About two years ago marked my first time on a set. I was in New York, killing time before a highly-anticipated screening of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I stumbled across the filming of Lullaby, a terrible movie with Amy Adams that went largely unnoticed last year, and I got to see six takes of TRON: Legacy’s Garret Hedlund running down a block. It was kind of exhilarating.
Now I’m having a similar experience, except on a built set and for a movie more than five people will see. The fine people at Lionsgate invited me ‐ in addition to a few other lovely film journalist folks ‐ to New Orleans, a beautiful city which just so happens to smell like Satan took a piss on the whole damn place. It’s my first time in New Orleans, and after having my airport pick-up driver tell me about the couple he saw going at it in street this morning, I’m confident I’m going to enjoy my time here.
We’re in the city to get a behind-the-scenes look at American Ultra, a new romantic action-comedy. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a small-town stoner with no drive or ambition. He has a lovely girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), has a job, and smokes good weed, so what else could he possibly need? Mike’s life gets interrupted when he discovers he used to work for a secret government agency. In one wild, violent night, Mike has to run from the likes of Walton Goggins and Topher Grace, while also trying to pop the question to his girlfriend.
The Bourne Identity and Pineapple Express aren’t the first titles that come to mind for screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) when he explains the film. For him, American Ultra is Little Miss Sunshine and Innerspace meets David Mamet, which is quite a potent-sounding combination of tones. “The indie, romantic, sad dramedy about Mike and Phoebe’s relationship refuses to end in the movie,” Landis says, “and goes, “No! Fuck you! This will exist alongside the action movie!”
Landis doesn’t want to explain Mike and Phoebe’s relationship any further, as he doesn’t want to spoil the movie, but by the end of the set visit, I leave New Orleans knowing the entire journey of their relationship. One very minor problem with set visits is you end up knowing more about the movie than you’d like to. Then again, with music, editing, and all the other facets of post-production, surprises are still possible.
As for how American Ultra is Landis riffing on Mamet, it comes down to language. “David Mamet is who you go to for the musicality of language, depth of character within field of dialogue, and his ability to establish character through dialogue without being expository, via what the character chooses to focus on,” Landis explains. “The Mamet-y part of it, for me, was allowing characters to blossom through words. It’s the Mamet thing where he tells, via showing someone tell, and having a character go, ‘Let me say 100 interesting things at once.’”
Mamet’s characters are often not only defined by their words, but also their actions, and Mike Howell is certainly a man of action. Understandably, Jesse Eisenberg isn’t the most obvious choice to play an “action hero.” Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) is certainly convinced he’s right for the part, and partly because of Richard Ayoade’s The Double, an amazing movie with a fantastic dual performance from Eisenberg. “I wanted the challenge of seeing Jesse do something else,” Nourizadeh says. “Not being the smartest guy in the room. I just wanted him to be a normal guy ‐ someone you could instantly like and relate to. That’s not always the kind of role he plays.”
On the set, we see this new side of Eisenberg Nourizadeh speaks of. Early in the morning, after about a 45 minute drive, we arrive on location ‐ an old supermarket run by some religious types that let the space be turned back into a supermarket for the film. The store is called “Max’s Goods,” to which Max Landis responds, “Guess who that came from?”
I guessed Kristen Stewart.
This is Day 25 of principal photography. The scene, which is going to take four days to shoot, features Mike trying to rescue Phoebe. Phoebe has more drive and nuance than Mike in the script, so don’t immediately assume this means Stewart is simply stuck in the damsel-in-distress role, because she’s not.
We’re seated behind two Panasonic video monitors. The image quality is terrific, despite the greenish aesthetic, and on one of the monitors is a battered Eisenberg. He has long dirty hair, an ugly Hawaiian t-shirt, and one shoe on. It’s not the most intimidating look, to say the least, but Eisenberg put a lot of thought into his surprising appearance. “I just wanted to wear longer hair and a wig, because the character is the kind of guy who wouldn’t have gotten a haircut in seven years,” Eisenberg says. “He’s immersed himself in nothing but his own laziness. I thought he wouldn’t groom himself in any kind of consistent way, and that gives it a better turn for when he as to defend himself. This is a guy who couldn’t be less prepared to do this.”
