Aside from the commercial reasons for making a sequel to “Johnny English,” director Oliver Parker saw an opportunity to make a film that was different in tone from the first. He thought English was a fascinating character and wanted to take the opportunity to put him in a more real world and more exciting situations that reflected how the Bourne and the new Bond movies had changed the look of the spy genre. Along with screenwriter Hamish McColl and star Rowan Atkinson, he set out to make the sequel more contemporary with a more realistic narrative upon which to hang the jokes.
MoviesOnline sat down with Parker at a small press conference in Los Angeles to talk about the sequel and what it was like moving back and forth between the big action and smaller, more character-based sequences. He told us how he used the Hong Kong and Switzerland locations to give the film a broader cinematic canvas and cast actors whose performances underscored the Bond-inspired tone of the film. He also described the challenges of directing an actor who has a perfectionist approach to comedy and compared Rowan’s unique style of comedy to his own ideas of what’s funny.
Q: In the beginning, you were thinking about making this more like a Jason Bourne rather than a James Bond movie. Can you talk a little about that and when did you finally decide let’s just go with a spoof of Bond?
OP: I’m not sure we ever really decided let’s just go for Bond. I think in some senses the more and more we did it we just went for Johnny English. Bond was always there. I think it’s in our grain really. I suppose the Bond reference compared to the first film is perhaps a little more contemporary in style and some of the action sequences have a little bit more of that Greengrass feel I would say. But, of course, his character is much more connected I suppose to a classic English spy.
Q: Rowan mentioned that he’s never really satisfied with a scene and believes it can always be bigger and funnier. How do you know when you’ve got what you want and how do you work with your actor? What’s your directing style?
OP: It’s very tricky to know when to stop. I think there are definitely moments where you feel that it’s the heart of a scene. You start, when you’re working on a script, you’re looking for a handle on it, and we worked very closely on the script – Hamish McColl, Rowan and I. You’re just looking for the thing that makes this scene sort of imperative, why you have to know what changes by the end of the scene so you’re really looking to find the essence of it. And then, when you’re shooting it, Rowan has an extreme particular almost perfectionist approach to his comedy. He has quite a clear idea of where it wants to go for himself. And then, if you’re making the scene as a director, you’re looking yourself for alternatives, and maybe once you’ve got to that place that’s very much in his head, you’re looking for alternatives to see if you can take it further in some places. I don’t think you ever really know. Sometimes you do absolutely know there’s something there. You feel it in your bones. I actually literally feel it on my skin sometimes. I do get goosebumps. There are times when you go oh God, that works that moment! But you find you take it apart again. There are certain scenes in the edit you’re playing with it and certain scenes don’t put back together the way you imagined. Sometimes they’re better and sometimes they don’t have that thing, so it’s never foolproof. But you certainly get an idea that here we’ve got enough and we’ve got to move on because you’re always against time and money there. Whatever the budget is, you have to get practical about it.
Q: With all the action and stunt sequences you’ve got in this, which were you most excited about shooting and which was the most challenging to shoot?
OP: Well I liked the mixture actually. It’s really good fun to have throughout a shoot to move from something which is quite character based in certain scenes where there’s very little action and you’re just working with actors and I suppose I’ve had quite a lot of practice at that. This is more action than I’ve had a chance to do so that was fun for me too to go into the action then and have some really good crew working with me. And sometimes you get these scenes where they blend. The approach, I suppose, when you talk about the Bond in your first question there, part of what we were looking for was to treat sequences with the same kind of energy and attack that you might in a serious thriller like the wheelchair chase and the only difference being that it was a wheelchair. But everything else you can construct as though it was a classic car chase. So, in that respect, you get a lovely opportunity to blend the both – some of those comic elements with some of Rowan’s reactions but putting it all into what is a fairly classic action sequence. For me, it’s great to be able to move from one to the other.
Q: Can you talk about the process of casting Pik-Sen Lim, the Chinese actress who plays the Killer Cleaner? Where did you find her?
