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Filmmaker Ilya Naishuller had no choice but to go all-in on Nobody. The film’s screenwriter, Derek Kolstad, was already an action MVP thanks to John Wick, and its leading man, Bob Odenkirk, began training almost two years before filming even began. The Russian director returned the favor by throwing himself into the project about an unassuming man who seeks revenge after a home invasion.
Naishuller already had one film under his belt, 2015’s Hardcore Henry, when his Nobody journey began in 2018. After reading the script, he instantly saw the film as about a man with an addiction to violence. After winning over Odenkirk and Universal with his take, Naishuller pushed the team to tweak the script so that the bad guys would be Russian, rather than South Korean, as Naishuller felt he could bring authenticity as a Russian himself. He also advocated for hiring Russian actors who would speak their mother tongues in the film.
Along the way, Naishuller found a willing partner in Odenkirk, who pushed himself to the limits and only used a stuntman in a few moments. Recalls the filmmaker: “He gave me a shot at this film, so I thought, ‘I have to not just make a good movie, I have to make sure he looks as badass as possible.'”
Now Nobody, a potential franchise starter for Universal, is basking in the afterglow of grossing $6.7 million domestically over the weekend as theaters in Los Angeles reopened. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Naishuller dives into his Nobody journey and looks ahead to his next project, Leaving Berlin.
What were your first impressions of the script?
I liked it from the first get-go. On the first phone call with Bob, I explained how I saw the film. And I kind of guestimated it wasn’t what they were thinking about. I said, “underneath the popcorn, the fighting, the cool stuff you are going to be doing, I think the film is almost a tragedy about a guy with an addiction. His addiction is violence.” It was a horrible phone connection. I was hoping he heard me correctly. After that call, they said, “Can you fly out to L.A. and talk to the studio and everybody?”
The addiction analogy is subtle, but it’s there. There are so many times Bob’s character, Hutch, could’ve walked away.
We said, “It’s still a summer movie.” It was supposed to come out Aug. 14 . It’s a studio film. So let’s not talk about it outright, except for one time, when RZA’s character, Harry, says “relapse.” You’ll pick it up if you’re paying attention. If not, it will be more surface level. The wonderful thing of understanding the theme of the movie is it becomes very easy to change and write and rewrite and talk to the actors. It’s a cheat code for successful storytelling. When he’s out of the bus, he can walk away. But he’s doing it for himself. As much as I love the genre, “I’m a hitman and I’ve been out of the game for 20 years and now I have to go back because they took something for me,” this is a story about a guy who doesn’t have to [seek revenge]. He really wants to! That’s what made it interesting.
After the meeting with the studio, you were hired within just a few hours. That’s usually fast, isn’t it?
It was my first American film. I did not know what to expect. I went in there, I had a 30-page presentation. I think on page 15 or 16, I was stopped. “That’s enough.” I thought, “Maybe I was boring. Maybe I wasn’t exciting enough.” I went and sat in my hotel room, and I get a call saying, “It’s yours if you want it.” Of course I want it!
As an actor, Bob has only gotten better with age. And in this movie, he looks better than ever, too. Aside from his insane training, how did you accomplish that?
He gave me a shot at this film, so I thought, “I have to not just make a good movie, I have to make sure he looks as badass as possible.” He had put in a lot of hard work. A year-and-a-half of training. When you start training over the age of 50, it’s hard. He always talks of himself not as an actor, but as a writer. As soon as he sits down, he wants to slouch, pick up a pen, and start writing. He had to go against a lot of years of existence to force himself into this new shape. When you have a star that is willing to go so hard, you have no excuses not to make the best possible thing. Everything I can control, I pushed toward a cooler Bob in every single shot, scene, et cetera. It’s actually a lot of fun as a mission for a film to make your star as cool and as sexy as possible.
Was it scary having Bob doing stunts? If he gets hurt, your movie shuts down.
We had great stunt coordinators. I learned from Hardcore that my job as a director is to push as hard as I can and then when the stunt people say, “That’s too dangerous, we can’t do that,” you say, “Cool, let’s go as far as we can, but let’s not risk any injuries,” and that’s it. If Greg [Rementer, supervising stunt coordinator] would tell me we shouldn’t be doing this, then we’re not. We only used a stunt double once or twice in the entire film. I know Bob could have done these stunts, but you don’t want production to hold because something with a 1 percent chance of going wrong, just did.
What were some of the ways you made Bob “look as cool as possible”?
I remember in the home invasion scene there is the moment where Bob is beating the crap out of the other guys with a baseball bat, and I think we had a splintered bat that was supposed to break on the guy’s face. It’s a cool shot, but I’m thinking “Let’s have Bob break the bat against his leg,” because not many people can break a fully solid baseball bat on a leg. Let’s make him look 7 percent cooler in this particular moment. Let’s go for it.
