Jio MAMI is a home to storytellers and a space that nurtures, enables and brings into focus talent. Storytellers Are Us: The Origin Story is our new series nurturing and bringing budding talent in focus. It is our little discovery vehicle to build bridges, to propel movie magic and the spirit of collaboration. It introduces creators to each other and new creators to the audience.
Filmmakers Chris McKay and Arati Kadav chat about The Tomorrow War on Storytellers Are Us with host Smriti Kiran. The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Thank you Amazon Prime Video for making this possible.
Smriti Kiran: Chris McKay, Arati Kadav, welcome to Storytellers Are Us.
Chris, congratulations on The Tomorrow War. I just wanted to tell you that when Amazon gave us this opportunity to speak with you, I couldn’t help but pull Arati in. Arati’s first feature, Cargo, a sci-fi film, world premiered at our festival. We are very passionate about getting creators from the west to meet our creators from India. Arati is a big admirer of your work, and we really wanted to make this conversation happen.
Chris, the shooting for The Tomorrow War got over in January 2020, but you had to take on post-production because nobody knew the pandemic was coming. Unfortunately, we are now in a genre film. We are living it as a reality. Did you feel the need to change anything in the narrative of the film? And how challenging was the post-production on the movie because you did it during the pandemic?
Chris McKay: There were challenges because suddenly you have to spread everybody out. Everyone has to work from home. In post-production, you are siloed in rooms in general, but you are collaborating, you are going into the screening of an edit or a visual effects review or you’ve got several people and you’re working with a team. It made it different.
Honestly, the hardest thing is just the personal and the emotional stuff that everyone was going through. Work is work, you get through stuff like that and you figure it out. Technology really helps us. But I honestly think that it was the emotional stuff with people, especially people with kids, who were going through something. Usually, we can think about the future a little bit and we can plan for the future, and we understand what our goals are four months down the road and we have a general sense of what’s going to happen. People have highs and lows, and ups and downs. Even to this day, we still don’t know what’s going to happen. So, a lot of that was what was on everyone’s mind. Everyone was trying to be really mindful of that. When you’re trying to make a movie and working long hours, I think people enjoy working from home because they can be next to their families. They could be with the significant people in their lives, and being in LA and not having to commute, maybe, back and forth was kind of nice. So, that made it nice.
The funny thing is, there were things that we inadvertently changed. Obviously, we didn’t know that COVID was coming, so there were things that were too close to it. I shot more footage of protests but we pulled back from that. There was more stuff like that about how society was getting torn apart a little bit by people having opposing views and sending people to the future. I think the studio suddenly got really nervous about the parallels. They wanted to pull back from that because they felt like it was a little bit too close to home and maybe bringing too much of the real world into a movie that’s meant to be a sci-fi, fantasy world.
I like that it has parallels and there are things that are adjacent and touching, but that’s me, a filmmaker, wanting to interact with things that are on people’s minds. But I think from the studios’ standpoint, they were like, ‘Oh, let’s have a little less protest footage. Let’s have a little less of talking heads arguing with each other and things like that, and the news montage – that sort of thing.’ That was some of the stuff that was going through our minds.
Smriti Kiran: You said in an interview that when you got the script of the film there was not a lot of humour in it. And, I really enjoyed the humour in it because I got into the film with Sam Richardson. It’s wonderful to see that you bring humour, relatability and human drama into your movies. How do you balance that with the kind of thrills that you’re creating?
Chris McKay: It wasn’t really important to me. I love Children of Men. It is a brilliant movie. Not to take anything away from Children of Men, but there are movies like that which are very serious movies and very well-told stories, and then there are movies like Independence Day. They’re not about aliens and time travel. But it is about a kind of dystopian future. Our movie touched on things like that. I think the script was a little more serious. When you’re doing things in a genre movie, you have to have balance and tonal shifts. You have to have ups and downs. Many movies move far away from emotional stuff and bring in comedy from the outside to make jokes and that kind of thing, but don’t have it.
I wanted stuff that was situation-based humour, character-based humour, things that came out of the characters interacting with and running into the conflict of the movie. I like gallows humour, self-effacing humour instead of bringing wacky things from the sidelines that come in and tell jokes or human drama that does not feel germane to your theme or situation at hand. I think sometimes people go, ‘Okay, here’s the moment where we need to have something that’s sad,’ or ‘Here’s the moment where I need to have something.’ I think what the script presented and what we tried to honour is the human drama that came out of the situation the characters were in. That’s why when I pitched the movie to the studio, I sort of likened it a little bit to It’s A Wonderful Life because the construct that the movie presents is thematically tied to what the characters are going through and what the ultimate goals of the theme of the movie are. So, I wanted it to be all of a piece as much as humanly possible. Also, movies like this generally are just like a story, just all a story, all external stuff and nods to the internal stuff. I wanted it to be both.
