Filmmaking: <I>Hotel Artemis</I> director Drew Pearce
Issue: June 1, 2018

Filmmaking: Hotel Artemis director Drew Pearce

Drew Pearce makes his directorial debut with Hotel Artemis, a new film set in Los Angeles in 2028, where riots have broken out due to water shortages. Jodie Foster stars as a nurse, who runs a secret, members-only emergency room within once luxurious art deco hotel, where criminals can be treated without the alerting of authorities. Dave Bautista plays her loyal assistant, Everest.

The criminals prefer to remain anonymous and are therefor referred to by the theme of the suite they are staying in: Sofia Boutella plays hit-woman Nice; Sterling K. Brown’s Waikiki character is recovering from a failed bank heist; and Charlie Day, as Acapulco, is nearing discharge yet still looking for respect from his fellow patients. Jeff Goldblum plays LA kingpin, Niagra, who has a stake in the hotel. 

Post caught a screening prior to the film’s June 8th release. Here, director Drew Pearce talks about the 33-day production, the film’s visual effects demands and how he was able to streamline post production by keeping the process under one roof.

This being your first feature as a director, did it help that you were also the writer?

“It was definitely the best version for me. I have been offered a few studio gigs in past, particularly after All Hail the King — the short for Marvel. The all had a number 3 or 4 or 5 at the end of them and I definitely wasn’t the first person to be asked, but there were a couple that were definitely exciting. But I realized at the time, to commit three years to a project, I really wanted it to be worth it. I wanted to have as much of me in it as possible. 

“I looked at all my favorite filmmakers, and none of them made a big studio film as their first movie. They all made something smaller — something covered in their own fingerprints, and also, something a bit more esoteric and individual. And I think we are missing that in the world wright now.

“All the movies I love growing up from the ‘70s and ‘80s weren’t so much the straight lines that we see everywhere else now. Some of the idiosyncrasies of those movies — some of the bumps — for me, ended up being the scenes that stuck with me for the longest…It was definitely a sense when it came to write Artemis and make it, that I’d rather make it on a much lower budget and make it my way, for good or for bad.”

(L-R) Director Drew Pearce, on-set, with actor Sterling K. Brown

How did you select your cinematographer?

“Finances are the gift and curse, but when you are the writer/director, it behooves you to use that ‘judo logic’ — use your weakness as your strength. And also, you have a slightly better and quicker ability to adapt some of the financial issues and turn them into a positive, frankly.

“Chung (-hoon Chung) was my cinematographer and generally was a risky choice as far as the financiers and producers were concerned. I am first-time director and English isn’t his first language, and that seemed dangerous. I met with ton of DPs because I was lucky enough to have lots of interest in it, and about a third of the way through the process I realized, half the references I was showing people were actually from Chung’s movies, and maybe I should speak to him instead? His work is so deep and dark and beautiful. And he was the most fun person you would ever meet. And though as he says his English wouldn’t allow him to speak about American politics, he does speak ‘cinema’ and nothing could be truer. 

“He and I spoke about shooting on film, and obviously as a first-time director, you’ve got less leverage in a production that you might normally have, so we decided to shoot digitally. 

“Chung has been shooting for 30 years, so on one side, it would have been lovely, particularly with the slightly retro/futurist feel of the movie, to do that. But I have literally never shot with film. I am of the generation that has never really had the chance to shoot with film. And also, Chung has shot so much great stuff digitally, including The Handmaiden, so it’s not like we didn’t feel comfortable with it.

“What is brilliant about Chung is, he sets the tabs on-set for what he’s looking for with the LUTs, so what we sent to Light Iron is finished picture essentially.”

What about the camera format?

“It was Alexa — it was Arri. We were going to mix it up a little, but in the end, we didn’t need to.”

Talk about the shoot? It spanned 33 days?

“I knew that I wanted that sumptuous Asian-influenced lighting. Chung is actually one of the fastest, lightest shooters that I have ever seen. And for a man who is inextricable linked with director (Chan-wook) Park, who is a person who uses long tracking shots and Steadicam, Chung is actually one of the best hand-held operators I have ever worked with — to the degree I ended up putting more hand-held into the movie than I had planned up front because he is a great DoP. We had a brilliant 1st camera with Jodie, and Chung would often take ‘B camera.’ The shots he would find, because he has such a great eye, would be value added every single time. Some of my favorite shots in the movie are Chung’s hand-held grabs.”

How often were you looking at footage?

