Hidden heroes

Adam Egypt Mortimer on graphic novels, superheroes and Archenemy

by Jennie Kermode

Joe Manganiello as Max Fist and Skylan Brooks as Hamster
Joe Manganiello as Max Fist and Skylan Brooks as Hamster

Adam Egypt Mortimer made quite a splash last year with his first film, Daniel Isn’t Real, the story of a young man with a murderous invisible friend, and now he’s back with Archenemy, proving that it’s possible to tell superhero stories on a small budget. When we meet I tell him that I like the latter because of its shaggy dog tale quality, beginning when a man walks into a bar, and the idea that you can be a superhero in one universe and an old drunk homeless guy in another. Was that where it began?

“Yeah, that was exactly where it started,” says Adam with a grin. “It started with the image of a man in a shitty bar drinking whiskey, but he's wearing a tattered superhero cape. That exact image isn't in the movie, but that basically is the whole movie. I had thought at the beginning, I was thinking about The Wrestler, the Aronofsky movie, and how that's a movie about a past glory, a man trying to recapture His glory. But what if that glory was, you know, science fictional, a sort of crazy concept?

Zolee Griggs as Indigo
Zolee Griggs as Indigo

“And that's where it began. And then I think what it became for me was an opportunity to do a movie that kind of opens up a world and plays with a collection of characters instead of a really direct mission. I wanted to be kind of indirect about it. And once I started writing the script, I just enjoyed writing those characters so much, you know? Like Indigo and Hamster and the way everybody talks.”

It feels a very big world, very well thought out, as if it came from a comics background. How did he develop that? Was he working on it for ages before writing the script?

“Well, no,” he says. “It came through the writing of the script, really. A friend of mine, Lucas, and I, we kind of knocked around a story idea for a couple months. I called him up and said, ‘I want to work with you. You're a cool dude. Like, I want to do this thing about a guy who’s a superhero, but is he?’ And we talked about it for a while. But then once I started writing it, this was in 2015. The loops of writing and rewriting it is where the world started to kind of pile in.”

One of the things that he kept working on most, he says, was Chromium, the city in another universe where his drunken hero claims to have come from.

“Because it was that stuff is animated, I was actually radically rewriting those sequences even after we'd shot the movie,” he explains. “So we went into shooting a movie with a very clear idea what all the sequences were and how they tied in and how they tell the story. But as soon as you're in editing, everything just goes out the window. You start playing with things. It was a complete refresh. We had storyboards and scratch video for all of the animation, and then we would just throw it all away. There was a thing where it was all really action packed, and he was punching robots outside of black holes. And I was like, ‘I really want to give the people that,’ and then I was like, ‘No, it's got to be dreamlike.’ So I got to play around with it a lot. But it was always the idea, this inspiration of sort of Pink Floyd’s The Wall meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Adam's graphic novel, Ballistic
Adam's graphic novel, Ballistic

“You know, I wrote a comic book. I wrote a graphic novel years ago called Ballistic. It was science fiction, set in a future world. It was very dense and the book was full of maps and footnotes. Strange reality things. So I think I just I enjoyed getting into that headspace. I really like thinking about fictionalised cities, and how do the things all relate? So in Archenemy, Glenn Howerton plays this kind of kingpin crime character and I’m playing with the idea of how does he relate to the other characters and what does it look like, and it starts to create a sense of an overall world.

“I think it's interesting that you say it feels big, because it's like, you know, there really are only like five or six people in the movie, but the way that they talk about each other and talk about the world, maybe it makes it feel like, you know, the world is believable, because they all believe there's another street outside the window. And Max believes that there's this Cosmos full of giant, intelligent asteroids and things.”

I ask if he found that there’s an overlap between the experience of writing graphic novels and directing.

“It's interesting,” he allows. “Yeah. I remember when I did that one comic, I worked with a guy named Darick Robertson, who's a very accomplished comic book artist. He did The Boys and these other things that have been turned into TV shows. And I would write script pages for him. And he would say he would get back to me and be like, someday, when you do the movie version of this, you can do this and that, but in a comic book, you know... he was just constantly like, training me. I've come to feel like movies are where I like to live. Because you can have a couple people talking to each other. And that reality of like, the actors, and the weird subtext, and the sparks is what really makes it for me

“In a comic book, you, you don't have that. The only spark is going to be with the artist I love comic books because you can just go on and on and on, and you can have crazy monologues that can become kind of poetic while the artist makes it all look cool. With the movie, you need to be moving the story forward. So I actually found comic books to be more challenging, in a way, than filmmaking. I did this one graphic novel and I'm so proud of it and I love it. It’s one of my favourite things I've written, but I had no desire to ever do it again. I wasn't like, ‘Now I’ve got to get a job writing Batman for the next three years,’ I would have no idea what to do with that. Here's this one comic book, it's a mic drop. I get to spend the rest of my life trying to understand how movies work.”

