Director Craig Zobel
’s third Sundance Film Festival premiere “Z For Zachariah
” (Roadside Attractions, August 28) offers a strong post-apocalypse survival triangle played by Australian actress Margot Robbie
(“The Wolf of Wall Street”), as a lonely farmer in her mountain Shangri la above the post-nuke clouds that have destroyed the world. Her quiet world is threatened when two weary travelers (Chiwetel Ejiofor
and Chris Pine
) stumble onto her farm and vie for her affection.
Zobel’s follow-up to controversial Sundance 2012 drama “Compliance” (the Magnolia release starred Ann Dowd in a searing Indie Spirit nominated performance), is both less personal and more collaborative than that film or his micro-budget breakthrough “Great World of Sound,” which played Sundance in 2007. That’s the trick as filmmakers mature in their careers. While Zobel likes to help out his friends, producing such films as David Gordon Green’s “George Washington,” Manglehorn” and “Prince Avalanche,” he discovered that taking on material developed by other producers and working with movie stars is fraught with challenges.
Shopping around for his next project as “Compliance” was coming out, Zobel was given fellow CAA client Nissar Modi’s adaptation of the 1974 Robert C. O’Brien novel. The script had been developed by Iceland’s Zik Zak Filmworks and Tobey Maguire’s Material Pictures and producer Matthew Plouffe. Zobel found himself drawn by the subtext that was often implied, he told me in a telephone interview. He was intrigued by the idea of “exploring something with perameters,” he said. “Three people felt like it would be hard, like I needed to be on my toes, it felt like what I should be doing.” He gave some notes on the script and read the book, realizing that it wasn’t nearly as strong as the Black List 2009 screenplay.
In the book the woman was a 16-year-old teenager living in a cave who was threatened by the scientist intruder who tried to control and take over her life; the script spiced things up with the arrival of the second man. Maguire was originally going to play the scientist role, while his “The Great Gatsby” costar Carey Mulligan was set for the woman. When that iteration fell apart, Zobel was dealing with the dictates of foreign sales financing as he cast the film, and had to fight for Ejiofor as the Atheist engineer Loomis, well before he was nominated for “12 Years a Slave.” “I was excited to work with Chiwetel,” he said. “Those lists are pretty racist. They do not favor any bravery in casting.” So to get his trio Zobel had to lower the budget to under $5 million.
With Pine onboard, Zobel cast Robbie as 20-something Christian Anne, who is running the farm left to her by her father, who left their meteorological enclave with her brother to find survivors and never returned. Zobel wanted to create a utopia and a well-ordered farm “that doesn’t turn into apathy and chaos. It needed to be a place where you could start over.”
“I was most nervous casting her,” said Zobel. “After meeting her and seeing her in the Scorsese movie, I saw that she is a great actor: the person I met with and the person on-screen were so different. She’s really talented, but I wanted to make sure her beauty was not distracting. I asked her, ‘Can I slow you down as much as possible, give you freckles?’ She was game.”
He’s returning to the “old-school classical Hollywood golden age” where movies were made with attractive people, he admitted. “There’s some overt religious symbolism, and it’s ok if this movie is romantic in a sense, by which I don’t mean in a like ‘I love you’ way.”
Navigating the gender dynamics and who has sex with who fascinated Zobel as well as the actors, who went over the script and made some changes to make it “weird, more fun.” They figured out who their characters were before the apocalypse and what they want to achieve, as they test each other’s trust while working together to build a water wheel to run a generator. “What will keep you alive at the end of the world, and put you in the position to survive?,” said Zobel. “The main thing I was fascinated with was essentially communication, people being able to talk through the differences they have. That’s what the movie is about to me.”
Zobel called upon his own reactions to a trip to Paris, when his girlfriend of 10 years knew how to speak French and he didn’t, and he became uncomfortably dependent on her. “It was a great bonding trip for us,” he said. “It forced me to have more communication. That’s what relationships are about. The movie is about having to figure out how to communicate with each other and how to to negotiate with each other.”
So why isn’t the movie sexier? Zobel went along with Robbie, who “had been incredibly naked in a movie, here she was down to one sex scene,” he said. “That was my first sex scene. I’ll do better next time.”
Clearly, with so many producers (during one screening there was audible reaction to the sheer number of producer credits on the film), there were many cooks in the kitchen. The film’s ending was a much-debated editing decision, which was tested in various ways. “Everyone felt like addressing things,” said Zobel.
Roadside Attractions picked up the movie when the financing producers made an overall deal with Lionsgate, initially with Grindstone, the genre arm of Lionsgate. “The movie fit better with Roadside, who were excited to work on it,” said Zobel. “That was an inside Lionsgate decision.”