Netflix's 'Extinction': Director Ben Young explores 'fear of the unknown' in upcoming alien invasion flick
This Friday marks the global premiere of Netflix's latest sci-fi horror film 'Extinction'. Starring Lizzy Caplan and Michael Peña in lead roles, 'Extinction' tells the story of a father (Peña) who has a recurring dream of losing his family. His nightmare turns into reality when the planet is invaded by a force bent on destruction. Fighting for their lives, he comes to realize an unknown strength to keep them safe from harm. 'Luke Cage’s' Mike Colter, Emma Booth, Lilly Aspell, Israel Broussard, and Lex Shrapnel take on supporting roles. The screenplay is penned by Spenser Cohen, with assistance from Brad Kane and Eric Heisserer ('Arrival').
In the director's seat for the film is Australian director Ben Young ('Hounds of Love', 'Something Fishy'), who I had the chance to interview ahead of the film's premiere. Although Young was brought on to the project in 2016, 'Extinction' was conceptualized as early as 2013, when Cohen's script was included in the 2013 Black List, the year’s best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. According to early reports, the film was to be directed by CGI veteran Joe Johnston ('Honey I Shrunk The Kids', 'Jumanji') who later quit the project, paving the way for Ben. When I asked Ben about the pressure of filling in the shoes of such a big name, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had no idea about the whole affair.
Explaining how he landed the project, Ben said: "Oh, I didn't even know he [Johnston] was attached. I knew they were speaking to other people over the years. It came to me because my last film ('Hounds Of Love') played at the Venice film festival in September of 2016 and because of that I got representation in the United States and just started getting piles of scripts, and 'Extinction' was one of them."
"It was one that caught my eye, specifically because it was a science fiction film. It had all of the action and the thrills and spills that you'd expect from the genre but also, at its core, was about something which I think is really important and relevant to the world we're living in at the moment."
Ben went on to tell me about how Alex Young (no relation to Ben) from Mandeville Films was one of the producers present at the screening of the film, and how he took notice of Ben's work, sending him a "very nice letter" saying that "I'd be a good fit for 'Extinction'". Alex and Ben had a chat about the film where things clicked and Ben was soon on the project after that.
This is not Ben's first crack at the sci-fi genre. As he revealed to me, he made a short film as a student around a decade ago called 'The Planet Lonely', which he described as "really weird". But 'Extinction' is the Australian director's first attempt at a full-length feature film. When I asked Ben if can expect more of the weird in 'Extinction' as well, he said that he "tried to make it as different as I could in the places that I could."
Ever since 'War of the Worlds', sci-fi films centered around alien invasions have often served as an allegory, with a deeper message lying underneath the plot. Films like 'Aliens' and 'District 9' have offered sharp commentaries on racism and xenophobia and most recently, 'Arrival' — which shares a common writing credit with 'Extinction' in the form of Eric Heisserer — explored the genre through the lens of language, linguistics and temporality.
Talking about the underlying message in 'Extinction', Ben said: "It really comes down to how we treat each other. It's about the fear of the unknown. It's about essentially giving the enemy a face."
He added: "It's so easy in this day and age, particularly with social media today, especially with things like Twitter, you only have to write 'x number of characters' to get an opinion across instantly. I think it's very easy for us to be told that we just don't like these people or this country or whatever. But if we sat down with them, we'd realize that they have so many of the same principle issues as us."
"We're all essentially human," he says emphatically. "And I think that in the world we're living in now, it's so easy to condemn people, condemn entire nations and entire peoples without taking the time to sit down and give them all a face."
"That's heavy stuff," I said trying to take all of it in. "But it's real," Ben said with gravitas. "That's the thing that we were trying to go for and that's what attracted me to the film in the first place."
I asked Ben if this was his first time working with both Michael Peña and Lizzy Caplan and that's when I learnt that not only was this Ben's first time working with the actors, but also his first time working in America. "It was a shock to the system for me. I've never worked with movie stars before and I've never worked with something of this budget before so it was a real baptism of fire," Ben said.
"But thankfully Michael and Lizzy are the loveliest human beings on the face of the planet. They were very patient with me and very understanding that I was not in Kansas anymore," he added, following the 'Wizard of Oz' reference with a chuckle.
"How was America? Rather how 'is' America?" I asked Ben, who was speaking to me from Los Angeles.
"Oh, it's great. I'm loving it here," Ben said. "We shot the film in Serbia. So I was in Serbia for about six months during pre-production and shooting of the film and then I was in America for eight months doing post-production," he revealed. "I loved both places. Serbia was great. We had a large Serbian crew involved and we were super busy putting in all the sweat, blood and tears. And now I'm in L.A. and am loving it here as well. It's all very different from making films in Australia."
Playing the supporting character of Samantha in the film is Australian actress Emma Booth who also worked with Ben Young on his previous film, the psychological thriller 'Hounds of Love'. Ben told me an interesting anecdote explaining how Emma and him go much further back than 'Hounds of Love'.
"Yeah Emma worked in 'Hounds of Love' but it goes way further back than that. Emma and I were actually in a television commercial acting opposite each other when we were 12 years old! We actually first met then. And then when we were about 20 years old, we played opposite each other in a television series and we've been friends ever since then - about 16 years now."
"So I got the role for her in 'Hounds of Love'. When we were developing 'Extinction', I really wanted to find a role for her because, like I said, I was working under a very different system than what I was used to, because they do make films differently in America than how they do it in Australia. And I wanted to have a buddy on set and Emma's a wonderful actor and I jumped at the opportunity to cast her as Samantha. I'm really glad that I did because she's spectacular in the movie."
Scoring the upcoming film are the Newton Brothers, who've made a niche for themselves with their eerie, orchestral cinematic soundscapes on horror flicks like 'Hush', 'Ouija: Origin of Evil' and 'The Bye Bye Man'. When I asked Ben what we can expect from the music in the film, Ben said, "I'm glad that you asked me that. The music is a combination of orchestral and modern electronic sounds and it sounds otherworldly. I really like music first and foremost to create a tone. So musically, you can expect it to be a mix of the old and the new."
"Thematically, the music kind of changes... There's a big twist in the film and when that happens, the music gets much more modern. So we start of a little more traditional in a sense, and then it gets more modern as the characters develop and we explore who they are and what the future has in store for them. I most used it to create a sense of foreboding and a really eerie tone. And the Newtons were just fantastic to work with. They were really, really good."
Incidentally, 'Extinction' was one of the films was originally supposed to be released earlier this January by Universal Pictures but was abruptly pulled from the release schedule with no explanation. Later, it was reported that Netflix had acquired the film from Universal Pictures. I addressed this during the interview and asked Ben if the switch to a smaller screen would hamper the experience for audiences. He was actually glad that Netflix was releasing the film to such a wide audience.
"I'm really happy with what's happening. For a whole bunch of reasons — and none of them are bad — the January release date fell through so it was a logical move for us to move to Netflix. We sort of missed the window of putting it out so everyone agreed that we should go to Netflix because unfortunately at the moment, these big budget films are not drawing people to the cinemas to go watch them.
"So I was delighted to have the opportunity to work with Netflix because they're going to release the film in 190 countries at exactly the same time and audiences are gonna have the opportunity to watch it within the comfort of their own homes. If you really want to reach out to a bigger audience, Netflix is really the way to go because it's so convenient. They were a delight to work with and really allowed me to have my voice and retain my voice in particular places. So it ended up really great for us and more importantly for the movie. The future is VOD. It really is!"
'Extinction' is set for global release via Netflix on Friday, 27 July.