Filmmaker Patrick Hughes’ breakout hit came in 2017 with The Hitman’s Bodyguard, an experience that not only served as a showcase for the comedic talents of Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds, but also never pulled its punches when it came to delivering break-neck action sequences. With his latest film of him, The Man from Torontothe director has enlisted yet another pair of beloved comedic talents in Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson, as Hughes continues to display his skills of walking the line of throwing punches and quips that land like sledgehammers, honoring the spirit of cinema’s best action-comedies. The Man from Toronto debuts on Netflix on June 24th.
In the film, a case of mistaken identity arises after a screw-up sales consultant and the world’s deadliest assassin — known only as The Man from Toronto — run into each other at a holiday rental.
ComicBook.com caught up with Hughes to talk developing the new film, collaborating with its stars, and what fans can expect from his upcoming The raid.
ComicBook.com: In the opening moments of the movie, we see Kevin Hart as Teddy trying out his various workout products, things that he’s trying to sell, and trying to make a buck. Before getting involved in the entertainment industry, can you think of the worst job that you had?
Patrick Hughes: O my Lord. Mate, I had so many terrible jobs. I think I counted, I think by the time I’d left film school, I’d had, I don’t know, 27 jobs of various capacity. I think probably one of the worst ones I had, when I was a teenager, I worked at a cafe, but Sundays were the worst because on Sundays, I had to peel the skin off chickens and I would say, at the time, I probably experienced with underage drinking on Saturdays and then, to do that for four hours on a Sunday morning at 7 am hungover, that’s trauma. That’s trauma I need to personally work through and deal with at some point in my life.
It’s a weekday afternoon and the thought of peeling chicken skin is not pleasant, so I can only imagine, after a few drinks the night before, how miserable that would be. Well, congratulations. Look how far you’ve come after all these years.
I know that Kevin was involved from early on and this project has been in the works for a few years, could you talk a little bit about how Woody got involved? Was he your first choice? How did you know that he was the perfect “Man from Toronto,” if you will?
Kevin was hovering the project and then I had a conversation with him and we really hit it off, immediately hit it off, and felt like we put the development in, both of us were aligned on where we could take the film.
And then we had a really strange situation where we prepped the entire film in Atlanta and then that’s when I engaged with Woody and started that conversation, and then we got shut down because of COVID. We just shut down for six months and then started all over again and, as a director, that’s quite painful because half the heavy lifting is in pre-production where you’re locking down all your locations and building sets and doing everything and working it all out, your schedules and your budgets. We basically had to do it all over again in Toronto, but that was also a blessing because it just gave us more time to keep developing the script and we did two rounds of pre-production on one movie.
When it comes to comedic elements, dialogue, and banter, when you have people like Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson, there’s some room for improvisation to try out some different things to get the timing right and get the chemistry right. But with the bigger action pieces, there isn’t always as much wiggle room because it’s, “No, don’t move to your left because you could get crushed by something, move to your right as planned.” Once you had Kevin and Woody on board, was there an evolution once you started working with them from what was on the page to maybe fit their physical skillsets a little bit differently?
They’re screen icons in their own right and you’d be a fool if you didn’t incorporate… I have a very collaborative environment I like to have on set and throughout pre-production. The standard is I have a dialogue with all the actors individually throughout the pre-production process and it’s not until you’re on set there on the day and you’re all standing together and you call “action” and now you’re making a movie, but you have all those individual ideas bouncing back and forwards and then, this is the thing about the buddy/action-comedy. It’s like I don’t know if that on-screen dynamic’s going to work or not until they’re standing opposite each other physically in front of the camera and you call “action” and, thank the lord, they did. I mean, their chemistry is off the charts.
And then it’s really just a very open, collaborative environment where I’ll be screaming out ideas mid-take and Kevin will have ideas and Woody has ideas and we have the script that we’ve developed, that’s our sandbox, and then as you do progress through the story, you’re starting to find other moments of comedy in their performance or the physicality of what that actor’s brought to it. That certainly is an evolutionary process that happens.
When you’re actually on set, looking back, who ended up ruining more takes? Was it Kevin from adding in one-too-many punchlines and making Woody laugh or was it Woody’s laughing the entire time?
I will be completely honest with you, okay? 99% of the time, I am the worst guilty. It’s me cracking up too much and, often what happens is they have to move my monitor away from the actors and I’m like the kid at school that’s in trouble that has to sit in the corner. I’ve been in positions where they’ve put me outside studio doors and closed them, but I will say, I’m calling him out. Woody. Woody was cracking up more than anybody.
We had this one sequence where Kevin Hart’s character, Teddy, he’s put into a horrible situation because he doesn’t like blood or violence and he has an adverse reaction to them and it makes him feel sick and he has the scene where he throws up . That scene was — I’m cracking up thinking about it. That was incredibly tough to shoot. That was really hard. And it was really hard for Kevin. I will say it took us about 30 takes before we got there because Kevin kept laughing and because he had the fake vomit in his mouth, the second he’d start laughing, it would start coming out and we’d have to reset the vomit .
