For six seasons, Taran Killam was one of Saturday Night Live’s secret weapons, because like so many other greats on the show, he was able to do deadpan comedy that made him the perfect foil for the cast members who strove for wackier characters.
Few probably realized that Killam had aspirations as a filmmaker, so when his new action-comedy Killing Gunther came to light, and people realized it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, let’s just say that fans of ‘80s action-comedies took notice.
Killam wrote, directed and stars in Killing Gunther as Blake, an international assassin who decides that in order to move up the ranks, he has to kill the elusive hitman known as Gunther, played by Schwarzenegger. He gets help from his pal and explosives expert Donny (Bobby Moynihan), the Middle Eastern assassin Sanaa (Hannah Simone) and the team’s tech guy Gabe (Paul Brittain), who help put together an even bigger team of assassins, each with their own specialty or skill. To make sure they have proof of killing Gunther, Blake even hires a documentary team to film their every move.
It’s a pretty wacky movie with a number of impressive set pieces of things being blown up that harks back to some of Schwarzenegger’s classic movies.
The Tracking Board got on the phone with Killam last week for the following interview, which was disrupted only briefly by a fire alarm going off in his building.
When did you have time to make this movie? You were on SNL, then I think you went to Hamilton not long afterwards, so I’m trying to figure out exactly how you made this move, because it was a lot more elaborate than I assumed it would be.
Thank you. We filmed this last summer, right after I wrapped my final season on SNL. We wrapped in May and then, I flew to Vancouver, BC, which is where we filmed and was there until first week of September. It took up all summer and then was editing through last winter. It’s been about a year and a couple months since we started shooting.
Was there any talk about bringing this to a festival or anything like that or did it not work out timing-wise?
Yeah, it was tough because even though we’re a teeny little movie, there was a significant amount of post. There was no debut festival in and around our release that totally worked. There was maybe TIFF, but TIFF is all Oscar fare, and we already had distribution from Saban before we even wrapped, so we knew we had a deal and the route of the festival is first and foremost to get somebody to put your movie out in the world, and we were lucky enough to kind of get that early on.
I’m sure the question you’re gonna be asked the most about the move is how did you end up with Arnold? At first, I thought he might just make a cameo but he’s really a big part of the third act.
Oh, good, good, good. Thanks. Well, I still can’t believe that we … We put an offer out to a different actor and his representation also represents Arnold, and they mentioned that Arnold is looking to do something sort of fun and unexpected. He hasn’t done a comedy in a while and said that he’d love to read the script. I put together a little video offer to send along with the script to Arnold literally begging him to do the movie. I think the joke in it like “Listen, I’m not going to beg. Please do this movie. Please.” And he read the script and yeah, we had a couple of discussions, and he was on board. It was so exciting because he’s truly the perfect person for this role, and what I would say to him is if we can capture your charisma and charm and intimidation from Pumping Iron, that’s exactly who Gunther is. That’s the energy we need for this and I think I’d be fun to see. He did a wonderful job.
It’s just funny to have him be the ultimate hitman and then the rest of you be more comic hit men trying to go up against Arnold. Was this going to be a mockumentary from the beginning?
Yeah, those are the kinds of films that I love. Those are my favorite comedies. This is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind. I was always kind of trying to do a smaller film. I wanted to do a movie where me and my comedy friends could play action hitmen, assassins ‘cause that would never happen in the real world. Nobody’s gonna hire me or Bobby or Paul Brittain to be an assassin in a studio picture, so we kinda wanted to do it on our own, beause that idea made us laugh. Then Arnold coming on board, it became something bigger. It just made us laugh and it was inherent to the comedy that the greatest assassin hitman of all time would never be threatened by these morons.
Obviously, you knew Bobby and Paul and Colbie beforehand, and I assume you knew Hannah from being on New Girl. Did you have to find some of the others like Aaron Yoo through normal casting or did you have enough friends who could recommend others?
Yeah, most of it was through friend connections. Hannah and I actually didn’t crossover when I did New Girl, but I was a fan of hers for a long time and Allison (Tolman), same thing. I was a fan of hers, but didn’t know her beforehand. But fortunately, they agreed to come onboard.
(At this point, the fire alarm is going off in the building where Killam is doing this phone interview and someone is knocking on his door presumably to let him know it’s just a test.)
Oh Geez. Is this the most dynamic interview you’ve ever done?
Yeah, it’s so exciting.
I feel like I should include all of this to make it seem as if you decided to keep talking to me through a fire…
Exactly, as the alarm does off.
Is everything okay over there?
“Taran fought off flames.” Yeah, they just announced that there was an alarm that went off, but they are investigating it and everyone can stay where they are. But I do like it better that the building is a flame. and I see this interview through. Yup, no, all good. I’m good to go.
And you had always wanted to play Blake? That was the role you had tailored for yourself to play?
Yeah, I always planned on, obviously, writing it and then performing and the decision to direct came a bit later in the process. Just because in getting it made and pitching it and shopping it around, no one was sort of living with it as much as I was, and I just had a pretty clear vision in my head of what I wanted this movie to look like, particularly the action sequences done as oners, so fortunately I was able to partner with some producers who were willing to let me be a first-time director and wear all these hats at once. It was challenging. It was certainly fully consuming, but also incredibly satisfying.
