Writing “Manhunt,” “Red Dead Redemption” and “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor,” Christian Cantamessa had earned a reputation for world-building in video games. Now he’s channeled those lessons into first feature film “Air,” with the help of “The Walking Dead” producer David Alpert.
In “Air,” Norman Reedus and Djimon Hounsou star as a pair of custodians eking by in a bunker miles below an Earth devastated by chemical warfare. They’re tasked with watching over the last hope for mankind, cryogenically frozen masters in the areas of science, art and philosophy. But when a malfunction threatens their own survival, the two caretakers have to make life-or-death choices that could drastically affect the future of humanity.
During Comic-Con International in San Diego, Cantamessa and Alpert spoke with SPINOFF about how “Air” came together, how Reedus shaped the screenplay, and who they’d like to see preserved if the apocalypse was approaching fast.
SPINOFF: Christian, most of your work has been in video games. How has your experience in that field informed your first feature, “Air?”
Christian Cantamessa: First of all, I think of video games and film and television and comic books — they all share a common concept, which is world-building. We sometimes hear this term used, but I really think it is about telling a story that does not just exist in a static place, but it’s a bigger world that you get to have a window on.
Working in video games really helps creatives to build worlds that then get inhabited by players. And for film, the inhabiting is done by an audience that is slightly more passive. I really don’t believe that the passive audience of a film is that passive, because there’s a lot of thinking going on — especially in a movie like this. I think that was the biggest help I got from video games.
It’s also a very visual medium, so you have to tell a story using images. You have to do it contending with the player who is fundamentally your editor and is editing your story in real time because he is making these choices. But he’s incapable of making these choices if you — as the game’s creator — don’t give him the raw footage to edit.
So, I really believe the player is an editor, and not a writer or an actor. Because you can create very powerful stories editorially — but the player doesn’t have the tools to create anything; he can only recombine them. So his way of experiencing a story is very active, and at the same time relies on the creators of the game.
I’ve never thought of video games that way before. But I’ve edited films, so that makes sense to me as an analogy as to how to shape the story.
Cantamessa: But I don’t want to hijack our conversation to talk about games. But it is something that helped. And then of course I made short films. I studied film. So you come at it trying to feel as prepared as you can, and then you realize that nothing’s going to prepare you to direct a feature film other than directing a feature film. So you just go there, exposed and naked, and you just fight through it, hoping to have people like David Alpert and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones to help you get through the night.
To that end, David, taking on a first-time filmmaker with such a strong vision, what do you feel your job as a producer is?
David Alpert: I think that with any filmmaker we’re working with we’re trying to provide the resources to tell the story that we all got behind. When Christian came to us, it was through this zombie short film he had done (“How I Survived the Zombie Apocalypse“). Having worked on “The Walking Dead,” I was sort of resistant to really engage with anything that was about zombies. But I was told that this was something special. So when we saw it, I realized he got what we look for, which is personal human connections set against a genre backdrop. And that for us was a pivotal (element). So when he pitched us “Air,” he starts talking about this post-apocalyptic landscape, I was waiting, like, “OK, there’s going to be that same sort of human connection.” And when we had that moment, that’s specifically the movie that we’re trying to make.
What brought Norman Reedus to the project?
Alpert: [Brian and I] had worked on the script together for a while with Christian and his writing partner Chris [Pasetto]. And when the script was finally in shape we sat down as a producing team with Christian and started talking about it. We said, “OK, who would do this? And who would be the right guy to play Bauer?” And we went through that conversation, and basically said, “Look, Norman can do it.” We didn’t want it to be “Oh, we’re ‘The Walking Dead’ guys, we’ll just bring someone from ‘The Walking Dead.'” But it was entirely different from a character perspective from what he plays on the show, and we figured this is a great opportunity for him to show his range, which we knew he has. And also as rough and down and dirty as this movie was going to be, given how hard making “The Walking Dead” is, we knew [Norman] was going to be totally game to play with us.
We were talking before about world-building. The film gives a hint of why certain people were chosen for this farm of people to seed the future. Can you talk about that aspect and who should be saved in this context?
Cantamessa: The movie hints at the idea that people were chosen to be saved. We clearly took inspiration from real life in that during the Cold War there were tickets handed out to people, from the president of the United States to important scientists and basically everyone that’d be important to save in case of a nuclear holocaust.
