Film interview Director Drew Pearce talks Hotel Artemis

We spoke about how he convinced Jodie Foster to work on the film and what led him to shoot on an L.A. rooftop when he’s afraid of heights.

Stylish action thriller Hotel Artemis marks the feature debut of British writer/director Drew Pearce and boasts an impressive cast lead by Jodie Foster and featuring the likes of Dave Bautista, Sterling K. Brown, Jeff Goldblum, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella, Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate and Brian Tyree Henry.

Set in a near future Los Angeles it centres on a members only hospital, the Hotel Artemis which caters to the criminal underworld. The Nurse (Foster) runs things with the help of orderly Everest (Bautista) and as a terrible riot rages outside the guests inside are causing a near riot of their own.

While Pearce may be a first time feature director he has serious blockbuster credentials as a writer, notably with Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation as well as writing and directing Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King.

DIY spoke with a pleasingly chatty and friendly Pearce about his experience on Hotel Artemis, how he managed to convince Jodie Foster to trust a director making his feature debut and what led him to shoot on a rooftop in L.A. when he’s afraid of heights.

Congratulations on Hotel Artemis which is finally out now in the UK. That must be cool for you as a Brit!
Tell me about it! I think it’s coming out at the right time in England. I think it came out possibly too early in America, there was a rush by the American distributors to get it out and it’s been really lovely to watch the roll out in the UK, I love all the trailers and all of it, it’s brilliant.

Do you get the sense there’s a lot of anticipation over here to see the film?
I hope so. That’s what’s really interesting we’re coming out in the summer which is the time of blockbusters but actually we’re this really small movie. We made an indie, super low budget for what the movie actually is. In many ways the amazing cast kind of hides the fact that it’s a little film and I’m really good with that because I want people to come out on a Friday night, I think the movie is a tonne of fun so I think it can live in the summer and on big screens. But it’s also a bit intimidating, it’s crazy to think that a movie that was made with probably the catering budget of Infinity War is coming out in the summer time [laughs].

It certainly looks as if a lot of money was spent on it…
What has been really gratifying is the reaction to it in the UK. It’s interesting being a British filmmaker who mostly works in America because there’s the chance I made a movie that was much more British than I thought it was. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always proud when I work on the giant movies as a screenwriter when I jam in a joke that is essentially only for the UK, like a joke about Croydon in Iron Man 3. Which I still can’t believe I got through! One of the best things I’ve ever seen, Shane Black [Director and co-writer] and I had never seen it with a real audience and the first time we saw it was the night before the London premiere they did the press screening…

I was there!
Well you could probably tell how dazed Shane and I were on stage that night, we had literally finished the movie 24 hours before then and flown to London and what was amazing was how hard the Croydon joke went down. It was almost like there was a beat where everyone in the audience was like: “Did a Marvel movie just make a joke about Croydon?” and then there was like this crackle explosion. It was one of my proudest moments.

This is your feature debut as director and whilst it may be low budget you’ve amassed one hell of a starry cast. How does someone attract such talent to their first film?
I think the fact that it’s got such a great cast probably speaks to why it exists to be honest. I have directed little things for years and years. I’ve been trying to direct my first movie, I ended up spec-ing three different scripts across the last ten years, which means you’re writing it for free and hoping someone will buy it. Each of them had gotten closer and closer to being made but none of them had made it across the line and there’s something about this one that as a concept drew people in and had characters I think that drew the actors in. I don’t know if that’s because there’s a certain boldness to the characters, I think that might be part of it. I also think what I tend to do is cast people, not against type but definitely to try and tap into a facet of what they are and who they are that we haven’t seen in something else before.

We’ve certainly not seen Jodie Foster like this before.
It makes it more of a high wire act if you’ve been acting for 50 years like Jodie. What I would do often is put myself in her place, she has chosen not to act much for essentially ten years because very few roles speak to her and coming back in a movie by a first time writer/director that’s a fairly wild mixture of genres and tones, purposely in which she’s playing a character 15 years older than she actually is for the first time in her career. All of those things combined makes it even more extraordinary that she wanted to do the movie. I think one of the most gratifying things for me, without wishing to sound sycophantic, is Jodie Foster fucking loves the movie I made! Jodie’s one of the first people to see the cut of the movie that was the basis of the final version and the reason for that is we couldn’t afford to do re-shoots but what I did do a lot of is ADR and she had like 87 ADR lines. So I was like: “I can’t just show her the scenes, I’ve got to show her the whole film.” It was terrifying! So Jodie sat in the edit and I left and literally sat next door, I’ve no idea what I did, I think I watched the first half of Bright actually to take my mind off it [laughs]. I could hear the final song kick in and I popped my head in the door and Jodie being Jodie she kind of looked up and left it for a beat before she said anything, which was one of the most torturous beats of my career. And then in a very Jodie-ish way she was like: “I really like it! It’s a good film, it really plays!” And this is the way you know that an actor or a collaborator really does like the film, if an actor comes to see the movie, even if they say they like it but then they leave instantly then that’s because they don’t want to talk about it anymore because they don’t want to give away how they really feel. Jodie stuck around for 45 minutes. One of the great things she said - I phoned Dave Bautista afterwards - “I’ve been doing this for 50 years and on set I didn’t quite see what he was doing and when you see it put together it’s a beautiful performance, it’s very coherent and emotional.” And I think that’s true but Bautista did not believe me.

