Dave Meyers makes his feature directorial debut on the new thriller, which tracks the terrifying trajectory of Grace Andrews (Sophia Bush) and Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton), a collegiate couple who are tormented by the mysterious hitchhiker John Ryder, a.k.a. The Hitcher (Sean Bean).
The young couple hit the road in a 1970 Oldsmobile 442, en route to spring break. But their pleasure trip soon turns into a waking nightmare. The initial encounters with Ryder are increasingly off-putting for Grace and Jim, and they bravely fight back when he ambushes them. But they are truly blindsided when he implicates them in a horrific slaying and continues to shadow them.
The open road becomes a suspenseful, action-packed battleground of blood and metal as, in trying to elude not only Ryder but also New Mexico State Police Lieutenant Esteridge’s (Neal McDonough) officers, Grace and Jim must fight for their lives and face their fears head-on.
A Rogue Pictures and Intrepid Pictures presentation in association with Michael Bay of a Platinum Dunes production. Sean Bean. The Hitcher. Sophia Bush, Zachary Knighton, Neal McDonough. Music Supervisor, Jojo Villanueva. Music by Steve Jablonsky. Edited by Jim May. Production Designer, David Lazan. Director of Photography, James Hawkinson. Based on the film written by Eric Red. Produced by Charles Meeker and Alfred Haber. Produced by Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller. Screenplay by Eric Red and Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt. Directed by Dave Meyers. A Rogue Pictures Release.
Actor Sean Bean, who stars as The Hitcher – homicidal hitchhiker John Ryder – in The Hitcher, admits, “I’ve never been a hitchhiker, and I’ve never picked any up – and I don’t think I ever will, now…”
Zachary Knighton, cast as college student Jim Halsey, adds, “This is a thriller that shows real people in an extraordinary yet believable and accessible situation. To me, that’s the biggest fear; something that could actually happen.”
“There’s nothing in our movie that couldn’t happen to somebody,” confirms Sophia Bush, who plays opposite Bean and Knighton as college student Grace Andrews. “That’s what’s terrifying about it.”
Updating the earlier film of the same name, The Hitcher is the fourth production from Platinum Dunes, the company formed five years ago by filmmaker Michael Bay with producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller.
Given the success of the company’s first three movies – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning – Fuller notes, “This genre is a great avenue to give first-time directors opportunities in. Our intent with Platinum Dunes was and is to let them be able to realize their vision of a film.”
The Hitcher director Dave Meyers is, notes Fuller, “the first director who we’ve made a deal with before we had a final script. The reason being, we’d been talking to him for some time; we’d seen his reel and, from meeting with him, sensed that this story was important to him.
“Other directors will come in and talk about how they’re going to shoot certain scenes, and with which color palette. With Dave, we had a director who was more concerned about the story of this movie than he was anything else.” Form adds, “We all talked about the movie we wanted to make. We try and ground our movies in reality, and not make them flashy with distracting shots or weird effects. Dave’s take on this movie felt real.”
Even so, as the director elaborates, “We’ve got scares, thrills, cars, blood, vistas, and a love story. The Hitcher is actually a date-movie thriller, which audiences usually don’t get.”
Meyers is a top director of music videos and commercials who makes his feature film directorial debut on The Hitcher. He reflects, “I believe that people go to the movies to see memorable characters. Based on that, this project had what I was looking for; not only in terms of The Hitcher – who is to the road what the shark in Jaws is to the water – but also in terms of these two young people who you can care about. In most thrillers, they’re just one-dimensional kids who get killed off. In this movie, Grace and Jim are on a journey, not only in terms of their road trip but also in terms of their relationship. So there was a good character thriller here for actors, which made it something I was interested in directing.”
