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Interview: Talking ‘Nobody’ with Director Ilya Naishuller

Ilya Naishuller is the director of the new action-thriller film Nobody starring Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a suburban dad, overlooked husband and neighbor, who feels like he’s “nobody.” When two thieves break into his home one night, all the rage he’s kept pent up inside emerges and propels him on a brutal path that will uncover dark secrets he fought to leave behind. However, he’s hardly just the helmer of Nobody.

Ilya is best known, at least so far, for his debut feature HARDCORE HENRY, an action-packed, immersive experience told completely from the point-of-view of a cyborg named Henry. Ilya is also the front man and guitarist for the Moscow indie rock band Biting Elbows. The band’s groundbreaking, irreverent video “Bad Motherfucker,” which he directed, became a viral sensation, catching the attention of fans around the world, including Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott, and attracting over 100 million views.  Ilya has continued his love of filmmaking and music, directing, amongst others, the graphic and exhilarating music video for The Weeknd’s single “False Alarm,” that has been watched by over 200 million, and Leningrad’s music video for “Kolshik” that went on to win several awards, including two Cannes Lions.

Ilya’s next project will be adapting the New York Times bestseller “Leaving Berlin” into a feature film.

How did you find Derek Kolstad’s script and what gave you the inspiration to take it on?

The original idea came from Bob Odenkirk 10 years ago. There was a situation at his home, a break-in. He made his way to Derek to go after this idea of a guy who could have fought back but decided not to. What was the reason for that? And that was sort of the seed for the idea. Derek wrote a draft. I got the draft by my agents. I read it the same day I got it. It just said “Derek Kolstad starring Bob Odenkirk”. And I opened the script and by the time I was done, I knew I wanted to do it. There were a lot of things that I thought could and should be improved. But there was something at the very heart of the story that…it just clicked. I’ve been getting a lot of action scripts. I’ve been passing a lot of things for 5 years while developing my own material. But this one clicked. I had a call with Bob and instead of talking about the ation and how great that’s gonna be, I told him what I thought this film should be about. There were hints of it in the draft. I said “Bob, forgive me if I’m totally off base here but this seems to me that it’s a story about a guy addicted to violence”. Unlike every other hitman movie, this is not about a guy who really doesn’t want to but has to. This is about a story about a guy who doesn’t want to but really has to. That’s what makes it special. And if we lean on that, we can make something very different. This is usually a number that is by the numbers. And people enjoy those films, I enjoy those films. But I wanted to make sure there was gonna be something special in it that’s gonna keep me excited every day working on it. Once we got that theme, we started working on implementing more and more and working on the script. Everyone becomes so much easier once you understand what your film is about. A lot of films can’t make up their mind. If you focus on one thing, writing becomes easier. Directing becomes easier. So that’s how this film happened.

This is the follow-up to your last film Hardcore Henry in 2016. How did you feel like you were ready for Nobody?

I always wanted to be a director and I always knew I was gonna be a director from an early age.I just loved movies and there was nothing else. Hardcore Henry, it’s a very silly movie. It was always planned to be ridiculous and over the top. The script was just a blast to write because I was just playing to toy soldiers except now, the toy soldiers are big budgets and explosions. Hardcore Henry was complicated as it was such an experiment. Throughout the vast number of days we shot and the long post process, you learn every day. The biggest that came away from Hardcsore was how to make a movie, how to pace a movie. But more importantly, how to tell a story. With Hardcore, there was no story. It was just a simple thing. It was a great excuse for some kickass action. But frankly, there was no time. I was writing the script and prepping the movie at the same time which is stupid and silly. I said I’d never do it again. This one, we were lucky we had 9 months before shooting where we just kept re-working. Moviemaking, a lot of it is a lot of talking. I wrote a lot with some great authors. I co-wrote scripts. I wrote a TV show. When Hardcore came out, everyone asked what I was gonna do next. And I didn’t know. All the stuff I was working on before was all in Russia. Now the West has opened up and Hollywood asked what I had. And I had nothing. So I said next time I had a movie, I want to do a lot of things that I love. I kept myself busy with music videos and commercials back home in Russia. At the same time, I was working with some Western writers on very different genres. I learned so much from them that with Nobody, it wasn’t easy but it was logical work. I knew what I was doing. And I think it’s just personal growth too. I was 29 when Hardcore started. I was 35 or 36 when Nobody came. And that was the best learning experience of my life.

Bob Odenkirk was such an out-of-the-box pick for this type of character. It’s not something we’ve seen him do in the past. Was there any sort of pressure on your end to try to get him to do all the physical things he had to do?

No, because we wouldn’t have made a good movie had he not put in 2 years of work. But we made a great movie because he did. A lot of the movie rests on him. We could have done the stunts with doubles and everything as per the usual Hollywood movie magic. Very few stars put in two years of work for a film. Especially if you’re 55. And he was doing 15 pull ups for three takes in a row. After the film wrapped, I hit the gym hard. He was a complete inspiration to me personally. From the get-go, we were talking with Bob and he was explaining his rehearsals and training. I showed up at rehearsal for John Wick 3. It looked exactly like you’d imagine. It looked great because Keanu Reeves’ been doing this since 90, 92 and put in the work. And in the corner of the room surrounded by boxes was Bob going one-on-one. He was sweating. He was pushed, punched, going over and over. I was recording with my iPhone. And I was thinking that I hope we get a chance to make this movie. What I was seeing was so special. It was a real actor, a true-actor’s actor. He’s gonna be working his ass off to get to this incredible shape. Bob and I always discuss that we’re not gonna have him play the Terminator where he never takes damage. We’re gonna have a guy who’s gonna be a stumbling hero. He’s gonna get down, take punches, wound, and spit blood. Not just because it’s relatable, but because I connect to the story more because I see a real human. With all the fights, you have Bob’s fantastic acting in every single acting scene. It’s not just him gritting his teeth every shot. He’s always acting. I constantly make sure to have his face on-camera. There’s no shaky cam because Bob was good enough to do long sequences.

Following up on Bob, one of my other favorite parts of the film was the casting of Christpher Lloyd as Bob’s dad. He really surprises you. You think he’s gonna be this one type of person in the movie but then does stuff that you do not see coming. Where did the idea come from to cast Chrispther Lloyd?

From the very beginning, we were talking about this. I started making lists of all possible actors for the parts. I thought it would be great to have whoever we got for that part, in an ideal world it would be an octogenarian actor who is known for being very warm and friendly and is known for very positive characters. So comes with the right kind of baggage. We’ve never seen him do baggage. We had lists of actors who were more expected people. Great actors. Then, before we went out to anybody, Bob called and asked about Christopher Lloyd. And that was it. There’s no further debates. I just hoped he’d be up to join us in this little adventure in Winnipeg. We’re very lucky that he agreed. He loved the script. He was such a force.It’s Chritsopher Lloys, America’s treasure. The part where we get to surprise it is what makes it and people are gonna enjoy what he does. We got very lucky with the casting. And he did his own stunts. My quick Chris Lloyd story is that the first time I spoke to him on the phone I told him that I wanted to add in the script that his character would carry 4 shotguns so that he didn’t have to reload. And he said “You know in movies actors carry boxes and the boxes are empty? I believe the audience always knows.” I was like “I hear you loud and clear”. We made the props just in case. But most of the time, he was carrying 4 heavy shotguns. I tried putting them on just to see what it’s like. I was okay, but I also don’t have to act while carrying them.

I want to talk about the music choices during key action sequences of the film. I felt they really romanized certain moments and added to a very cool vibe that those sequences already had that you were watching play out. What was your inspiration you had behind assembling that soundtrack for the film?

We had a lot of different options. There were things that I asked Derek to put in the script to see if we can get the rights early on. I knew we were gonna have authentic key Russian tracks from the 1990s because that’s when [the Russian mob boss character] Yulian and his brother would have immigrated to the country. So we got that pretty quickly and stayed throughout. During the cuts, there were two or three fully different playlists that could have worked. Ultimately, the reason we went with what we did was that it will work for the character. We didn’t just find nice tunes that go well with the action because there’s billions of choices for each beat. But the songs, they speak to how Hutch feels. There’s always that thin line where you kind of make it cheesy. But when “I Got To Be Me” comes on in the bus, that’s what it is. He’s gotta be himself because he’s a goddamn antihero who wants to break some faces. He doesn’t have to but he really wants to. I think the Frat Pak tone, I think that that was the last pass we did. It was the third pass. We had David Leech who threw in some wonderful choices. FOlks from Universal sent us wonderful playlists on Spotify. I listened to more music for this film than I have in the last 5 years of my life. I just listened to so much. We were lucky. We got the signs we wanted. It’s also tough for me because there’s songs there that are overused. My example is the Chris Lloyd action scene, the first scene. It felt to me that I heard this so many times and I was hesitant. But then I hear what happens at the end. It does feel like it’s the end of the character, the end of the second act. It felt so right. So I thought if people heard this song so much in movies before, so be it. It worked so well here. As much as my desire is to find completely new and original things, we did this in this movie. But it’s okay to go for things that are expected if they work.

Are you open to doing a sequel or some sort of series from this film?

Every time we start talking about sequels, I always say that if the first movie works, there will be a sequel. No movie’s ever gotten a sequel because the first one said that there would be a sequel. For the audience and the director, it doesn’t work. I think the character can be part of some fantastic stories in a bigger world and there are some stories to be told. No studio starts a film without potential for a franchise. That’s how the business is.But Universal said they didn’t want a case of sequelitis. We had 5 or 6 different endings. Some were more character driven, narrative driven, emotionally driven. And it was a tossup. We didn’t have the ability to shoot all of them and then picked. What we did was tape an amalgamation. What we have with the post-credits sequence as well was the things that we really wanted to say. The most important storyline that I felt needed closure at the end of the first film, if it’ll only be the first film, was the story of Becca the wife. If there is a sequel, if the audience loves it and wants more, great. We’ll think about it. But the point is to make one great film which is already quite the challenge.

Could you tell me more about your upcoming project Leaving Berlin, adapted from the New York Times bestseller?

We’re only gonna be going out to the cast very shortly. We have a draft we really like. It’s a great book, great character. I’ve been working on a lot of things that you never know which one’s gonna go until it goes. I self-genetatel material. But with this book, I feel it’s very special for today in the sense that it might be a period piece as 1945 Berlin where a German Jew ran away from the Holocaust who became a sought-after writer in Hollywood. He gets kicked out by Nixon and back to Berlin to East Germany at this point controlled by the Soviets. He’s thinking it’s gonna be a socialst paradise. He begins to see quickly that it’s a place full of intrigue and a lost country. The reason I want to make the film is because the lead character is a man with a spine with the right morals and ideals. This is in a world where the Soviets are assholes, the American government are assholes. The only good people are the people. The system around him is designed to oppress the man. Today’s day and age, we lack characters who really stand up for what they believe in. This film really has that in its core surrounded by great actor stuff and a truly honest and romantic angle. When I read the book, it just resonated that there’s pain in this character. I love characters who have that broken past.

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Written by Max Geschwind

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