You made sure that the Russian elements were authentic. What were some of those tweaks you made?
When I got the script, it was South Koreans as the villains. I said, “Guys, here’s the thing. I love South Korean cinema. I’ve seen a lot of it. And that’s as far as my knowledge of South Korean culture goes. So what’s going to happen is I’m going to do the same thing with South Koreans that you guys did with John Wick.” That works and people love it all over the world, and Russians don’t mind having the Baba Yaga, which doesn’t make any sense, but we don’t mind! It’s a wink and a nod and it’s a fun time. I said, “As a Russian, I can’t do a job with South Koreans. It’s not my style. So how about we make them Russians and we make them authentic enough. We make it so they are the villains but we are still being respectful to them and make it a bit more true to what a Russian gangster nowadays would be.” Everyone agreed. Derek said, “I love the Russians as the bad guys. You guys are scary.” I said, “We are? OK! I’ll take it as a compliment.”
What were some of the other changes you made once the villains became Russian?
We worked a lot. I think the idea of the obschak [the Russian mob’s retirement fund] from me. We sat down and said, “Derek, here’s a list of things I think we should try and infuse.” Bob loved it. Derek loved it. Derek put his magic on it. Then it was a question of making sure we had a Russian cast. Let’s have the Russian play the Russians. There are plenty who speak good enough English to be in a studio film. We started going out to Americans just to have an option for Yulian to have an American star. I didn’t ask anyone, I just called Aleksey Serebryakov, who I’d met once because I wanted him to be in this thing I was supposed to be doing that never materialized. I said, “Aleksey, this is kind of weird, but I’m doing an American film. It’s a Russian bad guy. But it’s going to be a good movie. Here’s the script. Can you do scene 53 and 74 and do each one in Russian and in English and then do the wackiest dance that you can?” He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. I got those videos back and I sent them to Bob and I said, “Bob, this is the guy.” Bob loved him right away. Then we had a good friend of mine, Aleksandr Pal, to play Teddy. The names are still South Korean. We wanted to keep that as a nod to the original intent.
Was it a challenge to get buy-in on having them speak Russian in this?
I remember writing the percentage of the dialogue in Russian vs. English. “It all makes sense. It’s not going to be a book, it will still be a film. Let’s go for it.” Thankfully everybody agreed and it worked out the way it did.
The Russian mob’s retirement plan was not something I expected to be a key plot point in this. How much research did you do?
The obschak is real. Through the friend of a friend of a friend, I talked to a guy who has to do with the real obschak. I said, “Does that make sense to have $1 billion in a warehouse?” He said, “the bills should be tens and twenties.” We followed up on that. It was Derek’s great call to make it the Russian retirement plan, because it’s not quite that. It’s more their fund for everything. But it sounds more exciting to call it the retirement plan.
This is eyed as a potential franchise. Would you like to remain involved as a director or producer on a sequel? Have you already thought of ideas for more?
I got excited for a Hardcore Henry sequel back then. And I learned my lesson: Let’s not get excited about these things. I have a lot of projects I want to do. Projects that are different. The first film [Hardcore Henry] was crazy action; this one was more character-driven. The third one, hopefully, will be more of an ensemble piece. If there is a demand for a [Nobody] sequel, that means I did my job right. Bob’s years of training worked out. All the producers spent a lot of time and effort on this. It’s more a testament that we did the right things and we made the right choices. So that’s going to be the most exciting part rather than, “Can I direct the second one?”
You were fan of Bob’s work before this. Were you picking his brain about Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul on set?
On weekends Bob and I would have breakfast and go over the next week’s scenes and rehearse and talk. It’s impossible to hang out with Bob and not to ask. Right before I flew out to Winnipeg, I watched all of Better Call Saul again, because I wanted to make sure we steer away from Saul Goodman as much as we can. The one thing I had to watch out for is Saul Goodman talks like this. (Naishuller moves his hands animatedly.) There was one moment [on set] where Bob did that. [I said,] “Bob, the hands.” We talked about [Better Call Saul] and I said, “Bob, don’t spoil it for me, I want to watch it!” As amazing as it is to be, “I’ve got some inside info,” I don’t want it! I want to watch it as an audience member. I know a little bit, but he obviously knows how to keeps secrets, secret.
What drew you to your next project, Leaving Berlin?
I fell in love with the book because amidst all the grounded and smart, nourish spy elements there is a strong and honest romantic relationship and more importantly, the lead character is a man with a spine, willing to go to the bitter end for the ideals that he believes in. I feel that our world today can benefit from having cinematic examples of such strong moral fortitude.
Nobody is in theaters now.
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