Set inside the single floor of a dilapidated hotel in a riot-plagued, near-future Los Angeles, Hotel Artemis is a film that seems to thrive on its own unique personality. A big part of that personality comes from Drew Pearce, who wrote and directed the film. Pearce, who’s credits range from writing Iron Man 3 to directing a Father John Misty short, goes all out in his first feature-length film.
The film boasts an impressive roster of talent, including Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Charlie Day, Dave Bautista, and Jeff Goldblum as a ruthless mob boss, all coming together to realize Pearce’s unique vision. We got the chance to talk to Pearce about what influenced his smoke-and-blood-stained genre movie, as well as how many other stories Hotel Artemis might inspire.
Hotel Artemis has a very lived-in aesthetic to it. How long did you live with this idea before you started putting pen-to-paper?
I first came up with the idea of a bad-guy hostel back in 2011, but I think the hospital itself, and the aesthetic, was a cumulation of stuff. When I have an idea, I do three things: I start a little notebook just for that idea, I start a playlist for the music, and I start a Dropbox folder. So, over weeks or months, or even years, I’ll accumulate images.
Also, during that time, when I was developing that idea in my head, I’d moved to L.A., so the influence of Los Angeles was a big one. So, there’s an area of L.A. where Hotel Artemis is set, and ultimately where we shot the entire movie, called downtown. Even people who live in L.A. used to never visit or know much about, but I love it. I’m a big fan of 1920s L.A. literature, a lot of Marlowe, a lot of Chandler. And [downtown] was this incredibly vibrant center of the city in the ’20s, and it just fell apart. By the ’70s it was filled with heroin dens.
Now, it’s becoming gentrified again, but it’s just this fascinating area. That was a starting place for the aesthetic, these incredible derelict, deco buildings was a big thing. Also, as I was exploring, I found out that a lot of them have these prohibition-era tunnels that connect the hospitals for running the gin, and that seemed to suggest this idea for a secret hospital for criminals as well.
The other part that informs it is this near-future movie, and that really came about because it’s a movie about a hospital, and in order for the stakes to feel high, people have to come in messed up enough that there’s drama to it, there’s life-or-death to it, but because it’s also a movie set over one night, I needed them to be able to get fixed during that evening so I could use those characters throughout the night. Current medical technology didn’t do that, whereas setting it in the future would. So that led to this kind-of collision of 1920s and 2020s aesthetic. It was a very organic root to that look.
In addition to the literary are architectural influences, what was some of the cinema that helped inform the film?
On a story level, definitely Casablanca is probably the biggest influence. I love that idea of a group of people of varying degrees of villainy trapped from a war outside, but really the trouble is the people inside. That’s the nucleus of Artemis. On a tonal level, I would say the movies that influenced it were primarily the ones that I grew up loving. On one hand, definitely John Carpenter. He’s the king of the lock-in. Walter Hill, who I love the way he world-builds.
Those movies, the ones you find on the video shelves, never really differentiated between blockbuster or indie movie or arthouse, so I never saw a difference when I was growing up between watching Robocop or Repo Man or Diva. [So], I wanted the movie to have that feel.
What came about was that sense of personality that’s sometimes missing in genre movies these days. A sense of the rough edges, a sense of eccentricity. That kinda led to the other big influence, which is aesthetic, but it’s also in the storytelling, which is [that] I love Korean movies — the last 10 years in particular. There was something about that sense of a busted, rich glamor that I felt suited this idea of a future-deco building. That and the use of color really came from Korean cinema, and Asian cinema in general, but also I think it’s the storytelling.
One of the most refreshing things about Korean filmmaking the way that tonally they are so unafraid of the zig-zag. To go from high drama to broad comedy, to ultra violence, to sincere emotion, sometimes all in the same scene, that kind of zig-zag excites me, and I wanted to put that in the film.
When you were assembling the cast, did you sell them on these same ideas? Everyone in the movie really seems to be on the same very specific wavelength.
I think that’s one of the challenges of being a director. You’ve got all these characters and all these actors all coming with a slightly different performance size and shape, and your job is to steer the tonal ship, and their performances, to a place where they all feel like they really exist in the same world. That involves a huge element of trust on the actors’ part. None of them want to give a performance that, when you see it in the bigger picture, stands out as not being a part of it.
