*Interview* Director Ken Sanzel

AR: Thank you for your time Ken, too start off, how did you get into the industry?

KS: I was a cop who wanted to write screenplays, and had a childhood friend who went to work for Savoy Pictures. The third script I gave him he loved — but no one else did. The fifth one — a still unproduced script called CROSSTOWN RIDERS — sold because of him.

AR: You got to write and direct a number of episodes for the series Numbers, how did you get involved with the series?

KS: While still pretty active as a feature writer, I’d been selling pilots every year or two. Nina Tassler, who ran CBS at the time, asked me to pitch in with the show as it was getting started up — mainly to punch up the cop dialogue. I met with Cheryl Heuton and Nic Falacci, the creators, and kind of off-handedly suggested a major change to one of the earlier scripts. They asked me to do it, and pretty soon I was helping with rewrites. Then — as often happens with new shows — they got behind on scripts, and I had an idea for one. Cheryl asked how fast I could get it done… and before you know it, I’m writing for Numb3rs.

AR: Out of all the episodes you wrote or directed for the series, do you have a favourite?

KS: Arrow of Time — the first one I directed — is probably my favorite. Did a lot of things right there. Chinese Box — which I wrote as a “bottle show” to get us back on budget after Tony Scott’s season premiere went astronomical high (and taught me more about producing and directing in 3 weeks than I got in the following years) — was a really special experience. Rico Colantoni and Alimi Ballard spent 2 days doing scenes in an elevator, and it was like watching prizefighters work.

AR: Writing and directing for a series as big as Numbers, was it challenging writing episodes and directing episodes where you were not involved in the previous few?

KS: By Season 2, I was involved with most of the episodes to some degree. About halfway through Season 3, I was asked to take over as showrunner. So I was pretty involved in the writing all the way; I would venture that only Nic and Cheryl were more intensely and intimately familiar with the full scope of the show.

I’d directed two low budget features coming into the show — SCARRED CITY and LONE HERO — so I had some understanding of the nuts and bolts of the process. Watching directors at work — and spending hours in the editing bay — gave me additional confidence. And allowed me to work out theories about how I wanted to direct, for better and worse.

AR: By looking at your resume, you seem to love gritty cop drama thrillers, am I correct?

KS: Early on, I tried to avoid doing cop stuff, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the ex-cop who could only write cops. After Replacement Killers, I got pigeonholed for Hong Kong adaptations for a while, so there’s no outsmarting Hollywood.

I like action and visceral crime stories. I like westerns. I like science fiction, though no one seems to have taken that leap with me, aside from some early feature rewrite jobs. But yeah, I gravitate to earthier characters and moral ambiguity, and crime stories are a fertile field for that.

AR: You are listed as creator of a couple of TV shows one being titled Lawless starring Brian Bosworth, why did Fox pull it after a few episodes?

KS: I think they canceled it halfway through the premiere (which, memory serves, was switched from Friday to Saturday or vice versa on that very week).

I wasn’t involved in the show. I’d written and produced the pilot, which starred Daniel Baldwin, and had a markedly different tone. They recast and brought in Frank Lupo as the showrunner, and Frank retooled the show to look like a Frank Lupo show.

AR: Are the remaining episodes available to watch anywhere? How many more were filmed?

KS: Believe they shot 6. I doubt they’re available anywhere; I never even saw them.

AR: The second was Johnny Zero, such a shame it didn’t get a second season, right?

KS: Hah — another case where I wasn’t really involved. I’d written a spec feature, very indie, that felt talky and distended. As a mental exercise, I cut it down to see what was there, and had a 60 page script. The feature script I gave to director Ralph Hemecker (pilot director of Lawless). Ralph got it into John Wells’ hands — and I’d already written a pilot script for him for NBC that didn’t go anywhere. He asked what I thought about Johnny Zero as a series, and I gave him the 60 page script.

By the time Johnny Zero got going, I was writing and directing a pilot — DODGE’S CITY — for the now-extinct UPN. John Wells got R. Scott Gemill to retool the show to FOX’s specifications. I thought they did a great job, but it was considerably different from the show I’d written.

AR: Would you say writing for a TV series is much harder than writing for a movie?

KS: Depends on the series and the movie. I like the sprint of a 55 page script, but you serve many more masters than writing a feature. Unless you’re writing the feature for a studio, in which case it’s an agony of rewrites and managerial indecision. Saying it out loud, TV is way easier than features; the deadline is a writer’s friend.

