Rogen, Diaz, Chou, Waltz, Gondry and Moritz talk about making ‘The Green Hornet’
By Todd Gilchrist
hollywoodnews.com: It’s taken several years and several dozen delays, setbacks and rumors, but on Friday, January 14, “The Green Hornet” finally opens nationwide. Directed by Michel Gondry, the film stars Seth Green and Jay Chou as The Green Hornet and his partner, Kato, who enlist an unwitting expert named Lenore (Diaz) to fight against a crime lord (Waltz) who’s going through a midlife crisis. Last week, Hollywood News sat down with members of the cast and crew, also including director Michel Gondry and producer Neal Moritz, to discuss the epic saga of bringing this film to the big screen.
[Note: Although "Hollywood News" is used to distinguish questions from answers in the text below, our journalist was just one of many reporters asking questions of the filmmakers.]
Hollywood News: Cameron, what was like working on this guy-heavy set and is it true that you are the best stunt driver but you just didn’t get to show it?
Cameron Diaz: Well, I can only comment on one of those. It was awesome working with them. I didn’t realize that it was such a huge action movie because I came in the first week of shooting and the last week of shooting and all of my bits, there was no action. So I went away to be in another movie with a lot of action, and I came back and when I saw what they’d done I was like, ‘Wait a second. How did this happen? How did I not know this?’ But before we started I went out and I took the Black Beauty for a spin.
Seth Rogen: Well, I drove it, too and I don’t drive it in the movie at all. They just wanted us to have fun.
Hollywood News: The characters in the film seem to be very aware of comic book style storytelling and clichés and tropes. Was that awareness important to you in the storytelling and in the performances and in the making of the film?
Michel Gondry: It’s something that we had differences in opinion about. I think it was important for you guys to acknowledge that we are in this world, that it talks about a comic book or not.
Rogen: Yeah, we kind of wanted it to be a world. The kid is a comic book superhero fan, obviously. To us the simple thought was, ‘Who’s the kind of guy who’s likely to become a superhero? Probably someone who reads comic books and is a comic book fan or is at least aware of them.’ But in the writing we kind of wanted to subvert notions that are in a lot of these comic book type movies, things you’d find in a lot of early origin stories of comic book characters. I think in order to play with those ideas you have to be very aware of what they are in the first place, that they exist and to acknowledge them to some degree. So, for us, we kind of wanted to dance on the line between being a comic book movie and commenting on a comic book movie.
Gondry: Another thing was Bruce Lee. One of the reasons that we love Jay Chou is because he didn’t want to do a spin on Bruce Lee. We knew that we had to pay homage or tribute to Bruce Lee because of his character, but we don’t want to remake him or have Jay remake him. So we included a drawing of Bruce Lee in Jay’s notebook [as a tribute].
Hollywood News: Did you go all the way back to the radio serials and watch all the episodes of the show? How much of that did you take in and how much did you have to tune out to do your own thing?
Rogen: In the beginning phases of writing the script we did a ton of research just to accumulate ideas. The way that we write is that we just start by making tons of lists of ideas and thoughts and things that we’d like to include into the movie. We tried to listen to almost all the radio serials. They’re a little outdated, I guess. I guess back then just hearing footsteps for thirty seconds straight was really suspenseful and interesting, the creaking of a door opening was real cinema at that time, but it’s a little hard to sit through hours of it at this point for me. But I’m very stupid. We went back to the radio show and the serials that were in movie theaters and the TV show, and we really tried to include ideas from all these things. The Zephyr is in there and little tips of the hat to the previous incarnations of it.
Neal Moritz: One of the biggest twists in the movie, the end of the movie is from the show.
Rogen: Exactly, the whole notion of me getting shot and having to conceal that from the police is from an episode of the TV show. We tried to update that for the movie.
Hollywood News: I think we can tell what the Michel Gondry sequences in the movie are, such as when you see everything come together in his head. Was there a lot of negotiation about how many of those elements you could have? Was there more that you wanted in the film?
