With The 355 now playing in theaters, I recently got to speak with director Simon Kinberg about making the original action thriller. Written by Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck, from a story by Rebeck, the spy movie is about a group of women that come together to save the world from a top-secret weapon that can hack into any computer. The all-star cast is made up of CIA agent Mason “Mace” Brown (Jessica Chastain), rival badass German agent Marie (Diane Kruger), former MI6 ally and cutting-edge computer specialist Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), and skilled Colombian psychologist Graciela (Penelope Cruz). Along the way they run into a mysterious woman, Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing), who may or may not be on their side. The film also stars Edgar Ramirez and Sebastian Stan plays Chastain’s partner at the CIA. The 355 was produced by Chastain, Kinberg, and Kelly Carmichael, with Richard Hewitt, Esmond Ren, and Wang Rui Huan executive producing.
During the extended and wide-ranging interview, Kinberg talked about why he shot The 355 with handheld cameras, collaborating with Jessica Chastain (who came up with the idea for the movie), what it was like shooting in the Paris underground and one of the oldest indoor malls, working with editor Lee Smith, how the actors did the majority of their own stunts, and more. In addition, he talked about what it was like test screening the Deadpool movies and their incredibly high scores, why Mr. & Mrs. Smith and X-Men: Days of Future Past mean so much to him, and shares updates on Edgar Wright’s The Running Man, Andrew Stanton’s Chairman Spaceman, and his Battlestar Galactica movie.
You can either watch what he had to say in the player above or you can read the full transcript below.
COLLIDER: If someone has actually never seen anything you've written, produced or directed, what's the first thing you want them watching and why?
SIMON KINBERG: Wow. Steve, you come straight in with the good stuff. I mean, obviously I want to say The 355 because I'm promoting that movie right now, but I think the movie that most expresses me as a person, I have a lot of answers for this. I'm going to give you two answers. The movie that most expresses me as a person is X-Men: Days of Future Past. And the reason for that is I love comic books as you know. I love the X-Men as you know. I grew up loving those books.
It was, in every way, the most complex script to write I've ever written because of the time travel and all of the time paradoxes and all of that. Also, and then this is the part that might be surprising and maybe we've spoken about this before, it was the most personal movie I've ever written. It was a time in my life I had just gotten divorced…where what Professor Xavier was going through in that movie, a man who needed to find hope again, was what I was going through as a man who needed to find hope again. And hope is something that's really important and I think plays through a lot of my films and a lot of my work, the importance of it and the value of it and the power of it. And ultimately Days of Future Past is about the power of hope. So I would say that film thematically most expresses me.
The other answer, I guess, I would give you is Mr. & Mrs. Smith because I think people see a lot of my work, and maybe Deadpool expresses this, but they perhaps think of me as a more serious human being than I actually am. And I'm a fun, playful, silly guy, as you know as a friend. I think Mr. & Mrs. Smith has a tone. I wrote it when I was really young. I was in film school and I just was... I kind of wrote it really free. It's a long time ago and I've evolved since then and I have four kids since then and the world has changed, but there is a playfulness to that film and a sort of riskiness to that film that I think is also me. I'm not telling you what I think are what the best films I've ever worked on. I think some people would argue The Martian is the best film I've ever worked on or Logan, but those are the films I think, best express me.
Look, there's no right answer here. It's just, what do you think of all the films you've worked on, which went through the most changes in the editing room and why?
KINBERG: Of all the films I worked on the film that went through the most changes in the editing room, honesty is probably Fantastic Four.
I was just going to ask you, and was it Fantastic Four?
KINBERG: I think it was Fantastic Four because we really struggled with the tone of that film. One of the things you do in the edit room other than obviously just put the movie together and hope for the best is when the tone is inconsistent, for various reasons. And the tones are often inconsistent. Mr. & Mrs. Smith went through a lot of that in the edit. Deadpool went through a fair amount in the edit, the first Deadpool. But Fantastic Four was one where Josh Trank had a very specific vision for the film. I don't know that it was the same vision as the studio. Which is not, this is not going to be a surprise to anyone, this common knowledge and Josh would say the same thing. I think that, that struggle between the two of them yielded a lot of work in the edit and back and forth in the edit.
