John Suits Breach (2020), Bruce Willis

Director John Suits on working with Bruce Willis on Breach (2020), ‘Die Hard’ and filmmaking

Not too many people can tell you that they’ve directed Bruce Willis on the set of ‘Die Hard’. Movie director John Suits can. Find out more on that below…! Prior to that experience, John had the opportunity to work with the legendary actor in Breach (2020) an action-packed, Sci-fi thriller. Ironically, the movie features the escape of humankind from a devastating plague on Earth…

Film Forums Podcast presenters Richard Williams and Aiysha Jebali talk with John Suit – also a film producer and editor – about the making this movie and why the characters played by Bruce Willis et al should really have worn masks at the beginning of the film. We also discuss the public’s interest in movies about viruses during the Coronavirus pandemic, what he wishes he’d known when he first started out as a filmmaker, and so much more…

FF [Richard]: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself first?

JS: Hi, my name’s John Suits. Thanks so much for having me on. So, I’m a filmmaker and I’ve worked in independent film for many years.

About four years ago, I became more focused on commercials – still making movies, but also doing a lot of commercial directing. After having a couple of kids, time-wise, that works a little better.

Bruce Willis, Breach (2020) movie poster
Breach (2020) stars Bruce Willis, Cody Kearsley and Thomas Jane [Courtesy of Saban Films]

Breach (2020) or Anti-Life?

FF [Richard]: Can you tell us what your movie Breach (2020) is about? And why did the title change from ‘Anti Life’ or was that always a working title?

JS: Earth is dying and a bunch of humans are on their way to a ‘new’ Earth on a sort of archetype of a spaceship. While they’re traveling, some sort of alien entity is on the ship and starts infecting the crew. Then, some craziness happens from there!

And in terms of the title changing, it’s a good question. I’m not always privy to those conversations. So, it was called ‘Anti Life’ and now it’s called Breach (2020), but I don’t actually know why!

FF [Richard]: We’ll leave that as a mystery then!

FF [Aiysha]: It’s probably related to marketing…

JS: Yeah, the thing is, people who are much smarter than me make those decisions, so I’m just like “cool”!

FF [Richard]: My suspicion was – because of this year and what’s happened with COVID-19 – it might have a negative connotation, possibly.

That actually is a good guess. And also – I was going to say a ‘funny thing’ but – the not funny thing is, you know, we shot this last October-November and it’s to do with a ‘plague’… I’m like, ‘Oh man! This is kind of a bummer now, because there’s something bad happening to everybody…!’ One of the things that we got really wrong about that is, in the scene at the beginning, everybody’s leaving and nobody’s wearing masks. And now we know if there’s a virus around, that everybody will be wearing masks. So, that’s a good learning – post-Covid life.

I eventually learned how to raise financing for a film and get distribution deals in place.

Rising interest in films about viruses during COVID

FF [Richard]: You directed Pandemic (2016) and now Breach (2020) which features a plague on Earth – as you just alluded to. Have you been surprised at the apparent recent surge in online viewing figures in recent months for movies about viruses? Why do you think so many people have turned to them during this time? It seems counter-intuitive to me?

JS: Yeah, it definitely does. I think maybe people want a little bit of comfort. Or, maybe ‘comfort’ is the wrong word, but it’s almost like, by engulfing yourself in the world that you’re currently in, maybe it helps.

What was actually funny is that I directed this other movie, 3022 (2019) about the end of the world that was also on a spaceship. It’s not a very uplifting movie, but it came out on Netflix in March 2020 and it was in the top 10 on that streaming platform along with movies like 2012 (2019) and Aftermath (2014). All the movies were, like, you know, ‘the-world-is-over’ movies. It was right around when the shutdown started.

So, I think that’s probably part of human nature; maybe there’s some kind of comfort in it. I don’t know why. But, in an equal way, there’s a lot of, probably, interest in escapism, or just uplifting or positive movies I would imagine as well. Everybody’s got to find what helps them get through this.

