Interview – ‘Foe’ director Garth Davis on how Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ changed his life

Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal star in Foe, a haunting exploration of marriage and identity set in an uncertain world. Hen and Junior farm a secluded piece of land that has been in Junior’s family for generations, but their quiet life is thrown into turmoil when an uninvited stranger (Aaron Pierre) shows up at their door with a startling proposal. Based on best-selling author Iain Reid’s novel, directed by Garth Davis, and co-written by Davis and Reid, Foe’s mesmerizing imagery and persistent questions about the nature of humanity (and artificial humanity) bring the not-too-distant future to luminous life. 

As director Garth Davis tours Australia for special Q+A screenings of his new film, he was very gracious to take some time to jump on for a chat with myself to discuss finding real emotion in surreal circumstances, how Ridley Scott’s Alien changed his life, and working with the insanely talented Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan.

Nick: I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today, Garth! This is one of those films that has sat with me a lot since I saw it. I’m constantly thinking about how certain revelations later in the film provide a lot of contexts for things that occur earlier on in the story. I’m curious to know whether you had the same experience when you first read Iain Reid’s novel? And what was the experience then trying to take that story and turn it in to a script?

Garth Davis: I guess when I read the book, that was my first viewing of this material, in away. What I can recall was I really enjoyed the journey, and it went down a rabbit hole I didn’t expect. I guess it averted all my expectations. I spent the whole time trying to investigate what the hell was going on in this relationship! Why was this central character, Hen [Saoirse Ronan] behaving in such hot and cold ways?

It was also such a deep meditation on their relationship, and memories, and things like that. So, I just found that utterly compelling. And then of course, the revelation that you talking about was staggering. When I finished the book, I had to go back and read it again. I thought it was such a brilliant and creative way to explore a relationship. Just a normal relationship that I think a lot of people can relate too. I really thought it was refreshing.

Nick: I agree! One of the things I enjoyed about this story is that it examines the real in a surreal setting. What was it that excited you as a filmmaker to explore this relatively normal and relatable relationship in a sci-fi setting?

Garth Davis: I mean, what I love about this is that it wasn’t gratuitous. At its heart, it’s a drama about a couple coming to terms with a relationship that stagnated. But I think the sci-fi and artificial intelligence are metaphorical devices that push up against that in ways that are really creative.

I guess the other thing is that the central message coming from the heart is that time is precious, and our life is precious. She [Hen] doesn’t want to get to the end of her life and realise that she hasn’t lived her life. For audiences to reflect in a similar way on their own lives, they need to feel their mortality. They need to feel there is a ticking clock. So, the distress of the planet is a very real issue for all of us that we have known about for 20 years. Then there is the artificial intelligence. So, all those elements are made to feel grounded and real, because it makes it feel like this is coming towards us. And are we ready for it? Are we reflecting on our own behaviour and our lives before we come into the inevitable?

Nick: I want to touch on what you said about the planet, because location is a very important part of your films, especially this film and Lion. What was it about regional Victoria that had what you were looking for to replicate not just the Midwest, United States, but also in 2065 when world is coming to end due to these climate change causes?

Garth Davis: Well, there’s nothing more devastating that seeing our beautiful, natural world suffering. There’s nothing more impactful that that. And you know, a lot of ‘near future’ movies have the matte paintings and people coming up with creative ideas. I just thought we actually really need to capture it for real. I guess for all the reasons of my journey [with Foe], which are extensive, I ended up in Australia because I felt that was the most visceral way to, kind of, ground the story. The Earth is a huge character in the film and I wanted us to feel it’s beating heart, and I think the landscapes in this film do that in a really powerful way.

Nick: It comes through very powerfully, and I think a lot of that is due to Matyas Erdely, who is a fantastic cinematographer. I think his work on Son of Saul finds beauty in devastation. And while the story of Foe isn’t necessarily as devastating as Son of Saul, there’s still a beauty in the way Matyas shoots this film that adds to the emotional impact. What was the collaboration like for you with Matyas?

Garth Davis: It was amazing. And yes, this film does celebrate beauty. In a way, we find beauty in every part of the movie, even in the more devastating moments. There’s always beauty in it. There’s something interesting about beauty. Beauty is about love, and about our connection with the universe. And that’s something unconditional. I went a bit deep there!

But I guess it’s not just about making pretty pictures. It really worked with Matyas. He knew where I wanted to go with this and together we would go very deep into the story. In each of the scenes, we scrutinised intensely to find out the meaning of the scene, and then we start talking about visuals and camera.

I mean, his work is so beautiful in all the right ways. I guess I thought he could bring that to this, which is, you know, a very simple film with three people in a room, mostly. And I really wanted to make sure that was captivating.

