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Ilya Naishuller on Nobody, Turning Bob Odenkirk Into an Action Star, and More

Bob Odenkirk becomes a certified action star about 25 minutes into “Nobody,” in a sloppy battle royale that takes place on a bus. Unfolding in long takes and without the action genre’s usual jittery camera, Odenkirk’s character Hutch ferociously impairs a group of rambunctious Russian gangsters while taking plenty of hits himself. Arms are snapped, the bus gets ripped to shreds, and some tactful bits of comic relief let the viewer exhale with a laugh before the next nasty dance. Hutch enters the scene as a guy who originally was just traveling across town to retrieve a stolen kitty-kat bracelet, and hobbles away from it as a reawakened fighting machine. 

The mastermind behind this scene is director Ilya Naishuller, working from a script by Derek Kolstad and bolstered by Odenkirk’s two-year commitment to learning all of the fight choreography. Naishuller previously made the audience an action genre avatar with his first-person, GoPro-shot action bonanza “Hardcore Henry,” and now he places viewers in the suburban routine of Odenkirk’s Hutch, a family man who has been living in mediocrity, far away from his years of being a government-trained killer. Everything changes that night when Hutch chooses violence, and when the Russians (lead by Aleksey Serebryakov's showboating gangster Yulian) then threaten his suburban sanctuary, they further invigorate a dormant part about who Hutch really is. 

On the Monday before the American release of "Nobody," Naishuller spoke with RogerEbert.com about the making of the subversive star vehicle, and how it was influenced by South Korean cinema, "Die Hard," and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

I see that reviews for "Nobody" are coming out today. Do you read them? Do you care?

Of course I care. I don’t think anybody who says they don’t care actually means it. What I’m looking for is whether the critics picked up on some of the important things I made sure were in the film, and whether how accessible or good or not good these elements are in their opinion. I am genuinely curious. But this is only my second film, so it would be foolish to think, “I know it all!” Shut up. I’ve read a few before we started interviews today, and knock on wood I’ve read ones where, most importantly, they say that Bob is an action star already. I told Bob on the first night of when we finished shooting of the bus fight—the shortest email I ever wrote to Bob during those three years. I said, “Bob, you’re a f**king action star. Have a good night.” So, it’s nice to see confirmation of that.  

It’s kind of funny to say that this is your first action star movie, given that "Hardcore Henry" was first-person. But in this one, you're creating the action hero. Was that a big interest for you with this project? 

There’s two reasons I took this film. One, Bob. Obviously. I’ve loved Bob since “Mr. Show.” Two, when I read the script, I understood what it meant to have it be more than just a shoot-‘em-up. I got on the phone with Bob, and I didn’t talk about the action at all. He didn’t ask. I said, “Look, the way I see it, it’s an addiction drama about a man whose addiction is violence.” And unlike every other movie of the genre, it’s not like, “They stole my dog, I don’t want to go back but I have to,” or “They stole my daughter, I don’t wanna go back, but I have to.” It’s, “They stole something that is absolutely unimportant and I don’t have to go back, but I really want to.” It’s got just enough of that subversion of the genre where you’re not subverting for the sake of subverting, you’re not being cute with it.

What was important to you about making an authentic story concerning this addiction to violence? 

I always knew the action was going to be fantastic. And it would have been great if Bob did not dedicate two years of his life to training. It just wouldn’t be as special, we’d use camera trickery and all the tricks of the trade. Here, I was lucky that because of his training, we could do long takes and do calmer camera, and just cut when we wanted to, not because we needed to. 

A friend of a friend of a friend passed on a text from a retired Russian Special Forces dude. He said, I’ll translate it … “Please tell him that the philosophy of the film exactly transfers the spirit and the problem of the men in retirement in such professions. And I’m telling from personal experience.” I’ve read a few books about folks like that, I’ve seen a lot of movies about folks like that, but it just felt to me that it’s got to be such a mentally draining situation for a man to be in. But this being a genre movie, the fact that you can go a little into the psychology of this thing, and have a wounded and mentally hurt lead, that was incredibly exciting. Plus, Bob Odenkirk is going to be playing the guy. Come on! 

So Bob was on the project before you got involved? 

He cast me, I didn’t cast him. 

That’s a high compliment! 

It is indeed. I never thought of it that way, but yes. Look, I was lucky that I got the script. In the last five years since “Hardcore Henry” I’ve been working on my own material. A couple projects in Hollywood that just didn’t happen, because sometimes things don’t happen. I was waiting for the right American project that had the potential to be not just fun, successful, etc., but to have that balance of a character. To have something to say, even if it’s packaged up as a popcorn entertainment. 

