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Credit: Focus Features

With Captive State, Rupert Wyatt made a new kind of alien invasion movie

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Mar 14, 2019, 3:30 PM EDT

In the decade since he released his first feature film, Rupert Wyatt has bounced back and forth between gritty crime dramas and science fiction, with his 2009 debut The Escapist and 2011 trilogy starter Rise of the Planet of the Apes best representing his forays into each genre. With his next project, this month's Captive State, the 46-year-old British filmmaker brings the two together with a story that tracks the upstart urban resistance to violent alien invaders.

Set in Chicago, the movie takes a fresh approach to the alien invasion story — it's set a decade after the invasion, in a world now under the thumb of an alien government that has established martial law across the planet. Society is more invasive and stratified than ever; citizens wear trackers at all times and only the most devoted collaborators are invited to share in the riches that the aliens are creating from the earth's resources. The story revolves around William Mulligan (John Goodman), a grizzled good cop gone crooked, and Rafe Drummond (Ashton Saunders), a teenager who finds himself caught up in the resistance. The thriller supplements street-level action with advanced technology, creating a feel that recalls grounded sci-fi flicks such as District 9.

Wyatt spoke with SYFY WIRE earlier this week to discuss the movie, and answer questions from our SYFY WIRE Survey of filmmakers.

You made dozens of shorts before directing your first feature. What was the first short you ever made?

The first, first thing I ever wrote was probably when I was like seven or eight. It was called "The Battle of Crusade Castle." I was obsessed, do you remember those play people? Playmobils? It was a European thing, I used to make little short films with those things on a Super 8 camera. I was on a beach holiday once and wrote this story of an attack on a castle built in the sand.

That aside, probably the first sort of thing of any real intent to try to make into a film, I had read The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. One of the three stories, "City of Glass", I turned into a student film that I made. That was the first thing I wrote, or adapted, in that case.

And you made that while you were in school?

Yeah, I made that when I was 15. A bunch of school friends, people I knew locally, a couple of teachers helped us out one summer, drove us around because we weren't old enough to drive. We shot it in London over two weeks. It was terrible, but it was a lot of fun.

Do you have any artistic heroes?

It's maybe dull to think of a filmmaker, but I would say that two filmmakers that have always, for me, resonated and I think will stand the test of time because they were such humanistic filmmakers were Miloš Forman and Peter Weir. Those are people in the field that I'm in who've really managed to bring a sense of humanity to their stories in a way that I aspire to have.

Anyone outside of film?

I think Lou Reed is somebody that I've grown over time to be incredibly fascinated by, as a poet, as a person, as a life led and experienced. I think he's so idiosyncratic in who he was, and how he chose to live his life, and his various addictions and that world that he explored, and went through, and came out the other side, having been shaped by it.

Also, there a great letter that Kurt Vonnegut wrote to a bunch of high school students. I don't know if you've ever heard of this, but they wrote a number of writers, asking for their opinions as to life and how to achieve their goals and work. He was the only one who wrote back. It's worth looking at. I think the resonating aspect of what he said, and I think it's something that's so true, which is always to better oneself by bettering others, or a version of that. I think that's important.

What's been the hardest thing you've ever had to shoot? Or write, since you do a lot of your own writing, too.

This is probably an annoying answer, but they all have their different challenges. I think time is the friend and the enemy, or lack of time is the enemy, of all filmmakers. The nature of modern filmmaking in particular and the constraints put on you in terms of just the sheer cost of running and being on a set, and all of the elements that have to be brought to the table in one particular finite period of time. To be able to get something that you need, both from your actors, your crew, the scripts, the lighting, and all of that, but catch that lightning in a bottle then move on to the next thing.

What I remember with The Escapist, the first film I made, is a fight sequence between the character Joseph Fiennes plays and a character played by Seamus O'Shaughnessy, who ended up going into WWF, or WWE, or whatever. "The Irish Curse," I think he was known as. Anyway, he was this immense guy. We were super low-budget. We didn't have a fight coordinator. I had to shoot that in under an hour. Joe Fiennes, he was post-Shakespeare in Love and a lot of major films. He was looking at me wide-eyed, like, "What do you mean, under an hour?" We just had no time.

That's the sort of sequence that, in many ways, should have taken one plus days. That's really hard, because there's a tendency to believe you have it when you don't. The desire to move on because you just have to hit it. When there's no safety net, there's no overtime or extra budget, there's nothing more terrifying than that on a film set. But the beauty of it, when it works, is the energy that actually comes from that is extraordinary, something that you could never capture when you have all the time in the world. So if you get it right and the momentum is there and everyone's invested in making it work within those limitations. In that case, we had two cameras running, we choreographed the sequence, we ran it over and over again.

Captive State obviously had a bigger budget, but it still felt very run and gun, on the ground. When you were shooting that movie, how long was that shoot and how much of it was gotta make your day quick?

