Action movies are in David R. Ellis' bones -- part of his cinematic DNA you might say. A onetime stuntman on "Days of Thunder" and "Lethal Weapon," he's been shooting second-unit footage on high-end action projects such as "Patriot Games," "The Perfect Storm" and the upcoming "The Matrix Reloaded," for more than 20 years.
Ellis has watched the genre evolve from straight-on action sequences in "Bullitt" and "The Dirty Dozen" to the pyrotechnics of "The Matrix." Just hitting theaters is Ellis-directed "Final Destination 2," the latest installment in New Line Cinema's budding horror/action movie franchise. It opened Friday to generally good reviews, grossing an estimated $16.2 million at the box office.
Ellis has only flown solo once before, in 1996's "Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco," a family film featuring talking cats and dogs. Still, says New Line production chief Toby Emmerich, he never viewed Ellis as a creative or financial risk.
When it comes to hiring an action director, "I'll tell you what a risk is," the executive suggests. "Risk is when a guy who has made a bunch of European perfume commercials and a couple of alternative music videos shows up in a black Comme des Garcons suit and a great haircut. He starts handing you photographs by Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus and says, 'This is what I'm going for.'
"David worked his way up, apprenticing with some major directors, a process that harkens back to the guild system," he continues. "Besides, stuntmen only get a couple of chances to get it right -- and you need nerves of steel when you're directing a feature film."
"Final Destination 2" tells the story of a group of people who, having narrowly missed a massive freeway pileup, are trying to outwit death. Miffed at having his grand design upset, the Grim Reaper disposes of them in imaginative ways, each high on the gore scale. The $24-million original brought in $53.3 million in domestic box office and has had a strong video life.
The intent this go-round: Keep the formula, but make the group more diverse in age and ethnicity. Although the scope of the action is bigger, everyday objects such as garbage disposals and barbecues are still the primary source of suspense.
Ellis had ample opportunity to flex his action muscles. The opening car crash segment, which took 10 days to shoot, is already generating buzz. Emmerich calls the sequence the best action footage since 1971's "The French Connection." Ellis smiles when the compliment is passed along but notes that new technology makes a director look good and provides a safety net.
"Visual effects brought a whole new element into action," explains the affable, blond 50-year-old, decked out in a light blue outfit and shades outside his modest Malibu home. "When the flames didn't take off in my 'wall of fire,' I used computer graphics. Same with the logging truck that triggered the highway crash. Real logs didn't slide off right. Technology has pushed the envelope of what we can do -- everything has gone to a new dimension."
Many of the tools that broaden the action palette can be traced back to 1999's "The Matrix," he says. Actors were put on wires so they could be suspended longer in the air (a technique later used in films such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Charlie's Angels" and Jackie Chan movies). Crowd scenes were created through "replication," duplicating a portion of a stadium, for example, so the arena seemed full. And in a process called "bullet time," action was shot in slow motion through multiple cameras to exaggerate the effect.
"The Matrix Reloaded," scheduled for release in May, is even more cutting edge, he says, featuring a bad guy leaping from car to car during a 75 mph freeway chase, riding the cars like surfboards.
With stunts, too, life has changed. In the old days, someone jumping off a building would land in layers of cardboard boxes to cushion the fall. Now, with air bags and "decelerators" -- cables strapped on to stop the plunge 5 feet from the ground -- stunt people can be hurled from greater heights with an increased sense of security.
Despite the advances, Ellis describes himself as "old school," opting for reality whenever possible. What made "The French Connection" so powerful was the authenticity of its speed and some of the top stunt drivers in the world, he asserts. Having an actor outrun a fireball (a reference to some famous "Indiana Jones" footage) damages the credibility of a film. Ellis' mantra when shooting action: "Be safe. Keep it real." Most important, cool camera moves shouldn't overwhelm the story. "The challenge for me is to balance what I can do and what I should do," he says. "The action shouldn't call attention to itself."Preparation is the key to Ellis' success, Emmerich says. Every action shot for "Final Destination 2" was mapped out in advance. . In the end, the $25-million film came in on time and under budget.