Fury and fate are fickle, dangerous partners. We can't predict their arrival,
and we can never know how
far from - or how close to - our true selves they'll take us. Dr. Paul Kersey
(Bruce Willis) becomes inextricably
linked with both fury and fate before he discovers exactly who and what he is: a
man seeking justice working
outside the law.
That stark, dramatic premise propels Eli Roth's action-filled reimagination
of Death Wish into a new era,
with themes of crime, punishment, and the power to fight back at the forefront
of the narrative.
The story was first told in Brian Garfield's 1972 novel of the same name, and
then in director Michael
Winner's 1974 landmark action drama, starring Charles Bronson and adapted by
Oscar nominee Wendell Mayes.
For the 2018 adaption, screenwriter Joe Carnahan (writer-director of Narc,
Smokin' Aces, The Grey) and director
Eli Roth (Hostel, Hostel: Part II, The Green Inferno) teamed up with Bruce
Willis, one of cinema's most important
and genre-expanding action stars, to look at Death Wish with fresh eyes.
"We dug in deep to crack the story and see how we could tell a story that was
relatable to audiences
today," says producer Roger Birnbaum, who put this new version of Death Wish
together with associate producer
Stephen J. Eads and executive producer Ilona Herzberg. "We knew we couldn't tell
the same story as in the early
'70s. So much is different in our country right now. Paul Kersey is pushed to
violence by his frustrations about the
lack of resources that the police department have. Only when a clue actually
lands in his lap does he decide to
go after the criminals who attacked his family."
Says Roth, "People have fantasies about cleaning up the streets, taking care
of crime, and being a crime
fighter. That's one of the reasons superhero movies are so popular. It's that
idea that ordinary people have the
power to stop crime and fight evil."
INSIDE A THRILLER: REVENGE, DUALITY, AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) has it all: A beautiful family, a lovely home
and an exciting and meaningful
career as a surgeon in the emergency room of a bustling hospital. But when
Kersey's wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue)
is killed during a robbery attempt at their home and his daughter Jordan (Camila
Morrone) is left in a coma after
fighting back against the three attackers, he enters a world he never planned
Emotionally shut down, Kersey leans on his brother Frank (Vincent D'Onofrio)
for help, and on Detectives
Raines and Jackson (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) for any updates on the
arrests of the men who did this to
his family. As the police show Kersey a wall of unsolved cases and become
resigned to the fact that his case will
also go unsolved, something clicks in Kersey, a man who, as his brother Frank
reminds him, used to be known
for fighting back in the tough neighborhood they grew up in.
Walking into a local gun shop, Kersey decides to arm himself. But his role in
the world is saving lives, not
taking them. No matter who is wheeled into his emergency room, to Kersey,
they're all patients in need of
attention. How could he seek justice on such harsh terms? Yet as Kersey ventures
into the night, he finds
innocent people being preyed upon. When he foils a violent carjacking and a
bystander's cellphone footage of it
goes viral, the media gives this unknown guardian angel a dark nickname: "The
Grim Reaper." As Paul Kersey
gets closer to Knox (Beau Knapp) - the criminal who killed his wife - the city,
unaware of this mysterious justice seeker's
motives, wonders how it will end.
"Paul Kersey isn't experienced with firearms of any sort - he's a doctor who
spent his life trying to save
lives," says Birnbaum, whose long list of credits goes back over 30 years and
include dramas (Washington
Square, Seabiscuit, Invictus), comedies (The Sure Thing, Grosse Point Blank,
Rush Hour), and actioners
(Unbreakable, Wanted, Robocop (2014), The Magnificent Seven (2016)). "When
Kersey first goes into the streets
to find out who did this to his family, it doesn't go smoothly."
"Paul Kersey takes on an alternate identity," says director Eli Roth. "By
day, Kersey is a surgeon. At night,
he goes out into the streets, becoming known as the Grim Reaper."
