Writer-director Steven Knight is one of the hardest working me in show business. Most people know his the creator of the hit show Peaky Blinders, though he’s worked on the scripts for movies like Allied, Pawn Sacrifice, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Knight returns to the silver screen as a writer-director for the first time since his great 2013 movie Locke with Serenity, a tropical neo-noir starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jason Clarke. I had the chance to speak with Knight about Serenity, its gorgeous locations, and a twist so unexpected I’m still trying to process it. (No spoilers, though.)
“There were two sorts of inspirations that came together,” the writer-director said of Serenity’s origins. “First of all, I like to go fishing so I went out on a fishing boat from Saint Lucia with a captain and we were fishing for tuna. He was great and very accommodating. I’m a tourist paying for gas and pay for the experience until a fish bit and then he was totally obsessed with catching the fish. I went out with him a few time and I realized that this was a man totally driven by the desire to catch a particular tuna. It made me want to create a character in the similar environment of living in paradise but being obsessed with just this one thing. So I began to create the character of [McConaughey’s] Baker Dill.”
The setup for the film has a feel like so many classic film noirs, as if Knight was pulling inspiration from the work of James M. Cain. “When I direct something I tend to make it something that is a bit of a challenge and what I wanted to do was set up a story that is sort of like a conventional noir-ish set up with Baker Dill and [Hathaway’s] Karen and [Clarke’s] Frank,” Knight said of establishing a character dynamic between a desperate man, a femme fatale, an abusive husband amidst a plot of murder in paradise.
Knight continued, “Set all of that up and hopefully get the audience engaged with that and completely pull the rug in a very unexpected way and to see how the narrative continues after that’s been done. It was two things. I chose the fishing story as the one I thought I could create in a way that an audience begins to fell that this is movie-ish. This feels like fiction. The dialogue is a bit heightened. The environments are a bit heightened and then see what happens when you question the whole reality of it.”
Filming on the gorgeous tropic island of Mauritius, it would seem that Knight wouldn’t have to do much to wrangle the notorious beach lover McConaughey to join Serenity. “I just said, ‘This will be the temperature. These will be the accommodations,’” he jokingly said. “It’s a mysterious process of how a script reaches actors of that caliber. But the script was out there and he was my first choice as was Anne. Unusually, almost uniquely, we got our first choices. It was a great experience.”
For Knight and the cast and crew of Serenity, Mauritius proved to be a stunning location that enhanced the ensuing drama of the story, though that didn’t come without its complications. “The island of Mauritius, which is another star of the film I thing, is an intriguing place. It was unpopulated until about 400 years ago and now it’s populated by so many different cultures you can point a camera in any different direction and you’d be looking at India, you’d be looking at Africa, or the Caribbean, or colonial France. So it has this sort of unreal feel to it,” Knight explained. “We tried to maximize the advantage of that so we didn’t have trailers, we had these beautiful bungalows on the ocean that were for make-up and hair. When we were on land it was great. The hardship was – I decided not to use green screen – so whenever we’re on a boat we’re really on a boat and the boat is always on the water. That was where – you know, it’s difficult because you’re limited for space, the boat is moving, the light is changing. It’s worth it because you feel the reality.”
Don’t let the almost unreal majesty of the scenery fool you, as Knight warns. “I think a lot of people will think those mountains and things are GGI, they’re not. It is a very unreal sort of place.”
With Serenity, Knight takes on the very nature of reality, something heightened by the unreal locations employed by the production. The questions at the heart of Serenity are questions that provide Knight with endless fascination. “I really want people to come away with lots of different questions. I watch my children play computer games and it strikes me that their suspension of disbelief when playing a computer game is more profound then when they’re reading a book or watching a movie. It seems that the player is inventing a reality between themselves and the screen. It’s not just the screen. That’s not what they’re seeing. They’ve got something in their imagination that is a different reality. I wanted to explore that and use that as a way to explore the fundamentals of what’s real and what’s not,” the writer-director explained.
“You walk into a café now and there are 20 people on their cell phones so there are 20 different realities in that place. If you tap someone on the shoulder they have a moment between the two. That’s the territory I’m interested,” Knight elaborated.
When it comes to the big twist in Serenity, one that is so bold it might alienate some audiences, Knight has no fear. “I want to freak them out,” he proudly declared. “I think there’s a tendency that if you’re going to pull a surprise, set it up so people are comfortable, so people are ready for it, so you feel you’ve done it in a kind of accomplished way. You know, in life surprises come as real surprise. I want this to bang and bolt and really jar and for it to be a different sort of experience because people are so movie literate and understand the language of film that it’s very difficult to take them by surprise. One of my ambitions in this was to genuinely take people by surprise.”
As for what’s next on the plate for Steven Knight, the writer and director always has a number of projects under development, though perhaps none more notable than the long gestating sequel to World War Z. “Yeah, apparently we’re close, so I hear,” Knight said of the sequel’s long development which is apparently building steam towards going into production. “It’s the nature of Hollywood and studios. There are two or three different jobs you do as a writer. You do your own stuff; you do adaptations and you do the big studio movies, which pay well and are great but you accept the system which is you do your version it gets put into the system and maybe somebody else will do some writing over it and it goes to a director and then again the script will change. I absolutely buy into the system but there are certain ideas, certain scripts you want to be your own and that’s when I choose to direct.”
Serenity opens in theaters on January 25, 2019 from Avrion Pictures.