Exclusive: The Survivalist director talks about his unsettling dystopian tale

Dystopian storytelling is everywhere, but we guarantee that The Survivalist, writer/director Stephen Fingleton's take on the trope, is nothing like the majority of apocalyptic tales out there. First off, there are no decimated cities to pick through, or arid deserts to traverse. Mutant monsters aren't prowling for the remnants of humanity. Fingleton's narrative is set in a verdant forest somewhere in the not-too-distant future. Food has superseded oil, or money, as the commodity of ultra value.

It's in this landscape where we meet Martin McCann’s nameless loner, who brings us into his paranoid world of singular-minded existing. Every day is about staying alive to protect his garden of food from any other humans who might wander near his small cabin and surrounding yard. It's as lonely and pathetic as you might imagine until older mother Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and her teenage daughter, Milja (Mia Goth), appear willing to barter first seeds, and then Milja's body, for food and shelter.

What proceeds is a tense, surprising and disturbing exploration of gender roles, self-preservation, morality and violence, with plenty of twists along the way. It's graphic at times, and brutally thought-provoking.

In a U.S. exclusive interview with Stephen Fingleton, we talk to the first-time filmmaker about bringing to life his quietly menacing dystopia, how he brought together his incredibly talent cast and exactly who he made this film for.

How did you come to find the inspiration for your very unique take on a dystopian future?

I saw a film called Primer by Shane Carruth, which I thought was extraordinary because it was a science fiction film without special effects. I've always been interested in the potential for science fiction with its ideas and what it can tell us about the world by changing one element of the place in which we live, and finding the results. So I was looking for a story that would be speculative fiction and could be told without special effects.

Then I watched a documentary called Collapse by the filmmaker Chris Smith. It was a very frightening and plausible account of how population growth and resource decline will lead to a collapse in industrialized society. It led to the idea of depicting a film where this has happened without showing destroyed cities. All of it is simply showing how it's changed the characters and getting the audience to deduce the choices the characters have made to stay alive.

From the start, your film has no dialogue as we follow McCann's very twitchy and high-strung character through a sort of day-in-the-life of his bleak existence. What about that approach intrigued you?

The story begins with the life of one man living alone against nature. There's no dialogue. You make a choice where you make decisions like Robert Zemeckis did in Cast Away where you create an inanimate object to speak to. Or you can do what The Road did which is show flashbacks to another life. Or you can do what I did in this film which is depict silence as the ominous norm and words when spoken should be like gun shots.

You make the audience work to follow along and piece together what we need to know.

Yeah, I need to be really clear who this film is for. It's not for someone who wants to be spoon-fed everything and wants an experience where they can let it wash over them. This is a very participatory experience so because of the nature of how we see films these days, it's a bit difficult to find comparisons to the things it's doing. What we don't have in terms of stars or branding, we have in terms of interesting choices. Like the sound design for example, the sound was entirely reconstructed in post-production. There's almost nothing from the locations used. The sound is like a soundtrack but instead of the cellos, the brass or the drums of a soundtrack, we control the breath, the footsteps or the sound of the wind as our respective orchestra.

It's so haunting to watch a film that doesn't give the audience any cues on how to feel via a score, but creates tension from just natural sounds.

The sound was designed by Jamie Roden and his brilliant team at Goldcrest Films. I can't emphasize enough how much Jamie is an equal storyteller in this film as well. I like watching the film so I can listen to Jamie's work. (Laughs)

Martin McCann was in your short, Magpie. Did his performance in that seal the deal for him to be your lead in The Survivalist?

If you want your film to be seen by an audience in the cinema with reasonably wide cultural awareness, you need to cast stars. If you don't cast stars, your film is going to be screening at 12:40AM in the IFC Center for a week and then that's it. Or it's on VOD. I make films for the cinema. I don't make them for the small screen and it's very difficult to do that these days. So we had one very, very famous actor interested in doing the film. He's been in numerous franchises and because I might work with him in the future I'm not going to say who it was. But it became very clear because it's a very director-driven piece, it would be very difficult to get a big name actor to commit for a filmmaker making his first feature. So that meant for 18 months we had the script and we were just trying to find someone to do it.

I made Magpie as a pilot short to demonstrate the way in which I wanted to do the film because there's a lot of it that's very strange. There's no music, hardly any dialogue and it's all set in the forest yet it's a genre that's usually associated with urban settings. I cast Martin because he was in my friend Michael Lennox's film, The Back of Beyond, and Martin was great in it. Within two days of working with Martin, I knew two things. The first was, I knew he was going to be the lead actor in my movie. The second was I would have a lot less money to make the film with than I hoped for, but I knew it would be good. (Laughs)

Essentially, McCann, Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth carry this film entirely on the strength of their enigmatic performances.

Ultimately, the film is about watching the faces of the actors, so I was very fortunate to assemble three actors who were right for the roles and weren't cast because they were famous.

