The Survivalist, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 12 February 2016.
Stephen Fingleton’s debut feature, The Survivalist, opens with a frighteningly simple graphic detailing the rapid growth and then decline of oil supply and consumption on Earth. The story that follows takes place after peak oil, in the middle of a forest where an unnamed man (played by Martin McCann) ekes out a life of subsistence in a small hut. Into his hermit-like life of seclusion come two women, young Milja (Mia Goth) and the older Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré), who bargain with sex for a share of his crops. So begins a drama where desire, shifting loyalties and the threat of further intrusion play out in a lonely forest clearing.
This is a brutal tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world, a thoughtful, lean vision of the future done without special effects. Fingleton was noticed after a series of striking shorts, including Shirin (2012) and SLR (2013), before his script for The Survivalist landed up on the Black List, Hollywood’s roster of hot, unproduced screenplays. His 2014 short Magpie, also starring Martin McCann, is both prequel and companion piece to The Survivalist, taking place in the same woodland world. Worth seeing in tandem with his debut feature, Magpie helped convince the BFI Film Fund to come on board as financiers.
Now in the running for the BAFTA for outstanding debut, Fingleton sat down with us to list some of his film’s cinematic influences.
Tarkovsky’s Stalker is the major influence on the film. It was an anti-science fiction film, which goes against the setting as much as possible and creates a form for a spiritual story about exiles. When I was looking for the idea for The Survivalist, I was looking for a science fiction movie that didn’t need any special effects. I had the idea of a forest refuge, and it just being about the characters. You didn’t need to see the rest of civilisation – no ruined cities or anything like that. You saw how deformed the world was from how deformed the character was. That excited me a lot.
In Stalker, the zone is a deeply mysterious place, and from that it draws its power. I particularly love Tarkovsky’s magical sequences and how he uses time; he makes the audience very aware of time – quite aggressively in some instances. The way he uses tracking shots which are at once self-referential and magical. They’re usually surrounded by dialogue, or the sound of echoing or dripping water – I don’t know why they work so effectively.
How about The Sacrifice (1986), another Tarkovsky film on the theme of apocalpyse?
The Sacrifice offers a different take, but a title for my movie could have been The Sacrifice. Andrei Rublev (1966) as well, but Stalker particularly – it’s just so mysterious. It’s also very much in the countryside. Both Stalker and The Survivalist aren’t really post-apocalypse films, they’re post-event films. If anything it’s too close to Stalker, but as films go it’s one I’m quite comfortable being quite close to.
Jurassic Park (1993)
There’s a key moment in The Survivalist when Martin thinks he’s been cornered. He sees a figure in the greenery, and then tells Mia his brother’s name. The specific influence on that scene was Jurassic Park. It’s the scene where Bob Peck’s character is about to take down a raptor and he realises there’s something to his left.
If you look very close, shot for shot these sequences are very close. The influence is unrecognisable to some extent, but I did want the forest in the film to look as close to Jurassic Park as possible. It’s a film I’ve seen about 60 times. I think it’s fabulous. Spielberg’s use of sound, the tremors in the water, the way he films suspense – it’s absolutely brilliant. There are obviously similar themes: both are Frankenstein films in that in Jurassic Park it’s the creation of dinosaurs; in my film, it’s the creation of civilisation.
So Jurassic Park was your key Spielberg influence?
Also Close Encounters (1977) – the family dynamics in Close Encounters are so painful to watch. E.T. (1982) is brilliant. I’m more interested in the suffering Spielberg shows than the sentimental side which makes his films so successful and also so widely seen. He knows how to move a camera, and his choice of casting is brilliant. He’s very good at finding off-centre lead actors, like Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider and Harrison Ford.
Something he said which influenced me is that 90% of a director’s job is casting – an incredible statement that’s absolutely true. With this film, I knew that if I got the right actors and gave them the time to do what they wanted, I’d be fine.
Jean-Pierre Melville / Le Cercle rouge (1970)
Jean-Pierre Melville is my favourite director, after Leone. His obsession with procedure, and the futility of effort. I love the tremendous anti-romance of his films, particularly Le Cercle rouge, which is also about the shifting loyalties of three people who come together in unusual circumstances.
Sergio Leone / Once upon a Time in the West (1968)
Sergio Leone is for me the definition of cinema. There are a lot of influences in the movie. Perhaps they’re a little hidden because Leone is mostly identified by his composition, and the composition that my cinematographer elected for The Survivalist is actually quite naturalistic; it doesn’t use the full width of the 2.35 frame – he keeps it more centric, which makes it more practical from an operating perspective.
Leone has an extraordinary use of sound and colour and the depth of the frame. Our film uses shallow focus rather than deep focus, which is something that if I were to do it over again I might use more deep focus in the film as it’s not as fashionable as shallow focus is now.
But some of the influences are very clear: the film is about a man with no name who plays a harmonica. There’s a flashback structure which is clearly influenced by Leone. In fact, Once upon a Time in the West is a tale of vengeance based on the death of a brother, which is very close to the story we find in The Survivalist ultimately.
In the Cut (2003)
I’m very much a fan of Jane Campion’s work. In the Cut, particularly, which was such a bold, shocking film showing the attraction of a woman to a man who is a serial killer. I thought it was a fantastic film. I particularly love, in the European version, the use of full-frontal nudity in a mainstream film. It’s something that inspired me in certain directions that we took in the movie. I’ve noticed it in a lot of movies now, but Jane was there first and she was there with a movie with Meg Ryan, who was a big star.
I loved how female the film was, in a story that would normally be told via the male gaze. Something I didn’t want in my movie was the male gaze, and I learn as a male director how patriarchal our structures of seeing things are.
Was there anything contemporary that fed your interest in the theme of peak oil?
There’s a Chris Smith documentary, with [political activist] Michael Ruppert, called Collapse, which is an amazing film about peak oil. When you see the bell curve and you realise it’s not when oil runs out, it’s when it begins to run out that we’re in trouble. And that can be any resource; that could be fresh water. That inspired me. And the idea of seeds as currency – it’s a powerful idea. That’s one of the basic questions that sets up my movie: what is the currency in this new world? In this case, sex is obviously a very useful currency.
For me, all the running around in the woods, and the unusual Mohican-style haircut that Martin sports, had echoes of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans too…
I love Michael Mann, but Heat (1995) would be a much bigger influence for myself and Martin and our approach to the character. The hair came from a suggestion from our producer Robert Jones. I was originally going to have a much more Bobby Sands look for him – long hair, long beard. Robert, who’s been in the business a long time, said we needed something distinctive. So I said, but why would he cut his hair? We decided maybe it was because of lice, and so me and Martin created a backstory to do with his brother. I like the idea of having your own personal cult.
But I can’t speak on behalf of Dana Kalder, our hair designer – she may well have been influenced by it.
I also wondered if you’d seen the Japanese film Onibaba, which is also a tale of savagery and subsistence with two women living in the middle of nowhere…
Yes, in fact that was a key influence. After I’d written the script and the film was cast, but before we shot it, I sent Onibaba to Mia and said: “This is what we’re trying to make.” The intensity of that film, and the bravery of it, is just mindblowing. Ours is a different story, but that is a successful way to shoot two women in that sort of situation. Brilliant film.