This spring, Gunner, an action thriller film starring legendary Oscar award winner Morgan Freeman and Westworld star Luke Hemsworth was shot in the Birmingham area.
Bham Now hosted an exclusive interview with Joel Shapiro, producer of Gunner and Vestavia Hills resident, for an inside look at filmmaking in the Magic City.
About Joel Shapiro
Shapiro describes himself as an “obnoxiously proud father of triplet daughters,” who are all three graduating this May from Cornell University, Barnard College and the U.S. Naval Academy.
Before he became a movie producer, Shapiro worked on Wall Street. He first got into the movie business when he was asked to raise capital for a movie. A strong believer in understanding how businesses operate he set out to learn about every aspect of film production. He took on jobs as a grip, electrician, location manager, caterer, truck driver and much more to learn the ropes.
“I wanted to understand how every department operated and therefore, as a producer, understand the culture of each of the departments. Not only to solve problems as they occur, but potentially even prevent some of those problems,” Shapiro told us.
How the Movie Came Together
According to Shapiro, a meeting with Gunner director Dimitri Logothetis got the ball rolling on the film.
Fun fact: the script for Gunner was written by Gary Scott Thompson who created the Fast and Furious franchise—one of the most successful franchises of all time with over six billion dollars in total gross revenue.
“The script is nonstop action. I was immediately drawn to the director’s (Logothetis) vision for the project,” added Shapiro
Signing on Hemsworth and Freeman
How did Shapiro and his team score big name actors like Hemsworth and Freeman?
“We actually cast our hero first—the role of Lee Gunner—with Luke Hemsworth,” said Shapiro. “I had the good fortune to work with Luke in the past, in a previous film of mine. Luke immediately loved the project.”
As for bringing Freeman on board, once Shapiro reached out to his team, it was smooth sailing.
“They responded quickly and favorably towards the script. I think part of it is due to Morgan Freeman’s bad guy role in the film. In fact, he’s the “top dog, bad guy.” I feel like those roles creatively are always very interesting and fun for actors.”
Working with Morgan Freeman
Considered one of the most popular and admired actors of his generation, we asked Shapiro what it was like to work with Freeman himself.
“When it came time for Morgan Freeman to show up on sets, not only did he know every single line for every single scene, he was incredibly sharp, witty and he even played several practical jokes on our crew. He also knew the continuity for his character better than anybody.
I was super impressed. He is a gentleman and a pleasure to work with. He delivered a wonderful performance, and it’s a great honor to work with a two-time-Academy-Award-winning legend like Mr. Freeman.”
Shapiro is a big fan of Birmingham as a location to shoot films. In 2018, he produced a movie called Into the Ashes, starring Frank Grillo and Luke Grimes from Yellowstone. More recently, he produced Assassin, starring Bruce Willis, which was shot in Bessemer and Birmingham.
“One of the great things about filming in Birmingham, Alabama is the incredible architecture and historical sites. They provide unbelievable production value for filmmakers and storytellers. We were ecstatic to film Gunner at both Sloss Furnaces and Tannehill Ironworks. It would have cost millions and millions of dollars trying to replicate that production value as a set.”
When Will Gunner Come Out?
Since filming wrapped up last month, the big question remains… when does it premiere?
Shapiro provided us with a timeline:
“It takes approximately six to nine months for editing, color correction, visual effects CGI and music composition. There is a saying… you make a movie three times. Once when you write it. Once when you film it. And once when you edit it. We expect to have the film completed by the end of this calendar year and then released in 2024. It will initially be theatrical and then I’m sure it will be picked up by streaming services as well.”
At the end of our interview, Shapiro made sure to recognize the many folks that make films happen in Birmingham — including Kathy Faulk and her leadership at the Alabama Film Office.
“ It is the support of the Governor, the legislature, and the Alabama Film Office that makes projects like this possible in Alabama. One of the things that makes me very proud of Gunner is we really worked hard to hire as many locals both for the crew and cast.
There was a talented young actor named Grant Feely, who is 11 years old, and lives in Vestavia Hills. He played one of Luke Hemsworth’s sons in the movie and it is quite possible that he may have stolen the show when we see the final cut of the movie.”
More to Come
After producing Assassin, Shapiro became a resident of Vestavia Hills. He is committed to producing more movies in Birmingham and Jefferson County beyond Gunner.
He now has numerous production assets at Watermark Place in Bessemer.
Stayed tuned for the premiere of Gunner in 2024 and more films to come in The Magic City, thanks to producer Joel Shapiro.