That’s made all the trickier when you’re an indie movie, like we are. We’ve got very little money, we shot in 33 days, [and] we’re shooting completely out of order. So, for example, Jodie has to track her own emotional journey throughout the film, and that involves preparation on her part. [Also], my cast has literally never met each other. They’ve never all been in the same place at the same time. Even last night at the premiere we couldn’t do that, because there are just too many of them, and they’re doing different things. So it comes down to you, as the director, to be the fulcrum that every performance moves around.
Well, and despite it all taking place in one night, and mostly inside the Hotel Artemis itself, there’s something about it that leans towards feeling a bit like an anthology. All these characters feel like the protagonist in their own story.
One of the joys of making a movie like this is, we’re not a major studio movie, so I wasn’t under pressure to explain everything all the time. I could let you be informed of who that character is by what they do in the moment, rather than with tons of backstory or how we got there. We could let that sometimes play as a mystery, or sometimes simply be unanswered. You know, let the movie make a decision. Maybe you don’t need to know that. Or maybe it’s more enriching for you not to know something, and you can let your imagination fill in the blanks.
That’s the thing with a lot of those movies I grew up loving, is they were tiny character movies in a massive universe. That’s what I was really going for with Artemis, and with any ensemble, is hinting at stories without having to tell every single one of them. Personally, as an audience member, I love that.
On that note, how many more stories do you think you could tell inside the Artemis? Maybe not necessarily in film, but in other mediums, potentially.
One doesn’t want to taunt the universe hubristically by thinking too far ahead of the project that you’re already on. Particularly before people see it and whether people have an appetite for more of it. But this universe is something I adore, so there are tons of different ways that we could go forward.
You know, characters who survive at the end of the movie who would be fun to follow what they did next. Listening to Jodie yesterday, she definitely believes there are prequel possibilities within the Artemis itself. And I think there’s a wider world as well. This idea the world is full of these independent dark rooms, and most cities have one, but the personality is different in each city. I’d love to explore that.
The L.A. darkroom, the Artemis, and the story we tell, is very much based on L.A. crime fiction. It would be exciting to tap different cities and different cultures, and make something in the lineage of their crime characters and crime stories. That would be something I’d be incredibly excited about. And as you say, whether that takes place in film or in TV, or in whatever medium, it’s really going to be up to what kind of appetite their is for that.
Before I go, I have to ask about this line that really stuck with me, when Jodie’s character tells The Wolf King he’s just another hippy who “traded his beads for bullets.” I’m curious if that was just a throwaway line, or some allusion to something greater?
That actually speaks to the exposition of things, as well. There used to be a lot more history of The Wolf King in the movie. Originally, the mob boss in the film was Russian. I wrote [that] three years ago, and it quickly became the case of that not only was that a little bit of a trope, there was also a sense that time had caught up with me.
I’d based the idea of him being Russian based on what I’d seen happen in England, which was in London, an oligarch moved in and bought up the whole city, and I could see extrapolating that 10 years in the future and happening in L.A. But, it turned out, the Russians infiltrated American culture on a much higher level without anyone knowing. I kinda lent back into the L.A. of things, the history of L.A. that the movie taps into the whole time.
I’m obsessed with late-’60s and early-’70s L.A. pop-culture, and one of the things I thought was interesting around that time was that you had this kind of folk-rock, and general pop-culture explosion on the west coast, and then you had people that moved in — the archetype I use is David Geffen — who moved into the scene and monetized it. That, along with Altamont, was a turning point moment in culture, that led to the darkness of the ’70s.
I loved the idea of taking a mob boss that played with that, essentially, rode the counter-culture into owning the city through crime. You know, started as a low-level drug dealer who turned into one of those Malibu billionaires with their $1,000 cashmere sweatpants, who still considered themselves to be a hippy. There’s even a line that cut out before we shot it, but when The Nurse is gently teasing The Wolf King, he says something like “I gave peace a chance, but it didn’t stick. All that’s left is war.”
Hotel Artemis opens on June 8 in theaters everywhere.