A crashed humvee rests at the front of a grocery store, glass and pieces of the window frame scattered about. Jesse Eisenberg, who drove the vehicle through the doors, looks more like Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive than himself, albeit sporting a marijuana-themed button up shirt. He crouches behind one of the cash registers holding the loud speaker alerting the other “shoppers,” who are actually government goons that are holding his girlfriend hostage, that it’s okay to surrender.
“Listen crazy people,” he tells the black-clad, gun-toting thugs. “Just give up. Give me my girlfriend and you can all go home….to your….to your homes.”
Gunfire begins to ring out and in this wide open space, only about a third of which has been dressed to look like a store, they continue to echo. This scene falls at the start of American Ultra‘s climax, and it’s no ordinary gun fight as Eisenberg’s Mike Howell will make his way into the store and use the things on the shelf to dispatch his foes. It’s all part of the film’s unconventional charm, which began with screenwriter Max Landis.
“The ongoing joke of me and my managers is that literally everything I sell, when I first describe it to them they say ‘Don’t do it,’” he tells us. “I remember I was like, ‘My friend Josh has an idea: Prank videos with super powers, but I think we take that, we turn it into Columbine with telekinesis!’ And my managers were like, ‘Never say that again, don’t write that script.’ That’s held true of everything I’ve sold, so when I said ‘Stoner Bourne’ it just proves how bad I am at describing things.”
The kernel for the story started when Landis imagined the scene in a film where the good and bad guys confront each other over the phone, except he thought it would be funny if one of the members of that conversation didn’t know what was going on.
“I love tone because I think tone is story,” Landis says. “And when I was writing American Ultra I thought ‘What if there was like a big-beach movie? Almost like Little Miss Sunshine, this incredibly sweet, intimate movie about a guy and his girlfriend and then suddenly this big studio action movie shows up at this big-beach, sweet romantic movie’s door and goes ‘This is an action movie! Oh S**t!’ and the beach movie says ‘No, I refuse to let this become an action movie.’”
The sweet intimate movie at the center of this stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart’s characters, two live-in stoners in West Virginia that are deeply in love. Eisenberg’s Mike works at a convenience store while Stewart’s Phoebe works in a bail bondsman’s office. It may not seem like much, but they’re happy.
Mike learns of his true nature along the way after an encounter with two characters in the parking lot of his job, where he kills them based on pure reflexive instinct.
“For some period of time, he thinks he’s a robot,” producer Anthony Bregman says. “’Maybe I’m a robot and that’s what it is….It has this great mix of these different (things), the bloody stuff is bloody, the funny stuff is funny, the romantic stuff is romantic.”
Though the film continues down the path of being an explosive action film, Mike’s goal does not change from the first scene to the last scene: proposing to his girlfriend.
“Phoebe is a very straightforward and sweet, fairly unassuming girl” Stewart says of her character. “I didn’t have to bring any quirks to her. I didn’t have to bring any certain things that make her very much different from myself. I think it was just about immersing myself in this extremely surreal and weird, heightened, unique, not unbelievable, it’s created in a very whole way, but like it’s definitely not set in our reality, but it is also hyper real in an odd way.”
“What makes this so different is the love story, the relationship,” director Nima Nourizadeh, who previously cut his teeth on the 2012 film Project X, tells us. “It always goes back to them, it’s their story. It’s Mike and Phoebe’s story. Everything around it, all the other characters, the action, the comedy, it’s not what the movie is really about, those parts for me is like what entertains you, but you’ll walk away from it being like ‘It was an emotional ride.’”
While continuing to describe the movie, Landis made another interesting comparison to it by connecting it to the 1996 horror film Scream. In the same way that movie was a send up of slasher tropes, which it cracked wide open, American Ultra aims to do the same with “Bourne-esque” spy thrillers. He also revealed a root for the film that fans wouldn’t expect from the genre.
“Every script I write is me doing another writer. Not many people know this, because I think this is the first time I’ve said this publicly, but Chronicle is me doing Stephen King, Frankenstein is me doing sort of ‘Social Network,’ really quick dialogue and people being really smart, but then this movie was actually me doing David Mamet….The Mamet-y part of it for me was allowing characters to blossom through their words.”
