Alex Moreland chats with filmmaker Daniel Fitzsimmons about his new movie Native, his love of thoughtful science fiction, and more…
How did production on Native first start?
How far back do you want me to go?
The very beginning!
The very beginning, that’s great. To give you a brief run through chronologically of where we were at and how we came to the screen play that we shot… I had recently moved back from California to London, and I had been at USC doing my Masters in Film Production and specialising in directing, and I had come back with a view to making a low budget film. We’d raised a certain amount of money on another project, but we didn’t get anywhere near the target that we were looking for to make the film; it was a completely different project to Native, it was an ensemble cast with loads of locations. We didn’t get anywhere near what we needed to raise, so we had this pot of money and we were going to lose it. When I say ‘we’, it was me, Neil, who’s my writing partner and Jim, who’s my Dad, and we formed a production company together when I returned from L.A.
We sat down and we looked at the options, and I had this sci-fi idea for a short film, and Neil was convinced it was a bigger idea than just a short film. Short film’s great, but they don’t really have an audience, so I didn’t take too much convincing really, so we expanded upon the themes of the short film, which were loosely based on Heinlein’s short story called Time for the Stars, which talked about the Twin Paradox where he… Do you know about the Twin Paradox?
No, I’m not familiar with it.
So, the Twin Paradox. It’s to do with the space time continuum, and basically in layman’s terms it’s that if you’re travelling very fast, time is slower for you. You have a twin on earth, and a twin who blasts into space at the speed of light, and for 20… I’m not sure of the maths, but for about 20 years say, and when they come back the twin who’s been space travelling will have aged five years, but the twin who stayed on earth will have aged 90 years, or a 100 years or whatever it is. It’s this weird scientific paradox that he used in that novel, which is a great novel, but it kind of gets into incest and great-granddaughters marrying the great-uncles and stuff like that! We didn’t go there, but that was the jumping off point for us, so we expanded upon that and it became its own thing.
I was teaching in London at the time, I started writing it in the evenings around Christmas time in 2013 I would say, then we got a draft together which was… It was much longer than the shooting script because I’d written a whole sequence at the start of the movie, and at the bookend of what the movie turned out to be, one was on this fantastically alien world at the start, and the other was a kind of action sequence on it, which we had to chop into because we simply didn’t have the money to do what we wanted to do there.
We really did have to compromise on the beginning and the end, so we got something that was filmable for the budget that we had in about April or May. Then we got involved with Jen Handorf, the co-producer, who’s made a lot of low budget indie films, particularly horror films in London and she had a crew of people who came on board including John Revell, the production designer and also the costume. Colin Smith, who planned out a lot of the visual effects. Nick Gillespie who shot the first half of the film, and Billy Jackson who took over from there. Nick had to leave the shoot half way through to go and work on High Rise, but then we found Billy.
So through Jen we had access to this great bunch of crew who loved the script and were keen to work on it at affordable rates, which was good. Then we shot the whole thing in that summer in Dagenham with the help of the Barking and Dagenham Film Office. We built the spaceship in a disused leisure centre in Barking and we shot some exteriors of Barking as well. That was a really tight shoot, it was like 11 days on the spaceship, and two in Barking I think. Then we spent about nine months in post-production with … We did the visual effects in one area of Beck’s Hospital in Manchester and one in London, and we did the sound design in California. Kim Patrick was the sound designer, she was in my class at USC.
She’s at Skywalker Ranch now, so she did all of that, and she got us a really good deal mixing out in Burbank on a stage doing nights, which is tough, but that’s the bargain that you get into at this level of budget. Then we finished it, it must have been… I think it must have been about the end of 2015, and then 2016 we started on the festival run, which has come full circle now, so we’re finally releasing it in February. It’s been a long old journey, and the film has had a long old life up to this point, even though only festival audiences have seen it really, but it did really well at the festivals that it was at. It won some awards, which was nice. I got to travel and meet the people who really know film at its most pure, really knowledgeable people as well who say nice things about your work, which is quite nice when you get to travel.
So that’s where we’re at, and then we’re releasing on the 23rd, we’re doing a world premiere at the Prince Charles in London, releasing in some cinemas around the country that weekend, and then going straight on video on demand and a few platforms, so that’s a potted history for you.
