Screenwriter Drew Pearce Talks his Directorial Debut, “Hotel Artemis”
Drew Pearce is a screenwriter who can now make the film he wants to make, his way.
After all, he is the man behind Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation; which made $682.7 million worldwide, and, in collaboration with Shane Black, Iron Man 3, which brought in $1.2 billion.
Pearce’s start in British television — specifically, creating acclaimed superhero sitcom No Heroics — was the first step in what has become a successful Hollywood career as one of the town’s most sought-after writers.
He contributed to Sherlock Holmes 3 which is currently in development and an untitled Ghostbusters spin-off. On Friday, Pearce will make his directorial debut with Hotel Artemis.
The film; which stars Jodie Foster, Jeff Goldblum, Sterling K. Brown, Charlie Day, Jenny Slate and Dave Bautista, is a futuristic noir; part action-thriller, part dark comedy. It’s focus is, as Pearce puts it, “a bad guy hospital,” which is overseen by a nurse (Foster) with a tragic backstory.
Here, the spirited Pearce talks the origins of Hotel Artemis, collaborating with Black and the difference between his writer’s and director’s brains:
Drew Pearce: This is not the normal phone call I make to Final Draft [laughs].
Eric Walkuski: I expect it is your preferred screenwriting program.
DP: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t work on Final Draft, if I’m being entirely honest.
It’s what you do, the industry standard. I think the interesting thing is, to back the relationship between creativity and technology, you end up — particularly if you’re working within the studio system — needing to know the rules of Final Draft documents in order to come in, for example, at your page count. It’s a skill set that’s secondary, obviously, to the creation of story but it’s still one you need to know.
EW: It’s true that if you don’t know the format a lot of readers won’t give your script the time of day.
DP: I definitely hear that from a lot of younger writers … Also, I think it’s about the speed you can get them to read the script — and I say this as the slowest script reader in the world.
EW: Speaking of scripts, where did the idea for Hotel Artemis come from and how long have you been working on it?
DP: Well, I think the kernel of the idea was when I wrote down the prophetic words “bad guy hospital” in about 2011 … probably when I was making Iron Man 3 …
I have a process. If I have an idea I really like, I start a little notebook. I start a music playlist and I start a Dropbox folder and over the next weeks and months and years, I accumulate the ideas and the pictures and the sounds that are informing the story … At a certain point, if it’s the right idea, it has taken on a life of its own and that’s when I move to the next stage.
With [Hotel Artemis], I think the kernels of the ideas were that I love bad guy movies. The same way that actors always say they prefer playing villains to heroes, I prefer writing villains to heroes … A movie where everyone is a villain is very attractive to me. I also knew I wanted to direct it … I haven’t been able to direct because either [projects] have been too big or the only way to get them made was if one of the Chrises was able to do them and for a first-time director … they’re busy. They’re busy Chrises.
I knew I wanted to do something that was contained, that was like a bottle movie. At the same time, I had this small, emotional story that I couldn’t shake of this woman who had a tragedy in her past and had hidden herself away and was trying to make amends for what she felt she’d done — like Wendy and the Lost Boys — by fixing all the other waifs and strays.
Those things all congealed along with the fact that I had just moved to L.A. and I was really, and still am, in love with the city and a hundred years of its pop culture, from crime fiction to music to movies … That’s the kind of crucible that all of this went into.
I think it was a very interesting time as well … I was working with Shane Black and he always says, “making movies, the process of it by its nature blands out the idea.” So you have to go into the script with as many complementary flavors as you can in the pot and the more you get in there, the richer the end result.
EW: As one of the great modern screenwriters, was Shane Black a mentor figure for you, even though you were already writing successfully before working with him?
DP: What was really amazing was we were a forced marriage.
I came on to Iron Man 3 a week before Shane was brought on and he’s Shane Black, he wasn’t massively pleased that there’s already a writer there. The expectation, I think on his side, was that he would simply take over, and [president of Marvel Studios] Kevin Feige for whatever reason believed we would write well together.
