Interview: Mark Williams on directing Blacklight with Liam Neeson and filming in Australia

Ever since 2008’s Taken reorganised Liam Neeson‘s career, the actor has embraced his action persona and, almost annually, kept his fans satiated with each subsequent outing.

His latest release is Blacklight, a slightly more grounded action film where he stars as FBI operative Travis Block who uncovers a conspiracy within his own agency.  To coincide with the film’s release (you can read our review HERE), our own Peter Gray spoke to the film’s director, Mark Williams, about helming the film in a momentarily Covid-free Melbourne, if he feels pressure on delivering the type of film Neeson’s fans expect, and which genre film made him want to make movies.

I, like I think a lot of people, have very much enjoyed this action-centric career Liam Neeson has embraced over the last 15 years, so thank you for continuing that trajectory…

One of my best (laughs).  Keeping it alive.

Given that he is becoming so synonymous with this genre, do you feel a certain pressure in delivering the type of film you think fans expect?

I wouldn’t say it’s pressure.  It’s an understanding that yes, if you want the fans that are loyal to him to show up, then you have to give them what they expect out of him, and that comes out of action and fights and being a badass.  I don’t want to disappoint the fans in that way, but I have been looking for ways to differentiate by character, as opposed to action sequences.

When crafting the film is it something you envision Liam Neeson in initially or was he sought out after you had finalised the script?

I had an early draft of the script and I always had Liam in mind.  I knew him and he became a friend, and I thought he was perfect for the part.

How did it become to be shot in Australia?

A friend of mine, Paul Currie, who’s a producer on the movie, has been trying to get me to shoot there for about 10 years.  You can’t really shoot in Washington DC the way we wanted to shoot it, so I was looking for a city that could be a good replica.  I just liked the idea of Australia.  I’ve been there a couple of times and I really wanted to go back.  We just got really lucky at the time too, it was Covid-free which made it a lot more user friendly.

I understand after shooting there in 2020, in early 2021 you moved to Canberra to shoot the car chase.  What was it about Canberra that made that move essential?

I assume you know Melbourne enough to know there’s train lines over every street you want to drive on, which is a problem.  Technically too, to get the shots we wanted was difficult to do in Melbourne.  We had previously scouted Canberra before shooting just to check it.  With COVID-19 Victoria was hit pretty bad early on, so we didn’t know if we’d be able to shoot.  When I was walking through downtown Canberra I thought it looked a lot like Washington DC.  They were very nice to us in saying we could shoot on the streets for four full days.

We did that shot for real (too).  I wanted to minimalize special effects, so we really needed that space and that time.  We rehearsed and spent a of time making sure it was safe so we could do some crazy things.

On that note of being physical, I hear that Liam Neeson very much likes to do his own stunts.  Is there a challenge in letting him do as much as he physically can?

He knows his boundaries.  His stunt double/stunt coordinator knows his boundaries too.  We designed the stunts for what we know he could do.  Obviously if there was something that crossed the line… we got Liam to do it, but then with his double it might have some more oomph to it.  He’s done it so many times that he knows what he can do, but the reality is when you do a stunt you’re not just doing it once.  It’s six takes from one angle, and six from another… and he just keeps on doing it.

How did you find the filming experience in Australia compared to that in the US?

The crew was all top notch.  Really excellent.  They put their backs into it and had a great attitude.  A massive shout out to my art department, led by Michelle McGahey, who’s an Aussie, who just made the sets bigger and better than I could have imagined.  I’d walk on a location to scout it and say that it works, and then I’d come back and she had made it even better.  It was amazing to see.

I noticed a few local actors in the film.  Were they cast specifically in Australia or had they been auditioned prior?

I was trying to cast as many Australians as possible.  I had slightly started before getting there, but once I got there I was open to anyone being Australian.  I was looking far and wide.

You said you got lucky with COVID-19 in terms of shooting.  Did you still have to adhere to a lot of protocols on set?

We were in Covid version 1.  We were one of the earliest big movies to shoot, so there were no rules, no rule books.  It was hard to find a test.  We basically created our own rule book by using the best information we could gather.  It was challenging.  There were definite hiccups along the way.  Fortunately no Covid related hiccups.  But everyone understood the procedure of being safe and wearing masks.  But, it was also in Australia at the time there were no cases.  We started shooting in Victoria when they had gotten down to zero (cases).

The action and thriller genre is one you clearly have affection for – I do want to quickly shout out Copshop, because that was such a wonderful surprise.  Where did that love of the genre originate?

Thank you.  You know, as a kid you just watch movies and you find those you gravitate towards.  I’ve always liked cars and gunfights, all the things you see in movies.  I’ll give a shout out to Terminator 2 for when he walks out of the fire for the first time… I was like “Oh, this is what I want to be doing”.  I think just as a young American boy playing cops and robbers and running around it was something I gravitated towards.

As a writer and director, do you prefer to direct films that you have personally written?

I mean, I guess so because you actually understand what the intent is on the page and you’re not going to get it wrong (laughs).  At some point as a director you take ownership (of the script) regardless of whether you’ve written it or not.  You’re the one that has to answer the thousands of questions that come at you through the day, so at some point you just have to speak (your) truth.

This is a cinema release too, which I’m always a supporter of, I haven’t quite taken to streaming only, was there ever the discussion around this going to a service or did you want it  specifically on the big screen for an engagement?

I’m still fighting for the big screen.  I fought hard from the beginning in conversations around that, even before we started shooting, knowing Liam had a big enough fanbase to do that.  This was always the intent.  We went through and did the Dolby Vision and the Dolby Atmos… we made it the full experience for the cinema.  Hopefully people see it that way, as it should be.

Blacklight is screening in Australian theatres from February 10th, 2022.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.