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Interview with director Daniel Fitzsimmons on his Native film release – words Paul Risker
The independent science fiction psychological drama Native is Daniel Fitzsimmons’s directorial feature debut, for which he was the recipient of the Best New Filmmaker award at the Boston Science Fiction Festival.
Looking back on the films journey, just as the protagonists reflect on their own natures, so the filmmaker cannot help but contemplate the influence of the passage of time upon his debut feature. “We are in 2018 and I wrote Native in 2014” says Fitzsimmons. “A lot has happened since then and people will view the film differently now than they did when it was going around the festivals two years ago.”
When a signal from the other side of the universe is received by a hive like society, two scientists Cane (Rupert Graves) and Eva (Ellie Kendrick) are chosen to leave their home planet and colonize the distant world that sent the transmission. As their telepathic connection to home weakens, they begin to question the morality of their mission and the very meaning of their own existence in the isolation of deep space.
Speaking with Flux ahead of the UK theatrical release, Daniel Fitzsimmons reflected on the connection between the act of dreaming and cinema, as well as the role of inspiration in instilling within him a sense of self-belief in an alternative path to realising his vision.
In The Hero, Sam Elliott describes a film as another persons dream. Having directed your feature debut, would you describe it as such?
I think that’s very hard to say when you are involved in the making of the film. It becomes such a mechanical process that you forget that it has been dreamed up. It is interesting that you should talk about it as a dream when I have become so used to thinking of it as a fully formed entity, as a product that has had to be assembled with the involvement of a lot of people. And with the money and the infrastructure that goes around getting people to see the thing, it is easy to lose sight that it was once dreamed up. And I did have a dream about two people in a spaceship, but that was as far as the dream went. This then led into my inspiration to write the thing based on other works I’d read, and films I’d seen. But yeah, I suppose the genesis of it is in dream and the process becomes not very dreamlike, yet what you end up with it should have a dreamlike quality. I think all the best cinema does and there are some theories about the way we perceive twenty four frames a second, which relates to the way we experience dreams whilst we are sleeping. I don’t know if that has ever been proven or not, but there is something in that, in the way that we watch cinema, accept musical cues and sound design, and all of the fantastical stuff going on probably does have its appeal in the way that we dream. That is why it’s the worlds most popular art form, because we are tapping into something on a primal level that we don’t get anywhere else whilst we are awake.
Recalling the idea that there are so many archetypal stories, is one of the reasons because films like dreams serve to help us to understand our world? Hence, are the same stories told again and again in order to help each generation deal with those cyclic themes that confront each generation whether it be anxieties or questions?
Sleep is when we solve problems and sleep compartmentalises, so dreams are a way of processing experiences that we’ve had whilst awake. I think you’re right that stories are a way of examining in an abstract way, deconstructing worries, anxieties and neuroses on a personal level, but also on a societal level, and that’s why there is something therapeutic about writing and creating. Rupert Graves’s character goes through this in the film and that’s what we go through as filmmakers. There’s a need to do it, there’s something that drives you because lets be honest, there are not that many people in the world that get to make money by making films. So there’s a drive that is probably like therapy and it’s rewarding when you are able to tell a story that resonates with other people. I think that reaffirms your faith in humanity if other people have the same anxieties and worries you have, and the more people that any given story is resonating with, the more successful the story. So the need to do this, to tell stories is always going to be there.
You previously referenced the influence of literature and cinema on the initial seed of the idea for Native. Looking back, how did those influences shape the development of the idea?
First of all, sci-fi lends itself to making your own rules and one of the reasons I love sci-fi stories is that you are given a little bit of latitude to bend and break certain accepted ways of doing things. And of all the genres in film the audience will accept a lot more when you are setting up any given set of universal rules.
My background is in screenwriting and so the genesis of this came out of watching a performance in LA many years ago of Waiting for Godot. It effected me quite profoundly, staying with me, and then in subsequent years reading things such as Solaris by Stanisław Lem or Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein, mid-century sci-fi literature including some of the Philip K. Dick stuff was where I took inspiration. Sci-fi tends to lend itself to bigger budget filmmaking and I knew I couldn’t set out to write a bigger budget film as my first feature, I was more disposed to those novels and short stories where I could craft my own thing out of that in a more stripped back way. So using those story tropes, theoretical physics and psychic thought experiments as jumping off points, felt a more achievable way of going about creating a story that would be able to live by its own rules, and not have to compete with universe building franchises, the type of which dominate sci-fi at the moment. And after having said all that, you see something like Moon and you go: Okay, well I think this can be done. I think there is a place for this type of sci-fi again. That’s why I felt the low budget British film Monsters shot in Central America gave me a little bit of encouragement something that didn’t necessarily have to play by the accepted Hollywood rules of the time could be done.
Short stories are built around concepts and Native by way of your desire to circumvent restraints is a concept film that echoes the short fiction that inspired it. How would you respond to that interpretation of the film?
I think it’s a positive thing. The more you can distill a story into a neat concept, the more you can condense the idea into a very short sentence, then the stronger that idea is. The heart of our story was always quite easy to communicate to the people who came on board to make the film, and I always viewed that as a strength because I like simplicity in everything I do. I like clean lines and neatness because if you can start off from a point of clarity, then as long as you have a clear idea of what your story is, you can allow the more complex and nuanced ideas to gestate in the background. And if you can tell it simply in quite an efficient way, then that allows and gives all of the people you are collaborating with on the project the freedom to explore the complexities on a more subconscious level, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious? So I am a big fan of brevity, and if a film can be ninety minutes great! One hundred minutes, great! Going over an hundred minutes you really have to deserve that, and I do think film is an art form that requires discipline, and the more disciplined you can be the better your work will be in the end.
