Drew Pearce interview: Hotel Artemis, directing, Britain

We chat to Drew Pearce about his directorial debut Hotel Artemis, getting a lower budget film made, America, fairy tales and more...

Drew Pearce has had a busy few years. He co-wrote Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. He directed the Marvel one-shot All Hail The King. And then he pursued his directorial debut, Hotel Artemis, that lands in UK cinemas tomorrow.

We chatted with Drew about his work, and his brand new film. And this is how it went…

You’re British, and yet you’ve made your career, predominantly, in the US. Before we go into depth on Hotel Artemis, was there any way you could have had the career you’ve had staying here?

Don’t get me wrong, I miss working in England, in Britain, and I still hope I get to, I just – honestly – the opportunities in America I was afforded personally were bigger and more exciting than they were here. And truthfully, that’s probably because I was at an earlier point in my career here, but there’s less outlets, there’s less TV channels, there are less movies made, and so there are a few less opportunities.

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So I don’t think I could have – the interesting thing is, the irony is – I moved to LA, and half the movies I’ve worked on have shot in England; for tax break reasons, and because – if you speak to any of American directors that shoot here – it’s because the craftsmen and women of filmmaking at Pinewood and Elstree and stuff are untouchably good.

But definitely I think there’s an attitude – I think Britain, sometimes – as a writer, it’s definitely easier for people to say ‘no’ than ‘yes’, and it’s definitely easier for people to say ‘maybe’ and then not read something for two years and what I’ve found, and it may just be my own personal experience, that the doors are a little bit more open in America. Probably, by the way, not for artistic reasons, but because there’s more money to be made, so people will listen to any idea, no matter who you are, just in case it’s something they can capitalise on.

I think we’re going to end up doing this interview backwards, which is interesting.

Fine by me. It’s the Time’s Arrow of interviews. Or the Irreversible, but let’s not make it the Irreversible of interviews.

You talk about lots of opportunities. You made a chamber piece.

One hundred percent.

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I appreciate you had a fairly long career before making the change to directing, and I appreciate this is a sci-fi and a fantasy, but you made a chamber piece, and that’s the sort of thing you might have made in the UK.

Yeah, and that’s kind of by design as well.

I’ve always directed, but I ended up down this path where I was more of a screenwriter, and by the way, that’s a fantastic path to end up doing, I feel very lucky about that, but I was always trying to direct, and I was specing scripts for free in order to try to make them myself. We got close, but none of them stuck. And so when I had the idea for Hotel Artemis, it was partly driven for creative reasons, I had this character of The Nurse, I love movies and just fiction in general, that’s about groups of bad guys – and that’s a genre in and of itself – but I also wanted something manageable enough that I could shoot it on a low budget, so that I would be able to give it a distinctive voice.

The more a movie costs, the more people are going to have opinions that weigh in on it, and that’s not unreasonable, that’s a fact of business and of life, and I didn’t want that for a first movie, I wanted to do something that for good or for bad was entirely my voice. And bubble movies, chamber pieces are a good way of doing that. They’re also a terrible way of doing that, because it means you have no money, and you end up – this movie was made for $14m of actual money and $20m of favours, and that doesn’t even count the cast, none of whom really got paid for it. The upside of it is that everyone on the movie lands up doing it for the love of it – that’s behind the camera and in front of the camera – I got to play above my game with everyone, from all my actors, through to Chung-hoon Chung, who was my director of photography, who was in my opinion one of the greatest living photographers.

I was actually going to bring him up, it seems like you’ve read my interview notes. You’re obviously a film fan, and Hotel Artemis drips in a sense that you love the medium. Cinematographer choice is an interesting one, because he’s not done all that much work outside of Korea.

Certainly from the producer’s point of view, he was a very risky choice, because he is Korean, he’s mostly worked on Korean movies, and I think there is a fear, producorially, of working with people whose first language isn’t English, particularly with a first time director. But as Chung himself says, he may not have the language to speak in granular detail about American politics, but he does speak the language of cinema, and that’s totally true. Plus, it turns out, he’s the funniest man you’ve ever met, and the most wonderful, and hopefully a contributor for life.

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It’s also weird, because in the 70s, regularly, American directors would work with Italian cinematographers who didn’t speak a lick of English, and even if they did, refused to in order that they didn’t have to do quite what they were being asked – which I should point out, Chung never did – but yeah, Hotel Artemis is actually pretty inspired tonally by Korean filmmaking. Western movies are sometimes a very straight line, bigger films, or genre films, are often quite polished now, they don’t have the same bumpiness and handmade quality that genre in the 70s and 80s had in America. Repo Man is a weird movie with a weird structure, and some odd choices, but they’re actually the things that ended up sticking with me and giving it personality, and meaning that’s why I loved it. I think Korean film still does that, you can shift from high drama to broad comedy to intense, violent action to very sincere emotion, like scene-to-scene, and it all sits in the same, beautifully-built universe.

