STX Films releases Den of Thieves nationwide on January 19th, 2018.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally?
Christian Gudegast: In the writing of it, I mapped it out and gave it themes and categories. I made sure that it went back and forth between the character stuff, emotional build and the A-plot---the entertaining part. You always want to make sure to check that balance literally by ping-ponging back and forth throughout the film. It's all by design. My original director's cut was 2 hours and 30 minutes which is a little bit too long. We had to get the film to a certain length, so the studio wanted to cut character from the film. It's understandable. To strike that balance within the time allotted is difficult. So, in the director's cut there will be a few scenes that you didn't see in the theatrical cut. The character stuff elevates the movie and makes it more interesting. We wanted to make sure that by the third act sequence, you actually cared about every single person involved equally. That was challenging time-wise, but I think that we pulled it off.
NYC MOVIE GURU: I don't think it would be fair to lump Den of Thieves into just one genre. What do you think?
CG: You're absolutely correct. I can't even say. Is it a "crime sage"? A "crime drama"? I've been a student of film my entire life. So many different filmmakers have influenced me. I love Michael Mann's films, but then they're sort of austere. There's not enough humor in them. Of course, I love Scorsese and Tarantino. There's a lot of humor there. It's very hard to pin down the film's genre. In terms of the film's poster and trailer, that's all the studio. They decided to market it in a certain way with an urban audience and play up the thug life element. That's how they decided to sell it, but that's not what the movie really is. So, that's a bit of a challenge as well. When you look online and see all the movies that are coming out, a lot of people are probably going to say that this is a more-than-meets-the-eye kind of film.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Between the screenwriting process, the film's production, and the post- production process, which of those three are the most challenging?
CG: The hardest part of the process, bar none, is writing--period! End of story. The production is almost always a physical grind, but it's also fun because you're out there with all of the boys and the weather's tough and you're racing against time, thinking, on your feet. It's physical work which I love. That's wonderful that way. Post is great because it's such a puzzle. When you go into post, you kinda gotta forget about all of your preconceived notions of the movie: forget the script, forget what you shot. You have to sit down with a clean slate and look at what you got and decide what the story is that you're going to tell in there. That's a very cerebral challenge, but there's no physicality to it at all. You're just sitting in the editing room all day every day, so it's a completely different. Physically, the most challenging is production for sure. Every single day there's a million different things that go wrong, so you have to be able to figure out how to fix them right then and there on your feet. So, that's very cool, difficult and frustrating, but rewarding at the same time. When you're in post, there's something that you shot that wasn't necessarily scripted like a relation between characters. We'd look for footage that covers that relation and figure out how to get that in there. There are so many interesting things that happen along the way when you're cutting the film.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Roger Ebert once stated that a film made for everybody pleases no one. Do you agree with him? How did you decide what kind of audience to make Den of Thieves for?
CG: Roger Ebert isn't wrong in saying that. To be totally honest, I made this movie for myself. I think it starts there. I love film so much. I love all kinds of movies; not just one genre or one filmmaker. Aa a director, I'm an arbiter of taste and decide what's cool, what's funny, what sounds good, etc. You're making a million decisions about what you like. The layers upon layers ad up and then you have your movie. It's an organic process for me. Film is the most expensive art form in the world and the most collaborative. Over 500 people worked on this movie. There are so many people who worked on the film along the way who have such a great impact on the movie. It's just about choosing their ideas into what becomes the film.
NYC MOVIE GURU: My favorite scene in Den of Thieves is the one where Nick briefly cries in his car. I believe that there's nothing more intimate than when you're watching a character cry. What do you think?
CG: You're spot on. The thing with that is that there's a lot more to Nick's family story that's not in the theatrical cut, but will be in the director's cut. The same goes for Enson and Merrimen. There's more to their individual stories away from the A-plot that just couldn't make it into the film because we just didn't have the time. There was a lot more of that kind of stuff with Nick and a lot more with Enson and his family. I appreciate that you liked that scene. It's one of my favorite scenes. All of the characters are based on real people that I know and I have love for all of them---the gangsters and the cops. They're all great dudes and also very similar dudes ironically. They're all just human beings just trying to get through this life. They all have their stories. I explored that without judging anybody. There's no bad guy in the movie. I love everybody. I find those kind of films much more interesting because they're true-to-life. Actors, of course, love playing those kind of roles. Hopefully, all of my films will be that way.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think it's rare to see a blockbuster that has emotional depth and character who go through innate battles instead of just physical battles like in the action- packed Star Wars and Marvel movies? It's especially rare to see such a blockbuster released in January.
