Johnny English - Production Notes

Johnny English
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Production Notes

Production Notes

In an uncertain world, few things are as dependable as the British Secret Service. World-renowned for the calibre of it’s agents, the cutting-edge technology utilized in it’s weaponry and it’s international intelligence-gathering web, it is one of the last bastions of honour manned with committed defenders of “the truth.”

So when an unthinkable plan to filch the country’s beloved Crown Jewels comes to the Service’s attention, the best man for the job, the crème de la crème of the organization’s supersleuths, Agent Number One, is quickly assigned to the case.

…And is almost as quickly dispatched to six feet under.
Unfortunately for the British Secret Service, virtually every other able member of its esteemed ranks soon joins Agent Number One in the afterworld….nasty business, bombing a funeral.
Who could be behind such a diabolical plot? Perhaps the same twisted mind bent on stealing the Crown Jewels?

Johnny English @
Johnny English  @

Now, there is only one man remaining who can even hope to protect his country, avenge the elimination of all of the Secret Service’s spies and uncover the fiend behind the fiendish plot to make off with the lasting symbols of the once supreme British empire, the Crown Jewels.

Enter Johnny English.
He knows no fear.
He knows no danger.
He knows nothing.


ROWAN ATKINSON, the brilliant physical comedian whose outrageous pratfalls and subversively innocent humor have made him a star in hilarious classics ranging from the cult U.K. series Blackadder to the worldwide hit Bean, is back on the big screen as the title character in the family comedy Johnny English—an office-bound junior intelligence worker suddenly thrust into the spotlight when the Crown Jewels are stolen from the Tower of London and a plot is uncovered that threatens world security.

A bit unseasoned but extremely enthusiastic, English is quickly outfitted with a highly-specialized automobile, armed with the ultimate in intelligence gadgetry and allowed highest access to the agency’s files. All of England’s hopes are resting on English.

He isn’t the best they have…he’s the only one left.
Starring along with Atkinson as Johnny English are international star NATALIE IMBRUGLIA as Special Agent Lorna Campbell, renowned comedian BEN MILLER as English’s sidekick, Bough, and multiple Academy Award nominee JOHN MALKOVICH as the very French and very crafty business magnate, Pascal Sauvage.

From Working Title Films (About a Boy, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, Four Wedding and a Funeral), Johnny English is a spy comedy with thrills, chills and surprises for the whole family. Directed by PETER HOWITT (Sliding Doors) from an original screenplay by NEAL PURVIS & ROBERT WADE and WILLIAM DAVIES, Johnny English is produced by TIM BEVAN, ERIC FELLNER and MARK HUFFAM. The film is distributed worldwide by Universal Pictures.


It has become custom within the movie business to adapt successful ventures from other mediums (books, plays, television series, even popular songs) into film projects. Johnny English may be one of the first to adapt a film version from…a commercial.

Between 1992 and 1997, gifted comic actor Atkinson was featured in a series of popular British credit card Barclaycard commercials playing a somewhat accident-prone spy. It was at that time Atkinson got the idea about making a feature film based on the character from the television advertisements.

Atkinson notes, “Those commercials, even though they were only sixty-seconds long, had a movie feel to them. They were elaborate and atmospheric with very high production values. They just felt like a mini-movie, so it seemed logical to make a maxi-movie.”

Having collaborated with Atkinson over a number of years, producing The Tall Guy in the ‘80s and Bean in the ‘90s, Working Title were looking for another joint feature project with him.

“The idea of doing a film about this British spy was perfect,” says producer Tim Bevan. “The interesting thing about British movies is that the two genres that seem to be successful are the spy movie and the comedy—this was an opportunity to combine the two.”

A few years elapsed between the completion of the television commercials and the actual start of the film project, entitled Johnny English, during which time its star and the Working Title producers were kept busy by a myriad of separate projects.

Eventually, screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were commissioned to write the script. (In addition to the pair’s experience with screenwriting in various genres, their expertise within the spy genre—having penned The World Is Not Enough—was highly regarded.)
Atkinson was also very involved from the beginning. He remembers, “I helped to guide the scriptwriters. I was in on the ground floor, as they say.”

Prior to Johnny English, Atkinson had been in discussions with director Peter Howitt (who had helmed the hit romantic comedy Sliding Doors) concerning a collaborative project that never came to fruition. Now, with a script ready for reading, the actor forwarded a copy to Howitt to get his opinion on the screenplay.

