Killers – BEHIND THE SCENES with Ashton Kutcher
BEHIND THE SCENES – with Ashton Kutcher
When Jen Kornfeldt and Spencer Ames’ whirlwind vacation romance keeps going strong after their return from the French Rivera, they decide to get married, looking forward to what any average American couple would: a happy, relatively predictable life in the suburbs balancing careers, in-laws and plans to start a family. But when highly trained, undercover assassins start spraying their home with bullets, and Spencer demonstrates he’s no slouch himself when it comes to taking out an opponent, Jen realizes that her husband of three years hasn’t been completely honest about his past. That’s what launches Lionsgate’s KILLERS on its wild, unpredictable ride – and Spencer and Jen towards one undeniable truth: mortal combat is not the time for major couple’s therapy.
"Jen and Spencer have a great relationship and they are really good together and are really loving, fun and charming with each other," says Katherine Heigl, who stars as Jen Kornfeldt. "Then comes the big shocker where she discovers this guy who she thought was just a contractor actually killed more than a dozen people. That’s upsetting."
"It’s about two people who are in love and one of them has a secret," explains co-star Ashton Kutcher. "It’s about their ability to coexist and I think everyone can relate to that. Because I don’t know of a relationship between two people where there isn’t some version of a secret, like, ‘This is my world and that’s your world.’"
While the movie KILLERS has no shortage of action and suspense, director Robert Luketic believes the appeal of the film – and the lion’s share of the comedy – lies in the thorny issue facing the couple.
It’s this great comedic situation where Jen is saying, ‘You’ve got a lot of explaining to do’ while they’re running for their lives. And while they’re on this adventure, the audience is wondering, ‘Is this relationship going to last? Can it withstand the lie?’
KILLERS was first conceived as an action thriller in the vein of James Bond, but with an added dose of humor. "I wanted the action and the intrigue, where there are stakes and people can actually die, but I also wanted people to laugh," says co-screenwriter Bob DeRosa. "When you put people who have real issues into that kind of action, they’re just naturally going to blow off steam, because otherwise the situation’s going to be just way too tragic and scary."
But while he was supervising the script’s development, producer Scott Aversano realized that the relationship between Spencer and Jen was the freshest element in the story. "I thought, what if you used an action movie as the test for a marriage?" he says. Several rewrites later, KILLERS achieved its appealing mix of relationship comedy and action movie that caught the attention of its two stars.
For Ashton Kutcher, the opportunity to play Spencer was a welcome opportunity after the box-office success of films like WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, A LOT LIKE LOVE and the cult hit, DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR? "I haven’t played a character like this before. I’d been looking for opportunities to move into other genres, specifically action, adventure, things like that," says Kutcher. "This was a marriage of the two, so it made sense for me to make an action film that had a comedic tone."
Aversano agrees that the role comes at a perfect time for Kutcher. "Many of the movies that people remember him for he’s playing the wacky dude who seems perennially eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old and he is vastly different than that," he says. "He is more than ready to transition into a role where he has real gravitas, where he is both a physical presence and is struggling with adult issues."
"He’s a genius with comedy," reports Heigl, "but in this movie he’s also got this beautiful balance with being more serious. He’s trying to protect his relationship and his wife, and you can really feel how important those things are to him."
Adds Luketic, "You’re going to see a vulnerability in Ashton in this film that perhaps you haven’t seen before."
Apart from his performance, Kutcher impressed everyone involved with his prowess and commitment as a producer of KILLERS, which is one of several projects he has produced with his partner, Jason Goldberg at Katalyst. Says Luketic, "Ashton is a very astute businessman, as well as a wonderful actor, and it was a real pleasure to see those two personalities work together. He really wanted the movie to be a success and you could see it in how hard he worked to make everything look the way it did. Our movie looks stunning, and that’s due to having great producers."
Aversano agrees. "He produced the movie with me, and really, I laugh sometimes when I think about the roles that people know him for and what he is capable of. He’s an incredibly capable business man and a very thoughtful producer."
With Kutcher on board, Katherine Heigl readily committed to the role of Jen Kornfeldt, the woman who turns Spencer’s world on end. Says Heigl of her character, "I love her because she’s a little bit geeky, a little bit nerdy. She’s a computer science kind of techno-gal and she’s a little bit tragic because she’s been in a lot of really bad relationships."
Best known for her work on ABC’s acclaimed drama, "Grey’s Anatomy," Heigl has risen to big-screen fame with a series of hit romantic comedies: KNOCKED UP, 27 DRESSES, and THE UGLY TRUTH. "I was really excited about working with Ashton," she says. "I’d heard so many amazing and great things about him as a person. But I also knew that this was a departure for him and it was a departure for me because I’ve been doing a lot of romantic comedies. I love them and I don’t want to tear myself away from them just yet. So this was a great way for me to get the romantic comedy but with a slightly different spin."
