Z for Zachariah Interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Director Craig Zobel

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28 August 2015

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ComingSoon.net talks with Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Craig Zobel about the post-apocalyptic drama, Z for Zachariah 

Although Craig Zobel first forayed into filmmaking as David Gordon Green’s producer on many of his earlier independent films, he really turned heads with his 2012 thriller Compliance, which had its premiere at Sundance, swathed in controversy over its dark subject matter.

Zobel’s latest film Z for Zachariah, based on the 1974 book by Robert C. O’Brien, might not be as controversial, but it’s just as powerful a film as it stars Margot Robbie (who next year can be seen as Harley Quinn in Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad) as a young Southern woman named Anne, one of the last survivors of a radioactive holocaust, who is seemingly all alone with her dog in a valley that has somehow avoided the radiation. Along comes Chiwetel (20 Years a Slave) Ejiofor’s John Loomis, a scientist who has been surviving out in the radioactive zone until he finds Anne and her safe haven. As the last two people on Earth, they start to get closer and then a third person shows up, Chris Pine’s Caleb, who may have darker motives for being there than just wanting company. With an odd number of people, it creates an impossible-to-avoid triangle as each of the men vies for Anne’s attention.

Z for Zachariah explores a lot of the subjects that are very relevant in the world today–notably race, religion and romance–but in a different context. If you are potentially the last people on Earth, there’s a lot more things to consider when you get into a relationship with someone… like that third person and how they might feel.

ComingSoon.net actually spoke briefly with Zobel and his cast at the Sundance Film Festival, but we had another chance to sit down with Zobel and Ejiofor more recently, which makes up the majority of the interview below. (And before you ask, we did try to ask Ejiofor something about his role as Baron Mordo in Marvel Studios’ upcoming Doctor Strange movie, but he rebuffed our question with a “I can’t talk about that,” saying that he’s excited, but that it’s too early to talk about it. Sorry!)

Either way, Ejiofor was as eloquent as ever as he and Zobel fielded questions about one of the most original and intriguing films set during the aftermath of an apocalyptic event possibly since John Hillcoat’s The Road.

ComingSoon.net: When I heard about this movie, even while you were making it, I thought it would be a much bigger movie than “Compliance,” but it’s still just three people, just on a larger scope and landscape. How was that transition to having a lot more space than the single room of your previous film?

Craig Zobel: That was one of the goals in doing the movie, that you could do that. I enjoyed the acting exercise, if you will, or directing exercise of working with a contained cast in “Compliance” and wanted to do that again but I wanted to not shoot in one room. (laughs) That was one of the goals really, to be able to get out and do it. I certainly had been–in my other side of my filmmaking life–worked on films… it was not foreign to me to be on a bigger production really, so it was just a chance to do it.

ComingSoon.net: You wrote your previous two movies, but this was based on book that was adapted by someone else so what interested you in directing this?

Zobel: I just read it and was fascinated by it. It was a script that I kept thinking about after I read it, so that was kind of the impetus to be honest, the relationship dynamics and things like that. It seemed like the process of making the movie would be interesting and fun. The things the movie said and was trying to struggle with were things that I found interesting. I certainly always have things I’m writing, but this felt like an extension of something and a bigger thing at the same time. Everyone always wants to do something slightly bigger or slightly different, but this felt like a good organic extension of giving myself parameters if that makes sense. “Compliance” was all about parameters: It was one day, three people, based on a true story in a back room, one location. There were all these rules and it was interesting for that movie to figure out how to do it in the right way. I liked this idea of three actors. I thought that would be a challenge and we’ll all have to really connect in order to make something that I would feel was interesting. That was part of the attraction was its similarity in having parameters.

Chiwetel Ejiofor: The size of (“Compliance”) was so epic, the themes are so big that you felt you had a much bigger canvas, and I think he mostly used that space incredibly well. By doing something this, I thought it would be brilliant for Craig. First of all, there’s a much bigger canvas in a way because you have the epicness of the landscape, but also because he can breathe life into the relationships of a very small number of people kind of effortlessly.

CS: Had you already been attached to do this before “12 Years a Slave” came out and things exploded?

Ejiofor: Yeah, I’d been attached well before that, probably half a year? So I finished shooting “12 Years” and then had taken a few months off and then met with Craig and started building to do that, then went on to do the junkets and campaign for “12 Years” and then nearer to that, around February, just before the Oscars, went out to New Zealand to shoot the film.

CS: What kind of spoke to you about the script or the character of John Loomis?

