Q & A with Director Jonathan Lynn

Director Jonathan Lynn

Director Jonathan Lynn

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Jonathan Lynn about his comedy “Wild Target,” opening Oct. 29 in New York and Los Angeles via Freestyle Releasing and expanding its run Nov. 12 and Nov. 26.

It was written by Lucinda Coxon and Pierre Salvadori and produced by Martin Pope and Michael Rose. Starring are Bill Nighy (“Pirate Radio”), Emily Blunt (“The Young Victoria”), Rupert Grint (“Harry Potter” franchise), Rupert Everett (“St. Trinian’s”), Eileen Atkins (“Last Chance Harvey”) and Martin Freeman (“Shaun of the Dead”).

The Story (official synopsis – beware major spoilers):

Victor (Bill Nighy) is the most respected assassin in the country – and also the most expensive. He is the doyen of killers, carrying on the family business established by his grandfather.

The problem is that it’s not a job where you tend to meet the right girl – and so his domineering mother (Eileen Atkins), who has recently gone to live in a home, is increasingly worried that he’s not going to get an heir to carry on the family business. She nags him about it; and has even taken up knitting, just in case.

By contrast, Rose (Emily Blunt) is a free spirit, a gleeful, joyous thief, who has come up with the ultimate con. She borrows a Rembrandt (a real Rembrandt) and gets a copy of it as well. She meets Ferguson (Rupert Everett), an art–loving gangster who is determined to buy the painting, and, after he’s had it authenticated, she performs a switch – leaving him with the fake. By the time he realizes, she’s gone – and Ferguson has only one course of action. He calls Victor.

Victor sets out to perform the hit – but instead, he is at first outraged by her thieving, then shocked by her sensuality, and finally quite unable to bring himself to kill her. His mother urges him to kill Rose for the sake of the family’s reputation. A deal is a deal.

But when he goes to do so, he sees Ferguson’s bodyguard who has been sent to carry out the job instead. Victor shoots him and ends up protecting Rose, the woman he’s meant to kill. Worse still, he finds that he’s picked up an apprentice (Rupert Grint), who has got the mistaken idea that Victor is “undercover.”

Now on the run, after a difficult night in a posh hotel, the oddball trio make their way to Victor’s country home to hide out. There, the edges begin to rub off and Victor finds himself drawn to Rose’s spirit – and she finds herself drawn to his steadiness – until she finds out what he does…and who his next target was to be. Rose runs away. But she’s brought back at gunpoint by Dixon (Martin Freeman), the replacement assassin who has been sent to kill not only Rose, but Victor too.

Victor meets the man who would be his nemesis, the slightly cheaper, second–best assassin – but, more importantly, Victor has got Rose back, and she has discovered how much she loves him. They’re finally reunited and in love – but facing death – when an important visitor arrives…

Jonathan Lynn, a Cambridge University law graduate, is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist, whose prolific career spans nearly four decades and includes directing, writing, producing and acting in motion pictures, television and theatre as well as authoring best–selling books.

As an actor, he performed aged 21 in “Cambridge Circus,” a Cambridge Footlights revue that went all the way to Broadway, and made his TV debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He was nominated for a Plays and Players Award as Most Promising New Actor for his performance in “Green Julia” (1965) and played Hitler in “The Comedy of the Changing Years” at the Royal Court, then played Motel the Tailor in the original London cast of “Fiddler On The Roof.” He also starred in several notable British telefilms, among them Jack Rosenthal”s “Barmitzvah Boy,” “The Knowledge” and “Outside Edge” and two British television series: “Doctor In The House” and “My Brother’s Keeper,” which he also wrote.

His film performances have included playing Kirk Douglas’s butler in his own film “Greedy.” From 1977 to 1981 Lynn served as Artistic Director of The Cambridge Theatre Company, where he produced more than 40 plays, 20 of which he directed. He went on to direct one of the companies at the National Theatre, which performed his Society of West End Theatres award–winning production of “Three Men on A Horse” and he directed numerous plays in London, including his multi–award–winning production of “Songbook.”

His television career was dominated by the legendary comedy series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister,” which he co–created and co–wrote throughout their six–year triumph on BBC TV and for which he won the BAFTA Writers Award, Pye Writers Guild Award (twice), Broadcasting Press Guild Award (twice), ACE Cable Award in America, and a Special Award from the Campaign for Freedom of Information. “Yes, Minister” became a publishing phenomenon, selling more than one million copies in hardback.

Lynn wrote and directed his first feature film “Clue” in 1985, a comedy mystery based on the popular board game Cluedo, with an all–star cast. Lynn then directed his own screenplay “Nuns on the Run,” which starred Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane, and the acerbic comedy “My Cousin Vinny,” which earned Marisa Tomei an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.

He followed these with “The Distinguished Gentleman,” starring Eddie Murphy, “Greedy,” featuring Michael J. Fox and Kirk Douglas; “Sgt. Bilko,” with Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd; “Trial and Error,” starring Michael Richards, Jeff Daniels and Charlize Theron; and “The Whole Nine Yards,” with Bruce Willis, Matthew Perry and Amanda Peet. His feature film “The Fighting Temptations,” an uplifting tour de force of gospel music, starred Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Beyoncé Knowles and won the NAACP Image Award – Best Picture.

Emily Blunt

Emily Blunt

(L–R) Rupert Grint, Bill Nighy, and Emily Blunt in “Wild Target”

(L–R) Rupert Grint, Bill Nighy, and Emily Blunt in “Wild Target”

Q: How did “Wild Target” come about?
A: It’s based on a 20 year old French movie called “Cible Emouvante,” which was directed by Pierre Salvadori (who also wrote it). It’s a lovely movie, but in my view it didn’t wholly work. But it had lovely performances (by Jean Rochefort, Marie Trintignant and Guillaume Depardieu) and some terribly funny things in it and I enjoyed it immensely when I saw it.

I first saw it 10 years ago or more when a company based in Hollywood owned the rights and sent it to me. I didn’t like their adaptation and nothing came of that. Then, curiously enough, about six years later, Martin Pope contacted me. He had bought the rights when they’d lapsed. He’d been trying to make the film apparently ever since he saw it. He contacted me and said, “We’re very interested.” I thought there was a potentially really good script.

I thought it needed a bit of work and I’d become very wary about getting into things unless I think they’re going to turn out right. So I said, “Well, I’m interested, but let’s talk.” So we all talked and we discovered that they agreed with all my notes essentially and many of their notes were similar. So we started developing it further. They’d already done a lot of work. I’d heard that Bill Nighy was interested and I think he’s a great actor. And that made it very exciting to me, so I got involved. And then because it’s a small independent film it took some considerable time to get it going, as is the way nowadays.
Q: When did you get on board?
A: I would say that was three and a half years ago.
Q: That’s a while, but I talk to filmmakers all the time who have been struggling for eight or 10 years on projects.
A: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think Martin had been on it longer — and Lucinda. They’d done a lot of work by the time they approached me.
Q: Casting, of course, was essential to making this work. Had you worked with Bill Nighy before?
A: No. I’d never met him, never worked with him. But I thought he was just great for the part. The next person we went to was Helena Bonham Carter, who wanted to do it and, I think, would have been terrific in the part. She was on board until four weeks before we started shooting and then it appeared that there was going to be a clash between “Alice in Wonderland” and “Wild Target” and she — understandably, I think — chose “Alice in Wonderland” for personal reasons (since her partner Tim Burton directed it).

At that moment we were very lucky that Emily Blunt was available and read it and liked it. I think she’s great. And Rupert Grint — well, you know if you’re trying to think of a sort of naïve lovable attractive innocent, who better?
Q: Indeed. And it seems a great way for him to grow beyond the “Harry Potter” franchise with something that’s from a very different world.
A: Yes, very different. And the whole making of the film was a total pleasure. Rupert Everett I’d been talking to about another project, which hasn’t happened yet. We thought of him for the gangster. I didn’t want the gangster to be the usual Cockney heavy. I didn’t want it to be Bob Hoskins or Ray Winstone or those kind of people, wonderful though they are. I wanted an elegant cultured gangster, who would be the kind of man who would want to steal a Rembrandt. So I went in sort of the opposite direction from most people’s idea of a gangster. I loved the idea of a gangster who could play Beethoven on the piano and was generally a very cultured person — but a criminal. I think there are lots of criminals like that, but we’ve seen that in the last two or three years, haven’t we?

