Archenemy: Interview with Adam Egypt Mortimer

We speak to Archenemy and Daniel Isn’t Real writer and director Adam Egypt Mortimer about comic books and Pink Floyd’s The Wall…

Written and directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Daniel Isn’t Real) and developed by Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision studio, Archenemy is the story of Max Fist (Joe Manganiello), who’s an alcoholic, homeless drug addict. But buy him a drink and he’ll tell you the story of his amazing life – that he’s really a hero from another planet and is trapped here after being defeated by his arch-enemy (Amy Seimetz) and her doomsday device.

When Max is befriended by Hamster (Skylan Brooks) and his sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs), he’s pulled into a whole new battle with gangs and drugs. But maybe he’ll have the chance to be a hero again after all?

We sat down with Adam Egypt Mortimer to talk about Archenemy’s animation sequences, comic book inspirations and what he has coming up next…

When did you first get the idea for Archenemy?

I started writing [Archenemy] in 2015, which now sounds like such a long time ago. It was before I’d made Daniel Isn’t Real, although I’d written Daniel Isn’t Real, and I think it started with the idea of doing a superhero movie, like, what The Wrestler did. How The Wrestler treated the subject of wrestling.

I had this image of a man who wears a tattered cape and sits in a bar drinking whiskey talking about his glory days, and that’s sort of where the idea came from. As somebody who’s always loved and continues to love comic books, I was thinking a lot about the way that comics treat superheroes in a very big, broad way. There’s a lot of different ways to tell stories about superheroes – it’s not a genre in comic books, it’s mythology. It’s a set of characters. So one day it can feel like an Indie dramatic thing and or it can feel like a big crazy epic science fiction. There are all these ways to go.

In the Eighties, comic books sort of exploded with this sense of ‘okay you guys, all you comic book readers know what these characters are so let’s play’. So I think around the time I first came up with Archenemy,  I was thinking: ‘Well, let’s treat film-going audiences the same way.’ We all know how superhero stories work, but what we haven’t done is seen a lot of different kinds of aesthetic choices or what if I did a superhero movie that felt like a crime thriller by Michael Mann? Or how would Wong Kar Wai have made a superhero movie? So that’s sort of the ideas I went into it with.

It’s funny because that initial idea of it’ll be like The Wrestler… that movie is so grounded and realistic and once I started writing [Archenemy] I became interested in black holes and alternate dimensions and it all just goes kind of crazy!

I think something that opened up for me that was fun about making it was that coming off of Daniel Isn’t Real (which is a very intense and focused story about loneliness and very dark feelings), that with the idea of a superhero crime science fiction movie, I didn’t have to dwell in that particular tone. That particular dread and anxiety tone. I think there’ll always be some of that with me, because that’s how I feel, and that’s what I’m interested in, but this could go into comedy and be more colourful and take turns in paying attention to other characters. There was a freedom to it that was so exciting for me to get to do it.

Were there any particular comic books you drew inspiration from for Archenemy?

Yeah, there are a few. One is Electra Assassin that Frank Miller wrote and Bill Sienkiewicz did the art and it’s about a character who was Daredevil’s love interest/enemy. The style of it was so strange. This is a thing that came out in the mid-Eighties and there are parts where it flash backs to her childhood and it’s drawn in a crayon. It has a very mixed media, deconstructed look. I don’t think in any way Archenemy is like that story, but the inspiration of saying ‘you can’. Comic books could do this. So what could we do?

There’s [also] a comic book writer named Grant Morrison, who is one of my very favourite writers of any medium, and he’s also a close friend of mine – his approach, his understanding about superheroes as science fiction characters, instead of punchy punchy characters and the way that they represent our biggest and most cosmic thoughts and feelings can be expressed through kind of an explosion of ideas. That was always something behind [the idea]… I even called him up after I released the movie and said: ‘Hey Grant I’m looking forward to you seeing Archenemy, I hope you don’t sue me [haha]!’

Will Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) have the chance to be a hero again?

The animation sequences in Archenemy are incredibly striking. How involved were you with that element?

Yeah, the animation was crazy because we put together a team of only three people to do all of the animations. I can’t say it was hands-on [because] I didn’t draw anything obviously, but I had one comic book artist named Sunando [C] who I’ve worked with in the past, and one animator, who was based in Chicago and one compositor named Danny Perez, who’s also a filmmaker, [and] we were on Zooms every morning talking about the sequences and what it should look like. Then they would make versions and I would give them notes… it was actually fairly exhausting and kind of terrifying because so much of the movie is relying on those pieces.