Ejiofor: There is so much. I love the idea of the first half of the film being kind of a two-hander and then into a three-hander, and I loved the idea of having something that is just about the inter-personal relationships. This is an acting exercise and an acting challenge, ratcheting up the tension and the drama of it, just in the force of these people. They’re not particularly archetypal. There’s a regularness to them that even in that, becomes an unbearably tense dynamic, and I loved that. I loved that exploration of these people under this enormous pressure from the outside by the fact of the nothingness of the outside, to have to kind of rebuild something, to reintroduce meaning to their lives and how two people try to do that, being delicate with each other. There’s this complicated dance of friendship and perhaps romance and it turns into something slightly darker once the arrival of another person alights insecurities and fears and worries and tension.

CS: Craig, how did you end up shooting in New Zealand and using that as the landscape?

Zobel: It started as a logistical thing, because the only time anyone was available was right around January last year and if I wanted to make the movie with these guys, I wanted to fit it into their schedules. We didn’t have the budget of a lot of other movies, so it was like, “Well this was the time that we could do it” and I was really passionate that it needed to be in a green, lush environment. I didn’t want to make a brown, dirty apocalyptic movie. When you say, “lush environment, January/February,” you start looking at South of the Equator where it’s summer. It also ended this other element, because it was so remote that it actually helped everybody get the general conceit of the movie.

CS: It’s an interesting dynamic between the three characters as well as a mirror on the country today, when you realize that even if there were only three people left on Earth, there would still be issues. For instance, some people are religious and some people are not.

Zobel: That was definitely something we talked about and thought about that there would be something like that. Certainly, if there’s three people left, who knows who those three people would be? The likelihood that they would all be of like mind and all be the same type of people is pretty low.

CS: Let’s talk about the other two actors and specifically casting Margot as Anne, because it’s so different from other characters she’s played.

Zobel: I met her prior to “Wolf of Wall Street,” and I met her and thought she was great and thought she had a great energy and then I saw “Wolf of Wall Street” and thought, ‘well, that’s not the person that I met at all,’ just between the character and her normal life, they’re different people. That told me I needed to know, that she was amazing. We picked a region and then she found some good examples of the accent on the internet, on YouTube, and also, she needs to be a good Southern Baptist girl, so we were like ‘What was that look like?’ and we dyed her hair brown. We wanted to take her into a different place than where she had just been with “Wolf of Wall Street” too.

CS: What about getting someone like Chris Pine, who is a pretty big star who does big Hollywood movies. Did you have to balance having a big name who people will see the movie and say “Oh, it’s Chris Pine” rather than seeing him as Caleb?

Zobel: I met Chris and I had been a big fan of his. I think he’s very funny, but I think he has such a warm and great personality on screen that I was a huge fan even before I met him. When I did meet him–and at this point, Chiwetel and I were already kicking this movie around–I sent it to Chris. I just felt like it was going to be the right thing to do. I felt like he had the right energy. At that point, we didn’t have Margot and at least the three of us would be able to make something very fun and cool and work together. It wasn’t an over-intellectualized decision – it felt like the right thing to do.

CS: Chiwetel, did you find they had similar styles of working with you?

Ejiofor: I think the thing was that they’re both clearly very talented actors, but I feel with this, Margot and Chris were able to bring a side of themselves that people don’t get to see as much as, the really detailed emotional intelligence that they have and how that’s brought to bear in this in a deeply sophisticated way. That was really exciting to work with, and I know that they were excited to work on it, because it showed those sides of their personality as actors. That was thrilling and it was great to be able to discuss things, to talk about the nuance and the feelings and be open and vulnerable without the machinery of making movies that can create characters that are one thing or one or two things. These were very multi-dimensional characters capable of doing things that are great, good, but also, these characters make mistakes and are manipulative or disruptive or attempt to out-maneuver each other. So being very open to that conversation and not necessarily at all points wanting your character or your position to be the “liked” one, the “heroic” one, but being open to making painful but honest choices. There was a sequence where she first sort of betrays Loomis and the expression on her face, and the expression in the eyes details so much about her. Just trying to find the nuance of character and play it in different ways and experiment with it was something we all were invested in, but Margot was completely skilled at.

Zobel: Both Margot and Chris have different working styles or ways they get to it. I feel like I know all three of you have different styles, which I think is one of the things that is great about doing a movie with three people to really get to know what kind of ways everybody works. Margot was very thorough in knowing how she wanted to track the character. I would say that in some ways she pushed me in ways where I would be a little like, “Are we sure we can achieve this if we wanted to do that?” She would be very insistent on things that I was almost ready to give up on or thought we shouldn’t do that I think were really great decisions, as far as how to play scenes. They’re both really, really talented, and it was a blast and a challenge every day.

