David Kerr on Rowan Atkinson, Johnny English Strikes Again, and Comedy
I am a big fan of Rowan Atkinson as a comedic actor and think that Mr. Bean, Blackadder, and Johnny English are great characters that have stood the test of time. While Johnny English: Strikes Again has been playing overseas for several weeks now, the film just opened with a rather small release here in the states. Needless to say, I was very excited to see the film and enjoyed it quite a bit. I recently also got to chat with director David Kerr about the film, what it was like working with Rowan Atkinson, and his background in comedy.
Scott Menzel: Good morning, David. How are you doing?
David Kerr: I’m really well, Scott. Thanks for taking the time.
Scott Menzel: No problem at all. How was the premiere last night?
David Kerr: You know, it’s always slightly unnerving to watch the movie with an audience because you just have to hope that there’s laugh there. Because a movie like this exists to elicit laughter. If it isn’t doing that then the movie isn’t working. But I have to say I was absolutely delighted to hear people laughing.
So, it was the first time I’ve watched it with an American audience and there was plenty of laughter so I couldn’t be happier.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. Kind of going off that, it’s interesting because usually here in the States, we get movies before or the exact same time as a worldwide release. However, with this film, it has been out in the foreign markets for a while now and has done very well overseas, especially with British audiences.
So, with that being said, were you relieved going into the USA premiere knowing that even if the film doesn’t go over well here, it’s already doing well elsewhere?
David Kerr: Yes, absolutely. We’re in a time with the movie industry where the opening weekend domestically has become this huge deal and its make or break for so many movies. It serves us how the studio and the marketing department are going to get behind the film. And if the film underperforms in the opening weekend then, suddenly, everybody starts to question their judgment and what can happen.
So to be working on a film where the audience is very much identified as existing internationally instead domestically is fine. You know, Rowan has always been a bigger star internationally than he has been in the U.S. I hope that this film will bring him some new fans on this side of the Atlantic. I think there’s a lot in there that’s very accessible and relatable and kind of timely. But more than anything else, it’s just disarmingly funny, I hope.
Scott Menzel: Oh yeah, no I agree. I got a chance to watch the film yesterday. I am a big Rowan Atkinson fan in general. I mean, of course, everyone talks about Mr. Bean. I love Mr. Bean from the TV series to Mr. Bean’s Holiday. I went to see Bean multiple times in the theater. Plus I love the Blackadder series and, of course, the two previous films in this franchise as well.
The Johnny English franchise is kind of interesting because I remember when the second one came out which here in the States, everyone was like very negative towards it. And yes, I looked up the box office from it. And to my surprise, it made the exact same amount of money that the first one did, which is so rare for a sequel. Usually, they make less or more but to see something where it was the exact same box office numbers; that’s incredible!
So my question to you is, were you a fan of this franchise before you came on board?
David Kerr: Absolutely! And more than anything, I was a fan of Rowan Atkinson. As you suggested, you know, he has this body of work which is really extraordinary. And I first encountered him when I was a teenager with his TV sketch show, Not The Nine O’Clock News, which was on the BBC. He was so irresistibly funny in that sketch show. And then, to see him in Blackadder, which is, one of the best sitcoms ever made. And people stopped trying to do historical sitcoms for a few years after Blackadder because it just seemed to own that.
So, I guess, those were the things I watched at the most formative time as a sort of comedy fan. And then watching the Johnny English movies. I watched the Johnny English movies with my kids and they loved them and I found him sort of irresistible. But with this one, I think it was about trying to take that character and give it a sort of a fresh, modern feel and hopefully, make the funniest version of a Johnny English movie.
That was the kind of yardstick that I said to give it a sort of pace though that kind of just kept taking you somewhere new and giving you something different to laugh at.
Scott Menzel: No, and I completely agree. I was going to mention that as I love a lot of the little things in William’s script. Like how the agency doesn’t use guns anymore and that there’s the whole thing about having to sign a safety agreement. I also like the joke about the fancy new phone that can take pictures and the whole we use these sort of cars now because they are more fuel efficient. It was just, all of those kinds of things, I felt really poked fun of the spy genre in the modern age. And especially, in like, a parody movie like this. I think a lot of audiences are really going to connect with those jokes.
David Kerr: Right, right. I think so. I mean, I think you know, the world is moving so fast now and we’re all expected to adapt to the digital wave. And I do think it’s not just people of Johnny Vintage. But we have a sort of a job to keep up with the change and the shift in digital technology. And of course, it’s also, a time when we’re casually signing off our data. I accept the cookies and yes I accept those terms and conditions. And very few of us are taking time to consider the implications or even if we do consider, really understanding what the effects are of handing out our personal data to unseen forces.