And blossom they do, in fact the writing is one of the top reasons that many of the actors signed on to even appear in the film in the first place.
“I read the script in a fairly straight forward and conventional way,” Stewart says. “As actors get sent these script from their agents and it’s a really, really original and strange script. I’ve never really read anything like it and I jumped at working with Jesse. We had a really good time working on Adventureland a few years ago and I sort of declared we should definitely make a movie every five years, so just to be in keeping with that, jumped on this one.”
“When you read the script, you can understand, these are very dramatic scenes,” Eisenberg adds. “The characters are experiencing something that is very heightened, but they have to experience it in a real way… Kristen and I were talking about this in rehearsal, this will be the most emotional movie we’ll do for a while, even though probably for an audience it’s more fun, because as an actor you’re in these heightened situations and the two of us don’t fake it, so to speak, so we’re experiencing real emotions and it’s kind of, several histrionic scenes, but they should be funny based on the context, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on us to be silly.”
Other insane and interesting characters populate the film as well, which has an extensive supporting cast that includes Connie Britton, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Lavell Crawford, Topher Grace, and my personal hero, Walton Goggins.
One of those “Bourne” tropes that the film will explore with, in its own measure of winking at the camera, is just how big the title character finds out his world is. When Mike realizes that he is in fact a sleeper cell agent, we begin to see everyone else that lives in this world, from Connie Britton’s recently-demoted CIA Liason Victoria Lasseter (originally named Diane, though changed when it was discovered a real “Diane Lasseter” lived in Virginia and previously worked for the CIA) to Topher Grace’s self-important “moron” Adrian Yates.
“I punch Kirsten Stewart in the face,” Topher Grace says of his character. “I’m looking forward to her fan base seeing that, so I’ll never have any friends.”
In talking about the casting process for the film, both Landis and Nourizadeh said that Grace’s role was highly sought after by many other actors, but that in the end it was Grace’s audition that won him the part.
“I was thinking,” Grace pondered. “If you’re Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, it’s rare to find writing this good, and that’s when you can say, ‘All right, I’m going to take that’ and if you’re not one of those guys, you’ve got to beg, and I was happy to.”
We’re told that Grace has a number of memorable lines in the film, so we ask him about the ones that stick out in his mind.
“I guess there are two,” he reveals. “There’s one where I say, ‘Oh you thought I didn’t know? This isn’t the f***ing Notebook,’ and another one where I go, “You want my authorization,” it’s a whole speech that builds up to it, but I go ‘Here, you want my authorization, here, measure my d**k.’ When do you get to, in a film that has action, do this kind of Sorkin-esque dialogue that has that kind of youthful humor in it? I actually hired a kid to come over my house everyday in the month leading up to it, to rehearse.”
Another exciting character in the film is Walton Goggins’ Laughter, a member of the thugs in the film that Landis called “Batman villains if they pulled off their costumes and got put on a government team.”
“I play, I guess, the nemesis,for Jesse,” Goggins says. “And we’re certainly kind of matched skill wise and we both have our respective problems… It plays itself out in a very absurd way, and it’s also really grounded… I’ve never seen, when I say a villain, antagonist played like this, written in this way. It was very, very surprising to me when I saw it on the page and I thought, ‘You know what, yeah, that’s something I can really sink my teeth into, and I think I can fit into this profile in a nice way and do something with it.’”
The script isn’t the only thing that attracted all the actors to the film, as Nourizadeh’s kinetic style was considered a draw by many.
“Nima is doing the right thing, as an actor,” Eisenberg says. “He will ask us to do what is emotionally realistic before anything else and things are usually funnier if that’s the case anyway, because you don’t lose the thread of reality and he’s great. He has an obsessive attention to detail…. I don’t know if you were watching carefully, but he was trying to get a millisecond correct and so it’s great and that extends to the acting too.”
Though the scene we witnessed featured mostly handheld shots of the surreal action set pieces, Nourizadeh locks the camera down for a number of scenes before things really fire off.
“I got to hop out of this chopper and I was like ‘Yeah, you just want to have one of those shots at some point in your life,’” Topher Grace says. “’Hopping out of a chopper, low angle, Nick Fury moment. Looking at the camp they’d set up, just cool. You want to be in one of these movies.”
