Archenemy – Interview with Film Writer/Director Adam Egypt Mortimer

Interview with Writer - Director Adam Egypt Mortimer

The action/adventure movie, Archenemy follows Max Fist, a mysterious man (played by Joe Manganiello) who claims he lost his superpowers after arriving from another dimension. No one believes his stories except for a local teen named Hamster.

Borrowing Tape writer Nace DeSanders had the opportunity to interview the Archenemy writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer about the movie, which releases in select theaters, On Demand, and Digital on December 11th.

Watch the interview video, listen to our podcast episode, or read the transcript included in this article, (which has been edited and condensed for clarity):
Hey there everyone. My name is Nace DeSanders for Borrowing Tape and I am here today with the writer and director of Archenemy, Adam Egypt Mortimer. Archenemy will be released on December 11, 2020, so get ready because it’s a lot of fun. Thank you so much for being here today, Adam.

Thanks for having me. I’m excited to talk to you about it.

Of course, it's a very interesting movie to talk about. For sure, we haven't seen anything like it so far. I’m really excited. So, I’ll start you off with a softball. haha. Which films or directors have influenced you as a filmmaker but also the film, Archenemy?

There were a couple films I was thinking about right at the beginning when I was thinking about Archenemy. I was thinking about Aronofsky's The Wrestler. I was thinking it would be interesting to make a movie that’s sort of like that — about a man who is far beyond his glory days trying to reclaim the tragedy of that but do it with a superhero. That idea I had of a guy in a shredded cape sitting at a bar drinking whiskey you know which is the inspiration for what Archenemy would be. And I was thinking what would it look like if Wong Kar Wai directed a superhero movie. In his movies, especially his earlier movies like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. I would think about it a lot, even when we were shooting the movie because he makes these films that are sort of like a genre. Like Ashes of Time is like a Swordsman/Kung Fu movie but it's so not focused on that. And it becomes about the characters and the poetry of their tragedy and about finding the character’s inner place and bringing it to life. So, I thought about that a lot and there would be days on this movie where some huge problem happens at four in the morning where I was like, “Oh now we can't shoot the scene that I thought we were gonna shoot today, so what are we gonna do instead,” and I would watch couple minutes of Wong Kar Wai movie in the morning at 4:00 a.m. and go okay, he would just show up, make it up. And I sort of got in that mindset. I’d be like “Wow I’ve got Amy Seimetz. I’ve got Glenn Howerton. I’ve got Zolee Griggs. I’ve got Joe. Like, I’ll come up with something. They’ll do something good." Sometimes, those days of making it up or being inspired by what was happening in the moment would be the best days. So, that filmmaker, Wong Kar Wai, specifically was really helpful to me in all of those ways.

So interesting! I like that idea of really just taking it day by day and working with what you have that day. That's really interesting.
oe Manganiello as Max Fist in the actionthriller film Archenemy
Zolee Griggs as Indigo in Archenemy
So, could you tell us a little bit about the title, Archenemy? In earlier moments of the film we’re told that Cleo is Max's arch-enemy so that’s the literal meaning but what are the further meanings of it?

It’s funny. I think that this movie and the movie that I made before it, Daniel Isn’t Real, really speak to each other. That movie was thematically about the way that we are our own enemies. We want to be a good person, but there's a voice in our head that fills us with dark thoughts or tells us to do the wrong thing. That’s, of course, externalized by being a story about a demon and I think that there's a lot of ways in which like giving a title like that: I’m looking at this movie and inviting you to think about who is the arch-enemy? It’s an open question. There's a lot of people in this movie who are murderous criminals and then there are other people who are acting impulsively against their own best interests and things like that. I think it's trying to operate on all of those levels from the most cosmic-Max Fist versus Cleo Ventrick who makes giant robots and they fight in the cosmos — to the guy drinking himself to death, alone. Both of those have a sense of an arch-enemy. That was an idea and also when I first started writing it, I tried out many different titles that were much more mush-mouth, complicated half-sentences, and things like that that I normally like to do with too many words. Then, when I was able to boil it down to Archenemy, it felt so science fiction and cool and so the simpler you can make something, the more ideas that can flow from it.

That's really interesting. I like that you relate it back to your previous film because it’s almost as if the titles could be switched. So, it could be "Max Isn't Real" and "Archenemy". They’re very similar. There are a few points in the film where I’m like “Is Max actually from a different dimension or is he just crazy?”

I like to hold the doubt. I think doubt is important. I think with both this movie and Daniel [Isn’t Real], visualizing something that may or may not be real. Visualizing Daniel standing there talking to Luke when you're going “ he just schizophrenic and that’s not a real person?”. But we can see it physically, but still, doubt its reality. We can show somebody something and you still doubt it. So, when we’re showing Max's stories, which are memories or fantasies - we’re not sure what - there's a level of abstraction to them, and I wanted it to feel dreamlike, and then the world that he's really in (the real world) is both bleak and colorful — in a way where, I think the whole thing can feel like if you start to doubt the reality your standing on, then that's a really interesting feeling.