You've produced a ton of movies, what was your highest test scoring film? I'm curious about that. Or one or two of the highest scoring test films.
KINBERG: Deadpool one and two.
Both of those.
KINBERG: Both of them. I can't remember which one tested higher. I mean, what's interesting about Deadpool one is it one of those films, and this is really a testament to Ryan and Tim, and to Paul and Rhett, the writers, but to Ryan Reynolds and Tim Miller is that it just kept testing higher and higher and higher in post as they kept doing more and more work. We did something like only a few days of reshoots on that film and the reshoots shot it up, I don't remember how many points. But it tested extraordinarily. Sherlock Holmes tested incredibly high. Mr. & Mrs. Smith tested really, really high. The Martian tested insanely high with very few revisions after the first test. This movie tested high, 355. But Deadpool was one where I can't remember if it was one or two where it was 99 with a 90% definite recommend. It was numbers that the studio had never seen before.
It might have been Deadpool one. Again I've been through so many test screenings because each movie sometimes can go through 10 test screenings that it's hard for me to remember, but I know those Deadpool movies tested wildly high. In fact, the second Deadpool movie tested so that we then left Los Angeles and went to Texas to test it in Texas thinking that somehow we were getting inflated scores in L.A. by cine-files. We wanted to go somewhere that was kind of more like a mall in the south or middle America. And we went to Texas and it scored, I think, even higher. I remember we all went to dinner, our plane broke down and we couldn't leave and we had a lovely night outside of Dallas somewhere.
I also remember that we screened, as part of the Collider screening series, Deadpool eight days before it came out. When the film and Fox and everyone was hoping for a $20 million weekend and little did anyone know what was going to end up happening.
KINBERG: It came out, I remember really vividly because it was Valentine's Day that weekend that it came out, the first one. I had no plans. We were making Days of Future Past at the time, I believe, or maybe Apocalypse. We were making an X-Men movie. And Jennifer Lawrence was flying to New York from Montreal for the weekend. I had no plans and no significant other but I was like, "I just want to go to New York and party for the weekend." I remember I partied a little too hard on Valentine's Day, just drinking, which I barely ever do. Drinking even, I mean. I'm just a clumsy Jew. And I fell down and I gave myself a black eye by falling down and I had to show up on set on that Monday or Tuesday with a black eye having gone to New York and been like, "I get it. I partied too hard, blame Deadpool. None of us ever saw this coming." I got smacked in the face by this historic release.
It's one of those stories that it's just a great story. The fact of all the obstacles that movie had to battle to actually get into a movie theater. I'm hoping that there's a Deadpool 3 at some point, but who knows? So jumping into The 355…I'm going to give you a little shit for a second, but it's also loving. I love the movie Sneakers. And the macguffin in this is very similar to Sneakers. Was that an homage? How did that end up happening?
KINBERG: I love Sneakers too. I think, maybe I'm a little older than you, but it came out at a time when I was like, it was... To me, Sneakers is like the grownup Goonies. It's somehow, it's a time where you're like, "I'm a grownup now and I like these grownup movies with these grownup actors." I really like it and I think it's undervalued. I don't know that it was a conscious homage. It's something I was aware of, but I also think it's something that, to some extent, in one form or another we've seen macguffins like it. One of the things I love about macguffins is that ultimately they don't matter. I loved what J.J. did in Mission: Impossible III, where the macguffin is just a rabbit's foot, and you never know what it is. It's just the macguffin. And The Maltese Falcon does something really radical with the notion of the falcon in that movie.