Gondry: Well, it’s sort of easy for me because I remember I designed this sequence because on the paper it was like that. It was literally trying to piece it together. And I wanted to show it visually. I made a sketch and I remember telling my girlfriend, ‘Okay, they will never go for it.’ I showed the drawing to Neal on Monday morning with no hope. He just looked at it and said, ‘I don’t get it. Just shoot it though.’ On a different occasion, like for the Kato vision when he runs on the car, we had parked two sets of identical cars and nobody had a clue why we did that. People were sort of scared to ask the question because they didn’t want to look stupid or something. So they said, ‘Is anyone aware that we have parked twice the same car?’ I think Neal said that. I said, ‘Nobody is going to say anything.’ But more importantly, I guess this is the tip of the iceberg, but it’s more important to me that I can identify with there hero. And with a guy like Seth playing the main character and the dynamic between Jay and Seth on set and even on paper was something that’s different from what you see in general in comic book movies. So this part is me in a sense that I accept to do it, in a way. It’s not something that I’d done physically, but in jumping onboard on a project like that I sort of didn’t have to reflect myself. The whole story is based on their relationship and I thought that was perfect for me.
Hollywood News: Seth, can you talk about the Chinese-language labels in the car? And Jay, can you talk about doing the action scenes, whether you ever got hurt and if you watched Bruce Lee for research at all?
Rogen: I left any and all foreign language work on this film up to other people. I did no research. I don’t know what that stuff says. I trusted Jay. Jay was just like, ‘Just something in another language.’ I said, ‘Okay. Just don’t make it too dirty,’ and that was pretty much it. I’ll let Jay take the rest.
Jay Chou: I didn’t get hurt in the fight scenes because I’m Kato.
Rogen: Kato doesn’t get hurt.
Chou: I think if you see the Black Beauty it will make James Bond’s car look easy. I like cars. I have many cars, but this car is the best.
Moritz: I think that Jay is adding the Black Beauty to his collection.
Rogen: I don’t think that I can. It’s a lot to insure in L.A.
Hollywood News: Jay, you’re relatively new to American cinema. What was your first thought after your Skype audition?
Chou: Very exciting and a little bit nervous because I should speak English. I’m training in English one month.
Rogen: It’s amazing.
Moritz: When we decided that Jay should be Kato we knew that we needed more days to shoot the movie. So we pulled a little trick. We went to the studio and said, ‘We want to cast Jay and we know you want to cast Jay, but you have to give us extra shooting days,’ which we didn’t need for Jay. We needed it for us.
Rogen: We needed it for me. It was my English, really.
Hollywood News: Can you talk about casting Christoph in the film, and Christoph can you talk about your experience on the film and did you do any research for the role?
Rogen: We wanted the villain to be, I mean, just a character more than anything. We wanted him to be sympathetic. Our fixation wasn’t how to make this guy scary. We wanted more than anything to intellectually understand why someone would be so fascinated with killing another person, basically. So that’s really how we approached it. We wanted it to be funny. And when we saw Christoph’s previous work it had elements of danger, but at the same time was very entertaining and had very funny parts. That’s really why we thought that he would be a good guy to do it.
Moritz: I think when Seth and Evan and Michel, when we first started talking about the role, I think the idea of a villain going through a midlife crisis was something really strong and something that we hadn’t seen before. I think when we had our initial conversations with Christoph that was something that he gravitated towards.
Christoph Waltz: Picking up the question about the comics, I have nothing to do with comics. I know nothing about comics. I am aware of the importance of comics, but they’re not within my world. Not because I feel that I’m above it, but just that micro-surgery is not in my world either. Is that a deficit or is that an advantage? When I do Shakespeare I don’t question the world that was created there. Othello in Malta. The Jew in Venice. All these are characters and inventions. I don’t need to go to Venice or the sixteenth century or Malta of the seventeenth century to understand what’s going on. This is not what I do. I’m not a cultural anthropologist. I’m just an actor.