CS: I’ve seen the movie twice now and one thing that has gotten a laugh both times is when Loomis makes a comment to Anne for her to go off with Caleb and he adds, “You white people go be together.” I think people might be thinking that and Loomis saying it relieves the tension. Did you know at the time that the comment might cause a laugh in an otherwise serious movie?

Ejiofor: It sort of came out of (being) almost improvised, ‘cause it was something I decided was going to be an interesting part of the dynamic.

Zobel: I think we were looking for where it was going to happen. We were like “What about this scene?”

Ejiofor: Yeah, exactly. Part of the story which I find really fascinating is that when the two of them together, nothing matters really. Race doesn’t matter, religion doesn’t matter. They’re of different stages of faith or whatever, but it’s sort of irrelevant, because there’s kind of a balance to all those things. As soon as he becomes a minority, it changes the politics of the universe. It brings back all of the neurosis and self-doubt, those things that minoritization bring. I thought it was fascinating to explore that and to demonstrate it somehow, but the audience they’re obviously thinking this, and they’re aware suddenly that yeah, it’s true. As soon as one becomes a minority, it affects your power basis. So him bringing that up…

Zobel: I also think audiences react to the fact that they’re getting to see part of his inner thoughts that I have not necessarily clearly spelled it out where you’re like, “Oh, we get to know more.” It is funny and it always does get a laugh, and I never anticipated that it would be a straight up laugh. (both Zobel and Ejiofor laugh at this)

CS: The movie has an interesting title, because it’s not immediately apparent what it means. Did you get any pressure to come up with a more descriptive marquee-friendly title like “Three’s A Crowd” or “The Third Wheel.”

Zobel: (laughs) Yeah, of course there is, and I’m sure “Three’s A Crowd” was on the list. You could have been at one of those meetings. (Both start laughing at this, as well.) It was the title of the book, and I think it’s better than “The Third Wheel,” no offense. (laughs)

Ejiofor: And it’s a popular book.

Zobel: Yeah, it’s not a nothing book so it kind of felt weird to totally throw it away and I just like “Z”s.

CS: Can you talk about working with Heather McIntosh on this? She also scored “Compliance” which is very different.

Zobel: Heather and I have known each other forever and I always thought she was so talented and amazing. When we started in on the score for this film, we actually started with something that wasn’t similar to “Compliance,” but just the bigger epic version and then we peeled back and were like, “This is not really representative of the movie in the right way,” and then we had to push each other. It was really challenging and fun pushback and forth between me and Heather about “What does this movie sound like?” and not imposing your thoughts about what it should be before you make the movie but watching it and being ‘Maybe we need a different tone here.”

And if that isn’t enough to convince you to see Z for Zachariah this weekend, we have a few more tidbits from Margot Robbie when we spoke at Sundance, specifically about preparing the character of Anne.

“It’s easy to start creating a character when you look aesthetically so different from yourself or from other characters you’ve played, so that’s a starting point. The accent always helps as well if you don’t look or sound like yourself. Further from there, just delving into it deeper and I guess for this role specifically, I tried to remember how I behaved when I was a younger teenager when I didn’t know how to act cool around guys or how to regain some sort of power if somebody told me off. Things like that, those were the things I was trying to focus on this character.”

Margot also talked about why they didn’t need any formal rehearsals for the movie:

“Funnily enough, the dynamic ended up being an art imitating life situation because Chris’ characters come in a bit later into the script but he also came to the location a few weeks after us, so it actually worked out because we got there and Chiwetel and I didn’t know each other from a bar of soap and then we finally started finding our step together and we had our thing and knew how to work with each other and then Chris arrived and we thought, ‘yeah that’s a different dynamic. It’s a shift in energy so now we gotta make room for a third personality, ’cause in the script we were doing the exact same thing.”

Lastly, Chris Pine talks about returning to smaller budget movies, his first in some time, to play Caleb:

“I really enjoyed the intimacy of the crew and the size of the cast and that size of a film lends itself to getting more interesting things oftentimes. You’re just more comfortable. The comfort level of performing in front of people and getting the sense of other people is just faster than if you have a larger set and green screen and action. The truth is that I liked the idea of a three-hander and what Craig excels at and is so good at doing is exploring micro subtextual nuance between human beings. I remember one of my favorite scenes was just a dinner conversation that went awry very quickly but I just remember navigating that was really fun. I also liked that Craig is not trying to please anyone. This is his film from A to Z.”

Z for Zachariah opens in select cities on Friday, August 28.

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