On Set interview – American Ultra [NEW Poster + Still]

Collider : When director Nima Nourizadeh’s (Project X) action-comedy American Ultra was filming in New Orleans in May last year, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. Written by Chronicle scribe Max Landis, the story finds a stoner/sleeper agent (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend’s (Kristen Stewart) life are disrupted when a government operation descends upon their small town with the aim of wiping the stoner out. This is the first time Eisenberg and Stewart have worked together since Greg Mottola’s underrated coming-of-age drama, Adventureland. American Ultra also stars Walton Goggins, Connie Britton, Bill Pullman, Topher Grace and Tony Hale.

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While on set I got to watch some filming and talk to most of the cast and filmmakers. In the coming weeks I’ll have a lot more on the cool-looking film, but for now I wanted to share the on set interview with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. During a break in filming they talked about how the project came together, Landis’ script, the look of their characters, the comedy and action, and a lot more.

Finally, while I usually like to post the audio with on set interviews, some spoilers were discussed and they’ve been removed from the transcript.

Question: It was pretty awesome watching you do the choreography stuff today. That’s very different for you.

JESSE EISENBERG: Certainly, I never do that.

Very different from all your other stuff.

EISENBERG: Yeah, we’ve been training for a while.

Are you enjoying that, all the physical training and the action stuff?

EISENBERG: Yeah. I started a few months ago because my character has to be trained, but doesn’t remember that he was trained so it kind of comes to him instinctively.

You have to have this physicality, but you’re obviously not supposed to bulk up because you have to be the stoner guy, so has it been mostly about choreography rather than strength training and stuff like that?

EISENBERG: Yeah. I was in Michigan working last month, so they hired these great guys, and every day off I had was working with them. They were teaching me South-East Asian style fighting, and Rob Alonzo is the stunt coordinator, he’s Filipino and knows –

We were just talking to him.

EISENBERG: Oh you talked to him, yeah.

How did you first get the project? Was it that you read the script and you were like, “Wow! I wanna do this character!”?

EISENBERG: Yeah, it was a great role. The script was finished, I think, like the week I read it, and I just loved it.

[Kristen Stewart joins the interview]

Jesse was telling us how he first read the script and how it came about, can you tell us about you as well?

KRISTEN STEWART: I read the script in a very straight-forward and conventional way, as actors get sent these scripts from their agents. It’s a really original and strange script, I’ve really never read anything like it and I jumped at working with Jesse again. We really had a good time on Adventureland a couple of years ago, and I’ve sort of declared that we should definitely make a movie every five years. So in keeping with that, I jumped on this one.

Max [Landis] was saying to us that, Kristen, this is a role more toward your personality. Was he even accurate in saying that?

STEWART: Phoebe is a sort of straight-forward and sweet, fairly unassuming girl. I didn’t have to bring any quirks to her, I didn’t have to bring any certain things that make her very much different from myself. I think it was just about immersing myself in this extremely surreal, weird, heightened, unique, sort of – not unbelievable, it’s created in a very whole way, but in a slug line it’s like, “What?” It’s definitely not set in our reality, but it is also hyper-real in an odd way. So the character is kind of about – the difficulty for me has been about retaining her truths while still not revealing plot points I’m not supposed to in like the beginning. Then making sure that it’s consistent, and emotional, and also funny. It’s like, we’re always about to die, we’re constantly, constantly about to be like killed or having to kill somebody, and also it’s a broad comedy at the same time, so to balance that has been the difficulty. I am sort of essentially playing myself, if I was living in this –

EISENBERG: Very weird situation.

STEWART: Exactly.

Talk a little bit about the looks of your characters, we know you dyed your hair, you have a little bit of a different look yourself. How much was that in the script, how much was that working to develop it?

EISENBERG: I wanted just to wear longer hair and a wig, because the character is somebody who would not have gotten a haircut in several years. He’s somebody who has just immersed himself in nothing, in his own laziness and enjoying his own laziness. So I thought, “He would not have gotten a haircut. He wouldn’t groom himself in any kind of consistent way,” and it gives it a better turn for when he has to defend himself. So this is a guy who couldn’t be less prepared to do this.

STEWART: We had spoken to Max a bit. I think the basic idea before it was actually a real thing was that if you take the most unlikely people, like two dinky little stoner kids, Jesse Eisenberg and me, and then suddenly see them thrown into this really high-speed, and intense, and disarmingly realistic action movie, it’s funny. It doesn’t feel familiar, it’s a little bit shocking, and so in order to make that hard-hitting, which is the basis for wanting to make the movie. It’s like, I look like I also dyed my hair maybe a year ago, haven’t maintained it, my interests are fairly flippant. We’re very directionless. There’s nothing very defining about any of our looks, everything is very haphazard and comfortable and practical, and we’re just stoners, essentially. So that was all of this.

Can you guys talk a bit about the scene we’re seeing from today? I know it’s gonna take a couple of days. What you do is just kick ass and weird stuff at the supermarket. What’s your goal in the scene?

STEWART: In this scene?

Yes.

STEWART: It’s tough because I don’t know what I’m allowed to say. You know what I mean?

EISENBERG: Yeah, in an attempt to keep some, I don’t know…

They told us almost everything.

EISENBERG: Oh they told you everything.

