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Set in the near future when water is the world’s most precious resource, Young Ones chronicles the struggles of Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) as he tries to protect and provide for son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) in a barren wasteland. Their simple way of life is threatened when renegade Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult) sets out to claim Ernest’s farm and daughter as his own.
Tribeca: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a futuristic movie quite like the Young Ones. What was the impetus behind the film?
Jake Paltrow: It was a few different things. I’ve always wanted to do a love story centered on a father and son. There’s a lot of my dad, who died young, in the Michael Shannon role. I had never really written a father/son relationship before and that was always a theme that had been on my mind.
I also heard about the droughts in Chile and Yemen and was fascinated by the politics and personal stories around those events. It’s such an odd landscape--to live without water. They are even considering moving the capital of Yemen because their water supply is going to run out in a few years.
I was always inspired by that big dog robot that Boston Dynamics built and was always interested in robotics as a kid. I liked the idea of approaching a story about people and robots that was not about the robots’ sentience. The robots in my script don’t have “souls” or anything.
So I blended my fascination with landscapes and robotics with a father/son story and started to work on this really interesting confluence of ideas. However, Young Ones is about the characters before it’s about the story, even though it’s a very story-driven movie.
Tribeca: The setting in this amazing, almost fantastical world is so unusual and striking.
JP: It’s real science fiction in some ways. You have the quadriplegic mother who lives in a mobile community where people like her learn to walk—we’re years and years away from that. When the boy crosses the border, he sees the billboard announcing the creation of water through atom seeding. We’re definitely playing with details from the science fiction world of the 50s and 60s. I very much wanted to create an alternate reality.
Tribeca: It’s clear you drew inspiration from filmmakers like John Ford and Steven Spielberg. How vital is it for aspiring filmmakers to have a working knowledge of cinema history?
JP: I think it’s only as vital as their interests demand. If your goal as a filmmaker is to make all these comedies, you may want to look only at films in that genre. Maybe a filmmaker with that focus doesn’t need as wide a pool of reference. Knowledge of film history is not a requirement for being a filmmaker, but I think people who love movies anyways will seek out the classics. Movie watching was totally essential for me. It fueled my entire interest.
When I was a child, I loved horror movies and gory special effects, but at a young age, I also was shown all these European movies. A teacher at school started showing us Godard and that exposure completely switched my interest. I moved completely away from horror and no longer wanted to be someone like Rick Baker or Dick Smith who’d make the monsters. My life completely changed after watching those great European auteurs.
We’re definitely playing with details from the science fiction world of the 50s and 60s. I very much wanted to create an alternate reality.
Tribeca: It’s funny you say that because I definitely saw the Rick Baker influence in some of your special effects in Young Ones.
JP: It’s all in there! The influences are very strong, but subconscious at this point. I’m not thinking about them so much. Someone asked what we watched to make the movie. The answer is we didn’t watch anything except Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas for lensing the photography. That is a very beautifully photographed movie. Beyond that, my cameraman and I didn’t work off references. There was no mood book. We just worked with what was in my mind, but there are influences that I’m not always aware of.
Tribeca: Can you talk about working with your director of photography Giles Huttgens and your process?
JP: That’s a very rewarding relationship. Giles and I actually worked together on my only other movie, The Good Night. We’re very close, but our closeness is really rooted in our work. While we’re friends, we talk about our work, our mutual love and fear and respect for film, and the shared fear that motion picture film might disappear. We both are dedicated to making movies using film for as long as it exists. We know that we want to shoot anamorphic and slow stock because that’s what brings character to the movie. I like things unfiltered. I think there’s something really beautiful about natural lighting.
This whole movie happened to be completely storyboarded, but we work back from what I want to achieve to what we can actually accomplish. So there’s a period where we’ re-sculpt what we can. Once we have that set up, I don’t think about the camera except the little technical moves that create tension. I’ll watch the actors, not the monitors. The monitor is basically the size of two iPhones put together. I only use it to make sure we get dolly shots right [laughs]. We don’t really watch performances on the monitor.
Tribeca: One of my favorite things about the movie is the three-chapter format. How did you decide on that screenplay structure?
JP: I wanted to provide these different points of view without doing a Rashomon story. Using a chapter format is a nice way to propel the audience into the next part of the story. The storybook aspect was a big thing for me.
