The original / earlier draft(s) of the movie's screenplay had the character of Kelly Robinson, who was later cast with Eddie Murphy, as a basketball player, but due to Murphy's film industry stature, it was decided to change the character's sport to boxing, and the character to a boxer. However, the dialogue interchange about the Harlem Globetrotters remained in the script and the finished film.
Initially, Owen Wilson admitted he was a little nervous about performing opposite comedy legend Eddie Murphy, who was one of his comic idols. Wilson said: "This is the first time I've had to work with someone who is so incredible at improvisation. At first, it was difficult to keep up with Eddie. But slowly I started playing off his riffs. I don't know if that's what people mean by on-screen chemistry. To me it's a feeling that you are really in a groove with what the other guy is doing."
Like Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen got to spar with Eddie Murphy on-screen, a process Janssen, like Wilson, also found daunting at the outset. She said, "There's a scene in which Eddie and I first meet and he just kept tossing lines at me and I kept going with it. It was really scary, but once I got used to it, a lot of fun as well."
The characters from the I Spy (1965) television series are reversed in this movie version. In the series, Kelly Robinson (not Alexander Scott) was the white guy and the athlete, while Alexander Scott was the black guy and the non-athlete. However, in both cases though, the Bill Cosby / Eddie Murphy character was a less experienced spy than the Robert Culp / Owen Wilson character.
When making a reservation at the Hotel Gellert, Special Agent Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) supposedly speaks in Hungarian. However, his pronunciation is so poor that few, if any Hungarians, would understand what he is saying.
The palace of Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell) is actually the "Hungarian Royal Palace", which is also sometimes known as "The Buda Castle", it having being for centuries home to numerous generations of the royalty of Hungary.
Director Betty Thomas said of the movie's star-teaming of Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy: "What was so exciting about pairing Eddie and Owen was the fact that their styles are so divergent", said Thomas. "They both approach the art of comedy from a different vantage point. Eddie's energy is large, expansive, and improvisatory, while Owen's rhythms are understated and sly with a kind of Jimmy Stewart (James Stewart)-like hesitancy."
Crucial to the character mix was the right villain, Betty Thomas attested, one who was not too overt. She said: "Veteran actor Malcolm McDowell fit the role of arms dealer Arnold Gundars like a glove. He is menacing, but in a quiet, dignified way. Malcolm was totally believable as someone who could travel in international circles with ease, but could also turn around and casually slit someone's throat."
With such a unique combination of talents, according to Betty Thomas, "I knew that anything could happen and all I needed was to be open, which is not that easy in a film loaded with visual effects. As much as possible, if something wasn't working, we just kept at it until we were all comfortable with the scene or the particular bit." Thomas was being modest, insisted Producer Jenno Topping, who said: "Betty comes from a comedy background and she's great at fostering a creative feeling on the set, giving actors like Eddie Murphy the leeway to improvise and develop his interactions with Owen and the other characters."
On doing some of his own stunts, Owen Wilson admitted: "It was a blast doing some of the physical stuff and trying to be funny at the same time. It gets your adrenaline pumping when you're hanging in mid-air and riffing with one another, trying to be funny and realistic within the context of the scene."
When veteran Producer Andrew G. Vajna approached his partner Mario Kassar about transforming the popular television series I Spy (1965) into a major motion picture, Vajna came with a unique perspective to the story. "What always intrigued me about the series was that we never found out how the two characters, played by Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, met," said Vajna. "I thought a great jumping-off point for the film would be to see how this odd couple came together and became great friends."
As Producer Mario Kassar saw the original I Spy (1965) televisions series, it was less about espionage and intrigue, than a wry take on adventure and friendship, set against a colorful global backdrop. Kassar said: "It was less a show about the nuts and bolts of being a secret agent than it was about travel. They went everywhere and always seemed to be having a marvelous time. That opened up a whole world of possibilities for a film both in terms of humor and action."
In creating high-tech spy equipment for Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson to use in their escapades, Betty Thomas always made certain that they served a dual function, that they were fun, and also commented to the characters' personalities. Thomas said: "We have some cool gadgets in the film, and some not." Early in the movie, Special Agent Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) is always being handed useless equipment, with all the really inventive gadgets going to the "007"-type agent named Carlos (Gary Cole). Producer Jenno Topping said: "When Owen is given a spy camera, it's a large, clunky piece, while Carlos gets the really cool, slick, tiny camera that can be easily hidden. It commented on the fact that Owen felt insecure about the assignments he was handed, while Carlos got to cherry pick the more glamorous, high-profile gigs."
