After working on the sci-fi hit Moon, director/writer Gavin Rothery went on to channel his creative experience from that into the foundations of his next idea, Archive. Based around engineer George Almore (Theo Jones), who is on his own secret mission as he tries to create a human-like robot, this isolated story located in freezing cold conditions is more emotional than you might expect. STARBURST talks with Gavin to reveal the journey behind his directorial début, and much more…
STARBURST: After you came up with the idea for Archive in 2011, how did you go about getting a team together to support it, and how long did that journey take before you could actually start filming it?Gavin Rothery: Well it felt like it took about two-and-a-half-thousand years. It actually didn’t, but it did feel like it took a long time. When you do these things, you have your sort of key allies that you work with. I’ve been working with my producer, Philip Herd since roughly 2012. It took a long time for this film to come together because I tried not to write it. I spent about four or five years working with other writers, and it wasn’t coming out the way it needed to. So I ended up taking the reins and writing it myself. Over that period, there was a lot of meetings. Myself and Phil have production meetings every other week. So what we did was, we took it upon ourselves to find the best burger in London, every time we’d try a different place. So we hopped all over London to find the best burger, whilst we were putting the film together. We were like the core team in the middle, all the way through. It wasn’t until 2016, when we snagged Theo James, and pulled him into our orbit. That was the thing that enabled the film to happen. Once we got Theo in, it meant that we could secure finance, so we could look at a calendar and decide when we were going to shoot. We could book somewhere. It’s like climbing a mountain, you’re trying to get your axe pick in, so that you can get your second pick in, so you can climb. That first pick was Theo in 2016.
Was it always the plan to be the director on this movie?
Yeah! I wrote this film to direct it. It’s the first thing that I’ve written. I am a writer now, but not in the sense that I write scripts for other people. My background is in art, and I worked in the games industry for about 25 years. My background is concept art, and game production art, which then led to the effects.
You're known for working on Moon, was there anything that you learnt from putting that movie together that you went on to apply to Archive?
Everything! The whole approach for Archive was me basically re-doing what I did on Moon. Moon came from myself and Duncan Jones. We lived together for ten years, and we were trying to make a sci-fi film. That whole film was just the pair of us coming up with ideas, whilst living in a flat in London, trying to think about what would be cool, and what we could do. So, when we got to make Moon, the whole process was just me and him talking about things. It manifested from that. We had a couple of false starts, and it took us ten years to get it done. The intention was always to move in together, and try to make a sci-fi film. I was on the art side, and he was on the directing side. Everything just got really mashed up when we started working together. With the production process for Moon, we had such a tight budget. It’s OK me going to design sets and stuff on the computer, but I’ve got to be able to make sure that that stuff is legit, real. Affordable for our budget. The plan that I came up with for how to approach Moon was that we’ll build a physical set, then we’ve got it, we can shoot anywhere inside that and it’s all fine. It’s a big physical space, we can move the camera anywhere, and it’s all good. A huge problem that we don’t need to worry about. It was always going to be miniatures because we couldn’t afford CGI. So we just designed a bunch of vehicles and got them built as miniatures. We’d enhance them with CGI, hoping they’d look as good as full CGI models would. Miniatures cost a fraction of the price. Just to give you an idea of that, the whole budget for Moon ended up being just under two and a half million pounds, the cheapest quote we got for the effects was nine and a half million pounds, just for the effects. So it was immediately out as an option, it had to be miniature models. The complete budget for the model build was like seventy thousand pounds.
In a similar way to Moon, Archive has that isolated feel about it, what do you love about working with characters that are living in that setting?It just gives a really nice tone. When I look back at the sci-fi that I really love, films like Silent Running, sci-fi always takes this melancholy lonely tone, really nicely. When you’re telling human stories, there’s a bit of space to get into that kind of isolation vibe, which really suits science fiction. Especially when you’re trying to do something that’s got somewhat of a vintage vibe to it, with a close and personal character story. There’s something about people living with robots that I just find fascinating.
A lot of the sets in Archive are visually incredible, can you tell us about what they were like to put together, and of course, just how fun they were for you to work on as a director?
I just designed it all on my computer and passed it over to some chippies and they built it. Straightforward! It’s all just painted wood with vinyl graphics stuck on it. The trick is selling the illusion. I found the things that sell it for me are making it feel like it’s powered, having lights around the place, screens that have electricity in them. Also, there’ll be doors; on Archive, they were a big thing. When we did Moon it broke my heart that we couldn’t have moving doors, and so with Archive, I was like “I’m having big sliding sci-fi doors” They were a real staple. The set was designed around those doors because I knew that they’d look really cool on screen.
There's a scene where one of the J units is out in the snow, and then there's another moment where one is at the bottom of a huge waterfall. Can you tell us about what those big and bulky prototypes were like to work with, and were there any moments filming with them that were particularly challenging to do?Yeah, those suits were hard to wear. It wasn’t particularly challenging for me as I didn’t have to put them on! We had a Hungarian performer called Timea Maday Kinga inside J2, and she was a former Cirque du Soleil performer. I’ve never seen anyone so bendy. It was incredible, she could fold her body up into a little cube. She’d be stretching out before she put the suit on, and I walked past her thinking she was a bag on the side of the set - because everyone walks onto set and drops their bag. Then she started moving when I walked past, and she spoke to me, I was like “What the hell, hi Timea!” It was really weird, you hear about people being flexible, but I’ve never seen anyone do anything quite like that. She was literally a cube. I couldn’t see any skin, her head was tucked in; she was wearing a black bodysuit, which she wore inside the costume. It was amazing. That suit weighed about three times as much as her body, so moving in that was difficult. The costumes were meant to be lighter than they were, but when we got into the practicalities of building them, they had to be built quite quickly. So we had to take a few shortcuts in the fabrication, which meant that we weren’t able to take all the measurements that we were originally hoping to have. They were hard to wear, but we got through it. As a director, it was cool to be around them; seeing them alive on set.