Form remembers, “After The Amityville Horror, we were thinking of doing a movie that wasn’t a straight-ahead horror movie; a thriller with action. At a lunch one day, The Hitcher came up. Like most people, I had seen it a long time ago. We re-watched it, and we instantly thought, ‘This is exactly what we need to do…’”
The new movie now has not one but two protagonists, Grace and Jim, driving it – both literally and figuratively. Form notes, “Most of our movies – the ones we’ve done and the ones we’re developing – have female protagonists. We didn’t think that a young woman driving cross-country by herself would pick up a hitchhiker, but a college couple would – and it becomes a very different kind of journey for them.”
Fuller adds, “Grace and Jim are in love and they get into this horrible experience; they desperately try to make the right decisions, but things get worse. As far as we’re concerned, that’s where true horror comes from, and there are real scares in this movie. “One difficulty for us in developing the new story with our screenwriters was getting John Ryder into the car with our young couple. That had to be changed from the original movie, considering that 20 years later drivers just don’t stop for hitchhikers any more. So, in our version, Ryder had to be able to maneuver his way in – which he does…”
The Hitcher director Dave Meyers says, “If you’re going to update a picture, then you need to bring something new and not just do the original movie again. There are certain key scenes that we’ve re-done, but with our own twist on them. The Hitcher is more dreamlike and ours is more real. “The biggest and most exciting change, for me, is having two leads who you can be emotionally connected to, on a more articulated journey and in love. There’s more conversation in our movie because this boyfriend and girlfriend play off of each other and deal with the attacks, the situations, and the cops. In turn, I think that helps The Hitcher come into focus a little bit more, in terms of what he’s after. That’s something I wanted to explore, too.”
With the director in place and the screenplay completed, casting began. Fuller admits, “Our casting process is unorthodox, but it’s what we’ve done and will do every time; we sit down with a number of actors and actresses and talk with them. This way, we get a sense of who they are as people. We tape these sessions, and then recommend which actors and actresses should audition for Michael and the studio.
“Andrew and I had taken note of Sophia Bush in another movie previously. She seemed to have a lot of energy – which you need to star in one of our movies, because they can be grueling physically. When she came in to talk with us, we saw that she did have that, and a larger-than-life personality, too.”
The actress felt drawn to the role. She says, “Grace is like me in that she’s outgoing, and a bit of a tomboy and a daredevil. I’m always looking to do roles that are different, and what was exciting for me in taking on this movie was that I could play someone who was a little closer to who I am – and indulge the side of me that wants to do stunts with cars! “She’s a fun-loving girl and pretty strong, and all of that gets put to the test. So, as an actor, I get to play fun, emotional, and action all with one strong female lead role.”
Comparative screen newcomer Zachary Knighton, meanwhile, “showed up to the audition on a motorcycle,” marvels Form. “He took his helmet off, and already we were seeing Jim Halsey.”
Knighton enthuses, “I have always wanted to be in two kinds of movies; thriller and onthe- road. And The Hitcher has always been one of my favorite movies. So when I got the call to audition for The Hitcher, I thought, ‘I have to get this part!’”
Fuller clarifies, “We had already met Zach, while we were casting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. For whatever reason, we didn’t go with him on that one. When he came back this time, we fought for him during six auditions over several weeks – during which time he came back to read with Sophia – because it’s not conventional to go with an actor who has not starred in a movie before. But we felt that he looked like our guy, one who would be driving cross-country with his girl.
“He had lost fifteen pounds in two weeks; he was doing whatever it took to get this role. It’s rare to see that kind of commitment from an actor before they were cast.”
The chemistry between the two young leads was evident from their read together. The producers knew that it had to be immediately believable on-screen to audiences. Form remarks, “On all of our movies, we bring the talent out to location two weeks early; this is so people can get to know each other. We all spend time together and hang out.”
Bush reports, “Dave and Zach and I spent most of the first week sitting in a room going over how couples talk to each other. We all drew from experiences we’d had, and Brad and Andrew had their own stories, too. For Zach and I, it was like putting a puzzle together, and we started working as a team and figuring out how to play off of one another.”