The duality isn't an instant fit: Kersey's first act as a morally ambiguous,
stealth Samaritan is
spontaneous. When he sees the men carjacking a couple, he reacts. As the car
speeds away, he takes aim and
almost impulsively shoots at it. "But the perpetrators aren't dead," says Roth.
"They get out and start shooting at
him, and he has to fire back. It's this moment of pure animal adrenaline."
"I wanted a moment of transformation, where Kersey realizes he could save a
bad guy - that's what he
does every day - but he makes the choice not to," says Roth. "We see Kersey move
his own moral goal posts.
He's a normal guy who's ethical and moral, and he keeps pushing the line further
in order to justify his own
Willis, whose performances have always contained a deep and layered
understanding of his characters
and the times they live in, saw Paul Kersey as a man who laid down, and
followed, his own preordained path.
"I truly believe, on a deep level, that everything happens exactly the way it's
supposed to in life," says
Willis. "Approaching this film, I thought it's clear that this character was on
the path he was supposed to be on.
To be a doctor, as Paul Kersey is, you have to want to help people. And then,
though it came from a tragedy,
after his family is attacked, Kersey gets to where he is because he's supposed
to be there -- one way or the
other. And all of that was there in the script."
Shue explains an early moment where her character, Lucy, gets a glimpse into
the aggression her
husband keeps a lid on. "There's a scene where Paul and Lucy are watching their
daughter Jordan play soccer,
and there's a belligerent man in the crowd who isn't happy with what's taking
place on the field," says Shue. "This
guy gets angry and starts yelling, and Paul confronts him and says, 'You need to
calm down.' They get into a
tense moment where you see who Paul Kersey could become if he's pushed too far.
There's a part of himself
that he needs to control."
Production Designer Paul Kirby's job was to help put this inner metamorphosis
into visual terms. "Paul
Kersey has a good job and has his life and family environment in order," says
Kirby. "He's done the right things.
Then he unravels, and circumstances take him on a journey to another place."
"He goes nuts," D'Onofrio says bluntly about Paul Kersey, who is the brother
of D'Onfrio's character, the
bear-like, protective Frank Kersey. "There's only one way back for Paul, and
that's to regain his sanity. It's a
genre film, and there's this murky element to it that will raise questions. But
you have to go into the deeper
aspect of it, and think about whether or not what Paul's doing is right."
Willis views Paul Kersey's transformation through the prism of parenthood,
something the father of five
"Before I had kids, [being a father] wasn't a part of these action films I
do," says Willis. "Now, it's a major
component. This film really makes you think about how far you will go to protect
your family. After his own family
is brutalized, Paul Kersey has zero tolerance for any bad guy to harm another
innocent person. And we show the
audience the underlying reasons why he does what he does."
Knapp (The Nice Guys, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, TV's Shots Fired,
Seven Seconds) says that
creating a memorable villain for Paul Kersey to go up against was crucial to the
"A key part of playing a villain is not seeing yourself in the mirror as a
villain," says Knapp of playing Knox,
the thief and murderer who alters Kersey's life. "But for Knox, it's different.
He looks in the mirror and this guy
likes how bad he is."
Knapp discussed the role in depth with Roth immediately after being cast.
"Coming right off the page, the
villainy in Knox is almost automatic, in his mannerisms or in the way he walks
or talks or grins," says Knapp. "Eli
and I wanted to make a great character, like the kinds there were in the movies
of the 1970s and '80s, where
they're really standout evil dudes."
Social media and technology provide an added layer to this modern version of
Death Wish that heightens
the immediacy of Kersey's killings. With that current, contemporary element
involved, it's easy to see how the
actions of the Grim Reaper could begin to rocket out of Kersey's control.
"The carjacking goes viral because it turns out someone is filming it from a
window," explains Roth. "The
video goes everywhere. Everyone can see this guy doing this. One interesting
aspect of doing Death Wish today
is that we really could show how these things go viral and everyone would
instantly experience the moment
pretty much as it's happening."
