'Hotel Artemis' Director Drew Pearce On Making His Personal Genre Movie, His Influences, And More [Interview]

Drew Pearce's feature-length directorial debut, Hotel Artemis, is the sort of movie that's a real breath of fresh air during the summer moviegoing season. It's an original story, for starters, but it's also a movie that relies more on its characters and all-star cast to generate spectacle than the set pieces. Jodie Foster playing a fast-talking, hard-drinking nurse tending to criminals and Jeff Goldblum as "The Wolf King of Los Angeles" has far more entertainment than watching a city get destroyed.

Pearce's first movie isn't heavy on action, but it is heavy on star power, in front of and behind the camera. The Iron Man 3 co-writer and the director of Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King couldn't have assembled a better team for Hotel Artemis, including cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who shot OldboyThe Handmaiden, and most recently, It. Together, Pearce and Chung create a location full of color, history, and personality. Even with one primary location, never does Hotel Artemis feel claustrophobic or small in scale.

About a month ago, I had a chance to sit-down with Pearce for an extended interview covering his work with the DP, his influences, writing with Shane Black, and more.

(Note: this is part one of a two-part interview.)

How did Hotel Artemis start for you? Did you begin with the characters or the story? 

People often say write what you know, and in this movie my starting point was write what you want to see. I wanted to tap into the fact that when I was younger, I didn't really differentiate between a studio movie, and a blockbuster, or an art house movie, or a genre movie. It didn't feel as delineated, so I didn't see a difference between RoboCop and Diva, or like Subway and The Terminator. They all were just part of the melting pot. I wanted to make a film that kind of had that spirit. Essentially, like John Carpenter, and Walter Hill, and Repo Man, Alex Cox's movies in general. I wanted something that had that spirit.

I think what's interesting is if you're connected to your story, and you're in your movie, then you end up writing what you know anyway. So, it was actually a couple of months after I finished my first draft that I realized my central character, which is The Nurse, this woman who runs a secret hospital for criminals who's in her 60s, and who is grieving for her son, and has almost like hit a moment in her life when she's being forced into a level of freedom, I suddenly realized like my own mother is a 65 year old woman who's just finishing her ... who's pushed into retirement because she's been this teacher for her whole life. I suddenly realized there was a ton of my own life in there.

Similarly, Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown), he plays a bank robber who's in a somewhat destructive relationship with his brother, but I think what's at the heart of his character, which is he's like a classic career criminal, is a glass ceiling in what he believes he could achieve. I come from pretty working class parents, and a non-entertainment industry family to say the least, and growing up I kind of didn't know I was allowed to do this. I didn't have a confidence that was like, "I'm going to be a movie maker." I was like, "I'm not allowed to be a movie maker." I think Waikiki, as a character, has allowed himself to be hemmed in by a glass ceiling of not believing that he's allowed to be a bigger deal in his crime milieu than he is. So, I started writing what I wanted to see, but I think I ended up writing what I know by accident.

I listened to your Iron Man 3 commentary with Shane Black recently, and the two of you talked a lot about giving spectacle meaning, even in the subtlest ways. Walking out of Hotel Artemis, I thought you achieved that, especially with The Nurse's arc. 

Oh, well, that's amazing. There's an interesting thing which is that you're going to spend five years of your life with a movie if you're a writer/director. Maybe more. I mean, if you consider how long it takes to get made, and how long you have to push these fucking things up a mountain. People don't really realize, but it's a little indie movie that's suddenly coming out in the wilds of the summer. We cost less than like Ex Machina or something like that. For me, to spend that much time on something, for free, for ever, it has to really mean something.

It was amazing working with Shane, because in many ways we were a forced marriage, but I've never known a situation which so quickly became something symbiotic, and I got to learn a bunch. It bolstered my confidence as a writer because someone who's work I adore shared a lot of similar values when it came to writing as me, in a way that really affirmed some of the ways I approached writing. Shane absolutely is always looking for the small, personal story, the thing that connects to him. Famously he can't ... when he is thinking of action sequences, he can't quite sympathize with humans enough. So Shane imagines the sequence with dogs, and that is how the barrel of monkeys sequence in Iron Man 3, that's how he really locked into that idea once we thought of it was imagine Iron Man saving 20 dogs, and then Shane was like, "That's it. That's the heart of it."

I don't quite have the dog thing, but I think one of the things that Artemis tries to do is be pretty empathetic to the stories, and I think at this moment in the world, empathy is a valiant thing to shoot for.