He’s brilliant in it though isn’t he?
Yeah totally! He has such a soulful presence in the stuff that he does. I felt the same way in Blade Runner 2049. In many ways he’s the one that sells in that movie the idea, the big theme, how humans and replicants really are. He’s one of those great actors where if you’re just on his face with the camera there’s a lot going on under the surface. He’s got a good double-act with Jodie Foster, there’s an element of R2-D2 and C-3PO to them and he treated it like a master class, he was always trying to learn. I think there’s something unique in what he does and I hope he gets the chance to really spread his wings. He’s in a comedy next and I think he’ll be brilliant in that but I’d also like to see that emotional side of him in something too.

Jodie is a director too so do you feel you learned anything from her and maybe vice-versa? How collaborative was the environment?
We had lunch yesterday and we were both talking about that. I think from my point of view as a first time director working with someone both as experienced as an actor and a director, the assumption going in is that that will make it more intimidating and of course if Jodie hadn’t been so generous with her trust in me then it could’ve been a fucking nightmare. But I worked hard to prove to her in preparation in my willingness to collaborate in the work we did together on the script and then in the walking through of my process I think she began to trust me. For my part honestly what I found while I was on set was there’s a certain reassurance in knowing there’s a bunch of people around you who’ve done this a million times before even if you haven’t. The thing Tarantino said about Reservoir Dogs is that every single person on that set had been on more movies than him because he’d never done a movie. But the thing that he had that none of them did is as a writer/director he knew the story, he knew why they were there and I think that’s the thing you have to hold onto. It’s helpful to be a writer/director on your first movie, if someone comes and asks you a question you know the answer. You have to stay open to change for every second, you can choose to see that as an attack or you can choose to see that as a hundred people around you, all of whom are both fantastic at their jobs if you’re lucky and I was very lucky, but also have done their job a hundred times more that you’ve done yours. So if you don’t listen to them then you’re a fucking idiot frankly.

I understand that you’re not particularly fond of heights and yet you filmed on a rooftop in L.A…
[Laughs] I mentioned being a fucking idiot because here’s what happened. The movie was obviously made on a budget and I’d seen what happens when you do giant green screen movies on a budget. What happens is, and the way visual effects work in general, the less money you have the less ability you have to get someone to do another pass and then another pass until it gets better and better and I knew what would happen if we shot all that stuff on a sound stage with green screen I’d get three passes and the poor old DFX company would be like: “We can’t afford to do any more work.” Plus we managed to shoot in L.A. I argued for six months to shoot in L.A. The light in L.A. looks like nothing else on earth and I wanted to bake that into the movie. I genuinely fought tooth and nail for six months to shoot on real rooftops and about eight weeks before the movie I won and we go on our first scout and I literally open the door to one of the 25 storey high 1920’s crumbling buildings in downtown Los Angeles and it comes flooding back to me that I’m afraid of heights!

I remember I swooned and then walked straight to the middle of the roof, the furthest from every edge that I possibly could. None of them had railings or anything up there and I don’t know what it is about my fear of heights, I’m not afraid of being high up, if I’m enclosed I can even put my face on glass and look down even in a New York skyscraper. But if you give me the ability to be able to fall off,lemming it that’s when the fear really kicks in. We shot five nights on the roof up there, pitch black at night you’ve got hundreds of people, you’ve got equipment jammed everywhere and yeah it was bloody terrifying. But the good thing is directing your first movie is also terrifying and very time consuming and so the fear of heights was often outweighed by the fear of: “Will I be able to shoot everything I need until the summer Los Angeles sun comes up at the earliest time you could possibly imagine?”

I loved that sequence in the corridor with Sofia Boutella, how do you film something that in such a confined space?
It is built, it’s a set that corridor. Chung-hoon Chung’s my cinematographer who frankly shot the best corridor fight scene in cinema history because he did the original Old Boy, so I knew what I couldn’t do was shoot it on the side in one continuous take because I am not going against that movie! So when I was designing the fight the first thing that I thought of was the overhead and the idea of a fight working a bit like a pinball machine, smashing from wall to wall , moving forwards then moving backwards, it felt like I hadn’t seen that. So that was my first instinct and actually what was interesting is that usually when you’re designing a set every time when you look at it and the when you map it out on the floor and stuff your instinct is: “We need it to be bigger, we need to stick the camera’s in, we need more room, we need more scale.” With the corridor every time we saw it Chung and I were like: “Smaller, thinner.” What’s great about that is you’ve got these giant burly guys and this very small, lithe figure in the shape of Nice [Boutella] and actually that plays into the skillset that allows her to kind of succeed in the way that she does through the fight. I think good action sequences have to tell a story and so the idea that she is there as an apology and kind of for the love of the man that she is protecting in a noble way not in a subservient way in any way shape or form, more in a kind of warrior code way. It all came down to drawing that line and I feel like when she draws the line and says: “Don’t cross my line,” she’s not just doing that for Waikiki [Brown] I feel like there’s a whole life of her feeling people have crossed her line and compromised who she is, and in a weird way that’s what she’s fighting in that corridor, all the compromises she’s had to make, all the terrible jobs she’s had to take as an assassin, that’s what’s on her mind.

Hotel Artemis is in UK cinemas now.