Powerfully conveying the enthrallingly complex emotions of a diverse group of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues during a dire national emergency like a severe and long-running drought can be a challenge for many filmmakers to take on. But versatile writer-director Jake Paltrow effortlessly showcases how such a natural disaster can bring some people closer together to work through their desperate situation, while also harrowingly driving former allies apart, in his sci-fi action movie, ‘Young Ones,’ which is set to be released on January 13 on DVD. What was even more intriguing about the filmmaker’s study of those motivations is that he compellingly presented the drama, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, through the diverse perspectives of three of the story’s major characters.
‘Young Ones,’ which is set in the near future, chronicles the devastating impact the dwindling supply of water has on American political policy, as well as interpersonal family and romantic relationships. The sci-fi action drama is structured into three acts, each of which is told from the distinct points-of-views from different characters. The first act showcases how Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) is a recovering alcoholic who’s trying to quit his habit in order to provide a better life for his teenage children, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Mary (Elle Fanning), on their small rural piece of land.
Jerome tries to find solace in the fact that his father’s trying to provide a better life for them, particularly by delivering supplies to workers building a pipeline to irrigate corporate farms. However, Mary is constantly hostile towards him, as she perceives him to be overbearing and controlling of her life. She’s particularly angry about the fact that her father is trying to stop her from seeing Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), their ruthless neighbor who not only dreams of taking over Ernest’s land, but also marrying Mary.
The second act emphasizes how the tension between Jerome’s father and sister is dictating his thoughts on their lifestyle. Jerome must also contend with the fact that his mother, Katherine (Aimee Mullins), is a paraplegic, after Ernest drove drunk, crashed their car and paralyzed his wife. Katherine must live in a hospital and wear a computerized suit to move. Jerome believes a new robotic farm machine his father has bought to help with their job will help improve their economic situation and relationships, but it in fact only creates more tension amongst his family.
Jerome’s opinions about the struggles within his family then lead way into the film’s third act, which also highlight his ever-changing negative viewpoint of Flem. Being the son of an important local merchant has garnered Flem clout in the community. He utilizes his power to not only further his romantic relationship with Mary, but also to cultivate the Holm’s land in ways Ernest never could. But when Jerome uncovers a harrowing secret his older sister’s significant other is hiding, the dynamics within the family are tragically changed forever.
Paltrow generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview to talk about making ‘Young Ones’ at the Crosby Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how he drew on several inspirations to tell the action drama’s story, including how drought-stricken towns around the world forced its citizens to leave their homes, and how author S. E. Hinton grippingly portrayed the plight of children and adolescents in her novels; how he offered most of the main actors their roles without having them audition, as he admired their work, and how they understood his vision of how he wanted to present the tensions within the story’s society and personal relationships when they were on the set; and how filming the sci-fi movie independently on a remote location in South Africa not only allowed the cast and crew to bond, even when they weren’t shooting on the set, but also gave him the creative freedom to tell the story the way he wanted.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the script for the action sci-fi drama, ‘Young Ones,’ in part because you read newspaper articles about the governments in Chile and Yemen moving citizens in part to garner more natural resources. Why were you interested in showing the reasons people stayed behind after their communities left in the film’s script?
Jake Paltrow (JP): There were a few reasons why I wanted to tell this story. The firs was that I was reading the books by S. E. Hinton, who wrote such novels as ‘Rumble Fish’ and ‘The Outsiders,’ and I was very inspired by the way she dealt with kids. I started thinking about what a science-fiction book that was written by her might feel like.
There were also some world issues that inspired me. The drought issues in Yemen and Chile that I was following. There were personal stories about people who had to leave these towns because they were drought-stricken. There was also this robot, BigDog, from Boston Dynamics, that I became interested in. Even though it doesn’t have a soul, it felt alive.
So the consequences of those three things, as well as wanting to tell a father-son and love story, really started this idea. I built the story from combining those three things together.
SY: What was the overall writing process like for you as you were crafting the script for ‘Young Ones?’ What additional research did you do before you began penning the screenplay?
JP: There were little things I looked into when I first started working on the story. But it wasn’t until we really started to get the movie made that I really started to look into the water rights. The film’s set in an unspecified area of the United States, but feels like it can take place in a few different areas. It has the landscape of eastern Colorado, with the politics of the Arizona and California water conflict.
SY: Besides writing the script, you also directed the film. Do you feel that working on the screenplay helped or influenced the way you approached helming the drama?