Nick: Speaking of the three people in this film – I want to talk about their performances! But first, I need to touch on a commonality between Foe and Lion, and that’s the fact that you not only got Dev Patel to perform a flawless Australian accent in Lion!

Garth Davis: We got really luck there! [laughs]

Nick: And now in the same sense, you have Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan doing flawless Midwestern accents! But it’s not uncommon for films set in the future for actors to do their traditional accents, so what was important to you and for the story that these actors nail these Midwestern accents?

Garth Davis: Look, we contemplated everything. The story is set in the Midwest because it’s the capitalist centre of the world. And also the fact that it was the fifth, sixth generation in Junior’s [Paul Mescal] family. We did contemplate, because we had cast Irish people, whether they could have their accents, but the backstory fell apart. It was just an unbelievable backstory. We all absolutely felt we had to embrace the story and serve the story. It’s traditional. And maybe at some point they were Irish and came to America?

I guess that Terrance [Aaron Pierre] is the outsider. He brings an English accent, which brings that kind of globalisation feeling into the story. Which I think makes the space program that he is a part of feel believable. And as we’re making this movie, all the shit is coming real!

Nick: It’s a very timely story! I wanted to touch on Aaron Pierre’s performance, because having not read the novel and experiencing this story for the first time as the film, his performance is so layered that I never knew whether to trust this character. Was the Terrence we see in the movie very similar to Terrance in the book? Or was the ambiguity of it all something you wanted to put into the film?

Garth Davis: I guess in the book he was slightly more iconic. Visually, a little bit more… Coen Brothers, I guess. The story had such a design to it, that I wanted to make sure we countered that with as much reality and humanity as possible. So I guess I was hunting for a Terrance that was very disorientating, where you would empathise. He’d be both charming and kind of confronting at the same time. I found that to be refreshing and interesting.

You can always play that ominous antagonist really, really heavy handedly, which most films do. I found it more interesting to go the other way and ultimately get to the truth of why he’s doing these things. And then it makes a lot of sense why he’s behaving that way.

Nick: I’m not entirely sure if you’re aware of this discourse online in which people are debating the necessity of sex scenes in films. Whether it makes sense for the story or sex is just used gratuitously, there’s an argument being made that it shouldn’t be in films. And I believe that the two sex scenes in this film are so imperative to the audience understanding Hen as a character. What are your thoughts on how we view sex in film?

Garth Davis: Yeah, I mean I’m not interested in just doing sex scenes. To your point, each of the intimate scenes are very symbolic of the stages Hen is going through in her reconnecting to her agency and owning her emotions, and having the courage to surrender to what she wants to do, not just emotionally, but physically.

It’s trying to find the full dimensions of being human and the full dimensions of relationships and trying to find that primality again. That’s what I loved about it. Each of the scenes are emotionally charged and complex.

The act of intimacy or that sexual encounter, you see the character transitioning through a stage and like, a layer shed. I think that’s really powerful. Even that last, I guess you would call it, failed sex scene at the end, was very powerful to me. I was interested in exploring how someone explores grief and the confusing nature of her [Hen’s] situation.

Nick: I’m going to start wrapping up on a commonality we have. Obviously, I’m based in Brisbane, and you too were born here! Cinema and movies were such a big part of my upbringing, and still are to this day. I have a fond memory of taking my mum to see Lion, and the profound impact it had on us both. So, I’d like to know what the cinematic experiences of a young Garth Davis were growing up in Brisbane?

Garth Davis: Oh wow. I remember distinctly when the first beta cam machine came out! Because you couldn’t watch anything at home at that point. I mean, the DVDs on your wall behind you, that was science-fiction! So, my dad came home with this machine. I thought it was a microwave or a toaster! Weirdly, it came with a sample tape – Alien. It had this bleeding egg on the front cover. I thought: what the hell is this? And I was very young, but he put it in the machine, and I watched that movies and that actually changed my life. What a phenomenal movie!

I guess from that point, I got pretty obsessed with fantasy and science-fiction. And I really fell in love with movies. There was another moment I remember when I was in high school, and as you know it gets bloody hot in Brisbane! And Brisbane is more alive now, but back then there wasn’t a huge amount to do. So, I’d always end up at the art gallery, and one day there was retrospective of Fellini’s work in the theatre.

Nick: They still do that retrospective today!

Garth Davis: I just sat in the cinema and I watched, I mean, eight of his movies. I just went there every day and watched these movies. And I think that changed my life as well.

I want to give a huge thank you to Garth Davis for being so generous with his time, and to Transmission Films, Amazon Studios and TM Publicity for organising the interview. Foe is in Australian cinemas from November 2, with special advanced screenings in select cinemas.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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