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The wait is over for 'Takers' director John Luessenhop

Luessenhop had to drop the heist-film project five years ago to care for his gravely ill son. Screen Gems stood by him, and it will be released Friday.

August 25, 2010|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

Time waits for no man. And Hollywood's patience is even shorter.

Studios will hurry movies into production to make a release date. Producers will recast lead roles in a heartbeat if an actor is unavailable for a moment. And don't even think about putting a talent agent on hold — they won't be on the line five seconds later.

So when filmmaker John Luessenhop told Screen Gems five years ago that his 4-year-old son was gravely ill and that he needed to drop everything to care for him, Luessenhop could reasonably assume that the studio would find a new director for "Takers." Luessenhop was about to start filming just as his son suffered a seizure and stopped breathing.

But in a town notorious for its heartlessness — Disney once fired its production head while she was in a labor and delivery room with her partner — Sony's genre film label refused to ditch Luessenhop, and waited three years as the lawyer-turned-director cared for his son.

"I would have never done it without him," says Screen Gems President Clint Culpepper. "I told him, 'I'll wait for you.' And I meant it."

"Takers," an armored car heist film starring an ensemble cast led by Paul Walker, Matt Dillon, R&B singer Chris Brown and rapper Christopher "T.I." Harris, opens on Friday, where it very likely could win the weekend over the new fright flick "The Last Exorcism" and the re-release of a slightly longer version of "Avatar." The building momentum for "Takers" is strong enough that Screen Gems and Luessenhop have started thinking about a possible prequel — a nearly unimaginable outcome for a movie that could have lost its director.

The 50-year-old Luessenhop fell in love with movies when he saw "Citizen Kane" in high school. "My jaw just hit the table," he says. He was a drama major at the University of Virginia, and studied film during the summer at New York University and UCLA. He flitted around the edges of Hollywood, and says he was met with bad luck at nearly every turn: A talent agent died from a drug overdose, a roommate was killed in a car accident, and Luessenhop was nearly killed in a New York mugging. He went to law school and worked briefly in securities litigation, but felt Hollywood was his true calling.

His short film "Tick…Tick…Tick" played at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, and it nearly led to a studio deal. His pact with Disney never closed, yet Luessenhop was soon directing episodes of "America's Most Wanted" and 2000's independent prison drama "Lockdown," which Screen Gems gave a limited theatrical release (grossing $450,000).

"Lockdown" actor Gabriel Casseus did an early draft of "Takers" with screenwriter Peter Allen, and the script went through any number of rewrites and casting iterations. Frustrated at the pace of progress, Luessenhop left Los Angeles for Virginia, but "Takers" continued to attract attention, including the actors Tyrese Gibson ("2 Fast 2 Furious") and Terrence Howard ("Hustle & Flow").

"We were ready to do it," Screen Gems' Culpepper says. "And then I got this horrible phone call. John was sobbing, and he couldn't get the words out."

In September 2005, Luessenhop and his wife found their young son, Orson (named after Orson Welles), not breathing inside their Virginia home. He was taken in a helicopter to a hospital, "and went into very serious distress," Luessenhop says. Orson's temperature spiked, and when doctors couldn't stop his intermittent seizures they put him into an induced coma for nearly two weeks.

His parents to this day don't know what caused the medical crisis (they suspect it was a reaction to the artificial sweetener aspartame in diet root beer), but its consequences were indisputable: Orson suffered severe brain damage. Once a bright, affectionate child, Orson could no longer walk or talk or clearly recognize his parents.

Luessenhop rang Culpepper to tell him what had occurred.

"I said, 'Listen, here's what is going to happen,' " Culpepper says he told Luessenhop when he heard the news. " 'Not now, not next year. But you're going to need to do this. Why don't we just hold it? One day you're going to call me up and say, "It's time." ' "

Luessenhop and Culpepper had worked together on "Lockdown," and they spent countless hours discussing how best to make "Takers." Still, the director was taken aback by the gesture. "I wouldn't have been surprised" if the studio gave the film to someone else, he says.

For nearly four years, Luessenhop and his wife cared for Orson at their Virginia home. About halfway through that period, Luessenhop decided he needed to get back to work. "I said, 'I have to do this — make films again,' " Luessenhop says. "I'm just a liability to everyone if I don't. I'll just be unhappy."

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