Settlers, the new Sci-Fi western set on Mars, is available on-demand starting today. I had the chance to speak with director Wyatt Rockefeller about his inspirations for the film, the themes it portrays, and the best movie robot of the year.
Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Settlers. If you haven’t seen the film yet, perhaps bookmark this and come back later. This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Matthew: Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired your movie? I know; it’s probably the most generic question ever. But it’s always a good place to start.
Wyatt Rockefeller: Yeah! It came from a feeling. I was in the woods with my dad. It was snowing, and when it snows, it can absorb all the ambient sound, and there was something very eerie about it. I just imagined being watched from the treeline and looked up ahead at my dad in his old tattered coat and imagined this guy patrolling the outskirts of his farm and thinking about what he might be guarding against.
By the time we got back inside, I had the idea really, or the plot, I’ll say that. I was working on something else at that point, so I basically shelved it. About a year later, I had this idea to set it on Mars, and I really, at that point, was just thinking that I needed a place that they couldn’t leave. I had this idea what if it is Mars as we as we’re in the process of changing it to be habitable? That unlocked all these compelling visuals and themes that I thought, hey, this is worth a few years of my time and a couple of hours of viewers time. So I started writing!
Matthew: And at what point did the daughter become the main character in your head?
Wyatt: Right from the beginning. And the only change is that she was a boy for the first draft of the script. And what changed was when I decided … this is gonna give a little bit away. Actually, it’s gonna give a lot away, but I think it’s it’s worth it for the point.
Matthew: I’ll just put a spoiler warning!
Wyatt: Okay. So basically, in the first draft, she doesn’t pick up the gun. That’s probably sufficiently vague that people won’t know what I mean until they see it. But Yep. And when I had the idea to change that, immediately, I was like, oh, Remmy has to be a girl. Immediately, I had to make her a girl because it just unlocked this whole other plot.
Basically, up until that point, the question is, “will Ilsa give him what he wants?” After that, it’s about “will Remmy?” And that was far more interesting than two guys living in this place together. I’m giving away a lot right now, but that was the genesis of it. And it was instantaneous: at that moment, I changed that plot point that she had to be a girl, and I never looked back.
Matthew: The trailer for the film actually makes it look a lot more action-packed than it actually is. Were you involved in the marketing?
Wyatt: We had input, and I think yes, anything that can be construed as action was in the trailer. I do stand by the trailer. I think it’s an effective trailer.
Matthew: I don’t think it’s bad; I just think it’s interesting.
Wyatt: It was a learning experience for me because it’s my first feature, and so I definitely was deferring to them, but I think people should be warned that it is not an action spectacle. It really is a slow burn.
Matthew: Personally, I really liked that about it. Action movies are great, but I really enjoyed the more contemplative nature of it.
Wyatt: I’m glad to hear!. It sort of wrote itself. I mean, there was a budget consideration; we really couldn’t make a big, big sci-fi epic, but and I sat down basically to write something that was just a few characters in a single location. For me, what’s interesting, and what’s worth people’s time, is people having to confront themselves and really figure out “how far am I willing to go?”, you know? “what am I willing to do or not do to protect those I love and to survive?” And I want people to walk out of this and wonder, “what would I have done in that situation?” That, for me, is what this is really about.
Matthew: In your mind, you look at Jerry as a villain, like straight up, or is it more complex for that?
Wyatt: That’s a good question. No, I don’t see him as a villain, and that’s because I don’t think he sees himself as the villain. The villain of the movie, for me, is their isolation. That’s what forces them to make these choices, right? And including him, you know? He is a victim of that, too. Certainly, he sees himself as a victim, and when you see yourself as a victim, you’re capable of just about anything. I think what has been gratifying to see is that people have really responded to Jerry. They’ve said, like, “I want to hate him, but I do understand where he’s coming from“. And I think that in some ways, that’s what makes him so dangerous.
