The Man From Toronto Director Patrick Hughes delves into the importance of improv and the love story inherent to buddy-comedy films.
The Man From Toronto, debuting on Netflix June 24, pairs Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson in a silly global adventure, all thanks to one little misunderstanding. A printing error leads the meek but determined salesman Teddy (Hart) to be mistaken for one of the most dangerous men alive — the mysterious Man From Toronto. Played by Harrelson with exhausted and cold confidence that is slowly chipped away by his adventure with Teddy, Toronto and Teddy make for an unlikely pair — exactly the kind of comic duo that Director Patrick Hughes wanted for the action-packed buddy comedy.
During an interview with CBR, Hughes delved into the balancing act of a scene that incorporates action and comedy in equal measure for some of The Man From Toronto’s biggest set-pieces. He also discussed finding a perfect foil for Kevin Hart’s bombast in the quietly terrified character of Teddy and what the buddy comedy has in common with romantic films.
CBR: Both Woody Harrelson and Kevin Hart have a history of improvisation in their films. What was that like to have as a tool in the arsenal?
Patrick Hughes: I’m very open to improv. I think it’s still [important] developing the script and having that dialogue between the actors individually throughout pre-production. Then, once you get there on set, you just hope and pray that the chemistry really does work on screen together. You never know when you call action on that first take, and [Hart and Harrelson] just really hit it off. I’m really grateful and thankful that it worked out that way. You don’t want to be in a situation where you try to force something, where you want to add chemistry. When you develop the script, then you have the parameters.
Then you get on set, and really it is… I have a very open and collaborative set. I love working with actors, and I love actors that bring ideas. I’m open to anyone that’s got a good idea. That includes the crew because sometimes the crew have thrown out ideas that we have ended up using. I really like creating that sort of playful environment. Certainly, with comedy, I do find that you’re better off to push things too far… because you can always pull it back. That’s one thing that I’ve learned is you have that ability, but you can’t add things in the edit because you don’t have that material there to begin with. So we explored a lot of improv and had a lot of fun with it — some of the best and biggest laughs in the film came from exploring that process.
This film has some really fun beats, particularly the chaotic fight on the airplane that comes when Hart’s Teddy first meets Harrelson’s Toronto. It’s a scene where Harrelson is basically John Wick, while Hart gets to be the big source of comedy. How do you approach an action sequence with both tones in mind?
That was a lot of fun choreographing. I think the challenge of this genre is balancing the tone because you want to sort of maintain the laughs, but at the same time, if you have too much comedy, then you’re losing the stakes. You lose that sense of threat, and it all becomes too farcical. It really is a balancing act, and then finding this sort of physical comedy… I think everyone secretly thinks they’re a James Bond, but the reality is [if] some stuff [is] popping off, everyone’s gonna scream and cower. That’s the thing that I love about [Hart] — he’s so vulnerable. You know, he’s so open and willing to go there. He’s always looking for the escape door, “How the hell do I get out of here? How do I stay alive?!” Yeah, it’s always fun.
Teddy’s character arc in the film sees him learning how to stand up for himself, actually try and fight for himself and others. It’s also coupled with Hart getting to go as big as audiences know he can go. What was that like to balance between Hart’s comic bombast and Teddy’s quieter moments?
There’s such a strong duality to his performance, and that was the first conversation I had with [Hart]. My feeling was that [was] where the comedy is. I mean, that’s the goal — that this guy has to show a performance, you have to show up when he’s in front of bad guys, but then in private moments, he’s absolutely freaking out and terrified. We had a lot of fun choreographing the actors, choreographing the shot construction… We know he’s a bumbling idiot. I think it’s just so much fun.
You know, we have sequences and find moments and create those beats like having the character drop knives and have to pick them up under a table. Well, now that he’s under the table, we get to see him privately because the bad guys can’t see him, and he freaks out. That was always a lot of fun working out how we could craft these things… Even though there’s all this big action-comedy energy in the film, there’s this lightness to the journey that [Hart] goes on.
Something I do appreciate about the script is the way both Teddy and Toronto are on the same kind of emotional arc or actually being the person they want to be, it’s just that it applies differently because of their personal flaws and histories.
No one has an easy part. No matter what position they’re in, they have their own bag of rocks they have to carry. Sometimes life can sort of beat you down, and you start letting that win. I think the Man from Toronto is certainly a quiet, stoic sort of warrior that stands on his own, and he’s very controlling of his life. He’s a man of few words, and he’s very physical… whereas Teddy relies on too many words and could probably use some of that physicality to stand up, create those boundaries. I think that’s where the duality of the action/buddy-comedy genre… That is our genre. I love it. I’ve loved it since I was a kid because it is a love story.
All those stories of people that shouldn’t be with each other, they hate each other’s guts, and they end up learning to love each other, and they’re forced together. It’s no different in this genre… We find ourselves constantly drawn to others because there’s a part of their lives that you feel potentially your life is lacking. That’s the heart and soul of the film. As much as I love the action, and I love the comedy, it’s really about nailing that heart [and] soul. Because if you don’t have that, then you’ve lost the stage and everything can just feel like, well, it’s all become farcical at this point.
So they have to be that kernel of truth. Midnight Run is still one of my favorite movies ever made. I read that script off and on. Once a year, I’ll sit down and just read it. It’s a phenomenal screenplay. I challenge anyone: you get to page 50 of that script and try not to cry. It’s the same [with] Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. There’s this truth behind it, and as funny as it is, there is a human tragedy there. I think that’s something that I really love about these genres — you get to sort of play with the action, you play with the comedy, and then you also play with the emotion.
Catch The Man From Toronto, debuting on Netflix June 24.
Brandon Zachary is an Associate Writer with Comic Book Resources and has written for CBR since 2018. He covers breakouts on comics, film, television, video games, and anime. He also conducts industry interviews, is a Rotten Tomatoes certified film critic, and knows SO MUCH about the X-Men. For requests, comments, or to hear his pitch for a third Avatar series that incorporates robots, you can contact him through firstname.lastname@example.org.