"You feel a warmth when you watch Katherine on the screen," says Luketic. "There are very few people who have what she has. Part of Katherine’s charm is her accessibility and vulnerability, and no matter how ridiculous a scene may be, the sense of grounding she brings to it."
Adds Kutcher, "She has a childlike sense of innocence but she’s very smart and she knows what’s going on. She combines that with Jen’s sense of wonderment, where she’s suddenly questioning everything about her life, and it makes for an intoxicating mix."
Having worked with Luketic previously on THE UGLY TRUTH, Heigl was eager to collaborate once again with the director. "Robert is one of my favorite not only directors, but people." Heigl says, "We did a film last summer together that we had such a great time on, so I knew working with him would be dreamy."
"We both like to work in the same way and we genuinely respect each other," adds Luketic. "We enjoy each other’s process."
The director of the smash hit, LEGALLY BLONDE, as well as 21 and THE UGLY TRUTH, Robert Luketic had long been in search of a project like KILLERS. "I’d always wanted to make a film that blended romance and comedy and suspense," says the director. "They’re hard genres to blend together and get totally right. And this script hit my desk and I fell in love with the concept instantly. It had elements of romance. It was funny. It had adventure. It had it all."
"Robert does two things that I have great admiration for," avows Aversano. "One is he manages to attract fantastic people around him. And second, he knows what his objective is. He can get real performances from his actors and do something interesting and great, yet not lose sight of the fact that this is commercial entertainment conceived to satisfy audiences."
For Luketic, the challenge of KILLERS was successfully blending comedy and action. "It can be a tonal minefield," he admits. "You need to pick those moments when it’s right to be serious and when it’s right to be funny. We chose to start off with a laugh. We had to make sure we gave people permission to laugh in the beginning of the movie. So once they’re relaxed and realize they can have fun, when they see something that’s kind of dangerous, they know that there’s going to be release or relief immediately after that."
For producer Aversano, the balance of relationships, action, and humor stems from the combined effort of everyone involved. "I think that everyone who’s worked on this project had a creative vision for the film. We just didn’t want to see the same things that we’ve seen before. So there was a real creative process of putting our heads together and coming up with things that have never been seen before."
As casting continued, the filmmakers faced the challenge of finding the right comedic actors to play Mr. and Mrs. Kornfeldt, Jen’s protective and overbearing parents. "They’re maybe a little too close, a little too involved," explains Heigl. "Jen’s dad is super protective of her and she kind of succumbs to it and poor Spencer gets the constant barrage of opinions."
For the part of Mr. Kornfeldt, Kutcher was determined to find someone who was genuinely intimidating. "I call Mr. Kornfeldt ‘Sir’ in the script a lot," he says. "And I was thinking, ‘Who am I going to call Sir?’" Who’s a bigger guy, who’s got an intimidating thing, but doesn’t have to try to be intimidating?" Kutcher loved the idea of Tom Selleck, whom he’s admired since his days on the seminal television show, "Magnum P.I."
Selleck was eager to be a part of the project. "It’s kind of a no-brainer to be asked to do a movie like this and be a part of it. I’m glad they thought I could contribute," he says.
Says Luketic, "Tom brought just this wonderful, stoic figure of a father. He’s subtle and always spot-on and he’s a real presence. You absolutely believe that he’s someone who can rattle Spencer’s cage."
"He has a comedic ability without telling jokes," adds Kutcher. "Just his sensibility is funny. He doesn’t move. He’s like a rock. He also has the most epic mustache ever known to man. He was Magnum. I’ll never be that cool, ever, in my life."
In the part of Mrs. Kornfeldt, comedy veteran Catherine O’Hara, known to many for her memorable roles in Christopher Guest films like WAITING FOR GUFFMAN and BEST IN SHOW, demonstrates her talent for improvisation. "Catherine O’Hara is a comedic genius," avows Luketic. "She has random strokes of brilliance that just come out of her. We had to do significant ADR in this film because the crew would just lose their mind when she opened her mouth. I don’t know how she does it."
Says Aversano, "If Tom Selleck is the ultimate straight man, then Catherine is the ultimate not-straight man. She’s managed to create a life for this character and her marriage that is completely credible. And she brings a ton of comedic magic herself, which she has in vast supply."
Rounding out the principal cast as Spencer’s best friend, Henry, is comedian and actor Rob Riggle. "Henry is a pretty happy-go-lucky, lovable guy," explains Riggle. "He’s an architect and he’s Spencer’s best friend. But he’s got some secrets, some issues that we discover as the movie goes on."
