British screenwriter and filmmaker Drew Pearce first came onto the radar in 2007 with No Heroics, a limited series that ran on the U.K.’s ITV2 and spoofed the superhero genre by envisioning a world in which the heroes go about their daily business — like buying groceries or having a smoke — while still saving people and foiling bad guys. Although an American version failed to get off the ground, it brought Pearce to Hollywood — and the next major phase of his career.
He was hired by the still-formative Marvel Studios to write a script based on the Runaways comic book, and while that didn’t pan out, Pearce did end up co-writing Iron Man 3 with director Shane Black. He also directed the accompanying Marvel short film, All Hail the King, in which the fate of Mandarin impersonator Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) and his possible connection to the real super-villain were revealed.
Since then, Pearce has done a lot of rewrite and story work on films like Pacific Rim, Godzilla and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. But now he has taken the directorial reigns on a feature for the first time (after doing other shorts and videos), helming the dystopian crime thriller Hotel Artemis based on his own original script.
Starring Jodie Foster, Dave Bautista, Jeff Goldblum, Sofia Boutella, Charlie Day, Sterling K. Brown, Jenny Slate and Zachary Quinto, Hotel Artemis is set in downtown Los Angeles, circa 2028, where a secret members-only hospital for criminals exists, bankrolled by a crime boss (Goldblum) and run by the Nurse (Foster). Part speculative fiction, part noir, part action ride, Hotel Artemis is a confident distillation of all Pearce’s influences and interests. Den of Geek sat down the amiable filmmaker in Los Angeles recently to discuss the movie, its origins and production — and whether Trevor Slattery will ever return.
Den of Geek: This story grew out of a fascination with Los Angeles, correct?
Drew Pearce: Absolutely. I moved here for Iron Man 3. I’ve been back and forth for years. I do think there are some British people that never get the hang of Los Angeles because unlike European cities, and unlike the East Coast even, it doesn’t physically look or feel like what Europeans know a city to be. That’s actually one of the inspirations for Artemis. There’s a thing with LA where it’s a city of doorways. You can’t tell what the inside of a building is from the outside. You might have the fanciest restaurants in LA, but it’s in a strip mall. You might have a church, but it’s in a warehouse.
In LA, there’s this wonderful sense that when you look at one building you can kind of see the layers of the last 100 years right there. Plus I’ve just always been obviously an American pop culture fan, but also I love Chandler, I love John Fante, I love the fact that downtown LA in the 20s was this genuinely roaring scene, and by the 70s it was completely fucked.
Obviously those deco downtown hotels are beautiful, and I love that in the Twenties they were one of the prime destinations for the rich and famous, and by the Seventies they were flophouses and heroin dens. I also discovered reading a lot about the 1920s that all of the hotels were linked by underground tunnels from the days of prohibition. There were gin tunnels that connected all of the hotels, because that’s how they’d do their rounds.
Did you look at any particular buildings? When people think of downtown LA, they think of the Bradbury Building and places like that.
There were a few. I knew the LA downtown area a bit. A friend of mine had a studio down there 10 years ago, so I was going down there earlier than some of my friends. Ten years ago, by the way, it was really weird because it was financial people during the day and then on the weekend it was dead during the day. It was genuinely Romero-esque during the day.
Basically the scouting process for Artemis started to kind of consolidate what the influences for our single hotel would be. First of all, we found that there wasn’t one busted, burned out hotel that we could use. There wasn’t anything that was perfect for what we needed. We actually ended up building the floor as a set and then using various different real hotels as our separate locations.
We used the underground tunnels from a couple of other hotels. One of the interesting things about working on a really limited budget is I couldn’t build the tunnels. Usually on a movie you would go, “Well, it’s a pain in the ass to actually find real tunnels,” but actually some of those buildings are still cheap and ungentrified, so you can cut a deal for three hours. One of the things that’s amazing about Jodie is that she was game for three hours of running down corridors in the grottiest buildings in downtown. We definitely kind of lost some money off-screen, but what we gained was we baked LA into the movie. That was just really important to me. I really wanted to shoot it here.