JP: Oh, certainly. In a lot of ways, they’re the same things to me. In the writing, it’s sort of being directed by a series of reminders of how we’re actually going to film the scenes. I found myself writing those things more and more into the script. I feel like I’ve become more forgetful, so I made sure I was very prepared to make the film. I storyboarded the scenes, and made sure everything was worked out, because we also shot on a short schedule. If some of the ideas aren’t right in front of me, I’ll forget all the little details for the scenes. So I found myself putting them more and more into the script. I feel like scripts didn’t use to have as much prose as they do now.
SY: You shot the film over the course of 35 days over eight hours away from Cape Town, and your location was experiencing the same difficulties with water that are presented in the film. What was the overall experience of filming the movie independently on location in South Africa over such a short period? Did it allow you to have more creativity when you were filming?
JP: Well, it certainly let us tell it the way we wanted to. The positive side of filming independently on a low budget, which is how we made this movie, is the freedom. I got to control it, and make the film the way I wanted to. Everything is mine, and at the end of the day, no one else could cut or change it. I recognize how lucky that is.
SY: You have mentioned the story is really driven by the father-son relationship, as well as love. So how did you decide you were going to cast the main actors, including Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Elle Fanning and Kodi Smit-McPhee?
JP: For the most part, I had liked all these actors, and had offered the roles to them. I hadn’t known Kodi as well, so he auditioned. But he was the first audition, and I was shocked that we found someone so good right away. But I offered the roles to everyone else, because I had known they were what I wanted. Since it was also a small cast, the process wasn’t arduous.
The majority of the rest of the actors came from where we filmed in South Africa. There were also a few supporting actors who flew in, like Aimee Mullins, because I wanted her to play the mother (of Smit-McPhee and Fanning’s characters). Also, Liah (O’Prey), the girl who played Anna, who brought (Jerome) across the border, came from Europe.
SY: Did you have time to rehearse with the cast, or allow them to make suggestions on their characters’ arcs, while you were making the film?
JP: Only on the day we shot their scenes, but here wasn’t a lot of time to do it. But I think they knew I had an idea on how I wanted to do each scene, so it didn’t vary much. We did do some things differently, but there weren’t any cases with the main cast in which we went in the wrong direction, and I had to pull them back from something I felt was wrong.
SY: The film is interesting partly because you decided to present the film in three chapters, from the perspectives of Ernest, Flem and Jerome, instead of acts. Each chapter was presented in the form of a short film. Why did you decide to tell the story from the different perspectives in the different chapters?
JP: I liked it because it brought a storybook quality to the movie, which was intended in lots of ways, including its general style, and in the hope that it feels like an alternate reality to the future. So I wanted it to feel like a movie. It wasn’t done in a Cassavetes way; it was done in a more classical way. I wanted a lot of the elements of the movie to reflect that. I think the chapters bring a more formal element to it. It very firmly tells viewers, we have left this character, and now we’re going to watch this person.
I did try editing the film without the chapters once, but I thought keeping them in gave the story a nice quality. The chapters pushed you into the next part of the movie, and made you pay attention. It was a nice way to highlight where to put your eye to next.
SY: In addition to the family and love relationships, the story is in part propelled by its action sequences. Do you feel incorporating those special effects into the film was also important to developing the story?
JP: I think they were very important. I think the way we approached utilizing the robot was important, because I wanted the actors to be able to put their hands on it. So I always knew I wanted some puppeted element of the machine, so that people could actually interact with it. With CGI, there are ways in which you can’t interact with the machines and special effects. There were two puppeteers underneath the machine, and then we digitally removed them and added the legs on. It was a very effective way to do it.
SY: Speaking of the robot, the more the Holms used it throughout the film, the more it separated them and kept them apart. Did you purposely add that into the story, to show how modern technology in some ways is driving families apart?
JP: I didn’t really think about it that way, but I suppose it could. Without all of this modern technology, people can grow closer together again. For instance, we were in such a remote location where we shot the film in South Africa that our cell phones and other technology didn’t work. We would have to go to the main road just to make a phone call, so that brought us together. Luckily, the group got along so well, there was a family atmosphere. In general, I think that’s a nice way to get through making movies, especially when it’s one that’s as difficult to make as this one.
SY: Are you interested in continuing to make independent films in the future, or are you also interested in directing bigger studio movies, as well?
JP: I’m interested in continuing to tell these types of stories. To me, it’s just about having the amount of money we need to make a film. If there was a project that required a lot more money, and I was confident I could make it in a responsible way, then I would be very excited to make it. But I think the next film will be about the same size as this one.
Written by: Karen Benardello