Interview: Luis Prieto on Pushing the Limits With the Stylish, Sophisticated Thriller “Pusher”

With a propulsive reimagining of the film that put Nicolas Winding Refn on the map, the director talks about his latest film's many twists and navigating the major one...
Richard Coyle in a scene from Luis Prieto's thriller "Pusher"

Given that he was making a film about a drug dealer who had just seven days to return ₤55,000 from a coke deal gone awry to a Serbian mobster, Luis Prieto could reasonably expect that most days of the shoot would be tense. Yet even the filmmaker’s pulse quickened when the film’s executive producer Nicolas Winding Refn came to see what Prieto was doing with the new version of his beloved 1996 underground hit “Pusher.”

“The first time Nicolas came to set, he was coming straight from Cannes after winning Best Director with ‘Drive,’” Prieto recalled. “I was kind of nervous, sitting down with him looking at the monitor, not saying anything because I don’t want to open that can of worms. I’m just going to be quiet and do my job. After a while, he noticed and said, ‘Luis, you are doing great. Keep going like that. Remember, this is your film.’”

In fact, Prieto has turned “Pusher” into something of his own by being far less willing than Refn to cut a break when it comes to suspense. Sticking to a story that gradually strips its lead Frank (Richard Coyle) of all the things that matter to him as he races around the town in search of loose cash, Prieto’s “Pusher” trades in the gritty brute force of Refn’s original film for a sleek sophistication indicative of a new era in which Frank’s tough guy act may be losing its punch despite the fact he keeps fighting. Touches such as an expansion of the role Frank’s girlfriend Flo (in a surprisingly vulnerable turn by supermodel-turned-actress Agyness Deyn) plays in his affairs and a change of scenery from grungy Copenhagen to London’s East End also bring a different energy to an immersive thriller already bursting at the seams with it.

As Prieto will tell you, a change of scenery also did him well as a filmmaker, taking an unusual path to his first English-language film. From Spain where he grew up with an interest in photography to arriving at CalArts where he made the “conscious, unconscious” decision to attend film school, he saw his first short “Bamboleho,” about street kids in Barcelona, premiere to much acclaim in 2001, leading to a career in crowdpleasing romantic comedies in Italy before deciding to shift gears with “Pusher.” That was just one of the many twists and turns Prieto wanted to discuss in our interview below as “Pusher” hit theaters this weekend following its VOD debut in the States.

You’ve said before you weren’t interested in doing a remake of “Pusher,” but was the chance to do something in another genre and another language than what you’ve been known for attractive to you?

That was definitely something very interesting. For me, the opportunity of making this film wasn’t to make a remake, but write another page of it today. What was interesting about “Pusher” is that it was taking me away from romantic comedies because my first film that was shot in Italy did very well, so basically it laid out a whole career for me. When people were thinking about me, they were always thinking about romantic comedies, so the idea of doing something very different, an action thriller, was bringing me back to my origins, where I started [with] “Bamboleho,” my short film that did very well on the festival circuit.

“Pusher” was [also] a very scary, suicidal idea to some degree because I knew Nicolas’ “Pusher” was a great film and I admired Nicolas, so when they told me about doing “Pusher,” I thought well, that’s just impossible. That film is too good to make a remake. That’s when the producers insisted, “No, we’re not making a remake. We’re going to make an adaptation and Nicolas is involved as an executive producer.” At that point, I read the script, thought it was great and I told the producers if you guys let me shoot my film, I’m good. I asked all the actors and the crew, do not watch Nicolas’ “Pusher.” If you want to watch a film for reference, just watch Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” just to get the feeling of something fresh and new. Ultimately by trying to do something fresh, starting from the script, I think we did something very different, but at the same time very truthful to Nicolas’ “Pusher.”

Once you started to consider it, was there something that clicked for you in terms of making it your own?

The idea of an antihero as your protagonist, someone who in a week basically goes through an incredible [transformation] where everything in his life that can go wrong goes wrong, it was like a ticking bomb, tick tick. It’s a race against time, this film. Also, it was a project full of challenges and that was very appealing to me. I was too comfortable making romantic comedies. I was looking for something that would challenge me again and another aspect of the project that was very interesting was the limitations of the project.

