ABOVE: (LEFT TO RIGHT) CHRIS PRINE, MARGOT ROBBIE, AND CHIWETEL EJIOFOR IN Z FOR ZACHARIAH
Ann (Margot Robbie) might be the only woman left alive. She lives in her family home in a lush, secluded valley in the rural United States. She farms and hunts and visits the general store and plays the organ in the small wooden chapel her father built. Occasionally, she’ll trek into town and take some books from the library. But she is always alone. Some unidentified nuclear disaster has poisoned the earth and its inhabitants. Air and water are unsafe to consume, and most—if not all—of the population has succumb to radiation poisoning. Only Ann’s valley remains untouched and fertile—a little, lonely paradise.
Then, one day, a stranger shows up in Ann’s valley: an engineer named Mr. Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), dressed in a protective suit. Ann, a devout Christian, welcomes him into her home. Some time later, another stranger arrives: Caleb (Chris Pine), a former miner. A devout Christian, Ann welcomes him into her home. Mr. Loomis and Caleb do not quite get along. There is something off about one of them; about both of them. Their main source of tension is, of course, the beautiful, kind Ann. “It’s that fun thing,” says director Craig Zobel, “Where you’re like, ‘Which one is Adam and which one is the snake?'”
Z for Zachariah is Zobel’s third film to premiere in the Library at Sundance, and his first to be part of the American Dramatic Competition. At the Q&A after the film’s first screening, Zobel jokes that when he was in the same position for his last movie, 2012’s extremely unsettling Compliance, he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it out of the venue alive.
EMMA BROWN: When I first heard the plot of Z for Zachariah, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it; it sounded a bit ridiculous—this love triangle at the end of the world. But then I saw the film and it didn’t feel ridiculous at all. What was your first reaction?
CRAIG ZOBEL: Kind of that too. Then I read the script. After you make Compliance, people don’t offer you a sci-fi movie—that’s not a thing where people would go, “You know what that guy could do? A sci-fi movie!” So I was eager to read the screenplay when it was first presented to me because nobody was sending me things like that. Then I realized, “I get the instincts there”— ealing with the subtext underneath conversations and using a fake element to get at something like that. That’s what sci-fi really is; it’s using this weird construct to reflect something. I was also excited because I had to be pretty realistic with Compliance and, before Compliance, when I made Great World of Sound. So there was something kind of romantic about making a movie that would have these archetypes and this kind of plot. It felt like classical movie making, that I was eager to do. There’s a line in a song [“The Past is a Grotesque Animal”] that a friend of mine [in the band Of Montreal] wrote: “We want our movies to be beautiful not realistic.” [laughs] There’s some instinct that made me think it would be fun to make something beautiful.
BROWN: Did you immediately think of shooting in New Zealand?
ZOBEL: No, that started as a practical concern. I was not interested in making a movie in a desolate, black and white, stark, end-of-the-world type place. I was like, “It must be lush.” And we could only shoot it really with those three people during January and February, so it became, “Where can I go that is not in the Northern Hemisphere?” We did end up shooting in West Virginia—we shot the opening, or the desolate world, in West Virginia and then the shot goes over a hill and ends up in New Zealand.
BROWN: In the past, you’ve mentioned that you read a lot about the Milgram Experiment before you started work on Compliance. Was there anything like that for this film?
ZOBEL: This film immediately reminded me of older films from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—after-the-bomb-dropped movies, which I always loved, secretly. There are a lot of post-apocalyptic movies [now], but none of them are the after-the-bomb kind that I grew up with. They are about these big autocratic states that make their children go run through mazes or kill each other—weird parables about high school, essentially. [laughs] I had watched a bunch of those [old] movies: Testament ; The World, The Flesh and the Devil . There are ton of them that have this cool, mostly midnight-movie vibe to them. That’s what inspired me more than anything. That and old Russian sci-fi movies.
BROWN: How did you settle on your three actors? Was it easy?
ZOBEL: Yes, it was. The cool thing about the end of the world is that it’s not like you have to really say, “Who has the best chemistry?” Because it’s the end of the world and that wouldn’t happen. It was people that I felt like were game to play the same way that I wanted to play. They all really respected each other’s work prior to meeting, so I felt no worry about whether I was casting the right three people. That was the fun of the weird conceit that the movie has.
BROWN: I had a nightmare after watching the movie. Chiwetel was there.
ZOBEL: [laughs] Chiwetel himself is a very lovely guy. He’s one of the top people I would want to be at the end of the world with. Loomis, maybe not so much, but, other than that, Loomis is a good guy.
BROWN: Do you think so?
ZOBEL: I think he’s a pretty conflicted guy, complicated guy. A lot of weird stuff goes on, but I don’t think he’s a maliciously bad person. I think if anything he’s too one-personality type. Or he feels like there’s a way to control everything, which is [to be] a very analytical person.
BROWN: What about Chris Pine’s character, Caleb?
ZOBEL: Chris’ character comes off as pretty mysterious. I don’t think of Caleb himself as a bad dude. He’s a guy who maybe had authority issues and now that he’s in this place, he’s kind of like, “I guess I can kind of do what I want.” He’s exploiting the scenario in a sense, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t judge that badly I guess.
BROWN: All three cast members are pretty in-demand at the moment. Was that the case when you cast them?
ZOBEL: For Chiwetel the sell was pretty easy. By the time that we were gearing up, we were aware that 12 Years a Slave was coming. Margot was me encouraging everybody to trust that she was going to give performances in other movies that people would be excited about—I met her before The Wolf of Wall Street. I said, “Please, trust me, there’s talent there, she’s amazing. Please let’s gamble on this.”
BROWN: Did you ever go, “Ha! I told you so!”
ZOBEL: They all said, “We know, we know,” before I had to.
BROWN: What did you want to be when you were five years old?
ZOBEL: I wanted to be an astronaut. I actually went to space camp twice.
BROWN: Oh really? What did you do in space camp?
ZOBEL: [laughs] It’s a NASA sponsored program. You spend the first half of the week learning how to be mission control, and then you spend the second half running a fake space mission. You eat a lot of astronaut ice cream. Then I found out that I was way too tall, have flat feet, was colorblind—all of these things where there was nothing I could do. I was just never going to go to outer space. I started thinking about other things. I always drew and painted, and in high school I thought I was going to go do that—be a graphic designer.
BROWN: So really you should be offered more sci-fi movies. You have experience?
ZOBEL: I would actually do it. I like it. I just finished watching Black Mirror. That’s totally the kind of stuff that I love: speculative fiction. The whole point is to make up a future to reflect what’s going on now.
BROWN: What are you working on now?
ZOBEL: I’m in a really lovely place where I get to write something new. I have a little bit of time. I have a couple of projects percolating. In the meantime, I’m going to make up a thing. It’s been a while. This movie took a lot of time compared to some movies, just out of sheer logistical issues. Writing is a totally different brain than directing, at least for me. When I’m directing, I can look at something that I wrote and say, “This doesn’t make sense.” There’s a lot more intuition and gut involved. With writing, you’re trying your best to foresee all the problems before they happen. It’s more architectural in a weird way—building arcs and stuff. People refer to it in this weird construction-y terminology, and something about that totally makes sense to me.
For more from the Sundance Film Festival 2015, click here.