In the script that was presented, we just had to tighten some connections. There’s some stuff at the beginning of the movie that didn’t really pay off at the end of the movie, I wanted it to pay off. I like movies where it’s not just one lone hero that comes in to try to save the day. My view of the world is that it takes a village. We should work together. We solve our problems best when we’re working together. That’s what I wanted Chris Pratt’s Dan to go through and realise that maybe he needs some of these people in his life that he had previously dismissed. He knew that he wanted to do something great with his life and then through the circumstances of the alien invasion of the future, he’s able to achieve that. But having to make some changes in the way he looked at his world prior to that. So, balancing that stuff is tricky. It’s hard to do. But when you do it, it’s the best version of these kinds of movies. That’s what I hoped they would be like.
Arati Kadav: The way you have the concept of poetics in the West, in India, we have the concept of rasa, which is sort of an emotional essence. Emotions like joy, love, everything has to be together for a film to work. I feel like not just your film, but even your scenes have so many of these packed in.
Speaking about the staircase and alien reveal scene, it was just fantastic. I saw that it came at the 50-minute mark and you really built up to it. You’re waiting for the alien, so now you have to get it right. How do you plan that? You have so many layers going on at the same time. How do you balance it?
Chris McKay: I started in animation. Everything that you do in animation is about pre-visualizing for the next step. So, you start with storyboards and you build an animatic. That’s just a precursor of then going into the layout. In layout, you start doing basic blocking with a camera and with the rudimentary versions of your characters before you get into animation. So, you get a chance to test them. I always think every filmmaker should have to go through a course or make a short film in animation because it is storytelling in slow motion. You really do end up slowing everything down and looking at it. It’s very expensive, so you have to be very lucky and choosy about what you’re going to put in a scene. Then you start to layer in your character and plot. You start to really understand how much you can pack into a scene and get multiple things across. So, that was great training to be able to do something like this.
On set, we don’t have the white spikes. We have a stunt guy holding something like a broom, or just the actors being playful and going back to childhood cops and robbers thing, where you’re having an imaginary thing that you’re shooting at and running around. Using your imaginative process. We did a little bit of pre-viz, then we built a set that didn’t look anything like the pre-viz at all. So, then we had to figure out how to use that set and come up with stuff that we liked from the pre-viz and adapt it. A lot of it was also improvising with a camera team and coming up with a way to shoot it.
Unfortunately, that was the set that we built. It. There’s a stitch in that scene. When they’re running down the hallway and you’re following Dan and this character heading towards the doorway. This is in a real building. If you watch that moment, there’s a character that crosses in front of the camera and that actually is a stitch that we did. We built the same doorway on a set in our stage and we had somebody cross the camera. Then, we lined up everybody so that it matched. We seamlessly blended that. That’s when you see them open the door and go in. It’s a very subtle visual effect that we do in the movie, but it is a way for us to make all that location feel seamless. And then the music is going crazy, crazy, crazy, they are heading towards the door and then everything stops. We pull out the sound and we do a really naturalistic sound. It was fun playing with the sound team on that because so much about building suspense is the sound. Now, there’s no more music and you just hear Chris breathe. You’re hearing all the other actors breathe, as they are pulling them down the staircase. I just wanted everything to slow down for a second and feel the room, feel the tension. They’re going down the staircase, they don’t know what they’re getting into, and then they hear the noises up above.
I’m a Brian De Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg fan. So, those are the movies that I studied and I love.
Arati Kadav: I have to say that to have an alien and time travelling in the same film is a feat in itself. I’m a filmmaker myself and I put a lot of stress on the visual vocabulary of a film. So, when you have to design an alien or when you have to design the mechanism of time travel, it needs to be unique. And for people in the West, you have a tradition of alien films, right from Alien to Arrival. You have to make your aliens fit a certain paradigm, yet you have to be unique and innovative, right? I loved the design of the alien. It was a classical, good design, with the tendrils and they looked ancient. Plus, the mechanism of time travel. There was no fancy gadgetry where you walk in from here and walk out from there. There was not a massive blackboard with 10 equations explaining time travel. It was so poetic and graceful. Of course, you do pre-viz and get the entire team on board. But how did you conceptualise and design it?
Chris McKay: A lot of movies like these are made on a green screen stage and you’re building a lot of stuff later. I said that if we’re going to have a very vulnerable, relatable hero, like Chris, with an emotional backstory, the more that we shoot things practically the more we make things practical. We can only see things that Chris would experience. We only see the movie from Chris’s point of view. So, you don’t cut to the Pentagon. You don’t cut to a science lab with people doing stuff. You only see an experience that Chris would see and understand. So, a time-travel machine is somewhere behind the scenes. You do see some of the things light up and do stuff but you don’t see people pulling levers. Instead of just seeing the basics or in general what Chris could see and experience with some slight exceptions. To me, what was important was, if it was grounded through the eyes of Chris’ character or Sam or Yvonne, if you saw it through their eyes and experienced it that way, you might relate to it more and it would seem a little less fantastic. It was just one of the things. ‘Okay, now we are going to time travel.’ It’s common. It’s just like the next thing. I love the explanation of it in the script: “two rafts in a river”.