STEWART: Everything? That sucks!

They told us I think a little more than you guys probably prefer for us to know, but this is gonna run as a separate interview so I don’t know what you should say.

STEWART: I mean, basically we’ve spent the entire movie – We start off at a point within our relationship where you could call it a little period of unrest, we’re not like too happy with each other in the beginning, and then as the movie goes on you see just how in love these two kids are. They’re really, truly obsessed with each other and it’s a very pure thing. It’s really true. Basically, him coming back to this scene to save me is kind of reconciling. When this whole thing, this really sweet, basic, simple love story [takes a turn], it’s really incredibly heart-breaking, so this whole thing is him coming back and assuming his…he becomes a man, and sort of redeems himself in every way. He really steps into the role that he should have with her, which is her fucking man, and then he gets her back, she gets him back, it’s a happy thing.

Max Landis was saying that, Jesse, your character’s goal in the movie never kind of changes throughout, that you want to propose to her and get married to her. Is that an accurate description?

EISENBERG: Yeah, at the beginning of the movie he has the ring and is planning to propose to her that day, and then everything blows up in his life. He keeps the ring in his pocket throughout the movie and he keeps looking for little moments, but then people try to kill them [laughs], so he keeps being interrupted. But it’s really sweet. [Laughs] And he has no tact, so the times he chooses to propose throughout the movie are the worst possible times, so he’s lucky that they get interrupted. But it’s this running, sweet joke.

You were talking a bit about the tone, but I’m curious, does the comedy come more through the situations, or through the dialogue, or are you playing it straight and it’s just kind of everything around?

EISENBERG: I think we’re aware of the humor, but the scenes we’ve had have been surprisingly so dramatic. When you read the script, you can understand these are very dramatic scenes. The characters are experiencing something that’s very heightened, but they have to experience it in a real way. I always think this, and Kris and I were talking about this in rehearsal, but this will be the most emotional movie we’ll do for a while even though probably for an audience that’s more fun. But as an actor, because you’re in these heightened situations and the two of us don’t fake it, so to speak, we are experiencing real emotions and it’s kind of several histrionic scenes, but they should be funny based on the context, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on us to be like silly.

STEWART: It’s been interesting sort of figuring out which jokes should – you know, because reading the script there have been jokes that I love that really just make me laugh genuinely, and then you get to set and you’re like, “We can’t do that! It’s traipsing all over what we’ve built”.

EISENBERG: It’s too silly.

STEWART: Yeah, exactly. And then in some things you get there and it’s like, “I didn’t think this could be funny, I thought this was gonna have to be played completely straight,” but the ridiculousness of the situation is too much too ignore and so one of our characters can say something silly and funny. He’s really funny, hilarious, like constant, but I think the movie is gonna be hilarious. I laugh everyday even when we’re about to lose our lives.

How does Nima [Nourizadeh] kind of orchestrate all of that and kind of get you into that scene? When you come to the set and say, “This might be a little bit too silly.” how does he kind of talk to you?

EISENBERG: Nima is doing the right thing, as an actor, he will ask us to do what’s emotionally realistic before anything else. In my experience, things are usually funnier if that’s the case anyway because you don’t kind of lose the thread of reality. He’s great, he has like, an obsessive attention to detail, maybe you saw in that last…I don’t know if you were watching carefully, that he was trying to get kind of a millisecond of something correct. And so it’s great, I think that extends to the acting too, he asks us to do things.

One of the things we keep talking about is the creativity of the physicality in this movie and the creativity of some of the violence and the kills, and we saw your character obviously practicing that. We didn’t hear about you Kristen, did you get to do some of the physical stuff and some of the creative, fun, weird, kill stuff?

STEWART: I don’t… I’m trying to think… I don’t kill any – Well actually I kill two people but with a gun, so I guess that’s not very creative. That’s the least creative way you could possibly kill someone, actually.

EISENBERG: You’re probably just waiting around for them to die.

STEWART: Actually, yeah, you’re right. But then I wouldn’t really be the one killing them… and actually that’s extremely creative. I’m just gonna sit here and wait.

EISENBERG: [Laughs] Yeah, lock the door.

I am curious with the two of you, working together for the first time since Adventureland, what’s it like reuniting?

STEWART: Awesome. I think me and Jesse work in a really similar way. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but our approach is just very similar. I don’t know, I think we rehearse in the same way, the way we get ready for things is similar. We don’t really like to go over things too much, it feels a little bit disrespectful to the material itself. You know what I mean? It’s like you could overdo shit, and then you have these weird memories of rehearsing it in a room. I think that we both just wanna really experience something, and if we’ve chose a project it’s because we have a good feel for it. Rehearsal has been all about just talking and getting on the same page, even though we were totally kind of on the same page already, just realizing that we were. I’m really comfortable with him, I feel safe, I would do anything. It’s fun. I think he’s kind of fun to hang out with too, that makes it all a good experience.

EISENBERG: Yeah, I couldn’t say enough about her. She’s a phenomenal actress. I remember when we were working together, she was eighteen or seventeen or something, and after the first scene I just went over to the director and said, “She’s really funny!” and he’s like, “Yeah, I know” and I was like, “No, no. She’s really funny! She’s genuinely very funny!” She does it in a way without like drawing attention to herself being funny, she has a great sense of humor and servers the other actors.