Gondry: I remember one day they were doing a karaoke party at Evan Golberg’s house with Seth. And I drank a half bottle of tequila and I decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to rewrite the villain in this movie all at once.’ And basically he was saying always, starting all his speeches with, ‘When I was a little boy,’ and the people would tell him, ‘No, shut up,’ which I guess happens to me all the time. I think that it was a couple of sentences that you picked up from this version and then everything was eradicated, but this sentence, you sort of used it as a way to express yourself. And I guess there was a certain confusion with the character for a while and we worked on that for a while. But I think what happened that was crucial was that Seth and Evan in the middle of the things started to really realize what the dilemma was. We had this additional shooting near the end where we brought in James Franco and then we realized that it’s really the midlife crisis problem that was prominent. I think the first scene really indicates pretty well what your problem is. I think it was an awesome job that they did, to find that while we were shooting.
Waltz: And it only took a half bottle of tequila.
Rogen: Exactly, and then we drank the whole thing.
Hollywood News: Did you base your villain character on any other well known villains and do you have a favorite villain of all time?
Waltz: No, no. This is not based on anything, but the ideas that were relevant to this story. I think that’s very important. You don’t take little bits and pieces and sort of acting by numbers and put them together into one kind of pre-fab kind of Kindle situation. No, no. Even though it might not look like that, it’s really based on actorly and authorly considerations.
Rogen: More actorly.
Hollywood News: Seth, you mentioned subverting the origin story. The body count on this film struck me on this film. Going back to Britt’s great, great, great uncle, the Lone Ranger, there’s a tradition of good guys masquerading as bad guys figuring out how not to kill people as they go through the episode.
Rogen: Yea. We didn’t quite figure that out, I guess.
Gondry: We had a problem with the body count. We killed so many people that we had to bring them back with a mustache –
Rogen: Exactly. We ran out of stunt guys. You see zombies eventually. We thought, ‘It’s an action movie.’ I’m a fan. I always thought that it was funny that on the old ‘A-Team’ TV show they would shoot four hundred people and none of them would die. I think if you’re going to make a violent action movie you might as well just go for it. It’s not explicit. It’s not in any way meant to inspire people to do anything crazy. It’s not supposed to instill any horrific images or anything like that. It’s all for the point of fun and just kind of big action more than anything. It’s funny because we actually watched a lot of action movies leading up to this, thinking, ‘Can you kill people in one of these movies?’ What we were fascinated by was, like, how many people die in your average [film]. In ‘Transformers’, Optimus Prime getting thrown through one building would kill four thousand people and there’s no mention of it at all. No one cares. No one says anything. But I don’t know if that’s the best logistical cue to take.
Gondry: But all this being said, you don’t kill anyone because you gas them.
Rogen: I gassed a lot, exactly. You don’t see any bodies on the ground.
Hollywood News: What about the guys at the construction site?
Rogen: Oh, yeah. Those guys die. They were terminally ill anyway. There’s a whole side story. We cut it out.
Hollywood News: Christoph, how did you get into character as the villain?
Gondry: He started talking like a director and became evil.
Waltz: Forgive me reverting to an answer that I’ve given before. I learn my lines and I show up on time. That’s more or less what I do. There’s no mystery behind it. I just do what is necessary. The decision as to what is necessary, that’s a bit more tricky.
Rogen: It’s impressive that he shows up and learned his lines because we would rarely give him them.
Hollywood News: How do you respond to the intensity of fan expectation on something like this?
Moritz: Well, there was a lot of speculation of what the movie was going to be and how a combination of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg who are known for stoner romance comedies and Michel who’s known for more indies and me who’s known for more straight ahead kind of action, how could this combination come up with something that would be valuable. The thing that stuck with me through this more than anything is how the team of Michel, Seth and Evan and myself, even with all the negativity that was coming at the beginning of this process, what we were going through, how we all stuck together. So the first time that we actually showed this movie to a real audience and to see their response was probably the most satisfying night of my film career. It didn’t make a difference what anyone had said in the past. When they saw the movie and they loved the movie, that they loved the relationship between the two guys, that to me is all that really matters, what a real audience says when they see the movie in a dark auditorium. We have been lucky enough on this movie through all the turmoil that we’ve had, which we’ve had plenty, that we really did stick together and ultimately make the movie that we wanted to make. Luckily audiences are embracing it as much as we hoped.
