Taking on Stormbreaker

Gadgets, guns and getting on with the Weinsteins – TF visits the men behind the teen Brit spy caper

It’s a tense day on the Stormbreaker set, near to the end of shooting and this most British of productions has been granted access to film in the Science Museum in London – unheard of.

Lightening up the mood on set are Robbie Coltrane as the Prime Minister and a curiously dressed Mickey Rourke – the villain of the piece -  who looks like a cross between a member of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Hugh Hefner. Helmer Geoffrey Sax is setting up an intricate set piece where 15 year-old Alex Pettyfer drops from the ceiling, all guns blazing in his role as terrorist-slapping teen spy Alex Rider.

Nearby, the creator of the Alex Rider novels and scribbler of the Stormbreaker script, Anthony Horowitz, is called over to change a line. When he gets back he looks totalfilm.com in the eye. “I had to change one word to ‘no.’ Can you believe that?” He says stifling a laugh. “I’ve just walked across a set with Mickey Rourke and Robbie Coltrane, a load of extras and someone hanging from the ceiling with a gun to change a word to ‘no.’ What an incredible feeling.”

If Horowitz was feeling a little like a child on his first visit to Disneyland, imagine then the level of surrealism for Pettyfer – having appeared in a TV adaptation of Tom Brown’s School Days, the young fella is making his movie debut opposite Bill Nighy, Alicia Silverstone and Hotel Rwanda star Sophie Okonedo.

Pettyfer plays the lead in Stormbreaker, which follows a teenager who is asked by the secret service to complete his late uncle’s mission, infiltrating billionaire Darius Sayle’s (Rourke) mysterious operation.

“That was the cherry on the cake to be honest,” a relaxed Pettyfer tells Total Film a few months later. “To work with so many class actors, not celebrities but real actors, is my dream come true.” Instead of seeking out advice on the industry, Alex made a beeline for the man playing his uncle in Stormbreaker for a different kind of guidance.

“I wanted to talk to Ewan McGregor about motorbikes and he gave me some good tips,” he says sheepishly. “We didn’t talk about acting even once, is that really bad? I’ve since gone out and got myself a bike so he must’ve had an affect on me.”

With obvious comparisons to everything from Spy Kids to 007, writer Horowitz has always attempted to stay true to his initial idea of a young man who doesn’t want to be a spy; he just wants to muck about with his mates.

“You can’t escape from the umbrella of Bond and there’s been loads of films since Dr No – In Like Flint to Spy Kids and Cody Banks – but I did try when I was writing both the books and the film to not nick their language and style. We’ve gone a different route - this is a spy who doesn’t want to be a spy at all, he’s a fish out of water, he hates the whole idea of it and is manipulated into it.”

The passionate scribbler even intended to exclude gadgets from his page-turning franchise for fear that the Bond people would think he was treading on their toes.

“The only reason I put them in is because whenever I went into schools researching the idea, the kids all wanted to know what gadgets Alex Rider would be using. Even now, it’s one of the biggest attractions of the books.” With this in mind, he decided to have some fun with Rider’s roster of hi-tech goodies. “That’s the fun of it and my favourite gadget is probably the bicycle Alex uses in Eagle Strike; the whole joke of it is that Bond gets a car with an ejector seat and Alex Rider gets a bike with an ejector saddle and that still makes me smile.”

Alex Pettyfer was picked from a list of 500 hopefuls to play the role of the teen superspy and admits he only read the books when he was told he was up for the part.

“I hadn’t read Stormbreaker so I got a copy for research. I auditioned in the February of last year and I was the first person they saw. Then they saw another few hundred kids before coming back to me a couple of months later. It was a long wait and a really big deal to me because I really wanted the part, it’s a great character.”

With six more Alex Rider adventures on the shelves and another one in the offing, is this a role Pettyfer would feel comfortable slipping into again? “If I got the opportunity, I would love to do it, it would mean Stormbreaker was a success and we all want that.”

Anthony Horowitz, understandably, wants that success more than most. “The commercial pressure to make it succeed is massive. When I write a kid’s book, I never have to worry about the success of it particularly because if a book sells a limited number of copies, it doesn’t necessarily make it a failure but when you make a $14 million film, you’ve got to put a lot of bums on seats to justify the movie’s existence.”
Plunging head-long into the world of film has given the amiable key-tapper a new perspective on pressure.

“I am dealing with people who have a very different language to myself. Harvey Weinstein for example who is a very friendly man and I’ve loved working with him but none the less - his demands are very much outside my experience,” he laughs infectiously.

“Still, having written the books and the screenplay, if it’s a success, then this is my baby, if not, he can blame the director.”

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