Kyle Newman was sweating it out. In the midst of a 30-day shoot for an action film that would ordinarily take at least double that, limited even further by the fact that much of its teenage cast was required to attend mandatory schooling each day on the set, he had reached the day of filming the climactic scene in “Barely Lethal,” a battle involving almost a dozen characters set inside a small, suburban home. The ultimate collision of the two lives led by its heroine Megan Walsh (Hailee Steinfeld), a young woman groomed as a spy by an enigmatic mentor (Samuel L. Jackson) before realizing missions to Chechnya held less appeal than attending a homecoming dance, the scene covered even more pages of script than the amount of people in it, including two of the film’s biggest stars in Jackson and Jessica Alba, who serves as the film’s villain, on one of their only days on set together.
“[There’s] action that comes in, and action that stops for more conversation, and then more action, so it was logistically crazy,” recalls Newman, of the shoot involving crashed windows and heavy fisticuffs. “There was a lot of pressure on that day, but thankfully, it all worked out.”
Newman can’t help but make this sound like just another day on the set, such is the power of his positivity. While such enthusiasm has been an undeniable part of his movies thus far, it’s even stronger in person and no doubt what has kept him making movies after experiences that would’ve stopped other directors in their tracks. After being thrown onto his first feature “The Hollow” only days before its production, his followup, a planned remake of “Revenge of the Nerds” that was set to be his big break, was shut down a week into production when no college in Georgia wanted to be associated with it in the wake of Todd Phillips’ debaucherous fratboy flicks. Subsequently, he cruised through the production of “Fanboys,” channeling his own passion for “Star Wars” into the comedic quest of four fans to break into Skywalker Ranch to see “The Phantom Menace,” before the Weinstein Company picked it up for release and wanted to cut out the boys’ entire reason reason for going – to make sure their friend could see the film before he died of cancer. (The resulting film was a compromise, but after a very public fight, the damage had been done.)
With “Barely Lethal,” one gets the sense that Newman has finally made a movie that he can proudly call his own, something energetic and large-scale that turns a genre on its head by setting it in the real world with the fantastical lurking just around the corner. On the eve of its release, he spoke about filming high-flying action for a price, getting the most out of his actors and the importance of maintaining a fun set, as well as perplexing Samuel L. Jackson’s manager.
It’s strange, I had old roommate was working at RKO [one of the film’s producers] who said, “We have this great script and you should check it out.” I read it that day and it was so much fun. It was a high school film and I grew up loving that genre and I loved the twist through it — this injection of action. It was fun way to explore a a coming of age story, and I just jumped on board. Thankfully, Hailee Steinfeld loved it too, and Sam Jackson came on board, so we put this great cast together around it and then raised our money.
You’ve said the fact that this was female-driven was initially a little bit of an issue when trying to raise financing for it. Did that come as a surprise?
I was a little taken aback by some of the reluctance, but I wouldn’t say it was a heavy reluctance to do it with females. but there were definitely a couple people that wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t male. I was surprised because we had just come off “Twilight,” and “Hunger Games” was doing so well, and these are young female protagonists that are fully capable of kicking ass and taking charge, and not needing to be saved. They had proved their box office worth globally, so I was like, “Really, what would be the difference between a male or a female?” I thought that’s what made it unique and fresh. All the females were doing the fighting with all the males off to the side. There’s something different about that than what you normally see in most action films.
In both this film and “Fanboys,” you strike a really nice balance where it’s grounded in reality, but there’s one foot out the door into that fantastical realm. Is there a trick to capturing that tone?
Yeah, all the adults are a little bit heightened and a little bit crazy, and the conceit is also bigger than reality, but we try to keep it emotionally real. I think that was people like Hailee Steinfeld and Dove Cameron and Thomas Mann, these great, really great young actors who can be real and present and feel like normal teenagers, but at the same time they’re doing something just a bit ridiculous, who can make it feel grounded.
That actually fits in with something else I’ve been impressed by – even though you’ve told stories that center on just one or two characters, they always feel like ensemble pieces. In casting, do you actually consider actors as much for how they’ll compliment each other as part of a group as much as in their individual roles.
I do, I try to think of the big group and find people that are not just talented, but they’re going to come in and play nice with everyone else — actors that will seize small moments to make them bigger. Like Dan Fogler’s Mr. Drumm is a smaller, supporting character, but people love him when he comes on screen before he even says anything because he just owns it. Steve-O’s only [in “Barely Lethal”] very briefly, but he does a fantastic job and does his own thing with it, and Rob Huebel is hilarious in the film. He only has these three scenes, but he’s just so wonderful in them. So you want to find those actors that are going to take a little bit and run with it. That helps it feel like it’s a bigger thing because if everyone does their part as best they can, then everybody shines in the movie. I really to make sure that all the characters, if they’re going to be in there, they have something interesting to do.