This is an LA that’s 10 years in the future. Did you build your own backstory for how we got to the point in the movie that we’re at, which is not looking very good?
I did. I originally wrote it as set in 2024, and truthfully the events of the last two years escalated so fast that I had to extrapolate a little harder. Similar, in a draft from two or three years ago the mobster and his son, and their gang, were Russian, because I’d seen what happened in England with the Russian oligarchs who basically now own a third of London. But by the time I got to a year and a half ago it would’ve felt so obvious and of the moment to have the Russians be the bad guys.
What I also find so fascinating is that there’s this whole criminal world underneath the surface of “real” world.
Absolutely. It’s one of my favorite things. It’s the idea of a world behind the world. Again, it feels very LA — the idea that we have no idea what goes on in those giant houses in the hills, we have no idea what’s going on behind any door because of this kind of strange dissonance between what we see from the outside and what we see on the inside.
I’ve always been a guy who loves world building. This idea of a criminal underground fraternity, weirdly you can kind of trace it back to Kurosawa and Drunken Angel, but you also see in The Brotherhood of the Rose and Peace Hotel…a lot of my favorite movies have that. They’re just fun worlds to play with because you can invent your own rules. They allow you to heighten the situation a little bit.
You’ve directed shorts and videos but this is the first feature you’ve directed. Did this test you in ways that surprised you even despite your previous experience?
Oh, god. Yeah. It’s galling and surprising to learn more in one year at the age of 40 than you feel like you learned in the previous 20 years put together. I was very lucky in that I’ve been in and around some incredible movies over the last eight years and around incredible movie makers, from Jon Favreau to J.J. (Abrams) to Guillermo (Del Toro) to Shane. That’s a pretty amazing pool of people to draw inspiration and tricks from, but nothing can prepare you for carrying something like this on your back.
Not just the shoot itself, but it’s an indie movie, so for the year and a half leading up to it every day there’s a new piece of news that says you won’t be making your movie. Both sides of your brain are embattled. And when you’re the writer-director, you’ve also been throwing all your energy into it for five years previous to that as well.
So you drag this thing up a mountain on your back, and then you get to set and you realize that none of that mattered in some ways, because you have to be in the moment with every actor, with every decision. Every single one of the things that you thought you knew in the last seven years, five years, two years, eight weeks of pre-production can get thrown out the window in the moment if it doesn’t feel right.
You have a hell of a cast in this.
I got incredibly lucky. Jodie came on first. She acted as a seal of approval. Even though I’m a first-time director I have quite a lot of experience on big movie sets, on the stuff I’ve worked on for the last eight years, so there were people I’d met, there were people that I had connections with which helped.
I’ve (written) three scripts to direct in the last 10 years and I haven’t been able to push them over the line. But this one clearly clicked with actors. I went out to actors purposefully that don’t necessarily play those roles all the time so it would feel exciting and challenging to them. I just am very lucky in that people responded to it.
The first big thing you worked on years ago was a British series called No Heroics that was a satire of superheroes. Do you think the time might be right for it again?
Well, I have a feeling that the time was right for it 10 years ago when we did it, and it’s become less and less right for it as the elephants’ graveyard of superhero comedy pilots over the last 10 years shows. I think the reason for that is the movies themselves don’t leave you any room to take the piss out of the genre in a TV show because they absolutely do it themselves. They do it themselves and they satisfy on the level that you get from watching it. Thor: Ragnarok was the best comedy of 2017.
It’s funny, there’s been a lot of talk in the last years about No Heroics being revived. I don’t own it, and honestly I hope it never happens. I think it worked as a time capsule. I think it also worked because it was British, so it was a very special skew on that culture, but certainly for me there’d be no territory to mine in a new version, in a show for 2018.
Do you ever hear from Marvel about continuing the story of Trevor Slattery and the Mandarin?
No. I think we left him in the right place. I’m very happy with that. I think Sir Ben would like us to bring the Mandarin back. I know nothing about Avengers 4, but wouldn’t it be lovely if Trevor was one of the bystanders watching the world come back together?
Hotel Artemis is out in theaters this Friday (June 8).