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The 2016 film Lion did great things for Australian director Garth Davis.
It took him all the way to the Academy Awards when the inspirational drama about Saroo Brierley tracking down his birth mother in India was nominated for six Oscars including best picture. With brilliant performances by Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and young Sunny Pawar, it made it easier to attract great actors to his next films. And it showed how much a story about love connected with audiences.
“I don’t want a robot living with my wife”: Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal in Foe.Credit: Transmission
“What I was really happy about with Lion was that the film raised a lot of issues that seemed to move people and speak to people,” Davis says. “It was a film about love, and the power of love, and how love can create miracles and that family is not necessarily biological.”
After the 2018 religious drama Mary Magdalene, he has now made a very different film about love. The sci-fi pic Foe stars Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal as an unsettled young married couple, Hen and Junior, who live in the American midwest in 2065.
At a time when the landscape is dry and barren, she needs more from their relationship and her bleak job in a diner; he thinks they should be happy to have what they have, in the house where his parents lived, even if their farm is so ravaged that he has to work in an industrial chicken processing plant.
Then a stranger arrives, articulate and reassuring, to say that Junior has been selected for an experiment requiring humans to live on a space station. He will be away two years but, so that Hen won’t feel lonely, AI will provide a replacement for him.
Junior is immediately troubled. “I don’t want a robot living with my wife,” he rages.
It’s a film about marriage, identity, a looming environmental apocalypse and the rise of AI.
Two of Ireland’s best young actors turn in emotionally raw performances. Ronan, who has four Oscar nominations for Atonement, Brooklyn, Lady Bird and Little Women, is still only 29. Mescal, who was nominated for an Oscar for Aftersun this year, is just 27.
The stranger, Terrance, is played with polished menace by England’s Aaron Pierre, best known for the TV series The Underground Railroad.
“It’s like meat to the wolves at home with the TV set”: Director Garth Davis on the set of Foe.Credit: Transmission
Foe is a different kind of sci-fi. Instead of the sleek and gleaming touches of many futuristic movies, it is set in a world that largely resembles ours except that it’s drained of greenness and vitality. Climate change has forced humans to look beyond the planet for a new start.
Davis, a tall and gentle soul with a crop of curls and an easy laugh, says he loves sci-fi.
“I especially love sci-fi that forces to the surface the human condition,” he says. “It’s a great device to bring things back to the ground. And also I love the imagination. I love being transported to another world, another reality.”
But after reading Canadian writer Iain Reid’s novel Foe and going in “boots and all” to convince the American producer who held the rights, Kerry Kohansky Roberts, that he should direct the film, Davis knew what type of sci-fi film he did not want to make.
“There’s a lot of sci-fi being made and I just don’t connect with it any more,” he says. “Some of the early films, like the original Blade Runner, were very grounded and very human [but] everything feels very manufactured now.”
Davis wanted a film that was more human and felt imminent rather than taking place a disconnected and distant future. “Something that felt like it’s almost here,” he says.
As well as a story about Hen and Junior’s relationship, he says Foe is about the planet’s environmental decline. “The complacency in the relationship is a reflection of the complacency of how we treat nature,” he says.
It took time for Davis to realise why he had identified with the novel so strongly. “I saw my parents in the story,” he says. “My parents divorced when I was about 12.
“My mother was a very free spirit. She had a lot of energy to live life but my father was scared of change. They were really beautiful together as a couple but he was just so scared of change that ultimately the marriage couldn’t work.”
Davis’ father worked in advertising and his mother was a landscape painter who moved into real estate when, after the divorce, she took the future filmmaker and his younger brother from Brisbane to the Gold Coast. Davis studied art in his early 20s with ambitions to be a painter and designer but came to hate the way computers were taking over design.
When he picked up a camera and shot footage for a friend’s art project, he discovered a new art form. “I felt emotion”, he says. “Suddenly, I felt the alchemy of cinema and totally fell in love with it.”
