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A Q&A With Director Peter Hyams Takes Us Closer

01/28/2014 03:39 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2014

Peter Hyams has been making movies for over 40 years. A native New Yorker, Hyams has the distinction of being one of the only directors who also serves as his own cinematographer on his films, a hyphenate that has caused him some controversy among cameramen (see below for more details). After making his mark with such classics as Capricorn One, Outland, The Star Chamber, 2010, and many others, Hyams hasn't slowed down, bringing us his 21st feature film. Enemies Closer is a white-knuckle thriller starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as the ruthless (and flamboyant) leader of a drug cartel on a search and destroy mission for his missing cache of product, which sits at the bottom of a lake on the U.S.-Canadian border. Tom Everett Scott plays the U.S. Park Ranger with a murky past who tries to stop him, along with Orlando Jones as a vengeful ex-con and Linzey Cocker as a damsel in distress with a secret of her own. The Lionsgate release is currently playing in selected theaters and is available on demand.

Peter Hyams sat down with Alex Simon recently to discuss his latest film and the highlights of his career. Here's what transpired:

The first thing that caught my attention in reading the press notes was the fact that the entire film was shot in Bulgaria, standing in for the American Pacific Northwest.

Peter Hyams: I did a film before in Eastern Europe as a (cinematographer) which my son, John, directed. It's filled with many very skilled people and some very avid people. So you can do a lot there.

Van Damme was a pleasure to watch in this. He's actually become a good actor. It seems like he's "let go" a great deal.

When the film was offered to me, Van Damme was attached to the role that Tom Scott plays. And I said "I've been there and I've done that. I want him to be the bad guy." I told Jean-Claude that I was going to fashion the bad guy to be this incredibly flamboyant character: a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Robin Williams. He's going to be crazy, funny and lethal. And he pulled it off beautifully.

The film JCVD seemed to metamorphosize him into this really solid actor.

Yeah, and one who's also very funny. There's a lot of terrific humor in that film. Jean-Claude is never half-in anything. He's either all in, or not.

He had the guts to look ridiculous and it really works in his favor and the character's.

It's the reason I wanted to do the film: It was a chance to show a different side of Van Damme. His character is all 90-degree arcs -- he's smiling and sweet one minute, then sticks a knife in someone's belly.

Was it a tight shoot in terms of the budget and schedule?

I've said before that it's a director's job to pour a quart of water into a pint bottle. So yeah, we did it for very little money and shot it in 27 days.

Don't you find though, that when you have $1.40 and a gun to your head with a ticking clock, that's when the cool stuff comes out, creatively speaking?

Yes, and the analogy is the same: If they give you a quart bottle, you're going to pour a gallon into it. If they gave me the Pacific Ocean, I'd be lost. It forces you to figure things out quickly and be very prepared. I was talking with a really wonderful filmmaker about a project we were going to do together. He said "It's going to cost X." I said, 'No, I think I can do it for Y." He said "How the fuck are you going to do that?" I said, 'Easy, I just won't get everything I want.' If you're prepared not to get everything you want, then work around that, you can do it.

And how do you do triage in that sense, to pick what stays and what goes?

Each day of making a film is kind of like your mom and dad has given you 10 bucks. So are you going to spend it on 10 one-dollar things or get something really cool for six or seven bucks, then spread the remaining three bucks around? That's what filmmaking is. I pick one shot during a day of filmmaking where I say 'Okay, that's seven of the 10 dollars.' Then I have to do the rest for three.

You're one of the few directors who has almost consistently always been his own cinematographer, as well.

Yeah, I started out studying photography in high school and college, formally. I thought the best amalgam of photography and film and drawing and design and the world around me was documentary film. So I set out to do documentaries and wound up at CBS. At 21, I was doing the news in New York. I wasn't very good at it and quickly realized that I was more interested in writing a sentence that would move people than I was in accuracy. I was more interested in taking a photograph that was artful than taking one that was a chronicle. I don't believe a camera is a recording device. To me it's a number two soft pencil and a blank piece of sketch paper.

There's a famous story about your trying to gain admittance to the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) after you'd already become a very established director and D.P.

