Superhero movies dominate our pop-culture, and particularly that of cinema. From Marvel, DC, and everything in-between, superhero movies are in the public consciousness. But considering there have been so many of these movies over the years, it’s great to see a subversive take on the genre. Enter DANIEL ISN’T REAL’s Adam Egypt Mortimer, who has brought us the gritty and intense ARCHENEMY starring Joe Mangiello. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Adam about the movie, super heroes, and how this super cast assembled.
Jacob Davison: What would you say was the inception or inspiration for the story of ARCHENEMY?
Adam Egypt Mortimer: It was my love of comic books, in the way they deal with superheroes. Going back all the way since the 80’s really or before. Comic books have been able to treat their readers in a very sophisticated way and do things with superheroes that are really wild and all different genres, different aesthetics. I was feeling that we’ve seen so many superhero movies now that we can probably treat moviegoers with that same kind of sophistication. Create stories around the mythologies of these sorts of characters that feels different, or play with genre, you know, build them in a different way. The starting point was thinking Darren Aaronofsky’s THE WRESTLER and the idea of “What if it was like that, but a superhero who’s mourning his glory days? People don’t even believe him and maybe it’s not true.” The more I wrote the story the more it became multi-faced and revolved around crime and all of that kind of stuff. That is where it was beginning for me back in 2015 when I started working on it.
JD: I see. How did Joe Mangienello become involved?
AEM: Joe was just the perfect guy for this. I think what happened was that he saw MANDY, which was my same producers SPECTREVISION, and he was like “I want to do one of these crazy psychedelic action horror movies! What else you guys got?” At the time I was working with Spectrevision and had just finished my other movie DANIEL ISN’T REAL, so we showed it to him and he liked that. Joe is just somebody steeped in the superhero world. Obviously, he’s Deathstroke, he was supposed to play Superman at one point and it didn’t work out. He’s obsessed with comic books, so when we got together to talk about the movie it was a perfect click. “This guy looks like he could be Superman. He’s the most handsome man on the planet!” We wanted to find a role for him to dig deep and play this broken man and use all of his dramatic chops. We really clicked into the vision of what the movie would be and how he would do it.
JD: Oh yeah, and I think he pulled it off greatly.
AEM: Yeah! He’s awesome, I love that guy.
JD: And of course, you can’t have a good superhero without some villains. How did Glenn Howerton become involved as The Manager?
AEM: Glenn was a sort of similar situation. Glenn is a guy who is hilarious and we all know how funny he is. I’ve been watching IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA since its first season. I’m obsessed with the show and obsessed with his brand of psychosis, sociopathy. (Laughter). But he is interested in doing things that are not comedy and interested in doing things that are out there. He also had a chance to see DANIEL ISN’T REAL. That’s the great thing, once you make a couple films and getting your point of view out there then you have the chance for people to respond to it and want to be a part of it. I met with Glenn and told him about this and he was so stoked to transform himself. He’s blonde, he’s got a mustache, he’s totally psychotic but in a different way than his character Dennis is psychotic. It was wonderful to play with him and create this menacing character who is sort of my version of The Kingpin from the Daredevil comics.
JD: And of course I have to ask about this, without going too deep to avoid spoilers. I got to ask about Paul sheer and his big scene in the movie.
AEM: Paul is in perhaps one of my favorite scenes. When I wrote it I was like, “Oh man! This is gonna be sick.” And Paul, similarly, saw my movie (DANIEL ISN’T REAL) at South By southwest and said he loved it and I had to have him in my next film. You won’t even recognize him, but what’s so wonderful re his skills at improv. Not so much that he’s inventing language not in the script, he kind of brought in some stuff there, but he’s just using the room in this incredible way. Just gobbling it up! He’s snorting all the drugs, he’s playing with the gun and his snakeskin boots and he’s got his face tattooed… it’s a wild set-up for him to do as much as he needed to do. This was a movie with such a limited budget and limited time and we were running from thing to thing, but the day we shot that big scene with Paul and with Zolee we were able to spend the whole day on that scene and really dive in and get it right. It had to be a special moment! (Laughter)
JD: Special was definitely the keyword on that one! (Laughter) I’m sure if we had seen it at The Egyptian Theater, the audiences would be rolling.
AEM: I know! I wish I could have seen that in a room and see how people reacted and freak out.
JD: Consolation, there was a lot of horn honking and lights flashing.
AEM: (Laughter) Exactly! The cars loved it!
JD: On the actors, it sounds like a recurring theme is that they were interested in subverting expectations and what they usually do and what do you think is the appeal of that?
