After years of scriptwriting on the likes of Iron Man 3 and the Mission: Impossible franchise, Scots-born Drew Pearce has just directed his debut feature, Hotel Artemis. He talks to Alistair Harkness about the joy of not having to compromise
“I will sound horribly insincere by the end because my Scottish accent will have come back a teeny bit and then I will just be copying you,” booms Drew Pearce as we sit down on a blazing hot afternoon in Soho to chat about his new movie Hotel Artemis. The A-list screenwriter whose first produced movie credit was the $1.2 billion-grossing Iron Man 3 is referring to the fact that he’s originally from Bellshill. “Half my family are still in Glenrothes. My grandparents were in Bothwell. Both my parents are Scottish. I was there till I was about three,” he continues, “then we moved around. We went back a lot at first, until the grandparents started popping off.”
His dad, he says, started out as a folk singer but studied engineering and ended up in sales after a brief stint at Shape, the Nato HQ in Belgium (the acronym stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe). “It was slightly mysterious,” laughs Pearce, “then he moved into the less sinister-sounding world of pumps and nozzles. My mum is a primary school teacher and did that up until two years ago.” He catches himself inadvertently shortening the vowel sound of “years” and there’s a definite Scottish lilt to his otherwise nondescript southern accent. “See? It’s coming back already. Thankfully it hasn’t happened with an American accent yet, even though I’ve been there eight years.”
Pearce started spending a lot of time in Hollywood around 2009 when he oversaw the American adaptation of his cult superhero-themed British sitcom No Heroics. The original six-part show revolved around a group of foul-mouthed superheroes sitting in a pub complaining about the unglamorous side of having superpowers. It aired on ITV2 in 2008 and caught the eye of ABC network executives looking for another UK show that could be successfully transposed, like The Office, to America. It was, says Pearce, a disaster.
“No Heroics on ITV2 was many things but family friendly was not one of them and I found out at the end of the pilot process that they only made it to take it off the table so [rival network] Fox wouldn’t make it. They spent three million dollars on it! I said to them, ‘The next time you want to burn three million dollars, let’s make a pilot for one million and split the rest.’”
Luckily No Heroics also caught the eye of Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, who hired him to adapt a comic book called Runaways. When that was shelved, he hired him to write Iron Man 3 a week before Shane Black signed on to direct it and co-write it. Was it intimidating suddenly working with someone whose movies he’d presumably grown up on?
“It was funny. He and I met and there was something of a stand-off that only he could win, because he’s Shane Black and he’s the director as well. I had this trial week where I essentially never left Shane’s house and by the end of the week we really loved working with each other. He stood up in this Marvel meeting and said, in his deep Shane Black brogue, ‘I find Drew Pearce to be an excellent gentleman and a very fine writer; I would be very happy to co-write this movie with him.’ Which is one of the best days of my life.”
His subsequent clout as a screenwriter – he also co-wrote Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and has done uncredited rewrites on numerous blockbusters – enabled him to get his own directorial debut off the ground. A futuristic action thriller set in a private hospital for criminals, Hotel Artemis stars Jodie Foster as the ageing nurse who runs the eponymous establishment, which over the course of one night sees various arms dealers, bank robbers, assassins, cops and one criminal kingpin (played by Jeff Goldblum) check in for medical treatment and largely fail to abide by the main rule: no killing the other patients.
It’s a surprisingly lean, bloody and pleasingly idiosyncratic film, a deliberate throwback to the gnarly B-movies of John Carpenter and Walter Hill, the sort of film Pearce might once have taped off BBC 2’s cult film showcase Moviedrome. “I think on some level I was trying to get there on this movie. I’ve worked on a lot of big movies as a screenwriter and you try and make them great, but what they have to be at a base level is OK for everyone. There are some things you can’t take risks on. With this, the whole idea was to make one person’s favourite movie.”
One of the risks he did take was casting Foster and encouraging her to be funny. “She was so nervous about that,” he says, which is quite sweet considering it’s Jodie Foster, who can do anything. Watch her in Hotel Artemis, though, and it’s easy to see traces of the goofy kid that would sometimes emerge when she was a child actor. “Yeah, you’re right, she was funny then,” nods Pearce, who amplifies her oddness by pairing her up with an orderly played by former wrestler turned Guardians of the Galaxy star Dave Batista. “He was intimidated because she’s two-time Oscar-winner Jodie Foster, but she just mothered him,” says Pearce.
Pearce shot Hotel Artemis independently, so is as surprised as anyone that it’s now being released as a summer movie. That makes it a rare genre outlier in a blockbuster landscape populated with massive franchises – massive franchises that he also sometimes writes of course. “My ideal is to make smaller, more idiosyncratic movies like Hotel Artemis as a writer/director, but keep writing the giant movies if they’ll let me,” he says.
Sounds like the best of both worlds. “Ha! There’s nothing that makes you miss just being the writer on a giant movie than directing an indie movie and vice versa. Hopefully I can keep both going.”
Hotel Artemis is released on 20 July