'Hotel Artemis' Director Drew Pearce On Going With Bold Ideas And Working At Marvel [Interview]

While speaking with Drew Pearce, it's obvious he has no shortage of good memories from making his first feature film, Hotel Artemis. Having Jodie Foster star in the first movie you've directed should help make for a positive experience, but even when the Iron Man 3 co-writer talks about the most challenging days on set, he does so with enthusiasm.

Hotel Artemis is an original independent movie coming out during the crowded summer moviegoing season. For Pearce, he's hoping some originality and personality will connect with moviegoers. He's also hoping all the love that went into making his movie about a hospital for assassins shines through. As Pearce told us, "I always say the movie costs $14.5 million and $20 million in favors."

If you haven't yet, check out part one of our conversation with Pearce. Below, you can find part two of our Drew Pearce interview, in which he talks about his Marvel experience, nods to Casablanca and Mary Poppins, and more.

Did you have time to rehearse with the whole cast? 

We did, actually. We never got the whole cast together in one room, but then they're never in one room in the hotel, either. Thank god, or otherwise the movie would've been impossible to make. It was virtually impossible as it was. But I really believe in rehearsal, and this movie, hopefully each of the characters has a specific voice, but the movie itself, I think, has a voice, too, and it was important to make sure everyone's ... for me to know going in, particularly because we had no time for rehearsal on set, because we had such a small budget and such a short shooting schedule, it was really important to make sure I knew everyone was on the same page in the same world with their performances, which is the toughest trick with something that's both a futuristic world build, and there are nine cast members who are never necessarily going to meet each other.

So, yes, I worked with each of the actors, and then as many of them in pairs and groups of three as I could, as well. Jodie was massively behind that, which really helps, because if you're an actor, and there's a chance to come sit around a table for a few hours and work through your scenes with Jodie Foster, then that's catnip, because you don't get that many chances every day to work with a legend like Jodie.

She's incredibly generous as an actress and supportive. I love the kind of double act between her and Dave Bautista in the movie as Everest, the Nurse's orderly. She adored Dave. I mean, that role is really tough, and it should've been really tough to cast, but Dave was the first person I went to, and he is just amazing at. I think it was great for him, because suddenly a legend is affirming your status as an actor, and actively enjoying what you're doing and stuff. It was a bit of a joy to watch that as a relationship, for example, kind of blossom as we shot the movie.

I want to ask you about your Marvel experience. After co-writing Iron Man 3 and making a one shot, what did you learn about moviemaking at Marvel?

God, I mean, I've learnt so much from my time at Marvel, both just as a writer on Runaways the movie, which is very different from the TV show, which was the first project I did there, than on the two and a half, three years I worked on Iron Man 3. Shane and I were literally the only writers that ever worked on that film. There was never anyone else brought in. That's pretty rare in any tentpole filmmaking. In many ways, Kevin Feige gave me my break here in America, my ability to make movies. Plus, he backed me to make All Hail the King, the Marvel short. I owe him a lot. I think Marvel has had a varied reputation over the years, and my experience, though mostly as a writer there, was just amazingly positive. I think one of the things that people don't realize about Marvel movies is they're kind of like gigantic Cassavetes films.

You know, there were five of us that essentially made all the central decisions in Iron Man 3, because Kevin is the studio. So it was Shane, Robert, me, Kevin, and Stephen Broussard, the producer. We were the five the people that kind of started the movie and ended the movie, and over that three year period, made all the decisions. Now, we're aided and abetted by the most extraordinary crew that money can buy, which is one of the other brilliant things about working on a Marvel movie is the resources that you have at your fingertips, and believe me, nothing will make you miss that more than directing an indie movie for two years.

I think some of the stuff I learned was to be ruthless with your script, to not be afraid to just throw stuff out even when you love it. I think what I learned from Kevin is ... I always loved the edit. One of Kevin's secret weapons is he has the ability to restructure story in the edit in a way that actually improves rather than is just f***ing with it just for the sake of it. Those skills are in Artemis. I don't want to pull back the curtain, but a bunch of the scenes are not in the order that they were expected to be in the script. That sense of adventure in the edit is something that Kevin instills.

I also got to work with a legendary writer in the shape of Shane, and as I say, the affirmation of working with someone who you really admire who then shares the same values as you is pretty priceless confidence-wise going forward. He's also a total sweetheart, and never afraid of a crazy idea. One of the other things he says is like, "The only thing that works is bold ideas." In many ways Hotel Artemis is full of bold ideas, and is a bold idea in and of itself, which is yeah, okay, let's make a high concept thriller about a secret hospital for criminals, and let's make the main character a 65-year-old woman who listens to folk rock from 1970. It's definitely a movie that I think owns its idiosyncrasies.