Also, here’s a fun story. You’re directing a big Hollywood action-comedy movie and you’re living your dream and then in pre-production, somebody comes to you and says, “Oh, the art department needs you to go and visit them because you have to choose which vomit you want to use,” and I go to the art department and they’ve got eight different types of vomit lined up in these separate jars and I have to choose the color, the texture, how much chunk versus how much liquid. That’s where you stand and you stop and you just go, “I’m a grown adult. What the f-ck am I doing with my life? This is ridiculous.” It’s like, how do you explain that job to your kids? You can not. It’s just ridiculous.
I’m sure moments like that, that’s where you look back and think, “Now, what was I feeling when I was tearing the skin off chickens many moons ago? What did it look like when I hit the bathroom later?”
I always think it’s like when your kids go, “What did you do today, dad?” you’re like, “I can’t even explain it to you.”
Now I can’t help but wonder, can you remember what the winning combination was comprised of? What was in the vomit that was the most authentic?
Well, my thing was there was these hot Cheeto things that he’s eating, and then I was like, “Well, the vomit needs to have the texture and the color of that because that would be the first thing that comes out.” So for me, it was like, we’ve got to get the color of this thing right, but, look, if anyone wants to know, it’s cold soup from a can with food dye.
Then that just speaks to the entire crafting process because, once you shoot, then you have the whole color-grading process where you don’t want to lose that bright, hot-Cheeto puke color.
This is the art of direction.
What resonates is that both of these characters learn from one another and they both take those lessons outside of this adventure. For you as a filmmaker, is there a big takeaway that you specifically had that you’re now going to be able to carry with you, whether it be professionally or just personally in your everyday life?
It was a really, really challenging experience to shoot. We were all locked down and it was really, really tough and it was something that, as a director of a project, it’s like six months where you’re just alone and you’re not allowed to mingle or integrate with the outside world. Literally on a weekend for me to do something, I was allowed to go and walk around a nature reserve by myself.
That became a very, very isolating experience, but also I would say it’s probably one of the most personal growths I’ve ever had because it is really challenging. You couldn’t have family, you couldn’t have friends, you couldn’t see your kids, you couldn’t see loved ones and it was incredibly difficult for everyone because I know Kevin had just had a baby. I mean, he’d seen that baby for 24 hours and then he was stuck overseas with us.
But one of the things I was so grateful for was just the crew that we had in Canada. They’re just so much fun, and the incredible cast. It really felt like this wonderful group experience in terms of, “Well, this is social interaction. This is the only social interaction we’re allowed is living inside this bubble,” and just to have Kevin and Woody, it’s just so much fun on set and they’re both so very giving and it just felt like hanging out, like in between takes, too. Everyone was just hanging out and sharing stories and having a laugh and I think you can see it on screen, to be honest.
I can imagine how much fun you guys, of all the people to be stuck in a COVID bubble with, Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson, I feel like there are worse stories you could hear.
With this movie and with The Hitman’s Bodyguard series, you’re flexing your comedic and your action sensibilities and coming up you’ve got The raid on the horizon, which, humor isn’t really baked into the original films. I wondered if there’s anything you can talk about, like your approach to that film and how it’s going to find that balance of honoring the originals while still being its own distinct thing?
It’s not a remake as such, it’s a reimagining and it’s taking what was so incredibly crazy with that hook. It’s a very nitty-gritty, real world in that. Stepping into the straight action-thriller, but it’s on that saga level and that’s a project that I’m really, really excited about. There’s not too much I’m allowed to say, but it is something where we’re really… I’m excited because I have come off a big run of doing action comedies and I love that genre and I’m certainly going to be working it again in the future, but for now, I’ve got two projects and the other’s a big action, sci-fi, horror, thriller, survival, epic movie. There are just a couple of different genres I want to step into for a while and then I’ll certainly be coming back to the action comedy because it is so much fun to work in, too.
I know it won’t be a comedy but now I can’t help but picture your The raid with Woody Harrelson as the star.
I’d love to be working with Woody again and he’s just a really beautiful human being. On top of everything else, I think it’s one part of the journey of working in Hollywood, it’s just finding people that really, really shine through as beautiful people. You can’t help but align with them and want to do projects with them in the future and he’s certainly one of them, for sure.
I feel like I could keep talking to you for quite some time about the color of vomit and the joys of Woody Harrelson, but I know you got other people to talk to, so I’ll let you go.
Oh mate, thank you so much. I think that’ll be my biography one day, “The Color of Vomit.”
The Man from Toronto premieres on Netflix on June 24th.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.