Morrone agrees with Roth that social media has changed how the world would
view events like the ones
in Death Wish. "The idea of a bystander recording the carjacking and uploading
it really resonated with me," says
Morrone. "I grew up in the generation of social media, where everything is just
a click away. That truly is the
reality of my generation. We all now find things out through social media before
we see it on the news."
"Years ago, when something happened that was newsworthy, you had to wait to
hear about it by reading
the newspapers the next morning or by turning on the local evening news," says
Birnbaum. "But now, with social
media so prevalent, it's instantaneous. You have eyewitnesses to everything.
That's what happens in our story,
and then there's an enormous, extra amount of pressure brought to bear on the
police to solve this crime."
Norris says the impact of social media serves as a central motivator for the
police to catch Kersey's alterego.
"We incorporate this new reality, and the fame and infamy it can bring," says
Norris. "The notoriety of the
Grim Reaper gets spread via social media, which causes the detectives' superiors
to come down on us and say,
'You need to catch this guy and put an end to this because it'll start copycat
killings.' It becomes part of the
motivating factor for the police to make sure they catch the Grim Reaper."
"It does create a hindrance to Raines and Jackson because it causes the Grim
Reaper situation, which
would have been simply within the police department, to go public much faster,"
adds Elise. "Before the
detectives can even get back to the precinct, everyone knows what's going on."
BRUCE WILLIS: CENTER OF THE ACTION
With Death Wish, star Bruce Willis continues to expand upon the multifaceted
persona that's made such
an indelible mark on American movies. "Working with Bruce has always been
something I've wanted to do," says
Shue. "I've watched a lot of his films over the years and have a lot of respect
for him as an actor. I knew that he'd
be really great to work with. Bruce is such a compelling actor, and has so much
charisma and power on screen."
As an action star, Willis has owned the genre since he introduced the
resourceful, tough and smart-ass
Detective John McClane to audiences with Die Hard. He brought the immensely
popular character back for Die
Hard 2, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die
Hard. Amongst those, Willis
also served up numerous complex character roles in films including Pulp Fiction,
In Country, Nobody's Fool, The
Siege, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable; celebrated comedic turns in Blind Date,
The Whole Nine Yards and
The Whole Ten Yards, among others; and even more action thrills, including The
Last Boy Scout, Twelve
Monkeys, The Fifth Element, Armageddon, Sin City, 16 Blocks, Looper, RED, and
being part of the hit
In addition to all of that is Willis' commitment to giving a wide variety of
independent films a high-profile
boost by taking on unique, quirky roles, including in Alan Rudolph's Breakfast
of Champions, Nick Cassavetes'
Alpha Dog, and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, among others.
"I've known Bruce a long time," says D'Onofrio. "We did a film together
before, Fire With Fire. We also
knew each other a little bit when we were younger. He's a great guy, great to
work with, and very professional.
He is always doing what he's doing - he's Bruce Willis!"
"Bruce is a perfect choice to play Paul Kersey for a lot of reasons," says
Birnbaum. "I've had experience
working with Bruce back to The Sixth Sense. He has the skills here to play the
arc of a man who starts off as a
doctor and is pushed to the darker side of his soul."
"He's one of my favorite actors," says Knapp. "I grew up watching Pulp
Fiction. I listened in awe on set to
every line and how he speaks. I just tried to watch and learn."
"Finding out I was going to be working with Bruce was incredible," says
Morrone. Adds Norris, "A lot of
things appealed to me about this project. Certainly, Eli Roth was one of them,
and it was extremely cool to work
"Bruce brings his own energy and uniqueness to the character of Paul Kersey,"
says Elise, who notes that
she was excited to be part of the film in every sense, "and then when you add
Bruce Willis to the equation, I saw
an amazing experience that I couldn't say no to."
