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    Brooklynn Prince and Wyatt Rockefeller on set

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Settlers.

It felt like there were unexpected and interesting story turns at every corner. What sparked this idea for you?

Wyatt Rockefeller: The spark for the idea came, really, from a feeling. I was in the woods with my Dad, and it was snowing. And you know when it snows, it can absorb all of the ambient noise. So it’s quiet in a way that you almost never experience at other times. There was something very eery about that. And I remember looking over at the tree-line, and imagining someone watching us through the trees… looking up ahead at my Dad in his old coat, I imagined a guy patrolling the outskirts of his farm, I imagined what he might be guarding against… and by the time we got inside, I basically had the whole plot up to when Jerry puts down the gun. It just hit me at this gut level, “oh wow, that’s really dark,” which is a good sign! And I think when something kind of writes itself, that’s also a good sign. But it wasn’t actually until later (because I was writing something else at the time, so I shelved it) but when I had the idea to set it on Mars — as it could be, one day, after we’ve partially terraformed it to be habitable like Earth — that I thought, OK, this could be a feature. Because originally, I thought it was a short. But then by putting it on a different world, it unlocked visual and thematic opportunities that I thought would make it worth a few years of my time, and an hour and a half of an audience’s time.

I’ve always thought of the “villain” as their isolation

Even after finding a great location, there must have been many things you did to create the illusion of being on a different planet.

WR: This was the fun part! This was my first feature, and there were definitely moments on set where I wondered what I was doing. Why did I have to set my first feature on Mars!? This was supposed to be this small, feasible film… and I’ve gone and set it on Mars. I’ve set the bar pretty high. If they don’t accept the world, if they don’t accept that we’re on a different planet, we’re not going to get into the story. So we had a high bar right out of the gate… sorry for the mixed metaphor there! But thankfully we had found an amazing location in South Africa. So we did have a solid base to work off of, and we were able to build these remarkable sets. Noam Piper, the production designer, really did a fantastic job. But we did still have to take it on faith… I was really, I think, insecure about the world we were creating. Those were wooden sets. I used longer lenses than I probably would have normally, because I wanted the background to be a little more out of focus, and to just kind of hide things. I think maybe I was overly sensitive to that, actually. We really had to take it on faith — through production and through the edit, even — that at some point, the world was going to show up. And it really came with the VFX (which there are actually a fair amount of, even though they’re very specific and we had to be sparing with them — and the color and the sound. And with the color, to be very specific about it, the moment you take the blue out of the sky, you leave Earth. And the moment you make them kind of tan (or whatever), you land on Mars, or a similar planet. And that was big. And also, with the dome… the colorist and I spent a lot of time just creating the environment. Because we couldn’t afford to have all that be VFX, in all the shots where you see it in the background. We spent a lot of time creating these color aberrations that you wouldn’t notice the first time you were to watch, but if you were to watch through again, you’d pick up on. And then, finally, with the sound. The sound is important to any film, because it’s a 2D image, but the sound is what puts you in to this three dimensional space, it’s what really brings you into the film. To give you an example, in her bedroom, when her Dad is putting her to sleep, creating that soundscape to really make them feel isolated… we brought in these kind of arctic wind sounds, which have this very specific, very haunting kind of feel to them. We brought those in for the outside, and then for the inside, we added effects like the slight tapping of a loose wire, that would sound like it was reverberating through the walls, and just create this sense of abandonment and hollowness. That was my big note to the sound designer: I want this to feel hollow and empty, both inside and within the dome itself. And I think that is what really put us in this other world.

The character of Steve was really a pleasure. How did you conceive of and construct him?

WR: That was one of the more rewarding elements of this process. Because Steve is a mix of VFX and puppetry. And so, he was the product of this wonderful collaboration between departments. My starting point — I actually initially thought of him… or thought of “it,” rather — as a kind of smaller, future version of the Mars rovers as they are now, especially Curiosity. Because I was naively thinking, “oh, we can basically have a remote control robot on-set that we can build on the cheap.” But we really did want to start from the idea that his function would dictate his form and design. And that he wouldn’t be able to speak, because it is so important— his arc is sort of the reverse HAL. The question is, is he capable of human compassion, or is he just a tool (as Jerry says)? So it was important that he be relatively inscrutable. And we had VFX for the more complex movements, but we really needed to be very judicious about that, so we built a puppet. Which was also necessary because I wanted something for the actors to play off of. And really nailing down what his specific functionality would be, so that we could then design him in a way that made sense for that specific functionality. So we changed from wheels to legs, for example, because if he’s going to be walking over fertile soil at some point, he’s going to have to be able to step carefully.

The subtlety with which you shaped his character was so effective. Even the slight head tilt he gives at one point was so wonderful.

WR: A lot of that credit goes to William Todd-Jones, who is this really veteran puppeteer. His first movie was Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. He knows how to communicate via creatures! But that was really fun on-set, just really figuring out how to convey a personality, and an emotion, just purely through movement. And it was, I would say, comparable to what Spielberg has said about Jaws: “At 25 frames per second it’s a shark, at 26 it’s a robot again.” There’s just those little moments where suddenly it all just flows and works together and the the robot suddenly comes alive.

Did you first conceive of Jerry as a villain?

WR: Well… Yes, Jerry is the antagonist, for sure. But I’ve always thought of the “villain” as their isolation. And I really wanted people to… I want people to come out of the movie wondering, “what would I have done in that situation?” I want them to feel for all the characters, and for them to say to themselves, “I hate what Jerry does, but I understand why he does it.” And that’s been really cool to see! People saying, “I want to hate Jerry, but I see where he’s coming from.” I remember sending the script to friends while I was still writing, and a friend — who is also a filmmaker — said, “you’ve got to make Jerry more likeable, because otherwise Remmy is let off the hook too easily. It’s kind of too easy to hate him, and to turn on him.” She made the point that you’ve got to make that choice much more difficult for the audience. It was really helpful to get both her perspective and my wife’s perspective, because from a female perspective — which I obviously don’t have — that scene where he makes a move on her… they told me they’d been in situations a little like that, where they thought it was as business meeting and it turned into something else that they didn’t want it to be. To have that perspective was just so helpful, because…I think movies have this capacity to put you in someone else’s shoes. And when you’re writing, and when you’re trying to make this idea a movie, you’re basically trying to do that, you’re trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes. And the best example, where I felt really proud of getting close to that, was when we shot the scene when Nell [Tiger Free] shoots Ismael [Cruz Córdova]. In the script, he goes for his gun, and then she shoots him before he can shoot her. Which is actually pretty weak, because he’s taking the choice away from her— it’s just self-defense for her at that point. So I put it to Nell: What would you do, if he doesn’t pick up the gun? Would you pull the trigger, or not? And she thought about it… and we had actually just shot the attempted rape scene the night before. And she really “went there,” she really went through that. And she thought about that experience… and she said, “yeah. After what he did to me? Yeah, I’d shoot him.” And so that’s what we filmed. And I was really proud of that, because we were going off of her actual lived experience, rather than what I’d thought when I was writing made the most sense for the plot and for the characters.