Shane agreed to a trial period and I basically went over to his house 14 hours a day, every day. I was still living in England and I was flying back on a Saturday. On that Friday, we were having a big meeting at Marvel and it was absolutely the 800-pound gorilla in the room. And Shane at one point stood up and in his very deep brogue said, “I’ve been working with Drew Pearce this week and I’ve found him to be a very fine gentleman and also an excellent writer, so I would be fine with the idea of the two of us sharing the script.” You know, one of the best professional moments of my life. And so began a two-and-a-half, three-year period and one in which no one other than Shane or I ever touched a keyboard, which is so rare in modern tentpole filmmaking. Actually, the WGA flagged it when we put in the credits for the script. They thought someone would have come in for a few days … but it was Shane and I all the way.
The affirmation of that meeting was incredible, but also just the sense that you can surprise or excite or fight the weight of someone you consider to be a classic, is really good for your confidence. I think the more confident you are as a writer — and this goes for any art form — the higher you punch, the better you get. I think it works in the opposite direction as well; I think the more punches you take and the further down you go, the more “fuck you” juice you can accumulate … sometimes that has to be the engine as well.
EW: With Hotel Artemis, did you find the director side of you arguing with the writer side of you or did they get along?
DP: I definitely think they’re not entirely different sides of the brain, but all the skills you learn as a writer — or at least your instincts as a writer — will sometimes be overridden by your directing brain.
If you’ve worked on big movies as a writer as I have, often you have to be the logic police, or often you are the plot generator. As a viewer, I don’t really take plot in. I follow story, I follow character and I take away images or moments. I can walk out of a theater and not be able to tell you the plot of the movie, but tell you I loved the movie. But still, in tentpole filmmaking, logic and explanation and exposition, that is part of the modern blockbuster culture.
The attractive thing about Hotel Artemis as a project is that I went into it with a mantra that was based on the fact that when you make a tentpole, everyone is shooting for it to be a great movie. But what it has to be, by its nature, is an okay movie for everyone. With Artemis, instead of making a movie that was everyone’s okay movie, let’s make a film that is one person’s favorite film; that is how I went into this one as a writer. So, I was already a little looser than I might be on a studio gig.
There are also pressures when you’re shooting; no matter how much preparation you’ve done, no matter how long you’ve lived with a line or a scene, what I really had to do was separate myself from that and be in the moment as a director. Listen to the scene, listen to the actors and listen to the storytelling that you’re giving at that moment. Maybe it needs to be visual, maybe you need to take the line away, maybe that line is better served with a look.
One of the things I was able to do — and was surprised at how able to do it I was — I was able to be brutal with my own script as director and my own work in the edit. And it’s 100 percent required because the story changes. There are very few movies that work successfully as an exact transition from the words on the page to the final film.
EW: Let’s talk about the cast. It’s such an impressive cast; it seems like every member was probably your first choice. How did you go about assembling this ensemble?
DP: Obviously, Jodie Foster came on first and that is an incredible lynchpin to build an ensemble around. It sends out a signal to other cast members that if she is willing to trust you as a first-time director, maybe other actors will, too.
But we’re a small movie. We didn’t have much money, we had no money to pay people. One of the other things I did was, I targeted actors that I had an instinct would be great for a role despite the fact it wasn’t the usual role they played. I think that allowed me to build a cast that was surprising for the audience; you know, Goldblum hasn’t played a bad guy very often, although he was amazing in Deep Cover. Charlie Day is usually comic relief … in this movie he’s a lot darker than that. And Dave Bautista, who is an amazing actor with a range I think people haven’t seen yet, doesn’t often get to be in a double act with Jodie Foster. I think one of the things that helped me with the casting was counter casting; going against what people usually play.
Screenwriter / Film Critic / Journalist / Reporter
Eric Walkuski is a screenwriter, film critic, journalist and reporter. He is currently a managing editor at JoBlo.com. You can follow Eric on Facebook and Twitter at @ericwalkuski