I Am Mother interview

When I saw I Am Mother at Sundance earlier this year, I was blown away by the believability of the sci-fi film’s robot. So I jumped at the chance to speak with director Grant Sputore (who also has a “story by” credit) and ask him about how he and his team brought “Mother” to life, casting Rose Byrne as the voice of that character, how the story evolved over time, his future filmmaking plans, and more.

I Am Mother is in the grand tradition of films that use science fiction as a vessel to ask big questions about morality. Can you talk a little about that?

Yeah, I’ve always been inspired by and most admired films that kind of hit you in the heart and in the head in equal measure, and that’s certainly what we were setting out to do in this film. I wanted people to go away having had a satisfying emotional experience, but with some questions to chew on and talk about with friends.

I imagine there will be plenty of pieces written about Clara Rugaard because she’s really great in this movie, but tell me about casting Rose Byrne as the voice of Mother.

It was a really tricky thing to try to find a voice that had the polish that you could actually believe would have been selected by a mega-corporation to be the voice of this system. If you think about stuff like Siri, it’s an incredibly poised voice, so trying to find an actress that had that level of poise and confidence and charisma and calm, but still through that could project care and love and affection and danger and a really nuanced performance, you end up with a pretty short list. Rose was at the top of that list once we’d gone through that exercise.

This is your first feature, and Rose and Hilary Swank are both veteran actresses who’ve been in a ton of different types of movies, but I don’t think Rose has really done anything like this before. What sort of questions did she have for you, and how was your working relationship with her?

The benefit when it came to casting Rose was that we did it in post-production. So we got to show her the film. There wasn’t quite the same leap of faith that Hilary had to take to come with us on this journey and believe that we were going to be able to convert on the story. So Rose got to see the finished movie and basically saw it and thought, ‘Yeah, this sounds great! It’s like a home run. I have to go to a recording studio and spend four days in air-conditioned comfort and create this character and be part of a cool movie.’ There wasn’t too much convincing necessary, thankfully.

I have to ask you about Mother, who I think immediately enters the pantheon of all-time great movie robots. Tell me about designing that character and making the decision to put [actor] Luke Hawker in a suit for it.

Thank you, man. It’s something we’re mindful of when we’re creating a movie: this is an incredible opportunity to get to tell a story at all. So many filmmakers that are more talented than I, through circumstances, maybe never get to make their film, so if you’re going to get that chance at bat, really try to hit a home run. Whether we did or didn’t, to know that we did to some people is really satisfying, because it was certainly what we were trying to do.

In terms of how we achieved Mother, doing it practically was always there from the outset. Making Mother look like a robot rather than an android was always there from the outset. There’s such a tradition of incredible robot films, but in most cases, they’re android movies. Partly because it’s cheaper to cast an actor and ask the audience to imagine that their insides are made of gears and wires rather than organs and flesh. So that’s part of why that terrain has been so well explored, but also just because I love that kind of filmmaking and you get to ask a different set of questions. So doing it practically meant that every close-up was there in camera and it was real and immediate and there was no imagination required on my behalf or the behalf of anybody that was working on the project. It was there. If we’d done it CG, then the danger is that if we’d fallen slightly short of the mark, you pull the audience out of the movie instantly.

So I wanted to do it practical for that reason, and also to celebrate the tradition of filmmaking that I grew up watching, whether it’s the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, or the T-100 in Terminator, or the Predator in Predator, or RoboCop in RoboCop. The practical filmmaking that’s at the center of those stories holds up even today, and there’s something really satisfying and tantalizing about that type of filmmaking that, given the opportunity, I was glad to go that route.

What sort of inspirations did you take in terms of that character design? Did you watch movies like Wall-E in terms of capturing the emotionality of a robot character?

It was such an epic process that was broken up into so many different segments as we tackled each challenge. I think largely the design of Mother is based on the real-world robots coming out of Boston Dynamics, and Atlas in particular is a robot we looked at really closely. But then when we got down to designing the face of Mother, I knew that I wanted to be able to create a dynamic performance that the audience could watch and follow and investigate and question. But I also didn’t want it to be a one-to-one obvious connection with the human face that we’re all used to seeing. I didn’t want Mother to have eyebrows and a smile and two eyes – I wanted there to be some level of interpretation required. It was a huge process to get to the result that we did, and yes, we definitely looked at Wall-E and we looked at Chappie and we looked at all the different robots that have come before us to work out how they’ve done emotion with a face. All of them are novel and really impressive, and for a long time, we felt like, ‘Ugh, there’s really nothing new we can bring to this.’ But in the end, we tweaked on the design that we ultimately ended up with, and felt like, ‘Phew, we got that one nailed. What’s the next problem?’

You mentioned Boston Dynamics, and I’ve seen some of those videos that have gone viral of robots doing insane and, frankly, some frightening things. This movie definitely reminded me of that. Those shots of Mother sprinting through the corridors were extremely unnerving to me.

A funny story about that is when we were looking at those reference videos of Atlas online when we were doing the concepts of Mother, just the drawings, Atlas was just this adorable robot stumbling through the forest that could barely keep its balance. It was really impressive that it was able to even navigate its way through the world for the first time and not fall over all of the time. But it was hardly doing ballet and pirouettes and blowing us away with its agility. But by the time we were on set shooting the movie, which was like a year later, Luke came over to me with his iPhone and said, ‘Dude, have you seen this that just got released?’ and it was a video of Atlas doing flips and parkour, basically. So it’s been amazing to watch how quickly the robotics has developed in the time we’ve been making this film. It’s moving at light speed, and it’s going to come a long way pretty quick.

