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[This story contains spoilers for Reptile.]
In the two weeks since its release, Grant Singer’s Reptile has remained atop Netflix’s own film charts with 19.9 million views and counting. The Benicio Del Toro-led crime thriller is Singer’s feature directorial debut after nearly a decade of making inventive music videos for the likes of The Weeknd, Lorde and Ariana Grande. The film centers around Del Toro’s Detective Tom Nichols, as he investigates the murder of a real estate agent (Matilda Lutz) and uncovers a tangled web of corruption within his new community in Maine.
At a time when crime dramas and murder mysteries are still immensely popular, especially on Netflix, Singer, along with his co-writers Benjamin Brewer and Del Toro himself, knew that they had to work overtime to keep viewers on their toes.
“Audiences now are very advanced in their understanding of these stories because there have been so many great crime thrillers and mysteries in this genre,” Singer tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s almost like you’re playing poker with very smart people who can read your hand. So we tried to create a more complicated portrait of this relationship and also of these people.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Singer discusses the Excess Baggage (1997) reunion between Del Toro and Alicia Silverstone, before addressing spoilers for the ending.
To start with your prior work in music videos, was there a particular video where you knew you were then ready to make the leap to features?
I don’t know if there was one in particular, but there was a series of stuff, like The Weeknd’s “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face.” That year , I also did a Skrillex video with Anya Taylor-Joy. Doing these ambitious music videos felt like I was building to something. I felt like I was getting enough experience under my belt that, perhaps, with the right opportunity, I could take this leap and dip my toes into making movies.
Given your background in music videos and the fact that your directorial debut is this moody crime thriller featuring Justin Timberlake in a prominent role, did you prepare yourself for the “Fincher-esque” label to come your way?
First and foremost, I’m one of the biggest David Fincher fans on the planet. He’s probably the greatest living technician of cinema, so I would never even put my name or this movie in the same sentence as David Fincher. He’s in a completely different league. He’s one of the few filmmakers of the moment who makes original crime thrillers, so people always associate him with the aura of these movies. But I never intended for this movie to even exist in whatever it is that he’s doing. I just wanted to make a crime thriller that evoked a very specific feeling, a feeling of being deceived, where there was a multifaceted deception, both in the story’s construction and also in the experiences of the characters.
But in terms of making the leap from music videos to movies, there have been so many great ones like Spike Jonze and Mark Romanek, but David Fincher is obviously the top of that hill. That generation of directors paved the way for my generation and showed that there was a path forward. You could start by making these cool music videos with your friends, and then ultimately attempt to achieve your dreams by making movies. They paved the way.
You took this story to Black Label Media and they responded well to it, and then they took it to Benicio who also liked it. Now, there are many stories of Benicio rewriting dialogue on the day, and that even applies to the words of Rian Johnson and Taylor Sheridan. Knowing how he works, Black Label wanted to get him involved earlier on in the writing process. So how did the subject of Benicio co-writing first come up on your end?
We met and he wanted to engage in the movie, and at that point, he wasn’t even officially attached. He was like, “I’m interested.” So we started meeting and talking about the movie to see if he would eventually be willing to star in it. Along with [co-writer] Ben [Brewer], the three of us then started working on the script and coming up with different ideas. So the story began to evolve, and we started deepening Benicio’s character, as well as the other characters. It was a very rewarding, insightful, inspiring collaboration, and it just naturally progressed to where he was writing the script with us.
Could you tell that he was very particular about his dialogue?
Honestly, I was never conscious of Benicio being particular about the dialogue. It was more that the three of us would bounce different ideas off each other, and it was a very collaborative, amazing process. It’s hard to articulate, but I wouldn’t say he was particular to dialogue or particular to a specific element of the storytelling. The whole experience was very all-encompassing.
I once heard Quentin Tarantino say that Sam Jackson is the best special effect you can have. Does the Benicio closeup belong in the same sentence?
I would say yes. Someone asked me recently, “Why did you shoot so many closeups in the movie?” and the answer is twofold. I have a tendency to shoot things in a very graphic way. Intuitively, my instinct is to do things that feel very composed and graphic and can perhaps call attention to the lens. And if you do that too often, the viewer becomes very aware of the filmmaking and the director’s presence, and it can, in some ways, inhibit them from being immersed in the storytelling. They’re just so conscious of the imprint of the filmmaker.
So, what I do to counterbalance that is I shoot a lot of closeups, and I shoot a lot of what I like to call “within the scene,” where you’re physically present within a moment. There’s an invisibility to the lensing, and closeups really help that. Obviously, [John] Cassavetes is the king of that, where you’re right there with the character. And Benicio is so wonderful, non-verbally. He expresses and emotes so many complicated things without even speaking, and throughout the filmmaking process, I began to realize that these closeups could tell the story in many ways without having to use dialogue.
What’s Benicio’s best take, usually?
