What got Paul McGuigan to helm Push—and why Batman's Chris Nolan owes him money

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

It took Hong Kong and Dakota Fanning to convince director Paul McGuigan he was the right man to direct the paranormal action thriller film Push.

The director, whose films include Lucky Number Slevin and Gangster No. 1, was caught off guard when he was first sent the script for David Bourla's thriller, about a group of Americans with telekinetic and clairvoyant abilities living in Hong Kong and trying to elude a top-secret government group that seeks to exploit or kill them.

"I was surprised that somebody would send me [this script]," McGuigan said in a group interview Saturday in Los Angeles. "[I'd] done movies that weren't like this at all. It's always nice when somebody thinks about you in another way."

McGuigan never foresaw himself making a movie about characters with superpowers. He admits that he's not a particular fan of the genre and hasn't yet seen a single episode of Heroes. "We're up against big movies, the Dark Knights and, I call it the Tin Man. What was it called? Iron Man [laughs]".

Landing Dakota Fanning for the key roll of Cassie Holmes, a 13-year-old "watcher," was an absolute must for McGuigan. "I don't think I would have done this movie without Dakota," the director said. "She was the first person I thought of. She was very much a part of the vision I had for the film."

McGuigan said the actress impressed him every day on set: "It was quite brave of her to go out there and do something like that, because she's not cutesy in the movie," he said. "She is quite literally brilliant." He added: "I've worked with some great people, but Dakota has her own thing. I've learned a lot from Dakota, and I hope she's learned from me."

The director also chose to eschew big budgets, green screens and computer graphics, choosing instead to shoot on the very real, very crowded and very uncontrolled streets of Hong Kong, often with handheld cameras, which he sometimes had to hide. "The only way I would do a film like this is if I could do it the way I wanted to do it," he said. "[It had to have] a strong point of view if I was going to shoot it. I said to them, 'This is the way I would want to do it.'"

The approach was largely successful, although the filmmakers encountered the occasional roadblock when passers-by saw a chance to get on screen or when concerned citizens saw an actress being tossed into a car trunk. "We basically had to let Hong Kong dictate how we worked," McGuigan said. "You don't want people to look in the camera, so the idea is we had these hidden cameras, and we would shoot a master shot, and then we would populate it with our people afterwards. We went with the flow, and hopefully the movie has that feel to it."

Another obstacle was the lavish Dark Knight production, which was shooting nearby at about the same time. "[Dark Knight] closed down the whole of downtown Hong Kong," McGuigan said. "My taxi fare to get to my favorite bar was 10 bucks, and it cost me a hundred bucks to take the only way around. I called Christopher Nolan and told him, 'You owe me 90 bucks. That's what you cost me, you bastard!'"