STEWART: It doesn’t come across, it just seems personally it does sometimes.

EISENBERG: By accident.

STEWART: Yeah.

EISENBERG: But she’s like the least vain person you’ll ever meet and she’s also like a pretty woman, so –

STEWART: He’s really vain all day long, I’m just like, “Jesus!” He’s in makeup so much longer than me.

I was gonna say, he looks prettier.

STEWART: Yeah [Laughs].

EISENBERG: So anyway, she seems to like serve the story and the other actors before herself, that’s a wonderful quality.

STEWART: Likewise.

Topher [Grace] was talking about lines and monologues that his character gives. I was really curious about Max’s writing when it came to the relationship banter, and it just seems that you guys had the time to make that really good, is there just some particular dialogue that stuck out when you looked at your script?

EISENBERG: He’s such a wonderful writer, and writes these characters in such specific and real ways, they seem not only new, but they seem relatable in this very real way. We have this scene where we go to a party of her friend’s, and I’m kind of stuck in the corner but telling her it’s ok and that she should enjoy herself, and she comes and kind of like saves me, rescues me from the party. But then, later that night, we’re sitting on the hood of our car and down the road a car has crashed and the guy has gone through the windshield, you don’t see it it’s just all the way from our point of view looking far down, and I start telling her that I feel like I’m the tree stuck in that car, and she’s the car and this tree has just been stopping for so long and that car has just been moving for so long, and suddenly that tree on this night stopped this wonderful, beautiful thing that’s been moving which is this car. And I’m the tree. And it’s just this really sweet, you know, they’re smoking weed so it’s a bit of a stoned thought, but it’s so beautiful and it sums up this relationship in such a sweet way, the way they both think about each other and for Kristen it’s heart-breaking because she’s actually kind of harboring this horrible guilt.

STEWART: Horrible, unbelievable guilt. That you don’t fucking find out until like page…!

EISENBERG: Right.

STEWART: It’s so far into the movie!

EISENBERG: So it’s stuff like that where everything feels so specific and meaningful, because Kristen is experiencing it in two different ways and I’m kind of experiencing it in, well one way, but in a very personal way. He’s a very wonderful, special writer.

American Ultra opens August 21st.

Comingsoon.net : A crashed humvee rests at the front of a grocery store, glass and pieces of the window frame scattered about. Jesse Eisenberg, who drove the vehicle through the doors, looks more like Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive than himself, albeit sporting a marijuana-themed button up shirt. He crouches behind one of the cash registers holding the loud speaker alerting the other “shoppers,” who are actually government goons that are holding his girlfriend hostage, that it’s okay to surrender.

“Listen crazy people,” he tells the black-clad, gun-toting thugs. “Just give up. Give me my girlfriend and you can all go home….to your….to your homes.”

Gunfire begins to ring out and in this wide open space, only about a third of which has been dressed to look like a store, they continue to echo. This scene falls at the start of American Ultra‘s climax, and it’s no ordinary gun fight as Eisenberg’s Mike Howell will make his way into the store and use the things on the shelf to dispatch his foes. It’s all part of the film’s unconventional charm, which began with screenwriter Max Landis.

“The ongoing joke of me and my managers is that literally everything I sell, when I first describe it to them they say ‘Don’t do it,’” he tells us. “I remember I was like, ‘My friend Josh has an idea: Prank videos with super powers, but I think we take that, we turn it into Columbine with telekinesis!’ And my managers were like, ‘Never say that again, don’t write that script.’ That’s held true of everything I’ve sold, so when I said ‘Stoner Bourne’ it just proves how bad I am at describing things.”

The kernel for the story started when Landis imagined the scene in a film where the good and bad guys confront each other over the phone, except he thought it would be funny if one of the members of that conversation didn’t know what was going on.

“I love tone because I think tone is story,” Landis says. “And when I was writing American Ultra I thought ‘What if there was like a big-beach movie? Almost like Little Miss Sunshine, this incredibly sweet, intimate movie about a guy and his girlfriend and then suddenly this big studio action movie shows up at this big-beach, sweet romantic movie’s door and goes ‘This is an action movie! Oh S**t!’ and the beach movie says ‘No, I refuse to let this become an action movie.’”

The sweet intimate movie at the center of this stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart’s characters, two live-in stoners in West Virginia that are deeply in love. Eisenberg’s Mike works at a convenience store while Stewart’s Phoebe works in a bail bondsman’s office. It may not seem like much, but they’re happy.

Mike learns of his true nature along the way after an encounter with two characters in the parking lot of his job, where he kills them based on pure reflexive instinct.

“For some period of time, he thinks he’s a robot,” producer Anthony Bregman says. “’Maybe I’m a robot and that’s what it is….It has this great mix of these different (things), the bloody stuff is bloody, the funny stuff is funny, the romantic stuff is romantic.”

Though the film continues down the path of being an explosive action film, Mike’s goal does not change from the first scene to the last scene: proposing to his girlfriend.

“Phoebe is a very straightforward and sweet, fairly unassuming girl” Stewart says of her character. “I didn’t have to bring any quirks to her. I didn’t have to bring any certain things that make her very much different from myself. I think it was just about immersing myself in this extremely surreal and weird, heightened, unique, not unbelievable, it’s created in a very whole way, but like it’s definitely not set in our reality, but it is also hyper real in an odd way.”