That was very detailed, thank you! So, let’s talk about the main themes of the film. What do you think Native says about identity and individuality? Because those are the big ideas I picked up on while I was watching it.
Yeah, yeah. It’s individuality versus the collective and trying to make sense of that. That was my way in, and in finding a way into that, because we had to set up a society and within that society we had to make sense of these two characters, and who they would be given the context of this hive-like society where the collective it’s all for the greater good. One of the mantras in the film is “for the good of us all” and that kind of trumps everything. I was doing a lot of reading into North Korea, and one of the things that I was kind of fixated on was people who’d left North Korea and how their view of the world outside of North Korea, everything that they’d been indoctrinated into didn’t always keep to the same script.
There were always defectors who kind of did have a fondness, or at least a deeply embedded loyalty into the regime that they’d been brought up in, and what I wanted to do with the two main characters was to pit those two separate reactions against each other, to have someone who was kind of enlightened by being outside of the hive, versus somebody who became more loyal to it. I’ve travelled a lot you see, and I’ve seen it happen both ways as well, it’s like you’re never more loyal to the place that you’re from than when you’re in an environment which is completely alien to you. I can sit here now with my mates and I can tell you all the things that are wrong with Liverpool and Liverpudlians, but if I was sitting with a group of people not from Liverpool I’ll defend it to the hilt.
All those things, that kind of sense of an identification with a place, what happens when that’s pulled out from under you, what happens when everything that you’ve based your ideological existence on, what happens when that betrays you, which the Eva character has to deal with that at some point in the film. So that idea of what it is to be individual, how to define yourself outside of the context, it’s quite overbearing, I really wanted to look into. That in turn kind of lead into me realising that it was speaking to a social media age as well, where everything’s immediate, and everything… You can gauge anyone’s reaction to a current event, straight away.
There’s no filtering process, there’s no cooling off period, there’s no… The dust never settles. The characters in the film are from a society who are constantly connected to each all the time through telepathy. So, there’s no need for expression, there’s no need for art, there’s no need to make sense of the abstract, because there is no abstract, because everybody’s feeling what everyone else is feeling all the time anyway. In that sort of immediacy there’s a numbness, which I found quite an interesting subject to explore through, through these two characters.
Rupert [Graves, one of the movie’s leads] immediately got it when I sent it to him, he immediately got it. He loves music and he’s a musician himself. He’s got a little recording studio in his back garden! It shines with him, that idea of that sense of discovery, hearing music for the first time and not know what it is. It takes you back to when you… I don’t know, 14 and you’re having a drink for the first time and that feeling of “What’s this?” – those sorts of things I thought were really interesting to explore in a sci-fi universe where I could play with the rules a little bit, and I could bend them to make sense of the story that I wanted to tell with these characters.
There’s a lot in it, even throughout the festival process, when we were doing Q and A’s, things like themes were in there that I probably hadn’t even realised that were in there such as grief, loneliness, isolation. Things that kind of were a by-product of the situation that the characters are in, in the film and I’d be referencing other films, when in reality when it’s viewed on its own terms, those things they’re held more starkly I think to somebody who isn’t as immersed in it as I was as the writer and the director. That’s always quite interesting, that’s always a nice conversation to have with someone to find out new things about the film you spent four years working on.
Some of these themes have a long history in science fiction. In that context, what do you think makes Native stand out amongst the rest of the genre?
Well I know sci-fi and I was a massive Star Wars fan as a kid, and I still am. I suppose I’ve got quite bored of the sort of sci-fi that was being served up. I loved the original Alien films, but I didn’t like Prometheus, and it was around the same time I saw that I was working on this, and the bigger the sci-fi got the messier it seemed to become to me, and it got to the point where I wasn’t enjoying sci-fi as much as I actually do now. I think I have turned a little bit more, with things like Blade Runner coming out, and there’s room for that intellectual sci-fi again, which at the time of writing this goes back to late 2013. There didn’t seem to be… I’d seen Monsters which I loved, and I wanted to do something that was really, really self-contained. It was all about the ideas, and obviously the budget sort of dictated that to a point. Without being theatrical about it, I wanted to do something that was more rooted in the sci-fi fiction of Heinlein or Lem or even Philip K. Dick.
