Sundance 2015: Craig Zobel on Going Postapocalpytic Now

The 'Z for Zachariah' director talks about adapting (and changing) the cult sci-fi book

Chris Pine, Margot Robbie, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from 'Z for Zachariah.' Credit: Sundance Institute

Writer-director Craig Zobel is no stranger to Sundance — or to being a Park City provocateur. His 2012 movie Compliance, based on the true story of a fast-food worker who was stripped and abused when her boss was duped, outraged some audience members who accused him of exploitation; the post-premiere Q&A almost caused a riot in the theater. The film was inarguably the festival's most controversial offering that year.

Needless to say, curiosity was piqued for Zobel's latest, Z for Zachariah, which stars The Wolf of Wall Street's Margot Robbie as Ann, the lone survivor of an unspecified world-ending event. Ann has only her dog for company until John (12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist who stumbles into the lush farm valley she calls home. It doesn't take long for him to suggest changes to her system of survival, some of which run counter to the young woman's instincts (e.g. tearing down her father's chapel to scavenge the wood for a hydroelectric wheel). The two ultimately form a semi-romantic bond in their isolation — and then the mysterious Caleb (Chris Pine) enters the picture.

Given both Zobel's reputation and the precarious position of a young woman stranded with two strange men, it seems fair to say there was an expectation that things would go horribly, disturbingly awry. Without giving away too much, it's also fair to say that Zachariah will disappoint viewers looking for a flash point. Nonetheless, the director's adaptation of Robert C. O'Brien's 1974 cult YA novel is a tense exploration of what desperation will drive people to do. We sat down with Zobel shortly after the film's premiere to discuss which of the actors would survive an apocalypse, his favorite dystopian scorched-earth movies and who, exactly, might be the snake in this Garden of Eden.

The movie is very loosely based on the book of the same name — but a third character was added by screenwriter Nissar Modi. Why?
Making a movie with just two people where one person's the clear antagonist and one person's the clear protagonist is hard — there's a reason it hasn't been done since 1974. Everyone would know where it was going, so much so that they would feel kind of bored. Also, when I went back and read the book, what was working for me was the theme of communication: People having to interact when there's only each other. How does that work? The interesting thing about having a third person is that all of a sudden you can talk about him, and you can talk to him about the other person — and in a way you don't have to do that hard work of communication as much. That suddenly felt much more important than being faithful to the book.

Was race a consideration in casting John? Chiwetel's character acknowledges it once, when Caleb arrives and he suddenly feels like an outsider, for a variety of reasons.
I would be hesitant to use the term "color-blind" because that's a weird concept that doesn't make much sense. But I've always loved Chiwetel. I found the script around the same time I was introduced to him and thought: How do I get to work with him? He and I said we should bring up the elephant in the room in that one moment, because I think it would be a disservice to not address it — that can be disrespectful in its own weird way. To be honest, the concept of making a movie about three people at the end of the world and having all three of them be white just seemed weird. But we also didn't want it to be the only thing the movie is about.

There's definitely the anticipation of a possible sexual attack, which the source material does include. Was the decision not to go in that direction influenced by the response to Compliance?
Slightly, yeah. Not necessarily because I was scared of it, but because we had already had a lot of conversations around that topic. In the book, that is the crux of it, that is the breaking point. I was not eager to pursue that story because I had already kind of explored that. But in a weird way, I'm glad to hear that it's acknowledged, because in that particular scenario, where a woman is inviting guys she doesn't know whatsoever into her house, it's complicated and fraught. The sense of danger is there.

Making a movie about three people at the end of the world and having all of them be white just seemed weird.

In the Q&A after the film's premiere, Margot was the only one of the three actors who said she thought she could survive a situation like this. Was that a quality that attracted you to her?
I met her before Wolf of Wall Street, and then I saw the movie and figured we could play around and go in a totally different direction. You know, what's the version of her that's the opposite of that? And it's this really Christian Southern girl. But yes, I think she would survive at the end of the world. Margot grew up on a farm in Australia, so she knows how to milk a cow and drive  a tractor. There would be times when we needed the tractor moved between takes and she would be the only person around who could do it.

Since this is obviously a Biblical story of sorts, which of the guys is the snake in the grass?
Well, that was my whole pitch. I thought it would be fun if we don't know which person was the snake and which person was Adam. I'm incredibly okay with leaving stories open and letting the audience interpret. It's like in The Graduate, towards the end, when Dustin Hoffman's banging on the window of the church with his arms above his head and his palms out; everyone would say, "Oh, it's so very Christ-like." The real story is that the people at the church were like: Don't bang on the glass with your fists or you'll break it! But we put all of this weight into another interpretation. I love that about movies.

Do you see Caleb and John as being drawn to Ann mainly out of desire or a need to procreate?
My impression would be that John, being a scientist, is thinking about the procreation stuff a bunch, and Caleb not so much. For a lot of people the end of the world would mean loneliness and despair, but for some it might mean flexing different muscles. I like to think of Caleb as a person who was the underdog in the coal mine and now he gets to be one of three very important people. I don't think that his dynamic is about just survival.

What are some apocalypse movies that you think have handled the subject really well?
A lot of movies from the Fifties and Sixties that are really good. There's Five (1951), which is about the five people left after nuclear war. I like The Quiet Earth (1985)…and Testament (1983), which starts as a domestic drama. I like stories that are about after the bomb. Apocalypse movies now are about autocratic governments that make kids fight each other or run in mazes and things, but the ones I grew up on are about essentially having no hope that the government will solve the problem at all.

In your own personal hypothetical apocalyptic scenario, would you think more about the logistics, like food and warmth, or about emotions, like despair?
I'd think about the logistics. I'm like John in that way. I guess what was fascinating about the movie [to me] is if you ended up in this scenario that the movie poses, you would start to worry about your interactions and emotions. When you're by yourself it's easy to wake up and put your shoes on and eat your breakfast and figure out how to do stuff, but you don't have to navigate anything. Once other people are involved, the emotional state would be of paramount importance.