AR: When writing Replacement Killers did you have ‘Hong Kong Legend’ Chow Yun Fat in mind when writing the character?

KS: Not at all. The original spec script I sold was a 48 HOURS – style comedic action movie, with Bruce Willis and Linda Fiorentino in mind. The idea to cast Chow Yun-Fat was Teddy Zee’s (an executive at Sony at the time). It was an inspired choice — to my mind, probably the only inspired choice.

AR: It must be a surreal feeling to have wrote the movie that was Chow Yun Fat’s American debut along with Antoine Fuqua directing?

KS: I worked with Chow Yun-Fat during the development of the script, and found him both an incredible gentleman and truly insightful.

AR: Replacement Killers is an action fans dream, it’s filled with action sequences! Are there any sequences that never made the film that you can tell us about?

KS: The original script had a car chase across a golf course I remember liking. Also, the car wash sequence as I originally envisioned it was more elaborate inside the car wash; the Heat knockoff stuff outside was all Antoine Fuqua.

AR: Were you happy with the way Replacement Killers came to life on screen from page?

KS: I’ll say that it made me realize I’d need to learn how to direct :). The script bears very little resemblance to anything I would have written; only the bare bones of the plot really survived. I think that Chow Yun-Fat was incredible, but for me the movie was a series of otherwise bad decisions. I’m glad that people enjoy it, but it was really Antoine Fuqua’s sensibility top to bottom, which is not at all mine (aside from the fact that we both love the work of Michael Mann, though apparently for very different reasons).

AR: Was a sequel or even a prequel planned out, did you have an idea for another movie?

KS: At one point during the heyday of direct-to-video sequels, I was briefly approached about writing and directing a prequel. I sketched out a few ideas, but the money fizzled before it got very far.
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AR: You also got to direct Chaz Palminteri in Scar City which you also wrote, what was the shooting schedule for it?

KS: I want to say 28 days, but it’s been a long time. Definitely the most days I ever had for a movie, wasted on my inexperience….

AR: Was it shot on location?

KS: Yes — we shot in NYC, Long Island, and Queens. All practical locations.

AR: You got to produce a few episodes of Blue Bloods and Ironside, what attracted you to both of these shows?

KS: There’s a long story behind Ironside, the upshot being that I was peripherally involved in the pilot script, and — while under a deal with NBC — had no intention of being on the show. When I saw the pilot, and Blair’s performance, and they asked me again? It was a no brainer. He was visceral and intense on screen, and an utter pleasure to work with.

Blue Bloods was another long, contorted story of being under a deal — with CBS at the time. I’d just written and directed NOMADS, a pilot at the CW that didn’t go forward, and was asked to run the show. About the only thing that attracted me was the opportunity to work in NY — which is home. Obviously, that wasn’t enough… and a rough lesson in saying “no” when you’re not comfortable with the people you’ll have to work with, or interested in the material you’re presented.

AR: Blunt Force Trauma was an amazing movie, it had such a throwback feel to the 70’s western movies, with a modern twist, was that intentional?

KS: Absolutely. I love westerns. LONE HERO was my first attempt to smuggle a western into a modern action movie. Blunt Force began with a conceit designed to blatantly allow me to make a western; though, as I wrote it, it became more of a 70’s existential road movie, with VANISHING POINT and TWO LANE BLACKTOP heavy in its DNA.

The 70s — not just the blue ribbon stuff like CHINATOWN and THE GODFATHER, but the genre work (BUSTING, HICKEY AND BOGGS) — is the spine of my sensibility. That, and 40’s noir, which you see all over KILL CHAIN.

AR: You managed to get what I would say is Ryan Kwantens best performance! Did you have a tight schedule to film this movie?

KS: 24 days over 18 locations in Bogota and the surrounding area. Ryan is an amazing actor — I could work with him for the rest of my career. And will try my damnedest.

AR: Your most recent movie is Kill Chain starring Nicolas Cage what can you tell me about it?

KS: When we came back from shooting Blunt Force Trauma, producer Gary Preisler said: Now that we know how to shoot in Colombia, how do we get back? I went to work on something smaller, that might take advantage of locations we’d scouted and not used.

AR: What inspired you to write this story?

KS: Nic’s section of the story began as a take on Raymond Chandler’s I”LL BE WAITING — the hotel and the pregnant expectation of violence. Initially, I intended there to be three intertwined stories, all taking place in the hotel, that I’d shoot separately and intercut, with the stories colliding in the third act.

