could not. It was the first of several great twists in the tale, and even with all these great clues sprinkled throughout the script, I like that I could not figure it out.
Can you talk about assembling this cast and what was it about Liam that made him your hero for this?
Obviously it’s an amazing cast and I’m so blessed to have these great actors working on my movie, it makes the job of a director very easy.
I’ve been a fan of Liam’s for a long time. I think he has both the physical intensity and the emotional intensity that makes everything really compelling. And one thing that was very important for this movie was you really get to feel what the character is going through, and Liam did a fantastic job.
One of my concerns was that the viewer has so little time to get to know Martin before everything goes awry. But with Liam, there’s an instant connection. You like him, you believe in him.
January Jones, we were looking for that Hitchcock beauty and that layered performance and she did a fantastic job as well.
With Diane Kruger (who plays the taxi driver) we wanted somebody who was very intense as well, and her character has a very interesting story. It’s more of an edgy character and I think she was very interesting. It was a pleasure working with all of them
What was it like shooting in Berlin?
Berlin was a character in the movie. It really reflects what we tried to do visually, the state of mind of Martin Harris in his journey.
At the heart of the film is a crisis of identity, and Berlin has that, having been divided for so many years.
Now, even with the reunification and new buildings rising amongst the old, you can still see the scars. Different worlds co-exist within the city, so to me, Berlin was an extension of the main character.
What were the challenges of working there?
We were both blessed and cursed by very heavy snowfall in December, which lasted right through till mid-February allowing us to show the city on a scale we might not otherwise have been able to do, in terms of snow cover. Of course, then it disappeared, which gave us another challenge. We had to keep going, so we had to make our own snow.
Did you push the actors to do their own stunts?
I always try to push it. It’s wonderful to have actors like Liam who can actually fight. It gives me a lot of freedom to put the camera wherever I want it, especially to do a cool hand-held style where you can go around the characters and really see that they are the ones fighting.
They know their limits and they themselves push it to the max. I obviously don’t want to injure them because they’re my movie! But we want to make it as exciting as possible. It’s great to have somebody with that skill set.
Was doing the taxi crash into the river as harrowing as it seemed?
I was very nervous. [The actors] are not in control, but I’m not in control either. I cannot be next to the camera, because the camera is under water. I always like to be very close to the camera and talk to the [actors and crew], but in this situation you’ve got a guy controlling the car, which was lowered by these big cables, with the actors underwater, it was very nerve-wracking.
It was a couple of very stressful days but it was worth it.
What is it about this movie that you feel the audience with connect with?
From the moment Martin Harris wakes up and is told he is no longer the man he knows he is we want to know what is happening. None of us can imagine what it would be like to have someone steal not only our identity, but everything that makes us who we are, even our family and friends.
What would we do? How would we take back our life?