Peter Howitt comments, “I was cutting a film in Los Angeles and I got a call from Rowan, asking if I would take a look at the script he had and give him my thoughts. Then, after a couple of months of these scripts arriving, Rowan said that he’d like me direct. It was quite clear having seen the character and the commercials that they were striking and memorable. Getting to work with that character and Rowan was very exciting.”

Wade and Purvis worked on the script tirelessly for two years before leaving the project to work on the next Bond film, Die Another Day. Screenwriter William Davies was brought on board to continue to hone the work and smooth the transition from television commercial to page to the big screen.

On illustrating the character of English, Atkinson says, “Johnny loves being a secret agent so much that he oversteps himself. He always thinks that he’s better at something than he actually is. He’s the sort of person who, in a hurdle race, would clear the first hurdles extremely well, but he’d be waving at the crowd and he would trip and fall on the last hurdle. It’s the last 10 percent of his activity which is fatally flawed.”

Howitt concurs, “The character is quite smart—he just makes errors in judgment along the way. He’s not a stumbling, bumbling incompetent. Johnny English isn’t really a liability, he just steps into the wrong room or into the wrong place—but keeps on going because he believes in himself.

There is always that little moment where you see him think, ‘I got that wrong, I won’t let anyone know.’ He just smoothes his way out of it, thinking, ‘Good, I got away with that.’ Rowan is genius at this difficult type of not-so-obvious comedy.”

With the script in place, the filmmakers set about finding the right actors for the roles. One key piece of casting for the film was Bough, Johnny English’s partner.

Howitt remembers, “The character of Bough is very difficult to play as he is in every scene with English. He cannot be the ‘straight’ man to English’s ‘funny’ man, but has to be someone who compliments English’s behaviour and who is funny in his own right. He has to represent the audience so that we have someone in the room with English, experiencing all the things he is going through.”

After a number of actors were seen, Ben Miller proved to be the person that was right for part. “He knocked us all away,” continues Howitt. “He is very experienced at this type of comedy and he is really fantastic, smart and clever and incredibly understated. He has made Bough an individualistic character that you care about, who is funny and who makes you laugh in a completely different way than you laugh at Rowan.”

For Miller, the prospect of working with Atkinson was a large factor in taking the role. He also responded to the script and comments, “It’s incredibly funny. What it gets right is the tone, which is very seductive. It treads a very considered and accurate path between over-the-top and reality. I felt it had a real sense of humour and a confidence about it which I liked very much.”

The filmmakers were looking for a French actor to play Pascal Sauvage so initially had overlooked John Malkovich until his agent suggested him.

“John is the classic villain in a straight film so we could not believe we had not thought of him before. We went to meet him and he was great,” remembers Bevan.
Howitt enthuses, “Pascal is a mixed bag—like villains.

There is the good side, the icy side and the crazy side. John is able to play all of those quite neatly switching from one to another at a drop of a hat. He has a good command of the camera and understanding of the language of film because of his vast experience, so he does not need to do very much to get an effect.”

A veteran of more than 70 films and 100 plays, Malkovich notes that he has, of course, played his share of villains—but not one like Pascal, for several reasons. He elaborates, “I’ve done a lot comedies before, but really usually only in the theater, very few in the cinema. I’m not sure that the characters are always entirely new, but the stories are new and the people you work with are new. And a director might ask you to do something you’ve never done before.”

Additionally, this is the first time Malkovich has had to speak English with a French accent, which did not prove a problem—he has lived for several years in the country and completed numerous films in French.

Did he aim for a “realistic” French accent? The actor muses, “Well, realistic, it depends, of course. You can meet French people who speak English quite well. And you can meet many others who, when they speak English, it’s completely undecipherable. Pascal isn’t someone utterly fluent in English. For example, I have a friend who’s lived in New York well over 20 years. And she still has her little French accent. I have no idea why, but she does.”

“John catches it perfectly,” says Atkinson. “He is so languid and, of course, living in France, he has some sort of inside track to the whole way French people think and speak… so he is as perfect casting as we could have hoped for.”

On working with Atkinson, Malkovich observes, “He’s really fun to watch. All accomplished comics always seem to be incredibly serious, and thoughtful, and a perfectionist, as Rowan is. I think he’s very bright, he has a fantastic face, a kind of great comic face. He’s quite exact and specific in his choices. And he’s sort of truthful and painful, because I really believe part of what we laugh at in comedy is the recognition of pain. It’s the recognition of our own ludicrousness, our own failing and inadequacies.”

