Making a contract killing

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell on working togther on Hit Man

by Amber Wilkinson

Hit Man. Glen Powell: 'We were sort of riffing on the idea of a guy who was really good at studying humanity, emulating humanity but not experiencing humanity'
Hit Man. Glen Powell: 'We were sort of riffing on the idea of a guy who was really good at studying humanity, emulating humanity but not experiencing humanity' Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
When Richard Linklater’s Hit Man screened at Sundance Film Festival this week, it might not have been the film’s premiere but it did mark the first time Linklater had been able to take to the stage with its star Glen Powell, who was unable to attend Venice or Toronto due to the actors’ strike. The joy was evident as the pair enthusiastically got stuck into a Q&A at the end of one of the film’s screenings.

Hit Man is a juiced up variation on the life of Gary Thompson, who worked for years for the police, posing as a contract killer to snare those who were intent on having someone wiped out. This film takes his basic story and embellishes it with a screwball-inflected script and a potential femme fatale. Linklater says he first came across the story in an article written by a friend of his named Skip Holdsworth. The pair already had a relationship, as Linklater based his 2011 Jack Black-starrer Bernie on another article the journalist had written.

He added: “I read everything he wrote. I remember talking to him, saying, ‘What a weird character’. That whole life was so intriguing to me. But it was the early 2000s. I thought about it over the years, but it just seemed like the same thing. Like, he met people, kind of entrapped them and got them arrested. It was kind of a great character but there wasn't a lot of narrative trajectory to the story so it just didn't quite work as a movie, in my head.”

And that would probably have been the end of it if Powell hadn’t read the article some years later.

“I was in seventh grade when you first read the article,” he tells Linklater, laughing. Recalling how he called Linklater up about it during the pandemic, Powell adds: “I had read the article and I was like, ‘God, there's this incredible article called Hit Man. And there's this amazing character Gary Johnson’. He's like, ‘No, no, I've read it. I don't think there's a movie there.”

That was the jumping off point for a lot of time spent talking about it between them.

Glen Powell and Richard Linklater at the Hitman Q&A
Glen Powell and Richard Linklater at the Hitman Q&A Photo: Amber Wilkinson
Powell recalls: “We were sort of riffing on the idea of a guy who was really good at studying humanity, emulating humanity but not experiencing humanity. Towards the end of the article there’s a woman who’s actually a danger and he befriended her and let her off and made sure that her life moved on in a better way.

“And that was like the jumping off point for everything.”

Linklater adds: “We thought, ‘What if she called him later?’ and then he became trapped in his hit man identity. It’s like a bodyswitch comedy in a weird way. We just ran with that.

“We realised this is kind of film noir, it's like, screwball comedy. We felt like we were doing genre work, you know, and the walls were closing in, and we worked really hard. A lot of my films aren't really structured this way. It was fun to be hitting buttons and pulling strings. We really wanted to take you for a ride and have you on the edge of your seat.”

Powell adds: “Rick and I have always talked about getting back in the trenches together, we did have an amazing run on Everybody Wants Some! and, and just found an easy, creative rhythm. What I love about Gary is this heady side to him. When you talk to Rick like, there's these really silly conversations about baseball that turn into profound conversations about life or, you know, whatnot. He can marry love and passion and murder and psychology and all these different things. He's literally played in every genre over the course of his career and has all these different gears.

“So in terms of the Swiss Army Knife of a director, when you have sort of an identity crisis of a guy who's playing all these different characters, and who has to exist in all these different worlds, there's nobody better than Rick. The more we talked about it the more magic we found, and then the clay just started taking shape.”

Talking about the montage of contract killers in Hit Man, Linklater says it was fun. He adds it involved “going through cinema history, we were trying to get films where they're pretending to be just a retail hit man. I'll just throw out one title in there, which is a personal favorite, it’s called Murder By Contract, starring Vince Edwards, from the late 50s. It's kind of an obscure movie but it's brilliant. Irving Lerner directed it.”

Hit Man is due for release on Netflix in June

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