Science Fiction is one of the longest standing genres across all art forms, and over the years it has gone on quite a journey in the film world. It’s one of the few genre’s that gives the creator an immense amount of freedom, allowing them to create whole world’s, societies, galaxies even, of their own imagination in a bid to wow audiences. The latest filmmaker to unleash his vision upon cinema-goers is writer and director Daniel Fitzsimmons.
The film in question is Native. Starring Rupert Graves (Sherlock), Ellie Kendrick (Game of Thrones) and Pollyanna McIntosh (The Walking Dead), the film is Daniel’s feature debut. Set primarily aboard a spacecraft, Native tells the story of two scientists travelling across a vast universe as they seek to investigate the source of a distant transmission. It being a space-set film, problems inevitably arise aboard the ship and the mission starts to fall apart. Native gets it cinema debut from Friday 23rd February. In preparation for the release we sat down with Daniel to talk through the journey from page to screen.
How did the idea for Native come together?
Out of necessity I would say. I was doing my masters in California at USC, and after I returned, Neil Atkinson and I – he’s my writing partner – we’d made a decision to make something low budget and to try and raise some finance to do a low-budget film. We tried to raise a fair bit of money on something which was much different to Native. It was an ensemble piece and it was lots of locations. The budget was much bigger than what we ended up working with in Native. We did raise a little bit of money, but we knew we were going to lose it if we didn’t put it to use somehow. So we had this small amount of money that we had to work out a film that we could make with this small sum.
I had this idea of a sci-fi short – I’ve always been a sci-fi fan – and I had this idea for Native which was a short film. Neil then convinced me that we could extrapolate it out into something bigger. As it was the first draft, it was even bigger than what we ended up with. We had to cut it back again to make it achievable in the budget we had. We got in touch with Jennifer Handorf, who’s co-producer on the project, who had experience working on similar low budget stuff in and around London. She took a look at it and came on board with the creative team she had already worked with, and all of a sudden it began to seem like a viable proposition. It then went from treatment to script fairly quickly and then it gathered a pace then until we shot it in the summer of 2014. It’s been a long journey through all its stages, but we’ve eventually got something that we’re all really proud of.
And for those intrigued by Native, but with no prior knowledge, what’s Native about?
Native is a psychological sci-fi drama that takes place on a spaceship. The majority of the action is between two characters, two scientists, who are travelling across the universe to the source of a distant transmission to colonise. We learn pretty quickly that that’s what they are there to do in search of the potential life that might be out there. They may or may not have colonised other worlds before. Through the journey we learn that their technology allows them to communicate telepathically with their society with their twins back home. The mission control is essentially communicated to the ship through their twin brother and sister. Through the course of the action, this communication, this way of communicating with home, is fractured and severed. Then the two characters on the ship have to figure out a way of managing without this safety net, without the help from this hive-like society which they’re used to being controlled by. So it’s about them becoming individual without being surrounded the collective, and how they deal with that, and how they make sense of their mission as it barrels towards its conclusion.
You’re two leads are quite different, there’s an older male and then a much younger female, what was it about that dynamic that made you think that this was the way to properly tell the story?
I think it was an interesting way of looking at it. I wasn’t consciously out to make any kind of comment on gender or anything like that. Indeed, I didn’t want any kind of sexual element to come into the dynamic at all. I wanted to pitch them as soldiers, as worker bees in a situation. I found through the writing of it that it would be nice to flip the expected character tropes on the head. So Ellie (Kendrick) is the younger female soldier but she’s the one who’s much more in control of what she’s set out to do. She’s much more loyal to the hive. Much more steadfast in what her mission entails and how regimented she is in every aspect of what she does on board the ship. Rupert (Graves) is fantastic in that he brings a kind of steadfast quality to the character, but there’s always an underlying vulnerability in every scene that he’s in. I found that quite fascinating really. He’s the one who loses his connect to home, who becomes adrift. Who then has to latch onto something else and in our film it’s the transmission, this musical transmission. To a society that doesn’t have any cause for music as an artistic expression, his discovery of what that is and what that means, I found very fascinating. If anything, I decided that to flip it would be a much more interesting thing for both characters to go through. For Ellie to be the more, I’m hesitant to say male, part of the duo, I almost wanted to throw that out and just look at the characters for what they are. I think the age thing was always… I wanted the older protagonist to be more vulnerable, and I wanted the younger one to be more in control from the outset, and allow them to unravel based on what the older character goes through. I think what I’m trying to say is that I just found the characters in quite an organic way, and the only conscious decision I made was to not to let any kind of sexual element into what the story was. It quite easily could have gone that way because other films which put a male and a female on a spaceship with no-one else will always veer towards that direction. That was the only conscious decision I made really.
