Ricky Church chats with Captive State director Rupert Wyatt…
Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt recently had his latest film, Captive State, released in theaters from Focus Features. The film, starring John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), Vera Farmiga (Godzilla: King of the Monsters), Alan Ruck (Sierra Burgess is a Loser) and Jonathan Majors (White Boy Rick). The film follows an alien invasion where a race called the Legislators has successfully overthrown humanity and governments worldwide are cooperating with them by turning the planet into one large police state as the Legislators terraform the planet. Meanwhile, a resistance movement called Phoenix is rising and planning their next move to beat back the invaders and retake their home.
Flickering Myth was able to speak with Wyatt about his inspiration to put a twist on the alien invasion genre by focusing on the aftermath of humanity’s defeat as well as the parallels to real life events. We also chatted about working with such a all-star ensemble, the film’s approach of examining regular citizens as resistance members as opposed to the leadership, storytelling to a modern audience and the influence he gained from classic films to write Captive State. Check our out interview below…
Captive State is a bit of a reversal of most alien invasion movies where the invasion is already over, Earth is conquered and governments are fully cooperating. What was so appealing to you on this twist to the genre?
Well, I guess it all depends on how one comes at it. For me, I never set out to make an alien invasion film nor indeed a science fiction film if that makes sense. It was always to me about exploring the notion of a political change of affairs within this country and society and what that would mean for those living in a new world order, both dissidents and collaborators. I wanted to do that in a society that felt accessible, plausible and relevant to today’s audience so rather than make a film about the American Revolution or where Britain wants to push us in the near future, that’s where it became science fiction.
One of the interesting aspects of the film is it’s really got a boots on the ground feel to both sides of the conflict. We never really get a good look at the leadership at either the Phoenix resistance or the occupying government. What led you to focus more of the foot soldiers or John Goodman’s Mulligan?
Seeing things, I guess, from a perspective that’s wholly human and trying to put the macro in the corner of one’s eye if that makes sense and really play out what is a world changing event, but from the point of view of people that only really get a small piece of the true story or the full picture as it were. How that then relates to their own personal decisions and moral choices that they have to make. If you look at any major event, it’s only through the power of television or media that we have the opportunity to see things from multiple perspectives, but if we experience something firsthand, we have a very different experience of a train crash if we’re the passenger than if we’re watching it on the news. For me, it was about being on the train.
For sure. Now you’ve got a pretty big cast in this film built up from John Goodman, Ashton Sanders, Vera Farmiga. What was it like to direct that group?
Depends on who you’re talking about! I mean, they’re all so different. Everyone has a different approach to things. I would say that I am extremely lucky and I hope to continue to be so as a filmmaker to work with really interesting and compelling actors that come to the material because, no matter how many pages that character crosses, they’re looking at the role as their own protagonist and how they can bring a very particular and unique quality and life to something. “There are no small parts. Only small actors.” From being able to cast an ensemble of this caliber is a real luxury because every day I work with a different person with a different wealth experience and our intention was always to cover those characters in as quickly as we possibly can because, as you saw in the film, they only have a very small amount of screentime to put across not only their own personal story, but also how they play as part of the spider’s web.
A moment ago you were talking about the political aspect of Captive State, which is one thing I thought the film did well in mixing the genres of alien invasion, but with espionage and political thriller taking precedence. There’s quite a lot of detail in how the resistance operates through the passage of information or activation of the agents. What inspired you to make it just as much an espionage or political thriller as alien invasion film?
It was just personal preference to be honest. As a storyteller I was more interested in exploring new ground which was the idea of what it means to be a dissident/militant/terrorist/freedom fighter, whatever you want to call that person, but not in a overt conflict sense, not in a war, but more in the sense of the French Resistance fighting Nazis under occupation. Basically people who are hiding in plain sight. They have their normal lives, they go about their business in a daily fashion, but ultimately they are subversives and are looking to rise up and strike in a wholly malevolent and authoritarian power. I was fascinated by the mechanics of that. I think the opportunity to see how real world settings and scenarios can sort of tie into an organization that is, in the eyes of the sum, a terrorist organization that is looking to strike at the seat of government and how that might play out in a near-future world. That to me was more interesting than perhaps the more War of the Worlds, individual heroes journey to fight back.
One of the themes of the movie is that of complicity as Mulligan and his superiors and other government officials are complicit in the aliens goals and actively help them and find dissidents. As you said, it echoes real life historical events like the French Resistance. What made you want to explore this theme of complicity and were there other historical events like the French Resistance that you wanted to echo?
