Interview: John Herzfeld, director of Escape Plan: The Extractors

Filmmaker John Herzfeld has been directing and writing (and occasionally acting) for the past four decades, cutting his teeth on a couple of ABC Afterschool Specials in the early Eighties (1980’s Stoned with Scott Baio, anyone?). This launched a career that proved Herzfeld to be a genre journeyman, writing and directing such films as 2 Days in the Valley (1996), 15 Minutes (2001) and Reach Me (2014) and, for television, Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story (1993) and Don King: Only in America (1997), among others.

Herzfeld’s latest project is Escape Plan: The Extractors, the third film in the Escape Plan series which stars Sylvester Stallone (Creed) as security expert Ray Breslin. In this latest installment, Stallone’s Breslin is hired to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a Hong Kong tech mogul—as well as his captured girlfriend—from a nasty Latvian prison. Along with fellow team members portrayed by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (Den of Thieves), Sly takes on the bad guys, who are led by a sadistic, vengeance seeker played by Devon Sawa (The Exorcism of Molly Hartley).

Last week, I spoke with the lively Mr. Herzfeld, who talked about shooting the hard-hitting action flick on location at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, and about collaborating with Sylvester Stallone, with whom he has been close friends since the two met at the University of Miami in 1967.

Disc Dish: Congratulations on the new movie—it packs some real tough stuff. I’m familiar with a lot of your work and Escape Plan: The Extractors looks like it’s your first hard R action film

John Herzfeld: Yes, it is! And let me tell you, I’ve been desperate to do this kind of stuff and these kinds of fights for years. You’ve never spoken to anyone in this town who’s been a bigger fan of MMA than me. In my movie 15 Minutes with De Niro, one of the bad guys is played by Oleg Taktarov who was UFC Champion after he fought Tank Abbott in UFC 6 [in 1995].

DD: Wow, I remember that.

JH: That’s how far back I go with MMA. I used to to watch fights in warehouses in L.A. before it was legal—you used to get a call at the last minute and they’d tell you where to go to watch a fight. So, in answer to your question, I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.

DD: Well, you’re certainly keeping a certain sector of the industry employed—there are seventeen on-set medics listed in the film’s credits. You guys definitely don’t f*ck around, pardon my language.

JH: (laughs) Yeah, we had quite a time. Remember that fight at the end [between Sylvester Stallone and Devon Sawa]?

DD: Yeah, crazy fight. In a tight prison cell.

JH: They went for it. In a seven by nine-foot cell!

DD: And quite a dilapidated one at that. The bulk of film was shot in Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, which was where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed. An imposing-looking place…

JH: I’ve been to maybe ten prisons for movie projects over the years, and there’s been nothing like this place. And there are people who that think the place is haunted, which isn’t a surprise based on its history. And meanwhile, they have thousands of people coming there on Halloween every year who pay to stay there overnight! Members of the crew got scared, too. Some of them would look and say, ‘I can’t go in that cell block—I saw a ghost.’ I heard people say some crazy things. It’s very intimidating. The conditions are horrible—there’s no heat, there’s no air conditioning. And those cells… But it’s the greatest set I’ve ever been on–when I first walked in there, I was drooling!

DD: The whole Escape Plan series quietly became a franchise a couple of years ago. The third entry was announced while the second film, Escape Plan 2: Hades, was still being filmed in the spring of 2017. When did you become part of it?

JH: I came on board in July, 2017. Sly, I guess, wasn’t happy with Escape Plan 2 and asked me to come along. We worked very closely on the script–we wanted to make this third film a sort of sequel to the first one. We wanted to take that story and change the tone a bit—make it a kind of throwback to the hard action films of the Seventies and Eighties.

DD: And hard action it was–real bone-crunching. Mr. Stallone can really still give it—and take it!

JH: Sly is about to turn 73. That prison cell fight—there’s a minute where there are no cuts whatsoever. Look at what this guy can do! I don’t think I’ve ever seen another actor of any age do what he did. And that’s against Devon, who has fifteen years of MMA under his belt.

DD: You and Mr. Stallone have a half-century of history behind you. At any point while you were making this film—let’s say it’s while you were working on the scene where he puts a crowbar through one of the baddie’s heads—did you ever catch each other’s eyes and exchange a “look at us” kind of smile?

JH: I’ll tell you what to me was really mind-blowing. Rotten Tomatoes has a list of the 20 Best Fight Scenes Ever in the history of cinema. Sly’s fight against Apollo Creed in the first Rocky is number one. And what a phenomenal fight it was. And number seventeen is the fight between Charlize Theron and Teri Hatcher in 2 Days in the Valley. It’s moments like that where I think of who were–two guys in Miami who had no money, who were rejects from the drama department, who were never cast in any big roles or anything. And, yeah, look at us now.

Escape Plan: The Retractors is available now on Digital 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray/DVD Combo and DVD from Lionsgate.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.