The producer wanted to make the film for the same amount of money that Nicolas had shot his “Pusher,” so that was roughly about half a million pounds. Coming from shooting bigger films in Italy, like three or four million euros – that was a challenge, but it was also very [liberating]. When you have a small budget, you’re basically going to be shooting a big short film, but shooting “short films” has a lot of advantages. Basically, everyone leaves you alone. You’ve got a lot of freedom and it’s all based on creativity. You’ve got to find solutions.

What’s particularly surprising about the budget you have is that where the original was gritty, this film is sleek with the aesthetic lending itself to the more sophisticated problems Frank has on his hands here, but perhaps not the bottom line. Could you talk about how you used some of those budgetary limitations to your advantage?

I knew what it meant to have a proper budget. I knew how big is your crew, how long it takes to set up that scene, to do bring the lights, and how much it cost to have that in the film. In this case, I knew I didn’t have all that money, so basically, the first decision was I’m not going to try to do what I cannot afford. I was going to try to shoot with [ambient] light rather than try to bring my own lights because my crew only had one buffer and if I have to wait for this guy in doing the lights, I’m not going to have time to shoot the movie. I’m just going to shoot the movie on digital — it’s really good for low-light locations. My [cinematographer] put in a panel that he could put in his hand, he can just take care of whatever he needs for the closeup of the actor and I had the advantage of having as much time as I wanted or needed for my preproduction, so with my location manager, my production designer, we just walked through London just looking for the best clubs, the best bars, and that was wonderful.

The other benefit of actually not having money and not having trailers parked in the street is that you become [more flexible]. When we had three locations to shoot the same day, I didn’t have to compromise and get the three locations on the same street. I could just choose three different streets of London that were far away, like 20 minutes or 30 minutes away, we’d just jump in the cars and drive there. We were moving really fast. Everything was like that. You have to get creative to solve fears, but at the same time, the producers are so happy you’re making the film for no money, no one tells you that’s a crazy idea. They might think it. But no one dares to say it because they’re very happy you’re doing it.

For example, the first fight in the film that is like a Western fight where people get beat up and no one really shows that they get hurt. It came from a crazy idea that people are fighting then they start dancing and I did it with all the freedom of the world. With a bigger budget, everybody’s going to question that – that ultimately stops the rhythm of the film and it seems a bit complicated – and that’s something I didn’t have to do here. Ultimately, that was great for the film because that was what the script was calling [for]. It was a very frenzied ride, a rollercoaster and I wanted to have that energy in the film, so they were not limitations, they were advantages.

Another potential limitation that it seems you turned into an advantage is the character of Flo, who in the original trilogy of films had a small part in the first film and subsequently became the lead of the second. The producers of this “Pusher” have made their intentions known that this could be the start of new series of films, so was expanding her role here something that came about organically or with an eye to another chapter? [Spoilers ahead]

One of the things I brought to the table when the producers proposed me to do this film was the relationship between Flo and Frank because I remembered Nicolas’ film 15 years earlier when I saw it at a film festival, and I remembered very briefly how the girl steals the money, but you don’t really know who is this girl? Her motivation wasn’t clear. I thought it was important to establish the love relationship between both of them. For me, it was important to know who is this woman who steals the money from Frank? Why does she steal the money? Obviously, she’s let down by the boyfriend again, by Frank and by stealing the money, she’s actually saving Frank’s life at least for the moment. So it was really important to develop that relationship to understand who is Frank and I thought the relationship with the girlfriend was very important for that, like that would be the only place where I keep him grounded, — when he’s with her, even if he makes a lot of mistakes, you suffer with him. We feel this guy is a victim of the whole system at the end too, he’s a victim of himself, of his life. My goal ultimately was to make a film where the audience could identify with the protagonist, so the relationship with Flo was really very important for that.

What was it like to turn in a cut of the film to the guy who made the original?

I wasn’t there when Nicolas saw the film. But when the film was completed, he was preparing his film “Only God Forgives,” so he was somewhere in Asia and I think they sent him the DVD. He watched it and loved the film so much that when we asked if he could do a cameo, he said, “Absolutely, I’ll do it.” So in “Pusher,” Nicolas Winding Refn plays a role, that’s the voice. He’s the drug dealer. When Frank calls, he’s actually talking to Nicolas Winding Refn, so that’s how much he loved the project and the film. So that was great. He’s a very generous person.

“Pusher” is now open theatrically in limited release and available on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, and on demand.

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