Matthew: In the film, when Jerry shows up, it’s pretty heavily implied that Mars is not necessarily ruined at this point but on its way to being so. Where is the rest of Mars in your mind in the story, and what stage in decline are they at?
Wyatt: Basically, they are now in full collapse. The backstory in my head that I touch on and hint at in the movie but had worked out in my head in order to be able to understand the conditions that they were in is basically this: that we are numerous generations into the colonization and the terraforming of Mars to the point where when you’re fully outside you don’t need a pressurized suit, because the air is thick enough to, to accommodate our own bodies, but we can’t breathe yet. And that is in keeping with at least a plausible timeline of the terraforming process and based on my research.
Basically, as Earth has itself collapsed, there have been these successive waves of immigrants from Earth who have overwhelmed the infrastructure on Mars. The people who are already there, the previous immigrants, have pushed back, and there’s effectively a war, and everything fell apart. So now they all gotta get along and can’t have nice things.
Matthew: So is that a deliberate metaphor for America, or did it just happen?
Wyatt: So, no, I think first and foremost, that the story and the characters, those are your North Stars, right? But that doesn’t mean you can’t engage with other themes. When I set it on Mars, that’s when it unlocked these different political themes, I suppose.
My wife, who was one of the producers, said, “you know, I know you didn’t mean to write a political movie” –and I don’t think this is a political move– she’s pointed out “you do have to acknowledge that you started writing this in the summer and the fall of 2016, and you’ve you’ve managed to write a movie about ecological collapse, the resulting mass displacement of people, and sexual power dynamics.” And I think that’s a fair point. I am a product of our times, just like the rest of us.
I also think that’s one of the great advantages to sci-fi and to different fantasy genres: you can engage with current issues but do an end-run around people’s bias because the places and faces are different. I think that that is a real advantage to the genre.
Matthew: How did you connect with the actors involved? Was it an open casting call, or did you have people in mind?
Wyatt: So my wife and I started with just a script. I finished the script at this point, and we sent it to everyone we knew and their moms; we had pretty modest ambitions for this. And we said wouldn’t it be great if we could find a kid like Brooklynn Prince?
And then, out of the blue, this agent called up and said, “Hey, I read your script, and I really liked it. And who are you thinking for this?” They actually repped Brooklynn, and she read it, and her parents read it, and they really liked it, and they attached right and stuck with us then throughout the process.
Her attaching was really what got this off the ground. And then the other actors came, and we were just really lucky in each case to have their interest in it. For them, I think they wanted to make sure that as a first-time feature director, I had a clear vision for the world and how their characters fit within it so that they would have the confidence to really inhabit those characters and feel like they were in good hands.
Matthew: Can you speak a minute about the production design? I really loved the design of both the house and Steve the robot. So I’m wondering, how much of that was you and how much was your designers? And how much of Steve was practical if any?
Wyatt: It was very collaborative. Noam Piper was the production designer. And he also signed on very early. He had never done sci-fi before and was interested in that. Pretty early on, based on our conversations, he started sketching things out, And it’s funny how actually it’s not too far off from those earliest sketches.
It all started from the story and the context and just really understanding why they’re there. So we latched on to this idea that everything is very modular, and everything that’s there has either been brought in, or had to be transported, or 3d printed once they arrived. The idea is that this is basically a sort of franchise homestead model. You get the whole package; you got your house, greenhouse, all the various pieces of equipment; you would need a robot or two to actually terraform this little plot of land and build your little personal paradise on Mars, but would that would then be part of this much larger seeding operation. You’re one of the 1000s scattered around the Martian frontier. And that was what informs all the choices about the design and that kind of modular feel.
If you notice too, the logos on their clothes, and on some of the buildings. We wanted to have it to have this kind of corporate feel to it.