So, I wouldn’t make profound claims for this sort of complexity, dramatically of the sort of text clause. But it’s definitely tapping into something that’s in the ether and is a concern for all of us as citizens.
Scott Menzel: No, I think, I mean, you know, kind of talking to you about this, it’s interesting because, you know, you have Emma Thompson’s character in the film. She’s so willing to figure out where this data breach is coming from. You know, like, why does this keep happening? Who’s doing that? And she’s so quick to find a resolution that she turns to this, you know, like this Steve Jobs type character, without really knowing him or knowing his intentions. And yet is so willing to make herself look good an turn over this security of the entire country. Just so, you know, she can work with this person and we hope that she’s doing the right decisions without doing any research.
And I thought that was a brilliant statement just about us, in general. How quickly we, I don’t know, we just turn to technology and we adapt to it. And we forget that it’s all being used as a security breach, Facebook, Twitter, like it’s just gathering information about us. And all this stuff is like, it’s funny ’cause it’s done in such a comedic way that you don’t initially think of it that way. But really when you take the time to look at it, there’s a lot to be said about it.
David Kerr: Yeah. I mean, I think it was yesterday that Tim Cook referred to the weaponization of data. And, you know, it’s a real thing. It’s a real concern in the world. But equally, we exist in a world where politicians are so mindful of opinion polls and how the public regards them. That they feel they got to jump and adapt and respond, you know, in tune with the new cycle. So, they need to get results and get them quick. So, that felt like a very plausible situation that you got a leader of a country, a Prime Minister, who isn’t on the back foot because things are going wrong. And she just wants to fix them fast. And, you know, she’s constantly faced with a crisis and that just feels like the reality, certainly for a Theresa May or a Donald Trump and for many world leaders. You know, that’s the kind of the time that we’re in.
Scott Menzel: No, I completely agree. One of my favorite scenes in the film was the VR scene. The studios are pushing hard for it. There’s a VR experience for Jurassic World. There’s a VR experience for First Man. You know, there’s a VR experience for everything now. Was that always in the script? Or was that something that you worked with William to come up with? And how did that scene come about?
David Kerr: I’m glad you brought it up. It’s probably my favorite scene in the movie. It was in the script initially. And I worked with Will and Rowan and between us, we kind of finessed the details of it and adapted it then at that kind of location. And, you know, we had a lot of those, “Wouldn’t it be funny here?” And “Oh, what if?” moments.
And, one of the ways we developed it was to try to make sure that the themes of violence that occur in the real world, don’t feel too repetitive. That there is this sort of evolving twist to the jokes so that it feels like there is some variety and it’s not just a repetition of Johnny beating people up.
Killing is part of it, but you know, to find some texture and variety in that. And above all, as a director, the challenge really was to make the thing feel seamless. So that there’s a kind of match-cutting similarity between what Johnny thinks he’s seeing and what’s going on in the virtual point of view and what’s actually happening in the real world environments.
That was a real jigsaw puzzle. To find locations and then adapt the shots and design the shots so that all of that would flow in a way that both sides of the story could be funny. It wasn’t just stuck up in VR pay off in the real world. You know, although that’s probably the sort of primary shape of it. But, if it’s about kind of making it feel dynamic and surprising, it was a tough thing to pull off. And you know, we started editing it and initially, we didn’t have the virtual point of view materials generated by the company that designed it with me. We just had my storyboards. And my storyboards is a whole sequence, every frame. But, when you’re cutting from very funny shots of Johnny, you know, sort of crawling across the Zephyr crossing or bashing up bloats with baguettes to flaying all black and white storyboards.
The kind of wind came out of the sails when you cut to the storyboards. It felt really quite inert. The producers were worried if like, is this going to be funny ’cause it isn’t funny. We’re like, “Johnny’s funny”, and then we cut into these storyboards and they’re not funny.
Well, they will be once we animate the materials. So, have faith. And I, sort of, stuck to that and then we started getting the point of view material in and the whole sequence started to sync. And yeah, it’s just, you know, probably my favorite sequence because the audience just really connects with it. And I love background jokes as well. Particularly the climax of it, is a sort of background joke, which is always pleasing.
Scott Menzel: Oh yeah. I was in that in the boardroom, yeah. I love that!
You know, you’ve been talking a lot about Rowan and I feel like I haven’t asked any questions about him. I mean, he, to me, he is someone who I admire as well. It’s almost like he is an actor that I grew up watching. You know, and I remember, like I said, Blackadder and Mr. Bean. So, and you seem to go back that far with him as well and so, almost someone who has shaped your comedic mind. So, what I wanted to ask is, what was it like for you working with him? And from your own perspective, what is it that makes him so brilliant at what he does?