A lot of movies, whether it’s Back to the Future or Avengers: Endgame are about undoing things, where you’ve got to use time travel in order to undo something. We didn’t have that kind of a story. So, you didn’t necessarily need to understand everything. So, we could let some of that stuff go so that it’s just about this guy, survival, family and second chances. To me, it was important to foreground that. Also, the script was very simple. I wanted it to be colourful, beautiful and eye-catching.
The aliens were just hungry. That was one of the notes I had given to the team. I wanted something that felt ancient. I wanted it to feel old. I wanted its skin to have nicks, cuts, abrasions, fungus and all sorts of things growing on it. I wanted them to feel hungry. I wanted their bellies to be sucked in. I just wanted them to feel hungry and ancient. And I wanted them to have a kind of feral intelligence. The audience may not know what they’re saying to each other but they do have a way of communicating. They work as a team. They work in packs, the way coyotes or wolves do. They coordinate to attack their prey. I wanted you to at least understand that they had some rudimentary way of going about things. I live in Los Angeles and go hiking in the morning by Griffith Park, and you see coyotes all the time. You see them travel in packs and you see them and hear them communicating with each other over distances. That to me was what I wanted to put into the space.
Arati Kadav: I’m also a massive fan of your animation films. But when you’re actually doing live-action, they are real people. Did you feel it was different going from here to there? Was there something that helped you and something that you felt was an obstacle?
Chris McKay: There are definite differences, obviously. When we’re in a voiceover session with actors, sometimes I like recording with multiple actors whether it was Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks in The Lego Movie, or Will Arnett and Zach Galifianakis in The Lego Batman Movie. Putting multiple actors together, working off of each other, just allows for a little more spontaneity. Also, sometimes, I’ll bring a boom mic so that the actors can walk around the room. So they don’t need to be in front of a music stand with a microphone and stand there. Instead, they can walk around and interact with each other. So, I’ve always tried to bring a little bit of that into animation; to get a kind of a live-action performance, to get spontaneity, organic stuff, especially with comedy, where you can let people play off of each other.
A lot of times on set, especially when you’re dealing with the white spikes, you are going back to that same thing when you’re working with someone in a voiceover booth because you are working with their imagination. So, even though it is Chris Pratt on the street with a gun and it’s real, we’ve got muzzle flash and bullets flying and smoke and explosions. He is still like looking at something down there that he doesn’t really see, and you are still trying to lay out the thing and work with it. You’re like, ‘Okay, well, the white spike is going to be over there and it’s gonna run that way,’ or ‘Just when you’re running, shoot in that direction, there’s going to be a white spike over there,’ or ‘Duck under a spike!’ You’re still working with them like you’re working in animation because you’re engaging them in their imaginative space. It was in some ways very similar.
Obviously, there’s emotional stuff and blocking. You’ve got cameras, you’re on practical sets, which are sometimes very difficult. We shot in a power plant for the deep swell, for the oil rig. It was a working power plant. So, it’s very hot. You’re in the middle of Georgia. It’s a hot day outside. The power plant is working and steam is going everywhere. I think that helps inform the actors’ performances too because the real stuff is happening around them.
At the end of the day, you are just working with everybody’s imaginations. You’re trying to engage them in something. They don’t see the same thing that you see when you’re directing something. They don’t know how you’re going to cut this thing together. They don’t know how you’re going to evolve as a human being, as a filmmaker, throughout your process, because you make something and the person that started making that thing changes. You become a different person by the end of it. So, you’re going to hope that some of your ideas are going to stick and some of those things are going to evolve as you start to interact with people that you are hopefully engaged with the process and are rowing in the same direction.
You’re always re-telling the story to your crew and cast, just to remind them of where you’re at in the movie, to remind them where their characters are at, to remind them of the tone of this scene or the tone of the movie, or where we’re at in the movie as the tone evolves. So, you are doing all that same sort of stuff. You’re just sweating. That’s the only difference.
Smriti Kiran: Before we wrap up, we wanted to know if you have plugged into Indian cinema at all.
Chris McKay: The next movie that I’m going to do, while it’s certainly not as great as any of the Bollywood films, is an action movie, a horror movie, a comedy and there’s also a musical number in the middle of it. So there’s a full experience that you’re getting in the movie. The inventiveness and joy that I see in movies in India, especially the Bollywood musicals, is such a breath of fresh air. It is so beautiful and expressive. There’s a little piece of that in this next movie I’m doing.
Smriti Kiran: You have a bunch of really cool tattoos.
Chris McKay: I’ve got one from Alfred Hitchcock. This is my dog’s paw. My dog passed away. I’ve got Catwoman, Captain America, a sort of a Halloween 3 tattoo. They all have little stories and things that are meaningful to me.
Smriti Kiran: Chris, thank you so much for talking to us, for making time. Best of luck for The Tomorrow War. I wish that we were doing this in person. Whenever things are safe and travel can happen, we would love for you to come to the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and meet the legions of fans that you have here.
Chris McKay: I’d love to. That’d be beautiful. That’d be amazing. Thank you very much.
Arati Kadav: Thank you so much for doing this!