The grounds of the Buda Castle were so extensive that the production's first and second units were filming on either side of the castle at the same time. Producer Mario Kassar said: "It was an amazing feat. In some ways it was surprising that we didn't trip over each other. Action is taking place on one side, and on the other, Betty is tackling all the great character stuff."
For Director Betty Thomas, it was crucial that the action sequences connect to the movie's particular characters. Thomas said: "This isn't a James Bond movie. We didn't want the action to be generic to those types of movies, so we tried to mix our character comedy into the action sequences."
Producer Jenno Topping credited Director Betty Thomas's instincts with the movie's star pairing of Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson. Topping said: "From the moment they first interacted, I knew she was right. Owen almost immediately won Eddie's respect, which is not an easy thing to do.''
In the series, Bill Cosby portrayed a tennis pro and, for a time, the filmmakers considered making the character of Kelly Robinson in this movie version an international tennis champion. Basketball was also considered, though Producer Jenno Topping considered both sports too visually confining for the purposes of a big screen story on an international scale. It was Eddie Murphy who suggested that his character of Kelly Robinson be a championship boxer, a sport to which he was well suited. Murphy said at the time: "I've done some boxing and my father was a boxer, so I already had a background in the sport." Murphy trained in boxing for several months prior to this picture's production. Betty Thomas said: "Having an actor with a natural ability for a sport was a real asset. It opened up the film in a much more exciting way than tennis or basketball. Having Eddie getting the blows and making the hits had a lot more impact than creating shots in which I would have to rely on stunt doubles." Stunt Coordinator Brent Woolsey added: "Eddie was so coordinated that it made the boxing sequences much easier to execute."
From its inception, this movie was designed to be an action-comedy with the emphasis on comedy and character. "That's what makes the movie so much fun and so different from other spy movies", said Producer Andrew G. Vajna. "An antic spirit infuses every aspect of the story", said Betty Thomas. "We never lost sight of the comic nature of the action. We were always trying to find a humorous twist on the stunts involving the characters. We tried to be mindful that the action served to advance the relationship between the characters."
Betty Thomas worked closely with Stunt Coordinator Brent Woolsey to keep the action exciting and, at the same time, appropriate to a comedy. Thomas said: "Brent would stage the action and then the principal actors would have input and I'd suggest changes until the sequence built to the right level." Ideas came from everywhere, Thomas continued, including her First Assistant Director Richard Graves, who initially came up with the car carrier concept. Thomas also coordinated with Second Unit Director William H. Burton, Jr. She added: "At first I tried to be on the set with him after I'd finished shooting my day. But very soon you let that go and connect at dailies."
Principal photography began on September 12, 2001, in Budapest, Hungary. Taking a cue from I Spy (1965), Producer Andrew G. Vajna decided that this movie version should be set in an "exotic location to create a sense of real excitement in the audience". Vajna added: "We haven't seen Eastern Europe used much in action films, especially Hungary. Budapest has been used in movies before, but never as Budapest. It has generally been used as a substitute for Paris or some other European capital. So for the audience, it was an entirely new experience, and it just so happens that Hungary is my home."
Betty Thomas prior to production scouted locations in England, Germany, Ireland, and the Czech Republic before travelling to Hungary, the latter where the movie ultimately filmed. Thomas said of the minute she arrived in Budapest: "I knew that this was the place. It was glamorous and fresh, and they were so cooperative in giving us access to places in the city where we wanted to shoot, especially the Buda Castle, which is now the National Art Gallery (which is used in the film as villain Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell)'s palatial estate). It was the equivalent of having access to shoot at the Lincoln Memorial."
Although the filmmakers were lucky to secure the Buda Castle, the use of that location presented them with some challenges. Director of Photography Oliver Wood explained: "The Castle was honeycombed with caves underneath. So every time I wanted to bring in a heavy piece of equipment in for a shot, we ran the risk of the equipment sinking into the road down to the caves underneath."
