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  • Writer's pictureBrad Gullickson

"Tropical Hitchcock." Nick Stahl and Nicholas Tomnay on 'What You Wish For'

We chat with the star and director about their Eat the Rich (?) thriller.

What You Wish For Interview

Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Nick Stahl and Nicholas Tomnay about What You Wish For.


Coveting is a trap I fall into frequently. I'll see someone's incredible comic book collection online, and my mouth will start to water. They reveal a first edition Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles number one hiding in their longbox, and my head will practically explode with envy. "How'd they get so lucky? Why can't that be mine?" If I'm not careful, I start plotting my Ocean's 11 fantasy heist; if I'm not even more cautious, I might manifest it for real.

The pounding, pulsating power of envy beats at the heart of What You Wish For, the new culinary thriller from writer/director Nicholas Tomnay (The Perfect Host), starring Nick Stahl (Sin City, Fear of the Walking Dead). We won't go too far into plot details. I would hate to rob anyone of the delicious discovery they have ahead of them with this movie, but it does involve Stah's Chef Ryan coveting his friend Jack's cushy at-home chef lifestyle. Situations place Ryan in Jack's shoes, gifting him access to all that he covets, but then he quickly learns the titular lesson.

What You Wish For is pure noir, friends. Discussing the genre with Nicholas Tomnay and Nick Stahl was a nerdy pleasure. We discuss the preparation and planning that went into inhabiting this world, how it changed their perception of the meals they devour, and why geckos make great roommates.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


What Went into What You Wish For

Brad: This is a culinary thriller. Always a treat. What was the research process for both of you to make sure that that aspect of the film got nailed?

Nicholas Tomnay: Okay, so I'll just preface this by saying I don't want to talk any spoilers, if that's all right. So we could avoid all that. So, knowing what the film was going to be about, it was just a sort of logical thing for me to kind of start researching it and just say, okay, if this is the situation and this is the scenario, and this is the region that we're in, what are they cooking? How's it going to work? And there's a scene in the movie where Ryan finally accepts that he's got to do this thing and lays out the menu, finally, halfway through the film. If you were in this situation and you were in Latin America, that's what you cook. I mean, based on my research.

Brad: And Nick, how about you?

Nick Stahl: As far as my preparation?

Brad: Yeah.

Nick Stahl: Well, so there was a little bit. There was a day when I went to a chef's house in Los Angeles, and he showed me how to use some knives, do some knife work, how to cut vegetables. I know in the film, I make an omelet at one point, so he didn't know if they were going to be seeing me do that as well. He taught me how to make an omelet, which I thought I knew how to do well. And it turns out I don't.

What I realized is that a lot more time would've been required to actually look like a really experienced chef. And so I did what I could. I tried to keep up. And there's not much on film of me actually cooking. Some of it's definitely some movie magic, some acting skills.

Brad: Yeah, I was wondering about some of those inserts. I was paying very particular attention to the omelet work.

Nick Stahl: That's what I was worried about. People were going to be paying too close attention. There are parts of the film that it's not me cooking, but I mean, there's beautiful footage of that in the kitchen. It really adds so much texture to the story, I think.

Brad: And Nicholas, I know you have been tinkering around with the themes of this film for a while. And again, without dipping into spoiler territory, can you talk a little bit about why it had to be about Ryan the chef, and not some other profession?

Nicholas Tomnay: It didn't have to be. Actually, it wasn't for a while. It was two different stories. One of them was about a girl in Palm Desert in the eighties, and I couldn't get that. And then it was a story in the fifties about a woman who was able to take the identity of another woman to avoid an arranged marriage.

And then, yeah, this was my third attempt at it. I had the idea for a while, the idea of a character who is unhappy with their life and wants to escape it and has an opportunity to take the identity of somebody else and then regrets it. So, it was just my third attempt. And then it was a sort of logical progression of like, okay, well, these two friends and they meet, and what does he do? What are they doing there? Then so, oh, they're cooking. Okay, why are they cooking? It's these sort of the questions I kept asking myself.

Brad: And does it have anything to do with the fact that your mom used to write cookbooks?