OP: She lives in Shropshire which is a very pleasant rural county in England. We looked in different directions for that character even though there was a time when I thought there was quite a lot of physicality so do we have a physical actress who’s done quite a lot of maybe physical comedy or circus. How much do we give her to do? We met various people, but then when I came across her, I just liked the slightly exotic feel married to the sweet old lady that she was. I think this was the last question I asked her because you’re talking to a lovely older woman. How’s she going to take this on? The acting was good but I thought she’s got to throw herself around. So, just as she was leaving, I said “Quick! You’ve got to jump on my back!” and I turned away and she ran after me and jumped on my back. I thought okay, so she’s up for it. That nailed it really.
Q: Both you and Rowan talked about how hard you guys and the writer worked on this script. As far as the comedic situations, which one exceeded your expectations on camera with Rowan after you watched it on playback?
OP: Well the chair scene certainly does if you look at that on the page. In fact, we spent a lot of time trying to get the plot right. Nobody listens to the bloody plot at all when you get to that scene because they just keep looking at it going up and down. But that, you don’t know. You know it’s a good idea. You just don’t quite know if it’s actually going to pay off. So not until you’re actually shooting it do you get a sense of that. And then, I think Rowan was quite surprised on the day. We had this lovely moment where we were asking if you know when you’ve got it. The first take of it on the relatively wide three-shot, Rowan was working with absolute typical dedication to the moment and we worked very hard at getting the layout and the chair had to be drilled into the ground to get control of it and then we’d do it. At the end of the take, the other actors who hadn’t seen any of it just burst into hysterics and Rowan was quite taken by it. He had no idea. He was roughly saying “Was that funny then?” He was so involved in keeping it absolutely authentic to the moment which is what his real approach is absolutely. You have to buy the pressures on the character. Of course, he’s always conscious of comedy but in some sense he’s not conscious of the comedy in the room. So that was a huge bonus when that one, for example, came out and it surprised Rowan too, I think. But there were several. I think beating up granny was always fun. There was a moment of electricity when we set about that scene, and suddenly, although Rowan does most of his own stunts, there’s a particular jump which a stuntman did and it launched the whole room into chaos. “Oh my, can you do that to granny?” and then the tray coming at her and we didn’t say “Cut!” once or twice just to see how far they would take us, and that added a kind of exhilaration to it. So, there is definitely an element of magic sometimes in the shooting which does take it further off the page than you imagined.
Q: Rowan was talking about how the cast of actors are people you would expect to see in a Bond film. Can you talk a little bit about the casting and how that contributed to the tone of the film?
OP: Well it did seem to me that I could come to this in a slightly roundabout way. When it was sent to me as a script, I wasn’t sure because I’ve seen the first one and my kids liked it, and I thought okay, that’s good, but there’s enough klutz for a lifetime in that first film. How would you move forward? Or does it become the law of diminishing returns? But then, when I read the script, I could see that Hamish was trying to do something that was perhaps a little more ambitious and trying to create an authenticity to the environment which would put genuine pressure on the character and hopefully then allow some more variety to the responses. Actually we root for him at certain moments. We really want him to do well rather than always wanting him to slip on the banana skin, occasionally to duck it and then walk into the wall, but give a little more surprise. So it seemed more and more important really that we had to construct a world where we believed this is how the British Secret Service worked. So, Gillian Anderson, who isn’t actually a Brit, but we’ve adopted her, I think, and Rosamund Pike, who as you know, had been a Bond girl herself, but all these characters and then particularly Dominic West playing Agent Ambrose. You feel like he could have had a shot at Bond at a certain point. All these characters create a world where in some senses there is more genuine pressure exerted on the main character. I think with that there’s more chance for us to really feel for him as well. Hamish had a phrase about make sure we’re not nibbling on the comedy cake. It’s quite hard to act with Rowan unless you’re feeling secure in your own performance because you’re thinking this is a comedy film. Am I meant to be funny here? What do I do? But, in fact, the kind of discipline I was trying to place on it was no, you don’t have to be funny. The comedy comes in their response to what he’s doing and how you have to move on despite what’s going on in the corner of the room with the cat going out the window or whatever it might be and it felt like the only one who had a little room for that was the character of Tucker because he seems to breathe the same air as Johnny, I think. But, on the whole, the intention was definitely to keep this as credible an environment as possible.
Q: How was it filming in Hong Kong especially on the water?
