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Film Spotlight: Settlers Director Wyatt Rockefeller on Putting Life on Mars

July 28, 2021 08:30 | By
Settlers

Brooklyn Prince (R) and Steve in Settlers

Director Wyatt Rockefeller makes his feature film directorial debut with Settlers, a sci-fi thriller that was recently released by IFC Midnight after playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival

Despite being science fiction and actually taking place on a terraformed Mars, it’s a quieter character drama that stars Brooklyn Prince (The Florida Project) as young Remmy, who is living in a remote area of a habitable Mars with her mother (Sofia Boutella) and father (Jonny Lee Miller). When a stranger (Ismael Cruz Cordova) shows up and demands they leave what he calls his home, they end up having to find equitable living arrangements that leaves the young girl confused. (Nell Tiger Free from the Apple+ series, Servant, plays the older Remmy after some time has passed living with the stranger (named Jerry).

It’s a strong feature debut by Rockefeller in large part due to the film’s unique setting, at least as far as a lower budget film goes, but also due to the brilliant performances by the entire cast that truly gets into the mindset of what it must be like living out there on Mars with no one else to help them differentiate between what’s right and what’s wrong.

Below the Line got on Zoom with Rockefeller a few weeks back to talk about his movie.

Wyatt Rockefeller

Wyatt Rockefeller

Below the Line: So what got you down the road making Settlers, and was it something you’d been working on for a while?

Wyatt Rockefeller: I started writing in the fall of 2016, and it was actually after another feature project had basically fallen through and, and really, I was looking for something that would be modest in scale, basically a single location with a handful of actors that’s something I could credibly direct at this point in my career. We shot in the fall of 2019, which was quite fortunate, because we actually had picture lock, just before COVID struck, then had quite a long post-production schedule, which frankly, benefited the film, because we had that opportunity to really tweak things and get it right. So it’s coming out about a year after we expected it, but nevertheless, probably a better film as well. 

BTL: That’s too bad. How long ago did you start writing it and come up with the original idea?

Rockefeller: The spark of the idea came in 2015. I can’t quite remember when, sometime in the winter, because it was snowing, that’s what I can remember. I was actually walking behind my dad in the woods, and when it snows, it absorbs all the ambient noise, so it’s quiet in a way that we almost never hear, which is quite eerie. I just remember looking over at the tree line and imagining someone watching us through the trees and looking up ahead at my Dad in his old coat, and imagining a guy patrolling the outskirts of his farm, I started thinking what might he be guarding against. By the time we got inside, I had pretty much the whole plot, at least up until the midpoint.  And that’s a good sign when a story tells itself, and it also hit me on a gut level — It just felt really dark. I was actually working on this other project still at that point, so I shelved it. It was only when a year later that I had the idea to set it on a partially terraformed Mars — Mars as it may be one day when we’re in the process of changing it to be habitable like Earth, that I thought, “Hey, this could actually be a feature, and this really could be worth an hour and change of people’s time and a few years of mine, really, because it brought all of this thematic and visual opportunity that wasn’t there when it was just a plot.

Settlers

Ismael Cruz Cordova in Settlers

BTL: You have a great cast for this, and of course, I want to avoid spoilers, but you have Jonny Lee Miller, a pretty big name in a smaller portion of the movie, so was that easier to get him since it might only take a few days to shoot his part?

Rockefeller: We had him for two weeks. I actually do think that he may have had another project right afterwards. He’s quite busy, and so what can I say? We were very lucky to get him, and he was keen to do the part. So it was a pretty easy one on our end to get, and he was great. I learned a lot from him, too. He’s He’s a fun guy to work with, and a talented actor. 

BTL: I do like finding out how filmmakers put together their teams for a movie, so were you working with people you had worked with on other projects or did you put together a team of new people? 

Rockefeller:  Actually no, I think this was my first time with everyone, and that’s partly because I have mostly worked in the States prior to this where this was a UK/ South African co-production. So all of our heads of department were either from UK or from South Africa, and in each case — I’m happy to go through each —  we just got incredibly lucky Noam Piper, who was the production designer, came on quite early. Same with Clare Harlow, our casting director, really before it was real project. For Noam, he was interested in doing sci-fi — it was something he hadn’t done before. And then we really lucked out when we brought on our South African producer, Johan Kruger, who was just very plugged into the film … he’s an established player in South Africa and really knows everyone. And he was able to bring on for Willie Nel, the cinematographer, who is just such an incredible talent, as well as the Dihantus Engelbrecht, who is a very well established costume designer down there, and so many others. I mean, we couldn’t have been more fortunate that people we got to work with on this.

