In 2001, an article appeared in Texas Monthly that told the unlikely story of a man named Gary Johnson – a Houston-native who, over a 10 year spell, had been privately hired to kill more than 60 people.


Except there was one very important detail: Johnson wasn't actually going through with the murders. Instead, he was working undercover for the cops, who were on standby to arrest his clients as soon as they had handed over cash and admitted on tape that they wanted someone dead.

This story of a fake contract killer has now been adapted into an acclaimed film by Richard Linklater – who co-wrote a fictionalised script with the film's star Glen Powell. Hit Man arrives on Netflix this weekend following a brief theatrical run, and so ahead of the streaming debut caught up with the director to chat about the project.

Linklater had first read the article many years ago – and collaborated with its writer Skip Hollandsworth on the 2011 film Bernie – but it wasn't until Powell approached him during the pandemic that the idea for Hit Man really began to take shape.

"I thought, 'this is about the weirdest job I've ever heard of'," he said about his first time reading the article. "So when Glen Powell called me over the pandemic, he says, 'Oh, I read this article' and I said, 'Glen, I've been thinking about that article for years – I read that when you were, like, in seventh grade!'

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"But it was great," he adds. "I had a creative partner all of a sudden and it was Glen who kind of pushed me. He's like, 'Well, what if we just kind of kept going, you know. What if you can do something that didn't really happen in the real world? Let's take this character and go on a wild ride.'"

Adria Arjona as Madison and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man.
Adria Arjona as Madison and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Brian Roedel/Netflix

And so Linklater and Powell created a fictional story jumping off from the real tale of Gary Johnson – crafting a love story that pondered what might have happened if he had become romantically involved with one of the clients whose arrest he'd been tasked with securing.

The end result is a film that follows Gary as he falls head over heels for a woman named Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona) after he talks her into walking away from her abusive husband rather than going through with her initial plan of having him murdered.

Some time later, the pair bump into each other again and begin an affair. Only, things are somewhat complicated by the fact that Gary must continue adopting the fake hitman guise he had used on their first encounter – which, unsurprisingly, leads to a couple of issues later down the line.

"It becomes kind of a story of identity and self," Linklater explains. "And it put us in some genres and kind of deepened the stakes of the movie in a certain way – and deepened the character."

One of the things that especially intrigued Linklater about Hollandsworth's article – and which he felt was important to reflect in the film – was the idea of the "myth of the retail hitman".

He explains that most people don't realise that the job of professional assassin doesn't actually exist in the real world – at least, not in the way that it is presented in cinema. What's more, he's found that when people discover this, they can unexpectedly feel a little let down.

"It's been in books and movies and stuff, but it's just not true," he says. "It's a complete pop culture myth – I think the movies invented the hitman. It goes so well in movies and it's been perfected in different cultures over time, and it's a fascinating kind of sub genre of movie. But it's just not real. It never has been – it doesn't make any sense. It'd be so easy to catch them and trap them!"

He continues: "I think that's good news for all of us. That you can't just go hire somebody to kill someone so easily. But people are a little disappointed, I've noticed! [I'm] like: do you want them to be [real]? Do you want your enemy to have gotten a raise at work and bump you off so easily?

"I think people are strangely empowered with this notion that they could hire a hitman. It's really a funny phenomenon and this movie's deconstruction of that myth isn't going to stop hitman movies. They're just too fun as characters."

Glen Powell as Gary Johnson and Bryant Carroll as Walt in Hit Man.
Glen Powell as Gary Johnson and Bryant Carroll as Walt in Hit Man. Brian Roedel/Netflix

Linklater and Powell certainly had a lot of fun building a variety of different hitman personas for this movie.

For the first half of the film, Gary takes on a variety of different disguises tailored to each individual client – and although these were partly inspired by the real Gary Johnson's story, the creative team gave themselves plenty of leeway to lean into overtly comedic territory.

"That was so fun," Linklater recalls. "And the real Gary Johnson did that – he kind of adjusted his appearance a little bit, but nowhere near what we do in the film.

