"What if Jason Bourne had been a stoner?" That's the (absurd) question at the heart of American Ultra, the upcoming film starring Jesse Eisenberg (Batman V Superman) as Mike Howell, a typical stoner slacker convenience store clerk, who suddenly finds himself the target of a CIA op to erase highly-trained sleeper agents. Turns out Mike is one of those agents - a surprise to him, as much as anybody. When his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) gets caught up in the crossfire, Mike decides it's time to push through the haze and save the day.
Last summer, Screen Rant was included in a handful of online journalists that were invited to the New Orleans set of American Ultra (a title that references the famous CIA "MKUltra" program). There, we got to dine and chat with director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and writer Max Landis (Chronicle), as well as touring the set on a day where a very physical (and deafening) action sequence was being shot.
The Set Visit: Death & Destruction at Walmart*
We arrived on set on day 25 of 41 in the production schedule. The first thing we discovered upon pulling up to the set was that... I had my shirt on inside out. Once we worked that out with our on-set liaison, we were shown inside an unassuming door within a large strip mall. The interior of the space had been converted into a makeshift super store, one that not-so coincidentally resembled Walmart.
Production designer Richard Bridgland and his team were thorough about recreating the look an feel of a real superstore, from the fonts and colors of the signs hanging over to aisles, to the good and products that had been meticulously arranged on the shelves in perfect mimicry of a typical Walmart setup. (The sole exception being a stuffed animal monkey, which the crew loved to stash in various places to mess with the director. Another fun fact: they rented the food and products from a closing grocery store and planned to return most of it after filming.)
The Scene (Warning - Mild Plot Spoilers)
The sequence spent the day watching seemingly takes place near the end of the film. In it, Mike (Eisenberg) has learned that the superstore is actually a CIA stronghold, where his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) is being held as bait by CIA badman Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) in order to lure Mike in. Waiting within the store aisles are a team of brutal mercenaries looking to take Mike down, so the timid stoner is forced into a blitzkrieg move, driving a big yellow Hummer through the store front (we didn't get to see that moment, unfortunately).
At the start of the scene we witnessed, Mike takes cover behind a checkout counter and uses the PA system to deliver a heartfelt stoner speech to Phoebe and her captors, and after that, it's a violent battle through the store aisles as Mike (in a aloha shirt, no less) has to dispatch his attackers with whatever products he can find on the shelves - including an eyeliner pen.
Besides of the deafening sounds of blank-filled pistols being fired off all day within the echo-friendly space of a large warehouse, the most memorable thing about this day of filming on American Ultra was seeing Jesse Eisenberg step into an action movie role and run through (what we were told is) the film's most complicated action set piece.
Indeed, the most absurd thing about American Ultra probably won't be the "Stoner Bourne" premise, but rather the notion of Jesse Eisenberg, the action star. But the Social Network actor certainly pulled it off on set, sporting a lean muscle physique and a wig of long stoner locks (at the time hiding his Lex Luthor baldness).
Here's what Eisenberg and co-star Kristen Stewart had to say to us, about tackling the action in the film:
Jesse Eisenberg: Oh, yeah. We’ve been training for a while... I started a few months ago because my character has to be kinda trained but doesn’t remember that he was trained. So it comes to him instinctively... I was in Michigan working last month, so they hired these great guys. Every day off I had was working with them. They were teaching like Southeast Asian style fighting.
Kristen Stewart: We had spoken to Max a bit. I think the basic idea before it was actually a real thing was that if you were take the most unlikely people, like two dinky little stoner kids, Jesse Eisenberg and me, like it’s just sort of like…and then suddenly see them throw into this really high-speed, and intense, and sort of like disarmingly realistic action movie, it’s funny. It doesn’t feel familiar. It’s just a little bit shocking.
To be fair, Eisenberg, Stewart (and the film as a whole) got some of the best instruction and guidance available when it comes to action sequencing: Robert Alonzo, who has been involved with a lot of the biggest blockbuster franchises of the last few years, including Marvel's Iron Man and Avengers 2, Transformers 3, Star Trek and Tom Cruise projects like Oblivion and Mission: Impossible 4.
