Nick Stagliano is a filmmaker whose work defies easy classification. His commitment to character-driven stories in an era of big-budget excess makes any new project from the writer/director worth looking into for film fans who enjoy thoughtful, contemplative stories regardless of genre conventions.
His latest, THE VIRTUOSO, finds him applying his “character-first” mentality to the action/thriller world with a stellar cast in tow that features Anson Mount (HELL ON WHEELS), Richard Brake (3 FROM HELL), David Morse (THE GREEN MILE), Eddie Marsan (THE WORLD’S END), Abbie Cornish (SUCKER PUNCH), and two time Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).
Here is the film’s official synopsis:
Danger, deception, and murder descend upon a sleepy country town when a professional assassin accepts a new assignment from his enigmatic mentor and boss. Given only where and when along with a cryptic clue, the methodical hit man must identify his mysterious mark from among several possible targets, including a local sheriff. Meanwhile, a chance encounter with an alluring woman at the town’s rustic diner threatens to derail his mission in this noir-style cloak-and-dagger thriller.
I had the chance recently to chat with Nick Stagliano about the origins of THE VIRTUOSO, how the exceptional cast was assembled, and his thoughts on why the film is secretly a love story.
(The interview contains mild spoilers for the film.)
The “hitman haunted by his past deeds” concept is a well-worn trope, almost to the point of being its own subgenre now in action and thriller films. So, what attracted you to this story? Also, what did you feel like you had to do to make it unique and your own?
I was attracted to the material mostly because I had directed a movie years earlier called GOOD DAY FOR IT, which was similar in tone across the board, except for the fact that it was about a guy that people thought was a bad man his whole life, but it turned out that he was actually a good man that had done one bad thing, and he’s trying for redemption even though he didn’t really need to. After that, I went off and produced another movie that was kind of a dark thriller again. And I was like, “I really want to go back to that,” because I’m fascinated by guilt and the effect it has over time. And I thought, ‘What happens if that guy in the story was an actually bad person. That was the genesis of the story of THE VIRTUOSO and the reason I wanted to do it. I wanted to try a different take on that earlier concept.
To answer your more important question of how I tried to make it my own, I wanted to address really the inner workings of that germ of what we would call guilt, and some could even say it’s just humanity. It creeps in and then starts to grow like a cancer. It affects the main character slowly, subtly. Not like in a TV show where you can murder six people today and tomorrow, you’re having a good breakfast and all that stuff. It just doesn’t work like that. So that was the germ of the idea, and I think that’s what separates this, the fact that I consider THE VIRTUOSO a love story, really. It’s my love story, but somebody always has to die. But the mentor loves the virtuoso, the virtuoso loves the mentor, to the best of their ability. What they consider that to be, right? That to me is what separates it and that’s what I was fascinated by the most.
I agree. I think focusing so internally on the protagonist definitely made it feel different and unique. Tell me about how the cast came together for this. It’s a very impressive lineup: Anson Mount, Abbie Cornish, Eddie Marsan, David Morse, Richard Brake, and of course the great Anthony Hopkins. How was that accomplished?
You have to keep fighting, right? You just have to keep fighting no matter what level you’re at, no matter how much experience you have or don’t have. After the script was finished, we knew we had this mentor character. So, we tried to get one of those older acting legends. That was my thinking back in 2015 as the producer and the director. I didn’t know who that would be, but I was like, “He’s got to be a guy that’s over 70. So, my pool’s going to be a little bit limited, and those guys don’t work that much. That got put on the back burner as it was going to be difficult. I had met Anson Mount through another project of mine that we haven’t actually shot yet. I am a big fan of Westerns, so I watched him religiously on the TV show HELL ON WHEELS. And I was like, “Man, that guy’s really talented. To me, he just hadn’t had his shot as a feature film lead. Plus, he fit the character. As you find out in the film, this isn’t like a “John Wick” movie. We weren’t going to get a “movie star” to play that part because 90% of them wouldn’t want to put up with the ending. If we had gotten someone like that, their first demand would have been to change the climax.
Anyway. I wanted a guy that people knew, whose talent was clear, that could hold the story together. So, the audience would still feel like they weren’t exactly sure what was going to happen. That was the start. Anson had left his talent agency to one that was obviously a little bit more receptive to helping him because he was a new client and the script got well received over there. Abbie Cornish was with that same agency at the time as well. I really liked her work in that Ridley Scott picture, A GOOD YEAR. I researched her other work and you could really see the range of her talent.
So, we started with those two, and then it came time to really try to cast the role of the lead’s mentor. We were aiming for someone like a Michael Douglas or a Harrison Ford. That’s just how nutty I am as a filmmaker! I’ll put my stuff up with anybody. That’s what I say. You have to, right?