“What makes this so different is the love story, the relationship,” director Nima Nourizadeh, who previously cut his teeth on the 2012 film Project X, tells us. “It always goes back to them, it’s their story. It’s Mike and Phoebe’s story. Everything around it, all the other characters, the action, the comedy, it’s not what the movie is really about, those parts for me is like what entertains you, but you’ll walk away from it being like ‘It was an emotional ride.’”

While continuing to describe the movie, Landis made another interesting comparison to it by connecting it to the 1996 horror film Scream. In the same way that movie was a send up of slasher tropes, which it cracked wide open, American Ultra aims to do the same with “Bourne-esque” spy thrillers. He also revealed a root for the film that fans wouldn’t expect from the genre.

“Every script I write is me doing another writer. Not many people know this, because I think this is the first time I’ve said this publicly, but Chronicle is me doing Stephen King, Frankenstein is me doing sort of ‘Social Network,’ really quick dialogue and people being really smart, but then this movie was actually me doing David Mamet….The Mamet-y part of it for me was allowing characters to blossom through their words.”

And blossom they do, in fact the writing is one of the top reasons that many of the actors signed on to even appear in the film in the first place.

“I read the script in a fairly straight forward and conventional way,” Stewart says. “As actors get sent these script from their agents and it’s a really, really original and strange script. I’ve never really read anything like it and I jumped at working with Jesse. We had a really good time working on Adventureland a few years ago and I sort of declared we should definitely make a movie every five years, so just to be in keeping with that, jumped on this one.”

“When you read the script, you can understand, these are very dramatic scenes,” Eisenberg adds. “The characters are experiencing something that is very heightened, but they have to experience it in a real way… Kristen and I were talking about this in rehearsal, this will be the most emotional movie we’ll do for a while, even though probably for an audience it’s more fun, because as an actor you’re in these heightened situations and the two of us don’t fake it, so to speak, so we’re experiencing real emotions and it’s kind of, several histrionic scenes, but they should be funny based on the context, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on us to be silly.”

Other insane and interesting characters populate the film as well, which has an extensive supporting cast that includes Connie Britton, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Lavell Crawford, Topher Grace, and my personal hero, Walton Goggins.

One of those “Bourne” tropes that the film will explore with, in its own measure of winking at the camera, is just how big the title character finds out his world is. When Mike realizes that he is in fact a sleeper cell agent, we begin to see everyone else that lives in this world, from Connie Britton’s recently-demoted CIA Liason Victoria Lasseter (originally named Diane, though changed when it was discovered a real “Diane Lasseter” lived in Virginia and previously worked for the CIA) to Topher Grace’s self-important “moron” Adrian Yates.

“I punch Kirsten Stewart in the face,” Topher Grace says of his character. “I’m looking forward to her fan base seeing that, so I’ll never have any friends.”

In talking about the casting process for the film, both Landis and Nourizadeh said that Grace’s role was highly sought after by many other actors, but that in the end it was Grace’s audition that won him the part.

“I was thinking,” Grace pondered. “If you’re Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, it’s rare to find writing this good, and that’s when you can say, ‘All right, I’m going to take that’ and if you’re not one of those guys, you’ve got to beg, and I was happy to.”

We’re told that Grace has a number of memorable lines in the film, so we ask him about the ones that stick out in his mind.

“I guess there are two,” he reveals. “There’s one where I say, ‘Oh you thought I didn’t know? This isn’t the f***ing Notebook,’ and another one where I go, “You want my authorization,” it’s a whole speech that builds up to it, but I go ‘Here, you want my authorization, here, measure my d**k.’ When do you get to, in a film that has action, do this kind of Sorkin-esque dialogue that has that kind of youthful humor in it? I actually hired a kid to come over my house everyday in the month leading up to it, to rehearse.”

Another exciting character in the film is Walton Goggins’ Laughter, a member of the thugs in the film that Landis called “Batman villains if they pulled off their costumes and got put on a government team.”

“I play, I guess, the nemesis,for Jesse,” Goggins says. “And we’re certainly kind of matched skill wise and we both have our respective problems… It plays itself out in a very absurd way, and it’s also really grounded… I’ve never seen, when I say a villain, antagonist played like this, written in this way. It was very, very surprising to me when I saw it on the page and I thought, ‘You know what, yeah, that’s something I can really sink my teeth into, and I think I can fit into this profile in a nice way and do something with it.’”

The script isn’t the only thing that attracted all the actors to the film, as Nourizadeh’s kinetic style was considered a draw by many.

“Nima is doing the right thing, as an actor,” Eisenberg says. “He will ask us to do what is emotionally realistic before anything else and things are usually funnier if that’s the case anyway, because you don’t lose the thread of reality and he’s great. He has an obsessive attention to detail…. I don’t know if you were watching carefully, but he was trying to get a millisecond correct and so it’s great and that extends to the acting too.”

Though the scene we witnessed featured mostly handheld shots of the surreal action set pieces, Nourizadeh locks the camera down for a number of scenes before things really fire off.