Sci-fi does have quite a long standing history of featuring strong females the first that springs to mind being Sigourney Weaver in Alien so it’s not unheard of within the genre. It’s something that people can get on board with, it’s not a war film for example where they reject it more.
Precisely. I think that’s the great thing about sci-fi because it allows you to play by your own rules a lot more when you’re setting up the social laws within a societal context. That’s what I love about it. It just gives you that leeway to throw out our own cultural expectations and build them up again in order to tell that story. The nature of the society [in Native] is a hive. There is a literally a Queen Bee, played by Pollyanna McIntosh. I suppose there’s an equality in the way that bees work which is different to our own. That sort of allowed me to just almost ignore the gender once I’d set up the rules of the society. I could kind of forget about that and just get on with telling the story of these characters on the ship.
The film reminds me of Dune, what were your film influences?
Do you know what, I’ve never seen Dune funnily enough. I would say stuff like, even earlier than that, tonally things like The Man Who Fell to Earth. Blade Runner is an obvious touch point, it always is, it’s a classic. In the design of the spaceship we looked at Alien, we looked at stuff that wasn’t shiny, chrome and white, all those modern sci-fi tropes. We consciously looked back to the more Eastern European, Russian sci-fi ideas of the seventies and even earlier. We knew that we had to step away from what we couldn’t compete with on a budget level. I mean 2001 [A Space Odyssey] – everyone always says 2001 – but there’s a simplicity to the design of 2001 which I think is one of the reasons why it still holds up so well now.
We didn’t want to get too gimmicky with it. We wanted to strip it back to a bare, austere design. So that it could always be timeless. We didn’t want to anchor it to a period of our own history. We wanted it to be new, but retro at the same time. There’s also as much influences from sci-fi literature such as Robert Heinlein and Stanislaw Lem as there was cinematically. I think the limitations really liberated us to move to be quite confident in creating our own thing because we didn’t have the means to consciously ape anyone else so we had to create our own thing out of necessity.
Of all the genres out there science fiction is the one that you can really push the limits and do pretty much anything with. There are no real rules within it. Did that make it easier or harder to write?
I prefer it. I like the freedom to create my own rules. I feel that that’s where the cinematic comes into play. My background is as a screenwriter so I feel very loyal to what’s on the page. I like that freedom to be able to create your own rules on the page. It’s very liberating to put your characters in a situation where the rules are slightly different to what we would expect to be in a social realist drama for example, or a war film, or anything historical. Then I think as a director you can take better ownership of it. It’s you ultimately who has created those rules and it allows you to have a more confident approach when you are communicating to your actors and to the other departments about what you want to achieve in the story. I feel quite liberated by that.
I think if you use science fact as a jumping off point and don’t stray too far away from it so it becomes too silly or outrageous, the audience will always go with you. If you twist and you bend the rules, but you don’t break and shatter them, then that’s the areas that I’m most interested in. For example, anything to do with AI [artificial intelligence] I’m really fascinated with at the moment. It’s just on that precipice of becoming something that feels a little bit out of control and that’s where I think storytelling is at its most vibrant.
You mentioned that you started out as a writer, what made you want to pursue a career in directing?
I was writing, I had a screenplay optioned a long time ago, in my early twenties. It was with a few different directors at a few different points and it nearly went into production a few times in its lifespan. In the last time that it didn’t go into production, it was quite hard to take, but through the process what I learned was that as a writer you don’t really have that agency to control that project, to give it life, to push it along. You just don’t have that power, unless you’ve been doing it for a very long time. After going through all of that, I took stock of where I was. I’d always wanted to direct, but I didn’t really know what it entailed. I didn’t have the technical knowledge. It never really seemed like a viable proposition really.
When I was at a loss, I looked at film schools. I couldn’t apply to the National Film and Television School in the UK because you needed a reel in order to apply. I instead applied to USC who would take people from all aspects of filmmaking onto their MFA production course. They take editors, writers, actors, they don’t just take directors. I applied there and I got in. So from going from working as a screenwriter on other people’s projects to all of a sudden being at film school in the George Lucas building making short films, and being allowed to make all those mistakes in such a vibrant, creative environment was absolutely fantastic. It was a very rewarding experience. I really loved it. Their attitude was ‘the more diverse voices we’ve got, the better the stories are going to be’. I liked that attitude. I really loved my time over there. When I came back I felt like I’d learned in the best place in the world. USC is a feeding school for Hollywood so you had that commercial side, but coupled with my background in Europe I found that I had the best of both worlds. I was coming at it from a good balanced place. It was great. I also went there when I was in my late twenties so I’d done some different jobs other than writing. I’d worked in all different spheres and I felt like I had the experience to give any project I was working on a little more than just going straight from undergrad to film school and then out and making films. I think as a mature student, you appreciate things that little bit more.