Nicholas Tomnay: Yeah, she did. That's what she did. She made cookbooks for a long time. I grew up with food. Sometimes she'd come home and she'd say, "Okay, I've got to come up with a new recipe." And so she'd make something and say, "What do you think of that?" But it's weird, she never taught me how to cook or anything. I'm not really a foodie. I kind of taught myself to cook, because I've got to cook for my kids, and so somebody has to do it, so it's me. I suppose it's probably just kicking around there in my unconscious somewhere. I don't know.

Brad: How often do you consider the item on your plate? The history that that item has gone through to get there?

Nick Stahl: Yeah, I probably don't think about that enough to be honest with you. And I'm not a big foodie type person. We were a Kraft macaroni and cheese type family. I learned to, I think, branch out a little bit and appreciate good food. But I actually ended up learning a little bit more about food in this movie than I thought I would. Yeah. But kind of new for me, this whole culinary world.

Brad: And Nicholas for you, do you ever consider the thing at the end of your fork?

Nicholas Tomnay: Yeah, I did while I was shooting this, for sure.

What You Wish For and the Noir of It All

Brad: I bet you did. I thought of a lot of noirs as I was watching this film. And the great thing about noirs is that they're morality plays and they're very inviting for the audience.

Nicholas Tomnay: It's 100% a noir movie. It's classic noir where you have a flawed character who is sort of tempted by something, their desires, and those desires end up ruining them on some level. I mean, I'm spoiling the movie a little here, and I love all that stuff. Billy Wilder particularly, and there's The Treasure of Sierra Madre, the John Huston movie. And there were so many, Kiss Me Deadly. There were just so many great noir films.

Probably as I was writing, it occurred to me, it became more noir and more noir, and so then I lent into it. And then the ending just felt like it had to be that way, because I also didn't feel like in this era that we're living in we needed to have an ending where it was like, oh, it's okay. Don't worry about it. It didn't feel like that's the ending we need right now. We need something a little bit more cautionary.

Brad: And Nick, for you, somebody who is stepping into the shoes of somebody who is stepping into the shoes of someone, how do you relate to the character? Or do you even need to relate to the character?

Nick Stahl: Yeah, I don't know if I needed to necessarily. I definitely did. And I think Ryan's a very relatable character. I thought it was a lot of fun playing the role. And the fact that Ryan is kind of discovering so much as the audience is, and he's figuring out, he's making it up as he goes along. And the film really keeps you on the edge of your seat in that way from an audience perspective.

It is kind of a classic story of this guy who's kind of doing this kind of Faustian bargain and compromising who he is for this kind of fantasy life or what he thinks he wants. It made sense when I read it, I think I could definitely relate. And I would imagine a lot of people won't be able to.

Brad: One of the delights of the movie is the hints of background information that we get about Ryan. We start to sense the pressures that are weighing on him that might lead him to make the decisions that he makes in this movie. Why was it important to have hints of those external pressures for him to go this path that he does take?

Nicholas Tomnay: Well, if we didn't, then I don't think that we'd be on his side when it started. Everything, before he meets Imogen (Tamsin Topolski), is sort of there to arrange the pieces of the chess board, so to speak, and say, this is the playing field. And so we understand Ryan, we understand what he's running from, we understand his envy, we understand all those things. We understand why he would get himself into these positions. So when he does get himself into that position, you're like, right.

I mean, I had never read The Talented Mr. Ripley. I'd only seen it. And then when I came up with this idea, I thought, this sounds a lot like The Talented Mr. Ripley. So I should read that book. And I read that book, and now that book is one of my favorite books of all time. That's an incredible book. I mean, the movie's great, but the book is sensational. And the thing that struck me about that book is that you're reading it and he's talking to you, Ripley's talking to you, and he's like, "And so-and-so happened and this happened. And so I just had to kill him." And I'm like, for sure, of course, you had to kill him because I understand all these things that were set up beforehand.

And so that's why the film is like that at the front. Ryan keeps continually committing to this, and hopefully, you understand the breadth of why he's doing that. And it means that you can, without restraint, just jump on board with him and go, "Well, yeah, of course, I get it." You got this, this happened, and that happened. Of course, you would. What's going to happen next? That was the hope, anyway.

What Comes After What You Wish For

Brad: If we were to have a sequel to this film and continue the Adventures of Ryan, I think he could very well be much more like a Ripley character.

Nicholas Tomnay: Well, I don't think that he has that in him in a way. He's a passenger. He's a passenger of this experience. Imogen is driving the bus in this movie, I think.