You even manage to give Topher Grace something interesting to do in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo. How did he come to be in the family photo of the Larsons, the family that takes Hailee Steinfeld’s character Megan in?
Topher’s a very, very good friend of mine and he wanted to come down to visit me while I was shooting. He flew in for two days, and while he was there we had to take this family portrait of the Larsons and I said, “You should be Mr. Larson.” He was like, “All right,” so it was just impromptu. We got him this really good holiday sweater and a nice mustache and he became the estranged Mr. Larson in that picture. You’ll see there’s a lot places throughout the house where there was four pictures and there’s one missing that would have been his, his of the family group. The plan was he was going to be in the sequel; Mr. Larson’s going to come back and he’s going to try and reintegrate himself into the family.
It’s good you’re planning ahead. Was there actually a running joke on set regarding funny mustaches? Samuel L. Jackson sports a pretty mean one later on in the film.
He does and the fun with Samuel L. Jackson’s mustache was he’s supposed to be in disguise, but we wanted it to be really atrocious looking. Originally, we were going to do that scene set in the school [Megan attends] where he was a janitor. Because of some schedule changes, we ended up shooting it on a school bus, which was actually more fun, and turned him into a bus driver. It was organic, but that one was driven by the dialogue and the Martin Van Buren conversation [about facial hair], and at one point, Sam’s manager watched the movie and she was like, “I really like the movie, but his mustache was terrible.” [laughs] I said, “That was the point, it’s supposed to be this really bad makeup job he put on really quickly, not some incredible spy outfit.”
They’re both probably the two hardest things to do and they’re just so different. With the homecoming, you’re dealing with lots of people, and music, and dancing. People are moving all around this space, so the blocking and staging of it is tricky and then there’s this emotional element that’s going on as well.
The car chase I planned in advance [with] some storyboards and also some video cut together to see how it could work kinetically because it wasn’t like we were going to shoot an action scene with eight cameras and cut it together, like most action movies would do. We only had one or two cameras, so we had to get exactly every angle planned in advance for just that shot because we weren’t going to hand it to an editor, and say “Figure it out.” It has to be pre-figured out, and it’s a very atypical way of making an action film, so that was a challenge. It also had 108 visual effects in it and a lot of green screen, and plates, and it spans multiple locations, so it was pretty sprawling, but it’s a fun car chase right in the middle of this movie to remind you of the danger of the world she came from.
“Fanboys” had some action, but this seems like a whole different thing. Was it interesting working with a stunt team to create those scenes?
Yeah, it’s a much larger scale and it was wonderful to work with more people. [Stuntmen] Jeff and Trevor Habberstad, who just worked on “American Sniper” and “Iron Man 3,” are really great. Jeff is a very respected, esteemed second unit guy and good [second unit] director, so he brought a lot of experience and like I said, we had to almost pre-figure everything out, so it was just good to bounce things off of him. He would say, “We could do it like this and save two shots here and this may be more dynamic,” so it was a really great collaboration and when you find someone like that who just knows that [aspect of filmmaking] better than you and you learn from him, and you show him what you’re thinking, and he helps you bring it to life, I love that.
Our fight coordinator was Andy Cheng who worked for decades with Jackie Chan and that was awesome to have him come down and teach these girls all these really cool, dynamic moves and use unconventional weapons — how to fight with a hose or a broomstick and mix martial arts styles. He was an expert, so you default to it, and learn from him, and then try and elevate as much you can.
Based on the movies you’ve developed over the years, “Barely Lethal” seems emblematic of the kind of films you want to make, incorporating elements typically associated with blockbusters, but yet I’ve heard you say you’re pretty intent on doing things independently. Through the process of making this, did you figure out how you could make those things work going forward?
A lot of what I’m developing right now are higher-concept things that still have heavy genre elements — at a bigger scale than “Barely Lethal” — but they’re not cost prohibitive, so I could still do [them] independently. That’s the plan. But I’m not averse to working on studio stuff and I’m developing a lot of television stuff right now. There’s a lot more people involved in television — a lot more writers, and different producers — but you’re going to be able to tell a bigger story and a more sprawling character stories, which I love. Those projects coming up are going to be very cool and that won’t be independent, so it all depends on what’s right for the story. I don’t feel like I have to do things independently, but if that’s the only way to get it made then that’s how we’ll do it.
“Barely Lethal” opens in limited release on May 29th. It is also now available on DirecTV and will be available on demand.