To say that Serenity turned a few heads upon its US release is something of an understatement. Written and directed by Steven Knight, the thriller starts off as a tale of a fishing boat Captain (Matthew McConaughey) who is propositioned by his ex-wife (Anne Hathaway) to murder her violent husband, before taking a turn that, for better or worse, earns the ‘you have to see it to believe it’ distinction. (Read our review of the film here.)
We caught up with Knight a few days after the social media discourse had begun to speak about how he reacted to the initial reviews, his writing process, and what he’s working on next. To begin with though, we had to ask him the most important question of all…
Warning: This contains mild spoilers about Serenity’s themes.
We have a bit of a bone to pick with you: There’s already another film called Serenity! Did you know about it beforehand?
[Laughs] I was conscious of it, and I raised it. The powers that be were serene about it being the title.
This film had a unique reaction when it was first released in the US. What’s been your take?
I love it. I decide to direct a film because I feel like it’s something that if I handed it over, the pressure to change it would be such that it would get changed, and I like to challenge myself. With Locke, it was can you take the most ordinary person in Britain doing the most ordinary job driving down the motorway and make it into a film. I believe the movie business attracts rules like no other. Three acts, a character arc, all those things that you get taught not as if they’re rules, but as if that is what a film is. I wanted to challenge that to create a conventional scenario with a leading actor, a protagonist, a femme fatale and all that stuff… and then crash it into a tree and let one of the wheels go bouncing down the road and follow that wheel. I wanted to totally take away everything that was part of the concept to begin with.
The motivation being that I wanted to explore some of the interesting things that are happening right now. I think it’s the job of the writer and the artist to explore what is real and what is going on, what is real and what’s not real. And it appears to me that you can walk into a bar or café now and there are 20 people with 20 different realities because they’re all staring at their screens… Unashamedly, I wanted it to be an existentialist film.
At a time when it’s really hard to surprise audiences, Serenity has a twist you don’t quite see coming…
What I’ve noticed is that, at first, the reviews were really terrible – “It’s ludicrous! It’s ridiculous!” – and, as the days have gone on, I think it’s partially because of the social media conversations that suddenly the reviews are getting good. It’s quite alarming. I’ve read some really nice things said about it and people are starting to reflect on what it’s actually about. The first reaction is “what the fuck is this?” – I think people who see it twice or three times will start to see all types of stuff in the movie they didn’t see initially.
When did the themes and the stakes begin to come together for you in the writing process?
I went out on a fishing boat in St Lucia, and the fishing captain and I went fishing for tuna. He was all fine until the fish went on the line, and then he’s obsessed and you don’t exist. And there’s only one reality, which is the fish. And I went out a couple times with him and talked to people about him and they said there’s a fish that he’s trying to get that he thinks lives around here and he’s got a relationship with this thing. That had echoes of Captain Ahab, and I wanted to create a particularly American hero through American literature starting with Ahab through Hemingway, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart characters. A man adrift, a man alone, a man with secrets, a man who’s nihilistic, who’s searching for some form of certainty in the great void of the ocean.
So I was interested in that, but at the same time watching my kids play computer games I’ve become convinced that the suspension of disbelief when someone is playing a game is more profound than the suspension of disbelief when watching a movie or TV because they’re involved in the machinations of it. And it made me think that they’re not actually looking at what’s happening on the screen. They’re just using that as cues to give them the thing between them and the screen, and they’re creating a reality that’s so fascinating.
What’s next for you? I know you’ve expressed a desire to return to comedy
I’m adapting Christmas Carol, which I’m really excited about. But yeah, I started in comedy so I wouldn’t mind going back to that. I always want the next thing that I do especially if I’m directing to be as different from the last thing as possible.
Serenity is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.