Sprawling future Western quais-epic Young Ones offers a poignant deconstruction of sci-fi and western films, an allegorical gaze into a murky future that strips both genres down to the studs and builds them up as one.
Brother of Gwenyth and Godson to Steven Speilberg, Jake Paltrow successfully brokers this moody, panoramic vista of draught dystopia by juxtaposing elements of hi-fi tech against the dust bowls and wind storms of plains livin’. Technology has taken great bounds forward, providing the illusion of solace to a society brought to their knees by perpetual thirst, but with water in such scarcity, this Western shanty town is on the brink of extinction. Life nectar that it is, water has become the new oil, a cherished commodity that’s become even more rare and necessary, a cause for showdowns and scuffles.
Opening on a brutally tense standoff between hero Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) and two grubby water thieves, this expertly-realized world could conceivably be post-apocalyptic, sparsely occupied by a patchwork of desperate characters milling through stretches of sand-blasted country on a hunt for their next water source. Had it been such, it would risk bearing a striking resemblance to Cormac McCarthy‘s dystopian cannibal-drama The Road (which star Kodi Smit-McPhee also featured in) but we soon learn that Ernest and son Jerome (Smit-McPhee) are not alone. They live in a desolate settlement built of stacked shoddy boxcars complete with black market baby sales, dry-lipped, sandy-haired beggars, and its own class of elite citizenry.
Ernest, a haunted, recovering alcoholic, has fruitlessly tried to convince the mob-like watermen to run a direct line to his desolate town but has been shot down over and over again. There’s life in the soil, he’s convinced. It, much like he, just needs another chance. Shannon sells haunted meditation, a character trait he’s perfected, and his watchful relationship with milquetoast son Jerome is a strong emotional platform for the narrative to rest on. Since The Road and Let Me In, McPhee has sprouted into an almost unrecognizable teenager but rather than fiddle with stodgy angst, his ‘becoming a man’ progression is a hat-tipping throwback to the Westerns of old.
Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning play a young couple with their own update on Western boilerplate anchors. Hoult is willy and unscrupulous and Fanning, a housemaid dissatisfied with washing dishes (with sand, naturally). With Shannon and these three talented young actors, Young Ones lets the grit and speechless contemplation pile high, as any decent Western should. Better still, the landscape upon which this three-chaptered tale unfolds is so articulately designed that it feels as pronounced and occupied as Tatooine (in the original trilogy of course.)
Like a Neill Blomkamp film, Young Ones soars when it’s building atmosphere. Stuck in the sun-bleached desert, we’re still acutely aware of the world at large. Radios blare affected sales announcements. Pack donkeys are phased out and replaced with Big Dog-style robotics. Supersonic jets boom overhead, ripping the sky from LA to NYC. In other parts of the world, processing plants synthesis water with nuclear technology and smartphones fan out with conceivably inventive new wave tech. The world may be moving forward but, for all we’ve seen, humanity has stepped backwards.
A riveting series of chapters of once upon a time in the future west, Young Ones spins a unique take on clutching onto one’s manifest destiny. Rich with morose mood, towering metaphors, and dusty, dusty atmosphere, just watching will leave you parched.
In this final installment of talks around 2014’s Sundance, we touch base with the creative brains and cinematic brawn behind Young Ones (full review here) – a dystopian future Western that pits mechs and humans against draughts and standoffs. A bit like slamming The Good, The Bad, and The Uglyin the midst of Tatooine, Jake Paltrow‘s sophomoric effort is a fascinating and engaging experiment in genre that worked wonders for me. Joining him, stars Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning helped guide us through why they came to the movie, what it was like working under the heat of a South African sun and the use of modern day robotics in Young Ones.
Q: Talk about what inspired the film and what were some of the stylistic influences?
Jake Paltrow: There were two particular news articles. One was about moving the capital of Yemen due to a lack of water, in the next ten years. And another one was about the driest town in the world in Chile. There’s a story about all these people who stayed behind because of these odd personal reasons and needing water to be pumped in. And I’ve always been interested in robotics and I spent time in 2008 with Big Dog at Boston Dynamics. Anyway, I was very interested in trying to do a story with a robotic character that would work and explore its sentience, it had some sort of soul, or it would be a character, a character that would have some sort of sense itself. And those two things came together and it went from there.
Q: Talk about how you sort of fused some of the stylistic elements, the science fiction with the Western bounds?
JP: That sort of just happened. I don’t know if that was such a premeditated thing, it just came together. Giles, who photographed the movie, and I really didn’t look at very few things we talked about. We talked about Silent Night, the only one we ever talked about, the way it was lensed I think. We loved that movie, it looked so great. But we were always trying to do our thing beyond that.
Q: How did you select the instruments, the electronics vs. the harmonica?
Nathan Johnson: A lot of that was working with Jake, we would sit down and we talk out ideas, stylistic references. And we pulled out music boxes and harmoniums, and we were talking a lot about wind actually, and the idea of wind instruments and what it sounds like when wind blows over something, and just that point where it turns into a tone. So we thought that was kind of interesting. The idea of combining traditional orchestral instruments with these wind instruments and also these synthetic elements just piqued our interest and felt maybe part of the world this place was in.