No one’s ever asked me this, but we didn’t do too many takes. I’d say we probably did no more than seven takes, ever. It’s been a minute since we’ve gone through the takes, but they’re all great in different ways. Honestly, I can’t give you an exact number, because when we’re going through the footage, I’m not looking at the take numbers. And being in the moment and being present, I’m actually not always watching the monitor. I’m sometimes just watching the scene play out and not even really looking at what the camera is doing. I’m just focused on how the scene feels. Once I get back to the edit and I’m looking at the performances, I’m like, “Wow, I didn’t even see that actor do that in the moment.” These things are almost imperceptible live, but then you can see them back in the editing bay.
The fact that you wouldn’t do more than seven takes means you’re already shedding that Fincher-esque adjective.
So whose idea was it to reteam the stars of 1997’s Excess Baggage?
That was Benicio’s idea. When we were discussing what actor might be great for the role of [Tom’s wife] Judy, I’ll never forget when I was sitting across from him and he mentioned her name. I thought, “Oh wow, that’s a brilliant idea. I love Alicia Silverstone.” I hadn’t seen her in a role like this in a long time, and she brings not only this really nice vulnerability, but also this weight and strength. She added a complicated emotionality to their characters’ domestic life that’s a really nice counterpoint to the evils that Benicio’s character faces in his work life. So it was Benicio’s idea, and once we met with her, it just became very apparent that she was the perfect person to play this character.
This is not just a Sicario reunion between Benicio and Black Label; there’s also a Brolin in the film and she serves the movie quite well. Who suggested Kathryn Boyd Brolin for that part?
I saw her audition through casting, and I didn’t know there was any connection to Josh or anyone. I saw the audition, and I was like, “Let’s cast Kathryn.” And I only found out after we cast her that she was married to Josh. So I didn’t know at the time, but she was amazing and just so great to work with.
Justin Timberlake has no shortage of things to do, and I know directors who’ve waited years for him to become available. Was it quite a process to get him on board?
I had worked with him on a music project nine months prior to filming this movie, so we sent the script to him. We had this shorthand from working on this music project together, and we really got along well. So I instantly knew that he was not only great for the role, but he would probably also be a collaborator for many years to come. We just had that spark. So he really loved the script, and he was very interested in my vision for the movie and the complicated aspects of playing a character who’s both withholding and grieving at the same time. We both felt that he hadn’t played a role quite like this, and once Benicio became involved, the stars really aligned.
I’m quite fond of the transition from Tom’s (Del Toro) “interesting, huh?” to him walking down the hallway with that haunting cue on top of it.
I love that therapist sequence, too. It’s a little bit more poetic in terms of the way it’s structured, and it was one of the first things we cut when I got back to L.A. with my editor Kevin Hickman. We wanted to start with that because it’s a little bit more musical and lyrical in the way that it’s structured, and it provided us a nice boundary as to what the shape of the film is and how far we could take it in an unconventional way.
[The rest of the interview contains spoilers for Reptile.]
So, to get into some spoilers for that therapist scene and beyond, Tom (Del Toro) talks about this recurring dream where he can’t pull the trigger, but once he shoots Karl Glusman’s character while serving an arrest warrant, he’s suddenly able to pull the trigger in his dream. I believe that also speaks to his past and present in regard to police corruption. He couldn’t bring himself to put a stop to the corruption he witnessed in Philadelphia, and that’s why he can’t let it go now. Am I remotely on track here?
You are completely on track. In the dream he’s talking about, he says that he’s at a party and then these bad guys come in. Well, at the end of the movie, it’s the day after Captain Allen’s [Eric Bogosian] birthday party and there’s remnants of the party everywhere, and you realize, “Oh my God, this is a recreation of the dream.” The movie deals with things that are cyclical. It deals with these acts of God, which happens with the Frisbee, but it’s also this idea of premonition. The past is coming to haunt you. So this is both the retelling of the dream and his past in Philadelphia all over again.
The movie is really the tale of two halves. The first half presents itself as an investigative thriller, and then halfway through the film, it becomes this character piece with the unraveling of Tom’s conscience and this morality decision that he has to make. And then you wonder, “Okay, is he going to do the right thing or not? Is he going to act on it? What is this character going to do?” And in that last act, there’s a lot of tension and suspense, and we needed a real climax. With a movie that’s very suggestive of violence and a lot of it is off screen, we needed to really build to a climactic explosion, if you will, where you let that steam loose and also see if our character was going to do the right thing or not.
You have a lot going on with Tom’s left hand. After the movie introduces the central murder, he has this bandaged hand that he supposedly cut on accident, and then at the end of the film, that very hand gets shot. And all the while, he’s intrigued by this touchless kitchen faucet, which makes us question whether he’s living beyond his means and if it would drive him to be a dirty cop. But you ultimately closed on this amusing moment of him turning on the faucet with his newly healed hand, post-shedding. And now knowing that he’s innocent in all this, I think he really just wanted a more convenient way to wash his hands if they’re ever dirtied or bloodied again. Metaphorically, though, he was finally able to wash his hands of this case and all the corruption he’s encountered since Philadelphia. He even had the line that his department was “washing their hands” of this case when they knowingly pinned it all on the wrong guy (Karl Glusman).
