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Secret Headquarters Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman on Working With Jerry Bruckheimer and Prepping Kids for Action Scenes

August 16, 2022 10:30 | By

Secret Headquarters image via Paramount+

The new Paramount+ movie Secret Headquarters is a family adventure film that harks back to classic ’80s movies like The Goonies, albeit with a more modern superhero tinge. Walker Scobell (The Adam Project) stars as Charlie Kincaid, who is constantly trying to get the attention of his busy father (Owen Wilson).

One day, Charlie’s father again runs off “for work,” so Charlie invites his best friend (Keith L. Williams) over for an impromptu party with two female classmates (Momona Tamada and Abby James Witherspoon), and the four kids discover an elaborate underground cavern beneath the house along with proof that Charlie’s father might, in fact, be a superhero. 

The movie is directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who first broke onto the scene with their 2010 documentary Catfish before directing two Paranormal Activity movies and Netflix’s action-thriller Project Power starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Secret Headquarters finds the directing duo teaming up with legendary Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, which makes the movie an even more interesting addition to their filmography.

Below the Line recently hopped on Zoom with the two filmmakers, who were joined by their co-writer, Josh Koenigsberg, who just happened to be with Joost, as the two of them are working on the next draft of Netflix’s Mega Man movie. With all three guys together again, there were plenty of jokes tossed around, so here’s hoping you dig the lighter vibe of this interview.

Henry Joost Ariel Schulman

Henry Joost (L) with Ariel Schulman/Photo courtesy of @blvxmth

Below the Line: How did the two of you get involved with directing a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced family film?

Henry Joost: I think it was very related to Project Power, actually. Jerry called us, or our agent said, ‘Jerry Bruckheimer wants to Zoom with you guys’ in the middle of the pandemic. And we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, okay.’ We got on a Zoom, and we were like, ‘We’re such big fans. We wore out the VHS tapes watching your movies as kids,’ and he just doesn’t really accept compliments. He was like, ‘Yeah, I want to talk about you guys. I love Project Power. I love the kind of movies you guys make. I want to make one with you.’ And we were like, ‘Great. Okay. What are you thinking?’

He was like, ‘I have an underwater alien picture, I’ve got something else — I forget what it was — and I’ve got this thing, Secret Headquarters.’ We were like, ‘What’s Secret Headquarters? That sounds cool.’ He was like, ‘It’s about a kid who finds this superhero secret headquarters under his dad’s house. Maybe his dad’s a superhero. And it’s a family film.’ And we were like, ‘That’s the one. That one sounds fun.’ The original script was by Chris Yost, awesome script, awesome guy. We called Josh, and we were like, ‘Josh, what do you think?’ and we had some ideas [about] how to expand it, and we wanted to make it into the kind of film that we would have loved as kids. We did a really intense six-week or eight-week process with Jerry, and it was the fastest, like, script-to-production experience I think we’ve ever had.

BTL: I was going to ask if this was a pre-COVID movie or one that was filmed in the middle of the pandemic. Usually, I can tell, but I didn’t catch if there was a COVID consultant in the end credits for this. 

Joost: It was right in the middle. 

Ariel Schulman: Yeah, we spent too many millions of dollars on testing and masks that I wish could have been put on screen. 

BTL: Josh, when you got involved, what was the state of the script? Did it feel fairly recent, or like something Jerry may have been developing for a long time?

Josh Koenigsberg: I think, from talking to Chris, that it was an idea he literally sold in the room in 2013, so he goes from calling his wife after he gets out of the room being like, ‘Honey, I just sold a movie to Paramount. They want to greenlight it, here we go’ to almost eight or nine years later, and Bruckheimer had it in his arsenal. He gave it to us, and it was a classic Chris Yost script. I’m a huge comic book fan, so as soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘This is as promised, because it’s by Chris Yost, so it must be pretty solid.’

We tried to take the foundation that was there and some of the mythology, just sort of the premise in general, this idea of sort of Home Alone set in the Batcave. Some secret headquarters for a superhero was just a really good premise, and we wanted to do some character work, [so we] built it up and ran it by Jerry, and Zoomed with him and Chad every day for maybe two months. That was the biggest thing, I think, just when I got the call from Henry asking me to help out with him and Rel.

‘We know that you’re working on this other project for us — because I was — but we want you to put that aside for a little bit and come work on this Bruckheimer script. We want you to finish it in four weeks.’ And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, let me read it.’ Once I read it, we all kind of got on the same page about how we wanted to rebuild it and how we wanted to change the characters and give [it a] throughline, make it this father-son story. Let’s say we watched a lot of Goonies, we watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for the father-son dynamics, and from there, it was busy, but so much fun to go to work every day.