“I got to hop out of this chopper and I was like ‘Yeah, you just want to have one of those shots at some point in your life,’” Topher Grace says. “’Hopping out of a chopper, low angle, Nick Fury moment. Looking at the camp they’d set up, just cool. You want to be in one of these movies.”

“I think Nima is also so specific, when it comes to just talking about the action and these kinds of fight sequences,” Goggins says. “Jesse and I have a few of these kind of encounters and they’re really really surprising and the stunt coordinator and people they have on board have done a really good job of telling the story through the physical acton and Nima’s really played a part in that.”

It becomes increasing more obvious, the more people that we talk to, the key influence a lot of other films have had on American Ultra. Not only has Scream, Glengarry Glen Ross, and True Romance been referenced, but countless others were looked at for inspiration.

“We watched ‘The Protector,’” executive producer Ray Angelic says. “We watched ‘Ong-bak.’ We watched ‘Unleashed,’ ‘Flashpoint,’ which everybody hated. ‘Fist of Legend’ and then to get off of all of that stuff, one of Nima’s quotes was, ‘If it’s ever in question, go watch ‘First Blood.’ There’s a lot of stuff in ‘First Blood’ he just loves.”

“The key thing I keep thinking about this film is I would actually want to see this movie,” Grace admits to a laugh. “There are many times you think someone else would like to see it, that you’re stoked, that’ll be good for that audience or maybe if it’s better this will be an Academy Award (nominee), but like I wouldn’t watch it. For me, this is the kind of film that has the right level of humor and intelligence that I would want to see.”

Much like some fan-favorite action movies, Jesse Eisenberg’s character will be carrying all of the injuries he sustains throughout the film, because most of it all takes place in one night. At the time of our visit, they’re on step 12 of 21 in terms of his disheveled, bruised and beaten appearance, which we’re told will only get even gnarlier.

“He looks like the exorcist,” prosthetic makeup effects designer Michael Marino says of Eisenberg’s look by the end of the film. “He’s totally f***ing crusty. I don’t know what it’s going to be like, to be honest. I mean, it’s absolutely going to be realistic. We studied UFC fighters. They’re in a press conference, they’re purple and stitches all around. It’s going to kind of be like that.”

Max Landis wanders over while we’re admiring the practical effects and chimes in.

“It’s so funny, because every time I see how cool it looks, my brain goes in two directions, where I go that’s so gnarly, f***ing bad ass and then I think of some 15-year-old Kristen Stewart fan in the audience going…”

“That’s what you wanted,” Marino adds.

Having made his way past the front of the store, Eisenberg engages a foe in one of the many aisles, attacking him with an eye-liner pencil before shoving him into a large display of light bulbs.

“There are unconventional weapons,” Goggins tells us. “I think that’s one of the things, talking about the script, how fresh the action is. It’s like where have you seen somebody incapacitated with a tube of Colgate? Really. How do you pull that off? And he does it… I literally, I mean I read it the first time and I thought, oh man, this movie could make 150 million dollars, like really because once it kind of goes viral, and it speaks to this generation, people in their 20s and it’s because they’re kind of redefining their own reality and the way they consume product and how they would want to see themselves reflected in entertainment and I think Max just killed it.”

“I kill two people but with a gun,” Stewart says about the film’s macabre creativity. “So I guess that’s not very creative. That’s the least creative way you can kill someone actually.”

“Except probably just waiting around for them to die,” Eiesenberg adds.

“You’re right, but then I wouldn’t really be the one killing them,” Stewart responds. She takes a beat to think about it. “Actually that’s extremely creative. I’m just going to sit in here and…”

“Lock the doors,” he says.

Back on the set, Eisenberg hides from gunshots, from a thug that looks like Billy Idol, by ducking behind a drink cooler. He rolls it down the aisle to further his reach, it’s the kind of thing you dream about doing when you’re a kid bored in the grocery store.

The dry-wit that audiences have come to expect from Eisenberg is not lost on American Ultra. It’s infused in his own personality, couple that with the extreme nature of Landis’ script, Nourizadeh’s eye for direction, a regular who’s who in the supporting players and you’ve got what is likely to become a cult hit.

“Honestly, every day on set I can’t believe how lucky we were with Jesse,” Nourizadeh says. “I can’t see anyone else playing him. He was so perfect for the role.”

Like the scene’s grocery store setting, the ingredients for a classic are all here, and perhaps like Eisenberg and Stewart’s characters it will come out fully baked.

American Ultra will open in theaters on August 21.

HitFix : Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg are a couple in love — and possibly death.

I’m on the set of “American Ultra,” the Max Landis-scripted, Nima Nourizadeh-directed comedic action film that stars Stewart and Eisenberg as Phoebe and Mike, a slacker couple being pursued by heavily-armed contract killers. The reason? Mike is in fact a highly-trained government agent (with amnesia!) who’s been marked as a “liability” and targeted for assassination.

We get to see some of the action go down on the film’s New Orleans set, a warehouse that’s been partially converted into a small-town grocery store. When we arrive they’re in the midst of shooting a fight scene that sees Mike engaging in brutal, bloody battle with a number of enemies through aisles labeled “Fresh Produce,” “Electronics,” “Chips” and “Cleaning Products.” In one corner of the warehouse, a giant green screen has been set up that in post will be replaced with the visual of a Humvee driven through the front of the store.