Nick Stahl: Yeah, Ryan's forced into a corner. He doesn't really know what he's signing up for clearly. And once he's in it, he's backed into a corner and it's kind of survival mode for him.

Brad: This is the closest I'll move to a spoiler, and we can remove it if you would like me to, but I feel like Ryan's future is Imogen. That's who he will become.

Nicholas Tomnay: Well, okay. So that's a really interesting point. It's a really good question or comment because I don't think that Imogen is a villain at all. I don't see her in that way at all. I see her as, and it was really important that also that the actor playing the character was younger than Nick. So the way I see it is that Imogen was 27... Tasmin was 27 when she did that, right? And I believe that when the character was like 21 or something, she found herself in a similar situation to Nick's character Ryan. And she's just extremely capable and a very rational person.

And over the years has figured out how to compartmentalize what she's doing. And then she gives that big speech at the beginning of the film where she's saying, "Look, we're no worse than these people or this or that. And in fact, we're actually doing good. If you view it in this context, we're actually helping people." And I believe that that's what she tells herself. It's interesting, and then you have a character like Jack who was absolutely not able to do that clearly. And so the question is, yeah, what is Ryan's future? Because he's clearly, I mean, again it is spoilerish, but at the end of the film, Ryan is in a different situation and in a very long-term situation.

Nick Stahl: Yeah. Her monologue is, I will say, is very persuasive. She makes quite a case for the morality in the movie. And I mean, as an actress too, I think she just nailed the character in general. But that monologue, I remember her showing up and not missing a beat. I mean, she had it down, man.

Brad: Yeah, it's an incredible scene. And it's hard to argue with her numbers. And I think when I look at the film, we can talk about the characters and the reasoning that they do and the rationalization that they go through. Ultimately, thematically, I feel like the film is about exploitation and imperialism, and in some ways, points the finger at the audience by saying, you're part of this too.

Nicholas Tomnay: I think maybe, yes, it is for sure. And because we value it, we value wealth, we value power, we value external success more than anything. Money is more important than anything, culturally. So, on that level, for sure.

Brad: And you have to sell the opulence of this beautiful house and this vista. You don't name the country that they're at, but I believe you shot in Colombia?

Nicholas Tomnay: Yeah.

Brad: Talk a little bit about making that place look as amazing as it does.

Nicholas Tomnay: That was a combination of the house itself and I think the garden, probably. The gardens in that house were exceptional. Manicured, beautiful gardens and the open plan of the house. The house itself looks incredible. And we had a very, very talented production designer working with us as well. She and I had a long pre-production process of talking about the style and the whole vibe of the movie. And she coined the phrase Tropical Hitchcock. She was like, "Ah, we're making Tropical Hitchcock." And I'm like, yeah, I guess so. And then once that was coined, then that became what we were trying to do.

So I love Alfred Hitchcock's work, particularly from 48 to 59. And the movie Rope, in particular, felt very, very similar to what we were doing here in terms of the style. I mean, obviously it's a contemporary film and everything, but the way that it's art directed, it kind of feels, it's very heavily stylized in terms of the colors and all that sort of stuff. It's not like a Hitchcock movie, but it kind of feels like it's wading in some of the same stylistic waters.

Brad: Nick, put me in that house. What was it like to be on that set, to be on that location?

Nick Stahl: From the simple caveman actor perspective, it was just a gorgeous location. Nick was speaking about what he added and what the production design added and stuff, but I mean, it's just such an amazing place. Some of this stuff could easily be like CGI. And we were in these mountains filming and they found this incredible house that was just - it lent itself so well to the story. To the script. No, it's just gorgeous. And we had scorpions too, that was new.

Brad: No, thank you.

Nick Stahl: Yeah. Do you remember that scorpion, Nick?

Nicholas Tomnay: Yeah.

Nick Stahl: Black Scorpion.

Nicholas Tomnay: Yeah, I do. And you had an iguana as a flatmate, right? As a roommate?

Nick Stahl: It was like a gecko.

Nicholas Tomnay: Gecko.

Nick Stahl:It was geckos. Yeah, at night we had lizards and we had a lot of creatures. It was cool.

Brad: Geckos I could handle, scorpions I don't know so much about.


What You Wish For is now playing in select theaters, On Demand, and On Digital.


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