STARBURST: Your background is predominantly in the world of graphic design - title sequences, typography, etc. Were you keen to find a distinctive project for your first turn in the director’s chair?
Henry Hobson: I’ve worked quite a lot as a commercial director, so I’m not new to that world but I’m certainly new to the long-form. With Maggie, I wanted to find a script that really tried something different, a strong script which worked with a new concept and it felt like a perfect balance of something which could be small and contained and yet still have the intrigue of a larger-scale project despite its nominal budget. The script actually came to me. I’d made a few commercials with dealt with genre aspects and so I got sent scripts for every kind of zombie project you could think of, every kind of trope which had been explored. But Maggie stood out as something which felt more human and more real; and ultimately in a purely dramatic sense, more engaging. This was five years ago, so it was before The Walking Dead, before Warm Bodies and Life After Beth, so it really stood out in its own right as a script which spoke a powerful message of something quite original so I was taken by that aspect.
Maggie is nominally a zombie film, but it’s also got a very human story at its heart. How would you categorise the movie?
I think it’s a human drama framed in a genre kind of lens. The zombie genre is a lens through which we’re looking at the real study of what people would do in these terrifying moments. If you think of a film like Fault in our Stars, which deals with tragic teenage disease and terminal cancer, you’re dealing with a story which is very relatable and heart-breaking in the same breath and Maggie deals with the same kind of story, but framed in the lens of something more terrifying which is ‘what if that person becomes deadly themselves at the end of their life?’
It’s an unusual and surprising project for Arnold Schwarzenegger and his role as Wade is worlds away from his signature ‘action movie’ persona. How did he come to be involved in the movie?
Arnold’s agent was very forward-thinking and he came to me and said ‘Have you thought about Arnold?’ and to be honest I hadn’t, but it quickly occurred to me that the role of Wade needs an actor who exudes the power of someone who is the pillar of their community and I wanted the audience to read into Wade that he’s respected throughout that community, despite not being the sheriff or the mayor or whatever and that he’s someone that people wouldn’t say no to. He maintains his dignity in his kind of small humble life and he maintains that in the sense that the local Police would turn to him to ask him questions, the doctor would bend the rules for him. I wanted to have someone who would exude that sense without having to show scenes where he’s strong-arming people, or threatening them or walking into a bar and everyone tips their hat, or he walks into a bar and beats people up. I wanted to get rid of that and do something where the actor would embody that strength without having to show those extra scenes. When you think about Arnold, he is all of those things; he exudes that control or power and success in everything he’s done and his character Wade is also a man who has successfully protected his family and raised them in the best way possible. They’re great kids and even though his first wife died, he brought them up and they still have this strength of character which shows he’s been successful, but then he fails at the last hurdle. He got through the zombie apocalypse, but after it happened and everyone was getting back to life Maggie’s bitten and there’s something so ironic about that - he managed to protect them but ultimately failed. So for me, Arnold was a perfect choice once it was put to me in embodying that success but also being able to twist people’s perception of him and play with that perception and make people when they watch Arnold even more terrified at him failing because if you see someone who you think of as a success, as a protector, failing that makes that journey that much more terrifying. So for me, the minute Arnold was put forward it was clear that there was the potential for someone who could project that sense of ‘Oh shit if he can’t protect his family, what hope is there for me?’ which I found quite exciting.
Did Arnold have any particular creative input during the filming?
He was very receptive to ideas. Initially, I created a book for him detailing what my intentions were for him in every scene and that enabled him to feel confident in me and to look through the book and go ‘Ok, this is what he means, we’ve only got a short time working on the film but I’m able to dip my toe into what he’s thinking’ and he could see something which played into his mantra which is ‘Preparation Prevents Piss-poor Performance’ which he repeats on set. He could see I was preparing for him in the role in a very intense way and therefore the minute he got that confidence he put his whole trust and faith into me and we were able to work together in a really great way and he was very receptive and open with his thoughts and ideas.
The role of Maggie herself is obviously pivotal to the movie and presumably was quite a challenge for Abigail Breslin, who’s really quite extraordinary.
I think it would be a challenge for any normal young actress, but Abigail is quite amazing in the fact that she kind of made it feel totally effortless. She’d just walk in, she would have prepared the scenes, the way she wanted to bring out that fragile and yet ultimately intensely strong persona. In many ways, she’s stronger than her father, she’s got it all planned out, she’s worked out that if she runs away from home she can protect her family whereas he hasn’t worked out anything, he’s just driving to go and find her, he’s hunting her down to kind of protect her, but he has no idea what’s going to happen next. She’s thinking many chess moves ahead of him and ultimately, he’s stumbling through a set of decisions he’s forced to make without being able to kind of clearly make them and it shows the difficulties he’s going through and I think there’s something beautiful in that vulnerability in both Wade and Arnold’s performance as Wade.
