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‘Z for Zachariah’ Director Craig Zobel Discusses His Intimate Post-Apocalyptic Romance

Written by on February 3, 2015 

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Rarely is a post-apocalyptic film this handsome. If the future was made up entirely of people who looked like Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, I think we’d all agree the world would be better off. Z for ZachariahCraig Zobel‘s adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien‘s novel, written by Nissar Modi, is more than just a complicated romance, though.

Zobel’s film is about the struggle between religion and science, how the world may change but our emotions remain the same, and more. The plotting and conflict is simple, but there’s plenty underneath the surface. Z for Zachariah is a logical followup to Zobel’s previous feature, Compliance, because, thematically and dramatically, the two pictures are similar.

We had the chance to discuss that familiarity and more with Craig Zobel at Sundance. Here’s what he had to say:

With Compliance and Z for Zachariah, both films follow characters doing or saying things they probably believed they weren’t capable of. 

That’s what was fascinating to me. If you boil down the movie to what it is about, by looking at it in a synopsis form, it may look like a dated version of some sort of post-apocalyptic story you’ve seen in recent times, with the Hunger Games or whatever, and I so feel that is not at all what would happen. [Laughs] Those scenarios just doesn’t make sense to me. What I was excited about – and this was in the screenplay in the beginning – is: you’re always going to carry around the same stuff, regardless if the world ended. You still have the weight of the society that used to exist and the way you used to do things. You know what I mean?

Yeah. The world is over, but your emotions are the same.

Yeah. Even if you don’t have to follow the same moral boundaries, you’re going to anyway [Laughs]. You just are, and that’s what got me excited this. I’m not so sure John Loomis had a great relationship with the girl [we see in a photo] before the end of the world.

You do see a questionable side of him in one scene, and maybe that’s who he used to be.

Right. Who knows what that guy’s backstory really is? He’s troubled and complicated, and hopefully all three of them come off that way. Obviously there’s reasons to make Chris’ character more… I wouldn’t say villainous, because I don’t want it to be read that way; he’s realizing he can do whatever he wants, though. It was an interesting thing to contemplate.

Going into Z for Zachariah, I expected something bigger in scope, but it’s a really intimate post-apocalyptic tale. Having only three actors, does that make the production run smoother: getting to focus more on their performances without a bunch of extras?

Absolutely. I don’t have to worry about a lot of that stuff. It was only the four of us. We had all day in the middle of nowhere, so we got to know each other really well. We also explored things in the script. We’d say, “Well, we did that scene and a normal movie would move on by now, but today we don’t have to. We can try something totally different.” A lot of scenes were totally improved.

Can you recall any of those scenes?

When Loomis is getting drunk in the store. In the screenplay there were no lines for that scene, because she just found him drunk. We wanted to make it be about something. He’s drunk, so he’ll be talking. I had fun with the idea he’d think of what she had or hadn’t eaten, and that he’d act like a scientist about it, trying to figure out who she was based on the evidence. Chiwetel just said, “Yeah, let’s do that,” and he made it way better than I ever could’ve thought of.

It says a lot that she hasn’t drunk any of the beer.

That was in the script. It was fun just unpacking the scene — thinking about what he’d really do.

What kind of discussions did you have the three actors before shooting? 

Everybody was slightly different, but, for all four of us, it was really about accessing the subtext to everyday life, in a world with three people. I mean, if you mess up or do something wrong in this kind of a world, it’s going to resonate, because there’s really only two people, until there’s a third. Even if you’re the most direct person in the world, you’re going to have a secondary conversation underneath everything you say, you know? That’s what was fun: building that conversation.

The subtext is mostly internalized. Was there a back-and-forth over how much to vocalize the subtext?

Well, some of the religious stuff was in the script, and I just found that fascinating. At the end of the world, people would probably talk about religion. [Laughs] And that’s weirdly absent from some post-apocalyptic movies. A lot of it was us making it up as we went along or going really far in one direction, and saying, “Well, we shot that footage. We could use that, but then pare back.” There were versions more subtext-y.

How long was your shoot?

It was done in five weeks with 25 days, which is long for me making a movie. To make some of the movies these actors work on, I mean, they shoot for five months. It was a short shoot, in that sense, but it wasn’t less time than we needed. I don’t think the movie would’ve been much different if we had two more weeks or a month.

We shot the film in New Zealand, and we did that because it was when all three of their schedules aligned. We shot around January or February. I really wanted the film to be green, so I said, “Well, let’s go somewhere south of the equator, where we can find something lush and green.” You know what I mean?

Yeah, yeah. It’s refreshing, because most post-apocalyptic movies are dreary and rainy.

I didn’t feel like we had the recourses or the creative juice to redo the post-apocalyptic thing. When you watch a movie, like, The Road, it’s clear they thought about all that stuff, and we weren’t going to win trying to make a version like that. We’d just look bad. At the beginning of the movie there needs to be a little bit of the outside world, and I think we found a new look with those scenes.

Was it a similar atmosphere in the book?

The book is a green valley. The book has the mystery of what the atmospheric issue is that’s protecting this valley. Even in the book, there was this Eden-y thing. I just wanted it green, and I thought that was the way we’d be interesting in the wake of watching the beginning of X-Men: Days of Future Past and that sort of thing. Why bother trying to shoot that?

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Z For Zachariah premiered at Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Lionsgate.

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