Director Nicholas Tomnay Talks What You Wish For

Photo: Courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Drawing inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, Nicholas Tomnay’s gripping feature film What You Wish For is a delectable full-course meal packed with surprise after surprise. It follows Nick Stahl’s Ryan, a professional chef who escapes his gambling problems by visiting an old college friend in Latin America. Everything isn’t as it appears, as Ryan quickly learns what he’s running from will catch up to him eventually. After a devastating tragedy, Ryan must do whatever he can to survive…even if that means murder. 

Nicholas Tomnay’s prior works include 2010’s The Perfect Host and the 2006 TV mini-series Two Twisted. Tomnay recently spoke with Film Obsessive’s Lilli Keeve about his latest thriller What You Wish For, a 2023 Official Selection at Fantastic Fest, Fantasia, and FrightFest. The transcript following the video has been edited for space and clarity.

Film Obsessive: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I’m just truly excited to just kind of delve in here. I wanted to start by saying congratulations on an incredible film. I never knew what to expect, and I love that as a viewer. I just enjoyed it from start to finish.

I noticed parallels to
The Talented Mr. Ripley, the themes of wanting what you don’t have and trying to escape from one’s past by assuming another’s identity. And I was just kind of curious how this kind of came about for you or in constructing Ryan’s personal narrative. And, also, how did the idea for the film come about in general, and what movies inspired you to make this one?

Nicholas Tomnay: That’s so interesting that you mentioned that book because I actually had never read that book, but I had seen The Talented Mr.Ripley; I’d seen the film. And when I kind of when I realized that I had this story… “Oh, it could be like this.” And then I thought, “This sounds a lot like The Talented Mr. Ripley.” So I thought, I should read that book because I don’t want to copy it. And then I read that book. And then I suddenly was obsessed with Patricia Highsmith. I just love that book so much that I just kept reading all the books. And so this film is kind of…I had the idea before I read that book, but I absolutely had her in mind as a sort of spiritual figure that I was kind of working towards.

But it’s also, I guess, inspired by also Albert Hitchcock a lot, especially the movie Rope, because of the way that he uses dramatic irony in that film where the film opens, and you have a crime, and you have these people that have done this crime, and you absolutely have all the information as the viewers. And then there’s this suspense thinking, “Are they going to get away with it or not?” Also, it probably might have been the first time this happened in American cinema, I don’t know, but you have antagonists as protagonists, which was very unusual I’m sure in 1948. So I just love the whole vibe of that movie, and the suspense and Jimmy Stewart’s performance.

So that movie…I was thinking about with this one. I guess I just sort of I had this idea of somebody unhappy with their life and wanted to trade places with someone else, had an opportunity to do that. And then after they do that, they regret it. That idea was with me for a while. And I actually tried to make it…Initially, it was a story about a young woman in Palm Desert in the 1980s, who was a waitress and was having to deal with all these yuppies and how that’s kind of that was the beginning of that. And that didn’t work. And so then there was another story about someone on a boat, and that didn’t work. And then finally, I actually went on a high school reunion kind of thing with some old friends. And it was just weird being seeing them again after so long. And, so then, I started thinking about that idea of reconnecting with old friends. And yeah, so all that kind of coalesced, and that’s how the script came about.

Wow. That’s so amazing. And I definitely love this kind of rekindling between Ryan and Jack and just the awe—the pure awe—that Ryan is in from the moment he steps into that house, and just seeing how everything unfolds and the shock and kind of Ryan, in a sense, does become an antagonist…because he has no other choice, in a way. So, I thought that there’s a lot of there’s a lot of layers here, which I really appreciated.

Nicholas Tomnay: Thank you. Yeah. I mean, I mean, the idea was that the film is subjective and that you’re with Ryan – he is a flawed guy, right? But he’s not he’s certainly not evil, but does he has sort of loose morals, I’d say. And so, but hopefully, you know, at the beginning of the movie, we’re kind of setting up all the information that you need as an audience to understand to kind of hitch along with him because I’ve often thought about characters and books and movies and stuff is that you can really have any character as long as you understand the motivation you can have a despicable…A great example of that is Breaking Bad.

