Johnny English Strikes Again: Director David Kerr on the Brilliance of Rowan Atkinson [Exclusive Interview]

In British television and films, Rowan Atkinson will definitely be compared to the comedy greats of Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy and many others.

His long film series of the bungling spy Johnny English has brought us laughter for almost two decades for audiences around the world.

In possibly the last installment, Johnny English Strikes Again, brought back the lovable idiotic spy to MI7 to reteam with his forgotten sidekick Bough in an adventure to takedown a mysterious hacker.

The film stars Atkinson, Ben Miller and Olga Kurylenko. It is directed by David Kerr and William Davies.

LRM Online had a phone interview last month with director David Kerr on his experiences with working with the highly-respectable and highly-adored Rown Atkinson. He also talked to us about brining the sidekick back with Bough and a very well-done VR scene in the film.

Johnny English Strikes Again is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

Read our exclusive interview below.

LRM: Excellent. Hey, congratulations on the success of this movie of Johnny English Strikes Again. I feel like us Americans are the last ones to see it in the world.

David Kerr: I mean it’s not quite the last. It’s still going. It hasn’t opened in Japan, China, Brazil for the other places. You’ve hit on something which is so often in studio comedies especially do open domestically and then travel. The lovely thing is that it’s opened to a global audience. It’s now coming to the states. Hopefully, the word of mouth from the people who’ve been laughing. Some of that laughter is echoed across the Atlantic. They may encourage people here to see it.

LRM: It’s been awhile since we had a Johnny English movie. What initially attracted you to this project?

David Kerr: I’ve been a huge fan of Rowan Atkinson most of my life. I watched his TV sketches and not the 9 o’clock news when I was a teenager. Just found him incredibly funny. Some very simple things he did like literally walking–walking along a road and bumping into a lamppost. Just the very simple thing that is played with such kind of physical finess. I just found it incredibly funny.

By watching Blackadder, the historical sitcom, which I absolutely loved. Then seeing his physical comedy being finessed in projects, Mr. Bean and into Johnny English. Working with Rowan was very much the draw. Added to that, I’d kind of always been a fan of the spy genre. It’s sort of grown up watching Bond movies. Roger Moore would have been my Bond in terms of the era that I came of age. Loved those movies. I also loved things like that Peter Sellers movies with the Pink Panther. This felt like it’s tapping into those worlds.

The challenge for me was to kind of find a very modern version of that could feel contemporary and yet kind of classic. The script just had huge potential to be a proper adventure. And truly funny. It’s a case of refining that to make it to just keeps delivering comedy. That’s very much the yardstick. Is it a funny film?

LRM: Why do you think Johnny English is so popular around the world?

David Kerr: I think part of it is that people can relate to a flawed hero. He’s somebody, who in his head is James Bond and most of us would quite like to be James Bond. We can kind of relate to that. In reality, he’s something of an idiot. Let’s face it, there’s a bit of an idiot in most of us. I think you’ve got quite a sort of relatable, flawed character, for one.

I think the spy genre is so perennial, really cinematic and attractive–as a sort of story genre that people the world over I think enjoy. I think specifically on why Johnny English–I think it’s because Rowan has an ability to play verbal comedy like nobody else. Like Charlie Chaplin, he has this extraordinary talent for physical comedy to express in a way that works across language barriers. It’s why people from every country, pretty much anyone with a pair of eyes can watch some of those physical pieces in the movie. Hopefully connect with them and laugh at them.

LRM: With Johnny English’s popularity around the world have. Do you ever be afraid of the fact that some of the jokes would be lost in translation?

David Kerr: That’s definitely a question we would ask ourselves at the script stage as we’re developing this script. You do ask this questions frequently. You kind of want to kind of be true to the character or the setting. Sometimes you leave things in that are quite sort of culturally specific. Just know that people will go along with it even if you don’t necessarily know exactly what that means. Hopefully, people will kind of run with it. It is a tricky balance to strike, because you do want this to be film to work internationally, but you also want it to have a very particular British tone. Similarly, the comedy, we wanted to play to a family audience and that’s a hard target to hit as well. If you go to sort of infantile, then maybe the adults are left behind. If you made it too dry, an adult and perhaps the kids will be bored. Hopefully it’s a film that people can watch with the kids and everyone can find something to offer.

LRM: Excellent. It must have been the dream for you to direct Rowan, but Rowan has some experience–doesn’t it seems like he kind of directs himself in the movie?

David Kerr: Well, it’s interesting. Rohan knows the Johnny English character better than anyone. He’s played this character since doing the credit card commercials as long as back in 1991 with the character. Called Richard Latham then to the first Johnny English movie in 2001. So Rowan, absolutely, understands the Johnny character and how Johnny might behave in any given situation. Rowan has an amazing understanding of what he can do that’s funny. What I would say he is also incredibly open to direction. He welcomes it and needs it. It’s quite lonely being the star of any film. You are very exposed. There are strong instincts about what you’re doing.

I think what a director is there for is to say that is an amazing part and here’s some things we’re going to do another take. Here’s something that you didn’t quite do and not what it might be interesting if you pushed it more this way or that way. It faded a bit faster, bit slower. Maybe don’t look at the other character when you say that line with the way. So this way it looks like you might be lying. You’re constantly feeding them lines by giving them little stares.

Someone like Rowan, of course, he’s a thoroughbred actor so you’re not really having to give them basic notes. But, you’re definitely alert to the details of what he’s doing because it didn’t. The detail that you can alter what he’s doing. We were very collaborative all the way through. That’s been one of the joys of it, he does bring a lot to the table. He also asks a lot of me. That’s been kind of one of the real pleasures of the relationship.