As unprepared as Mike is, he’s clever and swift as he dispenses of goons. They’re filming a quick action beat, involving Mike taking cover from gunshots and stabbing a baddie with a (rubber or retractable) mascara pen. Like Jason Bourne, this character uses what’s around him to defend himself, including all kinds of beauty and gardening supplies.
Everyone on set is ecstatic about the kind of oddball weapons in the film “We try to make it as practical as possible, thinking, “What would I grab?” prop master Brook Yeaton says. “I went to one of the beauty supply places ‐ and I was losing my mind ‐ and I said, ‘I’m looking for eyeliner that would puncture your brain if I stabbed you in the eye.’ The lady didn’t even blink. It’s New Orleans and we’ve been shooting a lot of movies here, so she just said, ‘Oh, right there.’”
The violence in the film is described as “campy realism.” Surprisingly, American Ultra is a hard-R movie, which is what the filmmakers wanted from day one. “There hasn’t been a phone call from the studio a week into shooting saying, ‘You need to be a PG-13 movie,’” says executive-producer Ray Angelic, “which we got on [the remake of] Fright Night, by the way…” When a thug is curb stomped in American Ultra, audiences will actually see the full-effect of the curb stomp, not just hear the sound of it.
The R-rating gives plenty of departments a sense of freedom. For starters, the fight coordinator, Robert Alonzo (Jack Reacher), can make Mike a more lethal fighter. “It allows me to be a lot more creative,” he says. “I have 30 years of martial arts experience, in various different styles. The rating has enabled me to do things I haven’t been able to do before. The rating opens up target areas ‐ carotid arteries and gouging out eyes. There’s been a lot of creativity regarding the wounds.”
It’s impossible not to chuckle seeing the goons on set Mike has to battle. In between takes, it’s nothing but a bunch of guys ‐ who all look like henchman out of a Die Hard movie ‐ snacking and chatting, dressed all in black. There’s plenty of waiting involved in making a movie, but boredom isn’t possible when there’s a bunch of minions standing around trying to relax, as it’s quite a sight.
Since there’s a lot of motion in the scene they’re shooting, Eisenberg isn’t using his stunt-double for the shot, although his double is present on set. We never get a chance to speak with the stunt performer, Jacob Kabel, but he’s done some impressive work over the years, and they certainly made him a proper lookalike for Eisenberg. Everyone involved, from the prop master to the stunt coordinator to the makeup guy, has done their job to make Eisenberg appear badass, and to also make him look like he’s gone through hell.
Prosthetic makeup effects designer, Michael Marino, who once constructed an $8,000 wig for Ben Stiller on one of the Night at the Museum movies, wanted to really show what kind of damage a punch inflicts. Eisenberg’s face and arms are covered with bruises and cuts ‐ which took around 80 minutes to apply ‐ because they want to make a real-life action hero, a hero that has to face the consequence of a swollen lip after taking a punch.
When Mike kills somebody, unlike a lot of studio action movies, they show the reality of the kill. “A character’s face is literally pushed out,” Marino says with excitement. “The whole face is crushed. If you remember Fight Club, it’s crazier than when Jared Leto’s face is beaten. I thought that was maybe a little too much [in Fight Club]. Rob Bottin, who I used to work for, always wanted to push the envelope each time, especially if you’re only going to see it for a few seconds. His whole mentality was, How can I sculpt something or do something really wild for a few seconds of film? If you look at Total Recall, a guy gets stabbed in the throat, and it’s sculpted with all these veins popping out, because you’re only going to see it for a seconds. A lot of these things are over-the-top, because you only see it for a couple of seconds. With comedy, you can almost make it more real.”
There’s a lot of talk of practical effects, but as for the blood, we don’t see any on the set. Presumably there will be a lot of CG blood in the film, which might suit the dirty and yet glossy style they envision. After spending a day on the set of American Ultra, the idea of Jesse Eisenberg as an action hero becomes more palpable. Everyone is certainly passionate about how bloody the film is, so at the very least, American Ultra should deliver on some violent and creative kills.
As for the set visit experience itself, seeing Jesse Eisenberg stab a goon with a retractable mascara pen is, without a doubt, a hell of a lot more entertaining than watching Garrett Hedlund jogging down a street over and over again.
American Ultra opens in theaters August 21st.
Related Topics: Kristen Stewart