Two of the most striking aspects of the movie are the dusty, washed-out colour palette and the eerie soundscape dominated by an almost-unnatural ambient silence and a constant background of rumbling distant thunder. How important to you were these aspects of the movie?
You’ve hit upon two things which were incredibly important to me. When you’re telling a story which is essentially set in four or five spaces - we’re not talking about huge journeys across towns and cities and lots of new explored environments – I wanted to have a reminder that we’re dealing with a disease that affects not just the humans, but the plant life and animal life and it’s killed the ability for electricity to come through, it’s killed a lot of modern electronics. One of the biggest challenges from a visual effects point of view was ‘killing’ the plant life because New Orleans, where we filmed, is intensely green and verdant and so a lot of that plant life is digitally altered to kind of give it that de-saturated look whilst not taking away from the colour of the people in the story. I wanted to reinforce the oncoming death with both the sound design with the rumbles of thunder and the visual palette, so you might look out of a window in a scene between two people and you’ll notice that in the background although it’s sunny outside the plants aren’t growing. I wanted to have that constant reminder with the soundscape stripped of all wildlife apart from these eerie insects which appear at night.
You mentioned filming in New Orleans. Was that a logistical or creative choice?
It was, as with a lot of small budget films and actually with a lot of big budget films – Terminator: Genisys, Planet of the Apes, Jump Street, Focus – down to the fact that New Orleans offers this huge tax rebate and although not perfect as a location, if you can get the film made it’s a useful tool when you’re dealing with the film being given 30% of its budget back. It made for a bit of a logistical nightmare on my part because I wanted to deal with a part of the world that was barren and stripped of its foliage and I wanted to deal with a farmhouse and around New Orleans there are no farmhouses. There are some beautiful plantation houses and rundown shacks but there’s nothing in-between, there’s no farmhouses and once you go further out of New Orleans into the zone where it becomes difficult to film in you can find them, so Maggie’s house is actually four or five different houses being used together and made to feel like one house when in actual fact it’s several and that was because we couldn’t find one house that fitted our every need. I would love to have shot in autumn somewhere further north and play with the very real palette that was on the page but we kind of had to work around that but I suspect that the budget we saved we spent on visual effects!
But it’s quite noticeable that the visual effects are subtle and understated rather than showy. You establish your ‘world’ without needing shots of devastation and destruction and hordes of rampaging zombies.
Exactly. We’ve seen all those things, and so I wanted in this one is to have this kind of subtle reminder which flows through the film in the corner of your eye or in your ears, I felt that was an important constant. I think there’s a realness to it; if you look at countries which are at war, the market sellers still come out to sell their wares. I’ve just come back from the Ukraine, a country at war, and I saw clear examples of it, but life was continuing. I’m shooting a huge project out there, but everyone’s perfectly normal. There are signs on the periphery of the war-torn landscape but the world continues and I think one of the hopeful messages in Maggie is that although these small stories are painful and terrifying, the human spirit continues throughout and I think the message of hope is still there in the fact that the family is still together by and large, and Maggie’s story is one about strength of character.
Are you pleased with the generally positive reviews the film has received from audiences who have really understood what you were trying to achieve?
I’m incredibly pleased. I think the difficulty when you’re telling a story which is so different to a) the story that Arnold usually tells and b) the story that cinemagoers usually want to go and see - which is the bombastic Avengers/Marvel/festival of explosions - is that what Maggie does is showcase a very different human story. I think people are open to asking themselves questions about what would they do in this situation and seeing Arnold in a fresh light and seeing a visual landscape which is very new and I’m really pleased that people have responded well to that.
Presumably, then, you’d prefer to keep things intimate rather than working in the world of brash, loud, big budget action blockbusters?
I think there’s a degree to which you can still apply the intimacy to those larger films, and I’d love to be able to bridge that gap. If you think of directors like Christopher Nolan who have managed to straddle both sides with something like Memento right up to the Batman franchise and beyond, there’s a degree to which, when you ask some of those questions about humanity, it can still work in some of the larger films and when it works it works really well so I’d happily engage with some of those larger projects.
Maggie hits cinemas in the UK on July 24th.