When we first arrive, Eisenberg — his face painted with cuts and bruises — is speaking into an intercom phone while crouched behind one of the checkstands at the front of the store.

“Hey Phoebe! I just wanted to say that I love you…” he begins. Around him, the ground is littered with soda cans and boxes of food. Overturned coolers, shattered glass. A smoke machine casts a hazy pall.

“Kill him! Kill him now!” someone yells. This is a cue for Eisenberg to switch from speaking directly to Phoebe to the killers holding her hostage.

“Give up! Just give up, give me my girlfriend and go home!” he yells.

Eisenberg concentrates intensely before each take. There is gunfire, lots of it. A shelf of candy next to the checkstand is blasted apart. Later, Eisenberg jumps up and hides behind a display. An assassin creeps up on him. Just as he rounds the corner, Eisenberg attacks him and throws him into a shelf. Grabs an eyeliner pencil. Stabs the assassin in the eye.

On the last take, Eisenberg gets carried away and pushes the actor/assassin a little too forcefully. He’s okay. The room bursts into laughter.

“American Ultra” is, in case you haven’t guessed from the above description or the previously-released trailer (embedded above), “American Ultra” is violent. Very violent. Not even Stewart’s porcelain complexion escapes unscathed.

“I punch Kristen Stewart in the face so I’m looking forward to her fan base seeing that,” co-star Topher Grace — playing a villain described by Landis as “a CIA yuppie Richard III” — when he stopped by to chat with us during a break from filming. “So I’ll never have any friends in America.”

Later we’re corralled into a back room to sit down for a Q&A with Stewart and Eisenberg, who reunited on this film after starring together in Greg Mottola’s sweet, underseen 2009 comedy “Adventureland.”

“I jumped at working with Jesse again,” says Stewart, reclining in a chair next to her co-star. “You know, we really had a good time on ‘Adventureland’ a couple of years ago. And I sort of declared we should definitely make a movie every five years, so just to be in keeping with that, [I] jumped on this one.”

The feeling is, in case you couldn’t guess, mutual.

“I couldn’t say enough about her,” Eisenberg gushes later. “She’s a phenomenal actress. I remember when we were working together [on ‘Adventureland’], she was 18 or 17 or something, and after like the first scene I just went over to the director and I said, ‘She’s really funny.’ And he’s like ‘Yeah, I know.’ I was like, ‘No, no she’s REALLY funny.’ She’s genuinely very funny…but she does it in a way that’s like, without drawing attention to herself being funny. […] She like is the least vain person you’ll meet. And she’s also like a very pretty woman, so it’s –”

“He’s really vain, all day long,” Stewart ribs. “Like Jesus, he’s in makeup so much longer than me, obviously.”

We all laugh. Eisenberg goes on.

“Anyway, she seems to like serve the story and the other actors before herself. It’s a wonderful quality. So it’s nice.”

“Likewise,” Stewart counters.

The lovefest isn’t a surprise. During the interview Stewart and Eisenberg come across as kindred souls. Both put out an energy that is at once laid-back and quietly anxious, and it’s a vibration they share in sideways glances and brief fits of giggling. There is an unspoken communication happening that the rest of us aren’t privy to.

As director Nourizadeh noted, Eisenberg’s attachment made snagging Stewart a relatively painless prospect: “She was an easy one to go out to,” he told us during dinner the evening prior. “I just sent her a text and I said, ‘Have you read that script yet?’ And she went, ‘The one with Jesse? Fuck yeah, dude, I’m in!’ Like, that was it. Literally, that was it.”

As scripted by Max Landis, the son of John who also wrote the sleeper 2012 found-footage/superhero mashup “Chronicle,” “American Ultra” is, in Stewart’s words, “a really, really original and strange” film — not a surprise when you meet Landis himself, an effusive, passionate presence who described the film this way during the previous night’s dinner:

“When I was writing ‘American Ultra,’ I was like what if there was like a Big Beach [Productions] movie, almost like ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ this incredibly sweet, intimate movie about a guy and his girlfriend, and then…suddenly this movie, this like big studio action movie shows up at this like…sweet, romantic movie’s door, and goes, ‘This is an action movie! Oh, shit!’ And the movie goes, ‘No. I refuse to let this become an action movie.’ And then more and more, as the action movie infiltrates the Big Beach movie, instead of it being like ‘From Dusk Till Dawn,’ where it’s one movie and it becomes another, the indie, romantic, sad dramedy about this relationship refuses to end and goes, ‘No, fuck you! This will exist alongside the action movie.’…What’s funny is, I think ultimately the human story in ‘American Ultra’ overpowers [the action movie].”

It’s that tonal disconnect that provides the basis for much of the film’s humor, and as a way of further highlighting that disconnect Stewart and Eisenberg felt it was important to keep their characters looking a little…mangy.

“I wanted to wear longer hair and a wig, just cause the character is somebody who — well, a few reasons,” says Eisenberg. “You know, the character is somebody who would not have gotten a haircut in several years. He is somebody who has kind of just immersed himself in nothing and his own laziness. And enjoying his own laziness. So I thought he would not have gotten a haircut, he wouldn’t kind of groom himself in any kind of consistent way. And it gives it a better turn for when he has to defend himself. This is a guy who couldn’t be less prepared to do this.”