I remember telling the studio, and I was a bit nervous about saying it, but I said, “Hey guys, this is a drama, with an inner conflict that’s going to masquerade itself as a typical hitman movie.” When I saw the trailer, it made total sense to me that this is what the guys would do. This is how you sell movies. You sell them precedent: “You like ‘John Wick’? Well here’s ‘John Wick’ with Bob.” And then people go see it expecting that, and you give them a little bit extra. You underpromise and overdeliver, and that’s the American way! We don’t have that saying in Russia. But I’ve been importing it.   

The film's sense of violence also makes sure that the pain is very real, making you aware of every hard surface inside a bus. Bob's big bus scene reminds me of how Jackie Chan mixes the stakes of pain with comedy. 

I’m going to pass that onto Bob, because that’s his favorite action hero of all time, Jackie Chan. 

Did you guys talk about Jackie Chan? How did your talks help your collaboration? 

Look, we had a lot of time to talk before we went into production on this movie. It was delayed from 2018 to 2019, so we had time to work on the script, to talk, to watch movies. You know directors they usually go to America and say, “I hate it! They sucked out my creative juices!” Bullshit, I had a great f**king time. We had the right budget, the right filmmakers the right producers the right stars. It just clicked. 

The thing I pitched to [writer Derek Kolstad], and this is pre-“Parasite,” and I think I mentioned this to the producers later on, but I said: “This is a South Korean thriller, made in America by a Russian director.” If you look at [“Nobody”] in the first-third, it’s very South Korean in nature. Faster paced, but in terms of character development, it's like “Bittersweet Life,” a movie I showed, and a great character-driven action film. There are good movies that happen to have action in them. 

My plan with ["Nobody"] is that we start off very dramatic, desaturated colors, in this very controlled sort of boring, but controlled boring way. Very mundane. And then we ramp up, and at the end of it we’re going full vivid colors, bullets flying everywhere, just complete ridiculousness. Hence why Christopher Lloyd has that line, “excessive but glorious.” That’s what it is. If you look at the last action scene, and you cut it together with the beginning of the film, it doesn’t make any sense. 

When we were making a comedy, it was very easy for Bob to go into comedy territory, because Bob is the master of that. But early on it was like, we’re going to play it straight, we’re going to have humor, but the humor is going to be situational. It’s going to be gentle, because a chuckle during a bloody scene elevates the chuckle to a laugh, and the violence amidst the comedy becomes more violent. 

How did you want to balance humor and pain with this story? 

We looked at “Die Hard,” in the sense that John McClane is a real character. He gets hurt, he whines, and not only does that make him more relatable and that’s great, but it just makes it more satisfying that he succeeds. He’s not the kind of guy who can take 100 hits to the head and keep going. We’re doing the car flip scene and Bob climbs out and he says, “I think we’re overdoing it. I think maybe it’s a little too much.” And I said, “Bob, the car just flipped. If we’re keeping this movie semi-grounded, and this is the mid-point, or still close to the third act, we’re allowed. And the audience is going to be with us, if you don’t come out of there like a spring chicken. It’s a f**king car flip. You should have died. It’s OK." 

When Hutch gets thrown out of the bus, that was very important for me to have, because the character makes a choice. He can just leave. But it’s super clear, that at that point, that’s how he seals his own fate. If you look at the movie, everything happens to Hutch because he makes the wrong choices. That’s not how you do an action film, whatsoever. But it works. But it’s just having those gags to balance the bloodshed that goes such a long way. And I love comedy movies, so it just feels very natural.

What were the key guidelines you had when making the bus sequence? How long did the bus scene take to shoot?  

Bob’s training is obviously critical and super key in all this. We shot the scene in three nights, including the car crash and the lead-in to the fight. So two and a half for the fighting, and this is without overtime, very strict. Come in on time, under budget, overdeliver. But we had a lot of pre-vis, and a lot of discussions. We’d look and be like “needs a little more comedy or a little less comedy.” It was just a lot of back-and-forth. The only thing we improvised were, Bob and I would mess around with dialogue and I would quickly text Derek, “Derek, what do you think?" And I wanted to be very respectful to Derek, because Derek is not just a great writer, but he’s also just a fantastic human being. I think the bus fight is shot-for-shot what we had in the pre-vis. It’s very close. 

If you look at the bus fight, there’s a lot of levity amongst the bloodshed. And you only really figure it out when you start putting the scene together. I wasn’t sure we needed the “Stop Requested” sign gag, and I remember thinking, “It might be a little cute.” But when you see the level of violence, you’re like, “Yeah, we need cute.” And it’s OK because amidst all this it becomes, what is life if it’s not comedy and drama together? And what is an action film if it’s not an extreme variation of what life is? 

