[Editor’s note: The following interview contains some spoilers for the end of “Nobody.”]
Director Ilya Naishuller loves a little misdirection. Case in point: his sophomore effort, the Bob Odenkirk action vehicle “Nobody,” which ostensibly follows the “Better Call Saul” actor as the eponymous nobody Hutch Mansell as he’s pushed to crazy ends after violent crime invades his suburban life. But with the innovative action minds of Naishuller, writer Derek Kolstad, and super-producers David Leitch and Kelly McCormick behind the project, there’s clearly something else going on here, a nice little surprise for audiences who might think they have the movie figured out.
“I think Universal did a great job [making the trailer], in the sense that I love the misdirect,” Naishuller said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I love that you expect a more straight up ‘John Wick’ movie and there’s a little bit more inside if you just care to look, scratch the surface. I’d much prefer it this way: under-promise, over-deliver. … Film audiences love precedents, no matter how much we say we want original movies and all that, it’s much more comfortable to go to a movie knowing what you’re going to go see. That’s just how it works. And that’s okay.”
So, about that “John Wick” thing. The connections between the films are obvious enough: not only was the “John Wick” franchise created by “Nobody” screenwriter Kolstad, but Naishuller’s film shares a certain sensibility in not just tone (violent, but also fun) but in the characters at their heart (likable guys driven to extreme ends by other people’s evil deeds). Could they exist in the universe? Is a crossover in the offing?
“I love when the people ask, ‘Is it the same universe?,'” Naishuller said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Alright, I can’t say anything. But what you could do is look at which studio made which movie and then think about the reality of doing a crossover.’ That’s all I’ll say. I mean, everything’s possible. Stranger things have definitely happened, but… yeah.” (For the record: the “John Wick” movies are made by Lionsgate, and “Nobody” is a Universal Pictures release. But, yes, stranger things have indeed happened.)
Naishuller certainly seems to delight in those sorts of trivial bits — no, a crossover doesn’t seem likely, but the director’s big smile when talking about it makes it clear he’s a fan of the idea — but he’s still hyper-focused on “Nobody” as its own beast and how it reflects his evolving career.
“Before ‘Hardcore Harry,’ I had five or six scripts that I was supposed to shoot in Russia that I was trying to get off the ground and nothing was happening,” he said. “They were all character-driven, very story-driven with minimal action. And with ‘Hardcore,’ as soon as I understood I was going to be making it, I was like, ‘This is going to pigeonhole me as an action guy for the rest of my life, until I’ll make the next one.’ … With this one, I concentrated a lot of my energy on making sure that the script is as good as it can get for this genre, that the performances, that the quiet scenes in the kitchen with the wife, they are no less important than the action.”
But it is still an action-packed character-centric movie, right down to a final fight sequence, in which Christopher Lloyd’s character all but winks at the camera when he declares the big, warehouse-set battle to be “excessive, but glorious.” “What I enjoy so much about the end result is that it’s violent. Absolutely. Bone crunching. Absolutely!,” Naishuller said. “Yet it’s never dark. You come out of the movie and you don’t feel like, ‘Ooh, got to take a shower.’ The character, in that moment, he’s super rough, he’s cutting through them, but it’s just not mean-spirited. The whole movie is not mean-spirited.”
Naishuller envisioned the finale as the cartoonish outcome of a story that grows more ludicrous as it moves along.
“As the film goes on and Hutch becomes happier, we go to this super-colorful comic book style, where at the end of the movie, the action is supposed to be ridiculous,” Naishuller said. “It’s absolutely excessive. There’s no need to kill 50 people. But there is, because that’s what we paid money for. We’re supposed to have a good time. And because finally, Bob’s character is having a good time, I felt we’re allowed to have the dessert of this just ridiculous violence.”
Despite some of the sequence most outlandish bits — it’s the kind of battle in which RZA’s character shoots three dudes with one bullet, a tiny kitten waits out the action, and plenty of everyday office supplies are turned into instruments of death — Naishuller said it’s still rooted in Hutch’s evolution.
“You cannot go wrong if you focus on the character and what happens to him. That’s one,” he said. “Two: how it serves the story. And three, and it’s weird to say in an action scene, the action is the third point, but it really is. … At the end of the day, if you have an actor, you have to trust your actor. You’ve got to see him emote. It’s not just him punching people. There’s a lot of action movies that do that really well, but there’s nothing that beats seeing someone reacting to what is happening. And with Bob, one look is enough. He’s that great.”
Odenkirk trained for two years for the role. “Bob could have said, ‘Ilya, you get a stuntman, you get shaky cam, you do all the regular stuff. And it works,'” Naishuller said. “People generally don’t mind [that]. I hate it. So I was very lucky that, because of Bob’s training, I could shoot it like a proper film, not just a very movie-ish, stuntman shake, cut, every half a second. Every cut we make in the film, it’s not because we had to, it’s because we wanted to. And that’s a wonderful, wonderful place to be at for a director.”
Despite all that training, it’s important the Odenkirk’s Hutch doesn’t come out of the gate a fully formed action badass. “He’s going to be a stumbling hero. He’s going to be collapsing, he’ll be falling, he’s going to be bleeding, he’s going to be being hurt,” Naishuller said. “And not just because it’s harder to sell Bob as an action star, he sells that part incredibly well. Two years of training pays off! You relate much more to the hero when he is not the Terminator. You just feel when he’s using everyday objects and they’re not just great, perfect knives and guns and instruments to kill people. It just becomes more fun while being more brutal.”
Another element that helped make such a short shoot possible was the pre-visualization work by Rementer and his team, which allowed everyone to “see” the vision without shooting it first. Naishuller said that “Hardcore Henry” helped establish his love for planning and pre-viz. “It starts off with just sitting in a room and talking about cool things, like mouse traps, then mouse traps with shotgun shells,” Naishuller said. “That’s when you pull out the inner kid. ‘Alright, shotgun shells, maybe he lights them and it all blows up. And then he uses the fridge to cover and the fridge is a flimsy cover!’ We all saw ‘Indiana Jones’ and we all laughed at that moment. ‘And then we have Chris Lloyd doing this and then RZA will say a line. Then let’s use a stapler to send a guy out the window!’ It’s just a bunch of kids in adult bodies having a fun session.”
That process led to discussion about every step of the sequence, from the geography of the location, the balletic choreography of dozens and dozens of bodies, even building the warehouse set entirely to fit the demands of the battle. “We make a plan,” Naishuller said. “We have Roger Fires, our production designer, build the location to our specifications, and then we go shoot it. And you don’t mess about in the shoot because you’ve talked about it so much that we all know exactly what we’re doing.”
Naishuller is always eager to call out the team around him: Rementer and Fires, plus producers Leitch and McCormick, who were often on hand during the icy Winnipeg-set shoot. “I had support, I had luck, I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing,” he said. “We had very little time. We had to shoot the whole thing, I believe, in four days, which is ridiculous. But again, with this team, that’s how we made it. There was no choice and we knew we were doing it. So that’s it, you buckle up and you go.”
While Naishuller hopes to keep moving into more character-driven work with each subsequent film (he’s currently eyeing up an adaptation of Joseph Kanon’s bestselling novel “Leaving Berlin”), he is by no means leaving action behind. “I love action. I still want to make movies for theaters,” he said. “So you’ve got to have a spectacle. But I firmly believe, and there’s been a lot of examples throughout Hollywood history of people combining spectacle with good storytelling that uses the action not like a crutch, but as the spice. … All my favorite movies are not action movies, but they happen to have action. There’s a very big difference.”
A Universal Pictures release, “Nobody” is in theaters now.
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