'Serenity' Director Steven Knight Doesn't Want To Put His Movies In A Genre [Interview]

Serenity is probably not the movie audiences are expecting. Steven Knight's third feature as a director is a bonkers thriller, both old-fashioned and modern, that defies expectations. Nobody could ever call this movie predictable. Knight says he's not a fan of the constraints of any given genre, and it shows in Serenity, a movie not tied down to the rules of a thriller. It's not an easy film to put in a box or even say much about without spoiling anything.

It's the first feature Knight has directed since Locke, and although that drama came out six years ago, it's so memorable that it doesn't feel like it's been that long since the creator of Peaky Blinders and Taboo directed a movie. Recently, he told us about the challenges of his latest film, why he doesn't like labeling movies by genre, the differences between writing for himself or a studio, and more.

This movie was not what I was expecting. It's quite an experience.

That was the idea. That's absolutely the idea of it, yeah.

Where did this story start for you?

I guess the idea began when I went out on a fishing boat out of St. Lucia fishing for tuna a few years ago, and the captain of the boat was good at dealing with tourists and he was very accommodating and good until he caught a fish, and then as soon as the fish was on, he was obsessed and no one else existed.

It was just really interesting to see a man with that level of obsession living in a place that for me looked like paradise, but all that mattered to him was catching the fish. So I started to think about constructing that character, and why is he like that? What happened to him to make him like that?

And then, at the same time, whenever I'm going to direct something, I try and do it as a sort of a challenge if you like, where you set yourself ... Like, with Locke it was, "Can you make the most ordinary man in Britain doing the most ordinary job, driving in a car from Birmingham to London, can you make that into a film?" And try and do that. With this, it was to build a story, build a quite conventional, almost sort of 1940s or 50s style noirish if you like- I don't really like that word, but that noirish style thriller with you know, the ex-wife arriving and the murder plot.

And then, at the most inconvenient time for the story, completely pull everything away and make something totally different, without ... I really wanted to begin with, to not set it up at all, so that it just comes completely out of nowhere. In the end, you do have to sort of plant a few seeds here and there. And just see if after that you could maintain a character, a central character as he goes through his existential doubt and journey.

Why don't you like the word noirish?

I don't know. It gets bandied about. Any genre as it's called, I think can be quite reductive in terms of what a film is, because I think there is an eagerness to put in any film, in anybody's work, to give it a genre title and I think as a consequence of that, the film starts to obey the rules of the genre. Whereas I try if possible not to put things into a particular genre, and try and make them cross over between different ones.

This movie has genre elements, though, and completely has that sweaty, desperate thriller sort of atmosphere. What elements of genre did you want to lean into?

Absolutely, but not in this film because I think American film follows the literary tradition of American heroes from Captain Ahab, Nathaniel Hawthorne, some of his heroes, and all through American literature from the 18th century, you get this sort of lone outsider, if you like.

It fed into Westerns and it fed into Western literature of the drifter, I suppose it is, which is I think a very American creation. I wanted Baker Dill to be that, you know. An unknown man, and it's almost the Clint Eastwood genre as well. The unknown man who is living in a place where he doesn't really belong, with secrets, and that's exactly what I wanted Baker Dill to be.

You got the story of Allied from a conversation you had a long time ago in Texas, where you were told about an agent whose wife was a spy. Like you said, the story for Serenity was born out of a fishing trip, so would you say most of your stories are inspired by your experiences?

Yeah, I think it's great to have a grounding in something real and then make it as unreal as possible, so a story that you hear or an experience that you have on a fishing boat, it's usually I think an experience you have when you're not in your familiar surroundings. Because I think you're more keenly aware of differences and change and then often, it takes quite a long time for that to filter through and become something that you can turn into a story. But yeah, absolutely, I think if you're a writer, you have to keep your ears open.

This is your most stylized movie as a director. What was new? Visually, what was challenging?

Luckily I had a great team around me. We were the first film crew to go into Mauritius so we were trailblazing so that had its own challenges even though Mauritius was a fantastic place to shoot. Fortunately, dealing with actors of the caliber of Matthew and Anne and Jason and Djimon and Jeremy – that was never an issue.

I mean, they were so committed and Matthew did himself a chart, a handwritten chart of the progress of Baker Dill's character through the film, so that he always knew where he was in terms of his own vision of reality. When you have that sort of level of professionalism and expertise, it makes a lot of other things easier.

Obviously, there are the physical challenges. I didn't want to use green screen at any point, so everything on the boat is on the boat and we shot the boat always on the ocean, so that itself has challenges in terms of space and weather and the rocking of the boat. So all of those things are a challenge but if you've got good people, you can overcome it.

Was your experience shooting on water as rough as everyone says it is?