BTL: I have a theory that one or both of you had kids in the last couple of years. Am I right? [Henry and Ariel shake their heads “no”] 

Koenigsberg: I did. This is why I told myself, aside from my inevitable style, why they approached me was that I myself had just had a kid, and there was a lot of dramatic irony, I would say, in my writing a story about a dad who’s so busy with work that he’s maybe not giving his kid the attention he needs. I think I was literally working on the script on my kid’s birthday, and I thought, ‘This is too weird. I need to stop,’ but he was only like a year old at the time, so I wasn’t a truly horrible father. 

BTL: I’ve interviewed Jerry before, and he’s pretty closed off and keeps things close to vest. I’m not sure it’s possible to know the real Jerry Bruckheimer from interviewing him. 

Joost: He’s a man of few words. 

Schulman: Only Linda Bruckheimer knows the real Jerry Bruckheimer.

BTL: You’ve actually worked with many different producers on your other movies, which include Paranormal Activity 3 and 4. If you needed to do something crazy, was Jerry able to make something happen faster than most producers?

Schulman: There’s a reason why Jerry Bruckheimer has had a number-one hit in I can’t even count how many decades in a row, and he shows no signs of slowing down. He was the most involved, the most on-set, the most specific producer we’ve ever worked with.

Joost: Yeah, he’s just an unbelievably great producer, especially in the script process. He constantly shocked us [with] how fast he read things, how quickly he turned [things] around, and how much time he wanted to spend with us on Zoom. We were shocked. We were like, ‘This guy is such a big producer. He’s probably just going to talk to us for 10 minutes, and then we’ll talk to him in a week.’ But for a while, every single day, we’d have six hours with him.

Schulman: And that was, like, two-and-a-half hours after turning in a draft. Let’s say it takes two hours to read a script. Two-and-a-half hours later, he’d schedule a follow-up Zoom.

(L-R) Abby James Witherspoon, Momona Tamada, Walker Scobell, Keith L. Williams in Secret Headquarters/Paramount+

BTL: Do one of you want to talk about casting the kids? Keith was pretty amazing in Good Boys, though I hadn’t seen the Babysitters Club (in which Tamada starred) and I don’t think Walker hadn’t done anything else before this, right?

Joost: Keith was in our mind when we were writing the script, because we’d seen Good Boys, and we thought he was so funny and great. Walker, we auditioned, like, hundreds of kids, and we saw hundreds of tapes, kids from all over the country, and Walker was kind of a late addition. He came with a really, really strong recommendation from Shawn Levy and Ryan Reynolds because they had made The Adam Project — I think it had shot, but I don’t think they were finished editing when we were casting. They both gave Walker a really strong recommendation, so we found him in the pile. We did chemistry testing and mix-and-matches with lots of different pairs of kids because we wanted to make sure they felt like a really cohesive friend group. Walker is just so funny and so quick and he improvises like a sophisticated adult comedian. He’s really incredible.

Schulman: I think he’s going to be a big movie star.

Joost: I hope he doesn’t [read] this because I don’t want him to get a big head.

BTL: I know you had a teen actor in Project Power, but what’s it like making a movie with such a young cast, and what were some of the methods you used to work with the kids?

Schulman: I think you can boil it down to two things working with kids — candy and music. That’s all you need.

Joost: It’s true. It’s kind of like being a camp counselor more than being a director. You’re cultivating a fun set experience. The funny thing is Dominique [Fishback] was playing a teenager in Project Power, but she was like 28. But we did we have some experience. Working on Paranormal Activity 3 and 4, there were kids in both of those movies. We found that little boys are really crazy, and little girls are really well-behaved.

BTL: Rel, you mentioned COVID and all the testing and that stuff but how did it come into play in terms of making the movie? Did you end up doing a lot more virtual production or VFX for the actual headquarters, which is sort of the hero location for most of the movie?

Schulman: I think everyone was on-site and in-person, but heavily protected. The most annoying thing, I thought, was that to talk to actors, one mask isn’t enough. You have to wear a mask and glasses, and the actor has to wear a mask and a dog collar. Which makes it hard to connect with someone when what you’re talking about is the subtleties of human gesture and you are wearing a sleeping bag.

The set was not so much VFX, actually. That was a big idea and a big risk we all took — finding a space big enough to be a magnificent secret headquarters and building it out to be that, as much as possible, really just for the sake of the kids walking onto the set and being genuinely impressed and excited about this play space. We figured if they actually felt that way, then they wouldn’t have to act that way.

The more you can feel naturally, the better your performance is, so we worked with a really brilliant production designer named Martin Whist, who came across a defunct mall in Northern Atlanta that had a massive food court [they] let us take over, [plus] the whole atrium and two levels of it around a fountain. Cover it [and] sheath it in styrofoam rock to make it feel like it was deep, deep underground.

BTL: Atlanta was one of the first places to really get going on production when COVID hit, so when did you actually shoot there?

