Rogue director M.J. Bassett on creating a rip-roaring good movie

M.J. Bassett dishes on the new Philip Winchester movie Rogue.

Chicago Justice fans have to check out Rogue, which features Philip Winchester in a return to the action genre. It also reunites him with writer, director and producer M.J. Bassett, who helmed and co-wrote the thriller.

M.J. is one of the best action directors in any medium; Rogue is no exception. She recently joined One Chicago Center for a discussion about the making of the film, being reunited with Philip for the fourth time in their careers, and what it is about the genre that makes it such a perfect fit for her.

You can stream Rogue now through Amazon Video or order the Blu-Ray (which includes a digital copy) from Amazon.

One Chicago Center: How did Rogue come together originally? Because it’s part action movie, part survival thriller; it’s sort of two films at the same time.

M.J. Bassett: My producing partner, Molly Hassell, we’ve been friends for a long time and never made a movie together. She said to me, I think I’ve got Lionsgate and a financing company to pony up for some very, very low budget movies which will have an environmental theme. Would you like to be executive producer? Because I know that you know about this stuff.

And I said no, I would like to make them, please. In my head, I thought I can take all the stuff I like to do—the running, jumping, chasing, exploding, shooting genre stuff—but also fold in a whole world that I’d never explored before.

I’ve been involved in environmental causes since I was a teenager. I actually wanted to be a wildlife vet in Africa, and I started as a wildlife filmmaker. I’d diverged from that path to make these genre pictures. I thought I can figure a way of making these things happen together. And being low budget meant that I had real creative freedom.

So basically, they left me alone and they said, what do you want to do? I said, I want to make a movie like this—an action piece with all the horror beats in there as well and survival stuff and the character stuff. And underlying that, I want it to be an environmental message about lion farming. And that’s how it worked.

OCC: Rogue also serves as a cross-section of your career. Philip Winchester and Jessica Sutton are two of your leads, and you’ve worked with both of them multiple times. Was that casting intentional or how did they come into the picture?

MJB: I totally set out to do it that way, because I knew that it was going to be low budget. This was a 22-day shoot and three and a half million dollars, so a nothing movie in the grand scheme of things.

I knew Phil wasn’t working. He was at home getting bored. I said hey, I’m going to do this movie in Africa. Do you want to come play? And he was like, I’m in. Then Jess Sutton, we’d just done Motherland together and she was in Inside Man 2 for me as well, so she was there. The other part of the team, I’d shot with all of them before. And Isabel, my daughter, we co-wrote it together. Then Megan [Fox] got on board, which changed the balance of the whole thing a little bit as well.

I’ve shot in South Africa a lot, so the crews I knew, the special effects people, the stunt people. It was like bringing the family together. And that, for me, is the primary objective of filmmaking. Apart from telling the story, it’s work with people you like and have a good time doing it.

OCC: Everyone is talking about Megan Fox toplining this movie. She has to lead Rogue, literally and metaphorically, and it’s not a role people will expect to see her in. What did she bring to the project for you?

MJB: The truth of the matter is, when Megan’s name came up I dismissed it immediately because I just didn’t see her in the role. I didn’t think she would be interested. I didn’t think we could afford to pay her. It just seemed like so many stupid things in a row. But they said well, send her the script. You’re in a place in your career where you’ll get a read, at least. She read it and she liked it. And it was simple as that.

I went to meet her at a coffee shop in L.A. She was a lovely woman. She’s thoughtful and quiet and she’s very into environmental issues. She knew that this role was a really different part for her, as well. And I think that’s why she liked it. I don’t think anybody’s ever offered her a kick-ass, non-sexualized female lead before. I hate that stuff for her. I hate that stuff for anybody. To allow her the opportunity to toughen up and present herself in a tough way was great for her. And of course, she brings the the conversation.

OCC: Do you have moments from or aspects of Rogue that you love and want the audience to look out for as they see the movie?