FF [Richard]: Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes it’s a case of indulging in what’s happening right now to, kind of, not to disassociate, but actually to accept what’s happening and maybe even trying to learn from what’s in the movie in terms of coping mechanisms. But who knows!

JS: Yeah. I know Contagion (2011) was a very scientifically accurate about a lot of things. Obviously the virus in that’s a little more deadly, but I think people probably were watching that to actually learn about viruses.

FF [Aiysha]: There was also a show that became popular on Netflix – it was an Asian show – it was made very popular with this, because it was literally about a Coronavirus, and it was eerily identical to what we’re going through! I was literally freaked out. This was back in March 2020 as well.

But yeah, you’re right, there was quite a lot of focus on that type of movie or TV show. Science-fiction – although it’s ‘fiction’ – often does come into reality. Either new inventions are made that match what we’ve seen in movies previously, or certain events or situations end up kind of playing out. So, it’s interesting to see how someone’s imagination can go somewhere that’s actually a lot more realistic than we realise at the time.

JS: Yeah [laughs], totally!

Hired to work with Bruce Willis on Breach (2020)

FF [Aiysha]: Could you tell us a little bit about how you actually got involved in this particular project – on Breach (2020)?

JS: Yeah! So, as I had mentioned, I did this movie 3022 (2019) which I shot two October’s ago – a little less than a year before we shot Breach (2019). It was an into-the-world spaceship movie. It was very different from Breach (2019), in that it’s a much introspective, quiet, ‘depressing’ movie, which I guess is something I’m kind of into!

While I was an undergrad, I had directed two features, both I’ve never watched again – they’re awful, awful, awful movies! But again, it’s that thing of learning from your experiences.

Then, I was contacted by Danny Roth, who’s a producer on Breach (2020); I’d worked with him before on Pandemic (2016). He’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this into-the-world spaceship movie…and Bruce Willis is in it!’.

I grew up loving Bruce Willis movies, and so that just sounded like an amazing opportunity. Corey Large is a producer and writer on the movie and is a great collaborator and great to work with, along with Danny. So, that’s kind of how I got involved in it.

It was different for me, because I came into the process much later than I’m used to and I also wasn’t a producer on it, so I was more of a hired director. That was a very different experience for me. It was cool, though, because it allows you to not have to worry about a lot of things that I was used to worrying about and wearing many hats. So yeah, that’s kind of how I came to it.

FF [Aiysha]: So, were the principle cast already attached to the project, or was it just Bruce Willis at the time you came on board?

JS: It was Bruce and, I think, Cody was already on I believe, at that point. I’m not totally sure, but definitely Bruce was on at that point. Corey has a lot of great connections and knows a lot of actors. He’s got a wealth of friends and contacts that helped to cast out the other other parts, but a lot of the other cast came in a lot closer to when we were shooting. But, yeah, it got filled out really quick.

Bruce Willis and actor Cody Kearsley on Breach (2020)
Bruce Willis and actor Cody Kearsley on Breach (2020). [Courtesy of Saban Films]

Directing Bruce Willis on the set of ‘Die Hard’ (yes, really…)

FF [Richard]: When I was researching for this interview, my heart skipped a beat just for a moment when I saw what I thought was the next ‘Die Hard’ movie due out this year [2020]. It ended up being a commercial… Do you know if there are any plans for another ‘Die Hard’ movie? And would you put your name in the hat for that? Presumably you would…!

JS: I would put my name in the hat but I don’t think anybody else would! [Laughs]

No, you know, it was actually really fun working on that commercial. I work with this agency a bunch, directing commercials, and they’re like, ‘We’ve got this ‘Die Hard Bruce Willis commercial…’. I’m like, ‘I just worked with Bruce Willis!’ You would assume that it came through that experience, but it was actually a coincidence. I mean, it definitely helped when I was bidding on the project that I had worked with him, but it was this agency that I work with all the time – the marketing arm that had come up with the concept. That was really fun.

