Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Walton Goggins, Connie Britton, Topher Grace
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Running Time: 96 minutes
Synopsis: Mike Howell [Jesse Eisenberg] spends most of his time getting stoned, sitting behind the register of the Cash & Carry and writing a never-to-be-published graphic novel about a superhero monkey. Someday he'd like to take his bail-bondsman girlfriend, Phoebe [Kristen Stewart], to Hawaii"if he can ever overcome the inexplicable panic attacks he experiences whenever he tries to leave the city limits.
Unbeknownst to Mike, he is actually a sleeper agent created by the CIA, which has just targeted him for termination. As some of the agency's deadliest assets are unleashed upon his sleepy town, Mike's sympathetic former handler, Lasseter [Connie Britton], activates his latent skills, turning the mild-mannered slacker into a superhuman killing machine.
As Mike's once-simple life becomes an adrenaline-fueled chase, no one is more surprised than he is to discover his uncanny ability to turn even an ordinary spoon into a weapon of mass destruction. With an obsessed agent [Topher Grace] hot on his heels, the newly reborn super-assassin summons his inner action-hero to try and save himself and the love of his life from complete destruction.
Review: American Ultra…. is unexplainable; with such a crazy-cool idea the comedy is adventurous and thrilling all at the same time. Unexpectadly violent the film stays within the comedy genre whilst keeping the suspense interesting.
- Brooke Hunter
Release Date: September 3rd, 2015
For the first five minutes of American Ultra, audiences may feel like they are watching a charming little indie film about two quirky characters"which is exactly what the filmmakers intended. Mike Howell, the movie's main character, is a smarter-than-average but completely unmotivated slacker. He is stuck in a small town, working at the local convenience store and living a very ordinary life with his girlfriend Phoebe.
'If you take the story down to its most basic elements, it's about this guy who wants to propose to his girlfriend but his world gets turned upside down," says director Nima Nourizadeh. 'Mike has only one goal: propose to Phoebe. Then, over the course of one night, everything turns upside down and there are all these hurdles he has to jump."
For the director, who earned accolades in Hollywood for his 2012 debut film, Project X, this script stood out in the action-comedy genre. 'It ticks so many boxes with a unique blend of disparate elements that you don't normally see together," says Nima Nourizadeh. 'It has romance, it has action, it has a lot of comedy, so it's full of surprises and takes you places you won't expect. It starts off in the tiny, almost claustrophobic world that Mike and Phoebe have been living in and then it gets crazy."
When the action suddenly shifts from Liman, West Virginia, to CIA headquarters, something far more sinister than romance starts to take shape. A clandestine government program is about to rain terror down on a sleepy West Virginia town. The object of the attack is … Mike Howell? 'That's when you realize that American Ultra is an action film with plenty of ass kicking that also pokes fun at the genre," says Max Landis, the film's writer. 'It is high-level, in-camera action, but no matter how hard that element pushes, the indie dramedy about a stoner couple pushes back just as hard. Of course, that doesn't mean we didn't create some killer fight scenes."
One of the big selling points for Nima Nourizadeh was the script's ambitious amalgam of classic genres. 'It combines so many different things in an interesting and organic way," he notes. 'The conventions will be familiar to filmgoers, but they are mashed up a little bit, which changes everything. I like taking things that people think they know and presenting them in a new light."
The inspiration for the action/comedy is a real-life CIA attempt to create super warriors that lasted three decades. The formerly covert program, known as MK Ultra, was launched in the 1950s in an effort to turn ordinary citizens into superhero-level operatives. Using psychotropic drugs to enhance psychological conditioning, better known as torture, government scientists treated the human brain like a computer and attempted to radically reprogram their subjects to be the most effective and dangerous assets possible.
The attempt to turn out a generation of Jason Bourne-like super assassins failed miserably. 'You can wipe a hard drive, but when you wipe a human brain, it tends to break," says Landis. 'I became a little obsessed with what I learned. I kept thinking, what if a regular guy got involved? How would he react? That spawned American Ultra."
'The script is funny and scary and violent and sweet," producer Anthony Bregman says. 'It makes you swing in so many directions emotionally, which makes for a great movie experience. Max knows the action genre well, which allows him to make fun of it while living up to the conventions and expectations."