What was fascinating about it was that it was all in the script originally, so when we were shooting the movie I knew that we were going to have these sequences. But by the time we were in the edit, I was radically changing them, and since they hadn’t all come together yet I was able to completely rewrite these scenes in a way that you don’t normally get to do.

The big idea that I had about the animation was that it was like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There’s such great animation in that [which] shows the inside of his head, this man going crazy… so every day I would just get on the call with the animators and be like: “It’s expressionistic! Don’t be literal. Make it experiential, not narrative. Only use these two colours. Nope that’s pink. I wanted this pink…”

I had a strong idea about what it should feel like and what the colours of it should be in the sense that it needed to feel really different than the rest of the movie. Not just an animated version of the same people but really fucking different, like you’re watching a different movie and then it feels like his memories are fantasies.

I think the thing that was so wonderful was how much they embraced the idea of it being psychedelic. There’s a sequence at the beginning where Max punches his way through a reality tunnel and then there’s a sequence later where he gets the cosmic blood and both of those go into these just crazy, strobe abstract flashing skulls and pink electricity tendrils. Danny Perez, who worked on the movie, is just such a psychedelic individual. He really understood. Once we established a language about how insane I wanted to be, he was able to really run with that.

We also loved the film’s soundtrack…

The composer’s a guy named Umberto whose real name is Matt Hill, and he’s made a lot of albums in the past that sound like a soundtrack to a Sixties or Seventies Italian horror movie. He’s a really well-trained musician with a lot of skills, and we just really liked him. Me and my producers at SpectreVision were all a fan of his.

One of the things that I brought to him was, I was talking about krautrock, which is that genre of music from the late Sixties/early Seventies in Germany, that was this kind of mix of very psychedelic but also hard rock music. I kept having this image of young German dudes wearing no shirts, but with a big biker leather jacket on and then they’re playing really psychedelic cosmic music. So I kept talking to Umberto about that and I think sometimes everybody was like ‘what are you talking about?’ and other times it made sense.

I think the movie really is wall-to-wall music and sound. One of the things that’s really nice about working with SpectreVision is that those producers love music and so they can be very helpful with working closely with the composer and we’re sort of tag-teaming and getting these cues from him. He was writing music before we even started shooting the movie, so by the time we edited it we had all of these sounds that we could put in that started to define it very quickly.

He’s put out an album. He’s sequenced an album of the music. He really crafted an album of it and it sounds fucking rad, I couldn’t believe it. It just came out on Spotify and I started listening to it. He did such a good job of forming it into a musical experience.

Archenemy
Max and Hamster (Skylan Brooks) become unlikely friends.

What is it about genre that appeals to you?

I think it has to do with seeing our own individual struggles, that are very small but feel huge to us. We feel them so strongly and then we look at them and criticise ourselves and say ‘oh that was a pathetic thing for me to be feeling’, but I think the thing that’s wonderful about genre is you take those feelings and then you make them into something that’s really big and epic.

You try to say ‘well I have these feelings and they feel really big to me so if they can be expressed as a cosmic superhero, across 13 billion suns…’ that’s what I love about genre. I think there’s some part of me who’s like ‘oh I wish I could write small domestic dramas like Ingmar Bergman’. I don’t really understand how to do that, but I know how to take real human feelings and try to put them into crazy, non-real stories so that we can all recognise ourselves in them.

That also gives the stories power. I wouldn’t want to do something that’s simply a monster that’s scary or simply a superhero who punches people. There has to be this real reason for it. So whether it was this superhero movie or my previous movie that was about taking emotions like loneliness and anxiety and turning it into demonic imagery, it’s really about that. We all sit in a dark room at our homes or in a theatre and you see your own struggles in a way that’s kind of insane and it makes you feel less alone in the world. I think that’s an important part of it.

What’s coming up next for you?

One thing I’m working on is a horror movie about witches and curses. It’s a modern crime horror movie that tells the story… or it suggests the story… about how the witch trials is connected to the creation of capitalism and the stealing of public property by the ruling class. How they turned a revolutionary impulse into capitalism and connecting that to witches. Trying to do all of that in a story that just fucking moves and isn’t a history lesson and is quite violent and exciting. That’s a movie that I wrote with Brian [DeLeeuw] who I wrote Daniels Isn’t Real with and we’re hoping to shoot that sometime this year!

Archenemy is out now. Order today: bit.ly/ArchenemyUK. Listen to the Archenemy soundtrack on Spotify here. Read our review here