What if the after-life was scientifically proven? This is the premise of The Discovery, directed by Charlie McDowell and written by McDowell and Justin Lador (their previous film was sci-fi thriller The One I Love).
Due for worldwide release by Netflix on 31 March, The Discovery premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, with McDowell, Lador and cast members on hand after the screening to take audience questions.
“We took hold of that question,” McDowell explains. “From there we started to think what that would mean to us as people? We came up with the idea, if you could press the reset button and just go to another place, is that your death or do you just go someplace else?
“For The One I Love we had a location and we built the story completely around that location, but for The Discovery it was this idea first. Then we came up with a setting which was a New England town in the off-season and what that would look and feel like, then we started building characters from there.”
This fascinating idea attracted a strong team of talented actors, Rooney Mara co-starring with Jason Segel, the gifted Jesse Plemons (Bridge of Spies, Other People), Riley Keough (American Honey, The Girlfriend Experience) and, to McDowell’s surprise, Robert Redford.
“Casting Robert Redford – well no one asks Robert Redford, right?” laughs McDowell. “There’s a sense he’s really untouchable, and maybe I’m just really stupid but I approached him. I think really he wants to tell interesting stories and play interesting characters.”
Redford plays Dr Thomas Harbor, a scientist who has made a breakthrough that shocks the world and changes everything we know about life and death. As a result people start taking their own lives to ‘get there.’
There are cult overtones in the controlled, charismatic way Harbor vets his devotees and runs his establishment. More personally, his two sons become involved, one more questioning than the other, and poignantly we find out that the death of Harbor’s wife is generating much of his scientific zeal. Redford’s restrained, layered playing of the character reminds you of how good an actor he is.
Mara always bounces off the screen to engage an audience. The filmmakers were fortunate to have her on board as the script needed a vibrant, believable protagonist to carry what is really a speculative, abstract idea. Her character of Isla, who has her own mysterious reasons for coming to Harbor’s New England island, the hub of his ‘discovery.’ The story unfolds over a few days as the people who have come to seek escape or redemption are forced to reflect on how they’ve arrived at this point.
“Rooney read the first scene and heard what we wanted to explore and she said ‘I want to be in this movie.’ We thought – now we have to write a really good girl part! That was a specific thing to focus on, now we had her character of Isla and making sure the part was good enough for someone like Rooney to play.”
Mara’s love interest and fellow explorer is played by Segel, an actor who has been friends with McDowell for over twelve years, appearing in his early short film. Segel’s character of Will is Harbor’s estranged son, bringing with him confrontation and tension as he decides to face off with his father and the family’s past.
“What really interested me was that idea of relocation,” says Segel. “Can you ever really leave your life behind and start afresh? I don’t think you can, and that’s my character’s point of view, which was really exciting for me to play. The metaphysical implications can be applied to how we handle ourselves here in real life.”
Themes of loss, grief and denial are supported by the cool and gritty style of photography. The scientific machines are reminiscent of many scientific exploration movies from Altered States to Frankenstein or Metropolis where the man of science dares to cross the boundaries and become god, and perhaps sacrifices some of his humanity in the process.
“I want people to walk away and have a discussion at dinner,” says Lador. “The audience brings who they are into the film, one person can believe it means this, another person believes it means something totally different and that’s an exciting place to play. We’re happy that people have strong reactions one way or another, because we want to make films that make people think and questions things.”
Adds McDowell, “It’s a film that should be seen twice because you watch it again and it means something different. Things that you thought you understood look completely different on seeing it again. That was always an intentional thing.”