So I was more interested in this one, we all were, in the characters and in this ensemble of sort of characters coming together because it's very rare in spy movies, really rare, weirdly rare that you have ensemble spy movies. You have Bond and Borne and Kingsman and the whole list, but the last ensemble spy movie I can to think of is Ronin which is a movie I really like. I was just really interested in these characters. Jessica was too, it was Jessica's idea from the beginning. These characters coming together, who happened to be female, these characters coming together from different countries, with different agendas and having to form a team. You and I both love team superhero movies, and I've worked on team superhero movies. And this was a team spy movie.
I'm only giving you shit about the macguffin. I agree with you. It could just be a pen. It's just what's driving the plot forward. You got to film in Paris and all over the UK and you got to do this all...talk a little bit about how you decided on where you wanted the film to take place. Also the one thing that I took away from the Paris stuff is you shot in locations that you typically don't see in movies, like the Paris underground, on those train tracks. Can you sort of talk about all that?
KINBERG: We really wanted the movie to be global, both in terms of the cast and in terms of the locations. We shot as many places as we could. Obviously, the cast is global. We have German and Spanish and British and British African, we have American, we have Chinese. So we started in Paris. It's rare and an incredible privilege, especially in a movie that doesn't have a massive budget to be able to shoot Paris for Paris. We shot in places that I never ever thought, especially with the sort of preconceptions of Paris and the French, they would let us shoot. So yes, they let us shoot in the Paris underground, down in the tracks, which was scary because there were real third rails and places that you could not go where you would be electrocuted to death, which is not fun to shoot with a big crew. And there were certain amounts of people that were allowed in at different times and all that. It was done as safely as possible and luckily obviously totally safe.
But what was really fun was, and I think this might have been our first day, we shot in, they told us the oldest, I'm going to assume it's at least one of the oldest, arcades, indoor malls in Paris. And we ran Diane Kruger on a motorcycle and Jessica running and pushing through crowds of extras through the arcade and destroyed stuff in the arcade. That was really fun. We created a rig to be able to shoot it in this narrow space to be in front and back of the motorcycle with the camera. So we shot in the streets, we shot a bridge down in Paris. We shot Sebastian chasing Edgar Ramirez. It's incredible being in Paris. And then being able to be there for three, four weeks and shoot, the weeks before that prepping, was a dream.
Then the rest of it was most of the UK. We shot a little bit in Morocco. We built some of Morocco in the UK and we shot all over London, mostly locations. Even if it was an interior, instead of building it on a stage, we did it as a location just because we built into a location. We liked the idea of being, again, kind of down and dirty and gritty in the streets and feeling like we weren't stage bound, which can give, I think, the characters or the actors and actresses a feeling of being fake.
Well, I mean, one of the reasons why the James Bond movies are the James Bond movies is they're filming on location. The location just adds so much realism. Talk a little bit about how you work with your DP, Tim (Maurice-Jones), on the aesthetic of the film, how you wanted it to look. I noticed a lot of handheld camera.
KINBERG: Tim Maurice-Jones worked on the early Guy Richie movies and he's a big music video director and commercial music video cinematographer and commercial cinematographer. I really liked his work because it's so kinetic. That's the word that we kept using throughout the movie. I think it's the aesthetic he brought to the film. We have handheld in pretty much every scene. We have it throughout the action, but we also have it into dialogue scenes so that nothing feels too static and staged and too much like you're watching a play. It just feels like it's moving the way that life moves, right? When you're in a room with somebody you're not static ever. You and I are right now, because we're sitting in chairs doing this interview.
But when we get up from these interviews, we're going to go downstairs or outside or whatever. We wanted the camera to rove that way. In fact, there's not even that much steady cam it's almost entirely handheld. What's nice about a handheld is it gives you lots of surprises because it's inexact, right? Nothing's precise, totally precise about the frame when it's handheld. It's kind of roving around and finding things and the corners of frames become surprising and not locked off. And there's a sort of imbalance to it slightly as well which I wanted the movie to have so that it didn't feel like it was too, again, static.