"You know, it's a comedy, and Glenn went totally off the deep end into these characters, the wigs and the accents. He was studying those accents and reading books on like, body language and just really working out these characters. It was fun to see him so obsessed with it, but it's an important element to the movie.

"But Glen's a great collaborator; he works very hard and has a lot of good ideas. It was perfect to work with someone like that, who brought so much to it. Ultimately, he's the actor and I'm the director, but while we were writing it we never really talked about performance. We were just trying to crack the story."

Between his supporting part in Top Gun: Maverick, his leading turn opposite Sydney Sweeney in the hugely successful romcom Anyone But You and an upcoming starring role in summer blockbuster sequel Twisters, Powell's star has been rapidly ascending in recent years, to the point that he's now being positioned as one of Hollywood's big movie star hopes.

Anyone But You Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney walking together with coffee cups smiling
Anyone But You. Sony Pictures Releasing

Given that Linklater has been working with him for so many years – beginning with a minor role in his 2006 mockumentary Fast Food Nation while Powell was still a teenager – what does he think of the hype?

"I mean, I think everyone who's known Glen the last 10 plus years has known this is kind of inevitable," he says. "He does have that star charisma, that star quality, it was just a matter of getting the right parts. They say Hollywood doesn't really produce stars the way they used to, because they just don't have adult dramas that create stars.

"If you're in some superhero franchise the actor doesn't really get the credit – the star is like the character from the Marvel Universe or whatever. So everybody tells Glen 'Oh, you're born in the wrong era, you know.'

"But I've seen stars emerge and I don't think anyone's surprised. It was just a matter of getting those parts, and it just seems like Glen has worked really hard. I'm just excited Hollywood sees him as a leading man. I mean, Glen's smart, he's gonna make good movies, and we'll all be better off for him getting movies made that he wants to do."

Throughout his long and varied filmmaking career Linklater has often made films that ask questions about the changes people go through – whether that be over a long-period of time as in Boyhood or the Before trilogy or in a more sudden fashion, as in the case of Hit Man.

This idea – of how much we have the ability to modify our personalities – is key to the new film and is something the director describes as "one of these eternal questions."

He explains: "It's the kind of thing I read about – I read the latest studies – and I'm intrigued... you know: are we stuck with who we are? Can we change? To what degree can we change?

"I've had that in other movies. And this seemed like, once it really focused on identity, it was one more area to explore. There has been some recent research [that suggests] you really can change. It takes a little effort, but I was like, 'Oh, that's interesting. Let's have a guy who kind of wills himself to change.'

"It seems very modern the idea of you can be whoever you want to be. It's very empowering. So that's what we see happen before our eyes in this movie – he's playing these roles. But then in his own life there's a trajectory there, he's not the same guy at the end that he was in the beginning. It's really a study about how he goes from a dispassionate person to a passionate one."

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Linklater also believes the film plays into the fact that most people in the real world can't be easily pinned down – that we don't all necessarily have one fixed personality that can never be deviated from. That seems like a fairly sensible observation, but it's one that led to a few obstacles when it came to securing funding from studio executives.

"I think we're all kind of bifurcated," he says. "Like myself, my pure me is alone in the library, reading and thinking and writing and watching movies, just in my own head. And then there's another part of me that's of the exterior world out there – doing things amongst people, you know. So I think all of us kind of carry this duality a little bit. And I do wonder about it. Gary's just one more example.

"I think so many of us hold these kinds of dual selves and you know, human complexity is a wonderful thing for cinema. [But] I think the modern era really... you know, it confused the studio heads and test audiences sometimes when someone's not one thing.

"In the real world, people are the most complex things in the world. And I think cinema handles that really well. And this was a good example of a film that contains that and makes it all the more layered and interesting for it.

"But we had trouble getting this film made, for that reason, probably – like, 'What is this movie? You know, can we make it simpler? Can he be a real hitman?' So we did the movie independently and we got the film made. We're happy for that. But the algorithm of the modern world does not lean toward complexity, let's put it like that."