MJB: Philip Winchester’s amazing in this movie. This is the best thing I’ve ever seen him do. He let rip, he’s funny, he’s heartfelt, he’s badass, he’s brilliant. He should be the biggest action star on the planet and I don’t understand why he’s not. So he’s got a couple of good bits.

My favorite scene in the whole movie is the elephant sequence; I love that. I think it’s a completely otherworldly moment in this dark and intense movie. The first 25 minutes of rock’em, sock’em, kick-ass, non-stop action…Every bit of this movie is me. I love that I got to do action. I love that I got to do a bit of horror. I got to do some character stuff in a place that I love with people I love. It’s the best experience I’ve ever had.

OCC: How was working on Rogue from a writing standpoint? Especially getting to co-write with Isabel, which is obviously a meaningful experience.

MJB: The thing of it was that I knew exactly the movie I wanted to make, from the moment I talked to Molly. We got three of these things lined up, so I knew what each of these films was going to be. With Rogue, I was busy. It’s like, I don’t have time to get this script done. Izzy is an incredibly good writer but she doesn’t write like me at all. She writes dark, intense, very feminist work. She doesn’t like genre. Never has done. No matter what I did to her when she was growing up, I couldn’t get her into this stuff.

So I wrote like a treatment for the movie. These are the beats, these are the characters, now give me your voice within this. Make Megan’s character strong. Make them funny. Give me what you’ve got. She did her version of it and, okay, there’s lots here I can work with. Then I re-wrote it, and then she beat me up for what I changed, and then we beat each other up a little bit. By a process, the script was good enough to send to actors, and then we built the film that way.

But because we were both on the set as writers as well I’d be like, this isn’t really working. Let’s change it. Or we’ve lost this location or there’ll be some challenge. Then we were both in a position to argue it back and forth. And also, I’m very open on the set to actors having ideas, even crew members. I’ll take your best idea. I’m not proud. It all gets credited. I get blamed or credited no matter what happens, so might as well do it all.

OCC: From Rogue to Strike Back to Solomon Kane, you’ve done so many great action projects in your career. What is it about this genre that continues to appeal to you as a filmmaker?

MJB: What’s not to love? A lot of directors like the breadth and the planning and the meticulous thing. A lot of directors like the post-edit process, where you’re reshaping the story. I like shooting. I like being on the set and I love the kinetic energy of creating. It’s like I get to play. Ever since I was little, I played make believe games and I was in my school yard, directing other people how to play the game. “And you’ll go there, and you’ll hide here, and this stick is a gun.” So, I’m just doing that.

The most important thing for me, though, is I get to form character and narrative within that, as well. If you like it, action’s relatively easy to shoot. Giving it meaning and resonance is really, really hard. Moving character forward through action, like James Cameron does better than anybody else, it’s the character and the action. They’re the same thing. It’s the dance of the two things. If I can do that, I love it.

I shoot kind of rough and ready, kinetic action quite well. I like to make it quite intense and visceral. For instance, Ang Lee shoots action very well; it’s really very orchestrated. I think it should be more instant than that. That’s my personal style. Also, when you don’t have much time, you block out the entire gunfight. I’m not doing it in pieces. We start at the beginning and I can shoot the entire gun fight for ten minutes non-stop, repeating over and over again. I love it. It’s my favorite thing.

OCC: Is there anything else about Rogue that you want audiences to know? Or anything you want to say about the next movies you’ve got coming up for us to look forward to?

MJB: I’m so proud of this film. I’m really pleased that I got Megan to allow me to share this with the world.

As we speak, I’m packing my bags behind me to go start the next movie. We fly to Kenya on Thursday and we’re going to try and set up the next film. This one’s more of a survival thriller with civilians, so there’s not as much gunfire. A little bit more character, even a little bit more intense. And then the one after that is going to be about what we’re doing to the oceans. So yeah, I’ve got all these plans.

I’ve had big changes in my life. And at some point, I want to tell a story about that—but again, wrap it into genre, whether it’s a horror thing or an action thing or a combination of both or I throw something completely wild in there.

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