To the uninitiated, Focus Features' new thriller Captive State may look like a big budget alien invasion; in other words, a spectacle of a movie. And in its own way it is just that. But director Rupert Wyatt came to the story of a future Chicago torn apart by those who have and haven't submitted to alien overlords with different goals in mind, as he told CBR in an exclusive interview during the lead-up to the film's release.
"I like humanistic stories," Wyatt explained. The director is perhaps best known for reigniting a mega franchise with 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but his work on Captive State pulls back from grand scale war scenes to focus on humans who have to live their lives in an oppressive regime.
"I wanted to avoid the Independence Day side of the conflict and immediate fight back with the idea that we just laid down our arms and agreed to this new world order," he told us. "What does that mean for us? What does it mean for those who have become collaborators and work for the near term benefit of our occupiers? And what does it mean for those who fight back as militants and dissidents?
"My intention with this was to lead with character rather than the fireworks display of world creation where you can sometimes get lost emotionally. But at the same time, I wanted to explore a society that's under occupation, and I wanted to do that under the footprint of America in the modern day. In order to properly explore that warts and all, I had to go into the near future."
Appropriately, the movie features an ensemble cast that represent all sides of the conflict. There's a seeming collaborator cop played by John Goodman, a desperate network of resistance outlaws, a mysterious woman in the middle played by Vera Farmiga and one young man (Moonlight's Ashton Sanders) torn between his desire to live in peace or follow the path of his revolutionary brother.
"It's what you call a hypernarrative – one with an ensemble of essentially different protagonists," Wyatt explained. "We're following characters through a world as we leave one behind and pick up on another. It's not everyone's cup of tea, though. In this day and age, a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker relies on the 'Hero's Journey,' which is such a classic structure that people often expect a feel like that. The idea for me was to build a jigsaw puzzle – a very disparate group of characters all uniting. That's what coalesces our story rather than seeing everything through they eyes of one person."
The director admitted that balancing that kind of story with alien monsters was a challenge, but the trickiest part of making Captive State work was guiding the viewer through the story without answering every little question about what the various cast members are striving for. "It's a bit of a Chinese puzzle box," he said. "My face is way too close to the glass. I co-wrote the script, so I know what happens. You're always trying to ask the question, 'How much information does the audience now have? How much do I give, and how much do I pull back?'"
Wyatt drilled into character behavior and hoped the details of their perceptions would feed the excitement of the film. "It's a form of mystery storytelling, and not everybody is going to pick up on the detail I tried to put in the film. But my expectation for the viewer – if I had any expectation – would be to understand that every single decision made in the storytelling of this film has a purpose. There's a meaning to it. It's not just carpentry. Hopefully if they're willing to invest on that level, by the end they'll get the picture in a really clear way and enjoy the film all the more."
Most of all, Captive State works to swerve away from the expectations of a massive action movie. The film has a sense of scale and grandeur that comes from its on-location shoot in Chicago, as well as some heart-stopping effects. But it's no summer popcorn film.
"In the case of a tentpole movie, it's grand scale. It's the opera. But at the same time, when the stakes are so high and the money is being spent, there's a requirement from the studios for a certain kind of tone that appeals to as many people as possible. That's popular culture right there. That's the definition of it," Wyatt said of the requirements that come with budgets passing $300 million.