Central to the success of the film was the casting of a strong and intelligent actress in the role of Lorna. Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia had only recently decided that she would like to juggle her singing career with acting when she received a copy of the script through her music company and was called in for a reading.
Her draw to the project was based on specifics. Imbruglia remembers, “What initially drew me to Johnny English were Rowan Atkinson and John Malkovich. Then I read the script and it made me laugh—and then I definitely wanted to play Lorna.”

“Although this is Natalie’s first feature, she’d been on television for some time before becoming a singing star. We tested a lot of actresses, and Natalie scored the part on merit. I mean, we didn’t just cast her because we thought the lads would fancy her—although there’s a good chance they will,” the director says with a smile.

It was a welcome challenge for Imbruglia to combine shooting a film while continuing to perform and support her latest album. She says, “I really enjoyed the fact that I could do both. It has been a testing period because, at the time, I had a single coming out. I would do a couple of days shooting the film and then I would have to perform on Top of the Pops. It was a bit surreal, but I started to get the hang of it. I think it would be nice if I could juggle the two without spreading myself too thin.”

Atkinson felt Imbruglia brought just the right note to the proceedings. He says, “She fitted in well and was a delight to work with. The important thing about all the casting apart from Johnny English is the dynamic between English and whatever character he is playing against. There is a lovely dynamic between the slightly tense but over-confident English and that sort of languid evil that John Malkovich brings to Sauvage. In the same sense it is that dynamic that Natalie brings—a kind of crisp common sense. It is a good contrast to this man who likes to be rather theatrical and Lorna is not at all theatrical.”

For her, that ‘non-theatrical’ style was the key to playing a comedy. Natalie offers, “How I approached the comedy is something that was discussed before I even auditioned—I’m just playing straight. I think that’s what makes it more funny. The difficult thing there is to not laugh, because Rowan’s so hilarious. And I kept getting in trouble for giggling. It’s very, very hard to control yourself when you get a bit giddy after you’ve been working all day.”

An impressive slate of talent in front of and behind the camera were locked into place before shooting began. Rounding out the cast were such accomplished British actors as Tim Pigott-Smith (Remains of the Day), Oliver Ford Davies (Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones) and Greg Wise (Sense and Sensibility). Impressive behind-the-camera talent included director of photography Remi Adefarasin (About a Boy, Elizabeth), production designer Chris Seagers (Spy Game) and costume designer Jill Taylor (Sliding Doors, The Full Monty).

With script, cast and crew in place, Johnny English started principal photography in July of 2002. The film shot for 14 weeks, filming at Shepperton Studios, on location in London and St. Albans, and finally setting down in Monte Carlo for two days to complete filming the final scene.

During the course of filming, Atkinson and Imbruglia got involved in their own stunts. Supervised by stunt co-ordinator Paul Jennings, Atkinson found himself parachuting and completing almost all the driving stunts in the Aston Martin DB7 Vantage. Lastly, he had to spend hours suspended from a cable from the ceiling of St. Albans Cathedral (posing as Westminster Abbey) while filming the climax of the movie.
“I know how professional Rowan is in his application to work and was constantly surprised at what he was prepared to do to get the shots required,” comments Jennings.

Atkinson explains, “I’m certainly not someone who insists on doing his own stunts in order to say that I do my own stunts. I was very keen, however, to do as much of the stunt driving as I could, as I love cars. But there was a scene which I would not have been seen dead doing. Luckily, I have a very good stunt double, Rob Inch, who had to be suspended over the roof of Canary Wharf, staggering along the top and lurching right over the edge. And the camera comes right over the top of him and looks down past him to the ground. It’s a fantastic shot. Rob later told me he was terrified, and I thought, ‘If you’re terrified, there is certainly no point in me even considering a stunt like that.’”

Imbruglia performed extremely well in her fight sequence, as she was intent upon executing as much of it as she could with minimal use of a stunt double. She also trained to drive a full size motorbike (a Triumph); the filmmakers were reluctant to allow the diminutive performer to attempt to control the Triumph, but Imbruglia was insistent. After learning on a smaller bike, she graduated to the larger motorcycle.
Jennings offers, “Natalie did so well we ended up letting her ride the Triumph and eventually shot her riding that bike—although we did use a double for the faster sequences.”

The actress recalls, “The fight scenes were really great. I do a bit of kickboxing in my spare time so I really enjoyed that head butting of walls! Lorna’s a fun role to play. You know, I get to do so many different things. I’ve gotten to dance, to fight, to ride motorbikes. What more could a girl from Australia ask for?”

Release Date: 11/04/03
Certificate: TBC
Running Time: TBC
Distributor: UIP