Netflix’s upcoming disaster movie “Leave the World Behind,” based on the 2020 novel of the same name by Rumaan Alam, marks the first fictional movie from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions company. Barack included the novel on his 2021 summer reading list and was personally invested in perfecting the film adaptation, so much so that he sent script notes to writer-director Sam Esmail (best known as the creator of “Mr. Robot” and “Homecoming”).
“Leave the World Behind” stars Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as a couple vacationing in Long Island when a world-threatening disaster takes place. Mahershala Ali plays the owner of the home the couple is renting. The owner shows up seeking refugee from the disaster with his daughter (Myha’la Herrold), forcing the two families to trust each other as the world potentially comes to an end.
“In the original drafts of the script, I definitely pushed things a lot farther than they were in the film, and President Obama, having the experience he does have, was able to ground me a little bit on how things might unfold in reality,” Esmail recently told Vanity Fair about the script notes he received from the former President. “I am writing what I think is fiction, for the most part, I’m trying to keep it as true to life as possible, but I’m exaggerating and dramatizing. And to hear an ex-president say you’re off by a few details…I thought I was off by a lot! The fact that he said that scared the fuck out of me.”
Per Vanity Fair: “The filmmaker was more reassured when the Obamas suggested some of his potential plot points were too bleak or unlikely. Most of the former commander in chief’s notes, however, stemmed from what he’d observed about human nature, particularly the way fissures form between people who might otherwise find common cause.”
“He had a lot notes about the characters and the empathy we would have for them,” Esmail added. “I have to say he is a big movie lover, and he wasn’t just giving notes about things that were from his background. He was giving notes as a fan of the book, and he wanted to see a really good film.”
With “Leave the World Behind,” Esmail attempted to create a different kind of disaster movie than the ones he grew up watching.
“The disaster genre is one of my favorite genres, and the trick that we did in this film that differs from most disaster films is that in that genre, the focus—the priority of the storytelling—is on the set pieces,” Esmail said. “It’s on the spectacle of whatever the disaster might be for that story, and the characters were secondary to that. They’re more there to react and become the audience avatar. What I think Rumaan did so well in the novel, and what I tried to capture in the film is to invert that and make the focus be on the characters, and their reaction. The spectacle of the disaster is secondary and off in the distance.”
“Leave the World Behind” is set to have its world premiere at the AFI Fest in October. It will stream on Netflix starting Dec. 8.
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