For his part, Willis appreciates the different aspects of Paul Kersey, and
the complexity of Death Wish.
"You don't want to trade on tragedy with a character like this," says Willis. "I
like doing all sorts of different
movies, and you have to know where the right character traits should go. You
have to make your choices, and go
with it. There's a stillness to Paul Kersey through much of this film that I
tried to exemplify."
ELI ROTH CAPTURES THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT
Few filmmakers have burst upon cinema's genre consciousness like Eli Roth.
When the Boston native
made his first feature, 2002's Cabin Fever, it was an homage-filled nod to
classic horror thrillers with a
postmodern pulse. Working from his own script and also serving as a producer on
the film, Roth would go on to
spark a unique career.
Three years later, Roth combined his twisted sense of style with his sly,
sinister sense of terror to create
Hostel. Practically spawning a genre of its own, the movie would have a sequel
(also helmed by Roth) and
become the kind of one-word-shorthand that guaranteed its status as a crucial
demarcation in the gross-out
universe of scary moviedom.
Roth then spent time enjoying tweaking the persona he'd built. He wrote and
appeared in a spoof movie
trailer ("Thanksgiving") in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's "retro
double feature" Grindhouse, and
costarred as "The Jew Bear" in Tarantino's Oscar-nominated Inglourious Basterds.
As a producer, he nurtured a
new generation of genre filmmakers and fans with movies including 2001 Maniacs,
The Last Exorcism, The
Sacrament, and Clown, among others. As an actor, he popped up in the film
adaptation of Broadway's Rock of
Ages, as well as in small roles in Piranha 3D, Aftershock and The Man with The
Iron Fists. He followed that up
with directing the cannibals-in-the-Amazon psych-out, The Green Inferno, and the
psychosexual horror Knock
Knock, starring Keanu Reeves.
D'Onofrio, a genre-jumper himself and a true journeyman actor, says he loved
working with Roth. "Eli
knows exactly what he's doing, and he comes in very prepared," D'Onofrio says.
"He's got his own style. Eli is full
of ideas, he comes over after every take and gives his opinion and tries to
guide you in the right direction. It's a
pleasure to work with him."
"Eli is a perfect director for Death Wish," says Birnbaum. "With the Hostel
films, you saw a young
filmmaker learning his craft. He's acted in Inglourious Basterds. He has many
skill sets: he's great with actors,
he's a writer, he's really good with a story. He's just the perfect guy for
"Eli is such a contemporary and unique director that he puts a whole
different spin on Death Wish," says
Elise. "He loves film. If you stop and pause him for even a moment, he'll start
talking about films. That's so
important, to have a love of your craft. He's also an actor's director - he has
such a focus and commitment to
performance that he comes in, and takes it to the next level. He gave Dean and I
lots of freedom to create our
"He's one of the best directors I've ever worked with," says Knapp. "I
thought of Knox sort of like a young
Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper's character, from Blue Velvet. It's great how Eli
encouraged his actors to create
these characters from scratch."
FAMILY FIRST, ONSCREEN AND ON-SET
Establishing a rapport, whether on the set between actors or with audiences
connecting to onscreen
characters, was a crucial element of Death Wish.
"Because this is a story about a family, audiences need to get to know the
family as quickly as possible,
so we came up with little nuances that make them seem real, just like a family,"
The same feelings of closeness were felt by the cast and crew behind the
Birnbaum says he was overjoyed Shue took the role of Lucy Kersey. "Elisabeth
in this movie is a real
coup for us," says the producer. "We're all such fans of hers. She's a terrific
actress, we loved having the
opportunity to work with her."
Morrone feels equally warmly about Shue. "Elisabeth is great," says Morrone.
"When I found out that she
was playing my mom I sent her an email saying, 'I'm playing your daughter in
Death Wish and I really want to
meet you and start to get to know each other!' We ended up meeting for lunch and
sat there for two hours. We
just had great chemistry instantly."