Absolutely. So, Archenemy was nominated for best motion picture at the Catalonian International Film Festival. That's fantastic. How was the film festival run? How has that been?

Well, strangely it’s been a little depressing. I have just been here at my home. We did get to have a premiere in LA. Our world premiere was Beyond Fest, which was a drive-in. Everybody got to show up, and it was a way to get people together in the same space, but still remain safe, which was really awesome, you know. But last year I was constantly traveling the world. I was in Korea. I was in Florida. I was in London. I was in Spain. I was in Texas. To be able to show the movie, and then interact with people directly who are having an emotional experience. To talk to people after Daniel [Isn’t Real], who would come up to me and say, “I had a real psychological problem, I had a mental illness and this movie speaks to me in this way” like that is it. That's why you make a movie. That’s why we go through years of all of his agony, so you can talk to another person who gets something from it. It's been so much harder, so far, to have that with Archenemy. It's also made me feel like I have no idea how this movie plays to people. I could sit in theatres around the world and see people react to it [Daniel Isn’t Real] and with Archenemy, not only is it a weird movie but I don't even know. I haven’t even seen people's faces when they’re watching so I don’t even know.

Yeah, it's definitely a minus of this crazy year- not really getting to have that in-person interaction, but hopefully next year maybe something will... well, we’ll see.

The plus side is, you know, people will watch this movie at home. It's designed to be really immersive because there’s so much music, sound, and colors and so turn out all the lights and for 90-minutes you can enter a completely different world. There are no other superhero movies coming out this year. This is a weird psychedelic twist on superheroes, and so hopefully that all makes it a good experience.

Movie Still of Joe Manganiello as Max Fist in Archenemy
Yes, so I saw that Nicolas Cage was originally set to play Max Fist. Is that true, and how did Joe Manganiello come to be a part of the project?

I met Nic. I had dinner with Nic. He bought me a steak. Let me tell you, there’s nothing cooler in the universe than having Nicolas Cage buy you a steak. It was like “I guess this is it. This is my Hollywood dream” and he was super into it, and we had a great talk and then it didn't work out, like scheduling-wise. It’s crazy you can have a movie star say he wants to be a movie, and still doesn't work out. But that’s how life works but then amazingly, I met Joe — who is just absolutely perfect. Like Joe is arguably, or maybe not even arguably, the most handsome man on the planet. So just being around him makes you feel awesome. He’s so physical, and he loves comic books, so the first time I went on set to talk to him, we went deep into comic books and superheroes and mythology, and he just looks like Superman but he is also done A Streetcar Named Desire and all this theatre and Tennessee Williams. He has a degree in theatre. He wants to play real dramatic, tragic, broken figures, and so he’s so excited. He was really stoked to get on this movie and deconstruct his look and get scruffy and be gross. And yet in his heart, you can tell there's also a man who is Superman. So, he's really like, the perfect person to play this. He got very into the physicality. He wants to do all his own stunts; jump through windows and punch people and do all that stuff, but then he also just really thrives in being this like tragic/broken man.

That is so interesting. That’s really cool. So, you are certainly growing an impressive filmography. You directed Some Kind of Hate in 2015, Daniel Isn’t Real, which we’ve been talking about in 2019, and now Archenemy in 2020. So, you’re becoming known for these unconventional dark stories. What draws you to write and direct these kinds of stories? Where is it coming from?

Yeah, I like to play with genre. I want to do movies that are “it’s a [inaudible] movie or it’s a horror movie” Which really treat the characters, and the emotional pain as importantly as with what the genre is. I think when I was a kid, you know, I would watch dramatic movies and say “What if there was this movie just about a family, but then halfway through a UFO lands?” What would that be like? How would that change the dynamic?  I think for me, you know, everything always comes down to real personal feelings and experiences. I'll write a script and I’ll look at it like, "Oh, this about my break up. This is about -  you know - when my mother died," — like these kind of feelings. I’ll want to be able to bring all that stuff to the actors, and talk to them about like this scene where you’re fighting a demon is actually to me, you know that feeling when you’re so sad...The really interesting thing to me is this kind of connection between big genre ideas like demons or superheroes, or black holes between universes, and the very real feelings that we all experience. I love watching Ingmar Bergman movies. I think they’re the greatest. I don't think I would ever know how to write a movie like that. So, in order to express the same kind of feelings about madness, and loss, and the terror of death, I have to create demons, and supervillains, and then hopefully still be creating the same kind of feelings.

Movie Still of Glenn Howerton in Archenemy (2020)
I love it. So how was working with the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins?