This is a little bit of a jokey thing, but so you have an all, basically an all women cast. Most spy movies like Bond movies, it's all men and you have the Bond girl. So how did you decide on Sebastian Stan being the Bond guy, if you will?
KINBERG: We joked about Sebastian and Edgar Ramirez being the Bond boys.
KINBERG: We chose them because, one, they're obviously great actors. Two, they're great looking guys, the way that you would choose a Bond boy, but also because they're friends. Sebastian became a friend of Jessica's and mine from The Martian. They worked together. Obviously, they were in the crew of the ship in The Martian. And he's a extraordinary actor and a lovely guy, and I'm a big fan. There was no audition. We met for breakfast in New York. He read the script. He liked it. He was in. Edgar is a really close friend of Jessica's and then became a really close friend of mine once we made the movie.
He's really close to Penelope as well whom we'd already cast. And we sent him the script, he liked it, and he was in. Again, incredible actor and a not bad looking guy. So I will say, it's funny, I do talk about this movie and I'm like, "It's down and dirty and gritty and real," and then it's like, "And also the spies are all gorgeous." So there is that element of it that is a movie reality where the male and female spies all happen to be the most beautiful people in the world.
I love talking about the editing room because it's ultimately where everything comes together. So with this film specifically, did you have a much longer cut? How did it get shaped in the editing room?
KINBERG: I never had a much longer cut. I had a few scenes that we cut. So it wasn't like I went in and trimmed the hell out of existing scenes. It was more like, "Do we need this scene? Is its slowing down the momentum of the movie?" The way this movie was put together and made, we really had unbelievable creative, or I had unbelievable creative freedom. It was essentially an independent movie. We sold it at Cannes Film Festival. Universal were our partners in the UK and US but it was ours. It wasn't like I was given notes, but it wasn't like anything was a dictate. I worked with Lee Smith who you know well and is one of the best editors in the world.
He's kind of good.
KINBERG: I mean, he did pretty good job with all the Chris Nolan movies. I think he had won one Oscar. I think because of Inception deserves two. He's just the best and he's just a great guy. He's just so good at pinpointing moments that could take longer actually, that could breathe going the opposite direction. And then he is really good at being like, you don't need this scene. Or you think this scene is ending here, but this scene is really already over. I really treat Lee the same way I would treat the actors and actresses, which is a real partner and it's like a real collaboration. I'm all too eager to have their ideas be better than my ideas.
Well, I've always heard about Spielberg. It's always the best idea in the room wins and it's still his name on the movie.
KINBERG: Exactly. This extends to studio notes. I know there's a lot of filmmakers who hate studio notes or hate test screenings. I'm like, these are all free ideas. These are free ideas that you can do with what you want and they can spark better ideas, they can be rejected, they can be embraced, but who's not going to take a free idea?
Well, I think, with this movie, you had creative freedom, but I think sometimes what people rebel against, and this is just me speaking, is when a filmmaker... It's like their first or second movie doesn't have as much creative clout and the studio is saying, we're going to do this and then... You know what I mean?
KINBERG: But I think there's a way, yes. I totally know what you mean. I think there's a way to be as creative with notes as you are when you're by yourself facing a blank page. And if you're not, and you're shut down to notes, then you are going to get into a battle with the studio or with a partner with an actor or actress. But if you're open, more times than not, if you feel really strongly or passionately that the note is not right, you will be able to work your way or talk your way through it. More often than not. I'm not saying it always happens. I think there's an approach to taking notes that is creative rather than just professional.
For soon to be fans of the movie, what do you think they actually would be surprised to learn about the actual making of the film?
