“Retro 90s Action, Smash & Grab” Writer/ Director Matt Eskandari On ‘Hard Kill’
Hard Kill is an action-thriller story of a team of mercenaries hired to protect billionaire industrialist Donovan Chalmers (Bruce Willis) and his advanced form of Artificial Intelligence from falling into the hands of the nefarious Pardoner who would rather use it to destroy the world. It was written by screenwriters Joe Russo and Chris LaMont (The Au Pair Nightmare) from a story by Nikolai From and Clay Haugen.
Hard Kill went through many iterations before the shooting script landed in director Matt Eskandari’s inbox. Even after extensive pre-working, the screenplay went through further rewrites. “Many screenwriters think when their spec screenplay is sold and greenlit, their work is complete,” said Eskandari. But this is rarely the case, even if the script is in good shape.
The screenwriting acrobatics were primarily triggered by budgetary constraints and cast signing onto the project. Once Bruce Willis (who plays Dominic Chalmers) committed to the project, changes were also made to Sergio Rizzuto’s villain character, The Pardoner to maximize their acting talents.
A Great Action Film
Eskandari is attracted to the action/thriller genre because of the simplicity of the storytelling rather than the explosive action set pieces. He prefers this to the more convoluted plots action (and more so for thriller) films typically pursue.
That said, it is easy to become complacent and fall into well-trodden movie tropes. A balance must be struck between the rules of the genre and adding writing flair. “Every film genre has its tropes and the audience expects them,” declared Eskandari. “Your job is to go in there and play with those tropes as best you can. If you subvert expectations too much, audiences won’t be satisfied.” That’s where filmmakers rely on the element of surprise.
One aspect of the screenplay that Eskandari focused on was the character of The Pardoner. “Instead of being a one-dimensional villain, you got into his head to see what his thoughts and perspective are.” The Pardoner has a comprehensive line of reasoning to justify his destructive actions, almost to the point where he perceives Donovan to be the villain and himself as the hero. Matt Eskandari’s aim was to “flesh The Pardoner out and be different from villains you normally see.”
Successful action films require a level of identifiable characters so the audience knows who it’s rooting for right off the bat. The Pardoner is the villain and Derek Miller (Jesse Metcalf) is the hero. Otherwise, they wouldn’t satisfy the genre.
Screenwriters are frequently advised not to write characters with specific characters in mind. This calculus changes when a named actor signs on to a project. When Bruce Willis is attached to a movie, studios, Bruce Willis, and his fans expect a certain thing on the screen. “You have to submit to those expectations to some extent and find creative ways to mix them up a bit.” One example Eskandari cites is that Willis never fires a gun in Hard Kill even though his character may require it. Skilled screenwriters don’t perceive these parameters as constraints, but rather as nuances to illuminate a character.
However, Eskandari advises that’s it’s okay if you have an actor in mind to guide you through the writing process, even if they won’t play the role on screen. “An actor in mind makes your character pop off the page more.” Having a ‘Bruce Willis’ character in mind helps screenwriters better understand the perspectives of the characters they’re writing. But don’t make them carbon copies.
Screenwriters should always write roles that are appealing to actors that expand their repertoires. “It can be really subtle things that attract an actor to a film. Give that character a unique aspect to their personality.” It could even be minor physical things like the way people walk or drum their fingers when they’re under pressure.
Add character windows – subtle character traits that actors can own and run with
Subtlety Of Theme
Every movie has to be about something at its core – whether it be a father and daughter relationship, redemption, or good prevailing over evil. Theme makes your audience identify with your story. “Sometimes you can force a theme too much and it alienates the audiences. I let the themes simmer and let them come through on their own.” Over-emphasizing a movie’s theme reduces the opportunity for audiences to process the subtext and interpret the story for themselves. “Why would I force a theme when an audience sees something completely different?”
Films featuring strong technological storylines require careful consideration with regard to exposition. The audience needs to know what Artificial Intelligence does and how it can potentially destroy the world. “It’s a challenge deciding how much an audience needs to know,” said Eskandari. “We tried to get the exposition out of the way while the characters were moving.” Eskandari balanced out the locations such as a limo or a warehouse so there weren’t any flat talking head scenes and the expo lands a little stronger.
Much like screenwriters rewriting and editing their screenplays, film directors similarly break down a screenplay prior to production. “I look at a scene and decide what would happen if it was taken out. Will the story still work?” If the story doesn’t make sense or takes a different trajectory, the scene stays. If nothing happens, the scene is not essential and can be removed.
Every scene must have a point. “Does it take a character from point A to point B, do we learn something new, raise the stakes, or move the story forward?” If Matt Eskandari can’t answer these questions, there is no reason to film those scenes. “We look at every scene from a macro perspective as being a giant puzzle of the film.” If there are scenes that sit on the edge, the film director goes back to the writers to find out why they wrote them in the first place.
The scene may not necessarily require deletion. They may merge the scene with another, add a linking scene, or add a character beat to make it work better. “We may only need to learn a bit more about a relationship or something about a character’s past,” said Eskandari.
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