Davis went on to make commercials, moved into television with the series Love My Way, made a documentary about parking inspectors, then joined The King’s Speech producer Emile Sherman and director Jane Campion to make the 2013 series Top of the Lake.
Aaron Pierre in Foe. Credit: Transmission
Sherman offered him Lion and it became a worldwide hit that joined another Australian film, Hacksaw Ridge, with a best picture nomination at the Oscars. It’s a ceremony best remembered for the fiasco when La La Land was wrongly named winner instead of Moonlight.
“When you’re on the circuit, you get to meet all these producers and filmmakers and actors and become friends,” Davis says. “Everyone has anxiety around what’s going to happen and where things are going to go and it’s hard exposing your creativity to so many people. So I felt for them, I really did. It was diabolical.”
Davis, 49, now lives in Melbourne with his wife and children aged 18, 16, and 11. He once joked that his son would love him to make a Batman film, but he has stayed with deeper and more challenging material.
“All my family, they all have great bullshit detectors,” Davis says before leaving for the world premiere at the New York Film Festival last weekend, ahead of screenings in Los Angeles, Nashville and London. “They’re all pretty staunch believers in doing things that are meaningful. So if I sold out and did something [that wasn’t] they wouldn’t be very happy with that.
“We all acknowledge that our time is precious and if we’re going to do something, let’s try and contribute to ourselves and to audiences [and] my girls have definitely connected with this film.
“The younger generation, they’re devastated. They feel like this film is going to be their life. It feels like they’re screaming at us for change and nothing is happening.”
Davis cast Ronan first. “Hen is the spiritual totem of the film,” he says. “In a way, she’s what’s left of nature, of light, and I had to find not just an amazing actress but a human being that emanates that same quality and that’s Saoirse Ronan. She’s very special.”
Davis then met Mescal in Sydney, where he shot Benjamin Millepied’s musical drama Carmen, and found the Irishman was “so in tune with the movie and so passionate” that he was cast as Junior.
Saoirse Ronan in Foe. Credit: Transmission
“The fact that he was Irish just solved so many problems,” Davis says. “Hen and Junior got married straight out of high school and needed to feel like they came from the same territory. So it just felt right.”
Before shooting Foe, Davis wanted to see the landscapes that inspired the novel so he visited Reid in Ontario, Canada. While driving around, he saw the ideal house for the film. “Everything just felt like the book and I got chills,” Davis says. “Within 20 minutes, we found the owner, went inside and [decided] ‘this is the house’. But then I turned around and thought, ‘well, this is not the world. This is not the state of the planet in 40 years’.”
What did look like the degraded planet from the novel was Winton Wetlands, north-east of Melbourne, which Davis and his family first visited on a camping trip. He calls it a “powerfully spiritual place” with the local Yorta Yorta community’s scarred trees and thousands of dying red gums. They built a scaled-down version of the Canadian house on the wetlands and it became the main filming location during COVID.
Does Davis feel that Lion has set a high bar for every other film he makes? “I don’t think about it to be honest,” he says. “I’m a very grounded person. I don’t allow that to enter my head. I just try and approach things as honestly as I can.”
Just as Campion did with Netflix’s The Power of the Dog, Davis made Foe for cinemas even though it is backed by Amazon, which will stream it on Prime Video in this country.
“I guess I’m still in denial,” he says. “I’m still hoping people go to the cinema. It’s not just the big screen. It’s actually that you can’t fast-forward or stop it. And kids are on three devices at once when they’re watching something now.
“It’s like meat to the wolves at home with the TV set. Watching a movie at our house is chaos.”
Davis sees cinema as healthy – like therapy. “In those centennial studies, going to the movies is part of living to a hundred,” he says. “It’s because you access your subconscious, you turn off those external things. I still believe in that.”
Foe is in cinemas from November 2.
Email Garry Maddox at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.
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