I know you said you don't want to reveal too much about the scenes you reordered in post, but how did the story evolve once you got to the editing room?

The interesting thing about 33 days is there are no deleted scenes in our movie. There are literally none. But what's then extraordinary is for a movie that's all set across one night, one of the things that we found was that it was actually extraordinarily modular in that because we're telling a bunch of different stories, there are a number of ways that you can lay out those stories in relation to each other. Now, there are always going to be crossover points that you then still have hit, and it's incredibly complicated in order to try and weave all those stories together, and change how they play, but there were just ways that we found of making characters feel more present throughout rather than like an intense period where we see them and then we miss them for too long.

There were ways of taking the footage we had and spreading it out across the 90 minutes as effectively as we could to just make sure that we were juggling all those stories all the time. There are some ways where we had to get a little bit creative with the small amount of footage we actually were able to shoot in 33 days. So yeah, there's not much on the cutting room floor, and it's still a 90 minute movie.

[Cinematographer] Chung-hoon Chung always refers to the movie as a tiny blockbuster, in that it aspires to the bigness, both of cast and aesthetically, but is made on less than a tenth of the budget of most of the movies that people could go and see in the theaters the same weekend as us. That's a little intimidating, but I just have to hope that that level of personality and a certain kind of gonzo spirit shines through and attracts people to it, and makes people come see it.

It sounds like you were hustling every day with that schedule.

Oh, f***ing yeah.

But was there one particularly nail biting day? 

God, I mean, every f***ing day was nail biting. There was one day ... there's a shot on the roof ... we shot on real roofs across downtown Los Angeles because I knew from my experiences on big movies that if we shot it on a soundstage like everyone was telling me, then when it came to the VFX, at a certain point people just go, "We've had enough passes. This is as good as it gets," particularly when you have a small budget. So you can't really control when you're on a tight budget the quality if you're going to do an extensive set extension or digital set. You're really risking it if you don't put it in camera, so we shot it on real roofs, which was weird because on the first day of scouting I suddenly remembered that I'm scared of heights, and so realized that I'd written my own movie to direct with six nights of absolute terror for me.

But the last night we were on the roof of the Rosslyn Hotel, which the roof of which stood in for the Artemis, and there's a shot which we had to get like a crane arm onto the roof for, which pushes past Charlie Day's character, Acapulco, and Sofia's character, Nice, and then drops down to join up the arrival of The Wolf King below. It's an important moment, because again, in a movie that's about disparate stories at the beginning, it brings together two of the stories physically for the first time, and we got this crane on the roof, and it's one of like three days we could afford to have a crane in the whole movie, but I knew I wanted that shot.

We get it up on the roof, and it's the last shot of the night, and there's no coverage to substitute for it if we don't get this shot. Get out there, and the robotic head of the crane just doesn't work. We're sitting there, and we've managed to leave ourselves enough time for the shot, and everyone's like "Yeah" and it's 3:45, and it's a summer short night in LA, because we shot it in the hottest, shortest nights in LA, because we had to, and this head just won't work, and it won't work, and it's ticking away, and the sky starts to get tinged with blue behind us.

In the end, my incredible camera team, Patrick, my grip, and like the camera team literally end up taking a non-robotic head and f***ing gaffer taping the thing to it, and we get one ... like you can actually see in the movie there's a tinge of blueness to the shot, because the sun is coming up and we get one shot at it. It shouldn't work, because the head should be too wobbly to even get the shot, because it's not working, and we got it in a take. It's one of the things I'm like ... I mean, amazing.

So, Nice, Sofia's character, takes a drag on the cigarette in this shot, and then like throws it off the building, and the camera tilts over the edge of the building, and you see the cigarette drop, and then 15 stories below The Wolf King's car will drive past her. It's the real cigarette in the shot, even. We didn't even ... It was funny, because when we were grading it, the colorist, was like, "Do you want to just augment that cigarette?" And it's like, "No. That cigarette's f***ing authentic. It stays in. That cigarette represents everything handmade, and like loving in the soul of this movie." So that's a shot. Then literally, we were like, "Can we get a second shot?" And we couldn't. The sky was too blue. We literally couldn't get another take of it.

When you're doing a 33 day shoot, every shot is that. But there was an interesting thing where like in the edit, in a big movie, what I would've then done is digitally stabilize that shot. Don't get me wrong, I was limited to the number of digital augmentations I could do, but I did them in plenty of other places when it's about the world build, but what I didn't want to do with this movie is like smooth off all the edges, so I actually don't digitally stabilize that shot. I just let it feel like it has a little bit more of the human touch to it, because that is what I loved about John Carpenter and Walter Hill and stuff like that.

