HIT ‘EM HIGH
F*** is on the set of Hitman: Agent 47 in Singapore
By Jedd Jong
The bald head, the barcode tattooed on the back of it, the red tie, and the black overcoat: the figure of Agent 47 is immediately recognisable to gamers everywhere. Developed by IO Interactive and published by Eidos Interactive and later Square Enix, the successful Hitman video game series spawned a loose feature film adaptation in 2007. The iconic gun for hire is being given a new lease of life on the screen with Hitman: Agent 47, starring Rupert Friend in the title role, and F*** was on the set for an exclusive look behind the scenes.
In the video game series, Agent 47’s missions have taken him around the world, to countries including Romania, China, Hungary, Russia, Chile and Malaysia. Hitman: Agent 47 was shot in two major locations: Germany and Singapore. 12 days out of the 48 day shooting schedule were set aside for filming in the South-East Asian nation, the crew’s stint in Singapore making it the first major Hollywood production to shoot there. Various locations were used, including tourist spots such as the Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Gardens by the Bay. Production was based in the newly-opened Infinite Studios soundstages at Mediapolis, which was where we were brought to that day.
Unit publicist Michael Umble greeted our group of journalists, explaining the scene we were about to witness. Agent 47 had captured and tied up the main female character in the film, named Katia and played by Hannah Ware. He had suspended her in front of a giant jet engine which would “Cuisinart” Katia, as Umble put it, if she couldn’t escape. It sounded like a modern-day variation of tying the girl to the train tracks. Now, what was the “hero” of the film doing what sounded like typical bad guy business? An oft-repeated phrase used by various personnel when describing the film was “not is all as it seems”, and that the moral landscape of Hitman was indeed an ambiguous one.
We were given our first hint of the teething problems the first major Hollywood production to film in Singapore would inevitably face when Umble somewhat apologetically explained that the scene was originally to be shot in an actual jet engine factory, Pratt & Whitney’s Singapore manufacturing plant. Unfortunately, the crew was denied permission to film there at the last minute, and what we would see instead was markedly less spectacular, with the scene being shot against a green screen on the soundstage.
We were taken into one of the smaller stages where craft services was setting up for lunch later. In the corner of the room sat a gleaming new red Audi RS7, partially hidden beneath a tarp. A series of large production stills taken on set in Berlin and some pieces of concept art were put up on the wall. These images offered a clear look at Rupert Friend as Agent 47 – his iteration was not completely bald and the barcode on the back of his head was much subtler, design changes made in the name of having the assassin blend in a little better with the crowd. The stills also featured Zachary Quinto and Hannah Ware, Quinto guarding Ware in one photo and shooting at 47 in a Berlin Metro station in another. A conceptual rendering featured the familiar Singapore skyline with one addition - a computer-generated citadel sitting on the Bay. We were told that this building was the headquarters for sinister multinational corporation Syndicate International, headed up by a character called Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann).
After a good deal of waiting around, we were finally ushered on to the set where the scene in question was being filmed. We walked past a partial set of Le Clerq’s office; apparently most of the scenes set there had already been completed in Berlin. We arrived before a large green screen set up where Ware, in a black long-sleeved shirt and black trousers, was being rigged by the stunt team and having her makeup touched up. She was hoisted into position, suspended by orange ropes. Director Aleksander Bach was seated behind some monitors with producer Alex Young next to him. Rupert Friend was just off-camera, feeding Ware his own lines. In this scene Agent 47, would be in the control room of the engine factory and those parts of the scene would be shot separately.
As the scene began, a camera on a technocrane pulled up, capturing Katia awaking and realising the nature of her predicament.
“The more you struggle, the tighter it will get,” Agent 47 warned Katia ominously.
“I’d beg but somehow I know it wouldn’t help,” Katia answered.
“I’m tired, so f*** you,” she retorted.
We saw several takes of the same scene, Ware tripping up on the line “…the cell phone, they knew the system would identify my voice and track the signal.” We’d probably forget a couple of lines if we were suspended in mid-air for a whole day too.