Talking about the prototypes, how important was it to have that sort of evolution of robots to show George's work overall? And what do you think that that brought to the film?
When I was writing it the intention was to write a family, so I wrote it as that. I thought if I then just put a robot there after it should hopefully have a lot of character about it. So I wasn’t writing about robots. From the story, I was relying on people to take a couple of jumps along with George’s journey. The intention was that he was saving his engineering energy for J3 because she was the one that needed to look realistic. So J1 and J2 are really all about the brains, he is doing bare minimal work on them to develop the brains, to get to the next one. Until he feels like he is in a good place, and he can finally release all of his energies into the physical form of J3. So there was a little bit of a jump there, where J1 and J2 are boxy machines, and J3 is Stacy Martin! She looks a lot like Stacy Martin, it’s strange.
Going on from that, Stacy Martin's character Jules gets to act as her past self, a prototype, and a voice in the background? So can you tell us what she was like to work with?It was really hard for Stacy. What I found with an actor is if they engage with the material and script, they love it when the work is hard, because ultimately, actors just want to show off. They’re emotion-seeking creatures and they just want to bring it large. It was really hard for Stacy, but she just grabbed hold of it with both hands and went for it. You can see that on screen. The makeup was hard, it was four and a half hours on, and two and half hours off. The days when we were filming J3, she had a hard time, she was in a really stinky mood when she came out of makeup, but she was using that emotion to fuel her performance. You’re allowed to be angry, use that. She was creeping the crew out because she had the prosthetics on her face, and couldn’t really emote, smile, etc. - it was all with her eyes. She was just blanked face, staring at people a lot of the time. Freaking them out.
Stacy also suffered in really strange ways. The methodology of her acting, and the way that she brings her energy to the performance, is that she won’t complain. As a director, I’ve always got to make sure that everyone is OK, I’m always saying “If you’re uncomfortable with anything going on here we’ve got to talk about it”. In Hungary, where we were shooting was very cold; an hour outside of Budapest in the countryside. It was -10 Celsius outside, very, very cold. We were in a warehouse because we couldn’t find a studio, all the production studios out there are booked by Netflix and Amazon making the TV shows. They’ll block book the sets for five years, leave the sets standing and keep making shows. So everybody is shooting in warehouses! You’re lucky if you can get a good warehouse. We were in an unheated warehouse, -10 on the inside as well. We were trying to do what we could with Stacy, but it was terribly cold. When we were shooting the car crash flashback, she had loads of fake blood on her. I didn’t realise this at the time, because she didn’t tell me, but the fake blood froze her hand to the front of the car. She was only in it for like ten minutes. We were trying to get in and out of it as quick as we could because it was so cold, and that part was shot outside. She told me afterwards, and I said “You should of told me, we could of stopped it” and she was like “No, we’re here to shoot a film, and we’re going to shoot this film.” She’s a complete trooper.
How did you end up working with Theo James, and what did you enjoy the most about working with him?
It was a nightmare to work with Theo! He is a bad-tempered individual, a very violent man. Obviously, that’s not true, Theo is an absolute gem. It’s tricky because I should hate him really, he is super talented, handsome, smart, but I love him to bits. He is so cool, a really nice guy, and dead funny. I found this quite a lot with actors really, a good actor, for some reason, just tends to be really funny. When you hang around with them for a bit, and you get a repartee going with each other, they tend to be that way. Theo and Stacy were just really funny. They were cracking us up when we were shooting, which is great because it’s a tight shoot, and there was a lot of pressure. It’s good to have that. Theo brought so much to this character. I needed someone who I felt was believably smart. Putting somebody in this role, I’m expecting people to go along with him, creating these genius robots, which was one side of it. The other side was that I also needed somebody that I felt could have enough of an ego about themselves, to believe that they could pull this off. That’s the real crux of it. It’s not him being able to do it, it’s believing that he was able to do it, and you saw that with Theo.
We’ve got to ask you about that insane ending. Was that always the plan from day one, or did it just evolve over time?
No, it was always the plan. Whenever I’m putting a story together I like to know where I’m going. There are different ways of creating stories. Some people when they’re writing they’ll come up with characters, or a situation, roll with it and see where it goes. My kind of route into it, when I’m making a story, is that I’ll have some kind of compelling thing that I want the story to be about, then I’ll kind of come up with a set-up that’s going to kick things off. Then I’ll figure out where it’s going. Then once I’ve got that, I find that you can really go all over the place with the creative journey in the middle.
Finally, why should STARBURST readers check out Archive?It’s got thrills, spills, robots, cool cars, handsome scientists. What more do you want from a film? We’ve got Red Alert sequences with loads of flashing lights, cool futuristic dropship aircraft. Metaphysical preponderance on post-death experience. Where society might be going, corporations might be going. It’s all there! Get on the train!
ARCHIVE is available on Blu-ray and DVD from July 12th. You can read our review here.