In Captive State—now playing in theaters—Rupert Wyatt imagines a world not that different from our own, except for the fact that for the last nine years mankind has been under an alien occupation. Set in a broken-down Chicago where all digital technology has been outlawed, Captive State—which Wyatt cowrote with Erica Beeney—bears witness to the complex challenges faced by the citizens of this brave new world. William Mulligan (John Goodman) is an ex-cop now working for the collaboration government to root out possible resistance activity. Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) is a teen living in the shadow of his brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors), a fallen hero of the resistance. Jane Doe (Vera Farmiga), an enigmatic link between the resistance and the collaborators, holds the secret to a plot that might change everything. Having previously explored the complex dramas of characters seeking to break free of the chains that bind them—be it an actual prison in The Escapist or an animal lab in Rise of the Planet of the Apes—Wyatt had a clear vision of what was at stake in Captive State.
We spoke with Wyatt about what inspired this sci-fi epic, what he thinks the aliens actually want, and why hope is essential to his story.
What was your inspiration for Captive State?
I've always been a fan of stories dealing with occupation and those fighting back, those raging against the machine. Human stories like Cool Hand Luke or Randle Patrick McMurphy’s tale in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. For Captive State, what interested me politically and historically was telling a story about a resistance force fighting back against an occupier. The formative works for me were films like The Battle of Algiers and Army of Shadows. I wanted to posit the idea of what would happen if this sort of occupation was in America and then explore it in a plausible way.
With Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you have created two futuristic films that feel very close to how we live now. What do you like about such realistic sci-fi stories?
I love Philip K. Dick and dirty sci-fi that is grounded, relatable science fiction that holds a mirror up to our own society. To me, that is a great realm in which to tell stories.
In embarking on Captive State, what did you see as your biggest creative challenge?
Logistically Captive State was a very ambitious project for our budget. We have over one hundred speaking parts and forty plus locations. And we were moving very fast in terms of following the various characters. The story is very in-the-moment, action-driven. Blocking those sequences and doing them in a very visceral way with structure was complex. I am not a big fan of random handheld camerawork. I love when the camera is placed in a way that is key to telling the story. To do all of that in a finite amount of time and budget was a real challenge. But more important for me was keeping a handle on the human, character-driven aspect of the story.
Did you give the cast and crew a particular direction to get them in the right frame of mind for this story?
Yes. I said simply, “Imagine this is happening outside your window.” That idea trickled down to inform everything, from where we put our cameras to how the actors approached their characters. To me, it was like putting a documentary film crew into the future. There are no God's eye-view camera angles. Everything played out on street level.
Did you bring up historical precedents to illustrate this world?
Obviously World War II in France. The Nazi occupation and the Vichy government as collaborators were essential. We looked at how a resistance was made up of people from all walks of society. Those with the least to lose invariably joined the resistance. That ran the gamut from intellectuals to railroad workers, communists to criminals. Those on the margin of society are always the ones that ended up being heroes in many ways. In our case, I was really fascinated by the idea of putting a member of the trans community, who is already part of an ostracized group, alongside a Catholic priest, whose religion is banned in this new world. They are united under one tribe, that is to fight back. Every demographic of society is connected in a very binary way: They are either collaborators or they are resistance.
Coming up with representing the aliens is always complex in a film like this. How did you evolve your vision for them?
I first had to imagine why they are here. They are carbon-based as a species. They are looking to colonize earth because they need fossil fuels. They want to strip mine us. I liked the idea of them having a humanoid form so that we could empathize with them in a certain way. In many ways, they are the worst of us. At the same time, I wanted to find something different to define their makeup. I ended up exploring the insect world. I came across this documentary about a swarm of wasps invading and colonizing a beehive. In this scenario, we are the bees. We are the ones willing to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good for our survival from the wasps, a violent, colonizing species. The design started from there.
While you don’t reveal too much about the aliens, did you work out in your mind a backstory about them and how their society works?
There's always the challenge of how much or how little you want the audience to understand the backstory explicitly. In creating this story, I had all sorts of models. There were the Roman generals being put in places like ancient Britain thousands and thousands of miles away from their home and families. They were there for 12-month periods surrounded by and under threat from essentially alien lifeforms. I saw the aliens a little like that. But I didn’t want to focus on that, which would be great for a TV show. In a movie, I didn't want to focus on how do we beat the aliens and take back the planet. I was more interested in the moral choices both the collaborators and the dissidents were forced to make. How they found the strength to do the right thing. That for me is the heart of the story.
What do you hope audiences take away from the story?
I love films that have a visceral color to them. I don't believe the world can be, nor should be, painted black and white. To do that, you have to find the humor and joy in things. One of the great scenes in The Battle of Algiers depicts an illicit marriage in the Casbah. Depite the fact that at the time Algerians needed to get permission from the colonial forces to get married, it is a scene full of hope. In Captive State, wherever possible, I was looking to create those moments. As her husband is walking out the door to join the resistance, a young mother is focused elsewhere. She is watching the first steps of her child. I was very keen for people to see those kind of moments in this story.