I Am Mother Hilary Swank

Warning – Spoilers for I Am Mother ahead.

I’m going to put a big spoiler warning, so you can speak freely. How did this story evolve for you and your co-writer Michael Lloyd Green during the writing process? For example, did you ever consider not letting the audience see outside of the bunker?

There’s been a couple of things that changed from the first draft to the last. The most notable thing that changed was in the very first draft, Daughter had a brother from the outset. So she had a confidante that she could turn to and discuss her problems with. We pretty quickly realized that in a story that’s at least partly about isolation and trying to work out who you are, setting our main character adrift and giving them no one to turn to and leave them stuck between the two forces of Hilary Swank’s character and Mother’s character was the most dramatic option. So that was probably the biggest change.

We always went into the outside world, but what was outside was different across a couple of different drafts. We were really conscious of not wanting what was outside to feel like something that we’d seen before. So there was a version where it was a bit too Mad Max-y, so we turned our back on that. There was a version where we went outside and it was a bit too I Am Legend with an urban environment that’s reclaimed by nature, and we felt like, OK, we’ve seen that before. We ultimately settled on the version that we went with, which was when the idea that Mother was basically restarting the planet was introduced. The idea that we came outside and the world is charred and destroyed, but Mother is basically trying to rebuild it.

That leads really well into my next question, which is where did you film those exterior scenes? And how was that experience different for you compared to what I’m guessing was otherwise a sound stage environment where you could control every aspect of shooting?

(laughs) The exteriors were all shot in Auckland, New Zealand, which was a battle I had to fight with production because that was nowhere near where we were filming the stage stuff. But ultimately it was what was best for the movie, partly because if we’d filmed those scenes in the natural landscapes that were available to us in South Australia, you would have ended up with an aesthetic that was really similar to Mad Max: yellow dirt, bright blue skies, stuff that I felt that was sort of expected from a sci-fi story, particularly if anybody knew it was coming out of Australia. So I really wanted to push for something that was distinct and original and not the first and obvious choice given the options that we had. And once I explained it to people, they got on board, and once we showed them location pictures, it was easy to see we were going to get a lot of value out of going there.

And you’re not wrong. The process of shooting outdoors on location is incredibly different than how you get to work when you’re in the luxury of an air-conditioned studio. You’re dealing with weather, the sun setting on you and not enough hours of the day. We were dealing with the tide coming in and washing away the particular set-up that we’d spent thirty minutes preparing for. It was a challenge. The scene where Clara’s on the beach staring out on the horizon and leaning against a log? We had to keep moving that log up the shoreline as the tide kept coming in. We had guys off camera digging trenches, trying to divert the waves as they were coming in so they wouldn’t hit Clara and sort of run off to the side.

To take a slight tangential turn off to the side, Michael and I had worked together on another project before I Am Mother that was a western that we were really passionate about and loved, but didn’t happen for a whole host of reasons. We were really sad about it at the time, but in the end it worked out for the best because Mother sort of was born out of that process and that hurt and that film not ultimately getting made. But I did turn to him at one point when we were shooting the movie in the air-conditioned comfort of a sound stage and said, ‘Man, I’m glad we’re not in the outback wrangling horses’ and dealing with the sun setting and the bush flies that you get out in western Australia. So life will surprise you, but if you keep the faith, sometimes it works out for the best.

Tell me about the decision to make the audience work a little bit to put all of the story pieces together, especially at the end.

I just like movies that send you away thinking, that don’t give you everything tied up neatly with a bow. Those, for me, are the films that stay with you, that you go away and talk about with your friends and that you formulate different theories about and you go back to and revisit. I find that sort of filmmaking the most gratifying experiences when you go to the cinema. So I think it was inevitable that my first movie, at least, was going to be in that tradition.

Well, this is one hell of a calling card. What do you have lined up next?

I’ve been really lucky. There’s been an incredible amount of interest off the back of the film playing at Sundance and being picked up by Netflix. So Michael and I are actually working on an original sci-fi project at a studio that I can’t say too much about right this minute, but we certainly hope that turns into something exciting. And we’re taking a bunch of other meetings, and where they lead, who knows?

Do you consider yourself a sci-fi filmmaker? Is that a genre that you are looking forward to exploring multiple facets of during the course of your career, or do you see yourself as somebody who’s willing to jump into multiple genres depending on what strikes you at the moment?

Sci-fi’s been my favorite genre for as long as I can remember, so I’m glad to keep playing in this sandbox for a while longer. I think there’s scope to tell stories in this medium that you just can’t in any other genre. I’m glad to play around for a little bit longer, for sure – for many years to come, in fact. I mean, what will inspire me ten years from now is a little hard to say, but given the fact that I’ve loved sci-fi from when I first started watching movies, I think it’s inevitable that I’m going to be drawn to it for a long time to come.

Awesome. I look forward to seeing what you have coming up, and congratulations again on this movie.

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I Am Mother is now streaming on Netflix.

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