It is very unpredictable and challenging. The temptation is to get into a tank and get the green screen and then you can control everything, but I really didn't want to do that because I think you can tell. Not even visually, you can tell somehow that it's not real. And the movement of the boat is actually great, with a camera moving around as well, it's nice. I think it's really good. And Jess Hall, who is the DP, was brilliant and used light and used the conditions perfectly.

Writing about a fisherman, how much research does that require before you write? Or do you just jump in and use your imagination?

No, I worry about research when it's the letter and on paper because sometimes it leads you astray. I think the best research is people you meet and things that they say, rather than second hand accounts of something. I think when you meet someone and talk to them, then you get the real thing and that's what you can use. That's the material you can actually put on the page.

What other experiences have you had where a story you've heard or an experience of yours influenced one of your scripts?

I suppose Peaky Blinders is a classic, which is to say that Peaky Blinders based on stories that my Mum and Dad told me about their childhoods and the place where they grew up. And as you say, Allied was based on a story that had been in my head for years and years.

As well as an idea coming from an experience, there's obviously with any writer ... You meet people and you hear the way they talk and the way they behave, and that subconsciously gets fed into the characters you create 'cause you have to make them flesh and blood somehow.

I know you don't outline and just start writing and see where the story goes, but I was wondering, do you often run into walls writing that way?

Yes. That's the price for writing in this sort of unplanned way is that you can have situations where you've painted yourself into a corner, but there's usually a way out. But I just like the idea that you're telling a story and you sit down in the morning and you start to write and something may happen while you're writing that completely upends everything.

My example would be Eastern Promises, where I didn't know at the beginning that the lead character was actually working for the police. That happened when we were writing the scene. I think it's a good way that, if you have got a surprise to pull, that you don't even know about it yourself when you're writing it at first.

What corners did you run into writing Serenity?

Serenity is all corners. Every bit of it is like you're putting yourself into a position where the reality you created 10 minutes ago has gone, and so you have to think about a different reality. So that was the challenge of it and I think, I hope that it will reward two or three or four viewings because there's a lot of stuff in there that I think on the first viewing you won't get.

I've never thought of Matthew McConaughey in this way, but at times, he reminded me of Humphrey Bogart while watching the movie.

Yes.

Was that old-fashioned star quality something you wanted?

I wanted him to be Humphrey Bogart, I wanted him to be Robert Mitchum, especially Robert Mitchum. Gregory Peck. That is the American hero that I wanted Baker Dill to be.

His deliveries — he can just make the simplest of lines crackle.

Oh yes.

Is it enjoyable hearing just what he'll bring to a line?

He just gets it right every time. As well as being physically dextrous, which is a huge thing when you're directing, he's just able to do stuff and do it well and do it consistently, but in terms of the emotion behind the line is that the emotion isn't explicit in the delivery. It's somewhere behind it and I don't know how he achieves that.

The acting is difficult but human beings are so good at interpreting what other people are saying, and finding the reality behind the delivery. That's what we do, you know, in our interactions in everyday life. We're really good at finding out if someone means something, if they don't mean it, if they're uncertain about something. Then for an actor to be able to surf on that level is amazing.

Locke was a great challenge, but when you were making Serenity, did you ever think, "Get me back to that one car, that was nothing"?

Absolutely. It's so true. It is hard. Making a film is hard because you're not dealing with the intangible. When you're writing, it's perfect because it's only in your head and then you have to take it into the physical world and that's where things drop off and things fall apart and you have to fix them.

I do like the purity of something like Locke, where it is just if you like the dialogue and face. But I really wanted to do the opposite with this and always, I want to try and do something that you're not expecting, and hopefully within the film, it will be not expected as well.

When audiences leave the theater after Serenity, how many questions do you want them to have? Do you want them to focus on those questions or the emotional experience?

I think the emotional experience is very important because that sort of ... The result of that is whether or not someone likes it. Because I don't think people are going to have an affectionate opinion of a question. But for me, just as important if not more important is that at the end, the answers haven't been given to them. That they can resolve things themselves.

And some people don't like that, and I completely understand that. But the tradition is that everything gets tied up at the end and we all know what happened and it's quite simple, and there's nothing wrong with that. I mean, that's the way it is and the way it should be but occasionally, I think it's good to leave people with questions and to wonder, "What have I just seen?" I think is great.

When you write for a studio, I imagine you have to answer all those questions.

Yes.

Is it frustrating or challenging when you have to tidy up everything?

Yeah. I mean, I think you have to in your own mind be aware that there are two or three different jobs. You have the job of writing stuff for yourself like this, or television, and you also ... If you make yourself available to a studio to write studio films, you have to be aware of exactly what that job is.

And what that job is is to take a brief, write the story to the best of your ability with the best dialogue you can do, and then accept that the studio have the right to come back and alter what you've done. I would say 50% of the time, they make it better. 50% of the time, they make it worse, depending on the studio, but you have to accept that that's the way it is and look at the fantastic films that get made by studios, and I mean that sincerely.