My entrance into the union was acrimonious. They just didn't want me. At one point they said, "You can join if you start at the bottom as a loader." So I said 'the hyphenate would be "writer-director-loader"? I don't think that would work.' Laughs. I talked a lot with Connie Hall, because I admired him so much. So Connie called me one day and said "Would you join if Haskell Wexler and I signed your application?" I said 'Sure, I'd be honored.' So they did. I was scheduled for this meeting and went down to the ASC clubhouse for the interview. About 48 hours later, a registered letter arrived at my house that said "You've been rejected." One of the guys who was also there being interviewed for admittance had been my camera assistant and, of course, he was accepted. So I took the letter and I had it framed. The lady at the frame story called my wife and said "Are you sure your husband wants to frame this?" She said "Yeah, he does." So it hangs in my office to this day.

Your first film was a terrific TV movie called Goodnight My Love.

Barry Diller was head of Movies of the Week at that point over at ABC. Barry green-lit Duel for Steven Spielberg, a movie called Binary for Michael Crichton, and gave a lot of us our first breaks. I said to Barry 'I've got two ideas. The first is about the U.S. government faking a moon shot, then trying to cover it up.' He said "What's the other one?" I said, 'I'm a Raymond Chandler freak. I want to do a 1940s detective story about a private eye and his dwarf sidekick.' He said "Do that one."

It starred two of my favorite actors: Richard Boone and Michael Dunn.

Richard Boone was a terrific actor. He had one of the most amazing faces. He, uh, liked to drink a bit. Laughs. I remember the first shot he did for me; we literally had to prop him up. But when we cut it all together, it worked great.

Michael Dunn has been almost forgotten now, but as a huge fan of The Wild, Wild West, I sought out his work when I was a kid. I understand he had a genius level IQ.

Michael was one of the most gifted people I ever met, just a remarkable man. He also sang like an angel.

Actor Michael Dunn (1934-1973).

All that talent in a body that didn't want to work.

Yes, and he was in terrible pain constantly. It was a real gift to have made my first movie with him. I wish we could have done more.

And the other movie you pitched, which became Capricorn One, was the movie that really put you on the map.

It was a wonderful experience making that film because we kind of did it under the radar, so I was really allowed to just go off and make the film. I had written it years before. The studios didn't like it and it wasn't like they said "Gee, this is interesting, but could you change this part?" It was "Get your car out of the parking lot." Laughs. Not much was expected of it when I did make it. The reason why it was a success is because Richard Donner couldn't deliver Superman for the summer and Warner Bros. didn't have a summer film. So I got the bookings and the ads that Superman would have gotten that summer. Otherwise, who knows what would have happened. One thing I've learned over the years is that when a film is going to be a hit, it's going to be a hit. We did a sneak preview here in L.A. at the National Theater in Westwood and there were lines around the block. The manager said the phone had been ringing all day with people asking if the movie being sneaked was Capricorn One. So you knew something was happening.

You did two films with Sean Connery, one of my boyhood heroes.

And he's rightly your hero, because he's a hero in life. He has the biggest presence of any movie star I've been around in my life. Incredibly bright, doesn't suffer fools at all, and you must be 100 percent straight and honest with him. If you don't know, say so. If you don't agree, say so. All the discussions and arguments we had were about how to make the film better. They were never about ego, or anything else. Gene Hackman is the same way. At one point during Outland, on a day Sean wasn't working, he was still hanging around the set, supervising some dolly track that was being laid out. I said 'Don't you have some movie star dressing room you should be lounging in?' He said "Can't fit there, boy. Too much fan mail." Laughs. I love Sean.

When 2010 came out in 1984 I was ready to leap at the screen with a dagger, thinking it would be sacrilege to all things Stanley Kubrick. I came away as a huge fan of the film. Were you apprehensive about taking it on, given its lineage?

Yeah, I was scared shitless! I wanted to run for the hills and turned it down multiple times. I finally agreed to do it on two conditions: One, Stanley Kubrick had to sign off on me. If he didn't, I understood and they should get somebody better, which I'm sure they could have. Two, the book that Arthur C. Clarke had written was not about politics. Everybody got along. I wanted a serious change, in making a Cold War film. Arthur Clarke signed off on it, and we worked together, which was also a remarkable experience.

Did you meet with Kubrick?

No, but we talked a lot on the phone. The first time I got a phone call from him, I actually stood up, at attention, and said 'Hello, Mr. Kubrick.' And he was so sweet and disarming. The first thing he asked me was about one of my earlier films: "How'd you make that shot?" It turns out that he'd tried to be admitted into the cinematographer's guild in England years earlier, and they would take him, either. At the end of our talk, my assistant came in and said "Well, what was he like?" I said, "Well, we talked for two hours. I told him everything and he told me nothing." Laughs.