A large part of the humor comes from the fact that the filmmakers never lose sight of the idea that reclaiming his hardcore combat skills doesn't change who Mike is. 'Mike is a bit of a dreamer and he never loses that quality," says producer David Alpert. 'It's just that now people are trying to kill him. We always tried to maintain a connection to what it would really be like if the stoner guy in your town got these abilities."
Nima Nourizadeh, whose first film has established him as an innovative new talent in Hollywood, impressed the producers with his ideas for maximizing both the action and the humor in the script. 'Nima Nourizadeh is a startling visionary in terms of how he sees a scene," says Landis. 'He didn't change the script much, but the things he added made it even better. He structured the rhythms and beats in a way that is genuinely funny and fun to watch."
Nima Nourizadeh brought a sharp sense of humor, as well as an authentic sense of danger and visual excitement to the script, according to Anthony Bregman. 'He is better than anyone I can think of at establishing a really calm, stable atmosphere on screen that eventually explodes into a state of complete choreographed chaos. It's really fun to watch that build and ignite."
The director's eye for detail elevated an already strong script, in Alpert's opinion. 'The composition of the shots is unusually good, especially given the amount of action involved," says the producer. 'Before production began, he made a book that included everything from character descriptions to specific images he wanted to include. It became the bible for the movie, with thematic elements and even subliminal messages. It provided the entire blueprint for taking a great script and making it into a great film."
The writer and director first met in April 2013 to exchange ideas about future projects. Landis told Nima Nourizadeh about American Ultra, a spec script no one outside of his team had read yet. 'The script really exceeded my expectations," says the director. 'Max is an intriguing storyteller. He feeds you information a little bit at a time until you are suddenly somewhere unexpected and completely crazy. His writing is always entertaining, but what separates this from other action comedies I'd read was that he nailed down the relationships between the main characters. It was the perfect second project for me."
Producers Anthony Bregman and Alpert agreed. 'The combination of Max and Nima Nourizadeh was irresistible," Anthony Bregman says. 'Max's first feature script, Chronicle, is a favorite of mine. It was made on a modest budget with really interesting visuals that made it seem much bigger than it was. Project X was, in my opinion, one of the best movies of the last few years. It's another small film with a really big reach. Both were fun and entertaining and innovative, and at the same time dealt with big issues in a subtle way. It's exactly the sort of movie I want to see."
'Teaming Max and Nima Nourizadeh up and then adding Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart to the mix feels like we're looking at the next generation of great Hollywood filmmakers," adds Alpert. Although it would be underestimating the scope of the film to call it an out-and-out comedy, American Ultra is full of laugh-out-loud moments. 'It will also have you on the edge of your seat," says Alpert. 'The juxtaposition of the humor with extreme violence makes this movie feel fresh and real. You are always asking yourself what you would do under these circumstances and that is what makes this so special."
The Stoner Assassin And His Crew
As action heroes go, Mike Howell is an unlikely contender. He is completely dependent on his girlfriend, unable to cook a simple meal without starting a fire. He has been hired and fired from the same rundown convenience store more times than he can remember, and he gets arrested for possession so often that the police are on a first-name basis with him.
Jesse Eisenberg, whose previous roles have included The Social Network, Adventureland and Zombieland, was the filmmakers' first choice to play the slacker-turned-superspy. 'We knew it had to be Jesse Eisenberg," says Alpert. 'You just buy him as an innocent, small-town stoner. The action is completely unexpected coming from him, but not unbelievable. Jesse Eisenberg gives the character a grounded emotional intelligence even as the whole weight of a secret CIA program lands in Liman to try to kill him."
Mike is a laid-back young man who becomes a little befuddled and confused when too many things happen at once. He's happy to stay home, smoke weed in bed and make out with his girlfriend. Taking out bad guys sent to terminate him is not on his radar screen. The role places Eisenberg, an actor who often plays the smartest guy in the room, squarely outside his comfort zone.
'Jesse Eisenberg is such a sharply intelligent actor, but he was able to sort of dumb himself down for this role in ways that make him almost unrecognisable," says Nima Nourizadeh. 'He was just great at all of the things I needed for this movie. Mike took on such a gentle, unassuming quality in his hands, he can do comedy and he can do drama. He is so touching in the most emotional scenes of the film and then he throws himself into some real kick-ass action."
