[The following story contains spoilers from Foe.]
In Garth Davis’ new genre mashup, Foe, the future of the planet — and a relationship — hinges, in part, on the possibilities around artificial intelligence in response to climate change.
The Amazon Studios film, which is set to release globally on Oct. 6, is based on author and co-writer Iain Reid’s 2018 novel of the same name. Set in the near, climate-devastated future, one couple living on a remote farm becomes a test subject for humanity’s survival.
The book has garnered a wide range of genre descriptors — psychological thriller, horror, science fiction, to name a few — and the film aims to live in each one, sometimes simultaneously. Yet, for writer-director Davis, who spoke about the making of the film in a post-screening discussion at the 2023 New York Film Festival, he not only found “the book completely compelling in its mystery” but was ultimately attracted to the relationship between Saoirse Ronan‘s Hen and Paul Mescal‘s Junior that’s at its core.
“I guess what really drew me to it was the central relationship. What Hen was trying to fight for and find in that relationship and how this experiment in a way allowed her to re-explore the marriage and re-connect with her agency,” he explained to a packed audience for the film’s world premiere on Saturday at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. “It had an unusual form that was the classic filmic genre qualities, but under it was a very deeply human story.”
That story follows the couple after they are visited by Terrance (Aaron Pierre), an official from a government agency overseeing human expansion into space. With the planet now so ravaged by the effects of climate change, societies are looking to imagine a new way of survival for the global population.
“What we were really interested in was how the relationship echoed the state of the planet and exploring our interconnectedness. The way we behave is almost a reflection of the state of the planet as well,” he said. “The question is if we can change, can we make choices that [not only] make our own lives better but the world better as well?”
Terrance arrives with a proposition that soon unveils itself as a command: Junior has been selected to help test humans’ capacity to survive on a newly built space station. The “opportunity” would split the duo — who have already grown distant emotionally in their marriage — from one another.
They are given just over a year to prepare before Terrance returns to begin Junior’s pre-mission tests, which begin to creep into a kind of psychological warfare. The reveal that an AI version of Junior will be left with Hen in his absence only adds insult to the injured couple, further threatening to tear them apart.
All the while, around them, is a planet where the environment is losing the fight to continue on and where corporate industry is the only thing that still thrives. For Davis, that contrast — and connection — between the couple and environment was something he wanted to hone in on.
“Junior’s farm and the way Hen lived with Junior was like a window into the natural world or the state of the natural world. When you move outside of that, we’re interested in this disturbing naturalism. It’s the color of these mega industries,” Davis explained while speaking to the way he and production designer Patrice Vermette depicted near-future earth. “Either the land is wasted and used up and cannot be unbroken, or it’s vibrantly colored with hollow towers for tower-farming.”
Climate change and the development of human-like AI as the backdrop to the film’s relationship drama is also something that initially attracted Davis to Foe, and only increasingly so as the film moved through production. “It just felt radically close to happening. It feels like this is an imminent story and even has moved me making the movie,” he explained. “Things would happen during production, and I’d actually go, ‘Holy shit, this is becoming real.’”
For most of the film, the issues it raises are largely presented within a larger narrative casing of a deteriorating relationship fighting to remain. For Davis, Hen is a character trapped by the past in “a house of ghosts,” while Junior’s holding down the generational responsibility to his farm and family. Both, along with the audience, are asked to decide what they want to hold on to and what they decide to change.
“They are great soulmates. Junior does make Hen happy, but over time, he lost his spontaneity and his ability to change. That’s something that I find really interesting,” Davis said. “What happens to relationships over time, and how do we remind ourselves to pull things out, re-assess and connect with our true calling?”
But as the film carries on, those relationship questions begin to morph into something more dark and, at times, even sinister as elements of the story’s mystery begin to unearth themselves. Davis says that cinematographer Mátyás Erdély — who he chose to work with after his regular cinematographer was tied up on other projects — helped him navigate “this delicious experiment” in storytelling.
“This whole film is of a chain of sequences set in one house, and I didn’t want to take that for granted. You can’t be lazy with talking heads drama in a space. But I had this strong feeling that he could help me bring that to life — the tension, the mystery,” the filmmaker said. “The thing that was really exciting to him, and I especially, was for first time viewers, you’re struggling to navigate what the hell’s going on here. There’s a lot of secret rivets. There’s a lot of truths and lies and pretense.
“[It was] trying to calibrate that. How obvious do we make that in the camera choice? How often do the actors make that?” Davis continued. “He’s very, very much into the script and into story and really wanting to know what the essence of every single scene is to know where the camera should go.”
The editing process, which was helmed by Peter Sciberras, worked similarly in terms of deploying and then unraveling the mystery underneath the film’s love story. “The biggest challenge in the film from any point of view was deciding how much to reveal and what to conceal,” the director shared. “We would explore it in an experimental way with performances, but we just had to calibrate the edit to, I hope, keep the audience engaged but intrigued and confused and excited then hopefully find some of the answers.”
The casting, which was overseen by Francine Maisler and Kirsty McGregor, as well as the performances were also key to how successfully Davis was able to untangle his own mystery. There was a necessity, according to the director, to find his Hen first, as she was “the spiritual totem of the film.”
After that, he cast based on performance and chemistry, noting that Mescal and Ronan’s shared identities as Irish actors made them “feel right” as “this couple married straight out of high school” who came from the same place. “I just had a real hunch that chemistry would feel believable, and they are both really kind of hungry [as actors] to explore a more mature relationship,” he added.
Davis went on to describe Pierre as “a completely different style of actor” but still a performer who brought so much to this character. “The antagonist was the hardest one to cast because you can really fall into stereotype, and I was really keen to try and explore something that felt fresh and intriguing,” he explained. “I thought he brought a lot of interesting choices, like he really did believe what he was doing was going to better humanity.”