- Writer-director Sam Esmail discusses his new film, “Leave the World Behind,” which sees Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke and Mahershala Ali facing the end of the world.
- The film makes a strong commentary on society’s dependence on technology, which is only going to grow as we continue to incorporate AI into our lives.
- Esmail includes cheeky digs at Tesla and at Netflix, the studio that funded the film.
From the dystopian science fiction thriller Mr. Robot through Amazon’s military mystery Homecoming to his new film, Leave the World Behind, writer-director Sam Esmail’s thematic obsession is the impact of technology on society.
The film examines the reliance we have on technology as an apocalyptic series of events cuts off all communication.
“I’m not a technophobe,” Esmail insists in a Google Talk moderated by Josh Lanzet. “I think technology is agnostic, it has no morality to it. It’s the human side that I’m more fascinated with. I really do think that it’s our sort of complicity, or how we use tech that will, in the case of the film, kind of offer a cautionary tale of what could happen to our world if we go one way or the other with it.”
Can we can still have sort of a functioning community without technology? he asks.
“Ultimately, technology, is a double-edged sword,” he said during an interview on the RealBlend podcast produced by CinemaBlend. “When I think about… the positives, it gives us access to information, to people, to media, to content that we want to explore. I think it’s a tool like anything else [and] it’s what we do with it.”
Based on Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel, Leave the World Behind is set mainly in a country house outside of New York City, where a couple played by Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke travel with their children, for a weekend getaway. On their first night there, two strangers arrive at the door: played by Mahershala Ali and Myha’la who declare they are the owners of the house and ask to be let in, citing a blackout in the city. Distrust and paranoia ensues as Esmail uses the tropes of the disaster movie to explore relationships of race and class.
The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and The Day After Tomorrow were among influences but the idea that touched a nerve was about how people can lose sight of their common humanity in the face of a crisis.
“It’s pretty relevant today given what’s going on in the world,” Esmail told Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture. “The other thing that interested me is that this book does the inverse of what a typical disaster film does. The disaster elements tend to be the center of the story in disaster films. The characters tend to be secondary. Here, I could invert that process and be with the characters and have the disaster element exist more in the distance. That instantly felt more authentic to how humans would experience a crisis like that.”
Esmail read the book during lockdown when the idea that people can easily lose sight of their common humanity in the face of their own danger was all too real.
“But prior to reading the book I had this idea percolating in the back of my head about trying to construct a sort of disaster thriller centered around a cyberattack,” he told Brenna Ehrlich at Rolling Stone. “Because I think cyberattacks — even though they’re out in the public consciousness — there’s something ominous but equally mystifying about them.”
READ MORE: ‘Leave the World Behind’ Director Sam Esmail on ‘Friends’ and Rogue Teslas (Rolling Stone)
The Hitchcock Connection
Classic paranoia thrillers like The Parallax View and North by Northwest were other touchstones, the latter providing inspiration for a scene in which Mahershala Ali’s character runs from a crashing plane.
“It’s not very subtle,” Esmail admits to Rolling Stone. “In all honesty, I don’t think there’s a movie made in contemporary times that doesn’t show some influence by Hitchcock. I think he’s essentially invented modern-day film grammar, but clearly, his work was looming large over the film.”
We also learn from Vulture that Esmail cast Ali in part because he thinks of the actor as a modern day Hitchcockian leading man. “The prototype was Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s films. They are an Everyman. They’re not five steps ahead, like a superhero, but they’re half a step ahead. They’re savvy enough to size up any situation. Mahershala has that.”
The director also talks about the cinematography of Leave the World Behind, in particular the camera movement that seems to move through the architecture similar to The Shining, and another iconic Hitchcock film.
“That was a huge influence,” he admits, talking about Kubrick’s psychological horror film on the ReelBlend podcast. “I love big camera moves, especially when it’s relaying something the audience doesn’t know. It’s like what you’re saying: It’s almost as if the movie’s a little possessed, and you’re the demon looking down at those people.
“It’s that great shot in Rear Window: Jimmy Stewart’s asleep and the camera’s moving, and then you’re looking across the street seeing the thing he’s not seeing, and then you realize, “Wait a minute — who am I? What’s happening? Who’s seeing it?” It’s very unsettling. Ever since I saw that film as a kid, I’ve always loved the idea of a camera being its own sort of person.”
Esmail’s script exhibits an eerie synchronicity with current events. For instance he made the movie when conflict had not yet escalated in the Middle East. Yet there’s a startling scene where Ethan Hawke’s character is being pursued a drone that drops leaflets written in Arabic that say “Death to America” — and later, another character who heard about similar messages, this time in Korean.
“Honestly, I tried to follow the guidelines out of the playbook of how coup d’etats actually work, especially when it’s a foreign actor,” he told Rolling Stone. “Propaganda misinformation is an old tactic. I just took that and magnified it and heightened it to this situation. It plays on your own biases and your own beliefs about who our enemies are, and I always love it when you can remove the barrier between the audience and your protagonist.”
Turning on Tech
Another scene features a number of Teslas that turn on their self-driving functions to block the roadways. Esmail says he didn’t seek permission from Elon Musk for that.
“Look, I wrote it in the script. I asked my amazing props guy, Bobby, to bring a bunch of Teslas out on the street. We shot the scene. I edited it in post, I showed it to Netflix, I crossed my fingers. And to this day, no one has said anything to me. So yeah, I’m hoping the movie comes out and no one will say anything.”
What doesn’t get lost in a digital attack are physical media like vinyl, DVDs and VHS (though you’d still need a source of electricity to play them). These become a source of comfort and nostalgia towards the end of the picture. But how did that sit when making the movie for a streaming service?
Esmail wasn’t afraid to poke the hand that feeds. On the one hand, he claims to be a “great proponent” of physical media, but also explains that one of the advantages of streaming services like Netflix “is that you really have access to any movie from across history at your fingertips,” he says.
“So there’s, there’s always a conflict because I’m a proponent of theatrical. I’m a proponent of DVDs and Blu-rays. But I’m also not mad at a streaming service that lets me see all the classics at a moment’s notice.”
Nonetheless he includes a cheeky shot that he doesn’t think “the Netflix folks” have noticed: “In the very end, you see Rose’s thumb hovering over the remote, and it goes past the Netflix button to hit ‘play’ on the DVD player.”
Notes From a Former President
The film’s exec producers are Netflix stablemates Barack and Michelle Obama, who were more involved in production then lending the cachet of their name.
“He’s a huge movie lover and a huge fan of the book,” Esmail confides to ReelBlend. “He really was committed to making this into a great movie. And he was giving me notes at the script stage, multiple drafts, including, post rough cuts. It’s kind of a surreal because I do think he is one of the most brilliant minds on the planet and to get his insight on the disaster element, characters, the theme. It was the highlight of my career.”
Turns out Barak Obama is a fan of Mr. Robot to the extent that Esmail got a call from the White House when Obama was President.
“We were in the middle of second season, and it hadn’t aired yet. And we were cutting the episodes. And someone from the White House, contacted our office and said, he’d love to get rough cuts of the episodes. Imagine that.”