Eisenberg was quick to sign on after reading the script. 'I'd never read anything like it," he says. 'The characters felt totally real, the situations are surprising and the way we deal with them seems very truthful. Mike and Phoebe are totally accessible, so people can live vicariously through them. Mike is also an artist who has created this comic book about a monkey he calls Apollo Ape. When he becomes the target of an evil government plot, what happens to him is like an Apollo Ape story"it's a stoner fantasy come to life."
Landis' script keeps the humor completely genuine, says the actor. 'Putting this very passive guy in the middle of an intense and violent world creates the potential for a lot of comedy. Mike is thrust into situations where he has to defend his and his girlfriend's lives. As the confrontations become increasingly more complicated and frightening, he becomes more deadly, but he has no idea how or when he learned to do these things."
Mike's girlfriend, Phoebe Larson, appears to be as unmotivated as he is. Like Mike, she seems in no hurry to go anywhere. But Phoebe, played by Kristen Stewart, is much more driven than she lets on. 'She is way more together than he does," says Nima Nourizadeh. 'She's responsible, with more of a real job. Mike actually relies on her for a lot of the time. You soon understand that she pretty much takes care of everything for him."
Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, who starred in 2009's Adventureland, had instant chemistry, Nima Nourizadeh says. 'They hadn't seen each other in a couple of years, but the connection was instantaneous. When we started shooting, they were completely comfortable together even in the most intimate moments. We needed that for the comedy to work. They're definitely two people I would love to work with again."
After meeting with the pair together, the filmmakers were sure they would be convincing and appealing as a couple dedicated to getting baked together. 'There's something about Jesse and Kristen Stewart that is so compelling and so right," says Alpert. 'The idea of re-teaming them was a dream come true. She's very alluring and charismatic on screen, and she brings amazing depth to the character and the relationship. It's not just a supporting girlfriend role: she's an equal." Like Jesse Eisenberg, the actress is taking a role that is not typical for her, notes Landis. 'She's not the sacrificial dove or the princess who must become a warrior," he says. 'Kristen Stewart's played all sorts of crazy characters, but in this she plays someone closer to who she really is, a sort of laid-back tomboy."
Kristen Stewart admits she jumped at the chance to work with Jesse Eisenberg again. 'We should make a movie together every five years," she says. 'It's just so comfortable to work with him. He's hilarious and intimidatingly intelligent. And this script is so original. Imagine that your stoner buddy just turned into an expert CIA assassin and the chaos that ensues. It's an ultra-violent, in-your-face action movie, as well as an emotionally grounded love story, as well as a full-on slapstick comedy. I wanted to explore that with Jesse Einseberg."
Watching Mike conquer the CIA's most vicious operatives is an unexpected delight, she promises. 'These two kids turn into something you would never foresee. Watching us annihilate a town or take out deadly killers is just funny, especially with Mike's off-the-wall commentary as it goes down. I haven't had this much fun making a movie in years."
For that, she gives full credit to Nima Nourizadeh. 'He is incredibly detail oriented," says Kristen Stewart. 'He left no stone unturned. He's such a sensitive dude that he was truly concerned with everything, including the little sweet bits, like the matching tattoos on our feet."
As the film begins, Mike is about to discover he is part of a discredited government experiment known as Wise Man. Run by Victoria Lasseter, the program was pronounced a failure and its subjects had their memories wiped before they were put back in society. The single success was hidden in the tiny town of Liman, West Virginia. Now Adrian Yates, Lasseter's recently promoted agency rival, has decided to mark his territory by eradicating every trace of Wise Man, including Mike.
Lasseter, played by Connie Britton, has built a career at the CIA by staying two steps ahead of everyone else, but Yates catches her unaware. 'At first, Lasseter appears to be a very cold, goal-oriented woman who plays by the rules," says Nima Nourizadeh. 'Then her maternal side kicks in and she becomes a really warm, loving character. The contrast is compelling. You start to really root for her and hope she finds a way to take Yates out."