David Kerr: I mean it was a joy to work with him because he brings so much thought to the character. He’s played this character on and off since 1991 when the Johnny character had his first hit duration at his school, Richard Laison and a series of credit card commercials. And then, sort of, 10 years later, the first Johnny English movie arrived.
So, Rowan knows that character. And very often, Rowan knows what he wants to do in any given scene and what he can make funny and what feels true to that character. But equally, Rowan is incredibly open to my input and understand that as the director can just give guidance when an actor needs it. So, you know, between takes, he’d offer something in a take and then I just give him feedback immediately and, you know, tell him how great something was. But maybe it would be work trying one where, you know, you don’t look at that character at that moment where you play it slightly cooler. Or you raise an eyebrow at the end of that line rather than before you ask the question. You know, I’m just kind of give him those suggestions and we’ll interrogate it together.
And then he’ll try different things and I think it’s a process. Because I’m his first audience. Even though he is an amazingly talented performer, he does need input and you know, every time there is this conversation going on between us. We’re very close.
What is it special about him as a performer? Well, I think partly, he almost convinces you that he has muscles in his face that most of us don’t possess. And he certainly has the ability to control them and manipulate them in a way that most of us can’t. So, he has this incredibly expressive face. But he also, I think, has an enormously detailed understanding of full body acting. And, the age of television and this sort of modern screen acting, lots of that is acting from the neck up and most things quite dial-up driven. And this is the facial comedy. And this is a guy in Rowan who really understands how to use his full body to deliver official comedy, whether it’s the detail of how a character stands or how he walks. Or, you know, the way he dances in this film.
So, you know I think that’s really the sort of the thing that separates him. I mean, of course, he’s a very dexterous dialogue deliverer as well. But it’s probably the physical skill that is just rare. You got to go back to Keaton and Chaplin to find someone at that degree of genius.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I mean, I would agree with that. I mean, he’s so good at the facial mannerisms and just making a simple movement be entertaining and humorous. It’s very funny. In a way, he reminds me of the early days of Jim Carrey.
David Kerr: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, he was like where it was just all about the facial mannerisms. It was all about how you move your body. And it’s just those two are very similar in that regard.
David Kerr: Yeah. Yeah.
Scott Menzel: I feel like the cast in most of these movies, people don’t realize that there’s always a great cast. I mean, the last movie had Daniel Kaluuya in it. The movie before that had John Malkovich in it. This one, you know, you have like, people Jake Lacy and Emma Thompson.
So, the people who are cast in this film, where they always your first choices? Or how did they come about?
David Kerr: Absolutely. You know, gifted with an amazing cast. Emma Thompson was certainly the only thought I had for a Prime Minister. I think he persuaded to do it. As far as I know, she’s the only person who’s won an Oscar for writing and acting. And she just has this incredible skill as a dramatic actor but equally has funny bones and a really sharp comic brain. So, she was a Godsend. I just felt all my Christmases have come when she agreed to do it. She was terrific.
And Jake Lacy as well. I loved Jake in The Office and in movies like Mrs. Sloan, and They’re Finest. And, I think what attracted me to Jake was that I didn’t want to play his character as a kind of social misfit, geeky, awkward guy. You know, I wanted him to be suave and charismatic. And to sort of seduce the Prime Minister just by being a very smooth guy, that she would find him irresistible and be kind of taken in by him, personally. As well as being impressed by his technological skill.
So, Jake just brought that, I think, brilliantly.
And then, you know, Ben Miller. It was just great to get Ben back to play alongside Johnny and they have an amazing kind of symbiosis. A kind of double act, Laurel and Hardy kind of quality.
And, you know, Olga Kurylenko, I think, is a kind of revelation that she’s so funny in a sort of deadpan way alongside Rowan.
So, yeah, you know, I really felt blessed because, you know, if you don’t get it right at the casting stage, it’s very hard. You often end up then trying to cuss around a weak performance or something. And I just never had to do that on this.
Scott Menzel: No, that’s good. That’s great. And I agree with you, I think you did a great job casting this and I think everyone really fit into the movie well. I forgot to mention Olga but I think Olga and Rowan had such wonderful chemistry. They really played off each other very flawlessly.
David Kerr: Yeah. Absolutely!
Scott Menzel: Alright, well thank you so much, David. I know you have to run but I appreciate you taking the time. And best of luck!
David Kerr: Thank you so much! Great to talk to you! Thank you!
Scott Menzel: Great to talk to you, too. Take care.