Undead and Daybreakers writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig’s new thriller Predestination is an elegantly complex take on the time travel genre. Based on a 1958 short story by Starship Troopers author Robert A. Heinlein, the Ethan Hawke-starrer in theatres this week is the Australian identical twins’ most narratively ambitious work to date. Dominic Corry recently spoke to Peter Spierig about the film for Flicks.
FLICKS: How did you first encounter the short story?
PETER SPIERIG: I had just been reading a lot of short stories and All You Zombies by Robert A Heinlein was just one that really stuck with me. I remember reading it and thinking ‘Wow, that’s a real original’. I gave it to my brother to read and he reacted the same way. We both thought it would be great to make into a film one day. We didn’t know how we were gonna do it, but we both thought ‘Boy, this would make an interesting film!’ And then eventually we stopped saying ‘One day’ and we said ‘Okay, today we’re going to try and turn this into a screenplay.’ That’s kind of where it all came from.
How much did you have to expand upon the source material?
This was only a ten page short story, so there was a tremendous amount of work to do to get to a script. We literally converted the short story into a screenplay format just to kind of see where we were, and it was only about 25 or 30 pages long. So there was a lot of work to get it into a film.
There hasn’t really been a time travel film like this before. Were you trying to break new ground in the genre?
Absolutely. That’s kind of what drew us to the material – that it was so uniquely different to any time travel story that we’d ever seen or read. And it’s something that was written in 1958 so it’s amazing that 60 odd years later it still remains interesting and original. That’s a testament to how clever Heinlein was.
So the [plot spoiler] stuff was in the original story?
Oh yeah. It was bold and original then and it’s still kind of out there now. It was crazy in 1958 to have a story like that.
The plot here isn’t exactly spoon-fed to the audience in a way a lot of these movies are – how tough is it to tread the line between stating and implying?
It’s a real balance. It’s a tricky one. We did talk about that. It was probably our number one discussion in the editing process – how much do we tell? We did test screenings to try and find out where the balance was. And even that’s tricky because some people totally got everything and other people were completely confused and there were people in the middle too. And when you’re the director and the writer, you don’t have that perspective anymore because you can’t distance yourself from it enough to judge whether the audience is getting all of it or not. So that’s when you need to show it to people and get their reaction and try and build up a consensus.
Did you change much after the test-screenings?
No, not really. The final film that you see was always very close to the shooting draft. We did shift a little bit of the information around, just a little bit. The thing that Michael and I really tried to do was put all the information you need there in the film. Whether you get it the first time or if it takes you a couple of times, it depends, but the information is there. It’s not like there are giant gaps in logic or plot, it is actually there. Michael and I wanted to do something that required the audience to think and treated them intelligently. It’s a film that requires the audience to pay attention and it does require them to get involved in a way that perhaps they don’t with certain other blockbuster films.
Did you face any pressure along the way to make the story more streamlined or conventional?
No we really didn’t. We had no problems with that. In fact the film sold very very quickly. It’s been the easiest process we’ve ever experienced. Which was suprising because I thought the material would challenge a few people and make life a little difficult. But everyone was excited that it was something different and original.
Did Ethan Hawke’s involvement come out of your working together on Daybreakers?
We finished the script and Michael I both kind of said ‘You know who would be great for this?’ Because we had a relationship with him we just sent him an email and said we had something we thought he’d be interested in. Within one day his response was “Tell me where and when, I’m in. The only question I have is – what part am I playing?”
What are your favourite time travel movies?
My favourite one is an obvious one – Back to the Future. It’s one of those perfect movies. Everything works. Time Bandits is great.
What is ‘Predestination’ about ultimately for you?
It’s a time travel thriller. It’s about stopping a terrorist and all that kind of stuff, but really it’s a film about discovering your identity and discovering your purpose and who you are. The intention was definitely to do something unusual and different. And that’s the kind of stuff Michael and I get excited about – when we can do something that takes a genre that has had many films, whether it’s zombies or vampires, or in this case time travel, and try and do something unique. That’s tricky. Whether it works or not is up to the audience, but that’s kind of what our goal is.
You’ve made three different genre films. What do you think the first genre you and your brother will revisit will be?
I don’t think we’ll revisit zombies or vampires any time soon, but we’ve got a thriller that we’re working on at the moment. It’s kind of a haunted house thriller, it’s really quite terrifying. It’s set in the US. It’s based on a true story. It’s called Winchester. It’s about a woman who’s the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune and she believed she was haunted by all the ghosts that were killed by the Winchester rifle. She built a house in San Jose with her millions, and it’s considered the most haunted house in the United States. She built all these staircases that go to nowhere and all these doors that open to two-storey drops. It’s a very bizarre labyinth of a house. She did it because she wanted to try and confuse the ghosts that were haunting her. It’s quite a big tourist attraction in the US.
That sounds freakin’ awesome.
[Mild plot spoilers discussed below. Nothing cataclysmic. All revealed in trailer.]
The twisty nature of Predestination’s plot no doubt complicated the casting process?
With the part that Sarah Snook plays, we made a very concious decision not to go out to a “famous actress”. We wanted to find somebody that the audience – certainly outside of Australia – hadn’t really seen before. With the make-up that we were putting her in, we didn’t want it to come with all that history of all those other movies, a familiar face. So we always intended to have that role played by a relatively unknown actress. And that was challenging because it’s such a complex role, we had to take a gamble on someone who was relatively new and thankfully we found Sarah Snook and I couldn’t more proud of her and her performance.
At what point did you explain that she would also be playing a man?
It was part of the brief in the casting. And really when we got down to the final auditions, there were two girls we were looking at, we put them in the ‘man make-up’. We did an extensive two-to-three hour make-up test with them in that make-up, playing the man role. Because we couldn’t just cast them as a female and hope – we had to see the male version. So for a very long time Michael and I thought about casting two separate actors – one for the female, one for the male. But then we realised in an ideal world what would be most exciting would be to have one actress, but we were never sure it was going to work. We weren’t even sure really until we started seeing the dailies back from the shoot. It was kind of a terrifying process because if it doesn’t work, the whole movie’s in trouble.
One of the coolest and weirdest ideas in this film is the notion that someone’s perfect mate is their past or future self.
Yeah and we talked a lot about that idea with Ethan and Sarah – why do these people fall in love? And it’s because they share the same history – the same fears, the same pain, the same loves, they see all the same things. The male version says to the female version in one of the scenes that he can read minds, when really all he’s doing is knowing exactly how she’s feeling.
I admire your restraint at not having a scene where someone says “Go fuck yourself”.
We talked about putting that on the poster.
‘Predestination’ Movie Times – Playing nationwide Thursday, September 18