It was back in 2009 that Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart first joined forces on the big screen, playing male and female leads in Greg Mottola’s period, coming-of-age tale Adventureland. After a number of years apart, now the two actors are coming back together, but instead of playing two young people falling in love against the backdrop of a low-rent amusement park, this time around they’re dodging bullets and kicking all kinds of ass in director Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra.
Based on an original screenplay by Max Landis (Chronicle), American Ultra tells the story of Mike Howell (Eisenberg) – a stoner convenience store clerk who finds his happiness in the love he shares with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart). What Mike doesn’t know, however, is that he was actually at one point part of a secret government program that turned him into a sleeper agent. When he is "activated" by Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), he not only finds himself thrown into a world of confusion, but also finds a target painted on his back.
Along with a small group of other movie reporters, I had the fantastic opportunity to visit the set of the new movie while it was in production in New Orleans last year, and during my stay I learned a great deal about the upcoming action-comedy. With the film now just a couple of months away from release, I now have the pleasure of sharing what I learned with you, so let’s dive head-first into the world of American Ultra, shall we?
Jesse Eisenberg’s Character Has One Very Specific Mission In The FilmIn a movie about secret CIA programs, sleeper agents, and over-the-top action, you’d expect that the main motivation of the protagonist would be some kind of revenge plot, or an unstoppable search for truth, but American Ultra actually always comes back to something completely different: love.
As we get to know Jesse Eisenberg’s Mike Howell at the start of the film, he gets a wedding ring that he plans to use to propose to Kristen Stewart’s Phoebe… but unfortunately this big step happens to come at the exact time that his life begins to go completely insane. Eisenberg explained,
Everything blows up in his life and he keeps the ring in his pocket throughout the movie, and he keeps looking for little moments. But then people keep trying to kill him so he keeps being interrupted. It’s really sweet, and he has like no tact, so the times he chooses to propose throughout the movie are the worst possible times.
As they say: true commitment is still wanting to propose to your girlfriend after you’ve been force to kill some dudes with a spoon.
There Is An Absolutely Crazy Action Sequence In A SupermarketPress set visits are usually timed so that we can see some cool footage being filmed, and American Ultra delivered in a big way. The scene we watched the cast and crew shoot was a very over-the-top action sequence that saw Jesse Eisenberg’s Mike killing a whole lotta dudes in a supermarket.
Beginning shortly after Mike has crashed a Humvee into the fictional "Max Goods," the scene begins with our hero taking cover and calling out to the bad guys to give up his girlfriend "and go home… to your homes." Unfortunately, the agents roaming the aisles don’t respond to this offer, and instead attack. This forces Mike into action, but it’s an interesting situation because he’s unarmed. Thus, he has to defend himself only with what’s available, leading him to smash heads on light bulb displays, beat people with frying pans, and stab guys with a makeup pen.
The "gunfire" ringing through the building during filming was easily one of the loudest sounds I have ever heard, but it didn’t distract from the awesomeness of the action. And full credit goes to Eisenberg, who performed the heavily choreographed scene himself.
Prepare For Some Very, Very, Very Extreme ViolenceIt was pretty brutal watching Jesse Eisenberg take down bad guy after bad guy through creative and violent means, but it turns out what we watched was probably one of American Ultra’s tamer action scenes. As Prosthetic Makeup Effects Designer Michael Marino explained to us on set, there are sequences that get very, very gnarly.
You want examples? Well, the black light scene screencapped above evidently features a part where a guy’s throat is ripped out by a weight hook. There’s a character who gets her face basically crushed in. And then there’s the little homage to American History X. Saud Marino,
We said, it’d be cool if he curb stomps him onto a shelf, or uses a weight or something from the weight area as he crushes. So, in American History X you don’t see what happens. You’re going to see what happens. It’s fucking brutal!
Basically, expect this movie to earn its guaranteed R-rating in a big way.
Almost The Entire Movie Is Set In One NightIn case you couldn’t already tell, there’s quite a lot of madness that occurs over the course of American Ultra’s runtime, but all of it is packed into an incredible tight time frame. Rather than playing out over the course of a few weeks or even a few days, almost all of the action is contained to one crazy, crazy night.
Describing the structure of Max Landis’ script between shots on set, producers Ray Angelic and Anthony Bregman explained to us that 95 percent of American Ultra takes place in the span of just a few hours. It’s not all contained to just one day, as there are apparently two days-worth of setup in the story, but once the plot kicks off there aren’t any more time jumps. Or as Angelic described,
All the stuff when the fights start happening and the eye starts swelling and the skin starts breaking.
That’s a pretty good description of what Jesse Eisenberg goes through over the course of the movie, and is a perfect segue to the next cool bit of trivia…
Mike Howell Goes Through 21 Stages Of Injuries Throughout The FilmWhen crafting a story that takes place within a short amount of time, continuity becomes all the more important – and that’s a fairly difficult thing in an action movie. In American Ultra, our hero doesn’t have time to heal before moving on to the next step of his mission, and must carry his injuries with him. As such, Jesse Eisenberg actually goes through 21 different stages of bloody makeup over the course of the movie.