After lunch, production designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel came by to talk about the locations featured in Hitman: Agent 47, showing us a slideshow of conceptual images as he talked. Krawinkel’s credits include Inglorious Basterds, V for Vendetta and Speed Racer. He explained that they had considered using Reflections at Keppel Bay, designed by architect Daniel Liebeskind, as the headquarters for Syndicate International, but “of course the restrictions in Singapore are very tight. When they heard we wanted to crash a CG helicopter into the building, nobody was interested to give us the building. So, the only way to achieve that was basically to build the building ourselves in CG and make it a CG gag.”
Krawinkel was visibly distraught about the change in location of the engine factory scene. “It occurred to us that a word given didn’t mean anything and at the last minute you couldn’t get the locations,” he sighed. He referred to the situation as a “disaster” and added “I’ve enjoyed being here and the architecture is amazing, but it’s just not, um, not been very easy to proceed.” A believer in using contrasting environments to create a distinct flavour, Krawinkel said of the famously clean Singapore “I must admit that I was disappointed that everything is so slick and clean that I wanted to cheat a little bit, and when we shot in Chinatown we did some shots through some steaming pots and I deliberately put some dirt on the road which wasn’t there just to give a bit of contrast that not everything is like slick and boringly clean.”
Krawinkel spoke about shooting on location in Berlin, in the Metro station in Alexanderplatz. The production had also converted a German university into a U.S. embassy. In Singapore, the crew filmed at locations such as the Parkroyal hotel on Pickering and the Star Vista at One-North. We were shown concept art of a car chase scene which would be shot on McCallum Street. Despite being disappointed at some of the locations falling through, Krawinkel spoke very positively of the 15 young attachés from Singapore who travelled to Berlin as part of an attachment program, two attachés being assigned to each department. “We had two girls who worked with us in Berlin and they’re here as well, and that was very nice because obviously familiar faces make it easier to come to a foreign country and generally I can only speak very highly of the crew here because what they have missing in experience, they make up for with character and enthusiasm,” he said.
Next, actor Zachary Quinto, who plays “John Smith”, came to speak to us. Described as an “adversary” rather than a “villain”, Quinto said “I think my character is really driven by a need to prove his value and his worth and he is maybe to a fault ambitious and needs other people to recognise his power. He’s unwilling to relinquish that power and I think that is something that is a major flaw of his,” describing the moral landscape of the film as “blurry”. He spoke about his training regimen for the film, which included training in the martial art Silat. He added that he was relieved to get away from the paparazzi, saying “like in Berlin for example where we’ve been for the last couple of months, people there are not really that interested in celebrity and there is no paparazzi there and it’s really nice to be in an environment where people aren’t following you down the street or waiting outside my house or whatever the case may be. It just keeps me at peace, I don’t have to be outside of myself.”
When asked what would set Hitman: Agent 47 apart from other video game movies that have gone before, Quinto said “I think there’s a lot of attention to detail in this film, I think that there’s a lot of attention to character, I think Rupert and I are both actors that operate in similar ways and come from similar backgrounds and try to bring some element of depth and multi-dimensional reality to our characters. I think that we’re trying to come at this movie from a different point of view and make it substantial as an action film can be.” When comparing the action and stunt work on this film to that on the Star Trek movies, he observed “we had a lot more time to do it on Star Trek, we had a lot more money so we were accomplishing a lot here with less resources and less time and I think that everybody involved has done a very impressive job of working with what they have to make it look really incredible.”
Reflecting on where he was in his life, Quinto said “I feel like I’m at a real crossroads right now, I’ve been working pretty consistently for the past two years and I’m ready to take some time to let all the lessons that I’ve learned through the last Star Trek movie through American Horror Story through The Glass Menagerie through this to just settle and these other movies that I’m going to do this summer are quiet enough so I’ll have some time between them. I think it’s a real period of re-evaluation for me and I’m excited by that, I’m really kind of like looking forward to taking time for myself to figure out what my steps will be for the longer range. I’m so grateful for the experiences that I’ve had and I’ve accomplished so many of the goals that I set out for myself when I was younger, I feel in a way like I’m really asking myself ‘now what, what’s next?’ I’m shifting into this larger phase in my life where I really feel like I’m not a kid anymore and I’m entering into my late 30s and I’m really asking myself ‘what do I want to accomplish in a larger sense in a larger scale, in my business life, in my creative life and in my personal life?’ and those are three things that I really want to examine and figure out, so we’ll see where it all takes me.”