BTL: Were you living down there or just there for pre-production?

Rockefeller: My wife and I live in London — my wife, Julie Fabrizio, is one of the producers  on this, as well. She’s actually one of the few other Americans on the project. We were in South Africa, in Cape Town, and then up in Vioolsdrif, where we shot film for three months total and actually had our three-month old son with us. Well, he started at three months and was six months when we left. He toughed it out in the desert, which was a concern, but he’s a tough little kid, so he was fine.

BTL: How was it finding the location, and was it just finding a location, building the base there, and then you just shoot in whatever order you want?

Rockefeller: It was a mix of luck. We looked at a lot of places, basically, and South Africa has very good tax credits and has a very good proof base. Also, Josh Horsfield, who was the other producer on the film, had worked there before. We were looking within South Africa, and then found this place up in Vioolsdrif because it was actually just up this road, we almost left. And then I was like, “What’s up that road over there on the hill?” and we drove over, and there was just this playground for a film crew, basically. Not only did you have this very unique red rock that was unlike anywhere else in the landscape, but you just also had this very unique topography, which just opened up all sorts of possibilities. And so we really were able to shoot everything, right there. And, again, thanks to it being in South Africa, the talent of the crew base and it’s relatively inexpensive to shoot there and the support that the state gives you, we were able to build much bigger and 360 degree sets than we would have probably any anywhere else, which was a real boon to the actors to be able to really be in the place and in a quite isolated place, too, which obviously translates into the film.

Settlers

Rockefeller with Prince on set

BTL: Brooklyn Prince is amazing, and she’s obviously a very young actor who has to carry many parts of the movie, so what was it like working with her on some very tough, emotional things?

Rockefeller: I can’t say enough good things about Brooklyn– she is an absolute force. I actually look up to her. I learned from her.  Frankly, she’s got more experience than I do at this stage, and so it was just a joy working with her, especially those  more harrowing scenes that you mentioned. Those are the ones that she really worked very hard on. She was so prepared for them and worked on them with her parents. So her father Justin was on set and her mother Courtney calling in from the States each night to make sure that she was ready for the next day, and they were an integral part of the process. They really could help her get to the place where she could deliver those  performances, because she gets to a place where it is real for her.  I think it’s very helpful when the actress is only nine years old to have their guardian, especially if it’s a parent, there to really be able to look after and guide them through it, because we are asking her to go to pretty  traumatic places.

BTL: Where did you find Ismael, or how did you find him? I really don’t know of his work before this. 

Rockefeller: He actually was the last to attach, and we were just incredibly lucky to get him. Actually, when he showed up on site — and this was actually just a quirk of the actor schedules — but we had almost shot it in a general order of the film. It starts with the family, and the first week or so it really was just that. When he showed up, it did bring this whole other energy, and this very exciting energy to set. He also has a very unique way of working. He likes to do a number of takes at once without cutting, so he’ll just give you three or four options, all a little different, and then you can choose from them in the editing room. That was a really fun way to work, and I trusted him with the choices he made, and he trusted me to give him that space to make those choices.

BTL: He plays a very interesting character and probably a tough one, because you think of a home invasion, and the invaders are usually not nice people, but he ends up taking on almost a fatherly role to Brooklyn’s character, so he’s not a typical antagonist.

Rockefeller: I’ve been really pleased that people, from this at the script stage, and right up until now, as people are starting to see it. They’re like, “I want to hit him, but I do understand where he’s coming from,” and that’s what we were after. I think a lot of that credit is due to Ismael. He can bring that complexity to a role and just that conviction. So much of it is Jerry thinking what he’s doing is right. It’s unseemly, but he’s justified in doing it. That’s what he believes, and that’s, frankly, what makes him so dangerous.

BTL: Do you have any ideas for doing more in this environment? We’ve only seen this little section of Mars, and there must be more people out there. Have you thought about that?

