B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance” revels in the beauty and the horror of America, so it’s no wonder that Novak’s vision for the texture of the Texas-set thriller would mirror its shadowy themes. The “Vengeance” writer, director, producer, and lead star told IndieWire during a recent interview that casting Ashton Kutcher as a charismatic record producer quickly gave Novak the face of the film. Literally.
“Of all the people in the movie, he was the one I was most excited to show to everyone because I knew there was this cinematic side to Ashton Kutcher as well as this intellectual side that had never quite been seen before,” Novak explained. “He’s an icon, he’s an international icon. But in a friendly, approachable way.”
Novak, whose personal experiences with fellow “Vengeance” actors like Issa Rae and John Mayer led in part to their respective castings, added, “Anyone who knows Ashton in real life has seen him be this hypnotically charismatic intellectual when he’s talking about investments or theories of the world or television producing.”
But it was Kutcher’s signature grin and rom-com good looks that had repercussions to the entire cinematography of the Blumhouse-produced mystery, which hits theaters this week after premiering at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
“He has a very cinematic face. But he tends to be in movies where he’s lit really head-on that emphasizes how pretty he is, but not how handsome he is, for lack of a better word,” Novak said. “So my first question to my cinematographer was, ‘I have Ashton Kutcher in this movie. I’ve only seen him look pleasant. How would you shoot Ashton Kutcher?’ And he said, ‘I’d give him the Christoph, man!’ He talked about how Christoph Waltz was introduced in ‘Inglorious Basterds.’ So I studied that: visually, costume-wise.”
Novak, an “Inglorious Basterds” alum himself, continued, “Ashton was even more eager than I was to show this side to the world. It was very exciting to me to sort of re-release this Coke classic, everyone loves Ashton, and to get to show how brilliant he is. It’s really lucky for me.”
Kutcher previously revealed that after connecting with Novak 20 years ago on “Punk’d,” he couldn’t wait to reunite for “Vengeance,” telling Entertainment Tonight that the script was “one of the best screenplays” he has read in years.
The “flavor” of Kutcher’s character and costume choices rival that of Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” with white sequin suits unbuttoned to there with a silk ascot loosely slung under the brim of a cowboy hat. Novak penned his own character, podcast journalist Ben Mankalowitz, to be the counterpart to Kutcher’s Southern small-town producer.
“I knew I wanted to be a journalist mainly because I felt safe playing a writer,” Novak explained to IndieWire of writing Ben, whose emotional journey through the film reflects the push and pull between a politically-divided nation. “I was thinking of him as a journalist and then it suddenly occurred to me that he should be a podcaster. It made me smile right away. It’s kind of silly but also very modern and it was a guy who was a little earnest. The reason to make him a journalist or a podcaster at all was that, this is someone who analyzes the world, who wants to tell, talk instead of listen, about all the brilliant things he has in his head and all the brilliant things he observes, when in fact what he really needs to do is listen.”
But listening well is also the key to acting, according to Novak. “I had an on set producer, Leigh Kilton-Smith, whose primary goal was to huddle with me about the performance constantly, all of them, but especially my own, which I really wanted not to shortchange,” the “Office” writer said. “She is a really revered teacher out here in L.A. and her number one mantra to all actors is, ‘Listen. All acting is listening.’ So she had tears in her eyes, watching Ashton’s speech about listening, because to her, that’s her life’s work.”
Listening was also key when creating the dynamic between the ensemble cast, including Dove Cameron, J. Smith-Cameron, Elli Abrams Bickel, Boyd Holbrook, Louanne Stevens, and “hilarious discovery” breakout actress from Atlanta, Isabella Amara. Novak credited Stevens with bonding the cast by leading a “very deep” discussion about everyones’ “creative dreams.”
“I was very intent on not just the individual roles but the composition. I wanted the composition of the cast to be a fresh and dynamic conversation,” Novak said of building the chemistry between co-stars. “It is about culture clash and it is about a new conversation of tones and it is something I wanted to feel very current.”
Focus Features releases “Vengeance” in theaters on Friday, July 29.