A fundamental collaborative relationship in cinema is that of the filmmaker to the audience, but equally narrative and themes, such as the grief arc explored here in Native have a seemingly organic authorship role. The collaborative structure is therein a reciprocative one between narrative, filmmaker and audience.
A film can only exist if the audience connects with the characters. No matter the film, that has to work, and everything else is secondary. It would have been nicer to have had a bigger budget to build a more impressive spaceship, to spend more time on certain sequences at the start and the end of the film, more extras, more days. All of those things would have been nice, but I knew for this to work I needed the audience to connect with Cane and Eva. I needed the audience to go along with what Rupert and Ellie were bringing to the story. As actors they needed to know who those characters were and what they were going through. The more I could simplify that for them then because they are great actors, the more I could trust them to communicate with an audience. I think that is the great success of the film, in that we do spend most of the film in the company of these two people, and by the end we understand them. In the films set-up you might not expect that because they are an unusual couple, and that is a testament to the job that they do as actors, that it works in the end.
The choice of the Beethoven Symphony No.5, a fateful piece of music, seems to capture the spiritual essence of Cane’s journey. Of all the music you could have chosen, what led you to choose this particular symphonic work?
When we were writing the script we were kicking around a few ideas and we decided the source of the transmission they would receive would be Voyager. We then went through all of the different pieces of music that was sent on Voyagers golden disc and there are all kinds of stuff on there: tribal music, classical, early rock n roll and roll. We tried a few things out, and that was the one that seemed to have the gravitas we wanted in order to plant a seed. We wanted the audience to get where we were going with that without saying too much because we didn’t want any cheap twist to be perceived towards the end of the film. So we wanted to have something that had a grandiosity about it which the Cane character could latch onto, and feel effected by in a way that we the audience are effected by it because it is such a powerful and recognisable piece of music – recognisable to us, but not to him. So out of all of those options on the golden disc that was the one that jumped out, and Baltic Fleet did a fantastic version of it, which fitted so well with the tone of everything else that he did, and also the visual design of the film.
Picking up on your point about one aspect complimenting another, the film is constructed in such a way that everything is channeled in a mutual direction. Thematically the experience of grief and disconnection runs in parallel to the plot of the two characters on a journey taking them away from home. Equally a story of fate is complimented by the fateful musical symphony. This is of course the essence of storytelling, to create a harmonious melody through synchronisation of the different aspects.
We knew we had to have certain things dovetailing throughout the film and with the two central characters, neither one of them is more important than the other to the success of the story. The music had to interweave with the sound design and the noises on the ship – the idea that the ship almost feels like an organic entity in itself. Then the spoken word is linked to, yet is separate from the telepathic communication at certain points in the film, and the ship and the characters become indistinguishable. All of those things, everything had to mesh, mould and become one. Everything had to feel of a single piece. In whatever story you tell that visually needs to be true to some extent, but especially because we spend an hour on the spaceship with these people that helped the sense of entrapment and isolation. These people are in this place and there is nowhere else for them to go until there is, and that can be literal or figurative if you are talking about the society they have come from and are loyal to, but also beholden to in quite a scary way. So all of these things had to intertwine for the story to be successful. The visual effects and the score by Baltic Fleet, the production design, everything contributed to the way we were able to tell the story visually, and the way Jacob [Proctor] the editor was able to rhythmically cut it so it maintained that sense of repetition, but in a way that never felt like drudgery.
“A film can only exist if the audience connects with the characters” you remarked. Some of the most powerful experiences I remember of watching and reaching the end of a film is one I’d liken to stepping out of the warmth of the house into the cold winter. It is that feeling of having connected with the characters and their world, that leaves one feeling disconnected and almost sad when the experience is over. Native seems to have a similar effect, whereby without realising it, you become quite immersed and form a deep experiential connection.
Definitely! I had the idea of the last shot of the film before I had even put pen to paper, or started typing the final draft. That jumping off point was so much of a release for me and everything works backward from that. I feel that is such a powerful moment and that’s where when I watch a film with an audience, I know whether it has worked or not. If that shot and cut at the end works, then I feel like everything that has gone before it has been justified and the time spent with these people has been worth it. And you get a sense of that in a room funnily enough, so I think you’re right, and I am the same. I love films where you know if you are immersed in it early on. I was watching Blade Runner and after about two minutes when you have the shot of the car driving over the desolate wasteland and the score kicks in, I just knew that this it, this will be great, it’ll be fine. And it’s all of those things adding up to a convincing immersive whole that for someone who loves cinema, really pulls you in. If you forget yourself, that’s when a film is working and I suppose that goes back to what you were saying earlier about the dreamlike state. You don’t know you’re dreaming whilst you are dreaming, or I don’t, until you wake up. And that’s what you’re saying. Once the film ends and the house lights come on and you take that breath, then you reflect on what you’ve just seen and been party to. That’s when you know whether a film has worked for you or not, and I hope it does for ours!
Native is released theatrically in the UK on Friday 23 February 2018.
Interview with director Daniel Fitzsimmons on his Native film release – words Paul Risker