'Connie Britton does an amazing job," says Alpert. 'Lasseter looks at Mike and Phoebe as her children and she's going to do whatever it takes to save them. We all know the warm and emotional side of Connie Britton from her previous work, but she also goes through a whole lot action-wise here. You might not expect that she has that physicality, but when you see her in this movie, you will be convinced."
Connie Britton fell in love with the genre-bending narrative as well as the finely tuned dialogue of the script. 'It was such a joy to read something that beautifully written," she says. 'The language is so specific and hilarious that you don't have to do anything to make it funny. For me to come across a character who is so dynamic and drives a lot of the action is rare, so it was a wonderful opportunity."
Lasseter isn't just a typical CIA wonk, according to Britton. 'Her background is less espionage and more medical. Her interest in research brought her to the CIA, where she started doing experiments to maximize human capacity for strength and endurance. She got caught up in something that went way beyond what she was counting on. The initial idea was to let third-time offenders volunteer for experiments that were supposed to enhance their strength, intelligence and reflexes. It didn't really work out well, so she chose to terminate the program."
Connie Britton's respect for her colleagues on the production is apparent. 'Jesse Eisenberg is such a force," she says. 'It was a joy to work with him. And I was so impressed by how incredibly savvy Kristen Stewart is. I don't know if she's interested, but she would make an amazing director. And then we had Nima Nourizadeh to help us understand all the complexities of these characters. He had a very strong vision of what the movie should be."
Lasseter's rival and Mike's nemesis is a former CIA desk jockey named Adrian Yates. Played by Topher Grace, Yates has developed a similar but far more sinister program that he calls Tough Guy. He sees an opportunity to advance his career by showing that his program is superior. 'His program is far darker," says Nima Nourizadeh. The people he was recruiting aren't just kids with a couple of minor drug busts like Mike. He is training the criminally insane, violent schizophrenics and sociopaths, to be super badass killing machines."
Yates' assets are far more dangerous and unstable than Lasseter's ever were, agrees Alpert. 'And he is sending them to kill her people. What his subjects needed was medication and therapy. What Yates gave them was different medication and fight training."
Grace calls American Ultra the kind of movie he wants to see and wants to be in. 'It's got the action that I crave, as well as great writing. I've been in some great ensembles, but this has a dream cast that makes me look like a better actor for being a part of it. I've wanted to work with Jesse Einseberg for a long time. I'm a huge fan of Kristen Stewart's. Everyone was so committed to the work, and that's the recipe for success."
Yates has been promoted past the point of his incompetence, according to Grace. 'He's a power-hungry, evil guy with a band of flying monkeys he calls his assets. They are literally insane people that he has trained to kill on his command."
While all of the Tough Guy assets are scary, one is truly terrifying. Laugher, played by Walton Goggins, is a three-dimensional goon who reveals himself in surprising ways. 'He has this crazy laugh, which means you often hear him before you see him," says Nima Nourizadeh. 'Even though he's a complete psychopath, you come to sympathize with him because Walt brought so much humanity to it. You'll be afraid of Laugher, but you'll also end up liking him just a little bit."
It was the role that the filmmakers were most concerned about casting, according to Alpert. 'But Walt brought some amazing things to it. Once we saw what he was able to do, we expanded the role because it's such a powerful performance."
Goggins, whose intimidating presence has earned him roles in films including Django Unchained and GI Joe: Retaliation, says Laugher has a few more layers than most of the characters he is asked to play. 'Laugher is a physical threat for sure, but he comes with some mental challenges that made it a lot of fun for me to play," says the actor. 'He has a signature giggle that signals the beginning of chaos. What was interesting to me was that Laugher is as much a victim of these circumstances as Mike. Yates is like a surrogate parent and he wants to keep Daddy happy.
'Nima Nourizadeh and Max Landis have captured lightning in a bottle with this movie," Goggins says. 'It's a real re-imagination of a classic genre. Nima Nourizadeh came to it with so many original ideas. He had a very steady hand and an appreciation for the humor as well as the dramatic elements of the story. As far as I'm concerned, he was the perfect person to direct this movie."
When Mike finds his life in danger, he turns to his friend"and drug dealer"Rose for sanctuary. Played by John Leguizamo, Rose is what passes for a 'criminal element" in Liman. 'He's not your typical dealer," says Nourizadeh. 'He may be a little dangerous, but nothing like the people coming after Mike. You start to realize that he and Mike have quite a lot in common. They both love graphic novels and comic-book art. Rose's house is covered with very colorful abstract paintings."