Alonzo shared the following with us, in terms of creating grounded and believable action for American Ultra.
Robert Alonzo: The pitch when it came to the action was to try and follow the script, and to do really gritty choreography, and have that choreography flow not just with physical movement, but with the camera, so that we give the feeling of a long continuous take that you don't normally see in this type of action movie... Normally you do these things and you see quite a bit of cuts in this type of action, but what we're doing here is trying to achieve a continuous flow to give the audience a feeling as if they're there.
We're giving away our secrets here, but we'll be burying cuts with switch cams and foreground passes, but the flow will remain the same, so that's the feeling that we'll have for the entire sequence.
That style of action Alonzo describes should be familiar to fans of the genre: director Gareth Evans uses a similar technique to create the non-stop, hard-hitting action sequences of his milestone action franchise, The Raid. Fans should then, understandably, have high expectations about the level of action they'll get in American Ultra; the other part of that equation is the script work, dialogue and comedy by writer Max Landis.
As one producer explained to us on set, there's a good frame of reference for how American Ultra will mix its violent action with comedy and sharp banter - and that reference brings things right back to those earlier Tarantino comparisons:
I feel like it’s a little bit like ‘True Romance’, in that there’s like this love story that we buy, this unusual love story that we buy with these awkward, odd, you would think unlikeable characters that you love, and then like extreme sort of action and violence thrown in. so very different movies. At its core it’s this love story with these kooky characters and then it goes off into extreme action violence.
Director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis had a clear core focus when blending together the stoner comedy, romance story and action: characters first.
Nima: ...Really, at the core, what makes this so different is the love story, the relationship... It’s Mike and Phoebe’s story. The action…and everything around it, all the other characters, it’s the action, the comedy…like all of this is not what the movie is really about. Those parts for me is what entertains you. you walk away from it feeling like it was an emotional ride.
Max: The action and the funny stuff is all organic from the main relationship. It’s not like ‘Pineapple Express’ where it’s like it’s a stoner comedy and then there’s a big shootout! Every action scene stems from something. It sort of goes like that.
In order to create that 'extreme action violence' for this superstore sequence in particular, the props team had to literally walk through local superstores (like Walmart), trying to imagine which of the products on the shelves could be used to kill a man - and how brutally it could be done. As we watched Jesse Eisenberg running through the scene over and over again, one prop certainly stood out: In a brutal hand-to-hand fight with a mercenary that takes place in the beauty supplies aisle, Mike (Eisenberg) snatches up an eyeliner pen and jams it into the mercenary's eye, killing him.
As it turns out, selecting a particular brand of eyeliner that can kill a man, is no easy task:
Props Coordinator: I definitely went to a lot of stores, then looking around at different things... I took my time, ya know? And the eyeliner: actually I went into one of the beauty supply places, and I was losing my mind, and I said 'I'm looking for an eyeliner that would puncture your brain if I put it through your eye.' And the lady didn't even blink! It's New Orleans and we've been shooting a lot of movies here now, so she was like 'Oh! Right over there!'
...Well we start messing around with it; get a whole bunch of them, tear them apart, use straws, use springs, things like that. Draw out the design, figure out how deep you want the puncture. Also talk to makeup effects to make sure it gets stained, that the amount that's out of the skin or the appliance matches with their needs, then send it to a manufacturer or build it in house.
Interviewer: Please say there's a video of you guys just stabbing each other over and over again with eyeliner.
Props coordinator: Oh there's plenty of them. There are plenty of them [Laughter]
All in all, it seems that American Ultra is going to combine the brutal and grounded action of recent Bourne and Bond films with the tongue-in-cheek reality that writer Max Landis has created for this action/comedy blend. More so than something like Pineapple Express, American Ultra could mix its violence and laughs into a much smoother blend, for the right sort of irreverent popcorn cult-flick to close out the season. There's nothing quite like seeing Jesse Eisenberg with mop hair and a ridiculous Hawaiian shirt, murdering dudes with lady products. If that's not a sell for an end-of-summer movie, I don't know what is.
American Ultra will be in theaters on on August 21st.
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