Tom Beasley chats to director Neil Burger ahead of the release of The Upside – his remake of the French movie The Intouchables…
Neil Burger cannot be accused of doing the same thing twice. Over the years, he has helmed acclaimed period drama (The Illusionist), star-powered thrillers (Limitless) and many other disparate genres, while also trying his hand at YA blockbuster fantasy with Divergent. His latest film is The Upside, based on the beloved French film The Intouchables. Kevin Hart plays an ex-con who tricks his way into a job playing full-time carer to Bryan Cranston’s quadriplegic curmudgeon.
It’s a charming and enjoyable movie with great performances from both Cranston and Hart, in a rare dramatic role. Ahead of the film’s release on UK shores, we spoke to Burger about the stigma around English language remakes, the prospect of Kevin Hart dialling down the funny and his long-mooted remake of Bride of Frankenstein…
I must confess that I hadn’t seen the original take on this story and so I was pleasantly surprised by the story and how warm it all is. Do you think the primary audience for this film will be people who haven’t seen the French version?
I think it’s both. It’s interesting because the original movie was, I think, the biggest French movie in history and it was massive internationally, but it wasn’t as successful in the United States and the UK as well. So I think there is an audience of people that haven’t seen it, but I also think there’s a curiosity factor for the people who have seen it. A lot of those people love the movie and I think they’re going to be more than surprised at how this movie is really great in similar ways and in different ways.
Among the people who have seen the original, they tend to really love it. Was there any apprehension on your part taking on a remake of a film people love?
There was complete apprehension. I actually didn’t want anything to do with it. I had no interest in remaking movies that have been successful in a different country. It was not something I was looking to do. They brought the movie to me in 2015 and I turned it down for that reason. Why would I remake this enormous international hit? It has been made and it’s great as it is.
But what happened was they came back to me a year later and they had worked on the script a lot. In that time, things had shifted culturally and politically, at least in the United States. There seemed to be this growing divide. People just couldn’t speak to each other and couldn’t really see each other. There has always obviously been things like that and issues like that, but somehow it was getting to a head. I had been thinking about how to bridge these gaps between people and I read this script. It kind of spoke to that in an indirect and very personal way. The idea is that, through small acts of respect and compassion, we can bridge the gaps and divisions between us to find a common ground as fellow humans.
I thought that was a movie that needed to be made. And, with that, I suddenly saw a way to make it. There were things that I wanted to do and I saw how I could be the one to make it. After that, I immediately wanted to make it and I didn’t care about the earlier movie in the sense that I was no longer competing with that movie. It didn’t matter to me that it existed in the world because I felt like this screenplay in front of me needed to be made.
I believe Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart were both on board when you got involved. Did they play into your decision?
The first time I got the script, neither of them were part of it, but the second time, they had both just come on board. Bryan Cranston seemed perfect for the part, but I wasn’t so sure about Kevin Hart. I knew Kevin’s work and I thought he was really funny, but I didn’t know if the producers were trying to turn it into a Kevin Hart movie – whatever that means – or something that was a little bit broader. I met with Kevin and talked to him about it and I found out he was going to be great for it. He knew this character and wanted to play something dramatic and different. More importantly, he was capable of it.
That’s one of the pleasant surprises of the film – Kevin’s performance. We all know he’s funny, and he is in this movie, but what really surprised me were the dramatic edges. Did he struggle with that or did it come as easily as the comedy?
I don’t think he did struggle. When I met with him, I really pressed him on it because I wasn’t sure and I wasn’t going to get involved with a movie where I didn’t feel like the person could do it. He grew up in a situation similar to the character and he had really come from a background filled with characters like Dell.
At a certain point, he dropped into the character and started speaking as Dell would. It was amazing, impressive and unnerving actually because it was so real, and raw, and specific. I knew at that point that he could do it and that he was going to blow people away. He really is going to show people he has the dramatic chops because he’s amazing in the movie.
To change gears slightly, I’d like to ask very briefly about Divergent. The things that happened to that franchise were kind of unprecedented for a YA franchise, but looking back on the first installment you made, how do you feel about it looking back?
I’m proud of it and I’m most proud of putting together that cast. They have all gone on to do amazing things and it was a real pleasure working with all of these young actors who were at the beginning of their careers and really exciting to work with. Obviously it was a pleasure to work with Kate Winslet and Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd as well and others in the older group who were in it. But I’m proud of the movie.
It was an unusual movie for me to do, but I wanted to do something bigger and try my hand at world creation. I felt like I had done the first one well, but needed to do different things. As you can see, all of my movies are completely different from each other.
And speaking of different, in the last few years we’ve seen you do some work in TV with Billions and with the Limitless series. Do you enjoy TV and can we expect to see you do more?
I am developing a number of different TV things that I’ve originated or have a book that I’m adapting. Especially on Billions, it was really fun and interesting to help set up a show. The creators of that show – Brian Koppelman and David Levien – are old friends of mine and actually produced a couple of my movies, so I felt like I was returning the favour to them in the sense that they brought me in to help cast and design their show and push it into the world.
That was also an amazing cast, from Damian Lewis to Paul Giamatti – whose an old friend of mine – to Maggie Siff and all the other supporting characters. Some of them are great New York theatre actors and others are from all over the place. They’re all amazingly talented, so I liked it.
There’s a lot of talk about how TV is the new cinema in a lot of ways and a lot of great directors have made the move over to TV. Do you think that’s where your future lies or are you still wedded to movies?
I don’t think it’s the new cinema, because it’s not particularly cinematic. There’s something very special to me, and sacred even, about going into a theatre with 300 other people to watch this mesmerising experience appearing on screen. To me, it’s sad that that is falling by the wayside. However, TV is a medium of visual storytelling and we’re lucky that it goes on and is ascendant.
So certainly TV is where it’s at right now and there is great storytelling going on that I want to be part of. But I also want to find stories that aren’t necessarily superhero stories that can pull people into the cinema and can make going to the cinema undeniable. It’s hard to compete with people’s TVs and their phones and computers. It’s too easy for them to stay put.
Just as a final question, one of my favourite movies of all time is Bride of Frankenstein and I know you have been associated with a version of that over the years. Is that something that’s still happening or that you’d still like to do?
It’s not happening with me. I wrote a script for Universal a number of years ago, but they changed the way they are going about it. I’m not sure what they’re doing now, but they did The Mummy and they had a whole plan and I’m not sure if they’re rethinking that. Mine was before they even set out to take all of those old horror movies and reboot them. I’m not involved with it at the moment but, like you, I love all of those movies.
I’ll cross my fingers that one day that might come around for you. But thank you very much for your time and congratulations on this movie!
Inspired by a true story, The Upside is a heartfelt comedy about a recently paroled ex-convict (Kevin Hart) who strikes up an unusual and unlikely friendship with a paralyzed billionaire (Bryan Cranston). Directed by Neil Burger and written by Jon Hartmere, The Upside is based on the hit 2011 French film The Intouchables.
The Upside is set for release on January 11th.
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.