“I think Nima is also so specific, when it comes to just talking about the action and these kinds of fight sequences,” Goggins says. “Jesse and I have a few of these kind of encounters and they’re really really surprising and the stunt coordinator and people they have on board have done a really good job of telling the story through the physical acton and Nima’s really played a part in that.”
It becomes increasing more obvious, the more people that we talk to, the key influence a lot of other films have had on American Ultra. Not only has Scream, Glengarry Glen Ross, and True Romance been referenced, but countless others were looked at for inspiration.
“We watched ‘The Protector,’” executive producer Ray Angelic says. “We watched ‘Ong-bak.’ We watched ‘Unleashed,’ ‘Flashpoint,’ which everybody hated. ‘Fist of Legend’ and then to get off of all of that stuff, one of Nima’s quotes was, ‘If it’s ever in question, go watch ‘First Blood.’ There’s a lot of stuff in ‘First Blood’ he just loves.”
“The key thing I keep thinking about this film is I would actually want to see this movie,” Grace admits to a laugh. “There are many times you think someone else would like to see it, that you’re stoked, that’ll be good for that audience or maybe if it’s better this will be an Academy Award (nominee), but like I wouldn’t watch it. For me, this is the kind of film that has the right level of humor and intelligence that I would want to see.”
Much like some fan-favorite action movies, Jesse Eisenberg’s character will be carrying all of the injuries he sustains throughout the film, because most of it all takes place in one night. At the time of our visit, they’re on step 12 of 21 in terms of his disheveled, bruised and beaten appearance, which we’re told will only get even gnarlier.
“He looks like the exorcist,” prosthetic makeup effects designer Michael Marino says of Eisenberg’s look by the end of the film. “He’s totally f***ing crusty. I don’t know what it’s going to be like, to be honest. I mean, it’s absolutely going to be realistic. We studied UFC fighters. They’re in a press conference, they’re purple and stitches all around. It’s going to kind of be like that.”
Max Landis wanders over while we’re admiring the practical effects and chimes in.
“It’s so funny, because every time I see how cool it looks, my brain goes in two directions, where I go that’s so gnarly, f***ing bad ass and then I think of some 15-year-old Kristen Stewart fan in the audience going…”
“That’s what you wanted,” Marino adds.
Having made his way past the front of the store, Eisenberg engages a foe in one of the many aisles, attacking him with an eye-liner pencil before shoving him into a large display of light bulbs.
“There are unconventional weapons,” Goggins tells us. “I think that’s one of the things, talking about the script, how fresh the action is. It’s like where have you seen somebody incapacitated with a tube of Colgate? Really. How do you pull that off? And he does it… I literally, I mean I read it the first time and I thought, oh man, this movie could make 150 million dollars, like really because once it kind of goes viral, and it speaks to this generation, people in their 20s and it’s because they’re kind of redefining their own reality and the way they consume product and how they would want to see themselves reflected in entertainment and I think Max just killed it.”
“I kill two people but with a gun,” Stewart says about the film’s macabre creativity. “So I guess that’s not very creative. That’s the least creative way you can kill someone actually.”
“Except probably just waiting around for them to die,” Eiesenberg adds.
“You’re right, but then I wouldn’t really be the one killing them,” Stewart responds. She takes a beat to think about it. “Actually that’s extremely creative. I’m just going to sit in here and…”
“Lock the doors,” he says.
Back on the set, Eisenberg hides from gunshots, from a thug that looks like Billy Idol, by ducking behind a drink cooler. He rolls it down the aisle to further his reach, it’s the kind of thing you dream about doing when you’re a kid bored in the grocery store.
The dry-wit that audiences have come to expect from Eisenberg is not lost on American Ultra. It’s infused in his own personality, couple that with the extreme nature of Landis’ script, Nourizadeh’s eye for direction, a regular who’s who in the supporting players and you’ve got what is likely to become a cult hit.
“Honestly, every day on set I can’t believe how lucky we were with Jesse,” Nourizadeh says. “I can’t see anyone else playing him. He was so perfect for the role.”
Like the scene’s grocery store setting, the ingredients for a classic are all here, and perhaps like Eisenberg and Stewart’s characters it will come out fully baked.
American Ultra will open in theaters on August 21.