Joost: Last summer, so around this time last year. I guess we wrapped up [around the] end of August last year. We got really lucky, because there are so many productions in Atlanta, and a lot of friends of ours were shooting things there. My wife was shooting a show there, and everybody else I think who we know, their productions were shut down at one point or another because of COVID. Somehow, we just cruised right through without ever shutting down, which was really, really lucky.

Secret Headquarters

Owen Wilson with Scobell and Tamada in Secret Headquarters/Paramount+

BTL: Going back to the secret headquarters location, did you guys have any inspiration that you drew from when working with your production designer? You mentioned the Batcave, but that’s obviously darker and quite different.

Schulman: Ironically, the cinematographer who shot Secret Headquarters shot the darkest of the Batman [movies].

BTL: Larry Fong, right? He’s amazing.

Schulman: He’s amazing, but we would joke with him that his Batman, you can’t see anything, but our Batcave had to be much brighter since it’s more of a fun family movie. Although we did want it to be kind of edgy and cool for a kids’ movie.

BTL: How did you approach Larry Fong to shoot this?

Schulman: Carefully. Very slowly… 

Joost: You have to be careful with Larry Fong, he startles very easily. Don’t look him in the eye. Call him “Mr. Fong.”

Schulman: I don’t know. We got so lucky that he was available, for starters. I think a lot of people were excited and interested to make something that their kids or their nieces or nephews could see. So often you work with these big actors, and they say that their kids have never seen a movie they’ve made and they’re not interested. Particularly Owen Wilson, who has two boys that are right in this demographic. I think a lot of his motivation [was] to make something for them. For Henry and me, this is for the kids we don’t yet have.

BTL: Have you had a chance to watch the movie with an audience yet? I know it’s streaming but I also know you’ll have a premiere in New York City, at least. 

Joost: We did a couple of test screenings, which were just so much fun, where they recruited families to come in and sit in the audience. We’re having a premiere in New York next week, and then we’re also doing these outdoor screenings. We’re doing one in Fort Greene Park, which is such a fun family park, and then we’re doing another one in L.A. and maybe one in East Hampton at the end of the month. 

Secret Headquarters

Owen Wilson in Secret Headquarters/Paramount+

BTL: When I speak with your stunt coordinator Greg Rementer (for Bullet Train), I plan to ask him about working with actors on stunts and fight sequences, but how is it different shooting action with kids?

Schulman: Those are good questions for him. He’s a great camp counselor himself, and [a big] part of the process with these kids. Those are five kids doing action scenes and doing their stunts, and they all raised their hands and said they wanted to participate in that way. He created a boot camp for kids to become action stars, and that included ropes and crash courses and all sorts of physical contact sports so that they could do it without too many stuntmen. One of them — Abby James Witherspoon — has a lot of flying to do in a harness on this “lollipop rig,” and it requires an insane amount of core muscle. She did a whole, like, abdominal routine to get ready for it, and then she killed it.

BTL: You assume that when you put on those wings, you can just fly and don’t need to really have any sort of physicality to do so.

Schulman: It’s really hard to control yourself. 

Joost: And to do it for five minutes, it’s like doing a plank for five minutes. 

Schulman: Walker turned out to be a really great athlete. When we saw him tumbling and jumping and flipping — he can do a backflip. When we saw him do that in Greg Rementer’s boot camp, we said, ‘Let’s put in some moments where he does crazy shit like that.’ There is a moment where he leaps over an entire pool table by planting one hand — kind of a parkour move — and we sort of wrote a whole little action sequence around his ability to do that. 

BTL: I know that you have other projects in development, including a Mega Man movie with Masi Oka producing (who also happens to be in Bullet Train). What are you guys doing to prepare for that?

Joost: We’re actually working on it right now. That’s why Josh and I are together. We’re on a new draft of the screenplay, and it’s really fun. We’re hoping to get it finished in the next few weeks and send it to Netflix and hopefully be off to the races.

BTL: It’s one of the few video games I’ve played and know pretty well. I’m sure you guys know the stigma of video game movies. I don’t know if you went back to watch some of them just to see what worked and what didn’t work so you could reverse engineer your movie.

Schulman: For what not to do? But that stigma is changing. There have been some very successful ones — Uncharted, Sonic… 

Koenigsberg: Both Sonics, yeah. Some of those truly bad ones from the ’90s, now I kind of like them, or maybe I’m just nostalgic for like Super Mario Brothers with [John] Leguizamo and [Bob] Hoskins as Luigi and Mario, respectively. But yeah, I’d say we very much welcome that. It’s been fun playing old Mega Man video games [for] research. That’s always a positive in this line of work, but we’re really excited, and hopefully, when the movie comes out, we can come back on and tell you all the mistakes we made that we wish we would have corrected at this precise moment.

BTL: What platform can you even play it on now? 

Joost: I play it on Switch. There’s a newer version that came out two or three years ago. It’s really good. 

Koenigsberg: Yeah, there are bundles on Switch where you can download the first six of them all at the same time.

Secret Headquarters is now streaming exclusively on Paramount+.