Steve is part and parcel of that whole package deal. He is a mix of VFX and puppet. That is partly a practical consideration. VFX is expensive, and we had to be very, very specific about where to deploy it, so it was really reserved for the more elaborate movements. I also wanted a puppet for the actors to play off. His connection with Remmy is such an important part of their relationship, and his art he’s got basically the reverse arc of “is he capable of human compassion?” or is he “just a tool“, as Jerry says.
It was an incredibly fun exercise, coming up with, designing, and then building him because it really was necessarily so a collaboration between the VFX artists, the puppeteers, and the creature builders. To make sure that we could consistently execute across these different departments and be able to hand it off back and forth between shots. In shots, you know, sometimes it’s a mix [of effects].
For someone like me, I grew up poring over books about Industrial Light and Magic and Weta Workshop, and you’d see behind the curtain and how all these creatures, and sets, and ships were created, and all the iterations to that too. When you see the movie, you think –at least I certainly thought– oh, Threepio always looked like that, that he was just born that way, but in fact, there are all these ridiculous designs that came before and so that that process was really fun. It really was about figuring out what he was designed to do. And that function was what then drove the actual design process. And I think that’s what led us to get to a point where I certainly feel that he feels very much in the world and sufficiently unique to all the other movie robots out there.
Matthew: Yeah, he’s one of the best movie robots of the year, I would say!
Wyatt: Hey, I love to hear that. That means the world to me, man. Thanks.
Matthew: I don’t want to take too much more of your time, but I do one last question: what is something that no one is asking you about that you wish more people would ask you about this movie?
Wyatt: Wow, that’s a good question; I really appreciate that! It’s kind of the technical specifics, actually, the sound and the colour, but actually the sound more than anything.
So we had to take it on faith through the edit that the world would show up at some point when this was all done. I remember my whole goal is to just write this contained little chamber piece that I could credibly direct at this point in my career, and I had to go set it on Mars, and thinking, “Is anyone gonna buy this?” You know, buy into the world? Because if they don’t even do that, then they’re not going to get into the story.
And so we had to take it on faith that the world would come, and it really was not until we brought in the VFX the colour … because to give a very concrete example, you until you take the blue out of the sky, you’re still on Earth, and it’s amazing how quickly you leave Earth the moment you take that blue away. Then with the sound, too, that’s what really made it feel isolated, that’s what made you feel like they really are out there, and they’re alone, and they’re vulnerable.
Little examples like adding a little bit in Remmy’s room and her dad’s putting her to bed. We added just like a little tapping of what sounds like a loose wire in the wall against the wall, just to create that kind of hollow effect, as well as very subtle Arctic wind sounds. Arctic wind has a very specific, very haunting kind of feel to it. We don’t want to hit that too hard, but just to create this sense of emptiness, which is really, I think, where a lot of the dread comes from. It’s two dimensional on the screen, right. But it’s the sound that makes everything three dimensional but really puts you in the scene. So thanks for asking that’s I always like talking about that stuff.
Matthew: No problem! What’s next for you?
Wyatt: I’m writing right now a script about the man who killed Rasputin. His name was Prince Felix Youssoupov, and he was quite an interesting character in his own right. Basically, it’s a story about a man at war with a part of himself that he has come to find abhorrent, and he’s trying to be something that it’s not. As a result, he ends up bringing down the very world he’s trying to save.
It may seem completely discrete from settlers, but I would actually say both are different worlds that actually are very relevant to today in a way, but also they are both about people who are suddenly considering these taboos. Basically, things that would be would be completely out of the question, completely unacceptable, but given the circumstances, may not be such a bad idea. I just find people in that state of mind to be very interesting.
Matthew: Well, I wish you luck with it! That’s all the questions I have. Thank you again for taking the time. I greatly appreciate it.
Wyatt: Thank you. I really appreciate your time so much and your interest, and it has been fun talking.
Settlers is available now on your video-on-demand platform of choice. You can read my original review of the film here, and keep an eye out for the next episode of the Awesome Friday Podcast, as we’ll be discussing it there too.
The audio of this interview will be released for patrons on a later day, also.
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