For Israeli film-maker Navot Papushado, the creative process of Gunpowder Milkshake began with one simple idea. “The story started with a mother who discovers that the daughter she was forced to abandon as a child has followed her into the same dangerous profession,” he says.
“When you start to write, you don’t know where you’re going to land. The idea comes to life,” he says. “The tone of the film is, like his previous films, inspired by the directors he most admires, from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers via Jean-Pierre Melville, Michael Mann, John Woo, Johnnie To and Jackie Chan. “I mixed violence and humor in Rabies and Big Bad Wolves, and the directors I love always did that,” he says.
With the script co-written by Navot Papushado and Ehud Lavski (Big Bad Wolves), Papushado approached producers Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman of The Picture Company in 2018. Says Rona: “I was a big fan of Big Bad Wolves. It was a slick, inexpensively-made movie that came out of nowhere and took the world by surprise that year.
Rona and Heineman responded immediately to Papushado’s new screenplay, which combines action and violence with humour. “It was just fun,” says Rona. “I love stylish crime dramas, and Gunpowder Milkshake had a voice to it. It’s a world that I love. It was clearly written by a film lover and cinephile. The gangster genre is something you see time and time again but this was a fresh take on it. And it was really well-written, it was pop, it was fun, it was irreverent.
“It had a very good balance of humour and violence,” continues Rona. “It reminded me of films of Quentin Tarantino where the humour and the action go hand-in-hand and can’t exist without each other and it’s almost absurdist.”
Rona’s producing partner at The Picture Company Alex Heineman concurs: “Navot is a cinephile, he’s a great writer and a visionary director. Big Bad Wolves really stood out to us because it’s a genre-bending film: it’s a thriller but it also has great moments of levity, it has great characters, and it takes very unexpected turns along the way. We knew that Navot is someone who takes genre movies, but spins them in their own way, just like Quentin Tarantino or Edgar Wright, filmmakers work in specific genres but have a unique approach. As soon as Andrew and I read this script, we knew that although he was working in the assassin genre, he was going do his own thing with it, and that’s always really exciting.”
Papushado’s screenplay is a story of lessons learnt and shackles broken: when Sam is forced to choose between saving eight-year-old Emily or abandoning her, Sam is brave enough to do the right thing, unlike her mother, Scarlet, 15 years previously. And it’s a story of female empowerment and the tight bond that develops between Emily, Sam, and Scarlet, the mother who abandoned her, enlivened by unpredictable twists and turns, and populated with a cast of colourful, unforgettable characters. Chief amongst these are the Librarians whose library provides a sanctuary for Sam, Scarlet and Emily.
“I knew I wanted the film to feature librarians because they have always intrigued me,” says Papushado. “As a kid, I spent almost my entire school life hiding in the library reading sci-fi. Librarians have always fascinated and intimidated me; they’re like sheriffs, the original peacekeepers. I thought a library would be the perfect location and alter ego for a group of hired assassins. But it’s also a metaphor: a library holds maybe the strongest weapon of all – knowledge. It felt like a perfect fit: a library as an armoury and librarians as hired assassins, with books acting as a metaphor for knowledge and also a place to hide guns.”
Says Andrew Rona: “The Librarians, played by Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Carla Gugino, are not your average librarians: they’re a team of also female assassins who are well-armed and well-trained in different fighting styles. They hunker down in the library and this multi generation of women take down the organisation that has been terrorising them for years.”
When it came to the style of the film, Papushado had a very clear vision of the look he was after
“Gunpowder Milkshake was initially inspired by the movies of Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, and Alfred Hitchcock,” he says. “It is a meeting of these genres, spaghetti western, film noir and Samurai/Ronin movies. For me, the plot ideas and genres always come first, and then the characters come to life into that world.”
The director’s approach certainly paid dividends.
Says Andrew Rona: “Navot is a true cinephile and his film knowledge and understanding of cinema go way back. He’s influenced by so many filmmakers, from Akira Kurosawa and Sam Peckinpah to Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville. And he’s paying homage to those storytellers, but for a new audience. All those directors found a specific tone for their films. Tone is everything on a film like this. It’s all about characters, it’s all about nuances, it’s all about little moments, about details. It’s about how the characters move and act and interact with each other and I think that’s what Navot does really well. He finds that nuance. He finds that tone. The mise-en-scène, as he says, is very important. Navot wants the frame to be special. He’s very interested in long takes where the action plays out in the frame. He’s not interested in cutting into it. He really wants you to feel like you’re there in the moment. This is not a visual effects movie; this is real. It’s almost a throwback in a lot of ways. He’s very invested in the framing and the choreography of the sequences and the way the actors move within the frame.”