Knighton reflects, “You always worry that you’re not going to get along with someone. But I had gotten comfortable with Sophia throughout the audition process, where she was already really giving as an actor. Then, getting to know each other, we became great friends.”
Form notes, “When actors are playing friends, or in this case boyfriend and girlfriend, that time together matters. On our productions, the only people who don’t come during that period are the actors playing their adversaries.”
As such, Sean Bean laughs, “It was quite appropriate for what we were trying do on this picture! Sophia and Zach didn’t know anything about me, and I didn’t know anything about them.”
There was a separate sustained uncertainty over just who The Hitcher was, because Bean was late getting cast – though not for lack of trying. Fuller explains, “We didn’t have a second choice; we wanted Sean, but he was booked. Michael had worked with Sean on The Island, so we had met Sean and his agent. Sean had read the script and liked it. Finally, three or four weeks before shooting, Sean’s dates opened up and worked out. It was down to the wire.”
Bean felt sanguine about the way things worked out. He reveals, “I always try to choose projects that will challenge and excite me, and I’ve found that playing villains can be more psychologically rewarding. I quite like being scared by movies such as this one, where it’s based on psychological fear and suspense and tension. The script was a pageturner. Also, I had seen the original film when it came out, and I remember being very scared by it. So, I was delighted to be asked to play this very disturbing character – someone who pushes limits and gets away with it.
“I felt it was important that, initially, you encounter him as a regular guy and not as an out-and-out psycho from the beginning. Ryder is intelligent and shrewd, and a good actor; I see his clothes as coming from a previous victim, as he takes the part of someone else. He himself is a kind of phantom, without his own back story.”
Meyers notes, “Sean is the strong actor we needed to bring a strong interpretation to the role. Rutger Hauer’s performance in the 1986 movie helped define who our Hitcher was written to be.”
Form clarifies, “Clearly, no actor would want to imitate what Hauer did, so Sean’s is a different John Ryder – and just as powerful. When Dave called ‘action,’ Ryder would be right in front of you.”
The actor offers, “I like to see what happens on the set and be spontaneous about the possibilities. Dave, who has a great eye, gave us a creative environment where the actors could play around and experiment with a scene. We were able to take our time and find the moments that we might otherwise have missed.”
Bush states, “It was great to have somebody in your presence that you can watch and learn from. After the first two takes I did with Sean, Dave had to tell me, ‘Don’t pay so much attention to him and Zach talking!’ Because Zach and I hadn’t spent any time with Sean before he got in the car with us, I couldn’t stop staring…
“Sean gives every scene his all. He’s willing to go full-on, and I communicated to him early on that I was as well. I told him, ‘Go for it. If you’re hurting me, I’ll tell you.’ I did get some bruises, but that gave the scenes more reality.”
Knighton reflects, “He had been on my own ‘Hitcher’ list even before anyone told me that they were after him to do the role. Sean is always prepared – and intense. I think people are going to be really surprised by what he does with the character.”
Another key character in the film is a 1970 Oldsmobile 442. Form says, “We were thinking, ‘What is a cool car?’ When we saw the 442, we felt it was the perfect car for our Jim Halsey.”
Knighton agrees, calling the 442 “the coolest car ever. Just to be able to drive it in sequences was awesome.”
Fuller admits, “The casting of Zach influenced the casting of the car – and vice versa. In fact, The Hitcher is different for Platinum Dunes in several respects; first, we got to wreck some cars, which we haven’t done before. Second, it’s the first of our pictures that takes place in the present day.
“The biggest challenge, though, is that the heart of this movie is Grace and Jim’s relationship, which is something we really haven’t done before; in order for this movie to work, you have to believe in their relationship.”
Meyers says, “I worked with Zach and Sofia to create a believable romance for their characters; Jim is not ‘whipped’ and Grace is not objectified.”
