Exclusive: Director Charlie McDowell talks about his twisty and thoughtful sci-fi film The Discovery

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Mar 31, 2017, 2:00 AM EDT

Not many directors get to tout Robert Redford as the headliner in their second feature film. But even to his own surprise, director Charlie McDowell attracted the legendary octogenarian to play the key role of Dr. Thomas Harbor in his Netflix Original film, The Discovery.

The sci-fi film takes place sometime in the near future, after Harbor reveals to the world that he can scientifically verify that there is indeed an afterlife. What ensues is a global flurry of mass suicides as humans are suddenly challenged with determining the quality of life as we know it or acting on the temptation of experiencing what the other side has to offer.

Along with Redford, McDowell assembles quite the cast, including Jason Segel, Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough, as well as Charlie's own mother, Mary Steenburgen, and his partner, Rooney Mara. And yes, if you weren't sure, McDowell's father is the Malcolm McDowell of A Clockwork Orange fame, meaning he grew up surrounded by other actors and creatives who helped him develop his own creative path.

McDowell's theatrical directorial debut came in 2014 with The One I Love, an indie drama starring Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass. It earned critical praise and a larger audience when it landed as a streaming title on Netflix.

In an exclusive interview with McDowell, the director tells us how his second directorial effort ended up becoming a streaming exclusive, how the story in The Discovery evolved and about the cast he assembled. Coming next week, we'll post our spoilery conversation about some specific narrative turns in The Discovery that audiences will certainly be pondering after the credits roll.

Because The One I Love was really discovered by many on Netflix, did that open the door for a formal collaboration?

In terms of The Discovery being a Netflix Original, they actually came on once we had already started shooting. I made this with the idea that it would have a theatrical release. The DP that I used, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, is this incredible visual artist. This was his first American film, and I wanted it to have a visual style. And then this possible partnership with Netflix came up and I got really excited about working with them.

Netflix obviously has tremendous investment capital for original programming, but what made streaming the right fit for your distribution path?

There's a lot going on and a lot to process with this film. It makes you think and you have to use your head through the whole thing, with the hope that by the end, you are connecting it to your emotions. Hopefully people do want to watch it a second time to understand all of it or notice things that you didn't notice the first time, or have a different meaning now. Netflix is the best place to do that. And I'm not one of those people who only believe in the Netflix model. I go see films in the theater and love that experience and don't want it to ever die. But I like that Netflix exists and you can discover so many different types of movies and TV and content you wouldn't have access to. They are moving forward the way the world is moving forward.

You co-wrote the screenplay with Justin Lader. Who came to whom with the initial idea?

Justin came to me with the idea of the question of what if the afterlife was proven, and what would it mean to society? How would people react and what would they do? I found that to be an incredibly interesting jumping-off point. Then we started to discuss how people who don't love the life they are in, or are depressed, or going through a breakup, if death doesn't have the same meaning any more and it's really about continuing on somewhere else, would you do that? It's ultimately the question we wanted to ask people. For me personally, I wouldn't do that but there are definitely times in my life that I felt that way. And then for us, it was how do we tell this story through character and how do we focus on the love story, or the father/son story, or the brother story? The big idea is the backdrop to this character piece.

The Discovery revolves around huge themes but is shot very realistically without a lot of sci-fi spectacle. Was that always the intention?

We were definitely inspired by Christopher Nolan, who tackles these ideas in a big studio way and does it so well. For us, we're making a small independent film and this was the best way to tell the story through the characters we created.

Yes, in fact the opening of the film is a very smart way to introduce the central theme of your sci-fi film in an intimate way.

We set the world, globally, through the first scene of the film, which is a scene between Redford and the interviewer (Steenburgen) to go through these ideas. Then we go right into the story, so it's like a prologue for the journey of our main character, Will (Segel).

How did that scene evolve in your screenwriting?

In terms of the process of putting the script together, we wrote that first scene and that was the first thing we explored. We didn't even know the characters. We knew the man behind the discovery was going to be a character, so we wrote the interview scene to lay down the idea and figure out the direction we wanted to take it. Once we had that, we started to build our characters. I actually gave those pages to Rooney and she really liked it and said she wanted to be in the film. We didn't even have the Isla character yet. But when you have one of the best young actresses say that she wants to be in your movie, then it's all about writing a really good girl part. The character then became the focal point of the story for me, emotionally. We wouldn't have done that if she hadn't said she wanted to be a part of it. So we put [the script] together in a funny way.

The film leads to a very potent last act. How quickly did that path present itself to you?

We came up with the end pretty early on so we knew the place that we needed to land, which was a really important part of the piece. Then it was about creating the second act. We went through many, many different drafts to figure out how we would get to the end.

Originally Nicholas Hoult was cast as Will but there was a scheduling conflict. How did Jason Segel come to the project as he's not an obvious choice?

What's really cool is that I met Jason 12 years ago when I was a student at AFI in the directing program. I was making a short film and looking for a lead actor. I reached out to Alyson Hannigan, who is a family friend, and she said that she had just shot a pilot, which was How I Met Your Mother, with Jason. I was such a fan of Freaks and Geeks, so she sent him the script and he had a little bit of a break and did the short film. It was interesting as it had a more dramatic side to it and I realized then that he's actually a strong dramatic actor. But comedy comes to him so naturally, so he continued that career path. But at a certain point, he made interesting decisions and had something different to say, and I really respected that as I had seen that side of him so many years ago. So I knew he could do it. For Will, we needed the ultimate everyman and I think Jason is one of the best young actor everymans. He does it comedically and dramatically and that was really important for the character. If we had an actor who played Will too big or too showboat-y, it wouldn't have worked. Jason services the story. For him, it's all in the subtlety in a way that I think is bold and much harder to do.

How did you get Redford as Thomas Harbor?

It wasn't through any connection. He had seen The One I Love, which I couldn't even believe when I heard it. Obviously it went to Sundance but how did Redford sit down and spend an hour and a half watching my movie? It blew my mind. He read the script of The Discovery and connected to the character. What's great about Redford, besides the fact that he's one of the greatest actors ever and a icon in the industry, but at 80 years old he's challenging himself in way that is so mind-blowing to me. It's an incredible thing to do after having such a successful career. The fact that he put his trust in me, for my second film, and we're exploring really big ideas and pushing the envelope, I will always remember that. I looked up to him my whole childhood.

Next week, we'll post Part of our exclusive interview with Charlie McDowell about the end of The Discovery. The Discovery premieres on Netflix on March 31.