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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.

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