It’s odd for a director to begin an interview about their new film – a remake – by declaring they have no interest in remakes. Yet for Neil Burger, that was his initial reaction to bringing The Intouchables back to the big screen – only for him to be convinced otherwise. Speaking to us at Hot Corn, Burger explains what it was about this story and project that enticed him back in and compelled him to retell this fantastic tale. He speaks about the film’s pertinence, and how he went about stamping his own mark onto proceedings. He also speaks about Kevin Hart’s casting, and why he sceptical at first, and whether he allowed the comic actor any room to improvise, despite being in surprisingly a dramatic role.
This was a story not told too long ago – but what was it about this tale that appealed to you as a filmmaker?
Telling the story again and making a remake does not appeal to me as a filmmaker in the least, actually. It was a really successful and international movie, and my first inclination was to just turn the other way, it’s been made, it’s been done. It came to me in 2015 and I passed on it, but then a year later they came back to me again and the script was substantially better and more importantly it was speaking to something that I felt had been happening culturally, certainly in the United States, and all over the world, in a sense that there was this growing divide between people, people couldn’t speak to each other, or really see each other, so I was thinking about how we ever solve this, how do we ever close that gap between people and find a common ground, and I actually thought that this script spoke to that in a very small way, and in a very personal way, but also in a very potent way. It’s a movie that is emotionally about small acts of respect and compassion and how we can find connection and bridge the gap between our differences, again through those small acts of respect and compassion. I thought that was a very powerful message and I’m not interested in making movies that have messages per se, but that is quite frankly what the movie speaks to and I like that and I felt it was an important to make, and to make now, and I knew I had to do it. So I suddenly wanted to do it very badly, and it didn’t matter any more that there had been a first movie, or how that movie had done, I didn’t care about any of that any more, I just needed to make this movie.
Though they do feel different, at the same time, when you have a movie like the original, which triumphed in tone and atmosphere, and the score and everything, when you come on board you want to make it your own and stamp your own authority on proceedings, but I guess you don’t want to move too far away from what made the first film work so well?
I think ultimately both movies are made about the experiences of these two men, two very real men. In fact we went back to the book written to flesh it out a little bit more and maybe even go a little bit deeper into their experiences and their back stories and their histories. We wanted to put more of that into the movie. Their story is their story and their connection is true, so some of it is always going to be the same because it is a true story. Other things we wanted to elevate and other things we dropped out. For me the first movie is told in a very kind of handheld, classic and typical independent way, which you often see in a lot of French movies. I decided I wasn’t going to do it that way, I was going to do it in a more sort of choreographed way if you will, in a more composed way, and in potentially a more dynamic way, to speak to where the characters were in the moment, with more dynamic camera movement and with a more aggressive camera if you will. Again, not just to do it, but to highlight where we were in any moment in the story. We wanted to find emotions and go deeper into the emotions, in a more powerful, visual way.
It’s so easy to have a preconception of what the movie might be like when you see Kevin Hart is cast in this – but it’s a more dramatically inclined turn for him. So what was it about him that made you think he was right for this part, because this is a departure for him and in turn represented a little bit of a risk?
Yeah, well for me I wasn’t so sure actually. Initially when they told me that Kevin might be doing it, or was interested in doing it, I knew his work and he’s very funny, but I didn’t want it to become a broad comedy, that wasn’t what it was and what it needed to be, and I didn’t know if Kevin really had those dramatic chops to do it. But I sat with Kevin and worked with him quite a bit and he convinced me and I really saw that he could do it, and that he wanted to do it. He wanted to play a real human being and I thought he really showed that he’s got the ability to play a dramatic character and a real human being, and I think he’ll be a revelation actually.
Did you allow Kevin any room for improvisation? He’s so naturally funny, did he have any freedom to implement his own jokes into the film?
No there was no improvisation at all. He stuck completely to the script, and he wanted to do that. He had no inclination to make something sillier, or even just to add his own thing, because what he saw in the script was something that, quite frankly, is a little different from the original script, was tightly structured and tightly woven story that has real emotional pay-off, because they’re set-up so well. So every word and every gesture is very important that they get laid in and performed and shown at a particular level, and at a particular time in the story so they accumulate and add up to something larger, be that emotionally or comedically or narratively or whatever, and he understood that completely. So it was very important to stay very close to the script. I will say there are actually two lines that are improvised in the movie and both of them are said by Bryan Cranston.
When comparing to the original, part of the story is other people’s perceptions of the two protagonists. Omar Sy is really tall, he has a real presence and in the film they play up to that physicality, they make him quite intimidating. Kevin Hart, however, is quite shot. Do you think that changes anything about the dynamic? Because in the French film that’s an important, albeit subtle, element of their relationship and image. So while losing that physicality, what do you think is gained from having the character have a different stature?
You’re right about that. Kevin has a physical presence in a different kind of way, and not just because he’s shorter than Omar Sy, but he brings a different physicality to it. The real guy its based on is also very short, and this is actually something we looked at in the book and realised it was perfect – because he’s a smaller character it means that everything he did was by sheer force of his personality. He had to become a more clever conman and be more funnier, and use all of the aspects of his personality to get what he wanted. Whether in his earlier criminal life or in this new world where he’s a fish out of water in this rich person’s house and how we was going to conduct himself and how we was going to get what he wanted, and how he was going to get respect. That’s the most important thing. Omar Sy is a big guy so you gotta respect him. Whereas with Kevin Hart’s character in this, we don’t play him as a smaller person in the movie, we don’t make those kind of jokes or even feature that, but he is having to work really hard to earn his respect the way he deserves, again by sheer force of his personality, by his words and by his attitude.
So finally, what’s next for you? Have you got any other projects lined up?
I do, I have a couple of things, though I’m not sure which one is going to hit first. All of the movies I’ve done have been very different from each other, and these two couldn’t be more different. One is based on the memoir of a woman helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, a search and rescue pilot who did some amazing things in the field, then came back and sued the Department of Defence to overturn the policy that prevents women from being on the front line, which she’d already been on. And she won. So she’s really an amazing person. The other movie I’m working on couldn’t be more different from that, and I can’t really tell you specifically what it’s about because it’s sort of under wraps, but I can tell you that it takes place in space. It’s not really science-fiction, but it does take place there.