"This is not a Luc Besson movie," he said during a recent visit to The City, but added, “He's a man I owe a lot to."
Morel began as a Steadicam operator on Besson's "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" and worked as cinematographer on "The Transporter," before moving to director on "District B13," "From Paris with Love," and the megahit "Taken."
"I always try to make movies that have a realistic backdrop, and based on events or situations that are real in the world," he says, pointing to secondary themes of ghettos, terrorism and human trafficking in those movies.
Morel intended to make “The Gunman” with a little more depth than his previous films, but still entertaining. It tells the story of an assassin (Sean Penn) whose dark past catches up to him in a violent way; he circles the globe to find out who is responsible and why.
"It's about the shady underbelly of global economics and the exploitation of resources in the Congo by Western interests," he says. "That's pretty contemporary and it's not finished. If it does open your eyes and you want to Google 'Congo,' go for it. But it's not a documentary. It's still an entertaining ride."
Morel also worked very closely with his star, who gets co-producing and co-writing credits.
"He's a very serious, dedicated, and gifted guy," he says of Penn. "He works and he doesn't compromise – in a good way. Communication was good, and on set he was just the actor."
The director had read Jean-Patrick Manchette's original novel in the early 1980s in Paris, and remembered it. When the movie project surfaced, Morel and Penn expressed interest at the same time.
Morel says Penn added realism to the movie with his first-hand knowledge of humanitarian work and non-governmental organizations, and credits Penn with attracting the rest of the incredible cast: Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone and Mark Rylance.
"He's a talent magnet," Morel says.
With chiseled abs and huge muscles, Penn also happens to be in remarkable shape for a man of 54.
"He was already in pretty good shape. He's been surfing since he was a kid, but he worked hard on all the choreography and the training," Morel says, "I was so bloody jealous!"
IF YOU GO
Starring Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Jasmine Trinca
Written by Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn
Directed by Pierre Morel
Running time 1 hour, 55 minutes