Leguizamo brings his trademark manic energy to the role, says Alpert. 'He is amazing. You never know where he's going next, which is perfect for the character."
According to the actor, Rose is not just a drug dealer. 'He is an entrepreneur, a procurer of whatever you need. When Mike has needs, he comes to Rose. They're both so offbeat that they inevitably become friends, but the CIA puts out a story about Mike that has Rose flipping out. Nima Nourizadeh challenged me to go totally nuts and I said, -that's exactly what I want to do, bro.' I wanted to do something nobody's ever seen me do."
'The funniest scenes Kristen and I had were with John," recalls Eisenberg. 'He is almost impossible to act with. He's so committed to his character and he does not break, but I couldn't stop laughing."
Back at CIA headquarters, Lasseter's haplessly treacherous aide-de-camp, Petey Douglas, hedges his bets by backing up Lasseter on her covert mission to save Mike, while also helping Yates. 'So I'm a turncoat, but a loveable turncoat," says actor Tony Hale, who plays Douglas. 'American Ultra is a cool action film full of crazy-ass characters. On the surface, it sticks to the typical action formula"a guy and girl on the run, places getting shot up, and cars flipping over, but the characters make it different."
Petey wants to be loyal to Lasseter, says Nima Nourizadeh, but circumstances force his hand. 'He's trying to do right in a whole world of wrong. Tony brings so much in terms of comedy. Just his laugh is hilarious. Every time we cut to him is an enjoyable moment for the audience."
At the top of American Ultra's CIA food chain is Raymond Krueger, played by Bill Pullman. 'We were so excited to get Bill Pullman to participate," says Alpert. 'Krueger is the human manifestation of the power of the government, but he plays it with a warmth and a humanity that you don't usually see in that kind of character."
Like the other actors, Bill Pullman was attracted by the script's distinctive language and vivid characters. 'When we first meet Raymond Krueger, we've already heard about him," says Pullman. 'There's an element of fear when his name comes up. He is very high up in the CIA and very intimidating to his colleagues. He has a great sense of efficiency and no tolerance for waste. When he realizes that there are two rogue operations"Wise Man and Tough Guy"going head to head, he decides to step in."
The actor sees Mike's story as a fable about the anxiety of having to grow up. 'Every kid at that stage of life is trying to find himself, wondering whether he can even leave town," he says. 'To have Mike suddenly transform into someone quite extraordinary is a wonderful release from the worry that he's never going to move forward."
Things That Go Boom! In The Night
Liman, West Virginia, the fictional hometown of Mike Howell and Phoebe Larson in American Ultra, is about as far away from Washington D.C. as can be"if not literally, at least metaphorically. 'Liman is isolated from everything," says Bregman. 'It's not really the sort of town you want to live in"it's the sort of town you're stuck in. We ended up shooting just outside New Orleans."
Louisiana, which has seen a dramatic uptick in production over the last decade, provided the filmmakers with a first-rate support system under sometimes trying circumstances. 'We had to deal with everything from snakes and gators to torrential rain," says Alpert. 'A lot of crews would have rebelled, but these people were like Marines. If we said take the beaches, they took the beaches."
Production designer Richard Bridgland transformed rural Louisiana into small-town West Virginia using a palette of reds and other warm, homey colors in contrast to the icy neutrals of CIA headquarters. 'I drew inspiration from the blue-collar rust-belt towns of movies like The Deer Hunter," explains Richard Bridgland. 'Finding locations in New Orleans that matched industrial West Virginia was extremely challenging. Choices were very limited. There were bullets, bombs and mayhem on almost every set, so I worked very closely with stunts and the special-effects team to make that happen."
For his breakout cult hit Project X, Nourizadeh depended largely on handheld cameras used in documentary and found-footage styles, but for American Ultra he decided on a more polished look. 'American Ultra needed to be slick and really artful," says the director. 'It's quite stylized. The movie is really beautiful, which adds to the unusual tone. As artistic as it looks, it's still a hard-core action movie that shocks you and surprises you."