You do. You have to aim big to ever have a chance to really succeed.
Word came back that Anthony Hopkins, who I didn’t even think was possible, was looking to do more independent stuff and had the script. He had been on WESTWORLD and doing the THOR stuff and I guess he was getting tired of that. When I heard he was a possibility- I was like, “Really? You’re kidding me.” And so, we just took a shot and made him an offer and it was no juice, no special connections or anything, and waited a couple months. And then Fred Fuchs, who was my executive producer, he was also Francis Coppola’s partner at Zoetrope for a dozen years. Frances and Fred produced my first movie, THE FLORENTINE. I had taken the script to him because I was the co-writer, producer, director. You don’t want to be the front guy that has to tell everybody how great your project is. You’re supposed to, you have to believe it, but it just feels self-serving.
Anyway, Fred loved it, so he took the lead when it came to that kind of producing and casting. He called me in January of 2016 and said, “You want to tell me something that you did over the holiday?” I’m like, “No?” He’s like, “Well, I just got a call from this agent and Anthony Hopkins liked the script and they’re interested.” I’m like, “Oh my God.” [laughs] I was blown away.
So, with that everything started to fall into place. David Morse was at the same agency as Anson and Abbie. I knew Richard Brake already and was friends with him from my last film. Him and Eddie Marsan are best friends, I sent Richard the script. He’s like, “Man, this is really cool. Really cool. You don’t get to read this kind of stuff often.” And he was like, “You want me to give it to Eddie?” I’m like, “Eddie Marsan, that guy is like the best character actor in the world.” And he was doing RAY DONOVAN, he’s doing the SHERLOCK HOLMES stuff. I’m like, [laughs] “Sure! You’re asking me if you can give it to a great actor?” And I got that call from Richard, “He really loves it. And if we could work it out he’ll come with me.” I’m like, “Wow.” That was it. It was a three-and-a-half-year process though.
It’s a truly amazing cast considering the budget level of the production. I can’t imagine how excited you must’ve been when it all came together.
Are you kidding me?! I had the call sheet for the film taped to every wall in the place! [laughs] It was great especially when we got to the diner scenes and you had almost everyone there at once. We shot Tony stuff in California based on his schedule, but everybody else we shot together in those scenes and I’m like, “Wow, look at that.” So, I was really happy, because I grew up watching all those great classics from the forties, all the way up to the seventies, which are just filled with great character actors. I was thrilled.
For me as a movie fan, it was really great seeing them all together in one setting. I wanted to ask you next about the feeling of loneliness and isolation that runs through THE VIRTUOSO. It feels so timely after all of the social distancing and quarantines of the past year. How did you create that sense of separation in the film. It has a real lonely quality to it.
That feeling was so important. Of course, it had absolutely nothing to do with pandemic shooting or anything like that. It was my DP Frank Prinzi, who I’ve known for many years. He’s an ASC member who has shot a whole lot of good stuff, and he was working a lot, getting paid a lot of money to shoot a network series at the time. But I knew him for 30 years and I wanted somebody I could trust, and I knew it was going to be a rough shoot. That friendship and familiarity was invaluable. So, he agreed to do it, and early on he said it the best when he stated, “Man, this thing is great.” He goes, “The guy is so haunted. That’s what I want to capture.” And I was like… I hadn’t thought of it in those terms.
But just that little clue, in the design of the look of the movie, was that key. It starts to answer your specific question there, right? So then that gets translated to Norm Dodge, my production designer. And I go, “Look, this character’s world, it’s sterile. It’s blue and it’s dead. Right? It’s death, decay. When he gets to the diner it’s warmer, because Abbie Cornish’s character is there. As hokey as it sounds, she might be the ray of sunshine that saves him.
The stuff with Anthony Hopkins played into that coldness. He had said to me in a text message after we had finished our first phone call about the movie, “I know a guy like this from Vietnam. He had to murder a couple people with a knife when he was nineteen. Every time I saw him, he stood firm, stiff back with his head rigid, always looking forward, as if to turn one way or the other would let the world in.” That’s what I got as a text from Anthony Hopkins. I’m like “Oh. Okay.” [laughs] He remember that two years after our initial talks when his schedule finally cleared, and we could begin production. He said to me then, “I want to play this guy like this. Rigid, military rigid, dead inside.” I’m just like “Exactly.” That feeling colors the entire film until the later kitchen scene with Abbie and Anson. I’m glad you picked up on that.
Unfortunately, we are out of time, but I wanted to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about the film today, Nick.
Thank you and I appreciate it. I’ve seen your interviews and I like them. Keep doing what you’re doing, man.
Read my review of THE VIRTUOSO HERE.
“THE VIRTUOSO is now Available in Select Theaters and Everywhere You Rent Movies; on Blu-ray and DVD May 4th!”