Says Shue of Morrone, "She really is special. This is her first film, and it
reminds all of us to remember
how exciting it was when we first started out. To see that enthusiasm and
excitement in her made us equally as
excited to work. She has a beautiful spirit, and has so much talent."
As for Frank Kersey - Paul Kersey's brother and, as a stabilizing force, an
additional connecting point for
audiences - there's a lot there, says the actor who plays him.
"Frank is a bit of a moral compass in Death Wish," says D'Onofrio about his
character. "He's paid his
debts to society, he had a troubled, dodgy background, he was a petty criminal
and went to prison for a little
while, but he's changed since he was a young man. Frank is there in this story
to help even things out in a moral
D'Onofrio says he looked forward to working with Shue again. "Elisabeth and I
did a film called
Adventures in Babysitting many years ago," says D'Onofrio. "It was almost 30
years ago or something crazy like
that. It was my third film. I did Full Metal Jacket, Mystic Pizza, and then
Adventures in Babysitting. And I think it
was Elisabeth's first starring role. I never forgot her. On the first day on
this set, I went over to her and we gave
each other a big hug."
Frank Kersey is Jordan's uncle, and D'Onofrio says he was impressed by
"Frank sees Jordan almost as his daughter, too," says D'Onofrio. "He doesn't
have any kids, so she's very
precious to him. Camila is a wonderful girl and easy to feel affectionate
toward. She's very funny and outgoing
and very smart."
Knapp agrees. "Camila is very easy to work with," says the actor. "For this
being her first film, she's
fantastic. She brings a lot of enthusiasm and positive energy to set, and that's
what you need when you're
COPS ON THE CASE
Paul Kersey is a man driven by revenge, trying to restore justice to the
world as he sees it. But to
Detectives Raines (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise), the officers who
investigate the household breakin,
and who then are drawn into the hunt for the Grim Reaper, the Kersey case and
the Reaper case are two
strands in a city under siege. Raines and Jackson are determined to bring peace
to the emotionally wounded
husband and father and arrest the justice-seeker - without knowing they are one
and the same.
"Detective Raines is a longtime detective on the police force," says Norris.
"He loves his job, but he's
overwhelmed with too much crime in the city and not enough money to combat it.
Raines tries his best but he
also realizes that there's only so much he can do."
"Detective Jackson comes from a family of police officers and detectives, and
she has a great comfort in
this environment," says Elise. "When she's teamed up with Detective Raines, it's
a natural fit and a very
comfortable place to be for her."
The easy professional friendship the two detectives have complements their
different backgrounds, and
the lighter moments they share helps them deal with a statistic-strewn urban
landscape that threatens to
overwhelm the police department.
"The dynamic between Raines and his partner Detective Jackson is an awesome
one," continues Norris.
"Eli Roth wanted to bring a bit of lightheartedness. They're partners who've
been around together for a while.
Part of the way they deal with the stress and horridness of all the crime they
have to deal with is joking around
with each other. They have a good working relationship."
"Jackson and Raines are a Frick-and-Frack detective team," adds Elise. "We're
really smart and intense
but we also have a great rapport. A bit of levity between each other is their
way of diffusing the stress, intensity,
and frustration of police work. They bring another perspective and a different
Birnbaum says that it was the cast as an ensemble, further represented by
Norris and Elise, that makes
the movie work so well.
"Dean Norris was a hopeful idea of ours, that we could get this really good
actor to come in and help us
create this story," says Birnbaum. "We wanted to have a unique partnership of
these two detectives, and
Kimberly Elise playing Dean's partner was going to add a lot of chemistry. I
can't say enough about this
incredible ensemble cast. They really elevate this movie."
DESIGNING "DEATH WISH"
For the filmmakers, making the world of Death Wish seem real - from its
suburban soccer fields to the
hidden corners of the Kerseys' home to the bustling hospital where Paul Kersey
works, to the grungy garages
and hidden-away bars - involved getting inside its main character's psyche.