With such attention to detail and capturing the aesthetic, it’s a tribute to Papushado’s personality that the shoot was such a breeze. Says Andrew Rona: “In a movie that was this difficult to make (with multiple locations and complicated stunts), it’s really impressive that everyone had a good time and still liked each other at the end of it! I give Navot a lot of credit for that: he put together an incredible cast and crew who really came together. They really enjoyed each other’s company and it shows on the screen. These actors really worked hard on the action scenes and came to trust each other completely. They put the hours with the stunt team and it shows.”
“There’s always violence there and there’s always comedy,” says Papushado When it’s violence for the sake of violence, it can get a bit nihilistic but when you filter it through comedy and you show the absurdity of it, then it’s not about showing the anatomy of violence. Rather, it’s about heightened reality, it’s about entertainment, it’s about how we perceive violence. Most of the violence was written into the script, part of it is through the editing and the soundtrack which really holds it together.
“Because this movie mixes so many different genres and so many ideas, the music was always going to be the glue. It’s the same thing that worked for Big Bad Wolves and the same thing that always works for me when I see these genre-blenders,” continues Papushado.
“When I started talking to composer Frankie (Haim Frank Ilfman), I said I had the Western vibe of Ennio Morricone, the Italian chic of Stelvio Cipriani, and the violent suspense of Bernard Herrmann in mind. The end result is Western mixed with Italian retro chic and the suspense of Bernard Hermann with an electronic vibe that came from Frankie. The soundtrack is retro but modern, it could be played on vinyl or Spotify.”
From Page To Screen
While Gunpowder Milkshake is big on explosive action, death-defying stunts and edge-of-your-seat thrills, at its heart it’s the story of a mother/daughter relationship and, as such, the cast was pivotal to its success. When it came to casting, Papushado needed an ensemble which would gel organically and two actors at the centre who would have the audience rooting for their success.
“The first person we went after was for the character of Sam,” says Andrew Rona. “It’s hard to find somebody who can carry the weight of a movie like this and is also the right age. Karen was one of the first people we thought of. She had just come off of Jumanji and had been in the Avengers films. Navot met with her and it was instant chemistry.”
“Karen is just awesome,” says Papushado. “She’s rock ‘n’ roll. She’s so committed and passionate and such a hard worker (she did so much training). She also brings a certain tranquillity to the set, and she’s fun to be around.”
It didn’t take much to persuade Gillan to join the project. She was enthralled from the first page: “When I first read this script I was totally engrossed and felt that this character was something I certainly hadn’t played before,” says Gillan. “Then what really, really captured me were the action sequences. I’ve read a lot of action sequences in scripts before and they’re a lot easier to watch than they are to read and it’s usually because there’s a lot of explanation. On the page it’s quite hard to understand how it’s going to make sense visually, but this was so easy to follow and it was also highly original and full of sequences I hadn’t seen before. I felt that it would be an incredible creative process.
“I first met Navot in London to talk about the project,” continues Gillan. “I was already keen because the script was one of the best things I’ve read in such a long time and then I met him and I was immediately struck that the person I met was so evidently the person who wrote this script. It was his identity all over. It’s his sense of humour, it’s his brain, it’s even his taste in music. It just made a lot of sense to me. I’d watched his previous work and so I knew that he was a really exciting up-and-coming director and, combined with this script, turned it into a no-brainer for me.”
“Because it’s a mother-daughter relationship film, we needed the cast to fit,” says Andrew Rona. “We wanted someone who would make an impact when they appear. Who’s gonna blow us away? Who is going to make people go wow. And Lena Headey is amazing. She’s coming off of this worldwide hit of Game of Thrones, everyone knows her as that character for eight seasons. We knew Karen and Lena together would be a great pair.”
“Lena is Woodstock!” says Papushado. “She and Karen just hit it off. The chemistry between them from the first second was amazing. Lena brought all her experience to the set, and it was a huge help to me. I learned a lot from her.”
