(CNN) — Paul Walker‘s new film — one of the last he completed — was going to start a new chapter for the “Fast and Furious” actor, says its director.
“He had gushed to me about the new offers he was getting from people who’d seen his performance,” says Eric Heisserer, the first-time director of “Hours,” which opens Friday. “His career was finally going in a direction that he was excited about for the first time in many years.”
The dramatic film, about a New Orleans man trying to keep his newborn alive in the face of Hurricane Katrina’s chaos, marked a change of pace for Walker after making a name for himself in the “Fast and Furious” series. Walker’s in practically every frame, agonizing over his baby, mourning his losses, willing himself to continue as his hospital is evacuated and the city is overwhelmed by floodwaters.
Walker died November 30 in a horrific auto accident while riding in a friend’s high-performance sports car. His death has inspired shock and sadness as “Fast and Furious” colleagues remembered his spirit and fans paid tribute to his charity and generosity.
Heisserer, too, was left in shock by Walker’s death. The news reached him over the Thanksgiving holiday, which he was spending in Oklahoma with family.
He remembers a “kind and patient” video-game fanatic who never pulled rank, even though he was the film’s only name performer and one of its producers.
“He was just eager to do a great job, and that kind of inspired everybody else to step up their game and make sure they were committing the same way Paul was,” Heisserer says.
The “Hours” writer and director, his voice frequently quivering with emotion during a 20-minute phone interview, talked with CNN about working with Walker and the making of the film. The interview has been edited and condensed:
CNN: Where did the movie idea come from?
Eric Heisserer: It started with (a) short story born out of my time in Houston. I knew plenty of people in New Orleans and Louisiana, many of whom who had to evacuate and who were refugees at the Astrodome in Houston. Some of my friends told me specific little horror stories about that time. And a friend told me about the fears he had as a father — he was about to have a child — and the story of (“Hours” protagonist) Nolan and his daughter attached to all those personal anecdotes of Katrina and turned into the story.
CNN: How did Walker get involved?
Heisserer: He didn’t get involved until we signed him on to play the lead, and that was after about nine months of searching for the right leading man. I knew after about 20 minutes into the meeting that he was the guy. He had a very personal connection to the character, and he felt he had something to prove — if to no one else other than himself — that he could work new muscles with this role.
CNN: Walker is in almost every frame. How did he deal with that?
Heisserer: It was a great risk doing this kind of movie for both of us, and it required an incredible amount of trust. Two months before, I flew down to New Orleans (to) prep; he and I agreed to meet two or three times a week and spend a few hours out of the day getting to know each other better. Sometimes we’d play video games or card games. Sometimes we’d get a bite to eat. It was just a case of getting used to each other’s company and our back stories.
CNN: Did you tap into his relationship with his daughter, Meadow?
Heisserer: Yes, to the point I’d asked him to bring baby pictures of Meadow. During some of the scenes where there was just a monologue by him to give to the baby in the incubator, we set the baby photos in the incubator so he could connect with his daughter that way.
It also meant a lot to him that his father was proud of him, and I knew those were sort of magic words I could tell him during a shoot. Those words of “Your father will be proud of you for this moment, for this scene” really elicited an emotional response from him, and I could tell it was because he’d always had that in the back of his mind.
CNN: How was he to direct?
Heisserer: He was a real honest performer in that there wasn’t much of a difference between the character of Nolan and the person that Paul is in real life. I found that the more that I could shorten the distance between those two, the greater performance I got out of him.
Paul was a very unique. … He’s a unique creature in that he was so kind and patient with everyone. He was the best kind of actor you could have in these circumstances. He never complained. He never got impatient with anyone. He knew all the names of my crew, and he worked to make sure that his part and his performance helped everybody else.
CNN: Did he feel a weight on his shoulders?
Heisserer: He never seemed to balk at that during the shoot. He confessed to me later that it did scare him many a night. He’d go home and worry that he wasn’t doing enough.
CNN: When was the last time you spoke to him?
Heisserer: About a week before the death. We had had a press junket for the movie going into that weekend.
CNN: How do you feel?
Heisserer: (He lets out a long sigh and speaks slowly.)
Well, Todd, the truth of it is, I’m angry. And I’ve been angry about this for a while. This movie was a real turning point for Paul. He had gushed to me about the new offers he was getting from people who’d seen his performance in “Hours,” and his career was finally going in a direction that he was excited about for the first time in many years. I told him at the time that that’s what this movie was, that I was just warming him up for bigger and better things. It was a springboard.
(He sighs again) So the fact that this is his swan song, it, I don’t know — it makes me mad. He doesn’t get to benefit from all this hard work now.
CNN: It’s a loss.
CNN: It must be very trying to do this without him.
Heisserer: It is. (Laughs in relief) But at the same time, I know he was so excited for people to see the movie, and I feel like if I shut that down and I don’t make my best effort to help people to see him, then I’m kind of letting him down, and I can’t stand that. I’m still very proud of the movie and proud of him and excited to have everybody see it, of course. So I can revel in that, and the rest of the time I have to steel my nerves and keep a tissue box handy.