I felt like this world had been made with care, if you know what I mean, and hopefully that's what people get, that sense from this movie. There's an attention to detail across all the departments I've got to work with. Again, like people who skill set is way, way above what I was able to pay them to do the movie. From the costume design to the production design, which is glorious. Ramsey Avery does an amazing job there. Through to Chung-hoon Chung as the DOP. There's a whole bunch of people that a movie of this size shouldn't have had access to. I always say the movie costs $14.5 million and $20 million in favors. Then you start to get closer to what the real budget of it would've been. So yeah, hopefully there is a sense of the love that went into the film, and the fact that the actors are all there, and the fact that all those crafts people are there, and those artists are there.

It's the same with the VFX. I couldn't afford to use ... usually on a VFX movie, and there's like 480 VFX shots in this film. A lot of which are hidden, or are about world building, about the fact that there is a riot going on outside. Usually with a VFX movie, you have four or five vendors, sometimes 10 vendors. In Iron Man 3 we had every vendor in the world at least working on one shot. I couldn't afford to do that on this, so what I did was work with this company called Cantina, who are fantastic, who do all the HUDs, actually, for Marvel. We did a deal where basically I edited the movie the floor below in their building, and so I was able to use my VFX department like you would use any other production departments.

When you are shooting a film in pre-production, your production designer who's building the sets and everything else is in the office next door to you, and the costume designer is, as well, because then you can be there with every decision, particularly on a low-budget movie where you can't afford for people to go six miles down and two weeks down a road, and then just look at it and go, "Well, that's not right." You kind of have to be there in a day. I was able to that with the VFX, so this small team and one vendor, I was in there every single day. I knew every one of the artists. I knew what their specialties were. I knew how I could distribute the skill set of the incredible people there, and because of that, because VFX artists don't usually get to work that closely to the hub, you just get this amazing quality of work out of people. Partly because they understand what you're going for in a much clearer way, and partly because they are motivated because they can see themselves effecting change on the movie day in and day out.

That's really exciting to me, because I think VFX artists just like ... if you knew how much of a lot of big was actually directed by the VFX team, it would shock you. There's a lot of movies, not really Marvel ones, but there's a lot of VFX heavy movies where the shots are chosen by the VFX team. They create the world, and kind of present it to a director, and they just don't get their due. It may sounds like a very mundane thing, but it was, again, I think that craft and that love feeds into the DNA in a movie. I hope that there are people out there who respond to that when they see it.

Earlier you mentioned your dropbox packed with influences, like the To Live and Die in LA book cover. What else was in that Dropbox of yours?

There were about 4,000 pictures in the Dropbox from reportage photographs that I'll take off of The Guardian, or Associate Press, to frames from movies to I work a lot with ... I've got like a billion art books stacked up in my office. Like the colors at the end of the movie and the riot are somewhat inspired by both Bosch and Ryan McGinley's work as artists. There's a million both explicit and implicit references to LA, pop culture. It's jammed full of Easter eggs like the names of favorite LA artists or pieces of art that are all through the movie, references visually.

I'm not actually someone that does a lot of visual homaging. My brain weirdly doesn't work that way, at least explicitly. I'm probably doing it every second that I'm shooting, but what I definitely did do was have ... I mean, some of the movies that I used shots from were ... there's like tons of Kurosawa, but there's also Mary Poppins. The Nurse is oddly inspired visually a bit by Mary Poppins, like this little lady with a bag who turns up and helps people. She's almost somewhat inspired by Wendy in Peter Pan, this woman surrounded by her lost boys.

Then visually, yeah, as well as all of the Easter egg references, which is like a whisky brand that is called Blaine and Lund after the two central characters in Casablanca, which is a movie that I draw huge inspiration from. It's probably my favorite movie of all time. Through to the fact that there are explicit references in the script to artists and stuff. I don't know. I just adore LA so much, and I wanted it to feel like it was a character that I just want to ... You're going through the trouble to build a world, why not make everything feel like it has a reason, why not kind of ... even if those reasons are silly and only two people will ever spot them or care about them, I care about them.

You can feel them even if you don't spot them. 

And I do think that's it. I like an attention to detail that you bake is something you bake into a movie, and people can feel it even if they don't get it. That's what I hope. The actors can feel it, as well, when they're on set.

The Kurosawa references makes sense. His crime movies do deal with class like Hotel Artemis

100%. Also, Drunken Angel is literally about a drunk doctor who looks after criminals. I mean, I think it's 1948. There's a lot there.


Hotel Artemis opens in theaters June 8.