Steven Knight’s Serenity is easily one of the most discussed films of 2019 so far. It’s attracted some colourful descriptions, from “bonkers” upwards – or downwards, if you prefer, because many of the reviews haven’t been especially favourable.
Knight is best known as a writer but, for this one, he’s made one of his few expeditions into the director’s chair, something he doesn’t always find comfortable. “Every time I do it, I promise myself I’ll never do it again because it’s physically very hard, but certain projects you have to bite the bullet and do it.” And he’s already decided that he’s not going to direct again for a while. Not that he hasn’t got plenty to keep him busy – Peaky Blinders and Taboo included.
Serenity was a project that came from comparatively simple beginnings. “I’d been on a fishing boat in St Lucia – and the boat was actually called Serenity – with a captain who was very nice and very hospitable until a fish got on the line and then he was completely obsessed. You didn’t exist, he took the rod and he took over the whole thing. I went out on the boat a couple of times, I asked people about him and they all said how obsessed he was with catching tuna, and one particular tuna, which rang loud bells of Captain Ahab and the tradition of the lone fisherman in search of something in the great void of the ocean.”
But Knight wanted to do something more with the idea, something that he felt hadn’t been done before and that would overturn convention. “I wanted to create a story about that character and started thinking about it. I write a lot of screenplays and commissions for studios in the conventional way but it strikes me that the film industry attracts rules like no other – the character arc, the three act structure, fitting it into a genre. And, if I’m going to direct something, I want it to be something that’s going to break all of those rules and I wanted to create the story and completely disrupt it.”
Without giving too much away, he overturns everything by introducing technology to the story line. And it results in an eye popping twist at the end. “I wanted to do something genuinely different so that the surprise is genuine rather than the expected surprise or the one that you’ve set up. And I wanted the reaction to be ‘What I have just watched?’ ‘What was that?’ ‘What the hell happened?’ and that’s why I want people to go back, look again at the film and ask questions.”
Being both writer and director on the film gave him the freedom to do that and, for him, the two roles merge into one. “In terms of the writer and the director being two different people, I don’t feel that because in my mind, when I’m writing, I can see exactly what it should look like. The problem is once you arrive on set you can never re-recreate exactly what’s in your head but you can get as close as possible.
“When you’re making a film it’s very rare that it’s literally plain sailing. For this, I made a decision early on that there would be no green screen and no tank because it’s cheating and I don’t think it looks as good. So whenever you see a boat it’s a real boat on a real ocean: we took a steel platform out onto the Indian Ocean and we were moored to that while we were shooting. Lots of challenges – the light changes, the ocean moves – but it felt to me that it was worth doing it that way. On the plus side, Matthew, Anne, Jason, Diane, Djimon – not a second of trouble, even though the conditions were really difficult. They were brilliant.”
Lead actors McConaughey and Hathaway had worked together before (Interstellar) and get on well together, both of which helped in creating their on-screen relationship. But McConaughey’s character has another woman in his life in the film, this time played by Diane Lane, and that needed a different chemistry. What Knight didn’t realise was that there was some different history here. He grins “Well, it turned out that Matthew had had a crush on Diane since he was younger so …. that sorted itself out!” He’s more coy when it comes to revealing what Diane Lane thought about it, although did reveal that “at one point, she said ‘I’m getting paid for this!’” But more than that he won’t say.
Knight’s back to writing for TV again for now, with several Dickens novels to adapt for TV. He’s just finished work on A Christmas Carol. David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are all in the offing and the aim is to have a repertory company of actors performing them. The idea of one single actor playing both Micawber and Fagin brings a twinkle to his eye – but for now we can only speculate who could land such a lip-smacking pair of roles.
Steven Knight was talking to Freda Cooper.
Serenity is in cinemas now and on Sky Cinema from Friday, 1 March.