It was very similar to The Escapist in a funny sort of way. We were on a much bigger budget. Much, much more ambitious in terms of what we were trying to achieve. On a macro, relative scale, it was actually a similar approach. We had to run and gun. We had to shoot to pretty much exclusively locations that we'd come in and dressed, rather than building sets, as typical studio movies.

With that comes a fair amount of travel and shifting of crew and all of that. We were always on the move. We were like this unit of 60 odd people. It creates a really sprint-like mentality and does bring an energy to this film. It also, in some ways, defined how you shoot it.

We would block scenes out in their entirety and then shoot them. Actors have a tendency to really go for that. They really love that, rather from the stop-start nature of multiple angles.

I personally, as a filmmaker, think where the camera is, and how one makes the choice where to put the camera, is an intrinsic part of telling a story, of course. Someone like Spielberg or Steve McQueen, they're masters. Steve McQueen has distilled it down to single set up in a scene. He's figured out exactly the best take to tell the story for that particular moment and then he sits there.

If you get it wrong, the scene is dead on its feet. I think that's a really interesting way for me of being able to approach something. We did it in a slightly more documentary fashion, as in capturing a moment, but I think Captive State definitely had that similar guerrilla quality to The Escapist for sure.

One thing that complements its gritty, on the ground style is the fact that the movie doesn't give much backstory. We know aliens invaded and took over, but we don't know all that much of them.

Indeed. It's not necessarily going to be, therefore, to everybody's expectation, possibly to the detriment of people's feelings about a movie, but hopefully to the benefit of many others. Because I've seen so many alien invasion stories and films, going back to War of the Worlds. It's a story that has been told and will continue to be told.

I think there's obviously a great deal of value to be able to explore the notion of the whys and wherefores of another species, an extraterrestrial species, coming to this planet. What are they here for? What do they want? How do they treat us? What are their vulnerabilities? All of those classic prototype questions that are asked.

We made a choice to figure those questions out and build a backstory and the mythology to the legislators themselves, but then my co-writer and I, Erica Beeney, we made a choice, very early on, which is, "We want to tell this story about the occupation. We want to tell the story after we have lost and what that means as a society, to live in a society that is, essentially, one under occupation."

To me, that's much more of a human story than an extraterrestrial invasion story.

The only real exposition is in the opening credits, with stylized title cards that give the very necessary backstory.

When we were editing the film, we ultimately did decide that it was appropriate — what you don't want is the audience sitting, watching the film, keeping on asking questions. "Why are they here? What are they doing? Who are they?"

We did make a choice, actually during the editing process, to create that opening credit sequence, just to sort of give an understanding of what has happened in the intervening 10 years, between first contact and the timeline of our narrative. I think the film really benefits from it, because once we've built upon those foundations, we can then kiss that goodbye a little bit and focus on the story at hand, which is Mulligan and Gabriel's story, primarily.

What's the best day you've ever had on set?

I think of Captive State because that's the most recent. The best day, I would say, was the whole Soldier Field sequence. That entire sequence we shot in actually I think two days. It was crazy. On paper, it was absolutely impossible to be able to block that many actors, and choreograph and move that many people around, and we did it.

I just remember the energy that came from that and the feeling of success that we had, pulling away from Soldier Field football stadium, at dawn. Everyone was just lying on the ground, from the special effects guys with the winter fans, with the dust. People were just flat, but so happy. It was an amazing thing. It actually felt like we'd wrapped. We still had like three weeks to go, but that, I do remember thinking, "I love this job."

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Credit: Focus Features

And your worst day?

There's a scene where Ashton Saunders is running through the undergrowth at night. I don't know if you remember that scene, it's sort of backlit. We'd had a really long day and it had been an emotionally draining day for various reasons. He was tired and we ran him through this field a couple of time and we weren't quite getting it right. Alex, the DP, said, "Just one more, one more take," and it was the end of the day and we had the time. We said, "Okay, why not, let's go for it," and Ashton fells and tore his ACL.

We shut down for three days. It was a horrible, horrible moment in the film, because it really actually jeopardized the movie. But not only that, obviously, seeing an actor get injured on set is no small potatoes and it was not fun. It was really not fun for him, but he came back very strong and got well and we finished the movie, so I'm happy for that.

What's the best creative advice you've ever received?

Keep doing it. Sounds silly, but just keep at it. I think I spent 15 years, from the age of 20 to 35, actively trying to make my first feature film. I failed endlessly, or was rejected endlessly, and found a way through odd jobs, and being a bike courier, and making sandwiches in a bar, and a bartender, and various things, but to sort of get by, but I refused to take other career work or explore other career work with this notion that one day, I'll get my film off the ground.

It was just the very fact that I stuck at it that it finally happened. It wasn't any degree of talent, or anything like that. It's all about putting yourself in a position where people eventually can't say no.