This leads us onto the subject of the film's distribution. After receiving rave reviews following it's premiere at Venice Film Festival last year – where it was often remarked upon just how well it plays with a crowd – some film fans were bitterly disappointed to find that it been picked up by Netflix, meaning its theatrical run would be limited at best – as has proven to be the case.

Glen Powell as Gary Johnson and Adria Arjona as Madison in Hit Man.
Glen Powell as Gary Johnson and Adria Arjona as Madison in Hit Man. Brian Roedel/Netflix

It's not Linklater's first time working with the streamer, who also handled his previous effort Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, so what are his views on it's distribution practices?

"Well... we showed the film at Venice, and we showed in Toronto at the film festival," he says. "And we were just on the open market – anyone could have acquired us. But Netflix was the most passionate, they really loved the movie and had a plan for it and all that. You know, ask the studio heads – they could have stepped up and... you know, I don't know what to say. It's not really a question for me."

He continues: "You can't blame filmmakers for going with the distributor who's the most passionate and believes in your film the most. So I think it says more about our times that a studio would look at this film and say, whatever, we don't think audiences would like this film. I don't know – it's not really my area. As a filmmaker, the reward is getting the film made. And then yeah, it'd be great if audiences see it.

"So on Netflix you have a really good chance of a lot of people ultimately seeing the film. That's fine by me. And it's not like we're not in theatres. Cineastes have a nice window of time if they value that theatrical experience, it's there for them. So go watch in a theatre with a bunch of other people. Have a great time. That's what cineastes and all of us kind of live for.

"But the reality of the world – and it's been this way for 30 plus years – is most people see your used to be on VHS, then it was DVD and on a plane and on cable."

However he feels about the differences in how modern day audiences watch films, Linklater very much has an eye on the future. Following his huge success shooting his 2014 film Boyhood over a period of 12 years, he's returned to this method of filming for a new adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical Merrily We Roll Along.

The film will star Paul Mescal, Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein and is currently a few years into an on-off shoot which will continue intermittently for a total of 20 years. That sounds like it could be a major challenge, and Linklater admits that making a film likes this requires a certain amount of luck.

"You're kind of tempting fate in a way," he says. "So you know, so far, so good. I'm working with a lot of great folks, and it's a lot of fun. But yeah, we're at the earliest times on that – thinking about 16 or 17 more years on that one. But it's fun to just have these projects you're excited about. It's all I've ever wanted to do – be working on things I care about."

Next up for the director is another film that very much falls into that category: a black and white, French language project titled Nouvelle Vague that depicts the making of Jean-Luc Godard seminal French New Wave film Breathless.

"That was so fun," he says. "I just wrapped that and now we're editing. It won't be out for at least another year. But yeah, just really fun – a period piece making a film about cineastes and a beautiful, wonderful time and place in history, late '50s Paris. It was just magical, it was like a seance. So I'll leave it at that – it's just about people who love movies."

That's the future, but as for the past, last year marked the 20 year anniversary of one of Linklater's most popular films, School of Rock. It's a film that remains a firm favourite of many viewers who grew up with it – and is still ripe for rewatching – so what does Linklater himself think of it's legacy?

"I've now had a generation or two of parents coming up to me and saying, 'Oh my kid loves the film," he says. "Now I have the kid going, 'When I was six years old that was my favourite film!'"

He adds: "I gotta say, anything that makes young people think it'd be cool to be in a band or pick up an instrument or express themselves... I think that's what Jack Black is really telling the kids – to express yourself and have fun doing it.

"So I hope that's a good perpetual message to be sprinkling out in the world, in addition to stick it to the man. I think Jack Black is so amazing, you know, in that film, he's such a unique talent, you can't take your eyes off him and he's such a great guy. So I can see why people can return to that over and over!"

Hitman is streaming on Netflix from Friday 7th May 2024 – sign up from £4.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.


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