LRM: In American comedies, we have a lot of improvisation. Is there a lot of improvisation on your part too?

David Kerr: Well, I’d say that there’s a lot of discussion ahead of the shoot. In terms, we almost improvise when we’re working through the script. It’ll be me, the writer William Davies and Rowan sitting in a room. We kind of spitball the concept of something. Wouldn’t be funny like this? Would it be funny like that? We’ll talk it through. I would storyboard a lot of the film. I’ve been sharing my boards with Rowan and say, “I think this would be a really funny angle to shoot this. Or know we could see this with a developing shot that starts here.” We start kind of interrogating the way the thing is going to be realized before we get near the set.

I’d say that when we’re actually on the set that there really isn’t a lot of improvisation. Certainly not in the way of so many contemporary American comedies, where a Will Ferrell, for instance, might have 10 [takes] or Steve Carell might have like 10 different lines that they’re going to give you as an alternative to the scripted one. They will just run with it and try things maybe do one with a different accent or do one that’s kind of very, very fast or do one that’s like almost mute. That isn’t Rowen’s way. I think Rowan’s is kind of meticulous performer. He has given a lot of thought to what he thinks is the funniest version of something. Generally, we’ve agreed to what that is. When we’re on the set, it’s about trying to perfect that idea that we’ve, that we’ve kind of settled on.

This sounds incredibly elaborate for what is essentially sometimes raffles and silly stuff. In a way, we kind of want to do a lot thinking a ahead of time so that the thing feels spontaneous in the moment. That’s one of the hardest things to conjure on any movie set is what we’re seeing is happening for the first and only time. Very often, the direction, I would give is kind of we just have to try this as though you haven’t done it before. I’ll find a way of encouraging that as a result.

LRM: I wanted to mention that you guys brought Bough back with Ben Miller after 17 years. Why is it appropriate to bring them back for this last movie?

David Kerr: I have to say Daniel Kaluuya in Johnny English Reborn was amazing. I’ve worked with Daniel before. I think with this one, Bough had been so good in the first movie as a sort of boil to Johnny. The concept of Johnny coming back to MI7 and the idea that Bough had been sort of like almost living in the basement of MI7 pretty much forgotten by the people who were employing him. I almost liken him in my mind to those mythical Japanese soldiers who were in the jungle a few years off to the Second World War had ended. There’s this kind of guy was still there in the basement doing what he did. People that are almost forgotten he was on the payroll. That felt appropriate to Ben’s character, Bourgh.

The kind of double act chemistry that they have. Sort of Laurel and Hardy-esque. There’s a full symbiosis between the two when they’re acting together. It’s mostly kind of a physical thing. Those looks that they play to each other and the realizations. The way that Bough is so endlessly tolerant of Johnny’s ineptitude. He seems so supportive of this. It’s a really special relationship. In some ways, it’s kind of tapping into one of the oldest comedy archetypes, which is the master and the servant. It’s kind of just a really strong comic pairing.

LRM: One of my favorite scenes is the VR scene in the film. How did you manage to pull that off?

David Kerr: I’m so glad you brought that up. When I read the script, obviously there are jokes in the film that are pretty classic and feel. It could have been done by Buster Keaton 100 years ago. The VR scene–I just knew this was a joke I’ve never seen done before. It felt very fresh. It also felt pretty tough to pull off. It was a jigsaw puzzle. It started with the writing, which I involve myself in, obviously Will Davies had written it. Rowan and I kind of interrogated it and finessed it. We all kind of kicked it around. Then I story boarded the whole thing to a really fine level of detail. We’ve scouted locations and worked out how I could match up between what Johnny thinks he’s seeing what’s actually in his head and then the real life locations. So that there’s a kind of seamlessness to it.

It was an absolute joy, but also a jigsaw puzzle and the pieces have to fit a very kind of a neatly or else the thing wouldn’t be funny. It’s just about sort of building the momentum so that you don’t feel that you’re seeing too much of the same joke. There’s a sort of evolution to the comedy. It was interesting when we, when we started cutting it together in the edit suite. We didn’t have the virtual points of view that Johnny has in his head set. We just had my storyboards, which are just like black and white drawings. We’d have to cut those in. The producers were watching cuts of the scene and just saying, well, “This isn’t funny. Well, this isn’t going to be funny.” There was a fair bit of maybe this isn’t going to work.

I was kind of adamant that once we got the virtual point of view stuff in, then we would really seeing on what it was like. it. It’s like cutting a scene between two actors and you’ve already got one of the actors in a side. When we started getting the virtual POV stuff in and then developing that and in terms of its look and its pace. Then the whole thing starts to sing. It’s probably the sequence I’m proudest of as a director. It’s sort of director’s piece.

LRM: Excellent. Hey, thank you very much for this conversation. I was laughing out loud throughout the entire movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m glad you brought this back.

David Kerr: Oh, thank you so much. I’m delighted to hear that. Thank you so much.

Source: LRM Online Exclusive

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Gig Patta

Gig Patta is a journalist and interviewer for LRM and Latino-Review since 2009. He was a writer for other entertainment sites in the past with Collider and IESB.net. He originally came from the world of print journalism with several years as a reporter with the San Diego Business Journal and California Review. He earned his MBA from the Keller Graduate School of Management and BA in Economics from UC San Diego. Follow him on Instagram @gigpatta or Facebook @officialgigpatta.

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