Gondry: There was a moment in time where I could describe exactly what you’re talking about. We were in this room talking about the Black Beauty. It had been a long process and we are supposed to have a deal with a big company and it was a crisis and at some point we were all in the room and Neal said the most surprising thing to us. He said, ‘Lets just shoot the car from the ’60′s.’ We sort of had a high-five moment with Seth and Evan because that’s what we wanted to do from the beginning. We didn’t even dare to ask Neal because we saw that he wanted the little nervous car that usually he has in his movies. That moment was really an awesome moment.
Moritz: We were very lucky that we were able to convince the studio to turn down millions of dollars in a car promotion to ultimately do what was best for the movie. I think we didn’t try to manufacture some new, exotic looking cool car as the Black Beauty. It stayed something that was kind of tested, tried and true. And we just ultimately felt was sexy and beautiful. Staying with that car is really a kind of hallmark of that movie. We don’t have characters with superhero powers. Our superhero in the movie is the car.
Gondry: So we bought one and we parked it right in front of the building. Everybody came down and then for some reason we felt that movie might happen.
Rogen: Once that car showed up it all seemed okay.
Hollywood News: As a comic book fan, Seth, was part of the appeal to ‘The Green Hornet’ that there isn’t a lot of mythology to it? It’s just a name that people recognize, but there’s not a lot of stuff to really look at?
Rogen: Yeah. I would have no real interest in just doing a very literal interpretation of preexisting material. I see a lot of these comic book movies that come out now and you almost feel like anyone could pick up the first few editions of the comic book and take it to a DP and say, ‘I want to shoot this,’ and then six months later you have the origin story of those superheroes. That really didn’t interest us in any way. We really wanted to be able to inject our own sensibilities into it and our own sense of humor. At the same time, too, the things that we love about superheroes and comic books ourselves. So, yeah, it was very appealing that there were a few kind of benchmark, iconic things that people knew about ‘The Green Hornet’. Kato and the car, the gas gun.
Moritz: The song.
Rogen: Yeah, the song. Lenore. The DA. It was like that kind of stuff we knew that we wanted to include. But it was fun because we could kind of integrate them into the story however we wanted and reintroduce them in a way that was organic to our characters and not the previous versions of things.
Hollywood News: Building on that, are there bits that you save as you’re writing this version just in case you’re get to do a ‘Green Hornet 2?’
Rogen: No. We’re not the kind of writers to save ideas. If its remotely good we shove it in there, nor are we confident enough to assume that there will be a sequel. Anything that seemed good we put in.
Hollywood News: Seth, can you talk about how much comedy you were willing to bring to this without slipping into parody? Was there a fine line there?
Rogen: It’s a hard rule to articulate, I guess. There was no, like, ‘As soon as this happens you’ve just crossed the line.’ You just had to generally be aware that the comedy should come from the characters and that it all should feel real and it shouldn’t feel like we’re being funny just for the sake of being funny, but that it should kind of feel like something that would maybe actually happy with these people. We really kind of tried to approach the structure of the story in a somewhat traditional action movie sense. It was just how the characters related to one another that we hoped the humor would come from. I remember there were some things that we talked about. I remember with the car, we were like, ‘Inspector Gadget’s car is too far.’ That was our benchmark. We were like, ‘When it starts to become Inspector Gadget’s car we’ve crossed the line.’ So little things like that we would come up with, mostly arbitrarily and we would break those rules constantly. But it was just fun to say, more than anything.
Gondry: But that’s why during the shooting of the interior of the car I was worried that no dialogue was happening, and I remember you telling me, ‘Don’t worry. It’s going to work its way through the shooting,’ because I wanted those jokes to be written. I know that you and Evan were not worried about that.
Rogen: I remember that. You kept saying, ‘Where’s the car chase?’ I forgot about that.
Gondry: It happened, and I remember this journalist who asked me recently, ‘Aren’t you worried that this movie is too character based for a comic book hero?’ I said no. I think that this worry was a compliment.
Moritz: I think during the editing process one of the biggest challenges was how much action and how much comedy. We kept going back and forth.