Producer Alex Young stopped by after Quinto left and was bubbling over with enthusiasm about shooting in Singapore. “It’s such a glorious, incredible city and absolute distinct visuals that you can find nowhere else in the world.” On the opportunity of presenting Singapore as a new location that hadn’t been seen in Hollywood movies, he said “a hard part about making a movie these days is to be fresh and distinct and to give the audience something they’ve never seen before and so many movies are made and so many have huge ambitions that they explore every corner of the world so to find a place that’s as modern and as big as this that hasn’t been shot is one of those…I’ve never experienced it in my career before. All the other big cities, London, Paris, Hong Kong, New York City, Tokyo, San Francisco they’ve all been shot on film extensively before so it’s very rare as a filmmaker that you get the opportunity to come to these places and find something that hasn’t been shot gloriously on film before. You’re not going to shoot Paris in some new way that everything from Gigi to Inception hasn’t done before. You’re not going to shoot New York City better than Martin Scorsese has done before, you’re just not. So to be the first ones to put something on film is just great.”
Young attempted to downplay the difficulties of being denied the use of the factory location, saying “that’s a normal exigency of moviemaking, sometimes locations fall through and you have to go to your backup plan. We always had a plan to do this on green screen just because you have an actress strung up, like the engine part and all that was always going to be visual effects. If you go to one of those test cell rooms, it’s essentially just a big room like this (the soundstage) anyway, and unfortunately we just couldn’t work it out with the company and that just happens, that happens in every city and that happens in every location and some of them fall through, such is life, you just roll with it.” He insisted that for a location as “untested” as Singapore, things have been going well on the whole. “For a first-time experience, it’s been glorious. I’ve had experiences with film commissions that are far more entrenched, that are far more restrictive, so it’s been great.”
Young said the filmmakers were convinced that Rupert Friend would be the ideal candidate to play Agent 47 after seeing his work as Peter Quinn in the TV show Homeland. “47 is not a nice guy,” Young stated bluntly. “He’s never going to be a ‘nice guy’, he’s never going to be in touch with his own feelings and hoping the audience likes him but he’s pure, he has a code he lives by, he has a job, he has a mission, he’s the smartest guy onscreen and I think what we’ve done is we’ve kept it a little bit ambiguous, who we should be rooting for but in every sequence, he really is smart and clever and is the puppet master of the entire movie. That’s what Rupert can play so well, he’s got a soul to him but he’s so smart, he’s the sort of calculating guy and you can really buy into that he’s orchestrated the whole thing.” Movie producers will invariably describe their projects in “X meets Y” terms, and sure enough, Young said “the touchstones of this movie are the very first Terminator and Luc Besson’s The Professional.”
Young mentioned that Chinese star Angela Yeung a.k.a Angelababy would have a pivotal cameo in the film as a character from the games. When asked if Hollywood is ready to see more Asian faces, Young affirmed “not just ready, I think they’re eager to”. “I think Hollywood is desperate to tell more authentic Asian stories,” he said. “Every studio now has multiple projects in development that are Asian-themed or that are international and take place in this part of the world.” He also revealed that the visual effects work for the film will be done by ILM in their facility in Singapore. “It’s not a $200 million movie, it’s a really modest movie, but to have a company like ILM doing the visual effects will make it feel like an even bigger movie because the quality will be so incredible and the facility they have here is truly extraordinary and I believe is as big if not bigger than the one in North America.”
