The Big Picture
- Hit Man is a film that blurs the line between fiction and reality, using the real story of a philosophy professor turned undercover cop as its inspiration.
- Director Richard Linklater emphasizes the importance of maintaining the connection to the true story, while also adding comedic embellishments to enhance the film’s darkly comedic tone.
- The movie centers around the relationship between the professor/hitman and a woman he meets, taking on a comedic noir genre as their story unfolds.
The phrase “based on a true story” seems to mean less and less as time goes on. The line between fiction and reality can be blurred as stories are dramatized for the big screen, but there are stories willing to have some genuine fun while going beyond the truth. Richard Linklater‘s latest film Hit Man, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, is one such project, pulling from the real story of philosophy professor and undercover cop Gary Johnson to create a mix of a screwball comedy and a true crime thriller. While at the festival, Linklater spoke with Collider’s Steve Weintraub at our TIFF media studio at the Cinema Center at MARBL about the film and where it stands in relation to reality.
Hit Man stars Top Gun: Maverick‘s Glen Powell as Johnson whose days as a mild-mannered philosophy professor give way to nights working with the police undercover as a highly desired hitman catching any customers who would try to hire him to kill someone. He breaks protocol, however, when he meets a woman (Adria Arjona) who desperately needs to escape her abusive husband. Linklater says there’s a clear line between reality and fiction that gets fully crossed when sparks begin to fly between Gary and Madison and everything fully switches into being a comedic noir film:
“The film is pretty demarcated. It’s kind of like everything up until the time where she gets back in touch with him, he meets her, but there’s a moment [in] the film we take off, once the couple kind of get going. That’s where I think the genre really kicks in, of the crime noir thing and the screwball comedy. It centers around that relationship, and a lot of that is kind of a flight of fancy we took.”
‘Hit Man’ Takes Liberties for Maximum Comedic Effect
Linklater emphasized, however, that he never wants Hit Man‘s inspiration to get lost in the fiction. After all, it was the absurd original article by Skip Hollandsworth that drew him and Howell to the project in the first place. Linklater even got to know the real Johnson personally. Making an enjoyable movie, however, is the main concern, and a lot of the embellishments, like the sheer number and hilarity of Johnson’s disguises, were made to capitalize on and enhance the “darkly comedic” nature that the Dazed and Confused director saw in the story. Even as it borders on true crime and real consequences start to come for Johnson and Madison, Linklater always wanted to keep an eye on comedy and noir:
“But Gary Johnson was a real guy. I knew him – fascinating guy. He did teach at his school, he taught psychology. Just a really thoughtful guy. We give him a little shout-out dedication at the end. But yeah, he was this kind of introverted, interesting guy who took on these disguises—not to the extent we’re doing the movie. [Laughs] We’re trying to make a movie, and we were always keeping– We just saw it as funny. It was just a darkly funny movie. I mean, people who want to kill people, that doesn’t sound very funny, but since they’re not actually killing people, it seemed like… If they were really killing people, that’s not so funny to me, but the fact that they’re bumbling toward it in a kind of goofy, uninformed way, I thought, ‘Well, that’s just funny.’ I just always saw it as darkly comedic.”
There’s no theatrical release date for Hit Man yet. In the meantime, check out our full interview with Linklater at TIFF 2023 below and keep an eye out for more coverage from the festival.