Director's Chair: Patrick Hughes - The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard
Issue: July/August 2021

Director's Chair: Patrick Hughes - The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard

Aussie director Patrick Hughes’ 2017 movie The Hitman’s Bodyguard starred Ryan Reynolds as bodyguard Michael Bryce and Samuel L. Jackson as hitman Darius Kincaid in a gleefully over-the-top action film that grossed close to $200 million. Now the world’s most lethal odd couple is back in the sequel, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, on another life-threatening mission. 

Still unlicensed and under scrutiny, Bryce is forced back into action by Darius’s even more volatile wife, the infamous international con artist Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek). As Bryce is driven over the edge by his two most dangerous clients, the trio get in over their heads in a global plot and soon find that they are all that stand between Europe and a vengeful and powerful madman (Antonio Banderas). Joining in the gonzo action and deadly mayhem are Morgan Freeman and Frank Grillo. The result? An ultra-violent road trip that involves some of Europe’s most photogenic locations — along with pesky problems for Bryce, including detonating briefcases, Italian mobsters, Russian gangsters, car chases, bar brawls, explosions, shootouts, a little light torture and overall pandemonium. 

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, I spoke with Hughes — whose credits include The Expendables 3 and Red Hill, and commercials for such top brands as Xbox, BMW, Honda, Mercedes, Vodafone and Toyota — about the challenges of making and posting the film.

Successful sequels to big hits are notoriously tricky to pull off. What sort of film did you set out to make?

“The original script for the first one was basically a straight action film, and when I came on board, I told Ryan it should really be a comedy, as it was so ludicrous — even just the title, so we re-engineered the script. And the way it should start is, even if you’re the best, coolest bodyguard in the world, it doesn’t help when your #1 client has his head blown off in front of you in the first minute. Now you’re ‘not’ the world’s best bodyguard, and that gave the whole film its comedy legs that we just ran with. And so for this, we upped the action and level of crazy, with Salma’s character more front and center as a crazy mother figure, and Jackson plays this disgruntled father figure, and that’s essentially the family.”

On these kinds of films you have to integrate post and all the VFX from Day 1, so I assume you did a ton of storyboarding and previs?

“Absolutely, especially for all the action stuff. I have a previs artist who travels with me, as it’s a process where I really have to work out all the mechanics of it, and it starts with toy boats and cars on a huge map on a table, so you can plan out all the interactions and who’s hitting who and the dynamics of a chase. Then we move all that into previs and start with an overview, and it’s boring to watch, but there’s so many crew involved and so many moving parts, and we were shooting over four countries, so I need to have that grade-scale overview of it all. It’s not about the shot. It’s about what is actually happening in this scene. It’s a laborious, long process, but now we have a QuickTime, which keeps everyone updated and which gives me a geographical awareness of it, and that all department heads are on the same page. Then we break it down as a shot list: What are the key images we need? Where do the VFX shots go? And often that comes down to storyboarding.”

Talk about the look you and your DP Terry Stacey went for. 

“We talked a lot about how, when we re-introduce Bryce, he’s in therapy in London in a bland office, and then there’s a big transition with his sabbatical, where’s he off to Italy and Capri, and all the vivid colors there and the gorgeous locations, and all that informed the wardrobe and the palette. We shot on the Alexa Mini with anamorphic lenses.”
How tough was the shoot?

“It was grueling, a marathon and extremely exhausting — mentally, physically, emotionally. We filmed in the UK, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, and at Millennium’s Nu Boyana studios in Sofia, Bulgaria, so you’re constantly moving this army around and dealing with tons of logistics and schedules.”

Tell us about post. Do you like post?

“I love it and I always look forward to post so much, especially when you hit the last two weeks of the shoot. I always need a break after the shoot, but I can’t wait to start post. And there were a lot of the same post guys from the first film, so that was great, as you already have relationships.”

Where did you do it all? Was it remote because of COVID? 