KINBERG: Maybe they'd be surprised to learn how much of the stunts the women did themselves just because I think we're used to movie stars not doing their own stunts. It was really important for Jessica specifically, Jessica and Diane did the majority of the stunts in the movie, to do their own stunt and to do all their own fighting. Jessica's in that scene where she's outside the fish market and she's on that beam 50 feet above the ground and jumping onto a shipping container on a ship, that's all Jess in heels. Maybe that would be the thing that would surprise people just because we're used to assuming, again, especially on a movie like this, assuming that there are stunt people. And there were stunt people, but that there were stunt people doing the majority of the stunts. In fact it was the actors, the actresses.
Jessica's obviously a producer on the movie. At any point was she, as the producer, does my character need to wear heels in this scene?
KINBERG: She had plenty of ideas. I mean, all the actresses and actors had ideas. She never pulled the producer card on me or on anybody else but was an incredibly involved producer. So again, this was her idea. I was really respectful of that as somebody who's had original ideas before. I wanted to honor her being the originator of the idea. But no, she didn't have notes about the heels. I will say that there were a few costumes or outfits that came from her imagination, but that was true for all of the actors and actresses.
Specifically the cream suit in Morocco was something that she was passionate about, I think, until she realized that linen in a hot environment is actually not as good as you think it's going to be. It wrinkles pretty easily and in between each take, takes a lot of time. But, no, she's a pleasure to work with and she's a really, really close friend. Our families are friends. She really is one of my closest friends. I adore her and she was great. And she was great the whole way and really industrious. Her producing partner, Kelly Carmichael, was really involved. We were all a team making this movie. And when I say we, I mean myself, them and the main actors and actresses.
Before I run out of time, you produce, I want to say a lot of things. I'm going to use it like that. So while I have you, I do want to ask you a few other things.
First, congrats on Invasion getting a second season. But because I have such little time, I just want to start with that. What is the story with The Running Man and that remake? Is that moving forward? Is that something that I might be seeing soon?
KINBERG: It is moving forward. Edgar Wright is attached to co-write and direct the movie. Co-write with Michael Bacall. I sure hope it's something you're seeing soon. That part's not up to me, but it's something that they're working on.
I believe you're producing Chairman Spaceman with Andrew Stanton directing?
KINBERG: Chairman Spaceman at Searchlight. We have a great script and Andrew is doing a final tinker on the script, and then it'll be going out to actors.
The script is pretty good?
KINBERG: It's really good.
I heard Andrew's pretty good as a director.
KINBERG: He's really good as director and I've been a huge fan of the Pixar movies and he's brought a lot of the Pixar process to the storytelling of the script. It's extraordinary to watch because he is a real master of storytelling.
So what's up with Battlestar Galactica? Because I heard about it for a while and then I know that there's the movie and I know Sam is working on a series and what can you tell fans?
I can tell fans that I'm done with the second draft of the script. We are in the process of going out to directors. The hope is to attach a director and start prepping the movie this year. It's a humongous film. The prep will be a very long prep period. I would imagine even if we attach a director today, it would take six, nine months to prep this movie properly. So at the earliest we'd be shooting at the end of this year. We'd probably be shooting at the beginning of next year. Time will tell who the director is and then you or someone else will tell who the director is. In terms of the situation with Sam and the show, I can't say too much about it other than there is synergy between the two enterprises and constant communication between us. We've become close and been having a really good time together. And there will be, for lack of a better phrase, and it's an overused phrase, a shared universe.
I love Battlestar Galactica and I'm incredibly excited that you guys are developing something. So for fans of the series that was on a decade ago, does it connect to that or is this a completely new thing?
KINBERG: Gosh, you're asking me a hard question that I'm not sure I'm allowed to answer. There are connections, but it is certainly not simply a continuation or a remake of Ron Moore's masterpiece.
Got it. I'm being given the wrap up signal so I will just say that when you can tell me more, I would love to know more. And I'm very excited for that. And look, man, I wish you nothing about the best and congrats on the movie and well...
KINBERG: It's great to see you.
He also talks about what it’s really like filming an action scene and why he loves what Keanu Reeves does in the ‘John Wick’ movies.