Bush comments, “Grace’s boyfriend happens to be her best friend, and they get put through something horrific together. The stakes are higher because they’re a couple. You see them going through a lot physically and emotionally – it’s do or die.”
The story, and the relationship, comes to a brutal reckoning in New Mexico. For the filmmakers, “there could not have been a better place to shoot The Hitcher,” enthuses Form. “The state has some of the most beautiful landscapes and wide vistas I’ve ever seen, and they added so much to our movie.”
Director of photography James Hawkinson adds, “There’s wonderful skies and clouds there. Sophia has an incredible profile, so we did silhouette shots of her against the sky that were very strong. We shot during monsoon season, so we had storms circling our locations. The weather would change quickly, from hard sun to diffused sun, but that worked for filming Sean as Ryder.
“A film like this is made stronger by the lighting and compositions, which are extremely important to me. The early scenes start out very nicely lit, but then things start to darken and get grittier, even as Grace and Jim are driving through these beautiful landscapes.”
Fuller marvels, “The rocks in Santa Fe are so red and rich. The best part of driving crosscountry is driving through this type of terrain.”
That beautiful terrain sustained a considerable amount of action-packed mayhem, as the production carefully staged what stunt coordinator Kurt Bryant assessed as “hellacious stunts. We had a car chase at nearly 100 MPH, a stunt man jumping off a 30-foot embankment, and guys getting thrown out of cars, among other action scenes. We built a Mustang with special camera mounts on it. There was a lot of prep work on the cars; everything had to work precisely.”
“Kurt is the best stunt coordinator in the world,” states stunt man and stunt driver Corey Eubanks, whose career recently passed the quarter-century mark and who took a busman’s holiday from working on the Michael Bay-directed Transformers to be part of Bryant’s team. “There is so much preparation for vehicles doing stunts that people can’t fathom. A stunt that lasts seconds on film is the result of a six-week process.”
Meyers opines, “You can laugh and say, ‘Oh, boys with toys,’ or ‘Smash-and-trash,’ but on the set that day you will spend hours on safety precautions working up to a twosecond stunt. And when that finally takes place, you are exhilarated; hopefully the audience will be too.”
One sequence, where the 442 veers violently into a ravine, tested Eubanks’ mettle. He relays, “I’ve jumped hundreds of cars – not an exaggeration – and this stunt on The Hitcher was the first time I jumped a car where I was not able to see my target. The car just didn’t have the acceleration we needed, so we had to use the SWAG method – Scientific Wild-A-- Guess.
“On this movie, Dave welcomed all of our thoughts and ideas. Working with him, you wouldn’t know this was his first feature.”
Utility stunt man Mike Owen notes, “With that special Mustang – we called it the Camestang – we were able to get the cars inside the action. This was especially important for the sequences late in the movie.”
Bryant found a more unexpected addition to his team in the person of the film’s leading lady. Bush reports, “I got to do some stunt driving. The stunt team was saying, ‘Well, we need to get a bit of this scene with you, but not the whole stunt. 180 degrees but not the whole 360.’ And I said, ‘If we’re gonna do this, let’s do it right,’ so that the audience doesn’t feel, ‘Oh, there’s the cutaway.’
“It was truer for the movie and for my experience as the character. My rule of thumb is to do something as long as it’s not a risk to my health, and I had already watched the team – who were amazing – set everything up and test things. So Dave called ‘action,’ and I went spinning down the highway. It was a blast, but I kept having to remind myself to look terrified. Afterwards, everyone was asking if I was okay, and I said, ‘Can we do it again?’”
The careful preparation ensured that only some cars were harmed during the making of the movie as well as, reports Meyers, “one camera that got destroyed.”
Having completed his first feature, the director notes, “In the work I’ve done prior, one of the overlying principles was always trying to be true and real. With those same priorities, hopefully, a sense of realism and the human emotions between a boyfriend and a girlfriend have made The Hitcher a roller-coaster ride that audiences can relate to.”