“I’m the bad guy here,” Liam Neeson growls over the phone. As Alex Lewis, a hitman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Neeson is adept at portraying the steely menace that made him an action star. In Memory, he ventures into new territories as an actor. Physically frail and forgetful, he’s no longer the scariest guy in the room.
Until, of course, people realize he’s an unrepentant killer – someone who shoots first, who doesn’t care about collateral damage, who’s happy to garrote, slice, burn and blast his colleagues. .
“You love Liam, despite his character being objectionable,” veteran director Martin Campbell told InsideHook. “He’s like William Holden in The Wild Band. He’s the worst killer and you still love him.
Although Lewis has some sort of moral core — he won’t kill children — it’s still surprising how far Neeson will sink in pursuit of a role.
“He was one hundred percent ready to go,” Campbell says. “He’s an actor, right? He doesn’t want to direct, he doesn’t want to produce, none of that. He just wants to act. And I think he saw in this role an opportunity to portray a more complex character, someone with more depth perhaps than what he has done recently.
Memory is Campbell’s latest feature. Last year he led The protected with Maggie Q as the international assassin and Michael Keaton as the remorseful hitman pursuing her. Before that, he helped resurrect a struggling James Bond franchise with Casino Royale.
In 2013, a friend gave Campbell a DVD of The Alzheimer case / De zaak Alzheimera 2003 Belgian film adapted from a novel.
“It was a really good movie, and I loved the idea of a hitman with Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. “Also, the complexity of the plot, with its twists and surprises. I liked the relationship between Vincent Serra, Guy Pearce’s character, and Liam’s hitman. And I really liked the cynical take on law enforcement in the story.
Pearce plays a sloppy federal agent trying to break up a child sex trafficking ring, only to run into interference at every turn. Half an hour later, Monica Bellucci poses as an incredibly glamorous El Paso real estate mogul with mob ties and a dangerously dissolute son. When Neeson’s character is double-crossed in a contract killing, he sets off for revenge.
Juggling storylines is part of his job as a director, according to Campbell. “The problem with directing is that you have to know more about the script than anyone else,” he says. “That’s the secret. I spent a lot of time on this script looking at the transitions, what cuts with what, trying to make sure the different stages of the story all made sense.
On some level, all feature film directors do this, but Campbell’s films are marked by his fast, focused pace. Memory was shot in 55 days, with the interiors filmed in a studio in Bulgaria. (Producers adhered to strict COVID policies during filming. Anyone caught not wearing a mask was fired.)
“I always shoot effectively,” he says, almost apologetically. “I rarely do a masterstroke. It’s like John Ford’s technique of just cutting the tap dance and you’ll have the stage.
So how do you make a film about Alzheimer’s disease without resorting to melodrama?
“That’s the whole point, isn’t it?” Campbell responds. “Once you’re there, you’re basically screwed. I remember going to Liam once and saying, ‘I think we’re a bit melodramatic’. He burst out laughing, saying, “Oh, melodrama, I do that really well.”
Campbell researched Alzheimer’s disease with an expert, marking every scene it came into play. Neeson’s character forgets where he left his car keys in an early scene; as the film progresses, his failings become more serious. “We were careful not to egg the pudding too much,” adds the director.
Memory has an array of weapons and a high body count, especially when Neeson storms a high-rise office building. In fact, guns are an essential part of many Campbell films. According to the director, safety on the set is too.
“In my experience, there has always been a system,” he says. “The armourer brings the weapon to the stage, opens the weapon, clears the breach and shows the actor that it is empty. Then the gunsmith says aloud that the weapon is unloaded. This is the procedure as far as I can remember. We have never deviated from this. I don’t know what happened on set Rust [where cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed in a shooting on set], but it was tragic. Never, ever in my career have I had a problem with guns or gunsmiths.
Although he doesn’t shoot the masters, Campbell prepares carefully for each scene, working on blocking on the spot before rehearsing with the actors.
“I sit there for two or three hours or however long it takes, and I kind of play the roles,” he explains. “If anyone saw me, I’m sure I’d look ridiculous. But that’s how I do it. I plan very precisely the coverage I need. Sure, I can overlap two or three lines with some shots, but I know how it’s going to cut before I pull it.
In an early scene, Pearce’s Serra and four other cops confront a trafficker holding a young girl hostage. Campbell creates tension by keeping the camera moving, even when cutting at reverse angles.
“That scene was shot very late in the shoot,” he says. “By then, all the actors had bonded. Scenes like this inflame them. They like that stuff. So once you have them in place, the main thing is to keep the cover in place, to keep it totally real. They all arrive in the room, weapons everywhere, they shout at each other, the trafficker panics.
Campbell credits his fast pace of work to the years he spent doing television for the BBC, where he learned shortcuts to managing tight schedules and limited budgets. Even an extended shootout with elaborate stunts that takes place in a hotel parking lot between Neeson and Mauricio (Lee Boardman), a Mexican hitman, took just two days to shoot.
“If you look at my script for this scene, every shot is listed,” Campbell says. “I went there a day early and understood every shot. I didn’t do any storyboarding or anything like that, I didn’t have time. I just sat in the garage for a day and figured out the logic of the scene. That’s when I had the idea of Mauricio hitting a car and setting off its alarm. And of course Liam can knock the hell out of the guy.
Neeson was pushing 70 when he did Memory, so Campbell was also aware that he had to limit his stunts appropriately. The actor delivers short bursts of energy, quick slaps and punches, which sound extremely convincing.
“The logic behind the action is extremely important,” says Campbell. “And hopefully it’s tied to the character, so it’s not just insane action on its own, which you see so much of today.”
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