How was the transition from shorts to feature?
You’ve got to have a more fully formed idea of the over-arching story. If you’re doing a ten minute short there’s a finite number of things that can go wrong, but if you’re shooting an eighty/ninety page script, times that by eight or nine things that can go wrong. So you’ve got to have a solid appreciation of how to get from A to B everyday, no matter what you’re doing. You change one thing, you change everything. I think it’s just that responsibility that you’ve got to juggle in your head, the number of those things that you’ve got to juggle in your head goes up.
In terms of the process it’s not hugely different, it’s more days, but as a director you’ve just go to have a fuller understanding of the whole thing all the time. Why something on page ten will relate to something on page fifty. When you’re shooting a short film, that’s much easier because there are fewer scenes, there is less going on. It’s easier to have more of a handle on every constituent part of that story. If the story is bigger, there are more parts, more moving parts, more people on set because there’s more going on. By the very nature, normally you’ve got more characters. You’ve probably got more locations. There’s just more to it so you’ve got to be more prepared, and you’ve got to anticipate that there are going to be issues that you’re going to need to solve. The only way you can solve them is by preparing, and by knowing the script inside out and back to front. Every character and every character’s motivation. Even then, an actor will come to you with something that you never even considered, which is great as long as you’ve got an understanding of the bigger picture. Then you can allow those things, those nuanced changes to maybe go off in a more interesting direction than you might have done without being pointed to something that might not have quite fit on the page. Then you’re solving them, and it’s a puzzle. It’s just a bigger puzzle.
Since filming, Pollyanna and Ellie have gone on to do Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, two of the biggest shows in the world. That’s got to be pretty exciting.
Yeah it’s great. Those two are fantastic. It’s such a shame that Pollyanna is not more prominent in the film. We had a whole sequence at the start of the film, and a whole sequence at the end of the film, that we had to cut right down because of budget. Pollyanna is an absolute star. As soon as she walks on set, you know about it. She has a presence that she brings, a regal presence, to the room whens she walks in the walk. She’s fantastic, Ellie too. They’re both absolutely brilliant people as well, which on a low budget film, you need. They’re the stars, and people take their lead from them and they set the mood of the set a lot of the time. I can’t thank them enough for the way they jumped into the project and made every day a pleasure.
I’d seen Ellie in Misfits years ago, she was only in like four episodes, she wasn’t a permanent member of the cast. I loved the show, but as soon as I saw her I thought she’s brilliant. When we got to casting this she was high on the list. Then as soon as I met her she got it. She got the character and then I knew she would bring more to it than was on the page. I’m made up for them that they’ve gone on to do really interesting stuff. I think Ellie was brilliant in The Levelling as well. She’ll go on to bigger and better things I’m sure. I’d love to work with both of them again.
So what so you hope the viewer gets out of watching Native?
I just hope they’ll be unnerved by it, that they enjoy it. Most of all, I think I would like people to reevaluate what sci-fi can be now. There’s a lot of big budget stuff going on, but I think there’s room for good stories well-told irrespective of the budget. That’s always been my kind of sci-fi. I hope that if people do like our film that they might go back and look at things like Solaris or The Man Who Fell to Earth. Films which do interesting things within a genre like sci-fi that are intellectually interesting as well as visually engaging. I’d like there to be room for those films again. I think we are coming around to that. Moon is an example, the success of Moon was really heartening at the time. When I saw it what I took from that was that there is room for that kind of story again. I hope for the people that watch it they will be encouraged that this kind of film can exist and can get into cinemas and TV’s and it hasn’t all become franchise based, blockbuster, Michael Bay super duper crash bang wallop funfair ride sci-fi.
And you’re screening at The Prince Charles Cinema, that’s a nice one to be showing on.
Yeah it’s great, I’m really looking forwards to it. It fits, their aesthetic is quite similar to ours in a weird sort of way that I can’t put my finger on. To be premiering, and to be showing around Leicester Square, is mad. It’s quite an achievement for everyone. I’m really looking forwards to the release and showing it there, we’ve done it all over the world, but it’ll be nice to do it in Central London, and Liverpool, Glasgow and Newcastle as well.
Once Native is out into the cinema world, what’s next for you?
I’ve got a couple of things that I would like to develop. I’m working on an adaptation of an Irish novel with an Irish author, but I can’t say what it is. I’m really excited about it. Then there are other things that are just irons in the fire really, scripts that are very close to me personally which I’ve developed with people I’d really love to work with. As ever, it’s all speculative until it’s going. So you’ve got to be juggling balls and knowing projects inside out ready for the moment that someone says ‘okay, this is the one we’re going with’. I’m pushing a few things up the hill, but as for which one [it will be], I’m not sure yet.
Native arrives in select UK cinemas from Friday 23rd February 2018.