You understand Walter’s plight and his circumstances. So as he gets further and further into darkness, you understand why he’s doing it. Even though it’s kind of frightening on some level, you absolutely understand it and you kind of go along with him, which is maybe exhilarating too, to sort of hitch a ride with the character you normally wouldn’t associate with.

Right, right. So speaking of Ryan, I have to bring up Nick Stahl. Personally, I’ve been a fan of him for a long time, and he has such a remarkably nuanced, grounded, and kind of quiet, powerful aspect to this role. I was just wondering: did you have him in mind while writing his character? 

Nicholas Tomnay: No, not at all. All the characters were written in the script as sort of in my imagination. And then there’s I think the process of, “Okay, so this is the essence of this character, and then we have to cast that person.” And that’s obviously the challenge of casting anything. And then, I was thinking about who could play Ryan. And then I saw Nick and actually had an instant reaction to seeing his more recent work. And I thought, yeah, he would be amazing because the character of Ryan is I think this movie is a movie in the sense that it is about a flawed character who is sort of gets overwhelmed by his own desires and pays the price for it kind of thing. And, I think Nick is a great actor for that kind of role because he’s not afraid to go into those sort of murky dark areas, but he also retains a relatability always. I feel like he’s quite an open person. And so I feel like he allows the audience to…he doesn’t push the audience away, which is what the character to be.

I wanted to specifically bring up a line that really stood out to me, and it kind of carries the weight, a lot of the weight in the film in terms of morality and ethics. That’s when Jack says: The reward always matches the atrocity.” And I was just kind of curious where did that come from, because it’s such a powerful line, and it’s obviously a brutal foreshadowing of what Ryan ends up doing for money and to kind of protect his…just kind of what he’s running away from and kind of to appease that guilt in a way, and I was just curious where that line came from.

Nicholas Tomnay: I just wrote that line. That’s an expression of the theme of the movie. I think probably maybe it lands with you because that’s a good summation of what the movie is about. And I had written that, I think in the third draft or something. So I had already written out the script and had the story and when I got to that scene again, I knew that that character Jack needed to express basically the character Jack has had this experience again and again and again and again and again. So he knows he’s absorbed this life that he’s living. And so this was his summation of what’s going on. And he tells it straight to Nick, “Yo, man this is…” Then Nick still is like, “Oh, whatever. I still want it.”

Jack dropped so many hints. Upon a second rewatch, it all comes so clearly together for me as a viewer, and everything just kind of ties up really well there. So I wanted to ask, are you a chef or what kind of research did you do?

No. I cook for my family, right? So that’s what I do. I have three children and they always want to eat at night, and I’m endlessly trying to come up with new things to cook for them. So that’s my experience of cooking. My mother made cookbooks. That was what she did for a living. And so I grew up around food, but it wasn’t I’m not sort of a foodie necessarily.

It was more about the idea about a character being envious for another character. And then I was like, Well, it was a series of questions: “Well, okay, what is he envious of why is he envious” and then sort of figuring out, “Okay, so it’s this amazing sort of event. And then, okay, so what’s the event? And why would there be an event?” Oh, maybe he’s a chef, and then it kind of was like that.

Film Obsessive: Well, this is all the time we have, but thank you so much, Nicholas, and thank you for creating something original and thought-provoking. I can’t wait for audiences to see it and revel in it, and I’m looking forward to your future projects.

Nicholas Tomnay: Thank you so much, Lilli. I enjoyed talking to you. 

Written by Lilli Keeve

Lilli has had a passion for movies her entire life. She has a BS in Film Studies with an emphasis in Film Analysis and Theory from Portland State University in the beautiful downtown Portland, Oregon. Lilli has an AA degree in English from West Los Angeles College in Culver City, CA, known as the Heart of Screenland.

She has also done freelance writing for Looper, Pinnacle Magazine, and Film Daily and has her own film review blog. When she’s not rewatching her favorite films or searching for a new TV show to binge, she’s reading or taking photographs.

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