Haylna is somebody that I met at a festival last year. We were both in Spain. We both had our movies there. I just thought she was super cool. She just looked cool, she talked cool. She's Ukrainian, so she has a very European sensibility. Like in fact, on one of our crazy days where I was like, “We can’t shoot the scene I thought we were going to do, so here's what we’re going to do instead”. She said to me “Oh it's like we’re making a European film” and I was like, she understands with me, how to roll with it and make art out of what we have in front of us. Some days she would work, she had a whole crew of Russians so she would just be whispering in Russian with moving the lights around, and it created this other world art-movie experience for me. One of the things that was fun was I gave her some comic book art to look at. This artist Jim Steranko, who did Nick Fury all the way back in the sixties, and it's so psychedelic and graphical and cool and I gave her this big book and I could just see how much it kind of blew her mind. She lit up and she was like how can we shoot our movie in a way that's reference is kind of like graphical understanding. The way that she brought the lighting and the colors to the world, I think it's an interesting thing for me because I didn't have any of the same crew I had on Daniel [Isn’t Real,] but I feel like there is a consistency of the feeling or the look of it or something which I’m really proud of. Like, if you can feel like it's the same person - what Haylna is contributing to it is just this real subtle perfection of the way that the lighting and the composition is. You know, I think it was important that- this movie was so low budget. It was depicting a world it's like sort of gritty and grimy, but we needed a little extra sauce to elevate it, so it didn't just look gross. It had to have all of this energy. Haylna really understood this kind of punk rock, futuristic, fashionable kind of vibe.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #5 (1968) Jim Steranko

Absolutely. The film definitely had a very distinct look and it was very pleasing to look at. One of the most noticeable things about the look is that you integrated animation into the visual storytelling. What made you decide to differentiate those two worlds in that way?

They had to feel really different, you know, we have to be in sort of a very present-tense world with Max Fist, and he’s going through garbage to eat hot dog buns and he’s punching drug dealers. When he talks about this story that he carries around with him, it had to feel really different. So, we explored different options of what that could be, and I was thinking about the movie Pink Floyd: The Wall which has all these incredible animation sequences that sort of show a man who is falling apart like his inner dreams and fantasies and craziness. And sort of landed on trying to make animation with fuel like expressive and abstract, instead of being too literal. Trying to tell this super story in this way that was focused on just like a [of] couple really immersive colors, and the lines weren't always perfect. I didn't want to be perfect. It should feel like sort of a broken misremembered, always changing type of story, like if it could just be done with squiggly pencil lines that would’ve been... but we needed something a little more neon and exciting.

Paul Scheer as Krieg and Zolee Griggs as Indigo in Archenemy (2020)
That's really interesting. So, were there any major roadblocks or difficulties in getting this film made?  I know most films usually have something.

Working with Spectre Vision was wonderful. It was our second. They produced Daniel Isn’t Real. It's Elijah Woods’ company. We wanted to start working together right away. So, the desire to make the movie was very quick and easy, but we had crazily way less money than we even had on Daniel Isn’t Real, so it’s a really low-budget movie and we were working on it very quickly. Putting it together and everything was a roadblock. People got sick and couldn’t show up that day or you know this location was impossible to get, like everything was just a cunt. We actually started talking about how we felt like the movie had been cursed by a witch but all of that — but it gave us all of these other creative solutions that we found our way through. So, I can't think of any one time. It's like everything was just a disaster, but it was great [referring to movie production], and now that it's all over, and it was a blessing. The ultimate blessing was that we finished the movie just before the pandemic really hit, so we were doing all of our post during the lockdown times and that has kept me busy like this whole time. You know, since March I started working with the editor, and she would share her bit on zoom when I never met her in real life. But we made a whole movie together.

Well, that’s good. At least you didn't have to deal with the ultimate roadblock of coronavirus. If you were shooting in the middle of that would have been awful but you finished just in time.

We had one pick-up day where we just needed to shoot a couple of close-ups and there were very few of us and Kim Sherman, our producer, she created a Covid protocol, and we shot in her driveway and everybody was very distant and we got our extra close-ups that we needed. Like hands putting on gloves, and all that stuff.

Nice. My final question for you then I’ll let you go...are you working on your next project already and can you tell us anything about it?

Yeah, I am. I have a few because I’m in the nice position now of starting to read other people's scripts that are really good that I might be able to work on and that's always been a dream. You know, I keep writing my own movies because I can’t find other ones that are like what I want to do, but now I’m sort of attracting collaborators. But I also have a script that I wrote with Brian DeLeeuw. We wrote Daniel isn’t Real together. We’re really hoping this movie made and it has to do it capitalism and witches. It’s a horror movie on the theme of capitalism and witchcraft. I think that it would be a timely movie and we’re hoping we’ll be able to shoot that this year.

Nice! That’s super exciting. Thank you so so much for taking the time to chat with me today, Adam.

Thank you. This was great.

Yeah, so everyone makes you check out Archenemy! Where can they see it? Where is it available to be viewed?

It’ll be available on December 11. It should be on all your digital platforms. All your iTunes and VODs, and Amazons and things. I don't think it's gonna be streaming right away, so you know, rent it for 2 bucks and turn the volume up real loud.

Yes, so rent it, make sure you turn off all the lights. That is the recommended way to watch it. Thank you so much. We’ll talk to you later then.