It's interesting, I was going to say both in villains and heroes, and Hotel Artemis, technically, everyone in Artemis is a villain, right the way up to The Nurse who is running a secret hospital for criminals. There's a reason she's doing that rather than doing it for the good guys. The movie even connects to that. The movie deals with that. So, even doing a movie at this moment in time that's about a bunch of people that in other films would be the bad guy, and getting us to empathize with most of them, and at least understand kind of where they came from. That was just, on a subtextual level, that was something I wanted to bake into the film.

There's an interesting thing that runs through the movie, which is that there's this ... So what happens in Artemis is that it's set mostly inside this secret hospital for criminals in Los Angeles in 2028, and it's about what happens when the wrong mix of people end up in that hospital, but all the while there is this backdrop of the biggest riot in LA history, the clear water riots, which are water based, drought based riots, water privatization riots in fact. I really wanted this thing where all the way through the film, we are led to believe by the media in the movie and by the way some of the characters talk about it, that we're safe in here in the place that we pay for, and the trouble is this kind of faceless, multi ethnic mob on the outside, and that actually we always think the problem is on the outside, but really, the problem is on the inside. That's absolutely what the point of Artemis is, is we kind of demonize the outside world, and the real demons are our own.

In a weird way, that does go back to Iron Man 3. There's the idea of false faces of, you know, and constructed demons. I mean, it's riven through Iron Man 3, so this one kind of connects in that sense, I think.

One of the movies you mentioned I can see a strong connection to is Subway

Oh yeah.

They both create a big world in a small setting with these oddball touches. You listed a few titles earlier, but what else were you inspired by?

I work a lot on big movies, as well, as a screenwriter, and I love working with those big train sets, but the act of making those movies means that some of the bumps, some of the nicks, some of the eccentricities have to get kind of filed off in order that it doesn't bump for too many people, because at a base level, even if you're, as you should be, shooting for a movie that the whole world will love, at a base level, the whole world has to like it. Whereas with this, I think it's those idiosyncrasies like in Subway, like in Diva, like in Repo Man, like in Walter Hill's movies that I wanted to keep. I wanted a movie that even though the story is a straight line, though kind of like meanders around that, and I think is interesting.

One of the reasons that Korean cinema is such an influence on Hotel Artemis is I think even though modern, western cinema has become certainly more streamlined than it was in the '70s, even big movies of the '70s and early '80s, whether it's because they feel more authored or whether it's because there was just way more coke around at the time, there's space for them to be weirder in moments. I think one of the things, especially if you look at Korean cinema, and it's a cultural thing, as well, but I think Korean cinema has this amazing ability to be both like aesthetically beautiful, and devastating, and thematically interesting, but also like hop in tone from like absolutely tragedy to very broad humor to moments of ultra violence to moments of real sweetness, and that was something I wanted Artemis to be able to do, as well. That's possible if you make a little indie movie with not very much money, and you shoot it in 33 days in downtown LA.

Mentioning the influence of Korean cinema, your DP, Chung-hoon Chung, is like a God. How'd he get involved?

Chung-hoon Chung is an absolute god. But it's a funny one, because I got lucky with the script in like obviously a whole bunch of amazing actors sparked to it even though there was no money in it, and it would be a really difficult shoot with a first time director, and that was incredible. But that also happened behind the camera, as well. I was very lucky. I spoke to some absolute fucking brilliant cinematographers from the most awesome new generation to a bunch of great old schoolers, as well, but I realized at a certain point that all of these people I was talking to, about a third of the visual references that I was showing them were actually shot by Chung, and at a certain point I was like, "Maybe I should talk to Chung-hoon Chung about this." I mean, he's a legend, but he's also the funniest bloke you could meet, which you wouldn't expect from the material that he's shot.

There's a hokey thing I said in pre-production on this movie, which is true, but also sounds awful, so I always have to feel like I caveat it, which is I said I wanted to make like a John Carpenter movie shot by Wong Kar-wai. There was a reason I wanted that kind of Asian influence in the visuals, because I think the whole movie has this kind of busted art deco spliced in with sci-fi kind of vibe to it, and I think that Wong Kar-wai's stuff just does that kind of faded glamor aspect so wonderfully.