So that was an inspiration for Artemis, and then – I was very lucky, I got to meet with lots of really brilliant cinematographers, both new generation and older generation – but in the process, I realised a quarter of the visual references I was showing them for what I wanted had been shot by Chung-hoon Chung, and I could possibly speak to him, and I just got very lucky, because he said yes. And his take on it was fantastic as well, in that – this sounds a bit pretentious, so I apologise in advance – one of the ways I used to describe the movie when I was pitching it, which is another reason it’s not a studio movie, is that it was like a John Carpenter movie, but shot by Wong Kar Wai, and there was a reason for that. I think the busted LA deco is very like Korean movie making, that kind of sumptuousness, but also the kind of brokenness. So that’s kind of stylistically what I always wanted, and I think maybe we got there as well.

It feels to me – and I wonder how much of this came from cinematography, and how much from other factors – it’s a fairy tale.

One hundred percent. It absolutely is.

I know people have made comparisons to John Wick, because of the subject matter as much as anything else, but for me it’s as much a fairy tale – and that is a fairy tale as well…

It’s like a Grimm’s tale – kill the dog, get revenge – it’s like a morality tale.

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For all that, Artemis reminds me more of The Shape Of Water.

Do you know what, a few people have said that. I wonder if that’s because there was a certain hand made quality to both of them as well. I’ve worked with Guillermo, and I think that’s a huge compliment.

One of the things I love about this golden age of television that we live in, one of the things I miss is short stories – beginning, middle and end – and there’s a thing about Hotel Artemis, someone described it as being like one of the Canterbury Tales – it lives in a bigger universe, but it’s actually a small, emotional story – and there’s definitely a fairy tale element to it. As much as some of the imagery is from Kurosawa, the ending of Artemis – she’s kind of like Mary Poppins – she’s this lady with a little bag who helps people, and actually much like Poppins, there’s a kind of sadness that in our movie is more explicit.

So yeah, I think there’s a fairy tale element to that. I also think fairy tales are allegorical, and good speculative fiction and sci-fi is usually allegorical as well, there’s usually a metaphor running through the heart of it, even if it’s totally subtext rather than text, and definitely for Hotel Artemis I wanted it to be a film that was about how we – in the current world there is a tendency to think that the problem is a faceless Other – with a capital ‘O’ horde outside the doors – but actually the problem is pretty much always on the inside, and that’s literally what Artemis is about.

You’ve discussed the story reasons as to why it’s a fairy tale, and obviously they’re valid, you’re the director, you’re in charge.

Thank you.

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What I’m curious about, in terms of the vibe of that, you could have told that story in a very naturalistic setting.

Absolutely, there’s a different version of the movie – the Michael Mann version of the movie – that treats it as a gritty, LA crime movie. The reason I didn’t want to do that is because I felt that the subject matter could be more emotionally engaging taken as more of a fairy tale. I think there’s also just something in the style of how it’s written that is also in hoc to Golden Era Hollywood, this 1920s meets 2020s thing, and so even though I love the work I’ve done that’s more naturalistic as a writer, and as a director, the next thing I’m thinking of is probably going to be a bit more naturalistic, this one I wanted the dialogue to be a bit more heightened, I wanted the characters to be more distinctive, and actually like they all have their own mini opera, and its harder to get at that, particularly in a movie that is only 90 minutes long, that’s shot in 33 days on a small budget, and that’s set mostly inside, you kind of need to bring a certain flare to the storytelling in order to give it depth and texture as well. Does that make sense?

It does. You mentioned the naturalistic approach to it. A lot of the characters feel -they’re wonderful, I love the characters – but there’s sort of a comic book sensibility to them, and I wonder whether that comes from the fact you’ve spent so long hovering around the genre.

I think genre in general often breeds heightened characters. Again, I think when you’ve got a small amount of time to spend with a large group of people, their voices have to be distinctive. I also love the tropes of crime movies, and I want to lean into that and undercut it as well. I don’t think Jeff Goldblum is the obvious choice for a mob boss, and the backstory of a kind of 60s hippy turned exploiter of the subculture isn’t necessarily one you’d normally do for a mob boss. In a way, Acapulco, the arms dealer that Charlie Day plays, is based on Tony Stark in a weird way – it’s kind of like, what would the real playboy, LA-based arms dealer be like, and he wouldn’t be the charming Tony that he even is in Afghanistan at the beginning, he would be a fucking douchebag driving a purple Lamborghini down the Sunset Strip and hanging out with 19 year-old Russian models, which is exactly how Charlie plays him.

Drew Pearce, thank you very much.

Hotel Artemis is in UK cinemas from Friday.

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