Lena Headey was immediately taken by the screenplay. “It’s a really fun script,” she says. “The film has got lots of brilliant women in it and it’s just fresh and fun and I get to fight, and I’ll take anything where that happens! To see women in traditional male roles and unafraid to be violent in terms of survival and righting wrongs is great.
Paul Giamatti as Nathan, the man who heads up the secret crime syndicate called The Firm which Sam and Emily are fleeing.
Says Andrew Rona: “Most of the men in this film are bad guys and all the people who die are men. And most of the killings done by women. Paul Giamatti is the one character who straddles both worlds. He is the guy running The Firm, but he’s not The Firm. He is taking orders from other people and he does have a good heart. He secretly helped Scarlet run away and survive, just as he did the same for Sam 15 years before. Nathan turns out to be a relatively good character. It’s shades of grey, for sure: he’s not a hero, but he’s definitely not the bad guy or the villain. The real bad guys in the movie are played by Ralph Ineson and Adam Nagaitis who play Jim and Virgil. They’re sociopaths. They deserve to die and they die in the most violent way; our Librarians take great joy in killing them!”
Paul Giamatti’s interest was piqued by the Gunpowder Milkshake universe. “I thought the world of the film was very specific and strange,” he says. “It’s sort of like our world, but not quite. I liked the fact that a lot of it wasn’t explained and that the audience is just dropped into the middle of this odd world. It also had a lot of funny, odd lines. And I liked the whole idea of this kind of Bureau of Female Assassins.” Giamatti was also intrigued by the enigma of Nathan.
Giamatti responded to the ambiguity in Nathan’s motives. “When I first read the script, I thought Nathan didn’t seem like a horrible person,” he says. “He’s trying to be a good father figure to Sam but she forces his hand and he has to satisfy management. But he does help her. He tries to play both sides so he’s an interesting character. “
Papushado also allowed the actors some leeway to play with the screenplay. For Giamatti, that made the film a lot more fun to work on. “The majority of my scenes were with Karen Gillan and she’s great!” he says. “She’s a lot of fun, really fun. The scenes I did with her was kind of improvisatory, so we were allowed to mess around with the script, which was fun.”
But from the beginning, it was always about the storytelling. And for me, the clinic fight also kind of represented little evolutionary step that the movie takes, from something that is more Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton-oriented, like the bowling alley fight, into the more cartoonish kind of Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And later on, you have the car chase, which is more of a ’70s kind of a thing. And later on, you have more of a Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah, let’s go down in a blaze of glory. This is where we make our stand.
So we tried to keep engaging with ourselves, with our characters, and also with the audience, with fresh new takes on, okay, not just another thing of what you already got used to seeing. No, let’s try to confuse you and dazzle you and then play with you. I always love to make the audience part of the movie, not just a spectator, keep guessing. So, she’s got her hands paralyzed. Hmm. I wonder what you’re going to do now.
Although Papushado wrote the screenplay with no intention of making any kind of statement, its timing couldn’t be more prescient as audiences around the world are yearning for more original concept films with strong female leads and original stories about women taking the lead.
“I think that people will surprised by this movie because it’s such an incredible action movie but it’s so emotionally driven,” says Gillan. “That’s the most important thing and that’s what’s so engaging about this story. Watching the character of Sam develop as a person and evolve so much over the course of one night through very original action sequences is something people haven’t seen before and it’s going to be a very emotionally engaging, satisfying experience.”
“This is an experience movie,” says Andrew Rona. “Every time a door opens you are surprised by what you see. Navot really is conscious of that, he calls them the fun moments, the wow moments. You have to constantly keep the audience guessing and there’s nothing that happens in this movie that’s expected. It’s really full of surprises and that’s what makes it a fun popcorn, Friday night movie.”
For Papushado, moving onto his first solo directing and English language gig on such a high-profile film proved more thrilling than he anticipated. “I had huge support from the get-go, from Alex and Andrew and STUDIOCANAL. They are all such movie buffs who loved the script and were so excited about the film’s vision and how it would be different and unique.”
He concludes: “I got to work with the most amazing talent the most amazing crew on this crazy, funny, violent…batshit movie,” he smiles. “It’s a genre blended milkshake, and I can’t wait for it to meet the audience!”