I wanted the movie to have a visual voice, and it's one that ... there's a very organic one to Los Angeles. Even looking out the window now, you can see a hundred years of history on the buildings themselves. Los Angeles is kind of layered. It's relatively new as a city, so you can still see the first building right next to the newest building, and that totally informed the aesthetic of the movie, which is this kind of 1920s deco meets 2020's busted black market tech. That was great, because instead of going like, "Hm, what is the new aesthetic that I will create for this movie?" It was just suggested organically by the story and the world.

Hotel Artemis Review

What else about the story influenced some of the visual choices you made?

I think a lot of the best visual choices come from the movie itself rather than from arbitrary choices. Going in, I made a promise to myself never to make a choice in the movie just because I thought it was cool. It had to have a reason. It had to be justified. It had to come from the material, and the place is set in this busted 1920s hotel, and each of the rooms is themed to one of the top 10 vacation destinations of the 1920s. It's why, weirdly, the Niagara room was originally called Blackpool, based on, oddly, the northern British city that was one of the biggest holiday destinations of the 1920s.

It's funny how these things come about. That was a suggestion from the hotel itself. I also knew that because I was shooting this movie on such a low budget I couldn't build all of the rooms, and I needed a way to really clearly differentiate between the rooms as I redressed them each time. I was like, "A giant picture wall will set the tone for the room visually, and that will allow me to make each room a different color." Which also is very important, because it's a bubble movie, right. It's based mostly in, essentially, fucked up hotel rooms. So, if I'm popping between those rooms, visually I need them to look different each time.

Then finally the picture walls work thematically, as well, because the movie's all about a bunch of people who are trapped in cages of their own making, or simply in the Artemis itself tonight. I liked the visual irony of people who are trapped, but with essentially this beautiful view of freedom like taunting them in each of their rooms.So my favorite kind of production decisions come about when those mix of ideas all bring it together.

When Jeff Goldblum arrives as The Wolf King of LA, the zoom in on his sunglasses' reflection is such a fun shot. How did that shot come about?

When I start a movie, when I have the one line idea for the movie, if that's how it comes about, or for a character, or whatever, I start a little notebook, and I write all of my ideas for it in that notebook, and I start a playlist, and I put all of the songs that connect to me in that playlist, and I start a Dropbox with all the images that as I go through life feel like they are a part of that project. Over weeks, and months, and sometimes years, that's the boiling pot of influences.

One of the influences was a pulp cover on my bookshelf of To Live and Die in L.A., and it has a reflection. It's just a pair of sunglasses. It's a badass '70s font, and then ... well, I guess, '80s. And then a pair of sunglasses with a kind of reflection of LA in it. So I always had that image, so I always knew that I wanted something reflected in the Wolf King's eyes, but then it became, again, there's like a thing where you start to join up all of the material. My editor, Gardner Gould, would always say that like, "You know you've put enough stuff in a movie when the parts of it start to talk to each other."

One of the decisions I made was at the beginning of the movie, The Nurse is trapped, essentially, by The Wolf King, so I wanted this image of her reflected small in The Wolf King's glasses, to kind of signify for fact that he owns her. Then later on in the movie as she confronts him, we see his prone reflection in her glasses in a shot that kind of speaks to it, and I liked the way that imagistically showed the power dynamic shift in the movie.

The movie reminded me of how much I missed watching Jodie Foster. She seems very selective. 

She is, yeah, and so I'm very, very lucky that she found our movie, and kind of approached us before it even had gone out into the world, weirdly.

How does her performance compare to what was on the page?

It's incredibly close, actually. One of the things that Jodie said to me at the beginning, which I loved, was, "The boys always get to play characters, and we girls, we women, always have to be a version of ourselves." She was like, "I want some of that good Daniel Day Lewis stuff where I get to like build a character from the ground up." So hence is a departure for her, and there's a bunch of things that you don't normally see Jodie do, like she's very funny as The Nurse, in a way that's actually really tough to deliver.

One of the reasons she liked it is the whole movie has this kind of 1920s meets 2020s kind of vibe, and she loved the fact that The Nurse's dialogue almost owes as much to kind of Barbara Stanwyck and the kind of golden era Hollywood as it does to crime movies or sci-fi movies. The voice of The Nurse has a very kind of old school Hollywood ... I hesitate to say Wilder-esque, but definitely that kind of clickety-clack kind of back and forth vibe to it.

So I think all of that stuff is what drew her to it, and she just embraced all of it. There's just that amazing thing when suddenly you're on set with Jodie Foster, and she's fucking nailing this character that started in your head. That's a good feeling.

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Part two of this interview will run tomorrow. Hotel Artemis opens in theaters on June 8.