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In December 2006, filmmaker Daniel Roby came across a newspaper article referencing an undercover operation—the subject of a 1989 investigation by Canadian journalist Victor Malarek—that got a man entangled in a drug deal, which in turn landed him in a Thai prison.
The case, which Roby hadn’t heard about prior to that, was being used to illustrate a point about how lies and cover-ups can be perpetuated among members of law enforcement.
“I was shocked by the whole thing,” Roby tells Fortune, adding that he proceeded to extensively research the case over the next year, speaking with Malarek, along with Alain Olivier—the man at the center of the case—and attending court hearings for a lawsuit filed by Olivier against Royal Canadian Mounted Police agents.
That research resulted in Roby’s latest film—Most Wanted, available via video-on-demand Friday. The movie stars Josh Hartnett as Malarek and Antoine Olivier Pilon as Daniel Léger, the character based on Olivier, and also includes Jim Gaffigan and Amanda Crew (Silicon Valley) in its cast.
Roby’s script was ready a couple of years after he completed his research, but it took some time to get the film off the ground. Before finally shooting the film in 2018, Roby lost and replaced an investor, had to do some recasting, and ended up having to work with a smaller budget than originally planned.
“I want to work with passionate filmmakers who are making projects that are their babies—that they really care about. Not a job that they’re doing for money, but a job that they’re doing because they feel compelled to do it,” Hartnett, who received the script five years ago, tells Fortune. “Daniel’s definitely one of those directors.”
To accommodate his budget shortfalls, Roby, who wanted to keep his script intact, turned to a more handheld approach and opted against using additional set lights. The latter approach was aided by the fact that cinematographer Ronald Plante had just returned from shooting HBO’s Sharp Objects with director Jean-Marc Vallée, who also leans toward working with natural or available light.
“I could do more takes with actors, and more angles, and improvise stuff, and play with the scenes more than just wait, sitting around for relighting of every angle that takes up half your day,” says Roby, who adds that he’d also been looking for an opportunity to do some handheld shooting for a film.
“What that allowed him was a lot of time to experiment with us,” says Hartnett, who credits Roby’s filmmaking choices with being able to explore his own role more deeply and find the right “blend” for the character. “He trusted me to bring in a pretty strong characterization and then to sort of find the moments that were going to be most human…and the moments that were going to be the most heroic.”
The real-life Malarek, whose book Gut Instinct helped provide some insights, was also available to Hartnett as he took on the role. While in the initial stages of discussing the project with Roby, the actor went up to Toronto for a brief trip, where he met the journalist, who then took him around to everything from the Globe and Mail office to his favorite sandwich shop, while also sharing personal details like family albums. They met a couple more times before filming began as well.
“He loves to talk,” says Hartnett, calling Malarek a “great resource.”
Adds Hartnett: “When it came to filming, he took a step back, which was very gracious and the right thing to do. And we were able to make the honest version of what was happening at the time.”
Malarek does have one small cameo in the film, though Roby points out he was only on set for one day, which “wasn’t a Josh day. So Josh didn’t feel observed by the real Malarek.”
Roby was thrilled with his cast as a whole, calling Gaffigan a “gift” and saying he was lucky to have a “wonderful experienced actress” like Crew on board, even though she only shot scenes for a handful of days.
“I felt like [Gaffigan’s character, Glen Picker] needed to be really charming very quickly and then switch to being very scary and unpredictable. For a long time, I thought probably a comedian would be perfect to play somebody like that,” he says.
“He was a really incredible surprise, and so much fun, obviously, to work with. You would just have to try to stop laughing during that day and just at one point say, ‘Can we just do the scenes? Roll camera!’ because everybody’s just laughing all day,” Roby recalls.
For Hartnett, who was drawn into Most Wanted by Roby’s enthusiasm, passion, and “encyclopedic knowledge” of the case, being part of the film matches his overall philosophy about the types of projects he wants to take on. In his view, smaller budgets allow for telling stories like this, and he ultimately hopes audiences watching the film will see “that there’s a real need for well-funded investigative journalism, and there’s a need for believing in facts.”
The actor, who only learned about the case after getting involved in the project, also expressed how surprised he was by the fact that he’d never heard of it.
“That a citizen of a country could be sent overseas with money from that government to perpetrate a crime that wasn’t real and then be arrested by the authorities in that country and then put on death row essentially, and the government would disavow it, is a big story, right?” he says. “I grew up in Minnesota…Canada isn’t that far away, and this story never seeped across the border.
“This reaffirmed something that I already knew—that these abuses of power can happen anywhere,” he adds.
Roby agrees, saying that while he wants audiences to enjoy the “thriller aspect” of the film, he hopes they also see how easy it is for abuses of power to occur—even when they start with someone simply trying to cover up a small mistake.
“It’s just realizing the importance of free press as a counter power in our democracy,” he says, adding that he himself wasn’t completely “conscious” of that before deciding to make the film. “I hope people get a reminder of how important that is.”
Most Wanted is available to watch via VOD, starting July 24.
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