Q: What did it feel like to live through this movie, the people who worked in it.
Michael Shannon: Well, it’s really disturbing to think about what might be heading our way. But at the same time, we are making a movie. Now, in NYC we’re much more afraid of water than not having water. So it’s all relative.
Q: Can you guys talk about what first attracted you to the role?
Elle Fanning: Well, I read the script a really long time ago. I was twelve when I first read it. And I met Jake for the first time and we went out to lunch. And I thought I was something that I’d never read before, and right when I read it, I thought ‘Oh my God, I have to do this’. I knew that for my character specifically, I’m really into details and all the little things and quirks of Mary or any character I do, and I knew with her I could put a lot of those in there. And after talking to Jake, he was so open to those. We spent so long on that hot pink nail polish color. We were picking it out, the right shade, “That’s too salmon, that’s too hot”, that was a big deal. And I love that, I like picking out the details, and I just love Jake and the movie so much. So that’s kind of, the nail polish drew me to it.
Kodi Smit-McPhee: I was also kind of really attracted by the nail polish. No, I was also with the project for a long time, it went through a lot but then it got through again. And I was in LA, just Skyping Jake, reading the script again, did my tape, sent it off, and next thing I was in South Africa melting.
Nicholas Hoult: The script was the most original thing I’d read for ages but also that Flem role was the most interesting, with all the dynamics he had with each other character from the film, and I was fascinated by him, it was really well written. That’s the reason I wanted to do each scene. And I had the same experience that Elle had with nail polish, but I had a fake tan. So I got to wear a lot of that.
MS: It’s kind of like what we were talking about earlier. It was relevant and it was a story that needed to be told. I don’t think a movie’s gonna fix a problem but beyond just reading something from a newspaper, if you put it in a movie, it may have more of an emotional resonance, it may inspire someone to do something. It did occur to me when I read it that that might be one result, yes.
Q: Why did you choose to use chapters versus acts?
JP: We talked about that a lot, we talked about approach, acts or chapters. The third thing that really inspired the movie, besides those articles and interests in robotics, were the SE Hinton books that I revisited. I reread those books when I was writing, I hadn’t read them in such a long time and I loved them so much and I loved them again as a kid. And I loved the way a science fiction book version of those books could feel like. So I was really leaning towards that. And those books were always sort of short and I thought how could I make this movie feel like one of those short books. And so the chapters thing, I thought it was a way to keep the entertainment relevant, that you would know that you were moving into the next thing. You close this story, move into Flem’s chapter, you could get more energy back as an audience. I think to try and entertain, certainly the chapters had to do with books, but we do play with parts and acts at other points to. And the important thing at the end, in a way it is to sort of, the movie, even though the performance is sort of naturalistic, has this sort of storybook element to it, and I liked the idea of sort of ending it. I mean, I look at the movie and I feel like it’s a tragedy, and I like revisiting these characters and seeing them all as a little bit removed from the movie.
Q: The science fiction elements felt really organic when they came into the story. I thought it was a really bold choice to create classic western meets futuristic science fiction and I wonder were there things about it that you were worried wouldn’t work?
JP: Everything. The way we did the simulation, we had two puppeteers and that was one of those things, the movie, I’d prepped once before and it didn’t happen, and so we got down to South Africa we started doing it this way, but we never had a complete proof that this would work. We’d done it once before, in Spain, and it seemed like it would work perfect, so we kept moving that way. But we hadn’t really tested it, doing a whole movie, so we just kept going, thinking it would work. But sometimes it felt like every single thing just wouldn’t work. It was 115 degrees the first few days of shooting, it felt impossible to get through the day, literally just taking it one step at a time. We felt like we’d never get through the shots. Sequences like that were very worked out, so we knew we had to get that amount of shots to make the scene work, so we somehow adjust. I really credit Mike. But truly we felt like we couldn’t even finish it. It was a very difficult movie to make and we were so far away. I’d never been in a situation where you couldn’t shoot because the lights would go. And then the lights would go, and you’d be standing there saying ‘Well that’s it’. And they’d go and drive seven hours to Cape Town to get new lights and come through the next day. We didn’t have a schedule where we could get things picked up, certain people get dropped along the way. Thinking, what do we have, what do we have? Trying to fit everything together, and somehow we got lucky, or at least seemed to.
Q: What was the idea behind the plane in the film.
JP: That was just the idea that there was a world going on around the movie, this sort of supersonic passenger jet is back, the new Concord is back and they’re flying from LA to New York in 45 minutes or whatever it is, and there’s this whole world where in fact, you know our world has this sort of regressive nature to it, and the rest of the world is great. You know, a world where Google Glass, or the next, all those sort of things are happening, all those utopian urban things, people migrating from urban areas from rural areas, all that is going on, just not where these people live. So that was the idea, that there’s a big world out there.
Q: From a production standpoint, the robot you used, was that on loan from the military?
JP: No, it’s totally fake. The torso is made of fiberglass tubing.
Q: Did you try and get the actual robot?
JP: Oh yes, I tried. They were great, but there was no way to do it. They’re developing. Now they’re on to Cheetah, and all these things. I mean it was a fascinating experience to spend time with them to do this test, but in the end they’re not a movie tool. They have much bigger fish to fry.