“I watched the dailies every night because I am a detail freak and masochist (laughs). I was shooting so fast on 33 days and we had such a limited budget. For example, the Artemis set, which is five bedrooms, a corridor, and game room and a bar, was actually one corridor, two bedrooms and one slightly bigger room. Every three days we had to change the backdrop, repaint the room, so I needed to know I had everything in each build because I would never have it back again.”

You had two editors cutting on the film. How did that work?

“It was a pretty simple thing. Paul Zucker came on and worked through production. He is really great and a fast editor, particularly at the assembly. And I worked with him throughout the director’s cut. But you get to a point where you need fresh ideas, and I adored the 1st assistant and his work — Gardner Gould. And he was the 1st editor on Don’t Breathe, which, even though it’s not the same kind of movie as Artemis, it’s really beautifully tense throughout. So Gardner stepped up and I had the best editing experience of my life! Even though I have not directed much, I have been in the edit as a producer for 20 years. My secret job is a script editor equivalent in the edit bay. Gardner is a superstar of the future. I think the work he did was extraordinary.”

Where was the post taking place?

“Certainly, on a movie of our size, nobody gets to use a ‘real’ facility anymore. We were never going to be down in Lantana. I knew we were going to be very VFX heavy, but didn’t really have the budget to handled that. I worked very closely with everyone in post production on the Marvel side, and know how many vendors you need to provide the 1500 (shots). We had 480 shots in the end. I knew that if I cut a deal with separate vendors, I would never hit that. And even if I did, by necessity, we’d get to three renders in and throw our hands up and say, ‘We cannot afford to give you anything else! That’s what you’ve got!’

“I wanted to keep it in Los Angeles, partly because I wanted it to feel like a Los Angeles movie and partly for the tax credit. I ended up speaking with Sean Cushing at Cantina (Creative) and put forward this idea of using one VFX house in the same way I would use a production department in the other aspects of the movie. So we propose that to Cantina, and Cantina came in on that and essentially became a production department. We took the floor underneath them in their building on Wilshire/LaBrea…which fit the tone of Artemis. We set up a suite downstairs and it was a truly fulfilling experience. 

“I knew every artist by name, and what their skillsets were. It was very useful to be able to look at the finances. Don’t get me wrong, we still stretched the shit out of it, but I knew that if I kept pushing on a blood effect for example, I was keeping that artist away from the other thing that she was great at...It helped me take responsibility as a director in the same way you would in the shoot. 

“As long as I got a take that I believe the audience would see as perfect or near perfect, then I would have to move on because that was simply the timeline that I was on. The same thing applied to VFX.”

What were the editors using?

“A ton of Premiere, and getting the edit machinery to speak to the VFX machinery is always an interesting thing. When it’s one company and you are working with small personnel in the editorial team, you are putting a ton of pressure on the assistants to run the pipeline as well…I got very lucky. Underneath Gardner were a couple of great people.” 

Talk about the VFX? There are a lot of digital screen and interfaces, but what else might the audience be missing? 

“I had a two-pronged attack on the exteriors. I knew we were going to need augmentation of the exteriors, because we are in the middle of a riot in 2028, but I also knew I wanted to shoot in real Los Angeles on real rooftops because I wanted to capture the light spill that is absolutely uniquely part of the fingerprint of Los Angeles. 

“I also had enough experience with big green screen work to know that if I built a roof on my budget and green screened all around it, than there would be shots that I would end up unsatisfied with because we simply didn’t have the resources and time to get them to the finish that I needed them to be.”

So you shot on a real LA rooftop?

“We were shooting in the roof of the real Rosslyn Hotel and it has giant signage, but it doesn’t read ‘Hotel Roslyn,’ so I couldn’t frame it out. There is extensive 3D build work in there as well. My whole thing with VFX — and Cantina was on the same page — my preference is that they disappear. The less VFX that you think is in the movie, the happier I am. Working with great VFX artists who understand that, I think, is the most selfless, artistic approach to VFX.”

As both writer and director, did the film turn out the way you had initially envisioned it?

“There are so many ways in which a movie changes when you are making it, that of course, it doesn’t end up being quite the thing that you expected it to be, and nor should it. I think one of the things that’s most important, particularly if you are a writer/director and have this thing in your brain in preproduction, is to listen to the movie while you are shooting it, and particularly in the edit — to really take a step back and listen to the film.

“There is a phrase in the movie that Waikiki, Sterling K. Brown's character uses: ‘Work with what you’ve got, not what you hoped for.’ And I think it’s the best mantra for post production as well.”