We shot during COVID, so it was very difficult because we obviously couldn’t have anybody close to each other.

So, we’re shooting an action spot, but nobody can be within six feet of each other. All the sequences where Bruce is interacting with people, he’s actually alone. Like in the car, we had to shoot it all on a green screen and put him and Argyle in the car together, and all those things. We had to build a whole advanced auto parts store, because, for COVID safety, not shooting in a practical store – they thought it was safer, which reminded me of The Room (2003) where they build a rooftop or an alleyway next to an alleyway because it’s like, ‘Well, we’re making a movie!’ It was not the most efficient way to do it.

What was actually nice was we had a four day shoot to make something two minutes long. Whereas with Breach (2020) you have 15 days to shoot something 90 minutes long.

So, that’s kind of what I like about commercials; a lot of the time you can really take the time you want to craft things. But, I also love movies where it’s just like a sprint the whole time, where you just put your head down and you go, you know, and try to get it done.

So, yeah, there were a lot of people fooled – intentionally – into thinking it was a movie and then, when it came out, it was actually an ad…

A route into filmmaking and beginner mistakes

FF [Aiysha]: Could you tell us about the route that you took to filmmaking? Did you go to film school or did you take a different way?

Yeah, so my route was kind of indirect. Some people are like, ‘I’m going to direct movies’ and that’s their path. For me, I started taking video classes in high school – 11th grade was the first year they had it. Then, when I went to college, I majored in Digital Video. That was when the Canon XL1 had just come out, which was so incredible. Now you look back at it and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, what a horrible camera!’, but at the time it was amazing!

While I was an undergrad, I had directed two features, both I’ve never watched again – they’re awful, awful, awful movies! But again, it’s that thing of learning from your experiences.

I did so many things wrong: we were getting a boom mic and we ended up ordering the longest one, because ‘longer is the better’, right? No. It actually means it’s more directional. The person holding it wasn’t sure how and I suggested holding it in the middle… So, you’ve got a super directional mic pointing at the floor and people talking on the side, so during the whole movie you can’t hear the dialogue properly. That’s just one example of learning from your mistakes!

So, I did that, and then I went to grad school at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) up in Valencia for film directing. While I was there, I made a feature called Breathing Room (2008). I did it with Gabriel Kyle who I was in school with and we did it for, like, $20K, shot in seven days. That was a psychological thriller and it ended up being distributed around the world.

Then, Gabe and I, from the company called ‘New Arts Alliance’, made a bunch of movies together. I did that for about a decade. And then, after my second kid was born, I got pretty burnt out on it, so I moved to commercials – but then I’d miss movies, so then I’d make a movie and then be like, ‘Ok, I need a break again!’

They always say that when you have kids, that it changes your priorities and I’m like, ‘Well, not me! I’m different’. Then, sure enough, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, it does change your priorities!’. It’s harder. For this one, I had to go to Georgia for two months and that was brutal. I came back every weekend – I flew back on the red eye out, and then it was a three hour drive, so I was exhausted. I stopped once we started shooting, but it’s hard that part of it which people don’t think about as much.

John Suits, Director Breach (2020)
John Suits, Director of Breach (2020) [Courtesy of Saban Films]
FF [Richard]: Yeah. At the time of recording this, I’ve got a seven month old who was born back in April 2020, so I can’t really imagine working on a film set or having to work hours and hours away from home like that. It must be a real wrench to have to do that I should think.

Well, congratulations! I’m sure you’re in that haze that lasts the first couple of years and then you’re like, ‘Wait, I’m a person again!’

FF [Richard]: It’s all good fun!

Finding finance for your film

FF [Aiysha]: If you were to give advice on finding finance for your film…. You were talking about how you were more indie narrative film-based previously, and you made a film on $20k. Did you guys fund that yourselves, or did you go out and seek funding? Do you have any experience of that process?

