An Uber ride is like that proverbial box of chocolates from Forrest Gump: You never know whom you’re going to get. The random nature of the popular car service helps explain the unusual star pairing of Disney and Fox’s new action comedy Stuber—six-foot-four former wrestling star and Guardian of the Galaxy Dave Bautista, and wry Pakistani American comedian Kumail Nanjiani. Bautista plays Vic Manning, a tough L.A. police detective who’s just had Lasik surgery when he gets a tip on the whereabouts of the drug dealer who murdered his partner; Nanjiani is Stu, the very unfortunate Uber driver who is recruited for the visually impaired Vic’s mission of vengeance during an L.A. heat wave.
Guiding the frenetic action and character-driven comedy is director Michael Dowse (What If, Goon), who jumped at the chance to bring Tripper Clancy’s screenplay to life. “I’d seen so many action comedies that either don’t do the action well but the comedy is great, or vice versa. And I just thought there was an opportunity to make something really, really great with the script,” Dowse recalls.
Dowse did have some classic role models in mind as he prepared the film. “We looked at 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon. Midnight Run was a big influence as well. Visually, I wanted you to feel the heat wave, so I looked at Falling Down, To Live and Die in L.A., 52 Pick-Up, which is a beautifully shot movie. Heat, of course. Training Day was another big influence—L.A. movies where you really feel the vibe of the town, and hopefully we accomplished that.” (That said, Stuber was mostly filmed in and around Atlanta.)
Dave Bautista was the first to be cast. “I’d been a big fan of his work,” Dowse says. “When I saw Blade Runner, I was blown away with his presence—he’s great dramatically; he held the screen. And obviously with Guardians of the Galaxy, you see his comic timing as well. I thought that combination was really interesting. But he also has soulfulness to him and a depth that I thought would benefit the film.
“I was a fan of Kumail, but after seeing The Big Sick, I was like: This guy can carry a movie. He’s great. He’s funny and he’s also a fantastic actor. Then it was a process of just putting the two guys in a room and doing the chemistry read and seeing what they’re like together. And it was just one of those lovely things where you knew within 30 seconds of their sitting together in front of the camera that you had a film. They were right off the bat riffing off each other, very funny, finishing each other’s sentences. When that chemistry comes through just like that, you know it’s gonna get better and better as we go along.”
Dowse notes, “A lot of these movies are based on tension, so they have to be able to shit on each other and take the piss out of each other and build that tension initially. And that has to subtly evolve into a friendship, and they pulled it off. I’m probably most proud of the last scene where Dave gets teared up. That’s the culmination of the entire film, and how they got there at the end is incredible.”
Nanjiani, along with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, was nominated for an Oscar for his script for the semiautobiographical The Big Sick, so Dowse also had the benefit of his writer’s instincts. “Kumail really cares about stuff, so when he jumps into something, he’s really in it to win it, which I love as the director. You want somebody who really cares and wants to collaborate and make the film better. He got involved at the script stage—we would workshop the script, do table reads, bring in other writers. Kumail was really the guy who fleshed out the film’s whole modern-man-versus-macho-man idea. It was in the script before, but he let it bubble up. How he put it was, Stu needs to yell and Vic needs to cry. That’s the epitome of what should happen with the characters. He’s such a good writer, and it’s just so nice to have a guy like that on set who really cares, really wants to come to work and isn’t just there to do a job but to make it fantastic, and that was my M.O. on this film as well.”
As for Bautista, “I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do as an actor. It’s rare that a guy who comes out of wrestling, in my opinion at least, has that much depth. You can’t keep your eyes off him, and he’s also a wonderful guy.”
For Stuber, Bautista was unafraid to downplay his formidable persona. “From the wrestling ring and most of his parts, he has a very specific look. And I wanted him to look different. I wanted him to look a little bit more flawed, a little more out of shape—he wears a belly pad for most of the film. A guy who’s divorced, mid-40s, living in a shitty one-bedroom apartment and stewing away. I like how he looks in his glasses; he was totally game to do all of that. A lot of actors are very specific about that stuff and don’t necessarily want to look flawed. But he was ready and willing to do it.”