Echoed Stewart: “I look like I also dyed my hair maybe a year ago, haven’t maintained it, my interests are fairly, you know flippant. We’re very directionless, we don’t really have — you know, it’s like, there’s nothing very defining about either of our looks. Everything is very haphazard and comfortable and practical. And we’re just like stoners, essentially.”

For Stewart, the character of Phoebe also didn’t present much of a stretch from her real-life personality. The challenge for her was in navigating the film’s offbeat tone.

“Phoebe’s a very sort of straightforward and sweet, fairly unassuming girl. It’s definitely nothing outside of — I didn’t have to bring any quirks to her, I didn’t have to bring any certain things that make her very much different from myself,” she explains. “I think it was just about immersing myself in this extremely surreal and weird, heightened, unique [world]…The difficulty for me has been about like retaining her truths while still not revealing certain plot points that I’m not supposed to in the beginning, and then making sure that it’s consistent and emotional and also funny. …And so to like balance that has been the difficulty. I am sort of essentially playing myself, if I was living in this –”

“Strange situation,” Eisenberg interjects.

“Yeah, exactly,” she says.

Speaking of the tonal balancing act required for the film, Stewart in particular made a point of protecting the human element at the center of the story when she felt that the script’s moments of black humor betrayed Max and Phoebe’s relationship.

“…reading the script there have been jokes that I love that really just like make me laugh genuinely, and then you get to set and you’re like, ‘We can’t do that.’ It’s traipsing all over what we’ve built,” Stewart says. “And then some things you get there and it’s like, I didn’t think this was gonna be funny, I thought this was gonna have to be played completely straight. But the ridiculousness of the situation is too much to ignore, and so one of our characters can say something silly and funny.”

So will “American Ultra” reveal untold comic depths to the famously serious actress? It’s worth noting that Stewart seemed genuinely humbled — embarrassed, even — when Eisenberg suggested that she’s funnier than the public gives her credit for. Still, while she didn’t exactly embrace the description, she did have this to say for “American Ultra” itself: “I think the movie’s gonna be hilarious. I laugh every day. Even when we’re about to lose our lives.”

“American Ultra” is slated for release on August 21.

Screenrant.com : “What if Jason Bourne had been a stoner?” That’s the (absurd) question at the heart of American Ultra, the upcoming film starring Jesse Eisenberg (Batman V Superman) as Mike Howell, a typical stoner slacker convenience store clerk, who suddenly finds himself the target of a CIA op to erase highly-trained sleeper agents. Turns out Mike is one of those agents – a surprise to him, as much as anybody. When his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) gets caught up in the crossfire, Mike decides it’s time to push through the haze and save the day.

Last summer, Screen Rant was included in a handful of online journalists that were invited to the New Orleans set of American Ultra (a title that references the famous CIA “MKUltra” program). There, we got to dine and chat with director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and writer Max Landis (Chronicle), as well as touring the set on a day where a very physical (and deafening) action sequence was being shot.

*THE SET VISIT: DEATH & DESTRUCTION AT WALMART*

We arrived on set on day 25 of 41 in the production schedule. The first thing we discovered upon pulling up to the set was that… I had my shirt on inside out. Once we worked that out with our on-set liaison, we were shown inside an unassuming door within a large strip mall. The interior of the space had been converted into a makeshift super store, one that not-so coincidentally resembled Walmart.

Production designer Richard Bridgland and his team were thorough about recreating the look an feel of a real superstore, from the fonts and colors of the signs hanging over to aisles, to the good and products that had been meticulously arranged on the shelves in perfect mimicry of a typical Walmart setup. (The sole exception being a stuffed animal monkey, which the crew loved to stash in various places to mess with the director. Another fun fact: they rented the food and products from a closing grocery store and planned to return most of it after filming.)

*THE SCENE* (WARNING – MILD PLOT SPOILERS)

The sequence spent the day watching seemingly takes place near the end of the film. In it, Mike (Eisenberg) has learned that the superstore is actually a CIA stronghold, where his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) is being held as bait by CIA badman Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) in order to lure Mike in. Waiting within the store aisles are a team of brutal mercenaries looking to take Mike down, so the timid stoner is forced into a blitzkrieg move, driving a big yellow Hummer through the store front (we didn’t get to see that moment, unfortunately).

At the start of the scene we witnessed, Mike takes cover behind a checkout counter and uses the PA system to deliver a heartfelt stoner speech to Phoebe and her captors, and after that, it’s a violent battle through the store aisles as Mike (in a aloha shirt, no less) has to dispatch his attackers with whatever products he can find on the shelves – including an eyeliner pen.

*THE ACTION*

Besides of the deafening sounds of blank-filled pistols being fired off all day within the echo-friendly space of a large warehouse, the most memorable thing about this day of filming on American Ultra was seeing Jesse Eisenberg step into an action movie role and run through (what we were told is) the film’s most complicated action set piece.

Indeed, the most absurd thing about American Ultra probably won’t be the “Stoner Bourne” premise, but rather the notion of Jesse Eisenberg, the action star. But the Social Network actor certainly pulled it off on set, sporting a lean muscle physique and a wig of long stoner locks (at the time hiding his Lex Luthor baldness).

