Gavin Rothery is what one would consider a jack of all trades. Having started his career as an illustrator/comic artist in the games industry, Gavin eventually learned VFX where he went on to co-create and design the 2009 movie, Moon. Since then, Gavin has gone on to write and direct his first feature film, the sci-fi/thriller ARCHIVE.
In ARCHIVE, the year is 2038 and George Almore (Theo James) has found himself working on a true human-equivalent AI. His latest prototype is almost ready. This sensitive phase is the riskiest. Especially as he has a goal that must be hidden at all costs: being reunited with his dead wife. For the release of the film, I had the chance to speak with Gavin 1:1 where we discussed everything from the genesis of the story to utilizing his skills as a VFX designer.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Gavin. Can you start by talking a bit about what inspired the story for this film?
Gavin Rothery: This whole thing, the story, was put together back in 2011. I had a traumatic weekend where I was doing a big flat cleaning and the whole place was a mess and I was cleaning it all. When you work freelance, I’m sure you understand how important your computer is, and I had a computer and a backup computer, two PCs and both of them died at the same time. There were hard-drive corruptions and all kinds of stuff, I lost so much, it was awful. This all happened on a Sunday and I couldn’t do anything about it. My flat was a mess and I was in a funk about this whole thing but I had to keep cleaning to get this flat tidy. I was just really, really grumpy. I had been thinking about possible things I might be able to come up with to develop to see if I could get a film made myself and I had the idea while I was cleaning up. I was really down on technology and machines and this idea just popped into my head about somebody who created an AI and they were unable to keep it functioning. What happened was you’d turn it on and as soon as it became sentient it killed itself. This weird, dark thought just popped in my head and lodged itself there. I found the idea quite compelling so I started to think about how I could expand that idea into a story. It evolved into how the creator of the AI might try to convince it to live. Couple with that, once I started to get a story moving I… I approach all of this stuff as a fan so I’m trying to somewhat get into the space of the kind of things that I like. The kind of films that I like are films that have some stakes that I can generally understand and buy into. Sci-fi is kind of quite bad for this in a lot of ways because a lot of the sci-fi that gets made forms tropes and it’s not uncommon for a sci-fi film to have the stakes of the film be in the future of humanity or the end of the world or something big like that. I like things that have more of a personal stake in them. I decided to opt for themes of love and death and loss as what I was going to write the story about. So taking that idea and then pushing it forward and trying to expand it into a story about love and death and loss very quickly became ARCHIVE. It took me a couple of months to get the actual story down, that was all way back in 2011.
I saw that your background is in visual effects so how was it utilizing that skill in creating this film?
Gavin Rothery: It’s one of those things where I have found that I am one of those people that is like useful, cause I do quite a lot of different things. With ARCHIVE it was great cause it’s very easy for me to make myself happy as long as I’ve got the time to actually do the work. I write a film about some robots and while I’m writing it I’m thinking about and getting ideas for what they look like, so I designed them. I worked with a couple of concept artists when they got going, but generally speaking a lot of this stuff I could already see in my head when I was writing it. I can do all my own design work, things like VFX and stuff. One of the big superpowers I can bring into a project is when I’m writing it I can kind of write to a budget. I can make sure that when I’m putting the story together there’s nothing in there that we’re not going to be able to realize. Then when we move into production the conversations are quite clear because when [it comes to the] budget we can quite quickly say: Well, the big things we’re gonna lean on in this film are about a 1/3 of the VFW work is going to be taking off J3’s legs. That’s going to end up being like 250 shots and that’s gonna be a big chunk of money and we’re gonna commit to that and it’s going to be awesome. We aren’t going to spend money on set extensions, we’re gonna spend money building one set and we’re gonna shoot in there and that’s it. Things like that are so useful.
The film deals with a lot of themes such as death, autonomy, the afterlife, the future of technology and more. Why do you think those topics are important to bring forth and how do you think it relates to what the world is experiencing right now?
Gavin Rothery: The whole thing about things going on in the world today, that’s something that the film has fallen into. The journey from having the initial idea to now has been 9 years, the story was there right back at the beginning. It’s really like the world kind of has moved into a position where it’s become more and more relevant. This comes back to the whole “love and death” thing. It’s things we can understand and get a handle on. One of the things I was really surprised at is I set out to write a film about love and death and what I actually ended up doing, accidentally, was writing a film about replacement. I don’t know if that says more about me than the human condition but I was really surprised at the theme that came out because so much of the film is basically fear of replacement. Maybe that’s probably me exposing my psyche a bit too much (laughs).
Lastly, can you talk a little bit about casting Theo James and Stacy Martin? How did you prepare them for their roles and their interactions with each other?
Gavin Rothery: To be honest, there wasn’t that much prep coming from me other than obviously giving them the script. I made an art document that had all the visual stuff in there so they could see what the robots looked like, see what the house looked like, they could see all of that stuff. When you’re reading a script and it just describes a robot or a boxy 6’5″ robot, that can be anything. I was giving them the art document to make sure that they got a read on it. Theo James was great, he’s actually a producer on the film, too, he was very heavily involved. He was super cool because he actually agreed to do the film and then stuck around for two years while [unintelligible] had all the conversations. We wouldn’t have gotten this film made without Theo. Not only was he great for waiting around for us, but when it got to game time he just brought it in spades. Stacy Martin was cast after Theo and she came in quite late because both myself, Phillip Hurd the producer, and Theo, as leading man and producer, we all… it was funny, we were in a pub having a meeting, just talking, and we had been thinking about the whole casting thing. We all got together to talk about where we came out with it all and we all wanted Stacy Martin, it was amazing. We were all independently thinking and we all arrived at the same person, it was a really weird one, but you aren’t going to get a surer sign than that, that’s she’s the right person. Then it became all about convincing her. Stacy is a smart cookie, to be honest, I was a little intimidated when I first met her because she’s good, she’s a real professional and a smart cookie.
I always do this whole thing where the work will hopefully speak for itself but I also understand, as a first time director, people need to buy into me. I was crossing my fingers and hoping. The other thing, too, was I was promising quite a lot on this film to the actors. We will have these robots, we’ll do this thing, we’ll make this house, and they’re all just looking at me like, “How are you going to do this on this budget?” When I first met Theo he was rehearsing for a play and I basically got the chance to ambush him at lunch-time. He gave up one his lunches to just talk for an hour and a half, mid-rehearsal. I remember thinking, “Oh great, I’m going to get to suss out Theo James” and I couldn’t get a word in. He was grilling me like a sausage, it was very impressive. I thought it was cool because he wanted to feel comfortable I could pull off what I was promising with the budget I had because he didn’t think we could do it. I talked him through how I was going to do it to basically get him to buy into it. He was basically trying to find the holes in what I was doing and he was asking some really good questions to try… he was asking the kind of questions where if I didn’t know what I was talking about it would have completely exposed me in front of my producer.
ARCHIVE is now available to watch On Demand and Digital.