I love the film's sense of visual comedy; you’re a big fan of things popping into frame. Like when Yulian grabs a chair, and suddenly it appears in the next shot of a separate hospital room. It's amazing. 

I am incredibly proud of that chair throw. I’ve never seen that before, especially with the calmness and then just a chair landing. It’s expected but it’s out of nowhere at the same time, and that’s what comedy is. Thinking of influences, I can’t say I love a genre more than others, but I just love films that you can rewatch. And apart from my early days of watching old James Bond movies—they were my favorite things ever, and that’s what made me want to be a director, when I was watching "Goldfinger" and my mom was explaining what all these people do on a set—it’s got to be movies like "Anchorman" and "Hot Fuzz." 

As a fan of those movies, are you interested in doing a more out-and-out comedy? 

Oddly enough, of all the material that I’ve been working on as self-generated material, none of them are comedies. Now I’m thinking, why not? And I think ultimately because I still have more to do in this genre, maybe one more and then I’ll start looking around. But what I really want to do, and this is going to sound silly from the guy who has got two action films in a row, but all my favorite films are films that have action in them rather than action films that are good. I think of “The Usual Suspects,” or “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which doesn’t make sense on this list. 

Was “The Royal Tenenbaums” an influence on “Nobody” at all? 

I remember talking to the studio early on, it was in the presentation that I made originally. It said, “Some scenes will be violent Wes Anderson.” There’s going to be music, there's going to slow-motion. And “Royal Tenenbaums” is one of my favorite movies of all time. [It's got] perfect casting, and I think that’s inspiring in the sense to me that ["Nobody"] has casting you don’t expect to see. You don’t expect to see RZA, Lloyd, and Bob as a family kicking ass. But because of that it works so much better. Constant surprises. Robert McKee said, “A film is the gap between expectation and reality.” I think that’s one of the most things that informed my outlook. All my commercials, my music videos, they're constantly surprising. If you surprise people, you can’t go wrong. People spend money, they don’t have much money they don’t have much time. What are you there for? You’re there to have emotions, and to be surprised. And if you’re going to tell a story about a hitman—which we’ve seen a hundred times—if you’re not being surprising, then what the f**k are you doing? 

I'm curious about how Anderson's slow-motion has influenced you. I know you love slow-motion in your music videos. 

Slow-motion has been overused to death, and I’m not going to name names, but you know what I’m talking about. “Alright, here’s a kick, slow it down!” But with this, especially when we get to the second act and the third act, there are moments where the slow motion is … I try to set it up to be fairly complicated without being too busy of a shot. And with the right music, you aim for that ground where it loses realism but doesn’t jump into cheesy. If you look at the shot with RZA shooting with an Uzi, that’s such a silly shot. Why does it work? I don’t know why, it just works. I remember thinking, “Yup, with the right song,” and we had a list of things that should work and songs we could license. But for me it’s obvious that the Wes Anderson influence has been huge, especially “The Royal Tenenbaums.” 

I’m also thinking of the slow-motion shot with Bob and the painting. 

That is my nod to the great Wes, yes. That is probably the cleanest example of what I’ve been talking about.

I heard you’re doing a spy thriller next? 

It’s something that I’ve been working on for a long time, an adaptation of Joseph Kanon’s “Leaving Berlin,” a New York Times bestseller. It’s very much an anti-authority movie about a guy who stands up with morals and ideals, and has a rare, for a film of this genre, proper love story. After this experience with “Nobody,” I know how to make a more traditional movie, and I think it’s be a good story for today’s day and age about a guy with morals who stands up for what he believes in. Which I think the world really needs right now. I think the world lacks empathy, and the last years have shown us that a lot of people don’t give a shit. And that is not how we are going to progress as humanity. Now, I don’t expect to make a film and change the world, but I expect to make a film that will change some people, for the better. You change a couple minds, that’s already a great start. 

Are you going to try to do that in Hollywood or abroad? 

I think it’s got to be a co-production. Or I think we want to wait until “Nobody” comes out. It’s a lot easier to send this to a star and say, "This is the guy who made ‘Nobody,’ and the performances are all great, and there’s not a single questionable scene in the film." You know that you always hear, "A good movie is two great scenes and no bad scenes"? There’s definitely no bad scenes in “Nobody.” It works. Now that I’m more sure of myself and my abilities, I have an understanding of what I need for the next few, whatever they happen to be. Because you don’t know until you know. 

"Nobody" arrives in theaters tomorrow, March 26.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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