Here’s what Eisenberg and co-star Kristen Stewart had to say to us, about tackling the action in the film:

Jesse Eisenberg: Oh, yeah. We’ve been training for a while… I started a few months ago because my character has to be kinda trained but doesn’t remember that he was trained. So it comes to him instinctively… I was in Michigan working last month, so they hired these great guys. Every day off I had was working with them. They were teaching like Southeast Asian style fighting.

Kristen Stewart: We had spoken to Max a bit. I think the basic idea before it was actually a real thing was that if you were take the most unlikely people, like two dinky little stoner kids, Jesse Eisenberg and me, like it’s just sort of like…and then suddenly see them throw into this really high-speed, and intense, and sort of like disarmingly realistic action movie, it’s funny. It doesn’t feel familiar. It’s just a little bit shocking.

To be fair, Eisenberg, Stewart (and the film as a whole) got some of the best instruction and guidance available when it comes to action sequencing: Robert Alonzo, who has been involved with a lot of the biggest blockbuster franchises of the last few years, including Marvel’s Iron Man and Avengers 2, Transformers 3, Star Trek and Tom Cruise projects like Oblivion and Mission: Impossible 4.

Alonzo shared the following with us, in terms of creating grounded and believable action for American Ultra.

Robert Alonzo: The pitch when it came to the action was to try and follow the script, and to do really gritty choreography, and have that choreography flow not just with physical movement, but with the camera, so that we give the feeling of a long continuous take that you don’t normally see in this type of action movie… Normally you do these things and you see quite a bit of cuts in this type of action, but what we’re doing here is trying to achieve a continuous flow to give the audience a feeling as if they’re there.

We’re giving away our secrets here, but we’ll be burying cuts with switch cams and foreground passes, but the flow will remain the same, so that’s the feeling that we’ll have for the entire sequence.

That style of action Alonzo describes should be familiar to fans of the genre: director Gareth Evans uses a similar technique to create the non-stop, hard-hitting action sequences of his milestone action franchise, The Raid. Fans should then, understandably, have high expectations about the level of action they’ll get in American Ultra; the other part of that equation is the script work, dialogue and comedy by writer Max Landis.

As one producer explained to us on set, there’s a good frame of reference for how American Ultra will mix its violent action with comedy and sharp banter – and that reference brings things right back to those earlier Tarantino comparisons:

I feel like it’s a little bit like ‘True Romance’, in that there’s like this love story that we buy, this unusual love story that we buy with these awkward, odd, you would think unlikeable characters that you love, and then like extreme sort of action and violence thrown in. so very different movies. At its core it’s this love story with these kooky characters and then it goes off into extreme action violence.

Director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis had a clear core focus when blending together the stoner comedy, romance story and action: characters first.

Nima: …Really, at the core, what makes this so different is the love story, the relationship… It’s Mike and Phoebe’s story. The action…and everything around it, all the other characters, it’s the action, the comedy…like all of this is not what the movie is really about. Those parts for me is what entertains you. you walk away from it feeling like it was an emotional ride.

Max: The action and the funny stuff is all organic from the main relationship. It’s not like ‘Pineapple Express’ where it’s like it’s a stoner comedy and then there’s a big shootout! Every action scene stems from something. It sort of goes like that.

In order to create that ‘extreme action violence’ for this superstore sequence in particular, the props team had to literally walk through local superstores (like Walmart), trying to imagine which of the products on the shelves could be used to kill a man – and how brutally it could be done. As we watched Jesse Eisenberg running through the scene over and over again, one prop certainly stood out: In a brutal hand-to-hand fight with a mercenary that takes place in the beauty supplies aisle, Mike (Eisenberg) snatches up an eyeliner pen and jams it into the mercenary’s eye, killing him.

As it turns out, selecting a particular brand of eyeliner that can kill a man, is no easy task:

Props Coordinator: I definitely went to a lot of stores, then looking around at different things… I took my time, ya know? And the eyeliner: actually I went into one of the beauty supply places, and I was losing my mind, and I said ‘I’m looking for an eyeliner that would puncture your brain if I put it through your eye.’ And the lady didn’t even blink! It’s New Orleans and we’ve been shooting a lot of movies here now, so she was like ‘Oh! Right over there!’

…Well we start messing around with it; get a whole bunch of them, tear them apart, use straws, use springs, things like that. Draw out the design, figure out how deep you want the puncture. Also talk to makeup effects to make sure it gets stained, that the amount that’s out of the skin or the appliance matches with their needs, then send it to a manufacturer or build it in house.

Interviewer: Please say there’s a video of you guys just stabbing each other over and over again with eyeliner.

Props coordinator: Oh there’s plenty of them. There are plenty of them [Laughter]

All in all, it seems that American Ultra is going to combine the brutal and grounded action of recent Bourne and Bond films with the tongue-in-cheek reality that writer Max Landis has created for this action/comedy blend. More so than something like Pineapple Express, American Ultra could mix its violence and laughs into a much finer lend. There’s nothing quite like seeing Jesse Eisenberg with mop hair and a ridiculous Hawaiian shirt, murdering dudes with lady products. If that’s not a sell for an end-of-summer movie, I don’t now what is.

American Ultra will be in theaters on on August 21st.

Written by Maud

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