Rogen: In editing was more where we would figure it out. Sometimes a joke in the wrong place would make an otherwise dangerous scene feel completely not dangerous because you just think, ‘If he’s making a joke there then what’s the threat,’ but at times it could just be the wrong joke and it needs to be a more situational based joke rather than a comedy writer joke. The editing was where we were really able to play with all of that.
Gondry: And you could expect that between French and American people there is a communication problem, especially with me, from the way that I speak.
Gondry: But in fact I grew up watching a lot of stuff like ‘Starsky and Hutch’. That was bigger in France. ‘Columbo’ was bigger in France than in America. So I grew up with this type of buddy movie. There was a show called ‘Avengers’ with Tony Curtis and Roger Moore that was really awesome and it was huge in France. So I was really acquainted with this type of story where the humor blends with the action. From the beginning we all knew that we didn’t want to do a spoof. This was not our purpose, to mock the genre. We took it very seriously.
Hollywood News: I believe in the original shows the Green Hornet always got the girl, but not in this film. What was the thought behind not letting him get the girl here?
Rogen: Again, we wanted to play off these notions in these movies and someone always ends up with the girl, actually. It was our instinct that Kato should wind up with the girl and Cameron, actually, had the amazing idea that no one should end up with the girl which was really funny. I think it serves the friendship between me and Jay more. It was actually a really funny joke that we would then all talk about, that we think there’s this huge competition going on and there’s literally no competition. Neither of us have a chance at all. She doesn’t even know that we like her really. To us that kind of became a funny play off of the traditional love triangle that you might find in one of these movies.
Diaz: And it relieved the story of having to wrap up that storyline which is usually what kills the end of a movie.
Rogen: Oh, yeah, if we would’ve had to have some romantic moment in the third act have some romantic moment it would’ve just been a killer.
Diaz: And it takes Lenore from then having to choose between the romance or the taking care of the villain. It just relieved the whole movie of that burden which I think you can really fall into a lot especially in things like this. It just felt really outdated, like they always end up with the girl. So what is the girl there for, but just to serve them. She’s actually an integral part of how they accomplish what they accomplish, of course, unbeknownst to her. But nonetheless that’s the purpose of her in the story rather than just being arm candy and having to wrap that up. That’s so boring.
Rogen: That’s a really good and simple way of putting it. Often when I watch these superhero movies as soon as the romantic story starts I want to kill myself. So we thought that it would be best to minimize that as much as possible.
Waltz: I suggested at one point that I end up with the girl.
Rogen: Yeah. He kept giving us pages.
Waltz: I don’t know why you didn’t want it.
Diaz: That’s really actually a great idea.
Rogen: That she wouldn’t have fought so hard against.
Gondry: Just to come back to your comment about what we changed from the original material, I think connected to that is, okay, the Green Hornet had the girl all the time, but there is one important thing, that the relationship was very condescending, that Kato was a servant. We couldn’t have that. On the first day that we started to work together the focus of the work from Seth and Evan was the relationship between the two and to find out that the sidekick is actually cooler. So that was something that we had to change because it was just plainly racist. So it was really important for us to bring Kato to an equal level as Britt.
Hollywood News: Jay, did you have a favorite scene in the movie?
Chou: So many. I like the fights. Brothers fight like kids. As a child I didn’t fight because I’m the only one. Only child. I never had a brother. So, you like my brother, and I liked this part. Driving the car like a man. Shooting bad guys. In my childhood everybody want to be a hero. So I like this part, fighting bad guys like this.
Gondry: When we did the first screen test to see how the costume fit and with the light, et cetera, I saw the dynamic immediately that would help the movie better than it could be. There was a mutual respect and a compliment from one to the other. Like, Seth felt a little under confident because everything that Jay wears makes him look cooler. With Seth, that’s not really his forte, looking super cool. On the other hand, Seth is a super improviser and would never respect the script which he even wrote. Jay was completely lost most of the time, but just had to act cooler and pretend that he understand. I think this was, as a director, the material that I had build up, this dynamic. It was serving me a great deal and I thanked them for that. It was just awesome to see these two guys feeling underconfident about each other and then overconfident.
Rogen: Based in real life. Very sad.
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