Nic’s story was one, and Rico Colantoni’s — the sniper — was the second. There was a third that never really worked, and I told Gary that the script wasn’t working. A few weeks later, Richard Linklater’s SLACKER occurred to me, and I went back to the two working stories with the idea of handing off — the killer in one story becoming the victim in the next. That led me to write the Ryan Kwanten section. Then, bringing it to Nic’s part of the story, I began to figure out how to pull it all together.

AR: Did you write the role of Arana with Nicolas Cage in mind?

KS: Not with a belief that we could get him! Gary and I had approached him earlier with a different script, COYOTE, which he passed on. It was Gary and Eric Brenner, the other producer, who took another shot at Nic, with much better results.

This is why we ended up doing the opening framing sequence, which I blatantly lifted from THE KILLERS. The producers were concerned about Nic not appearing until halfway through the movie, and figured it would be better to lead with him and indicate that he’d be back. I’m not sure that it solved the problem — or that there was a problem in the first place, or that the movie might not have been better served by leading the audience from one story to another and then have Nic lying in wait to take the second half of the film — but there you go.

AR: What was your shooting schedule for Kill Chain?

KS: 20 days. See a pattern here?

AR: I have heard Nicolas is such a blast to work with?

KS: He landed in Colombia with the script memorized! Prepared, intense and unflappable at work, funny and kind between scenes. And an encyclopedic knowledge of film — in the evenings during prep we’d be texting back and forth, and he’d be sending me clips and movies that he was drawing inspiration from.

And he put everyone at ease. I mean, this is a film icon, and he never allows you to get rattled about that. He’s there to do the work, and make it interesting, and help the other actors (and director) do their best work.

Then, in editing, you realize he’s left behind dozens and dozens of little gifts you didn’t even see during the chaos of shooting. An expression, a gesture, a different read on what seemed like a much less significant line when I was writing it.

AR: What’s next in your career after the hype of Kill Chain calms?

KS: Gary and I are hoping to shoot AIR STRIP — a deconstruction of the spy thriller that escalates into Wild Bunch/Assault on Precinct 13 level mayhem — next year. I’m going out with a pilot, BAG MAN with Ryan attached. Basically, more of the same; balancing TV with small genre movies, which I could make forever.

AR: A script you wrote for a hugely anticipated series titled The International starring Dolph Lundgren and created by Sylvester Stallone, was announced, is it an action heavy series? What can you tell us about The International?

KS: The International was sold to CBS just pre-Covid, making good use of Dolph’s action chops and what I found to be a great laconic sense of humor. Dolph was going to play an ex-operative for a black ops branch of the UN, drawn back into the game when his mentor — who had betrayed him 15 years ago to become a gun for hire — resurfaces. Sly was interested in playing the mentor for the first arc of episodes.

The show was aimed at that sweet spot of delivering outsized action and fast paced episodes, some of the moral grey tones that make spy shows interesting, and modulated for network consumption.

AR: When can we expect release?

KS: It didn’t get picked up to pilot, so… never.

AR: Why didn’t CBS pick it up? I figured having Lundgren & Sly attached would have been an instant sale?

KS: You never really know why something doesn’t go. In Hollywood, people are very careful not to tell you what they actually think, for fear that you might hold it against them 🙂 Looking at what they picked up this season, it might have been too straight down the middle for them, though that seemed to be exactly what they responded to.

AR: Do you think it will be pitched to another network? Or is it just another shelved project?

KS: I think it’s dead, but you never know. It was developed pretty specifically to CBS’ needs, and CBS has a pretty specific house style, so other networks didn’t respond.

AR: Even though it didn’t come to screens, did you get to work with Sly on the script? If so what was it like writing with him?

KS: I didn’t get to work with Sly on the script. He was involved in the development of the premise, along with Dolph. That was a really good experience. And both of them are great in the room when you pitch; funny and relaxed. And it never hurts to have iconic actors sitting at the table with you. We sold it — in the room — to three networks.

In retrospect, we may have picked the wrong deal, but there’s no way of knowing. Networks commission 60-80 drama pilots every season, in order to shoot 8 or so, in order to put maybe 4 on the air. So you go in knowing that you’re threading a needle, working against their needs that year, favors owed, what’s leaving and what’s staying. I’ve sold upwards of 20 pilots over the years, been involved with the development of at least a dozen more… and only seen 6 or 7 actually shot.


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