With the bible developed for the film in hand, Nima Nourizadeh and director of photography Michael Bonvillain went through the script scene by scene to design their shots. 'I especially love the surveillance-style shots looking down on Liman that give the feeling of being watched from above," Nima Nourizadeh says. 'They leverage the growing paranoia of the movie. We also put an emphasis on wide shots. There are a few close ups, but we preferred to let the actors move around the set with two cameras running to get the coverage."
The biggest challenges the filmmakers faced involved creating the explosive action envisioned by the director and the writer, while sticking to a relatively modest budget. 'There are a lot of huge, involved sequences with hundreds of extras and helicopters, explosions and fight scenes," says Raymond Bregman. 'It was challenging to pack it all into a relatively short 43-day shooting schedule. It felt like we did an action sequence every day."
Stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo, whose credits include blockbuster action films including Mission Impossible and Oblivion, took a no-nonsense, no-holds-barred approach. 'The scope he was able to achieve on a movie of this size is unparalleled," says Alpert. 'We flip cars and light them on fire. We punch people's teeth out and shoot up a bunch of things. There's some crazy stuff going on. And with Rob's help, Jesse was able to do a lot of the stunts himself. I've always thought of Jesse as that quick-talking, sarcastic guy. This movie shows him in a new light and lot of the credit goes to Rob."
Alonzo put all of the actors through fight training. 'We prepared everybody in the film to fight for real, so that we weren't locked into choreography once we got on set," he says. 'They were all very committed to learning. Because of that we were able to adjust and adapt as we went along, depending on what Nima Nourizadeh needed."
Nima Nourizadeh's only direction to Alonzo was to make sure that the audience believes that Eisenberg is capable of the action. 'I didn't want any kind of kung fu or crazy high kicks," the director says. 'To me, it had to be skillful, hand-to-hand, close-quarter combat. We had to really sell those punches, sell the way he grabs a gun, the way he uses weight and balance to his advantage.
'Mike may be unique in the action-hero world because he doesn't have any weapons," the director continues. 'He doesn't carry guns or knives. When he does use them, it's because he has disarmed someone who attacked him. Mike protects himself with whatever is at hand. Everything is specific to the settings and available objects."
Starting with a script full of oddball characters and unexpected twists gave Alonzo the opportunity to be extremely creative in staging the stunts. 'The idea of a stoner with the tactical skills of a world-class operative was incredibly interesting to me," he says. 'Jesse Einsberg will surprise the audience with his skill at everything from Filipino martial arts to Pencak Silat to Muay Thai.
Under Alonzo's tutelage, Jesse Eisenberg emerges as an unlikely action hero, according to Raymond Bregman. 'Watching Jesse Einsberg transform from a lackadaisical stoner into a vicious fighter was amazing," he adds. 'With Rob's help, he was able to embrace the whole range of that character."
Jesse Eisenberg surprised himself with what he was able to accomplish. 'He trained us to be able to do everything our characters can do," says the actor. 'The first few days of rehearsal, we were learning things that we knew would not be in the movie, which was a little frustrating. But by the second week we realized that it enabled us to pick things up exponentially faster."
Stewart concurs, 'By the time we started shooting, we were fully capable fighting machines, which helped make everything look really cool. I learned the reason they hire big surly dudes to play action heroes is because it is hard and it hurts. You need to really be able to take a hit. All the explosions and stunts really scared me"and Jesse, too. It didn't matter how many times we did it, he always looked like he was going to have a heart attack, which is perfect for the character."
As the film progresses, the action sequences get bigger and badder. 'It starts with a confrontation between Mike and two guys in a parking lot, and escalates to a face off with a gang of evil assets in a big-box store," Landis says. 'That scene was awesome to write. I walked through Wal-Mart taking notes on what was available and figuring out how it could be used. An eyebrow pencil, a wall of light bulbs"you name it and Mike can weaponize it."
The sequence is part of the film's spectacular denouement. 'There's a car crash," says Alonzo. 'There are fireworks. There are lots of gunplay and of course the sight of Mike ingeniously using ordinary objects to take out his opponents efficiently. It's got a lot of different elements to it, which makes it a really fun movie. People are going to want to see this over and over again."
Release Date: September 3rd, 2015