They would be put in a bunker at the first threat.
Cantamessa: Yes. It was very interesting to see the criteria for it. Some of it clearly has political impact, but also the idea that of we can’t just take a book about quantum physics and put it there expecting that whoever is left is going to be able to read it, or even make sense of it. Because I don’t know about you, but I can look at that, and it’s printed there but I can’t formulate —
It may has well be in another language.
Cantamessa: Yes. So it becomes important to have the people, not just the tools. And, again, the film hints at that. There’s storage for all this stuff that’s put away. But in reality what you need is the people. And in the movie, we made the choice — because there are so many important things to save, one person, one representative, for each science or aspect of humanity is chosen and stored away. Almost like a library.
There’s different labels because there are different facilities that are out there. Our facility is GHI, and again we really went with the library [system]. And that’s for the audience to find out that we went with a library format. There’s ABC, there’s GHI; there’s a number of them. The name of the facility is the people’s disciplines, like a library. So in GHI, you’ll have genetics and you’ll have herpetology and ichthyology. And of course we’re having fun with it as well. But we didn’t want people to even have names. They were just the science they were standing for. And that’s why it becomes so important when you’re faced with what are we doing with these people.
Djimon’s character argues, “We can’t just take one of these guys (out) because you pull the plug, you pull the plug on genetics! It’s gone! Herpetology, it’s gone!” So how do you make those choices? That’s an interesting intellectual aspect of the film. The film also has a lot of visceral, primal aspects like, “I’m suffocating.” But it also has that aspect of potentially wiping out a little slice of mankind’s achievements and knowledge and what does it take to do that.
In the original script, Bauer was to be the bigger, more physically intimidating of the two workers. But then you cast Djimon as Cartwright. Can you talk about how his casting shifted the perception of the film?
Alpert: We went back and forth on that a lot, trying to figure out the best way to highlight [their differences]. Because Norman we cast first, so it was sort of a question of how to play off of him. Norman has a real physical presence but isn’t the biggest physical guy. But we felt it made more sense for him [to play Bauer] because he’s got such a great sarcasm, a great wit. He’s got that great ability to be fast with his words and spin you around. And we really wanted to highlight that in Bauer. So we re-conceived it. Originally he was more a jockish, fratty guy who also happened to be smart. And Norman really brought a very specific take to it, enlivened by his own energy. Which was great.
Then Djimon has such gravitas to him. You wouldn’t want to put him in the Bauer role; he’s almost too serious for it. He has such a presence, but it’s a serious presence. And that essence that he has really spoke more to Cartwright. It’s harder to imagine Djimon being sarcastic on a regular basis than Norman. And they’re both great actors, but we wanted to get down to the essence of what do they bring to the roles. Because the truth is on a 19-day shoot, which is not a lot of time at all, less time than they take to make an episode of “Game of Thrones,” we really needed this chemistry to gel. We needed them to find this rhythm and dynamic right away. And that (casting) seemed to be the thing that made the most sense.
So if a human seed facility like this were being put together, and you got to choose three people to be preserved for the future of mankind, who would you choose?
Alpert: I’d start with Norman Reedus, because women are so attracted to him that I think he’d help repopulate the planet really fast, which I think would be a good thing. [To Christian] Do you want to take the second pick?
Cantamessa: This is a really hard question. Norman, for sure.
Cantamessa: Yeah. I think that the other two picks would have to be women then, otherwise he’s going to be alone there. And that’s when it gets controversial because I don’t want to mention too many names.
Alpert: How about Octomom [Nadya Suleman]?
Cantamessa: Yeah, somebody who could do a lot of kids, exactly. We’re taking a pragmatic approach.
Alpert: But this is how you have to think. How do you populate that planet?
Cantamessa: I feel like Doctor Strangelove right now. We’re in that scene in the war room where we’re talking about “we will need a lot of women in bunker!”
Alpert: Maybe Octomom is past pique for fertility, so maybe one of the Octomom kids who is used to being in an environment with like–maybe that’s a good way to go. I just want to say if there was ever a movie with Norman Reedus and Octomom, I would watch that movie.
Cantamessa: Maybe we’re just coming up with something right here! “Air 2” starring Octomom.
“Air” is available now on digital HD and VOD.
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