CG: To speak to what you're saying---and God bless to all those Marvel movies and Star Wars movies---they bore me to tears. I can't watch even 2 minutes of them because I don't care. I know what's going to happen. They're great, people love them, but they're not my cup of tea. We were fighting for Den of Thieves not to be released in January, but the marketers feel differently.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you master the skill of exposition as a screenwriter?
CG: Mastering exposition is probably one of the biggest challenges for a writer. I watch documentaries on the Discovery Channel as much as I do films, and my kind of barometer is: How interesting is it? JFK was a masterpiece of getting across exposition. The actors have to play it a certain way and find it interesting. Everything about the Federal Reserve Bank was fascinating. You can't go on forever with exposition, but you're allowed a little bit of time to explain things to the audience, like you would in a documentary, that are interesting. Paul Schreiber and everyone else all agree. We went to the Federal Reserve Bank and had tours. We all became enamored with the place and the way it functions. It's incredible what they do. Very few people know about it. Just the concept of it: banks for banks. We felt that it would be fascinating to the audience, but, initially, those scenes lived on their own and we didn't cross-cut them. I personally found them still fascinating, but we thought, "You know what? Just because exposition is so tricky, in order not to bog the audience down, we'll do something to spice this up." So, that's what we decided to cross-cut it. They also do that later when they're prepping their weapons for the big day. We also thought that that helped with the idea that 2 tribes are going into war---the parallels between them and the similarities. We felt that it helped with that thematically. We tried to make it as interesting as possible in the editing while getting across a lot of information.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you decide what kind of violence to show in Den of Thieves?
CG: I've never been a fan of gratuitous violence. Every once in while I like it if it has a purpose, but it's never really been my thing. I've been a lot of it in reality and the reality of it is that it's no fun. I've never been enamored with uber-violence in movies. I feel like it's a little bit cheap.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you decide when to trust the audience's intelligence and imagination? I don't think there's anything wrong with being confused as an audience member. What do you think?
CG: I could not agree with you more. One of my rules of writing is that I would rather leave the audience a little confused rather than over-explain. The second that you over- explain, you're dumbing it down and opening it up for all sorts of logic holes. As long as I know that it logically tracks in the script, I'd rather pull back a little bit rather than over-explain because otherwise it would become obvious and kinda boring. I always under-explain just enough.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think are the basic elements that turn a crime thriller into a classic?
CG: Originality. Something that's familiar, but different. Something that's memorable and visually striking.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Which films do you think would make for a great double feature with Den of Thieves?
CG: A Prophet, To Live and Die in L.A., Infernal Affairs (the Chinese version), Jackie Brown, Heat, Training Day, and The French Connection. These are the movies that we watched before we made the film. Ironically, as much as I love The Usual Suspects, it actually wasn't really an influence. When I started writing Den of Thieves, I didn't have the twist in mind. It wasn't reverse engineered: it was the other way around. So, I never meant for the twist to be there; it just kind of happened. I don't know if it's because of the influences of other movies, but that was not initially by design.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What about Hell or High Water.?
CG: 100%. We watched that one as well. It was fantastic. Very well shot and great characters.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Francois Truffaut once observed that a truly great film ought to have a perfect balance between Truth and Spectacle. Do you agree with his observation?
CG: Truffaut is absolutely right. It's hyper-real. The best films must film completely real, but the reality is, of course they're not. When a movie's based on a true story, some people say "That's not really what happened." If you want to watch something that really happened, then go watch a documentary. There's nothing real about a movie. The artifice of it is all over the place. You are approximating reality. For me, if I'm watching a film and believe the world, the action and what's happening, then I'm all-in. That's what I want audiences to experience in the movie theater. We tried to make it as real as possible.