OP: It was fabulous to film in Hong Kong actually. It was really nice to get some of the energy of that place – the colors and those great thrusting needles of all the buildings in the background and the huge old cranes and derricks on the pontoon. It just gave a lot of great texture and it did make me feel it’d be great to do a really good thriller here. But, for us, it was also great for just an environment, a platform for Johnny to arrive into. I think all those things that perhaps bolster it as an international world of espionage help a lot. The crews out there are fantastic and completely unintimidated by any obstacle. Because you’d be shooting up on the roof and there’s this great iron mesh in the way and we’re shooting in 20 minutes and that was put up last night and they’d go “No problem’ and they’d get out a chainsaw and BROOOOOMMMM! And it comes down and we were like “Whoa!” They put some of our British crews to shame. They were fantastic and the whole atmosphere of that and then going to the Alps. I suppose it was all intended to try and give the film a slightly bigger and broader cinematic canvas.
Q: Can you comment a little bit about Rowan’s style of comedy and how you see that he approaches it? Does it mesh with your own idea of what’s funny?
OP: Yes. I mean, Rowan has an extremely rigorous mind. He trained as an engineer at Oxford and was apparently a superstar at it. He’s really sort of a superior being in terms of the intellect. H could analyze anything and he’s fascinated in the mechanics of anything whether it’s a car or a joke. And so, he really likes to break it all down. What I was talking about when I took the job, one of the things was the script and then meeting Rowan and seeing his absolute, relentless pursuit of trying to raise the standard of every joke that he’s doing. It’s quite fascinating because in some ways he’s been surfing the comedy wave for decades in the U.K. He’s been up there doing different characters, not many of them, but he just keeps at them and keeps refining them. In some ways, I think he’s honed a particular approach to it so it’s never really any improvisation for him. Occasionally, I wouldn’t stop the camera and try to sneak a few frames without him watching. But usually he would do quite a lot of improv in the writing process because Hamish, Rowan and I would sit around and try different things and throw it away and start again. Sometimes it would just be in playing that things would come out and Hamish would jot it down. So, we’d do quite a lot of work there and that’s always fun. I mean, I think probably one of his golden moments was Blackadder where he was working with Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry. I think that collegiate environment was something that completely suited him where people were bouncing ideas off one another and he really enjoyed that. So I think he had a good time as much as he allows himself to have a good time. He’s got quite a Puritan ethic in terms of really focusing on the work. He has a great sense of responsibility to achieve what is his best. He has to carry so much of this stuff. People sometimes think maybe they know he’s a humorless guy. No, he’s not humorless at all. In fact, take him out of that environment, he can be extremely witty and very dry. But when he’s working, he’s pretty serious and there are definitely times when you want to try different ways around it and I think you can get that once you’ve nailed the bit as he’s perceived it or imagined it. Then there’s a little room to play a bit more. Certainly when you’re working with other actors, you know, Dominic West is an extremely free actor – very, very loose and open and spontaneous. It’s very exciting putting those two together at certain moments because Rowan likes to nail it and Dominic would just be throw it at me and I’ll come up with something else. That might not work actually but they were really good and respectful of each other. I found him fascinating to work with. I found that you can’t help but admire that inexhaustible energy in turning over every stone in pursuit of one other little joke or one other little nuance. I mean, it really is astonishing unlike more dedication than any actor I’ve ever worked with in that respect. It just won’t stop. In fact, your question about do you know when to stop becomes my job very much because he would keep going at the same thing. He would keep wanting to try another few takes and sometimes we were all thinking “I think we’ve got this, Rowan.” And sometimes he’d go okay, let’s move on, but other times he would then come up with something which none of us could see or sense. It’s snuffling for truffles occasionally. What’s he doing? He’s sniffing for something there. And it’s lovely when it happens. It’s undoubtedly hard work because that level of rigor is quite taxing on a lot of people. It’s very rewarding though.
Q: Does the film open at around the same time in the U.K.?
OP: It’s opened already actually, on the 7th. It’s opened really strongly in the U.K. It’s done really well. It’s very curious though because he’s a part of the heritage in the U.K but it doesn’t mean they’re nice to him. British reviewers are pretty mean, but the audiences love him and the kids.
Q: That’s the important thing, right? They buy the tickets.
OP: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
“Johnny English Reborn” opens in theaters on October 21st.