AEM: I think actors just really like to create stuff. They want to go as deep as possible. They want to create a character. I think sometimes they’re used to being seen in a certain way and they run the risk of not being in character anymore and being themselves. One of the things I love about working with actors is they’re interested din transforming the way that they look. The same with DANIEL ISN’T REAL, Patrick Schwarzenegger came in and said “I want to dye my hair black, and these are the clothes I want to wear.” It had to do with the opportunity to transform away from who he was day to day or how we see him in photographs and it’s the same way with Joe. He was like “I want to yank out my teeth! I want to grow my beard! How dirty can I get? I want scars…” He wanted to be somebody else, this is the delight of an actor. They get to transform into someone totally new. I’m so interested in these weird characters and these weird worlds that I really want to give actors a chance to completely transform.
JD: I think you definitely do! Between ARCHENEMY and DANIEL ISN’T REAL both literally and figuratively. Something else I wanted to ask about, because one of my favorite parts of the movie is Max Fist’s flashbacks and stories being told in animated vignettes. I was wondering how that came about and who did them?
AEM: Yeah, man. Those were in the script and it was a challenge to figure out the best way to do that stuff. I really liked the idea of them feeling very abstract. Very psychological. Thinking about Pink Floyd’s THE WALL and the way the animation in that movie comes in and out of this story and feels so crazy. We were ultimately able to do that with a team of only three people. Who sort of divided and conquered. We had my buddy Sunando who’s a comic book artist draw all the characters, set-ups, and the boards and then we had Danny Perez, this psychedelic filmmaker do all the weird moving vortex dripping skull flashing. Then we had a third person Kevin Finnegan as a pipeline and pull it all together and animate it. It was really insane to do all this major animation with only three people and I think it was really stressful. (Laughter) But it was also an amazing way to really make it a little work of art. A little handcrafted thing by just a few people. I wanted it to be misty and abstract and not super detailed, not super overwrought and it was this crazy boutique animation experiment.
JD: I thought it looked beautiful, especially contrasting the live action sections of the film.
AEM: Good! Thank you, I’m so glad. It was probably the biggest risk because for me, a live action director I kind of know how I’m gonna make it looks I know what to do but with animation I was like “Oh my god, what are we doing? What have e done to ourselves!” (Laughter) But I think that’s cool. It’s a cool thing.
JD: Also with ARCHENEMY, I think it comes at a poignant time because superheroes, superhero movies dominate the box office and this feels so different and even opposite to mainstream superhero movies. Would you say it was on purpose or where do you think ARCHENEMY stands in the landscape of superhero cinema?
AEM: That’s kind of going back to my love of what comic books have been able to do with superheroes. When I think of the way that something like ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN looks and feels and how different that is from Grant Morrison’s ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. Those are both iconic superhero stories they’re all over the place. That was sort of my thinking with ARCHENEMY “What would it be like if Wong Kar-wai made. Superhero movie?” What would it be like to take these characters seriously and make it like a crime movie. What would happen if I took away Doctor Strange’s powers and he turns into The Punisher and film it like it’s a Nicolas Refn film. Playing with the idea of what these movies can do. I have no problems with superheroes. I love them. Hopefully if we’re in this world where we keep making superhero movies I think it’s exciting to rip apart the idea of what we can do with them and play with them as experimentally as possible.
JD: Certainly! And I thought ARCHENEMY did an excellent job of pushing those boundaries.
JD: (Laughter) And I just wanted to ask because I interviewed Steven Kostanski who did the other movie in the Beyond fest double feature, PG: PSYCHO GOREMAN.
AEM: PSYCHO GOREMAN!
JD: Yeah! What did you think of that double feature?
AEM: I think it was perfect! Like, what he was doing with that movie with the closest I’ve ever seen form an American movie looking like a crazy Japanese ULTRAMAN. His costumes, his vision, I loved it. There was actually a lot of influence in ARCHENEMY from Crazy Japanese filmmakers like Takashi Miike made a superhero movie called ZEBRAMAN. Little bits of that stuff is in my inspiration. It was the perfect double feature to see with what Steven did in exploding those visuals into complete… it’s so maniacal, that movie!
JD: I really thought the programmers at Beyond Fest really nailed that one because it’s a subversive superhero movie with such a subversive supervillain movie.
AEM: Yeah, totally.
JD: It’s interesting seeing you go from DANIEL ISN’T REAL to ARCHENEMY and subverting different genres. Can you talk about anything you have planned next?
AEM: Brian, who wrote DANIEL ISN’T REAL with me and who wrote the novel it was based on, we’ve written a new movie that’s about witchcraft and capitalism and money being evil… it’s a dark horror movie that’s also an exciting crime movie at the same time. And we’re hoping to be able to get that going next year. So that will hopefully be a thing. And I don’t know, looking for the next thing to do! The minute you stop making a movie you’re starting to feel like you’re dying slowly so you have to immediately start to figure out how to make a new one.
ARCHENEMY is now available to watch on VOD, Digital, and select theaters.