Rockefeller: It’s been really cool to see people wanting to know more [about] what’s out there? What is the rest of the planet like? Hey, I’d love to explore further, so hopefully, go see this movie. The more people that see it, the more likely we’ll be able to follow her further into the wilderness. But I do have the broad contours of the story of where it goes from here. I haven’t sat down to write it.

BTL: You mentioned being able to shoot in some kind of order, so were you able to do all of Brooklyn’s stuff first to show Nell when she took over the role to give her some idea what the character has gone through?

Rockefeller: Roughly. I mean, we couldn’t shoot it completely in order — the schedule is necessarily all over the place, and that’s just to be able to fit it all in. It was a tight schedule, but yes, Nell was the last to arrive. All the actors were living together and sharing all their meals together when they weren’t on set, so they had a chance to get to know each other. They did overlap, Nell and Brooklyn, but there was definitely no like, “Copy what she’s doing.” I think both of them naturally understood the character to be one of real determination. There is this inner strength to Remmy that is there right from the beginning, and only becomes more pronounced as she has to deal with what the world throws at her.

Settlers

Rockefeller with Cordova on set

BTL: How much do visual effects play in this movie? Obviously, as a science fiction movie, you expect them, but you also found this great location and build on it. Did you still have to do visual effects to expand the world? 

Rockefeller: It’s been really gratifying to see that people have been writing that it’s almost bereft of visual effects. There’s actually a few 100 visual effects in this movie. Now, a lot of that is just painting out the puppeteers of Steve. So Steve  the Robot is a mix of puppeting and VFX. The puppet really is for the closer shots and more of the…  well, I’ll say like this, we really had to be very specific about where we could deploy the VFX, because we were shooting on a budget. But I also really did want to have a puppet on set that the actors could play off with, and it just made it that much more real and gave it a weight. But also to your question about the world, yes, some of the expansive shots and certainly other elements, which I won’t say out loud, for fear of spoiling something, did require modest touches of VFX. In a way, the VFX was used to enclose the space more. We were shooting in such an expansive location that I wanted people that feel basically like they were in a crater, so we’ve never really fully been able to see into the distance until later in the movie. 

BTL: I wonder if others want to see more of this world, just because they want to see what happens to Steve the Robot. I know I kind of fell in love with Steve, and he’s a bit of a scene stealer, even from Brooklyn. 

Rockefeller: It would be fun to somehow get Steve back into the next one if we actually did get to do that. Steve and the pigs.

BTL: Did you have a pig wrangler who was out in that area where you were shooting or somewhere nearby?

Rockefeller: Yes, we had a pig wrangler on set, Brian was his name, and he knows those pigs well. It was a challenge. I mean, it’s a challenge working with animals, but they had been in the script from the beginning. They’re an important part of the plot, really, and the texture of the place. Actually, there’s quite a bit. There’s this whole active subculture online of people in all these message rooms, people speculating about how we would terraform Mars. I remember finding a thread on pig husbandry and just how that would work, and so I wanted to bring that in.

BTL: But are pigs common in that section of South Africa where you were shooting?

Rockefeller: It’s actually a farming area, so I think those were local pigs.

BTL: Have you started working on something else that you’re writing? 

Rockefeller: I appreciate you asking that. I actually am in the midst of writing a script right now about the man who killed Rasputin, so a very different setting and period. I actually would say that there is overlap. It’s effectively a story about a man at war with himself, who is trying to cut out a piece of himself that he has come to find abhorrent and projects that onto Rasputin. But when he goes to try to kill him, this guy just won’t die, and he has to go to increasingly brutal lengths to try to snuff him out. Like Settlers, it’s dealing with taboo. It’s people having to reckon with how far they’re actually willing to go, what they’re actually willing to do, or not do, to survive, to protect those they love, to be the person that they want to be. I guess those are the kinds of stories that are interesting to me, regardless of where they’re set.

I do think also that when you’re dealing with another time in place, or even more, a fictional place, like in the example of Settlers, I think that’s what’s so appealing about sci-fi is that because the names and the places are different, you can actually do an end run around people’s biases. These are effectively immigrants from earth, who have had to flee as a result of an ecological collapse. I think the themes are very relevant to today. We’re also dealing with sexual power dynamics, but again, just because it’s in a different setting, I think people come at it from with maybe a slightly more open mind. That is the hope, and I do think that’s an advantage to the genre.

Settlers is now available in select theaters and On Demand.

All photos courtesy IFC Midnight.