The Chile regime was a definite reference point in terms of looking at the lives of activists and dissidents who were living under what was essentially an authoritarian regime that was there by illegal means. I think the stakes are so extraordinary, people who have so much to lose I think in general find it harder to rise up. They are, invariably more often than not, likely to become the collaborators in order to safeguard what they have. Those with families, those with liabilities, those who can be coerced are the ones who follow the rules and then the ones with the least to lose, in the case of the French Resistance the railroad workers, the communists, those on the margins of society by way of sexual orientation, those to me are the most likely heroes. Certainly in a lot of modern cinema you don’t see them being hailed as the heroes, but invariably in real life they are. I thought that was quite interesting because they are flawed, fully rounded interesting characters in real life so why not make them one’s protagonists rather than those who are special, those with supernatural skills and things like that. I think that’s a more common thread among modern, certainly Hollywood, storytelling.
Watching the movie, I got a sense of an updated version of a classic spy movie from the 70’s. Is there any particular movie or director from that era that you took inspiration from when thinking of this story and the way to tell it?
I think two films in particular. One is Army of Shadows, the French film by Jean-Pierre Melville, I think in terms of using the hyper-narrative approach to multiple characters, really not having one true protagonist but a number. Its a challenge. I think modern audiences expect and like to invest emotionally in a simple narrative trajectory in the Western sense. You know, the hero’s journey has become so popular in modern day storytelling at the cinema and I think its hard to look at it from a different perspective and multiple perspectives. Army of Shadows does it, I think, incredibly successfully. It’s emotionally quite a distant film when you watch it initially, but my personal opinion about it is it coalesces by the end of the film and has real emotional weight. It was always my intention to do something similar to that.
Battle of Algiers would be the other main reference film in terms of being able to explore both sides. Both the collaborators and the dissidents, or in the case of Battle of Algiers the French occupiers as well as the Algerian militants, and trying to do so in a relatively even handed way. Obviously our empathy lies with the dissidents in our story. More often than not, we tend to side with the underdog so it was definitely the way into those characters for me. At the same time, Mulligan is by no means an overt antagonist. He’s not evil by any stretch. He’s a man who is really struggling with the moral weight on his shoulders. You have a much clearer understanding of who he truly is by the end of the film.
We’ve had, obviously, so many films with aliens that one could argue we’ve seen it all with alien designs, but the Legislators have a fairly unique look to them in how they appear and move. The same thing goes for their Hunter soldiers. Can you talk about the designs for the aliens and how your team created them?
Yeah, it is hard to sort of evolve conceptually what an alien life form should look like. When I started I built it on logic and plausibility also as much as one’s needs for what these aliens are here to do. They’re insectoid, they come from a carbon-based planet, they’re looking to terraform us. I was inspired by the idea that they were wasps in relation to us as bees. Once I started thinking that way, what if we as the bees were willing to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good while they’re looking to colonize and terraform us. That’s when their ships and transport vehicles started to take a more rudimentary and hive-like shape and silhouette. There’s a sculptor by the name of Anthony Gormady, a British sculptor, I was inspired by a lot of his work in terms of how their outer shell has that spike-like quality. In our case, I related that to their emotions so their ability to, by way of temperament, change their outer shells to fit their levels of aggression.
One of the most intriguing elements was the score by Rob Simonsen. Did you two collaborate on how the music should sound? How did Simonsen create the score?
We did, yeah. We came at it from an interesting way, something that’s increasingly common and actually the norm nowadays when one starts a film score which is to use tech music in early cuts. I’ve done that pretty much in every other film I’ve made previously. There’s a lot to be said for it because it gives you a very quick shorthand to create mood, but there’s a real danger to it as well because it lock you into the style of your timing in the edit and it also sometimes sort of dictates to your composer a very specific book of rules that puts them in a box. There’s no coincidence that a lot of modern scores sound quite similar because they’re always echoing something that happened previously. I had the luxury with this and I approached Rob and it’s a lot more work for a composer to blue sky a score, but that’s exactly what we did. We started with zero, we started with the picture and talked about instrumentation and the tone, how we wanted to approach it. Gradually over time it evolved into quite an electronic score because it felt like what I wanted to achieve was to give the characters in our film an engine, not only a ticking clock, but also a rhythm by which to travel through the world and that’s when Rob really took over and built the score that exists.
Many thanks to Rupert Wyatt for taking the time for this interview.