JS: On that one, Gabe, who’s my producing partner, was much more involved in that part of the process, at least definitely early on and for the majority of it. I eventually learned how to raise financing for a film and get distribution deals in place. We ended up doing 21 or 22 movies together and the more we did it, the more established we became in that field. We were able to start doing things like pre-selling and get distribution deals in place beforehand.

It was interesting, because I’m more of an introvert and I’m not good at networking per se. I’m also not good at being the guy that’s like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna make the next Paranormal Activity and give me all your money!’ That was never my approach. So, when I started raising financing, I actually would often start by saying: ‘Alright, imagine you’re flushing all this money down the toilet… Are you still OK with this? Because, if you’re not, then you should not invest in this movie’. That was kind of my opening pitch line!

Then, I would talk about the pragmatic reality of what the film market’s like and how our movies are performed. It actually was surprising that people responded to it, because I was being honest/pessimistic about the movie, versus being the guy telling them they’re going to make $100 million and stuff. I tried to give them a more accurate portrayal of how the marketplace works and all the dangers of it.

That, for me, also was important, because if they were giving me money to make a movie, I wanted to make sure they were going in with realistic expectations. It’s hard, if you’re like, ‘You’re gonna make $100 million’ and then they lose $500k and they’re really mad at you because you misled them.

For me, it was hard to have the burden of being responsible for that because a lot of things are outside of your control. Like, we get a minimum guarantee from a distribution company and they put the movie out and then go out of business, and never pay, you know? So, there’d be things like that.

Even if you protect the movie as much as you can, there’s things that can happen that are outside of your control. So, how I approach it is just to try to be as candid and transparent as possible so they can’t say at end of the process, ‘You never told me that’ I wanted to make sure that I could, at least, in good conscience, get the investment with them going into the situation with as much knowledge as I could offer.

FF [Aiysha]: I think that’s really good, because then if you do over deliver then those people definitely want to work with you again. And they’re going to be far happier, because they didn’t have any expectations.

Yeah, and that definitely was the approach. That was actually something that was very different on Breach (2020). That was my first movie in a very long time where I was just hired onto the movie, so I got involved much later in the process and I wasn’t a producer on it. So, it was a very different experience, but it was cool in some ways too – you have a lot less control, but it also means you have a lot less responsibility and not having that burden of, you know, dealing with the finances, and the distribution deals, and the contracts and all that stuff. That, actually, was really nice.

Advice for aspiring filmmakers? Listen to feedback!

FF [Richard]: What do you wish you’d been told when you first embarked on a career as a filmmaker? What advice would you have liked to have had when you started out?

I think a very important thing that took me a long time to learn, is listening to feedback. When I was in film school, I’d show a short film or a script and everybody would be like, ‘Here’s all the stuff wrong with it! Here’s why it doesn’t work…’ And I’d be like, ‘No, no, no, you guys are all wrong and I’m right!’.

In my brain, I would sit there and listen to the feedbac2k and be like, ‘Oh, uh-huh, uh-huh’, meanwhile thinking, ‘You’re stupid, you’re stupid, you’re stupid, you don’t get it”, and then I’d make it and be like, ‘Oh, I’m stupid’.

I think that’s a big part of the process: always growing, always learning. As soon as you think you’ve got it all figured out, that’s when you stop growing as a filmmaker. And it’s also just being realistic. The film industry goes through waves of what the value of a movie is, and there’s other fields, like TV and commercials, that are much more stable in a lot of ways. But, for film, you’ve got to love it doing it. When you get into a project, I think it’s important to be realistic about what it is – and don’t lie to yourself about what it is. Know what you’re making, and then do the best you can with the circumstances.

If you’re doing a commercial and you have four days for two minutes – you can do a lot more – but don’t try to take that attitude to a movie where you have 15 days, because if you try to approach it that way, you’re going to not end up having a movie at the end of the day.

The way I try to work is just to approach every situation knowing what it is and trying to do the best I can with the circumstances, always.