"We looked at a lot of people for Henry," remembers Aversano. "There are always different versions in people’s mind of what the buddy part looks like. But Rob stood out. As a human being, he just radiates warmth, like you want to hang out with him. He’s fantastic."
Riggle is also a marine, which gave him a distinct advantage during the filming of a key fight scene midway through the film. He explains, "I’ve had hand-to-hand training and every couple years we have to go back and retrain, so I did have an understanding of that. When you consider the physical rigors of doing a movie like this, being a marine definitely helps."
For his part, Kutcher approached the physical demands of his role with great enthusiasm and commitment. He began training two months prior to the start of shooting, met with former CIA officials for research, and studied a range of martial arts disciplines in the process. "I was very excited about the action elements. So I took a month of training in Kraw Maga, and then I did a little bit of Muay Thai training and some Filipino knife fighting," he says. "Then once you start mixing these different martial arts, they actually all start to kind of blend together into your own specific style. I also learned a little bit about Savate because the movie starts in France and Savate is actually something the French Navy invented."
Kutcher continued his training until the first day of shooting, surprising Luketic with the extent of his hard work. "He must have doubled his muscle mass," says the director. "He was totally convincing as an action man."
Conversely, Jen Kornfeldt is completely oblivious to the world of espionage and hand-to-hand combat, and by her own admission, that suited Heigl just fine. "I’m not a big stunt person and I can go into all the reasons why – I’m really uncoordinated, I’m not terribly athletic," laughs Heigl. "So I said, ‘I think you guys should be prepared for someone who can look a lot like me doing these very exciting things.’"
Once the first assassin strikes, Spencer and Jen realize that no one can be trusted –friends, neighbors, work associates – because anyone might be a hired killer. Explains Luketic, "Even just going into a K-Mart to buy a pregnancy test kit becomes a gauntlet of hell. Their whole life in the suburbs is turned upside down." Considering the range of potential killers, the filmmakers felt strongly that there should be diversity in the way Spencer is attacked. So Luketic worked with second unit director and stunt coordinator Doug Coleman to give each killer his own unique style. Says Coleman, "Some are into heavy artillery. Some are more into hand-to-hand, bar brawl style fighting. Some seem like they were trained by some master ninja somewhere." Coleman designed the fight choreography so that each stunt played by the rules of the world the filmmakers had created. "We always wanted to keep it true to the story, so that nobody leaps seven feet in the air and is able to karate kick through a wall," says Coleman. "I think of it as the sort of ‘found object’ version of fighting. Whatever’s in the room at the time may end up being used as a weapon."
While the production spent most of its time shooting in Spencer’s and Jen’s idyllic suburban community, the production initially spent almost two weeks in Nice, France to establish Spencer’s glamorous life of espionage and trace the romantic beginnings of Spencer and Jen’s relationship. Production designer Missy Stewart, a long-time Luketic collaborator, says the production team chose Nice because it was their goal "to pay homage to classic films like TO CATCH A THIEF, and we wanted all those great driving roads for the scenes of Spencer in the Ferrari."
Most importantly, Nice provided an undeniably romantic locale for Spencer and Jen’s courtship. "The South of France is arguably, certainly to an American audience, the most magical place in the world to fall in love," says Aversano. "It still has that kind of power and that kind of romantic allure." The production shot the bulk of its days in a small town called Ville Franche. Continues Aversano, "It’s literally a street on the harbor, with these amazing cafes and a maritime culture that’s completely authentic."
The genuine connection that Spencer and Jen forge in Nice reverberates strongly throughout the rest of the film, and Luketic credits Kutcher and Heigl for generating the necessary heat. "We’ve been amazed at just how engaging the love story is," says the director. "Ashton and Katherine had such natural chemistry – you just want these two people to really be together."
"As actors and as people, they’re both electric personalities," says Aversano. "They have real energy and seeing them together, and watching them figure it out, is really pleasurable."
With its combination of comedy, romance and action, the filmmakers hope the film will appeal to a wide range of audiences. "I hope people will be wildly entertained," Luketic says. "I think it’s a great date movie. The romance is thoroughly engaging and real, and then we have the action and intrigue that men will relate to."
"It’s kind of an outrageous yet still realistic look at marriage and what a marriage can go through," says Heigl. "The thing I love the most is the humor. And there’s a surprise ending. I don’t think anyone will see it coming."
"The thing about this movie is it offers a little bit of everything," adds Kutcher. "It’s exciting. It’s a thriller. But it’s also funny, and at the heart of it, it’s a relationship movie. So I think that there’s an array of movies that people like to go see that are in this film. It will get your heart beating, and then maybe break it a little bit, and then put it back together."