Mia Goth is really making a name for herself in independent cinema. How did you select her?

Mia, I cast blind. I still haven't seen any of her work outside of my movie. I knew she had worked with Lars Von Trier. She was recommended to me by my agency, WMA, and it turned out to be a very good recommendation. I'm not sure I would recommend that [route] to filmmakers at home; don't try this at home. (Laughs) But it served me well. She gave the role a huge amount more depth than I had actually written. I had written her as a very elusive character and Mia made her much more powerful.

How about Olwen Fouere?

Olwen auditioned for the role along with many other actresses, and proved to be completely unique. She worked well with Martin, obviously, but what you'll notice watching the film is you have three actors with three very different acting styles whose technical abilities are so good they are able to blend on screen. It's very interesting to watch.

How long did it take to get the film up and running once they were cast?

It happened so fast. We showed Magpie to an audience at the start of April and I was on set shooting The Survivalist in June. The script basically didn't change. It had been all around Hollywood on The Blacklist and it didn't change. It was just getting the actor and making it with the money we had.

Once you had the cast, did you tailor any of the script to their interpretations of the characters?

There was an unusual collaborative process. When I got the actors in to read the script, it was far too long a film. Because there is no dialogue, the length of the script was far longer than a page a minute so it would have been three and a half hours long. I immediately, in the days before the production, began to dramatically re-write the film in collaboration with the cast. We performed the film and cut scenes left, right and center. We would change the dialogue and the blocking. In most movies, actors try to keep as many lines as they can. In this film, the actors were fighting to get rid of as many as possible. In every scene, we would ask do we need this scene? Do we need all of this scene? Do we need all of the lines? So it was forged in collaboration with the cast and it's not something I could have planned in advance. I ended up with three actors who were extremely comfortable with silence and are very confident in their ability to communicate to an audience without words.

Once everyone was assembled, did you rehearse a lot to get the tone and chemistry right?

We had four days rehearsal. But what ended up happening is every day of the shoot I would spend the first few hours of the morning rehearsing. Instead of shooting lots of camera angles, the film has limited coverage but it never feels dull because the actors are changing so much they are giving something to the audience to hold onto. The total time of the shoot was five weeks. But we had to shoot an additional week because I was correct in assessing it would take six weeks. You can't take short-cuts. You have to get the scene, or you don't.

In terms of the gender roles and politics explored, what were you hoping to expose?

Our sexuality isn't defined by the age in which we live. It's something for which the rules never really change. I was interested in making something which would be quite transgressive and shocking to the sensibilities of a modern, liberal audience simply through the dislocation of time and when it's set. Everything that happens in the film happened in history, or is happening right now in particularly war stricken areas. If you look at the sexuality between Martin and Mia, there's a very interesting dynamic and balance of power between them. Simply giving an external reading, Milja is a victim of sexual exploitation who must give up her body for food.

But the film presents a much more nuanced approach to the subject in that she's a killer. I liked that because it's very politically incorrect, and if anything I'm disappointed it hasn't caused more outrage. I've only had a few walk-outs and angry questions from audience members. (Chuckles) It's a credit to the actors that the political commentary is almost wholly obscured and the human truth of what they're doing it what stands in its place.

Having made this film, what have you learned that you take with you in determining or developing the next story worth telling?

It's an interesting question because you make a film like this and it has a reasonably limited audience in terms of the people who will see it. It's not like Quentin Tarantino when he made Reservoir Dogs, or even when Carruth made Primer. The industry has so fundamentally changed. Independent filmmakers have to look at different forms like Netflix and Amazon because the existing independent film model isn't really viable anymore. But against that, there are new forms emerging.

Like?

I like TV. Shows like Better Call Saul, which is so fantastically strange and rich with such interesting characters. But for me I still want to make films for the cinema, which means making studio films. I'm working on a major studio level film which is a science-fiction action movie. It's the antithesis of The Survivalist. It's like Total Recall for the Julian Assange generation. Unfortunately, I can't tell you the title of it, or what it's about beyond that, but it's the kind of film that will be seen on 3000 screens rather than two.

Has it felt like culture shock working on something meant to be more mainstream?

It is! The Survivalist is a film which makes sense to me because it's a small movie. The idea I have for my big movie can only be done at the studio level. It means a number of things. For example, The Survivalist is unrated. I know exactly what rating it would get if it was before the MPAA and it would not be an R rating. So the studio film would be PG-13. It needs to have a cast the audience will respond to, and you need to tell a story in a way audiences are familiar with. It needs to be told in the mythos of Hollywood cinema, but I knew that when I came up with the idea. It's very subversive and it only works if it's something everyone sees. It's not subversive to have an idea that's dangerous and nobody hears about it. But it is subversive to have a dangerous idea and put it in something most people will see. (Laughs)

The Survivalist is currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD from IFC Midnight.

More from around the web