Rainn Wilson Says Ninja Comedy 'Bonzai Shadowhands' Is "'Bad Santa' Meets 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'"

Rainn Wilson - Getty - H 2020
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'The Office' alumnus discusses how his Virtual Cannes Market title — and feature directorial debut — began with a 2006 pitch in a Vancouver Starbucks from Jason Reitman: "It’s a little bit like a really f***ed up 'Karate Kid.'"

For many years, a popular tradition among Cannes Film Festival attendees with a market badge and an eye for the silly has been to scour the various sales company booths in search of the most ridiculous film title. 

Those taking part have rarely been disappointed, and just last year the likes of Killer Sofa and Dogman's Rabies battled for this unofficial — and sometimes very much unwanted — accolade. While 2020's virtual edition might not offer quite the same opportunity for insane poster perusing, a clear winner has already emerged.

Ladies and gentleman, please give it up for Bonzai Shadowhands.

From the mind of The Office alumnus Rainn Wilson, the film — being sold in the Virtual Cannes Market by Archstone, with UTA handling domestic rights — is the redemptive tale of an alcoholic ninja living in the San Fernando Valley, featuring some "outrageous martial arts." Wilson, who will direct from his own script and has written himself a supporting role (a "douchebag stepfather"), describes it as both Bad Santa-meets-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and "a really fucked up Karate Kid." Tiffany Haddish has also signed up to star, while the lead is yet to be confirmed. The project is being produced by Ted Melfi and Jason Reitman alongside the Archstone trio of Scott Martin, Michael Slifkin and Jack Sheehan.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Wilson discusses Bonzai Shadowlands' long path so far and how it all began back in 2006 with a rather unorthodox — but very Hollywood — Starbucks pitch from a pre-fame Jason Reitman.  

How has the lockdown been treating you?

You know, I'm one of the lucky ones. I have a nice house and I don't have to worry about work. Well, I have to worry a little bit, but I'm not going to starve. And I do a lot of dog walks with my wife and my kid and I'm doing a lot of writing work. So I'm kind of focusing my creative work onto writing and I'm lucky that I get to be in this profession. But yeah, we’re doing all right.

Please tell me about Bonzai Shadowhands. From what I’ve read, it’s been in the works for well over a decade.

It’s a fun story. I had just finished working with Jason Reitman’s father [Ivan Reitman] on My Super Ex-Girlfriend. This was right before Juno, so he hadn't yet exploded. And I was sitting in a Starbucks in Vancouver, and this young gentleman came up to me and he’s like, 'Hey, you don't know me, but you know my dad. I'm Jason Reitman, and I want to do a movie where you play a ninja living in the San Fernando Valley.' And I'm not kidding. There was no, 'Hello. Hi. How are you? Excuse me.' It was like old-fashioned Hollywood, like Schwab’s where they’d come and discover Lana Turner at the soda counter.

Where did it go from there?

We kicked the idea around a little bit and then I said, let me write it. Which I did, potentially for Jason to direct. And then he was all of a sudden being nominated for the Oscars. He wasn't doing quirky little indies anymore. And so then it kind of languished away at Fox Searchlight and then his production company and about two years ago or so, I kind of took it out of mothballs. And I was just like, you know, this script is really good and has a lot of potential. So I just did a big rewrite, a page one rewrite, from beginning to end. And I was like, at this point in my career, I would like to direct it.

And you’d still play the lead?

Well, I know how much my name is worth. So, if we were doing the $1 million version of Bonzai Shadowhands, then I could play the lead, but I really wanted to have a little more budget, to be able to have these really cool, outrageous martial arts sequences. I describe it as Bad Santa meets Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. We do want to do that great Hong Kong wire work and have moments of incredible magical realism, combined with a fun, dark, edgy humor.

Will you direct yourself at all?

I’ll play a supporting role, like the fourth lead. And Tiffany Haddish has signed on to play a major role, which I’m really excited about. She’s just perfect — exactly what I had in mind.

Just to be clear because there’s not much out there, the story is about an alcoholic ninja?

He’s a down and out alcoholic former ninja living in a halfway house in the San Fernando Valley. And he comes across this kid whose troubled, and who wants to hire him to be muscle for him and also train him in the art of the ninja so that he can kick the shit out of his douchebag soon-to-be stepfather, played by me. It’s a little bit like a really fucked up Karate Kid.

And was this all in Jason’s original pitch, or have you taken the idea and run with it?

He had no premise other than he was a ninja living in the valley. He was just like, “What would that be like, with this mysterious ninja with a mysterious past. He's got to do laundry and he's walking down Van Nuys Boulevard. What is that?” So I came up with the whole story. We pitched a lot of ideas back and forth. He's still on board as an executive producer, but he's not as involved.

Who do you have lined up for the lead? I heard that Will Ferrell was among those suggested at one point.

He was someone we were talking to. And he was interested for a while. And there’s other people we’ve been talking too. And the problem with all these amazing actors that we all love is that they’re booked through sometimes years in advance. And we’d like to make this movie, you know, before 2023.

But is that the calibre of star you’re looking for?

Yeah, that’s the level. But it doesn't even need to be a mainly comedy actor. We have a list of dramatic actors that might want to drift into a more comedic role. It’s a story of redemption. It's about this alcoholic former ninja, trying to find peace in the world, trying to find a family, trying to find meaning and connection. So there's a lot of heart to the story. Plus outrageous martial arts.

As your first feature as director, do you have a filmmaker you aspire to be like behind the camera?

I think Kubrick meets Scorsese. Scubrick. But I do think people need comedy right now and we’re kind of in a nadir of American comedy. I would like to do some comedy that’s grounded and heartwarming and fun and fucked up at the same time. That’s what I’m going after. One of my favorite directors is Hal Ashby, who did Being There and Shampoo. I love things in that tone. It has a good heart, but it’s always pushing the envelope a little bit.

Have you been to Cannes before? Have you experienced the market?

I haven’t. I’ve been to the Cannes Lions. But I would like to go in disguise as a pretend producer, maybe a Moldovan billionaire. And then have my shirt open and maybe wear a hair rug on my chest and big sunglasses and a gold chain and a lot of Cologne and carry a big wad of bills and walk down that main drag and just have people pitch me action films. And try to meet Nicolas Cage.