What you see above is probably Stage Two at best, but things definitely get more extreme as the movie goes. The makeup includes not only bruises and cuts, but also what looks like really painful swelling. When we saw Eisenberg on set in makeup, he most definitely did not look like he was in very good shape. Said Michael Marino,
You see a movie guy gets punched in the face, nothing happens. You’d swell up and all these things would happen! [Director Nima Nourizadeh] really wanted to show that, to not make it Hollywood.
This only makes me curious as to what exactly Stage 21 looks like.
The Prosthetics Department Studied UFC Fighters To Perfect Mike’s InjuriesOn set, American Ultra was described as being set in a hyper-real world – never quite crossing into sci-fi. Helping to keep the film grounded are the injuries that Mike Howell collects through the film, which, as noted, are meant to be as realistic as possible. So where did the makeup department look for inspiration? Said Michael Marino,
We studied UFC fighters. They’re in a press conference, they’re purple and stitches all around… [Audiences] are used to seeing Georges St-Pierre destroyed in an interview, and it’s not so stupid.
The image you see about is right around where we saw Jesse Eisenberg on set, and as you can see he’s pretty badly beat up. His eye is very swollen, he has scrapes and bruises on his forehead and cheek, and cuts are scattered around his face. Does he look like a UFC fighter post-match? It’s a pretty close approximation.
The Movie Will Actually Portray Marijuana Use RealisticallyEven beyond Reefer Madness, movies have a rough history accurately portraying the use of marijuana (no Hollywood, it doesn’t make you hallucinate). Don’t expect any of that in American Ultra, however, as the movie not only works to have a realistic interpretation of the herb, but also work it into the characterization. Explained Kristen Stewart,
I think the basic idea is if you were to take the most unlikely people, two dinky little stoner kids… and then suddenly see them thrown into this really high-speed and intense disarmingly realistic action movie, it’s funny. It doesn’t feel familiar.
Taking it a step further, Ray Angelic also explained that "stoned" doesn’t simply translate to "stupid" in the film, and that its characters reflect that.
When you’re stoned you just are the goofiest person on earth, at the same time, it does make you mellow and it does make you kind of funny and kind of inquisitive in these ways - and that is so much the opposite when you’re a highly trained, specialized focused government agent.
Mike Has Long Hair For A Weirdly Reasonable ReasonNext year will see Jesse Eisenberg taking on an iconic cue ball look when he stars as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but American Ultra will feature him sporting a completely different style: long scraggly locks. The look definitely works for who Mike is, but what’s interesting is that the look was both Eisenberg’s idea and decided upon for a totally logical reason.
I wanted to wear longer hair and a wig… The character is somebody who would not have gotten a haircut in several years. He is somebody who has just immersed himself in nothing and his own laziness and enjoying his own laziness… It gives it a better kind of turn for when he has to defend himself.
You’ll notice that this extends to the character’s dress sense as well. While he’s facing off against professional agents sporting black tactical gear, Eisenberg spends most of the movie dressed in jeans and either a flannel or Hawaiian shirt. If he looks out of place in his own movie, it’s because he’s supposed to look that way.
Why The Comedy Had To Be Pulled Back At TimesAs a movie moves through production, it is constantly evolving. There can be certain things that work like gangbusters on paper, but on set it doesn’t really translate or fit. American Ultra is no exception to this, and while the film is primarily an action comedy, there were certain sequences where jokes just had to be pulled out because they didn’t feel right within the context of the scene in which they were featured..
Asked about the tone of the movie and where the comedy tends to originate, Kristen Stewart made mention that there were some days on set where attempts at comedy just weren’t working on set and wound up having to be changed. Said the actress,
It’s been interesting figuring out which jokes [work], because reading the scripts there have been jokes that I just love, that make you laugh genuinely, and then you get to set and it’s like, ‘We can’t do that. It’s traipsing all over what we built.’
Sitting next to her, Jesse Eisenberg agreed that certain things got too silly at times… but there is a flipside to this.
A Good Amount Of The Humor Was Found On SetKristen Stewart may have found that some of the material she laughed at didn’t really work once she got to set, but balancing out that negative is the positive that is found humor. In the same conversation about the movie’s tone, the actress noted that there were days she came to set and discovered that straight moments translated completely differently when they were being performed. Said Stewart,
Some things, you get there and it’s like, I didn’t think this was going to be funny. I thought it would have to be played completely straight, but the ridiculousness of the situation is too much to ignore.
To give away what those particular moments are would be diving into spoiler territory, but from everything you’ve read here and seen in the trailer you can probably start piecing it together. Without giving away any big details, Stewart merely assured us that we will be laughing in the theater, saying,
I think the movie is going to be hilarious. I laugh every day, even when we’re about to lose our lives.
American Ultra hits theaters on August 21st.