So is it partly about collaboration and working with lots of other people?

Amy Seimetz as Cleo
Amy Seimetz as Cleo

“Yes, I love that about movies, I'm an only child and I grew up just playing with loads of action figures and setting them up and you know, sort of telling stories that way. And you do wind up with a kind of longing to interact with other people. But also, when I'm in a social situation that has no boundaries, just here's some people, let's interact, I'm like, ‘How the fuck do you interact with other people? I have no idea.’ But if you interact with a purpose, and it's why I also love playing board games, you interact with a purpose, it just becomes like the best version of what human beings can do together.

“And so you know, the people that I collaborate with, for example the costume designer Michelle Laine, you know, you look at the costumes on these characters and everything is so colourful and vivid! She brought me so many ideas and so many pictures and so many textures and like, really made the whole movie feel like a world because of what she did with costumes, which I could never have done on my own, that kind of thing is just wonderful. I think probably the best part of making a movie is that stage when your costume designer is showing you cool outfits and you’re rehearsing with the actors and saying, ‘Oh, what if we played this scene as if you were asleep?’ and it's all just sort of theoretical and lovely. And then when you actually get to shooting the movie, it's just this nightmare, you hope that it's going to be over. But that initial time when you're all dreaming together? It’s one hundred percent why I like to make a movie.”

Here and in his previous film, he worked with young actors, which always adds an element of risk because it’s harder to know what they’re capable of. Was that a concern for him?

“It's really scary working with younger actors,” he agrees. “And, and, you know, in this movie, I also had Joe Manganiello. And I had Amy Seimetz and Glenn Howerton, people who are really experienced. With the kids, you're sort of like, ‘Am I going to be directing them? Or am I going to be teaching them how to act?’ And you don't really want to be teaching people. But I think all of the younger actors that I’ve worked with have shown up pretty great and a lot of times they tend to be people have been doing this since they were little kids anyway, so they actually do have this wealth of experience. My main thing is I insist on lots of rehearsal time. It drives my producers crazy and they have to always have a big fight about it. But I am going to spend a week or more in a room just talking about the movie and playing around with it with the actors so that by the time we get on set, we know if there's any issues and they know what they're doing, and it just becomes a lot easier to play.

Patrick Schwarzenegger in Daniel Isn't Real
Patrick Schwarzenegger in Daniel Isn't Real

“With Daniel Isn’t Real, with Patrick [Schwarzenegger], part of it was getting him into a headspace where he understood how free he could be, because he's playing an imaginary character that nobody else can see. On the first day when we were shooting, there was a sequence where he was standing in a hallway, and he's wearing a cool leather jacket and rolling on something and I said ‘Dance.’ He was like, “What?’ I was like, ‘Just dance.’ And then he did it, and he kind of made up this crazy dance, thrashing around on the air guitar, like all this awesome stuff. And he looked really cool and goofy at the same time. We didn't actually use it in the movie, but it totally broke it open in his head, ‘I can do anything. Like, I can really play with this.’ And every day, you could see him sink in his teeth more and more, and do more and more bonkers things because he sort of understood what the character was. So I mean, I trust them. I don't cast people that I don't trust. But I agree with what you're saying that there's a certain ‘Oh my god, what is this very young person going to do? Do they know what a movie is?’ Because you're showing up as the director being like, ‘Do I know what a movie is?” He laughs.

How did the casting process for this film work?

“This one really started with having Joe on board. And, you know, interestingly, just before Joe, I had also spoken to Nicolas Cage. I met with Nic and he was interested in it, and I liked Nic because one of the ways of thinking about this movie was like, it's Leaving Las Vegas meets Superman. And that's Nic. But didn't work out with him. And then I met Joe.

“Joe is just just born to be a superhero. You know, most handsome man on the planet, looks like Superman, he's obsessed with Superman, you go to his house and it's just all comic books, and Dungeons & Dragons, you know? He's like, the biggest geek trapped in the body of a football star. It's really like a bizarre combination of qualities. So we got together and met. And, you know, we just connected on every on every level. And we're both really interested in playing with what a superhero story can be.

