‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’: Guy Ritchie’s Journey to Bring Spy Series in From the Cold

Directors including Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Matthew Vaughn once circled the project, as did stars like George Clooney, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling and Channing Tatum. However, the hoped-for bigscreen adaptation didn’t get real traction at Warner Bros. until Guy Ritchie, the director who reimagined the studio’s 2009 blockbuster “Sherlock Holmes” and its sequel two years later, pitched his take.

“There were several screenplays along the way, but it never got to the starting line before Guy,” says Greg Silverman, president of creative development and worldwide production at Warner Bros. Pictures. “It needed a direction, it needed someone who had a point of view and a real voice. It’s very particularly Guy Ritchie’s ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ ”

That said, “U.N.C.L.E.,” which cost $75 million to produce, and tens of millions more to market and release, poses a sizable risk for the Burbank studio. The film, which debuts Aug. 14, lacks proven box office stars, and the underlying property isn’t nearly as popular as, say, the Scotland Yard sleuth or the mythic king of Ritchie’s other upcoming release, “Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur.”

Marking Richie’s eighth feature, the movie stars Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin and Alicia Vikander as a mysterious woman brought into their mission.

The new angle that Ritchie and his producing partner and co-writer Lionel Wigram came up with was to tell the origin tale of how two spies — American Solo and Russian Kuryakin (played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, respectively, in the mid-’60s TV series) came to work together for the organization known as U.N.C.L.E. “In the TV show, there was no backstory,” Wigram says. “We wanted to look at how, at this moment in time, did a Russian and an American come to team up?”

Julian Bond for Variety
 

Ritchie, who has fond memories of watching the TV show as a child, suggests that even though the title is meaningless now, he loves that it is “cool” and “quirky,” and that the premise of the series is one of collaboration. “It had enough components for me to feel I could make it feel fresh,” he says.

The 46-year-old British director, who lives in London, only recently learned about the previous attempts to bring the project to life as a movie. “We started from scratch; there’s not one thing left from any previous attempt to write a script, or anyone associated with it,” he notes. “We literally started with a blank page.”

For a time, Tom Cruise was set to play Solo; the actor’s “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” hit theaters two weeks before “U.N.C.L.E.,” generating strong business. “I think there was a conflict about how many spies he was playing,” Ritchie says of the star’s departure. Instead, the director called on a cast of rising stars, albeit none with Cruise’s box office clout.

Ritchie has a proven track record with actors, beginning with his 1998 directorial debut “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” which cast Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham in their first roles. Though he’d done some modeling, Statham owes his flourishing acting career to Ritchie. “There’s no ambiguity about that; Jason was selling perfume out of the back of a van when I met him,” Ritchie says. “I do quite like discovering fresh faces.”

Ritchie also enjoys working with musicians, having cast Sting in “Lock, Stock” and Ludacris in “RocknRolla,” among others. His biggest career misfire also included a pop star: 2002’s “Swept Away,” a remake of writer-director Lina Wertmuller’s sexy Italian romancer, which toplined his then-wife, Madonna. “Oh, did I get a proper caning over that one,” Ritchie says, adding that he has no regrets. “It was the film I wanted to make.” Asked if the movie was perhaps judged unfairly because of Madonna’s involvement, he says only, “I’ll have to let someone else do the arithmetic on that.” The math was dreadful, with the film grossing less than $600,000 domestically.

Ritchie says his audition process is about getting to know a person, and often involves no actual discussion of the script with actors. “You talk about their interests, what they find funny, what they find unfunny,” he reveals. “During that process, you start to find out who is on the same frequency as you and the project you’re trying to make manifest.”

Vikander, whom Ritchie says beat out hundreds of actresses for her role, can attest to the unique method. Her first meeting with the director took place over Skype while she was shooting a film in Australia. “I was sitting in a harbor on this tiny island, and he saw boats in the background,” she recalls with a laugh. “Suddenly, we spent 10 minutes talking about boats. And when I referred to something in the script, he said, ‘Ah, no, I don’t want to talk about the film.’”

Ritchie then invited Vikander (“Ex Machina,” “A Royal Affair”) to meet him in L.A., where she says, “We spent three or four hours having coffee, eating cakes and talking about music history. He said goodbye, and I was very confused, like, ‘So when are we doing the audition?’ ” Her agents called her not long after to say she had gotten the part. “It took me a few days before I actually believed them,” she says. “I’ve literally never gotten a part without a self-tape or an audition.”

Once cast, working with Ritchie is described as an immersive experience. “Guy has an expression, ‘Either you’re full time or you’re not,’ ” says Wigram, who stays with Ritchie and his family when he’s in London. “Our experience of making a film is we live it. It’s useful to be together. You can come down for breakfast in the morning and go, ‘I just had an idea in the shower.’ It’s all consuming, and it’s been wonderful for me. I have my own family in Los Angeles, and I feel very lucky to have a second family when I’m there.”

“Sherlock Holmes” producer Susan Downey, who first worked with Ritchie on “RocknRolla” before her husband, Robert Downey Jr., took the lead in “Sherlock,” says Ritchie’s exploration doesn’t stop with a script. “He is not precious; the best idea wins with him,” she notes. “They’ll continue to work on the material until the cameras are rolling.” On the set of “Sherlock,” she says she loved watching Ritchie interact with Downey and Jude Law. “He’ll roll up his sleeves and literally start choreographing a fight with them.”

Vikander adds that one of her favorite scenes in “U.N.C.L.E.,” in which she dances and wrestles with Hammer, came about through improvisation and rehearsal in Ritchie’s living room prior to shooting. “I’ve never had so much fun on a shoot,” she enthuses. “As an actor, you feel you’re with somebody who is in full control, and it gives you a real trust. You feel like you’re in safe hands and can work very collaboratively.”

Echoes Charlie Hunnam, who stars as King Arthur in Ritchie’s next film, “It goes way beyond collaboration; it’s complete autonomy to do one’s job. Guy puts together this team that he empowers, and really doesn’t interfere until the second you deviate from his vision. It forced me to bring my A game every day.”

Ritchie is reticent to talk too much about “Knights of the Roundtable” at this point. Asked how it will differ from previous tellings of the legend, he quips, “Everything, apart from the fact it’s a man with a sword, and he’s called Arthur.” Hunnam, however, can barely contain his excitement. “I assume, and hope that I’m correct in the assumption, it’s far and away the best thing I’ve ever been a part of,” he raves. “I came away every day feeling really inspired about the work.”

Though he began his career with gritty indies like “Lock, Stock” and “Snatch,” Ritchie now finds himself as the director of three potential studio franchises; he’s interested in making more “U.N.C.L.E.” and “King Arthur” films, should the opportunity arise. Of course, he is regularly asked about a third “Sherlock Holmes” picture, for which informal discussions are already under way. “Everybody wants to do it, but you want to make sure there’s a reason to do it aside from numbers,” Susan Downey says. “We want to make sure we have a smart story worth telling.”

Whatever’s next, Ritchie says he will approach it the way he did “U.N.C.L.E.,” with his “head down, arms swinging.” He notes, “Some people have 30 or so projects in development and nothing seems to come of it. I wait ’til I find something, and then hone in on it.”

The filmmaker, who’s days away from marrying his longtime love and mother of three of his five children, model Jacqui Ainsley, says he hasn’t a clue as to what his next production will be.

“I’m putting my feet up,” Ritchie says from his London home. “I’ll enjoy summer, and worry about what’s next after that.”

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