I think my biggest influence came from S.E. Hinton. I re-read her books around the time that I had this idea and was so inspired by her writing. I love the way she treats kids, their worlds and problems with such respect. I started thinking about what it would feel like if she wrote a science fiction version of one of these books. Her books were an active influence.
Tribeca: You have a phenomenal cast. Which role was the most difficult to cast and why was that actor the right choice?
JP: I guess maybe Ernest Holm, Michael Shannon’s role. There were two actors who were cast before Mike who both fell out over scheduling. It’s been such a rollercoaster. We almost shot the movie in Spain once but then production stopped three weeks before shooting. We then had a long down period. The first person we officially cast was Elle Fanning. Kodi Smit-McPhee was the first person that read for the role of Jerome and he nailed it. It was amazing. Plus, I had been a fan of Nicholas Hoult since A Single Man. He has such a great quality. I knew he would be the perfect Flem. If I like someone and their work, I just go for it. It’s not a long process of auditioning.
Tribeca: You come from a family of artists. How do you approach the actor-director relationship?
JP: Really intuitively. I try to cast the best people. I don’t intervene unless the actor is doing something completely unlike the way I see it. That wasn’t an issue at all on this movie. There’s no sort of acting coach version of how I work. There’s very little of that. I don’t provide much guidance at first. I start with the blocking and then things develop from there.
There’s no need to do a Lee Strasberg sense-memories kind of thing with a group of professional actors like this. I don’t have to bring people to an emotional breaking point. I don’t have to manipulate people or yell at people. It’s not necessary with these actors, and it’s not the way I work. They create their parts out of their own points of view. The result is all the wonderful character interpretations that you see in the film. They’ve all improved it. It’s a much better movie than a screenplay.
As much as talent is a part of it, making a movie is so much more about persistence.
Tribeca: If you had the luxury of rehearsal time, would you take it?
JP: Definitely. I’ve never had it. While we were shooting, we were only able to rehearse on our day off and chat between takes. It was great to talk it through and work out the physical part of the performances. I’d love to have a proper rehearsal. I’d love to have a movie in which rehearsal could help structure the film, like 12 Angry Men. Sidney Lumet is the great example. I think I would find extensive rehearsals really rewarding and that they would bring a great confidence to the set.
Tribeca: I read that you have been working on Young Ones since 2008. As a filmmaker, how do you keep that motivation going?
JP: As much as talent is a part of it, making a movie is so much more about persistence. You really have to keep going with these things if you believe in them. It’s an investment that you make in yourself. You have to be firm that you won’t go do someone else’s work. You’re not going to direct that script or do lots more television. We were lucky that Young Ones came to pass and we got to make it.
Tribeca: I know you’ve also directed episodes of NYPD Blue and Boardwalk Empire. How did directing TV prepare you to direct Young Ones?
JP: I think the shows we did before movies were more rigid in style, like NYPD Blue. In those, you’re trying to bring a little bit of who you are and some of your own good ideas to the episode. In a way, you’re just a senior technician. You might not even be the most qualified person to direct because you don’t know the show as well as the crew, especially with network shows that are 23 episodes a year. There’s no way to read all the scripts and watch all the cuts of shows you’re not familiar with and get up to speed. People on the set, the assistant directors and producers, are so much more aware of the nuances that brought the series to the episode you’re directing. It is an odd job in that context.
However, with something like Boardwalk Empire, there are far fewer episodes in a season. As a guest director, you have a lot more time in the schedule and there’s a creative encouragement to make it yours. There are no stylistic restrictions. That was a very rewarding experience. I was sad when it was over because directing shows like Boardwalk Empire would have been something I would’ve been really happy doing more of.
Tribeca: Young Ones had a panel at this year’s New York Comic Con! Why is it important for New York to have its own Comic Con?
JP: It’s so nice to have a Comic Con in New York City so east coast fans don’t have to trek all the way to San Diego. Comic Con goes back to my primary interest in art in general. I loved comic books as a kid so I’m excited to be in that environment. There’s a lot of that comic book influence in this movie, too, even though we also incorporated influences that came later. The toolbox I’m working out of is very much from my youth, and Comic Con connects me with my early interests in a big way
Young Ones is now playing in select theaters and is available to rent on iTunes.