The task of turning the national monument of the Buda Castle into villain Arnold Gundars' private palace fell to the film's Production Designer Marcia Hinds-Johnson. She said: "I wanted the place to appear lavish, but on a human scale. I didn't want Gundars' private living quarters to look institutional, so I gave it a warm, lived-in feeling with comfortable furnishings and personal touches that reflected his wealth and taste." In the larger, more open public spaces, Hinds-Johnson fashioned the film's central party scene with costumed guards on horseback, beautiful bikini-clad women in the central fountain, and a regulation size boxing ring in which Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy) and his opponent playfully spar on the eve of the big fight.
One of the most difficult sequences to film was a car chase along a narrow road next to the Danube River. The first challenge for shooting the nighttime sequence was closing down the thoroughfare and lighting it. Cinematographer Oliver Wood had to go to Germany to rent a dozen enormous lights for the sequence, which were suspended from two cranes on either side of the river.
Stunt Coordinator Brent Woolsey worked with Betty Thomas to methodically plan the elaborate sequence in which Kelly Robinson and Special Agent Alex Scott are being chased by Arnold Gundars' thugs while they are aboard an eighteen-wheel car carrier. Woolsey said: "So Eddie and Owen are on the car carrier and we're blowing cars off it onto the bad guys on this narrow road by the river. That was probably the most difficult scene to control because you had so many people and vehicles on such a narrow road."
Daunting was the filming of an elaborate two-step escape sequence where Kelly and Alex are lifted from a tramway into the air by inflating a large balloon and then dropped to safety down a tunnel into the Budapest sewer system. Stunt Coordinator Brent Woolsey outlined how it all came together: "We used two three hundred foot cranes and ran a high line between them. First we put a traveller system with a descender attached so we could glide across downtown Budapest and drop them down the tunnel." He added proudly, "We did it flawlessly."
While Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson did some of their own stunts, Stunt Coordinator Brent Woolsey imported half a dozen crackerjack stuntmen from the U.S., and another eighteen from Hungary, which presented him with another challenge, the language barrier. Instead of explaining stunts once or twice, it required five or six go-rounds, in order to make sure that everyone was on the same page and there were no mishaps.
According to the IFC website, "the movie was originally supposed to take place in Prague. Instead, the movie shot on-location in Budapest, Hungary, because the film's Producer, Andrew G. Vajna, lived there" and "was eager to use her hometown as the setting because she had never seen it depicted in a Hollywood movie before."
It was Eddie Murphy's idea to sing Marvin Gaye's famous song "Sexual Healing" for the romantic scene where Special Agent Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) romances Special Agent Rachel Wright (Famke Janssen). In this sequence, Murphy vocally coaches Wilson the words like in the classic story "Cyrano de Bergerac".
"Because Budapest city officials wouldn't allow the production to shoot the film's finale on top of a bridge over the Danube River, the bridge tower was re-created on a soundstage (using CGI greenscreen). The surrounding city skyline was patched together using 360-degree photo plates taken on the actual bridge and added to the soundstage location in post-production" according to the IPC website.
The contrast of comedic styles of Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy was appropriate to the film's story, which, according to Producer Andrew G. Vajna, "is about two characters who are totally opposite from each other and are thrown together in a situation where they must come together in order to survive. That opens the door for some wonderful, humorous interplay."
A vital element in this film's fortuitous mixture was Famke Janssen (Special Agent Rachel Wright), a sexy spy with whom Owen Wilson (Special Agent Alex Scott) is completely smitten. Producer Jenno Topping said: "Famke brought an erotic volatility to the story. She was slightly intimidating to Owen, but also intriguing and sexy."
Director Betty Thomas' flexibility even extended to the film's action sequences. While stunt doubles are often or occasionally used, Eddie Murphy insisted on doing some of his own stunts. Murphy said: "Because I was always looking for comic moments for myself and Owen that would also serve as a way of developing our relationship."
Although there is a great deal of comedy in this movie, Stunt Coordinator Brent Woolsey assured action audiences that the trip will be satisfying for them as well. He said: "We've got car chases, car wrecks, explosions, gunfire, airplanes, high falls, and fights. Just about every kind of stunt you can imagine."
There is a scene where the agents are sneaking behind the bad guys using a tracking device. They start in the hotel and get into the bath house. In reality, the hotel and the bath are in the same building.