We then got to talk to Agent 47 himself, Rupert Friend, clad in a grey t-shirt. He was charming, unassuming and who referred to the Marina Bay Sands hotel as “that hotel with that sort of boat stranded on the top”. Friend was cast after the untimely death of Paul Walker, who was originally chosen. He stated that he had played all the games, an encouraging sign that he was taking the character seriously. About the game series, he said “the exciting thing for me is that yeah, he’s tough as all s*** and he can beat the hell out of you but if you try to play the game by shooting everything and beating everyone up, you’ll just lose. If you don’t use your brain, you lose, and I thought was a very interesting premise because, as I said, I’m not into just shoot ‘em ups. If I was going to play a game, there has to be an element of strategy, tactics, intelligence, even, dare I say it, soul, because I think those days of that kind of Doom, whatever, I think gamers are smarter than that now.”
On the question of whether or not it was possible that Agent 47 has a soul, Friend said “Absolutely. That’s something that I’ve been very keen on and really insisted on, the guy’s a clone. He’s not a droid, he’s not a cyborg, he’s not a robot, he’s a human.” Friend has not taken many action-oriented parts and said he didn’t want to portray Agent 47 as a mindless, invincible killing machine. “My interest is not, believe it or not, in just looking cool, much as I’d love to,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just those cracks in the surface to let us see the actual man underneath. I love the idea that yeah, he feels things, yeah, he likes music, yeah, he likes spaghetti Bolognese, it’s just that we don’t know that. His job is killing people for money, that’s all you need to know, it’s just that he knows other things.” He said it wasn’t a big deal shaving his head for the part, since acting is about physically and otherwise transforming into the character after all, though he did reveal that it was “f**king cold” in Berlin, his scalp left vulnerable to the low temperatures.
Explaining the significance of that barcode, Friend explained “it’s his birthday, then it’s the series of clone he is, the class of clone he is and the order in which he was cloned. Looks pretty good for being born in 1964, don’t you think?” Justifying the changes made to Agent 47’s appearance, particularly the more discreet barcode, Friend said “have you ever seen a white ink tattoo? Actually, it kind of raises the skin, I love the idea that rather than something overt, the guy’s walking through a crowded metro station. Someone who’s super, super bald, when they actually have hair and you skin the thing like that, is very conspicuous, and he’s wearing like a suit and a red tie, it’s very like ‘you’re supposed to be the covert assassin guy,’ whereas this guy in the crowd over here,” he said pointing to a production still on the wall, “you’re like ‘yeah, he’s a businessman, whatever.’” Another journalist joked that Agent 47 could be mistaken for a Manchester United team manager. “There were ideas about the costume, making it more fancy and a bit more Karl Lagerfeld and I was like ‘no, classic, classic, classic,’” Friend insisted. “This is hand-tailored by a guy out of Madrid to fit me and there’s just ten of them, ten shirts, ten ties, finest cotton, everything’s expensive and well-tailored, then you don’t need bells and whistles and scarves and hats and chains and bracelets. It’s supposed to be blending in and then efficient, you know?”
Before leaving, we went back on set where the second part of the scene in which Katia gets tied up in front of the jet engine was being shot. In this sequence, Katia would try to free herself from her bonds as the engine started up, wind machines simulating the blast of wind. The director instructed Ware to make it look like it was more of a struggle to free herself. After several takes, he came over to speak briefly to us.
A director of television commercials, Hitman: Agent 47 was the first feature film project Aleksander Bach was helming. “How does it feel? Crazy. It’s a crazy honour, but of course, I’m working on this project since two years (ago) now and it took so much time of preparation to make this project really happening,” he said in halting English. He described the character of 47 as “a kind of Terminator in a James Bond suit”. Summing up the title character, Bach said “47 is a killer. You don’t love him, you don’t hate him but you understand him.”
And with that, our tour behind the scenes of Hitman: Agent 47 drew to a close. F*** hopes that the Hollywood film’s visit to our shores will be something of a boost for Singapore’s fledgling industry and who knows, perhaps Tom Cruise will be free-climbing the exterior of the Singapore Flyer in a future Mission: Impossible instalment.
Hitman: Agent 47 hits Singapore theatres on 27 August 2015