Production designer Paul Kirby
(Jason Bourne, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Captain Phillips) says finding the
right path began with the script,
and then making sure every detail felt right.
"Some films are very designed, like a historical epic or a science-fiction or
fantasy film, where it's obvious
you're portraying something that doesn't exist," says Kirby. "It isn't enough
for a designer to say, 'This is what the
film looks like.' There are different story arcs here, aesthetically."
"In Death Wish, it's all about the contrasts that reveal facets of Paul
Kersey's life," continues Kirby. "At the
beginning, his house and the hospital are Kersey's safe places. They look and
feel all-American. So those places
visually and tonally are very similar. Then there are parts of the hospital that
develop differently as the story goes
on, little subtle things that are pulling an emotional value out of the sets.
Kersey works in the ER and he's
comfortable there, but in the intensive care unit, there's a sense of foreboding
and impending death. As Kersey
gets out of his comfort zone and goes to places he wouldn't normally go to,
visually things get increasingly
textural, and the composition becomes more unraveled, and we see hidden doorways
and dark places."
"After Paul Kersey's wife is killed and he's told his daughter has gone into
a coma, he goes down into the
basement of his house," explains Roth. "I thought that was a nice metaphor for
where he is psychologically. This
is where Kersey would go to in the house. If you were a doctor, a respected
member of society presenting to the
world as if everything was fine but at night you were going out and killing
criminals, you'd be plotting and planning
down in the basement. So the basement sort of becomes Kersey's headquarters."
"The idea we had is that the basement was going to be remodeled, but the
Kerseys were halfway through
the renovations," adds Roth. "Now, Kersey can't be in his house. It's too
painful for him. I wanted something that
was subterranean to show him hiding from the world in his little lair. There's a
scene where his brother Frank
comes down to the basement and realizes how insane Paul has gone."
"So we started with this beautiful, warm, cozy environment that everyone feels
comfortable in," says Roth,
"and slowly it's going to become a chilling, scary place to be."
As opposed to the comfort of the Kerseys' home, the dens Kersey must navigate
to find Knox and his
gang were created for queasiness.
"In those scenes, Kersey is venturing into places that are off his radar,"
says Kirby, who conferred with
Roth and cinematographer Rogier Stoffers about what kind of lighting would be
used in those segments of the
film. "That world is exemplified in a bar, a liquor store, and an auto body
shop, which are full of texture, layering,
and unconstructed composition. They're like a labyrinth, a rabbit warren of dark
spaces that make Kersey
No less formidable was the police station where Kersey goes for updates from
detectives Raines and
"The police station represents the first time Kersey ventures out of the
normal parameters of where he
resides and exists," says Kirby. "It's about incrementally trying to take him
further out of his comfort zone. Eli was
great about giving good notes for those scenes and getting to the crux of it."
"Research is everything, and we were also lucky enough to be taken around a
real police station and to
talk to some detectives," says Kirby. "We got some great ideas from that. They
all want to do a good job, they
said, but they're overworked and under-staffed. That's what we're portraying in
those police station scenes. So in
the design, things are more textural and unraveled. It's not the safe, clean
environment that Kersey works in at
"The police station is also the first point of the journey where Kersey
starts to see the world as it truly is,
not how he wants it to be," says Kirby. "It's a world that he can't control. A
more chaotic world."
The design considerations extended to the exteriors as well. "One aspect of
Death Wish that we
discussed was how it would be like a gritty urban western when Kirby goes out
into the street," says Kirby. "Parts
of the suburbs are very low, so there's an almost kind-of western framing about
them - a lone figure walking on
"The downtown areas were really the things you can't replicate," says Kirby.
"The train, the downtown
area, the old-world skyscrapers, all the original skyscrapers, the canals - we
wanted to get a sense of the
grandeur and the scale of the city."
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