Women who made an action film: Kate McKinnon and director Susanna Fogel on buddy comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me
Saturday Night Live comedian McKinnon teamed up with Mila Kunis and Fogel to make an action film that gives nods to various films and doesn’t stint on the violence, while keeping the humour intact
The name’s Bond, James Bond – except that this time around, it isn’t. Although The Spy Who Dumped Me is an obvious pun on the 1977 Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, the “spies” are actually a pair of everyday women who unwittingly get caught up in a deadly espionage caper.
In the film, Mila Kunis and Saturday Night Live comedienne Kate McKinnon play a dynamic duo who wisecrack their way through numerous violent escapades as they try to deliver a computer drive to a secretive contact amid the splendid fin-de-siècle architecture of Budapest, Hungary.
The action scenes are hard hitting and the japery is amusing, but director and co-screenwriter Susanna Fogel says that the core idea was to make a female buddy movie – because those kinds of films are usually the preserve of male actors flaunting their love of all things bro-mantic. It was time the girls got a chance to bond over some ball-crushing, head-busting scenes.
“I wanted to tell a grounded story about two friends first – we didn’t want it to be a straight parody of the spy genre. But as we were dealing with spy films, there were certain tropes we had to honour. We did that, but we tried to turn them on their heads, to make them as entertaining as possible,” Fogel says.
The story begins in the US, when Audrey (Kunis) is dumped by her mysterious boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux), a cool character who has a habit of disappearing for weeks on end and calling her from Eastern European countries.
After seeking solace from her best mate Morgan (McKinnon), Audrey encounters Drew again – and gets caught up in a hit by some thuggish goons. With his dying breath, Drew admits that he’s a spy, gives Audrey a hard drive, and tells her to take it to a contact in Budapest. Sensing an adventure, Audrey calls Morgan and the pair fly over to Europe to make the drop.
Once the two hit Budapest, their plan quickly goes awry. Dishy British MI6 operative Sebastian (Sam Heughan) gets on their tail after a dangerous shoot-out in a restaurant – but is he really on their side? – an evil organisation sets an ice-cold killer with a penchant for death by gymnastics after them, and the duo manage to dispatch many of their pursuers, more by accident than design.
In the midst of all that, stalwart mystery actress Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) puts in an appearance as an ‘M’-like head spook who becomes an inspirational female figure for the wannabe spies.
Fogel, who has only directed one film previously, says she decided early on that she wanted the fight scenes to be as tough as those in fully fledged action films. Action comedies often go light on the action to make space for the jokes, but Fogel worried that if she went light on the violence, people would say that women weren’t up to directing action films.
“I didn’t want male directors saying that I couldn’t do it,” Fogel says.
The director hired Gary Powell, a veteran stuntman who’d worked on Bond movies, for the fight choreography, and Powell tried to make the scenes as tough as he could within the context of a comedy setting. (Powell knows Bond inside out – he was stunt coordinator for 2015’s Spectre , and his father and uncle worked as stuntmen on Bond films featuring Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton.)
“On the page, the action is written with a sense of humour, and it’s lighter to read than it looks on the screen,” Fogel says. “But when you are sitting down with your stunt coordinator working out who is dying, how many guns are being fired, how much blood the guy’s losing, and having very specific conversations about the brutality, you have to find ways to rewrite it in on the spot to keep it all in the comedy context,” she says.
McKinnon, who is best known for her Hillary Clinton impersonations on Saturday Night Live, says that the action scenes proved challenging at times, and admits she took note of her more experienced co-star Kunis.
“It was very daunting,” McKinnon says. “It’s very different from what I do in my stage act normally. It was a challenge and that is why I wanted to do it. Mila would give me advice if I wanted it, although generally she would just give me compliments.”
Brutality is rarely funny, and it was sometimes difficult to combine the two, McKinnon adds. “Violence with comedy was an interesting challenge, and I continually had to think about how to carry it off during the shoot.
“In the torture scene, I had to scream as it was happening, but the screaming couldn’t be too real, because you don’t want to make people feel upset – it’s still a comedy. It was a matter of striking the right tone – of managing to stay funny while being in these very violent situations. It was an interesting thing to try to do, as I hadn’t had that experience before.”
Although it’s is more Atomic Blonde than James Bond, Fogel says she did try to reference classic action films. But she also notes that she didn’t specifically pick on the Bond films. “We wanted to make it clear that we weren’t just parodying the genre, so we wanted to have tributes to different styles of action,” she says.
“There’s one main movie reference for every scene. For instance, Mission: Impossible was our model for the car chase – there’s a lot of action, but with madcap comedy, and a buddy film touch to it. The reference for the torture scene was The Shining as it was set in a big scary cavernous space,” Fogel adds.
Fogel says that the shoot went smoothly because Kunis and McKinnon, who did not know each other beforehand, quickly became good friends. “The important thing about this film was that the friendship had to seem real. So we listened to each other’s point of view,” says McKinnon. “Sometimes you hook with the people you work with, sometimes you just work with them. Mila and I hooked.”
In any event, both director and actress agree that it’s almost an accomplishment in itself that they’ve made an action film featuring female characters in the lead roles.
“My personal dream is that a movie like this, with two women in the lead, and a woman director, would come out,” says McKinnon, “and the fact that it’s got women in the lead and behind the camera would be too unremarkable for anyone to comment on. But we are having to go through a lot to get to that point.”
The Spy Who Dumped Me opens on August 23
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