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Pierre Morel credits on-the-set training for his directing chops

Last year on Super Bowl weekend, “Taken,” the hard-boiled action film starring Liam Neeson as a former CIA operative trying to track down his kidnapped daughter, became a surprise box-office hit that ended up grossing more than $145 million domestically. Nobody was more surprised at the film’s success than its director, Frenchman Pierre Morel, who suddenly found himself fielding calls from a handful of industry executives eager to hire him.

“I never thought ‘Taken’ would do that well,” Morel said recently via telephone from Paris, where he was standing on the banks of the Seine after exiting a restaurant where he’d been dining with a friend. “It just arrived at the right time, because it applies to such a visceral and universal feeling. . . . When it opened in America, there was a worldwide crisis going on, and people needed to be reassured. Having this hero who was able to do the right thing for his family was comforting.”

Morel is hoping his latest film, “From Paris With Love,” being released this Super Bowl weekend, will follow in “Taken’s” footsteps. The movie tells the story of James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a personal aide to the U.S. ambassador to France who works on the side for the CIA. After toiling as a low-level operative, the agency finally assigns him his first big project alongside a partner, special agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta), who has been tasked with halting a terrorist attack in Paris.

Like “Taken,” “From Paris With Love” has been met by mixed reviews. It likely will make significantly less than the $24.7 million that the Neeson film earned in its opening weekend, but for a certain class of genre-loving moviegoers, “Paris” will be a trip worth taking.

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The film was written by fellow Frenchman Luc Besson, the screenwriter and director who runs his own production company, EuropaCorp, and has served as Morel’s longtime collaborator. The two met when Morel was a camera operator on Besson’s 1998 film “Taxi.” As they worked together on other projects and Besson observed Morel’s technical proficiency, Besson offered Morel a directing gig on the 2004 action flick “District B13,” which featured memorable stunt sequences of the urban running, jumping and climbing sport known as parkour (the film’s sequel, the Besson-produced “District 13: Ultimatum,” also hits theaters this weekend but is not directed by Morel.)

“We got along pretty well and one day he just called me and said, ‘I know you want to direct, would you like to read my next script?’ ” Morel recalled. “He basically woke me up, because directing wasn’t something I ended up doing when I got out of film school. I had been working as a director of photography for so long that what he said brought me back to my original goals.”

Morel’s affinity for movies began at age 12, when he first saw “Star Wars.” “That’s the movie, I thought, ‘Maybe this is what it’s all about,’ ” he recalled.

Years later, he studied at a film school in France. His first gig out of school was as a production assistant on a commercial. “I remember being frustrated with how long everything took,” he said. “Every detail is just so important. It took days and days to make 20 seconds. Back then, it seemed like wasting time to fix one little thing that, to me, seemed irrelevant.”

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He’s grown since then, but actor Rhys Meyers said he often witnessed Morel trying to harness his energetic personality while filming in Paris, where tourists filling the busy city streets could sometimes hold up production for hours.

“Pierre would just walk around with a Steadicam jacket on all day long, waiting to put a camera on and do something. He was always operating,” he said.

Before acquiring “From Paris With Love,” Lionsgate was already familiar with Morel, as he had once served as the director of photography on an earlier film for the studio, 2007’s “War.”

“We have known Pierre for a long time and were real admirers of his work,” said Jason Constantine, president of acquisitions and co-productions for Lionsgate’s Motion Picture Group. “We were incredibly impressed with ‘District B13' and felt like it confirmed a lot of our suspicions that he would make a great director after a long career as a director of photography.”

After the first week of shooting, the studio saw one minute of footage from the new film and moved forward “very aggressively,” Constantine said.

“It’s a commercial movie. It’s not taking itself too seriously,” Rhys Meyers said. “I knew what Pierre was going for, and that’s why I wanted to do this film. Everyone always says Pierre is this crazy guy. But he’s got a strong enough ego to handle these big films. Plus, he’ll go to lengths to get a shot that other directors won’t. He’ll hang off the side of a building with somebody holding his ankle to get a good shot.”

Morel, whose films often feature elaborate action scenes, had no special training in how to film them. “I just watched a lot of movies,” he said. “I was a Chinese martial arts fan and I learned by watching those and American action movies, honestly.”

Besson, however, tries to stay off set while Morel is filming. The two get together to work on the look of characters and set designs during the rehearsal period, but once shooting starts, “there’s only one captain on the boat, and it has to be him,” Besson said.

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Morel knows the latitude he gets from Besson isn’t something he’ll always experience as he moves forward to his own projects, which include an upcoming remake of “Dune” for Paramount.

“It will probably be a very different feeling once I start working with American companies,” Morel said. “Of course, there are more offers now. All of a sudden, you have tons of scripts because every studio wants to be in business with you. . . . I won’t experience the same freedom, and I’m fully aware of that. But I’m ready for it.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com


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