Those novels, sort of taking them as the inspiration, rather than taking maybe the bigger budget sci-fi block busters which were more prevalent at the time, as inspiration. I think where this is different is that it’s an unusual film because of its limitations. I think generally in film making limitations are liberating. Frustrating at times, frustrating most of the time I would say, but if I take a step back and dispassionately look at it, and compare it to something with similar ambitions such as maybe like a dark star or something like that, it’s something that I can be really proud of, it’s something that I can point to and say to a sci-fi audience, [an audience] that has also told me in return [that they enjoyed it].
We’ve premiered at Boston SciFi Film Festival, which is the most knowledgeable sci-fi crowd you’re going to get. They’ve said to me, “This is completely new, we’re not getting this” – so, if anything, it stands alone. Maybe it’s got more in common with films that were made before I was born even, I don’t know. The story telling has to be unique for it to be engaging, because it’s a small film by its very nature, it’s not going to wow you with bangs and whistles and special effects, and sword fighting and space ships flying round the place. It needs to have something immersive, which I think it does achieve that for me. I really am very keen in all of my film making to have a sense of being swallowed up by the environment of it, and the oppressive environment in which the film takes place is exactly what we wanted, you know? I hope that answers your question.
Yeah, that was another good answer. On a slightly separate note, regarding the production side of things – am I correct in thinking this is your first feature length film?
It is yeah.
Was there much of a learning curve there?
I think there still is. I’m currently developing three other things at the moment. Everything I’ve learnt on Native is carried forward through even working at script stage. Yeah, it was tough because we had a limited amount of time. We were working in a controlled location, we built the space ship as I say, so we did have control of that, so we were able to plan quite well, but it was a challenge and I think all of the stuff that I learnt would be applied more to do in the planning stage on subsequent projects.
I think I would have liked to have been a little bit more prepared in pre-production, but I was working in a school and I had rent to pay. It’s not an excuse, but hopefully on a bigger production where you’ve got that time, and that little bit of extra money to buy that luxury of being able to not have to work at a million miles an hour all the time, that allows you that little opportunity that I think you need to just take a step back and go, “Okay, is there another way of looking at this?”
I think pre-production’s massive really, everything in post has been fine. In production, it went as well as it could have done, there were hairy moments, but there’s always going to be, no matter how much money you have, because you’re always trying to push it that little bit extra. Always trying to take a little bit more than you’re probably entitled to in terms of what you can get on in the camera, but yeah I think it would be to have more time in planning, because on the day that’s where it becomes magic. That’s where you can work with the actors, and the crew can have ideas and things can change a little bit more, but the more time you spend on preparation I think the more of a solid footing you have to veer away from that when you’re actually in the eye of the storm.
Is there anything that you can tell us about what you’re working on at the minute, or is that top secret still?
I’m working on an adaptation of an Irish novel, but I can’t tell you what it is, unfortunately. Also, I’m writing something which is quite close to my personal history based in Liverpool, but again because of where that is, I shouldn’t really say anymore on that.
Fair enough, fair enough.
At the moment, I’m kind of more consumed by Native, making sure that the premier goes well, making sure there’s many people aware of it and get to see it, or rent it, or come and see it at the cinema which is how I’d like people to see it. Once February is out the way, then I think it’ll be onto pastures new hopefully.
We’ll have to do another interview when the time comes!
Of course! Anytime.
Just a final question to round everything off and bring it all together. What is the most important thing that you’d like someone to take away from watching Native?
That there is a place in modern cinema for intelligent sci-fi, for film making that has ideas and thought at its centre, rather than cheap thrills and fireworks. That it’s all about story, I think that gets forgotten a lot in cinema now, I think people go … And not to decry these films, but things like Fast and Furious and Transformers, and even some of the crash, bang, wallop horror films, it’s almost like the story’s an afterthought. It’s like flashing lights and noises becomes the attraction, and as someone who lives cinema, who was seduced by cinema from an early age I think that’s a great shame if that’s all there is.
If people take anything from this, and anything from its relative success, from its tiny, tiny origins, is that if you’ve got a good story with good characters and good actors, it can work, there’s room for it. It’s not all about the finance, the balance sheet, because that can get depressing when you start to watch films that look like they’ve been made by an accountant. So, if anything, I hope that gives people of a similar mind to myself that there is hope for good storytelling on a small scale.
Daniel Fitzsimmons, thank you very much!
Native will be in cinemas and available on demand from 23rd February.