VANITY FAIR – The director and Glen Powell team up for this noir action-comedy based on a true story about a man with many personas.
Texas Monthly’s October 2001 piece “Hit Man” found an immediate fan in writer-director Richard Linklater, captivated by the story of Gary Johnson, a supposed contract killer in Houston who was actually working with law enforcement. The colorful piece by Skip Hollandsworth portrays a man who was a master of disguises and creating characters in order to convince his clients that he was a cold-blooded killer for hire. “I love this character, but I wasn’t sure of the movie,” Linklater, a Texas native, tells Vanity Fair. “We’ve got a great character, great incidents, great moments, all these great characters, but I didn’t know if it really went anywhere.”
Linklater, who previously adapted another Hollandsworth article into his 2011 black comedy, Bernie, starring Jack Black, loved the strange, funny situations Johnson would find himself in, but he wasn’t ever able to figure out a third act for the story. “I’d had meetings on it over the years and stuff, but it just never really went anywhere,” he says. “It just didn’t cohere as a story.”
Then, during the beginning of the pandemic, his friend and Everybody Wants Some!! star Glen Powell asked him if he’d ever heard of the “Hit Man” story in Texas Monthly. They started spitballing ideas and had their epiphany: The story could go a new, fictional direction based on a small moment toward the end of the article. Finally, they had their third act, and built a genre-bending film that is at times noir, comedy, romance, and thriller. And with a complicated character at the center of it for Powell to dig his teeth into as a leading man, Hit Man also explores deeper themes. “It seemed to be all about identity,” says Linklater of Hit Man, which will debut at the Venice International Film Festival on September 4. “He’s playing these characters, he’s undercover. Who is he?”
“In law enforcement circles, he is considered to be one of the greatest actors of his generation, so talented that he can perform on any stage and with any kind of script,” Hollandsworth writes in his article. He describes Johnson as a chameleon who is able to shift his characters based on the type of client he’s meeting. The sting was simple: Johnson would meet with a potential client and get the client to verbally confirm they were hiring Johnson to murder someone. Their entire conversation would be recorded, and used as evidence. After Johnson left the meeting, the client would be arrested.
For Powell, who cowrote the script with Linklater, the dark comedy, which is set in New Orleans, was an opportunity to play a character who was often playing a character. Sometimes “there was just a whole blurry line between Gary and Ron, which increased over time,” says Linklater.
In the film, “Ron” is one of Johnson’s personas that he uses when meeting a potential client. He’s Ron when he meets a beautiful woman (Adria Arjona) who wants her controlling husband killed. But Gary feels sympathetic toward her, and advises her to leave him rather than have him killed. From there, Gary—still pretending he’s Ron—is pulled into a complicated ruse when he continues to interact with the woman and their lives get more and more entangled.
Ron, a charismatic, confident man with a dark side, couldn’t be more different than Gary, a mild-mannered teacher in his real life, when he’s not moonlighting as a cold-blooded killer. “Glen, the thorough professional he is, was reading books on body language and he thought Ron would walk a little different than Gary, and he also had a lot of fun with the accents,” says Linklater. “Every movie needs something that’s kind of difficult to pull off or something that seems especially challenging.”
As research, Linklater and Powell listened to the recordings of Johnson’s sting operations, meeting a cast of unbelievable characters who felt almost too strange to be real—and perfect for film. “We could have done a lot more of those,” says Linklater of capturing the wide range of clients hoping to take out a hit. “There’s an alternate movie that’s just all these people at that moment. These rich society ladies, with their nice dresses, sitting down in a nice hotel room talking about how to kill their rich husband they’re sick of.”
Linklater found the conversations fascinating because the clients were having these life-and-death discussions “so matter of factly,” he says. “It’s almost like they’re all acting in their own little crime movie when someone’s suddenly working with a mobster. I thought it was all so dark and funny in the strangest way.”
Linklater was also able to speak with Johnson on the phone while working on the script. For being an undercover hit man, he was surprisingly well-known, attending court proceedings and being featured in news articles. “It was like two different worlds,” explains Linklater. “People that are doing the hits aren’t reading the paper.”
Linklater describes Johnson as “the chillest dude imaginable” who had no issues with his story being told in a film. “He was just the most nonplussed guy,” he says. “We would talk about baseball or something, but he was a man of few words actually.”
When Linklater was about to start filming, he tried to reach out to Johnson again to let him know it was finally happening. But when he couldn’t get in touch with him, he found out from Hollandsworth that he had died.
But Johnson’s story lives on, even as fiction. With Hit Man, Linklater is able to go beyond a quirky framing device to look at how one individual gets lost in the many personalities he takes on, and may be able to change for the better because of it. “How much can we change? Can you change? Are we fixed as people?” says Linklater. “At times, I felt I have changed a lot. No one seems to notice.… But I think that you kind of can change. You can be better. It’s worth trying at least.”
Hit Man will debut at the Venice International Film Festival on September 4 and the Toronto Film Festival on September 11. It is currently seeking US distribution.
Written by jen on September 01 2023
Written by jen on September 12 2022
Photos from the premiere of Devotion today in Toronto have been added into the photo gallery, along with a few portraits that have been released today, and a photo from the Deadline Studio at TIFF. I’ve also added a session from SXSW earlier this year as well.
Events > 2022 > Sep 11 | Toronto International Film Festival – Deadline Studio
Events > 2022 > Sep 12 | Toronto International Film Festival – “Devotion” Premiere
Photoshoots > Portraits > Session 012
Photoshoots > Portraits > Session 013