Eileen Atkins I wanted. I’d wanted her originally for “Nuns on the Run” 20 years ago and unfortunately she hadn’t done it. So when I called her about this she was very enthusiastic — “I wish I’d done ‘Nuns on the Run’ and yes, I’d love to do this.” So I got very, very lucky with the casting.
Q: How quickly did you get into production?
A: It took a while. When I went over to start prepping the film it still wasn’t definitely happening. I just decided that it’s time I went over and did it and took a chance. I mean, nobody was paying me at the start because it wasn’t yet all green lit.
Q: How did you raise the finance to make it?
A: I didn’t. Martin Pope did that. I had nothing to do with that. I’m very glad I have nothing to do with those things.
Q: When did you start shooting?
A: We finished in the beginning of June of last year so we must have started in late April.
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: We had three weeks in London and three weeks in the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man is where we did all the stuff at the house (meant to be in the English countryside where Nighy, Blunt and Grint go to hide out) and some other scenes that were a little tricky to do at the Isle of Man, but we managed. You know, there’s not a lot of resources on the Isle of Man. The deal when you make a film for CinemaNX is that half the film has to be shot on the Isle of Man. So in our case we were fairly lucky because a lot of the film takes place at the house and we could do that. We had to struggle to find one or two of the other locations.
Q: Are there good tax advantages for working there?
A: I don’t know whether it’s a tax break or just the deal with the people who gave us the money on the Isle of Man. I don’t know the financial terms. A good part of the money came from the Isle of Man. I imagine there’s a tax break involved somewhere, but I’m not the financier. So we shot there. We shot it in 35 “shot days” actually — because if you shoot a six day week in England, which we did, you only get 10 hours a day. So we were going at a hell of a speed. In some ways that’s good because I think actors get very bored hanging around in their trailers all day waiting to do something that might have been funny when you rehearsed it in the morning. We did have to really keep moving though. We were under a lot of pressure.
Q: And you have a good amount of action in the film, which can’t be easy to do quickly.
A: No. I mean, we had two days to do a car chase, which is sort of absurd if you think about “The Bourne Identity“ or James Bond or anything. We were very lucky because we our stunt coordinator with cars had worked on a lot of the Bond movies and other big movies and he was very, very good, quick and efficient. But he did say to me at the end of the first day of doing the car chase — “I think we got as much done today as I usually get done in a week.” But there were no frills. We decided what we were going to shoot and we went out and shot it. We didn’t discuss anything. Discussions took place ahead of time.
Q: Do you do a lot of rehearsing with your actors?
A: I think with a short schedule rehearsal is a tremendous help, especially if you’ve got really good actors who can use the rehearsal process well. I did the same with “The Whole Nine Yards.” We only had 35 days for that and we rehearsed for 10 days. For this film we rehearsed for about a week. We talked through every single scene and if we could mock up the location we staged some of them. Obviously, things change a little when you get on the real location. But, essentially, the value of it is that all questions have been asked and answered, as it were.

Anything that the actors wanted to raise that they weren’t happy about, rehearsal is their opportunity. Anything they want me to change or they want to draw my attention to, I have lots of time to do it in the rehearsal process. The cameraman and I work out all the shots. I always work like this. So on the first day when we get onto the first set we know what we’re shooting that day. We know exactly.

I don’t storyboard that stuff unless it’s an action sequence because I think storyboarding makes it inflexible. Everybody just looks at the storyboard about what’s next. I feel it closes off options for the actors whereas if the shots are all in my head and the cameraman’s head we have a sort of watertight back–up plan, but we could change if the actors do something new and interesting and unexpected.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced?
A: We didn’t really have any horror stories. One of the biggest challenges was the last big confrontation scene between all the principal characters in the barn at the end of the film. The big scene in the barn was originally written to take place in the garden. We’d had days of torrential rain and the lawn was a mud bath. Several of the other exterior scenes we had to shoot very fast when the rain was not happening. But that scene was a big scene and it took us two days. Even if the rain had held off, we couldn’t have shot it because the lawn was a swamp.

So we rushed around and Martin and our location manager happily found this barn. We had the whole barn cleared out at the last minute. It was full of farm equipment and stuff. We went into it the day before and shot the whole scene as an interior. And, actually, I prefer it. I think it came out better and stronger and more visually interesting. I was happy that this happened, but it was the cause of some anxiety.

The biggest problem with the film is the one that’s implicit in the story, which is it’s about a professional killer and a thief. They’re the two main characters and we want the audience to like them and to root for them. And they do. But, you know, that was always in the forefront of my mind.
Q: (Spoiler alert) Well, the assassin redeems himself by sparing the girls’ life.
A: Absolutely. But in a way it’s down to the great likability of the performances. They give such warm likable performances that even when they’re enraged with each other the audience still loves them.
Q: If you were developing this project with a major studio they would probably say to you, “You have two unlikable characters. What if instead of being a thief the girl is…”
A: …a spy? I think you’re right. Well, you know, this film was owned by a Hollywood studio for years and it didn’t happen. I think that’s exactly right. What drew me to this was that it’s not formulaic. I think the audience is genuinely surprised by all the turns of events. I think they genuinely don’t know who’s going to survive and who isn’t. I think as well as being funny, there’s genuine tension. I think one genuinely doesn’t know from moment to moment what’s going to happen. And I love that. I find most scripts that I read from Hollywood studios, when I get to page 20 I can more or less predict everything that’s going to happen and to me that’s just boring.

The other thing that’s interesting about the film is that although it’s absolutely full of people getting killed, you never see anyone getting killed. (Only) at the very end of the picture, but even then you only see a body.
Q: We don’t really see any blood and gore.
A: No. I was determined to avoid that. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think that’s become a real cliché. It was all very exciting when Sam Peckinpah started doing that in the ‘70s, but prior to that there were many good thrillers where you didn’t see any blood. I mean, even in “Psycho” you don’t see Janet Leigh being stabbed. It’s an illusion, but you never see it. I think it’s possible to have suspense and excitement without throwing blood all around the set.