There are some beautiful films made by that process, because a writer comes on board and then you get notes and then the script gets given to a different writer and then a different writer, and then the director has their own view, so it is a very collaborative experience, which is fine and which I do. But sometimes I quite like to just do something for myself.

If you're a writer precious about every word, it's a nightmare, right?

Well you know, there's working down a coalmine or there's being a fisherman. There are lots of tougher jobs, and I just count my blessings that I'm a writer and you can feel bad about something that you think is dead, right, and then it gets changed and moved around, but you know, that's life.

Where do you think you've learned the most about writing from? Would you say mostly from your life experiences?

Yeah, I think that and I mean, I began writing comedy.

Really?

Oh yeah, in Britain. I used to write for TV comedy and also for stand-up comedians, and the thing that writing comedy gives you is a kind of awareness that every single word and the delivery of every single word, and the gaps between the words, are really important.

So anybody who's told a joke in a bar knows that if you just fluff your line just once, if you just get one word wrong, the joke's gone. It doesn't work, no one laughed. In order to get people to laugh, the precision of the words is incredible and that's why comedians, they get their routine and they stick with it 'cause they know it works. That I think is the best education.

And then, when you start to do drama, you're not trying to get people to laugh but you're trying to get them to do something else and it's just as tricky and you have to get it right in the same way as if you were telling a joke.

What's tougher, writing comedy or drama?

Comedy's harder. When I was writing comedy, you'd go into the theater and watch the words that you'd written be delivered and you die. You die when they don't laugh. It's horrific. You're writing stuff in order to make people make this noise which is laughter, and if it doesn't happen, there's no question that people did or didn't laugh. With drama, I think you can get away with it a bit, but with comedy, you definitely can't.

Your work does have a surprising amount of comedy now that I think about it. Taboo has some great dark laughs, the kind that almost make me feel guilty for laughing.

[Laughs] Good, good. I try to include hopefully comic moments. Peaky as well has got some moments in it, because in life, there are funny bits, so why not?

I know you have season two of Taboo coming up, so I'm curious, what's the experience like writing a first season versus a second season? What's the biggest difference?

The first season obviously you're doing quite a lot of work, but most of that work needs to be done in the first two hours, I think where you're establishing the world, establishing the rules, establishing the characters. I found with Peaky that the second was easier than the first, third easier than the second because you've got a nice sure hand with the audience. They know, and they know the history of the characters, so for me it gets easier and hopefully more effective. I've nearly finished making a series of Taboo and similarly, it's felt that you don't have to be explaining so much because people know already.

Since you like to set challenges for yourself, what are some other challenges you'd like to conquer in the future?

I'd love to do a comedy because I'd love to go back to it and see if I can do it. That would be good fun. I want to try and get another one man or one woman show as well, a bit like Locke. But other than that, I just wait until something comes along. These days, a lot of things go in to TV because you get more time, you've got eight hours to tell a story, and as a writer you get more control of the project than you do when you're making a film.

Obviously you make shows for TV, but as a filmmaker whose movies benefit from the big screen, how would you feel about a movie of yours only being available to stream?

Yeah, the big screen's good and I think if it is available on the big screen as well, then good. But I don't believe that either one is superior to the other, except for the screen ... In terms of the writing, the stories and the characters and the acting these days in television, it's on par with film. But obviously, some things need to be seen on a bigger screen.

But I think part of the television revolution is partly because TV screens are now so much different to what they were 20 years ago. There would be no point making good quality television to be watched on those bulbous screens everybody used to have, but now people have got big screens, you can tell a big story, but there are also other stories and other things.

I think Serenity with its ocean and its sky and its sunlight deserves to be on a big screen but this is the way things are and people will watch it on TV. There's a generation that will watch things on their phone.

Does that bother you or are you just happy they're watching it?

I don't know. I dislike the concepts of being the curmudgeon, the person who's resisting change, you know what I mean? Because you've heard it all before and every generation thinks that about the coming generation, and I think it's just the way it is.

It drives me insane that my own kids spend so much time staring at screens, but what can you do? That's part of the reason, by the way, that I wanted to do Serenity as well, was to explore the effect that can be had on people where in my opinion when kids ... It's not just kids, but when people are playing computer games and I watch over their shoulders as my kids play them, the engagement is almost more profound than watching a film, so the suspension of disbelief when someone's playing a computer game seems to be deeper than the suspension of disbelief when they're watching a movie because they're taking part. They're adding their own reality to it, and I think it has an interesting effect on storytelling because there is something very linear about the computer game storytelling, rather than the arc of a movie. So I just wanted to explore that as well with Serenity.

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Serenity opens in theaters January 25th.