Paul Walker's final dramatic performance in the gripping Hurricane Katrina tale Hours, out on DVD and Digital HD today, drew largely on his very personal, emotional recollections of the complicated birth of his beloved daughter Meadow. We have two poignant clips from the film, as well as a candid interview with the film's director, Eric Heisserer, who explains how he managed to evoke perhaps Paul's finest performance on film, as well as what he learned from working with the genuine, down-to-earth star who left us too early in November.
"I'm so proud of him and of his performance, and I was aware before the tragic loss that he was getting offers for roles that he had been wanting to do for a long time," Heisserer tells ETonline, "and his performance in this movie is really what opened those doors for him. I knew that he had gotten what he wanted out of this."
In Hours, Paul plays Nolan Hayes, a New Orleans man who tragically loses his wife (played by Genesis Rodriguez) during childbirth after she goes into early labor. With Hurricane Katrina raging around the hospital and forcing an evacuation, Nolan is forced to stand his ground and keep his baby daughter alive on a ventilator that's entirely dependent on a hand-cranked battery. With no one else around to help and new threats around every corner, Nolan faces one life-and-death decision after another and must fight to keep his helpless baby alive.
"It's an interesting analog for parenthood, about the endurance required to love someone who constantly needs you, so this really started as a love letter to parents everywhere," explains Heisserer, who drew on a bunch of anecdotal stories about the extraordinary experiences of Katrina, primarily the overcrowded Charity Hospital which endured a power loss for over a week, forcing the doctors, nurses and staff to manually power ICU and NICU equipment themselves. "That stuck with me for a long while," he says.
For his feature-film debut (after cutting his teeth as the writer such horror films as Final Destination 5, the A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot and The Thing prequel), Heisserer struggled to find the perfect leading man, but had learned that in Hollywood you take a meeting even if you have doubts or preconceived notions, because you never know when you'll be surprised.
"I had, I think like a lot of people, an image of who Paul was as an actor just based on his character in the Fast & Furious franchise, so I saw him as this sort of like handsome, chiseled jaw kind of action hero," recalls Heisserer. "Fifteen minutes into [our first] meeting I realized he was perfect for the role, largely because he identified with the character a lot. He had talked about the memories of when his daughter Meadow was born, and how it wasn't a pitch-perfect birth; he had gotten all worried and caught up in the anxiety of that moment, and he could connect with that. He spoke emotionally and passionately about it, and one of the things I learned about him as an actor early on in the process was … the more honest he could be about the performance, and therefore the closer to his own personal experience, the better performance you're going to get out of him. So that's how we started off the interesting journey that we had."
Hours was a pressure-cooker 18-day shoot: "As a first feature, they talk about you don't want to make a movie that deals with water, children or animals, and wow, I just went for the trifecta," laughs Heisserer. "The way that Paul looked at the end of the movie was the way we all looked, really. … If you put in an actor who had an ego that got in his way, or any sort of behavioral problems, one temper tantrum would've just derailed us really bad, but Paul was magnificent. He spoiled me, really. … It's kind of a gift [from] an actor when they deliver a very sublime performance; it charges everybody up when they realize they've got something that's working, that's valuable, and that was a great surprise."
Only three months have passed since Paul's death, and it has been very difficult for Heisserer to process the November 30 car crash that ripped the star away from all that loved him. Of the quality time spent with Paul in the months leading to the Hours shoot, the director affirms that the movie star was very much a regular guy: "We would just hang out together and share stories and talk about our upbringing. Sometime we would play videogames, sometimes we would just grab some beer. We would occasionally talk about his character, but a lot of it was just getting to know each other as people beyond that.
"Time will be the great revealer, in that the farther that we are from the tragedy of his loss, I think hopefully the more objectively we can look at this movie," says Heisserer with a heavy sigh. "So if there is any emotional baggage, be it good or bad, we can just see that it can stand on its own. That's what I would love to have, so that people can judge Hours for what it is, without it having that much pre-judgment about it. Talking to press, it's always going to be tough to pull those two things apart since so much of Paul was in this movie, but it's kind of what we have to do."
Asked what the greatest lesson was that he learned from knowing Paul, Heisserer took time for his answer: "The most valuable thing that I learned from working with Paul is a very important reaffirmation: There are a lot of people in this business that you find don't treat it as a meritocracy -- in that there's a lot more game theory applied to how something gets made or why something succeeds – and I had run into that problem in this business before. What I found with Paul is someone who just worked hard. He came in with clear eyes and full heart every day, and was honest with me about what he wanted. He wanted to make a good product, and that was a great gift because it let me know that there are people that just love to make good movies, and strive to make good movies, and they do that by working hard on it."
Available now on DVD and Digital HD, Hours also features a music video by Safran, and a PSA for Paul's charity Reach Out World Wide.