Yes, yes! And Alicia Silverstone’s character responds, “You don’t have to wash yours.” In the beginning of the movie, we witness this character lying dead in a room, and then the next person you see is Benicio’s character with a cut on his hand. And you think, “Is this person the killer? Is this someone I can trust?” We’re constantly trying to make the viewer question the intentions of these people and who the potential killer can be or who these people are in terms of how they relate to the plot. And when Tom is asked what happened to his hand, he says, “Kitchen accident,” so it all goes back to the kitchen. And the kitchen is really this idea that the people who are tasked with solving these crimes are just like the two of us. They have the same weaknesses and desires, but they also like nice things. We’ve all seen the detective who’s just obsessed with the case, and they can’t eat or sleep. Their relationship with their loved one also suffers, so we took the opposite approach. Tom is a guy who’s solving the case, but he’s also remodeling his kitchen. There’s a moment where he has this look on his face, and you think he’s looking at gruesome pictures of the dead body, but he’s actually looking at the kitchen faucet he just saw [in Will Grady’s house]. And it’s funny because it’s relatable.
You asked earlier about the writing process with Benicio, and these are things that we were exploring, which is the three-dimensionality of this character. He’s not just someone who’s obsessed with solving the case, and he’s not just great at his job, but he’s also great at square dancing. He’s trying to be one of the guys and to have this newfound family of cops and to belong somewhere. One of the things we’re also trying to do is explore this idea that good people can do bad things. The bad guys in the movie are also some of the most likable and affable guys. We’re exploring the grayness of this world and deceiving people’s expectations of who could commit a crime like this.
Besides the touchless faucet, Benicio’s character also falls in love with this white Chevy Silverado, and then his slow-moving contractor (Thad Luckinbill) ends up buying it.
Dude, you got the fucking movie. I love it. You’ve gotten it more than most. Not everyone picks up on these things.
Well, Tom then proceeds to accuse his contractor of having an affair with his wife. Do you think there was actual infidelity, or is Tom just taking his various frustrations out on an easy target?
In my opinion, Tom is projecting his frustration. He’s learning all these fucked up things about his department and this case, and he’s displacing that frustration onto an innocent bystander. No, Peter, the contractor, in my opinion, is not having an affair with Alicia’s character. It’s just a way for Tom to let loose of some of the things that he’s keeping to himself. What I love about that scene is the fact that he does not let his wife know one bit of what he’s feeling. He’s like, “Everything’s good. Let’s go dance.” And then unbeknownst to her, he just had this explosive exchange with the contractor.
Some of the things that I love about the movie are these moments that are peripheral to the story. That’s not an A-plot storyline, but it’s something that shades the character and deals with what the character is experiencing. I think that is very interesting for the viewer to see, and those are the scenes I’m very grateful to still have included in the film. They add this texture and a rich dynamic to the atmosphere of the film, and to these people that you’re experiencing the story through.
Before Summer (Matilda Lutz) was killed, I first became suspicious of Timberlake’s character when he got mad at her for not showing up to his event and then he voluntarily slept on the couch. Normally, that’s a punishment that the upset spouse hands out. Did you want us to question that odd form of self-punishment?
I think so. It’s funny because my agent said the same thing about the couch line, so it’s very interesting that the two of you both said that. In the writing process, Ben, Benicio and I were trying to avoid making this character too innocent-seeming in the first ten minutes, because the audience would say, “Oh, he’s too nice of a guy. It has to be him.” Audiences now are very advanced in their understanding of these stories because there have been so many great crime thrillers and mysteries in this genre. It’s almost like you’re playing poker with very smart people who can read your hand. So we tried to create a more complicated portrait of this relationship and also of these people. So the viewer has to lean in and question, “Wait, why did this character do that? That’s odd.” Like you were saying, that’s not usually the thing, so we wanted to do things that the viewer might not be used to seeing and make them go, “Huh.” We wanted a lot of those “huhs” throughout the first 20 minutes of the movie. “Why would this character volunteer that they had a fight the night before?” So there’s all these different questions that the audience can then ask themselves while they’re watching the movie that will hopefully change what it is they’re thinking throughout it.
Hey, what happened with Owen Teague and his character? Did the edit just not go his way?
He’s in the movie briefly …
The funeral scene …
Yeah, and that scene when he comes out of the car. As you’re making a movie, you realize, “Oh wait, we need to go here instead of here because this character would do this, actually.” So there were certain sequences that we decided to move in new directions, but Owen Teague is phenomenal. His stuff was absolutely incredible. He’s truly one of the most amazing actors I’ve ever worked with. Benicio loves him, too, and speaks highly of him. But yeah, there are a couple of scenes where we decided to go in new directions.
Tom basically says that he loves the job, but the job hasn’t loved him back. Do you expect him to press forward as a cop after this?
I would like to leave that a little bit open-ended. Between what we show in that kitchen scene when he’s doing paraffin and his hand is healing and he’s shedding his new skin [like a reptile] — and also the [Bob] Dylan song [“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”] that says, “Mama, take this badge off me, I can’t use it anymore,” hopefully, through the feeling of those scenes and the performances of the actors and what the music and the lyrics are saying, the viewer can come to their own conclusion.
Reptile is now streaming on Netflix. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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