Writer/director Jake Paltrow doesn’t want you to think of his new film Young Ones as a post-apocalyptic, science-fiction flick. Sure, it takes place in a near future where a world-wide draught has made water a scarce commodity. For him, the film is more of a father-son story, with its setting merely informing the story, not being the story.
Speaking with press in one of the backstage areas of New York Comic Con this past weekend, Paltrow, along with the film’s stars Michael Shannon, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Nicholas Hoult all dove deep into discussing the characters in the film and how they react to struggling to build a life on a desolate frontier.
“Being a parent, it changes your whole makeup and person,” Shannon states. “Ernest’s kids are the most important things for him, and that’s something I can identify with.”
In the film, Ernest (Shannon) struggles to provide for his two children Mary (Ella Fanning) and Jerome (Smit-McPhee), trading supplies to a group of workers who are working on a pipeline that will hopefully bring water to the area. When his mule dies, Jerome uses what little money his father has managed to save to buy a robotic replacement without his father’s approval, leading to a series of tragic events, mostly through conflict with Flem Lever (Hoult). It is a story that has a rather unexpected origin.
“This started from revisiting the SE Hinton books,” Paltrow states. “I’ve loved them as a kid and as an adult, they meant even more to me now. I started thinking what a science fiction move written by SE Hinton would feel like.”
The Hinton novels were just a starting place for Paltrow, though. “There were lots of stories about drought outside of America. I wanted to do this relationship between a father and a son that was a lot like the relationship with my dad who had died young. And the last thing was the Big Dog robot from Boston Dynamics. I’ve always been interested in robotics.”
Shannon likens the film in some ways to the classic spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and 70s.
“It’s like some old Sergio Leone,” he states, but is quick to add, “I’m not equating myself to Lee Marvin. It’s not all doom and gloom.”
Paltrow had even originally planned to shoot in the same Spanish deserts where Leone and his fellow directors created the classics of that genre, though ultimately Young Ones was shot in South Africa, a location chosen after he saw some pictures of the area.
“They looked exactly like what I had in my mind’s eye,” he explained. “I always imagined the eastern plains of Colorado of Kansas or majestic wheat fields but more of an abandoned landscape.”
As for what brought about those desert conditions, Paltrow stated that he was inspired by the current water issues that California, and by extension the rest of the south west of the United States, is going through.
“It’s not like a nuclear bomb was dropped or something unnatural,” he stated. “We’re extrapolating ideas that we’re living through right now — in California, Arizona and Texas, the draught issues are pressing and current. The best parts of science fiction I always thought dealt with the things we’re dealing with in a contemporary context like, ‘This is what’s going to happen if we don’t change our path.’ A lot of this is based on the water rights laws between California and Arizona. California is entitled to more water than Arizona, even though the Colorado River runs through Arizona before it gets to California. They are not allowed to take so much water. Through the years the agreement has been changed many times and the last one was in the 60’s. Phoenix and Tucson could get more water. They agreed that in a catastrophe, they would be last on the list to get water from the Colorado River. Well, we’re almost there. They will lose 50% of their water before California loses a drop. Now you take that idea and push it a bit farther and you wind up in a situation like in our movie. It’s not totally impossible.”
Young Ones opens in limited release this Friday.