A highlight of the film is an all-out brawl that erupts between the hulking Vic and the much slighter Stu in the sporting goods store where Stu works when he’s not driving. “I was very excited about that scene,” Dowse says. “It’s something I developed in the script, the idea of if you’re in a fight in a sporting goods store, what would you use? Sometimes there’s a bit of wish fulfillment in that: If you could trash the store, what would you get away with? What I try to do with those sequences is not over-cover them, but be specific about how I want to shoot each piece. So we’re not resetting and shooting the same piece from five different angles. We’re saying, OK, this is how we’re going to cover this piece from A to B, and B to C, and C to D. With the amount of time that we had and the scale we wanted, it was the only way to do it. I just thought it’d be fun for the guys. You have to have that scene where they fight each other—they’ve had enough and it boils over.”
Bautista isn’t the only experienced fighter in Stuber; the film also features martial-arts master Iko Uwais, known for the action-packed Raid series, as elusive, vicious drug dealer Teijo. “When we cast Iko,” Dowse recalls, “I thought, oh, this fight’s going to be really interesting because it’s a six-foot-four guy against a five-foot-five guy. I’ve never seen anybody who moves as quickly as Iko moves—he’s such an athlete, as is Dave. And what’s nice about it is you don’t have to rely on stunt doubles as much—you can actually shoot stuff and you don’t have to hide people because they’re both in the fight. That in itself allows you to make it feel more realistic and not be limited with how you move the camera. I was so thrilled to get Iko. I couldn’t be a bigger fan of his work and I was thrilled to work with him and to build the fights and learn from him. I don’t see many people doing fights as good as he does, and it’s not only martial arts—they incorporate gunplay in his films too. I saw all that stuff and thought it would work well with us.”
Overall, Dowse says he wants the action in his films to “feel visceral and real and honest, feel like people are in danger and adhere to the laws of physics and gravity. And also feel sloppy and not very polished, so you feel the hits and the added stakes. Those are the fights that I love the most in films. And then again, not over-covered. My pet peeve is fights that are over-edited. You lose all perspective; you don’t care. It’s all editing, where you really want to almost treat it like dance, standing back and seeing the movement, and don’t try to accent everything, [but instead] try to get the speed and the impact of it within the frame and not rely on cutting to do it.”
Stuber also features a strong female supporting cast: Natalie Morales as Vic’s somewhat-estranged daughter, a sculptor; Betty Gilpin (“GLOW”) as Stu’s partner in a business venture and unrequited love; fellow Guardian of the Galaxy Karen Gillan as Vic’s ill-fated partner; and Oscar winner Mira Sorvino as Vic’s boss.
“Natalie Morales is amazing in this film; she works so well with Dave,” Dowse says. “She effortlessly brings a sense of history to the relationship in the first couple of scenes and is very funny. But also it’s nice to see this hulky guy get talked to by his daughter like that and put in his place.
“Betty Gilpin, we’re all part of the giant pre-Oscar campaign for her. She’s incredible, so funny—and so great dramatically, with a pretty thankless part stuck on a phone for most of the film. She might be one of the funniest actors I’ve ever worked with—her alts [alternative lines] are insane. I just gave up giving her alts because she was so funny. I was like, ‘You’re killing whatever I’m coming up with. So just keep rolling.’ And Mira Sorvino was fantastic. What a score to get her into the film.”
Disney inherited Stuber following its recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Dowse says the studio “couldn’t be more supportive of the film; they love it.” But he’s well aware that Stuber is a rare R-rated release for the Mouse House. “I think it does put a lot of pressure on us. If this works, it’ll be great. If audiences love it as much as I do and go out to see this film, it’ll be a great thing for studios to continue to make R-rated comedies.
“I think people want to see action comedies that feel real and provide everything an action movie would and everything a comedy would. And I think our movie has one other element that separates it from the fray—it has a great heart to it. That’s the trifecta you want in a successful movie. All those movies, you really care about the characters at the end of them—Midnight Run, specifically. Hopefully, audiences respond to it, but we do feel like it’s something that Disney hasn’t done for a long time and it’s part and parcel of the merger. Hopefully, it opens a studio’s eyes that these movies still work, that there’s still an audience for them in theaters.”