CLOSE-UP CULTURE spoke to director Daniel Fitzsimmons ahead of the release of his fascinating debut feature Native.
Q: NATIVE is a marked divergence from the typical American sci-fi of scary aliens and special effects. Why did you take this different approach to the genre?
A: THE story was born out of mid-century sci-fi literature and theoretical physics more than it was influenced by other movies; American or otherwise. I was reading a lot about North Korea, a lot of Beckett, Lem, before I sat down to write the screenplay. I had just moved to London from Los Angeles and it was winter, so I suppose all of this contributed to a more European approach.
I think the great thing about creating stories and characters in a science fiction context is using science fact as a starting point, then twisting and bending the physics until you get a set of rules that serve the story you need to tell. In the case of Native, the Twin Paradox thought experiment was the jumping off point.
Q: The emotionless of the alien characters reminded me of Drake Doremus’ Equals. Did you have any inspirations for the story?
A: I THINK the characters in Native are forced to confront the concept of emotion as they are dragged further away and out of the safety net that their society affords them, for better or worse. Dealing with what that emotion is, and how a selfish or impulsive or creative urge might impact on the ‘other’ is at the heart of the story, and a fascinating thing to watch unravel.
As I say, Beckett’s plays were key. There is something primal about the compression and expansion of time that weighs on the characters in his plays, as well as the blur and refocus on their sense of purpose, that I wanted to try and bring to Native. To create a feeling in the gut of the audience that something isn’t quite right.
Q: You worked with two brilliant British actors – Ellie Kendrick and Rupert Graves – on the film. How much did you enjoy working with these two and what did they bring to the film?
A: I LOVED every day working with them. Rupert has a sturdiness and vulnerability that shouldn’t be possible at the same time but somehow is. The way Ellie and Rupert dovetail through the literal journey in the film felt very natural on set. It felt like a very instinctive process to me. Both brought so much more than was on the page, and kept me on my toes, which is what the best actors do!
Rupert was longlisted for a BIFA for the film, and deservedly so, but Ellie is just as important to the film making sense. The character of Eva is unique, to put it mildly, and the way Ellie picked her way through the minefield of what Eva does was masterful. She is an absolute star.
Q: Ellie called the script inventive and syntactically playful. How did you and Neil Atkinson approach the script?
A: WE knew we had to lend an oddness to the interactions between the characters, particularly with the added dimension of telepathic communication to complicate matters. We tried to give the speech patterns a discomfiting rhythm, almost creating boundaries through the spoken word which could then be punctured by the intimacy of achieving telepathic connection. These two styles of communication necessitated opposed approaches.
Q: To mirror the stoicism of the aliens, the setting looks almost concrete and the colour palette drained. Where did you film and what was the atmosphere like on set?
A: THE space ship was built in a disused warehouse in Dagenham, and designed by our production designer Jon Revell as a tessellating, hive-like, brutalist craft that could be at times expansive and maze-like, and at others claustrophobic. We knew that we had to move away from the shiny whiteness of modern sci-fi, and wanted to create a much more austere canvas on which to create the visual effects.
The atmosphere was great on set. On our level of budget, nobody was there for the money so there was a sense of commitment and camaraderie that got us through the challenges.
Q: I would describe Native as arthouse sci-fi, and the film poses many probing questions. Were you looking to challenge the audience and pose questions about our society?
A: THAT’S what all good sci-fi does. Wherever a story is set – past, future, parallel universe – it’s always talking about now.
The world has become an even bleaker and more fearful place in the short time since we shot the movie, and the results of the elections and referendum in the US and the UK respectively don’t show humanity at its best by any stretch. But we have to hope that there is a shedding of skin due, and that the next generation will be able to repair the damage being done. I think the last sequence in the film hints at this.
Q: Native is your debut feature. How did you find that experience? Did you face any big challenges?
A: LOTS of challenges, mostly to do with time and budget. But you know that the whole exercise is defined by compromise. Cinema as a form of expression is the spark that comes from the friction between commerce and art. To get involved in that challenge is a choice, so as a director you have to embrace it and expect to be delighted and frustrated in equal measure right the way through the process.
Q: What are your ambitions moving forward and what kind of stories would you like to tell?
A: I DO love sci-fi, I like anything that explores our darker nature as individuals and how that fits into the collective. I’m a little bit obsessed by AI at the moment, I’m reading a lot of John le Carré and Raymond Chandler again. It’s hard to predict, and with time your preoccupations as a writer and director change.
You know, I started out seventeen years ago writing satirical comedy about El-Hadji Diouf and Igor Biscan. I think I’ve moved on since then, so you never can tell!