I’ve talked to a few actors who have directed, including Jason Bateman, who said that playing a role in what he’s directing helps him direct actors through his performance. Others just want to be behind the camera and just focus on that. Where do you fall on that? Did you feel it was easier to direct as an actor?
I didn’t find it too challenging only in that I’ll never be happy with my own performance. I knew that I need to give myself options in terms of either intensity and how to play certain moments, maybe play certain things. I knew I’d give myself a small, medium and large in each take and then we’ll edit it together. So that was okay, but I think definitely next time, I’m gonna try and stay behind the camera, ‘cause I’m curious to challenge myself, to create film in a more traditional narrative structure without breaking the fourth wall and being the mockumentary style. That’s what I hope to do next. Next time I take on directing. But I certainly would be open to directing and acting again.
I’m assuming you’re a fan of the action-comedy genre in general. Are there any of your favorites you wanted to pay homage to? I mean obviously, you have Arnold’s movies, but any others?
Yeah, I am a big fan of Luc Besson’s The Professional and that was incredibly inspirational for this movie as was Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral. Also, I watched Le Samourai a lot. I was trying to pull from famous hitman-centered films like Kill Bil. There was even some elements of that I watched, just cause I’m such a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. Stylistically, there are winks and borrowings from those three directors the most, but certainly subconsciously even from Arnold’s films. The scene in the gun shop is very much inspired by Commando and in the final kitchen fight. Thank goodness Arnold was such a good sport because I’m a huge fan of Predator and we got to throw in some of the dialogue from that, too.
Those are some pretty high benchmarks you set for yourself with Heat and Collateral…
Yeah, it was more borrowing from the world, more than from a filmmaking style, because the way we were shooting it, we were always leaning hard on that mockumentary. This was a two-man operation, someone with a camera, someone with maybe a boom mic. In terms of the shooting style, I was referencing actual documentaries a lot more, more like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Spellbound was a really big one. There’s also a movie called Restrepo, a documentary about the US military in the Middle East. I watched that a lot for reference too in terms of camera choreography, but the Michael Manns and the Quentin Tarantinos is much more borrowing from the fictional world they create.
You mentioned earlier how Arnold was game for doing different things and throwing references to his previous movies, so he was game for anything?
I don’t want to spoil the later part of the movie, but he has a montage later where he’s doing some wacky things we wouldn’t expect from him. Was all of that in the script at least or were you trying to find different things to throw at him while shooting?
No, no, it was always in there and yeah, he was such a pro. He was so game. He was immediately in on the joke, like he understood what we were going for. He was a dream to work with, because he’s a pro and I felt a lot of pressure not to waste his time and not to disappoint him. So we worked really hard on getting ready. I think he would even say he had a really great time filming this role. I think that comes across as he’s having fun in his performance.
I was really surprised by the scale of the movie. For instance, in the scene with all the explosions. Once you get to that point, it’s no longer a small movie any more. How do you so something like that with a limited budget?
Oh man, thank you. Just in preparation. In the plan we always knew what that sequence was going to look like, because as you’ve seen, it’s one long continuous shot without cutting away.
I didn’t even notice that.
Yeah, we’re accomplishing that with blended cuts and breaking it up into segments and we shot it over the course of two days, but it’s just about efficiency. Efficiency of time, efficiency of budgeting what we’re going to see on screen, and we worked really hard to communicate that from the onset.
Where do you go from here? I know you have a couple roles in upcoming movies, but have you started working on something else to direct or are you looking for things?
Yeah, yeah. I’m currently writing a Spanish language Christmas film. That’s the next thing. I know, I know. It sounds like a joke. That’s the next thing that I’m focusing my personal time on and then remaining open to other experiences. Currently, I’m working on a Kevin Hart film in Atlanta called Night School, which comes out next September. Having a lot of fun doing that. Staying busy and if I could make one small movie every two to three years for the next 20 years, I’d be a very, very happy man.
How’s your Spanish?
Muy bien. It’s pretty broken. It’s sort of drawn from some of my family who grew up in Rosario on my father’s side and then some of my experiences growing up and living in LA.
Oh, cool. Wikipedia makes sure to note what a big nerd you are by listing all your favorite things, from Star Wars to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I know you wrote a comic, so is that something you’re doing more of? Are you still a reader, fan?
Yeah, oh my God. I would love to write more comic books. In fact, Marvel has always been very generous in asking me to kind of do a one-off, and I just didn’t have the time when I was doing SNL and then making a movie, but now that I have more free time, I certainly want to take that up. And I’d love to go back and write more issues of my comic The Illegitimates — that’s something I’m hoping to do in the next year.
Has there been any interest to make that into a movie or to do anything with that or is that maybe something you’d want to do yourself?
Yeah, no, I’d be very open to it. Yeah, we’ll see. We’re in the works with shopping it around.
Killing Gunther is now playing in select cities and On Demand.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor