Australian filmmaker Patrick Hughes knows how to film a large scale action sequence, but he also loves to have a good laugh while doing it. The director of the underrated suspense thriller Red Hill and the most recent entry into The Expendables franchise finds himself once again tackling chaotic shootouts and multi-vehicle chases with his latest effort The Hitman’s Bodyguard (in cinemas everywhere this weekend), a mismatched buddy flick starring two of the biggest names in comedy and action: Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson.
In The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Samuel L. Jackson stars as a prolific, devil-may-care assassin currently rotting away in an English jail cell. He’s called upon by Interpol to testify against a ruthless Belarusian dictator and war criminal (Gary Oldman) at The Hague in exchange for the release of his innocent, but foul mouthed wife (Salma Hayek) from a Dutch prison. The dictator looks like he’s going to get off scot free thanks to the not-so-suspicious deaths of countless witnesses. Sure enough, an attempt is made on the hitman’s life thanks to a mole within Interpol, and the last transport agent left standing (Elodie Yung) is forced to call in a favour with her ex-boyfriend, a former “triple A rated” protection agent (Ryan Reynolds) who’s now forced into guarding rich scumbags after one of his clients is offed. The bodyguard and the hitman have a shared past, with neither liking the other in the slightest because the latter kept trying to kill a lot of the former’s clients. The protector agrees to bring the contract killer from England to Amsterdam with hopes that he can regain his star status and win back his former love, while the hitman just wants to get there on his own in an effort to see his wife once again before he goes back to prison for a very long time after the despot’s trial.
We caught up with Hughes over the phone yesterday to chat about The Hitman’s Bodyguard, his love of action comedies, working with Reynolds and Jackson, and the perils of constructing the film’s most elaborate chase sequence.
Now that you’ve done two films in a row that balance action and comedy, I was wondering if that was something that always appealed to you?
Patrick Hughes: Yeah. I’ve certainly always been drawn to action comedies, as a filmmaker and as a fan. One of my favourite movies of all time is Midnight Run, which I think is a beautiful balance of action and comedy, and I feel like it’s a nice place to work within whenever you’re working in either genre.
It’s interesting that you bring up Midnight Run because I think viewers can see a lot of parallels between a story like The Hitman’s Bodyguard and that film. Was that comparison something that made you more excited to do this particular film?
Patrick Hughes: Yeah, and I think I really always wanted to make a buddy action comedy because that’s just a genre that I and most people love unto itself. I think buddy films in general are fun. John Hughes was a master of that. I mean, you could draw the comparison between The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Midnight Run, but you can also look to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. As funny as that is and you can have all of this fun and games with the characters in those films, they’re also tragic kinds of stories when you think about them. There’s a real heart and soul to these movies in their telling. They centre around characters that are in need of redemption, and I think – if anything – the one thing I really wanted to bring to Hitman’s Bodyguard was to bring that heart and soul to the telling, so it wasn’t just two guys dodging bullets and making wisecracks. Essentially, it’s a love story because you have poor Ryan Reynolds who has a broken heart and the emotional maturity of a seven year old. (laughs)
It’s great that you bring up Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, not just because that’s one of my all time favourite films, but also because The Hitman’s Bodyguard does something similar with the leading actors. You’re taking two well known actors with established comic and action chops and allowing them to do what they do best, but it’s also slightly left of centre. Samuel L. Jackson is still a badass and cool, but he’s also reckless and kind of idiotic at times, and Ryan Reynolds is still charming, smooth, and sarcastic, but he’s also assuredly more professional than the person he has been sent to protect. Was the ability to use these actors in a slightly different light something that you wanted to bring out in the material?
Patrick Hughes: That was a lot of fun. Essentially Ryan is playing the straight man here, and even when he’s the hero he’s usually not the straight man. It was about creating a contrast between what we all know they can do and what works for the characters here. Darius Kincaid – Samuel L. Jackson’s character – is operating from a sense of instinct. He’s going to go with his heart and he just does whatever he wants. Everything he does is just off instinct. Michael Bryce – Ryan Reynold’s character – is a lot more analytical, and he’s operating almost totally within his own head. That’s just a nice contrast to have for this kind of film: the clash between the head and the heart is what we needed and they both pulled it together.
Does it make your job any easier to have leads like Samuel and Ryan playing roles like this? We know that both of these characters have done terrible things in their lives, but in their hands, the audience really wants to root for them to not die or get themselves killed.
