With Hotel Artemis, first-time director Drew Pearce may have assembled the strongest ensemble casts in the history of first-time directors.
While by no means a rookie — Pearce wrote the screenplay for Iron Man Three and the story for Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation — the star power assembled for the quasi-dystopian chamber thriller was still notable for its wattage. The film, about an underworld hotel for criminals in a near-future beset by class riots, features a battery of big names and beloved supporting actors, led by Jodie Foster, who plays the self-medicating nurse who runs the blood-soaked medical center.
The cast built around the Oscar-winning actress includes Jeff Goldblum, Sterling K. Brown, Dave Bautista, Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, Sofia Boutella, Brian Tyree Henry, Charlie Day… and Father John Misty, who plays a gangster in obvious typecasting. Pearce came by 30 Rock to talk with The Fandom Files about the new movie and offered insight and anecdotes about his two most distinguished stars, as well as some anecdotes about Iron Man Three director Shane Black.
Foster, donning prosthetics and a thick gonzo old-time accent, plays a character known simply as The Nurse. She's in charge of the place, and on the night everything goes to hell, she shuffles around the hospital's dark corridors, alternately working to contain the madness and letting it blossom. Pearce's film marked her first movie role in five years, which added an element of mystery to both the character and her performance. Her years of experience, both on and off set, helped inform the characters in ways Pearce hadn't even expected.
"Jodie and I talked for weeks and months about the character, but you don't see those little physical things until the first time she's on set," Pearce says. In the script, he specified her age and substance dependency, but laid off the physical characteristics; he once calls her walk a "waddle," but not much more. "I'd never seen her move. We did the wake-up scene and her waddle is much more pronounced. And I thought, 'is this going to be too much?' When we spoke, she said, ‘just so you know, and I'm telling you this as a 54-year-old woman, you are in weird shape when you wake up as you get older. It shakes off as the day goes on.'
"What's brilliant about Jodie," Pearce added, "is she has genuinely thought inside every single second of the character in every moment."
Foster's voice is also distinctive, with a throwback to the days of old Hollywood and the accents of '30s and '40s gangster films. Barbara Stanwyck was one reference point, while Dustin Hoffman was another (unlikely) inspiration.
"I'd never spotted this before, and it's a brilliant observation: Hoffman is really good at characters who talk to themselves," the filmmaker explained. "It's very, very difficult for actors to sell dialogue speaking to themselves. It's like every actor's worst thing but Hoffman does it really well. He's his own audience. His characters often tell themselves jokes to make themselves laugh and I think Jodie tapped into that."
Goldblum plays the very charming and debonair gang leader that owns the hotel. As you might expect, he's a lot like that in real life, too.
"I suppose it's like having Sinatra on set: it's amazing," Pearce gushed. "And it's no coincidence that jazz and his renaissance as an actor have kind of gone hand in hand because I think the two are feeding into each other. I think he kind of acts as a jazz musician. He's not like other actors. You can see him swirling words around in his mouth before he says them and he's very considered about it. And because of that, you need to give him really esoteric direction."
Remember, this was Pearce's first time as a director, so he wasn't stuck in his own ways, either. And so he had no problem offering strange bits of inspiration as a jumping off point for Goldblum's character. At one point, he needed Goldblum to take a dark turn, and the Scottish filmmaker wound up explaining it in terms of Celtic barroom drunks.
"I said, 'you know, the happiest person in the bar for four drinks and when they have that fifth one they just turn 180, and their voice changes, and the timbre changes, and it taps their darkness,'" Pearce remembered. "And Jeff does this thing with his finger, which is a little bit like a pecking bird. He's tapping at the timbre of what he's going to do and he's like, 'Mm-hmm. Yeah, okay. Yeah. No, I'm good. Let's do that.' The take that's in the movie is the one from that."
We couldn't help but ask two very important questions about Goldblum: What does he smell like? Again, the answer didn't disappoint.
"He's like platinum and sandalwood, and he glides," Pearce raved.
Pearce wrote Iron Man Three for Black, an experience he likens to actually living through one of the ‘80s movies that Black built his career on writing.
"[Marvel studio head] Kevin Feige brought me on and then a week later brought Shane Black on, ostensibly to write. And Shane clearly and rightfully went to Kevin, 'You know I have something of a reputation as a writer, right?' And Kevin was like, ‘Well, I think you guys should try and work together.' And Shane was not down," Pearce recalled, laughing.
Black tried to get Pearce fired from the project, but when that effort failed, and they were forced to work together, grizzled vet and wide-eyed newbie, things were rocky at first.
"We did a week together in his giant mansion in L.A. and over the course of that week, we went from something that was stilted but respectful to probably one of the best days of my working life," Pearce said. "We were in a meeting at Marvel and I was going back to London the next day and I was like, 'Man, out of sight, out of mind. I'm going to be done on this thing.' And Shane stopped the meeting at one point and he just went, 'I'd like you to know that over the course of this week, I have found Drew to be both an excellent gentleman and a writer of great spirits, so I will be happy to co-write the movie with him."
After that, Pearce moved to L.A. and they worked very closely together, putting in 14-hour days. It was an intense experience, but a very educational one, and helped inform Artemis.
"Shane has this theory, which is the act of making a movie kind of takes the flavor out," Pearce relayed. "It's very easy to end up with a bland end product, so what you have to do is you have to put as many complimentary strong flavors in the pot at the beginning and that way, you get something unique and you get something flavorful at the end, and I think he's totally right."
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