“It was like the shoot — a ton of locations. Most of post — the editing, all the sound — was done in London, and we also did a remote edit at one point, as I was in lockdown in Melbourne because of COVID, and we did the director’s cut there. It actually got quite problematic in terms of the grade when the pandemic kicked in right at the tail end of post, and the grade was being done at Nu Boyana in London with colorist Vanessa Taylor, and I was attending the sessions remotely in Melbourne. It was the same for the mix in London. They uploaded the stems and I did remote sessions at a theater in Melbourne. It’s not ideal, but we made it work.”

You had two editors: Jack Hutchings and Michael Duthie. How did you all work together, and what were the main editing challenges?

“Jack and I go way back. He cut a lot of commercials for me, and he’s a great editor. We had Jack and his edit team assistants follow us around on all the locations with the Avid, so I was able to duck in there and check on things at night. That’s so important, especially with big action scenes, which I feel you need to piece together as you’re shooting them, as you have 1st and 2nd unit coverage, and often there’s a lot of crossover. So having the editors right there on standby means you can go, ‘We’re missing a piece that no one thought of.’ That’s a really helpful part of the process. But towards the end, the workload was so great I brought in Michael to help out. It was a real juggling act because of the pandemic. These action films are so complex, with so many moving pieces, and for me the real joy of putting them together is in the edit. And then you’re dealing with all the comedy, and our original assembly was over three-and-a-half hours — that’s how much improv work we had. So one big challenge was, ‘What jokes do we keep? Which ones do we kill?’
“There were so many great lines, but you just can’t keep them all. And of course, you’re dealing with pacing and tone, and we wanted to make a really entertaining film that’s a hoot, a romp — big, loud and obnoxious! (Laughs). The danger is letting it get too farcical, too over-the-top, and the film’s very self-aware, so it was a big balancing act.”

There are a ton of VFX. Who did them and what was entailed?  

“We used several vendors, including Nu Boyana, Worldwide FX, Filmgate, all in Bulgaria. The most difficult VFX sequences are the ones where you’re dealing with multiple eyelines, and it gets confusing and you can lose geography very quickly. For instance, there was a big car chase sequence that starts in the city and ends up in the mountains that involved multiple vehicles and choppers and motorbikes and other elements, and you have to break it all down very carefully, especially as none of the locations were really connected. So how do you make it look seamless? 

“Then we also had a big 400-foot wall of fire, and the yacht sequence and a speedboat chase with jet skis and explosions, and that took days to shoot and get right, and then you’re adding all the VFX shots, and again, trying to make the whole thing look seamless. As well as doing a lot of the VFX for us, Nu Boyana is a big studio where I also shot a bunch of pick-ups, such as a sequence we had no time to shoot in principal photography, which didn’t need any actors. And they have very talented stunt teams, so I shot a lot of those stunt scenes and some car chase stuff. They also have a big water tank we needed for all the underwater scenes.”

I heard you’re a big music fan? Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you?

“I am a huge music fan and an avid collector of vinyl records, and when I’m developing the script and then through prep and shooting, I’m always thinking about the music. I also like to play stuff on the set for the actors to give them the vibe and a taste of what each specific needle drop is going to be. And then in the edit and post it’s a matter of swapping out some of the needle drops and mixing in the great score that Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson wrote for the movie, and then finding exactly the right balance between the two to drive the action scenes. 

“It’s also about the comedy, and using the score and needle drops to enhance all that. I think my favorite scene is the one with Bryce on the swing, and I asked Atli to score it just like a daytime TV movie — schmaltzy and cheesy, and he did a beautiful job. Then Salma arrives and ruins it all, and the music just dies out, so we had a lot of fun working on the score. And I had a great sound team, including supervising sound editor Dominic Gibbs, and we did most of that at Twickenham Studios, London.”

Looking back, how do you feel about doing post remotely?

“Everyone had to adapt, and the technology’s certainly there now to let you work that way. I love that I can log onto my edit and check it out remotely. That’s a game-changer. But I also found working remotely a bit frustrating in other ways, as I love the team spirit of being in the room with the sound mixers and so on, and you lose all that. I just pitched a film idea a few days ago on a Zoom call, and I miss being able to act it out and they get to see who I am and my personality. Yes, you can do post remotely, but it also loses something that way.”