Patrick Hughes: (laughs) Obviously, they’re two incredibly talented actors who are icons unto themselves. Ryan grew up doing improvisational workshops, and he comes from that background, so he’s not only able to be tremendously funny, but he’s also very keen at being able to convey changing emotional tones very, very quickly and sharply. Sam is just super creative and always thinking about how to make things better, funnier, and more impactful, and he can match Ryan pretty much across the board. This was a constantly amusing shoot thanks to the both of them because they were always throwing something new into the film every day.
I think audiences who see the film are going to be most impressed and surprised by is Salma Hayek, as Sam’s tough talking wife. Almost every word that comes out of her mouth and how she delivers them is hilarious. What was it like casting her?
Patrick Hughes: She is dynamite. She’s just pure fire. (laughs) Early on we both talked about how she was going to be the wife of Samuel L. Jackson who’s playing this contract killer who has killed over 250 people and has a potty mouth, and we both agreed that anyone who would marry someone like that should be even stronger, tougher, and harder edged than he was. You have to be someone grander than the other half of the partnership, and you can see in the film that she swear more than Darius and that even in a prison cell with only guards and her roommate around her, she’s equally if not more ruthless than he is. We just wanted her to be a rambling freight train of a human being, and a lot of comedy comes out of the fact that we just have these single shots of her just ranting and ranting and ranting and ranting and ranting and ranting and ranting and ranting, and then finally when she does take a breath, you can just take a single reversal shot of the Interpol agent interrogating her just looking dumbstruck. We wanted the audience to have that same reaction to the character. She’s so much fun, and I love Salma Hayek. She’s an incredible actress who brought so much to this.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard has a globe hopping element to it, and while we know that in this day and age you can find locations anywhere in the world to look like something different than it actually is, you guys went out of your way to find very specific and authentic locations. What was that process like when creating the look of the film?
Patrick Hughes: We shot the film across three different countries, and obviously each of them brings its own texture and canvas. There’s a huge component that takes place in Amsterdam, and that’s one of those places where you know you can’t find anywhere else in the world that looks like Amsterdam. You would be hard pressed to fake that. It makes the production a sort of elaborate juggling act. We were based in London for pre-production, and we shot half the film there. Then the production moved to Bulgaria where we used some of the studios out there and did some of our stunt work there. The final leg of production found us finally making our way to Amsterdam. As a director, it’s tricky because everywhere you go has a different way of work, and you’re constantly on an airplane scouting locations on your weekends. It carried on all through production, so you’re just constantly travelling. People would ask, “Where is Pat?” “Oh, he’s scouting in Amsterdam.” Then they would call me and I’d say, “No! I’m out scouting in Bulgaria.” (laughs) By the end of it you’re just happy not to go near an airport again.
In Amsterdam, you also have your film’s biggest action sequence, which is this chase involving a boat in the canals, numerous cars, and a motorcycle that couldn’t have been easy considering how narrow the streets are in that city. It’s a lengthy chase with a lot of moving parts, so what was the process of pulling that together like?
Patrick Hughes: Although Amsterdam was the last place we shot a lot of the film in, the first thing we did as soon as we started production was to jump on a plane and go straight over there to start scouting locations for that sequence. Essentially, it’s a ten minute chase sequence that requires a lot of space to pull it off. People who are familiar with Amsterdam will probably realize that none of the canals we used actually connect to one another, the roads are often very narrow, and you have all of these interlocking bridges running all over the place. I wanted to make this chase as dynamic as possible, so it was a lot like putting together a puzzle. In terms of pre-production we definitely spent more time prepping that than anything else. I brought in my pre-visualization team and mapped the whole thing out in greyscale and then through computer models to work out the dynamics of it all. The trickiest part of that was that at a certain point, I wanted to lose some of the vehicles and have them pop up again later, like Ryan’s motorcycle or the cars of the Interpol agents. I always wanted this chase to have elements that could come from out of nowhere. From there, once we figured all that out, we knew to make it feel like a real city we had to create other obstacles, especially for Sam’s character who is on a speedboat and in most action sequences would have likely had a clear path to get away. We added those gags into the film once we had the choreography of the rest of it plotted out. My favourite gag in there is one in the canal. Amsterdam is a place you go in Europe when you want to go for a weekend away, and you can just see all these people on a fancy boat, having a good time, and then Sam’s speedboat has to do a 180 with his boat to avoid hitting them, and he ends up soaking them and their day is ruined. Staging gags like that are a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of hard work getting to that point.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard hits theatres everywhere today, Friday, August 18, 2017.