Joe Manganiello as Max Fist
Joe Manganiello as Max Fist

“He really just became the sort of like, the ultimate muse. I mean, you know, it's funny. You're writing a movie, you're trying to cast it, you're going to all these people, and then once it comes together, you go, I can't imagine anybody else having done this. Joe is the perfect mix. There's a superman inside but he's got the acting ability to be really disgusting and interesting. And he has an interesting career where he was going to be the star villain in a Batman movie that fell apart. And he actually was going to be Superman. At one point, they wanted to cast him in Superman back when he was doing True Blood, but he couldn't get out of the True Blood contract. So he had to not be Superman. He would talk about that on set every day because I think he was connecting the longing of an actor who wishes he could have been Superman, to the longing of this man, Max Fist, who used to be a superhero. So he really had this very specific, personal way to think about the character.”

We still see far too few movies like this with people of colour in major roles. Was that a factor in his choice of Skylan Brooks and Zolee Griggs to play the younger characters?

“Yeah. I have to say, it has been such an amazing, interesting evolution in the industry, right? In the past few years that I've been trying to make movies. Every time I was trying to make a movie, I would go to the producers with a cast that had black leads in it. And the the uphill battle was just disgusting, right? I mean, you know it. ‘Well, I would like to cast them but the foreign sales...’ It's like, oh my God. Now I've gotten to this place where not only does that not happen anymore but producers are desperate to how can we make a more diverse cast. There's something gross and disconcerting about that, about how, you know, equality and justice can become a trend, instead of just a obvious thing that we should all be doing. But from my point of view, as I've been trying to cast my movies the way I do, it's been great.

“My scripts never specified. This script did not say that Indigo and Hamster were going to be black, but I knew that they would be. And, you know, when it came time to cast this movie, that's just who we saw. We auditioned tons of amazing black actors and cast them and nobody, there was nobody saying that there was an issue. And I think that's great. And this better not be a trend. It had better just be this is what movies are, it makes sense.

Archenemy poster
Archenemy poster

“I'm not trying to make movies that are like, ‘Well, here's my thorough understanding of the Black American experience,’ I don’t want to do that, I can't do that. But at the same time to say, ‘Well, here's a movie with a collection of characters, and it's in modern day America. So of course, some of these characters are black.’”

And it's still relatively rare to see a woman as a villain up against a man. Was that something he had to fight for?

“I definitely didn't mean any opposition to it,” he says. “It was one of those things where it popped fully formed into my head. It's just max fist and, and he's like, Superman and Lex Luthor is this genius scientist woman. I don't remember that being anything other than clear. And I think the only concern anybody ever raised was, the first thing that happens in the movie, is Max Fist punches her so hard that her entire helmet cracks and she has a bloody nose. A huge man beating a woman. But I said, ‘Well, first of all, it's it's animated. And second of all, she's wearing all this power armour.’ And, you know, part of it might just be because I grew up watching Hong Kong action movies, and Hong Kong was doing this 30 years before we were doing it in the West, they were having, you know, Maggie Cheung, and Michelle Yeoh kick the shit out of men and get kicked. And it was fine, because they're all highly skilled fighters.

“ But then it's this funny thing where you make the choice and then you start to think about what the choice means. And then you go back and deeply revise and deepen it and so that at a certain point, I was saying, ‘Oh, so, you know, Lex Luthor and Superman is always about what they have, they kind of love each other. There's something going on there.’ And this was like, no, I'm making it literal. This is a heartbreak romance story. This is like a breakup story told through the lens of superheroes.

“So Amy Seimetz, you know, once I started talking to her about the role, all we talked about was breakups and relationships. She was assuming we're not talking about how to play a supervillain, we're talking about what is it like to have been in a relationship with this man who had superpowers? And how do you feel about him now? And that was the entire thing and it just brings so much, you know, and ultimately becomes ‘Oh, I guess that's what this movie was about to begin with.’ But I didn't even realise that when I just had two people punching each other falling out of the building. And then you go, ‘Well, maybe that's how I felt.’

Already keen to talk about his next film, despite the fact that he hasn’t made it yet, Adam lets me know what’s in the works.

“Well, I have a project, I don't know if it's going to happen immediately or not, it might well. I wrote a movie with Brian DeLeeuw - we wrote Daniel Isn’t Real together. And it has to do with cursed money. And the looking at the idea that the roots of capitalism are in the the witch hunts in Europe. It's a modern day, fast moving, crazy, terrifying horror movie, but it has this idea about capitalism and witchcraft that I'm interested in exploring in kind of a kinetic way. So that's a thing that I've been thinking about a lot.”

Archenemy is available to watch on DVD and Digital now. You can find details here.

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