“What will love look like in the future?”
Drake Doremus, director
Equals, directed by the accomplished US filmmaker Drake Doremus, is an emotionally and visually arresting film from a screenplay by Nathan Parker based on a story idea from Doremus. A nuanced, slow-burning love story, the film is set in a futuristic utopia where emotions have been genetically suppressed in an effort to protect society from the war and strife that has destroyed previous generations. On occasion, the suppression fails and emotions emerge in individuals – the Collective dubs this illness Switched On Syndrome, or SOS. As society is increasingly threatened by this health crisis, all SOS sufferers are heavily medicated or sent to the Den, a corrective facility from which no one returns.
Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult are Nia and Silas – the film’s star-crossed lovers who encounter each other as colleagues at the science journal, Atmos. As Silas begins to experience the onset of SOS and his own awakening emotions, he finds himself inextricably drawn to Nia, who is hiding her own SOS. The longer they attempt to suppress their palpable connection, the more the tension fans the flames of their attraction. But with this newfound pleasure of intimacy, comes the threat of discovery and consignment to the Den. With the support of a group of like-minded SOS patients, they
realize escape is their only option.
The film will compete for a Golden Lion at this year’s Venice International Film Festival.
THE ORIGIN OF EQUALS
Equals completes Drake Doremus’ trilogy of films about love, also comprised of the Sundance winning Like Crazy (2011) and Breathe In (2013). Equals began its journey to the screen with a question that Doremus posed to producer, Michael Pruss: "What will love look like in the future... do you think we could potentially evolve away from the thing that makes us most human?"
The question stuck with Pruss, who had career-defining stints as an Executive at Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures and Focus Features before joining Scott Free, the production company owned and operated by Sir Ridley Scott, as Vice President of Production and Development. Pruss says: "We had worked together on Like Crazy and Breathe In. Equals felt like the culmination of those films that explored love, identity, and the human need for emotional fulfilment.”
While Pruss admitted to not knowing what the future held, he told Doremus he "knew a man who has lived in the future." That man was Nathan Parker, who wrote the critically acclaimed film Moon, directed by Duncan Jones in 2009.
Doremus and Parker instantly clicked and began brainstorming the question and the myriad of ideas it conjured, before landing on the idea of a society where humans are genetically modified to be absent of feeling for the betterment of society. In developing the story, Parker strove to examine not just the positive aspects of love, but also the pain and agony that accompanies caring deeply for another person.
"We wanted these two characters, once they discover love, for it to feel like it was a curse," Parker says. "They don’t want it, they want to run away from it, but are drawn back together because they can’t resist it."
It would take a little less than three years from the question to the start of principal photography.
EQUALS JOURNEY TO SCREEN
While Doremus and Parker worked on the story and script night and day, Pruss and Scott Free strove to assemble the players necessary to push it into production. With the blessing of Scott Free production chief Michael Schaefer, the project attracted a group of heavyweight backers and the project’s journey to principal photography gathered momentum. Putting the project in front of Ridley Scott played a pivotal role in getting Equals made.
Pruss says: "Having Ridley Scott as a producer on the film and as someone who is going to present the film, was not just crucial, but very inspiring for us all. Obviously Ridley is someone who knows a thing or two about science fiction and I think you can really feel his imprint on the film."
Ann Ruark, Jay Stern, and Chip Diggins of Route One, who are also financing the movie, combined their expertise with that of executive producers Ridley Scott, Russell Levine, Lee Jae Woo, and Choi Pyung Ho.
New York based producer Ann Ruark has worked with an extensive roster of filmmakers, to include Bill Pohlad (Love and Mercy), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Biutiful, Babel), and Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road). Ruark says: “The project presented so many exciting opportunities to re-imagine the way that a film set in the future could be shot – utilizing unique architecture and environments rather than visual effects.”
Principal photography began in Japan on August 4th, 2014, before moving to Singapore for three weeks, and finally wrapping on September 26th.
Chip Diggins is a former Walt Disney Company production chief and founder and former managing partner of Route One Films, the production and finance company in which he retains a minority stake. "I’m very proud to be a small part of the film because it is commercial but it also has artistic ambition. It works across a broad spectrum of taste without letting anyone down," says Diggins.
Jay Stern is also a co-founder of Route One Films who now runs production and finance banner Boone Entertainment and was formally a New Line Cinema high flier.
"When I first read the script, I was very moved,” he reveals. “I thought it was a profound expression of the importance of connecting deeply with another human being. Drake has a real knack for expressing the nuances and details of romantic love. I think he’s the perfect person to capture the actual details of intimacy in the futuristic world that he created."
The film is being sold internationally by sales and finance company Mister Smith Entertainment, which introduced the project to buyers during the 2014 Cannes Film Market. UTA Independent Film Group arranged financing for the project and is selling North American rights to the film.
FIRST AMONG THE EQUALS
Drake Doremus, a Sundance Grand Jury award winner with Like Crazy, knew he wanted to experiment with a genre that he had never done before in order to grow as a filmmaker. Picking the sci-fi genre was a bold move and making a love story in a world where love doesn't exist perhaps even bolder.
"For me the film is about long-term relationships, what it means to fall in love, to ride the wave and changes of a relationship, and how by the end of a journey you need to remember what you felt and why you were in that relationship in the first place," Doremus says. "It’s about trying to maintain what the relationships and love actually mean and love that changes and grows and becomes something else. It fascinates me and I wanted to portray that."
Doremus uses extensive rehearsals to build trust among his cast, for him and each other, and employs his now established signature use of close-ups and delicately edited cuts of actors when portraying intimate and pivotal emotional moments. Equals represents a step up in scale and ambition for Doremus, while working entirely from someone else's script.
"It was daunting to figure out how monotone but intellectual and forward-thinking the characters would be. We worked with all the actors in order to find the right tone, because 'Equals' are very intellectually stimulated and not robots. There’s just a lack of emotional capacity and empathy. Finding the right gear was difficult, but I think we did it early on in the rehearsal process," Doremus explains.
Doremus and his principals spent a week in Tokyo doing acting exercises to help embed them in the characters to help take them to a place where they felt extremely comfortable with each other and the journey on which their characters travel.
"The rule was no 'Equal' improvises and any person who's 'switched on' can and does...so in a lot of intimate scenes where they’re together, it’s a lot more free," Doremus reveals.
With Silas and Nia on screen in almost every scene in the film, it was necessary to cast two young actors capable of delivering nuanced and subtle turns over a demanding schedule. But it was a familiar pressure for Doremus who had proven adept at drawing out such performances in the first two of his love story films. In both Like Crazy and Breathe In, Felicity Jones provided show-stopping performances while Oscar winning actress Jennifer Lawrence also shone brightly in her cameo in Like Crazy. But it was another in- demand young megastar, Kristen Stewart, who landed the part.
"I only met with a handful of actresses for this role, and when I met Kristen, it was really apparent that she was willing to throw her heart into this and go for it. I thought she had a tremendous amount of range and poise and emotional maturity," Doremus says. "It was really exciting to watch her slowly ease into it throughout shooting, and at the end really become the character Nia."
As for Silas, Nicholas Hoult had been the actor in mind from the start. Doremus had met Hoult a few years previously and the character of Silas was conceived with him in mind. Nathan Parker said the part of Silas was written for the actor from the start.
Says Doremus: "It’s rare to find actors that bring value to a film but also are right for the part, and Nick and Kristen really embody that. I feel really lucky to have them both."
For his part, Hoult was a fan of Doremus's work and was switched on by the script and its sci-fi future set story. “Drake has got this brilliant touch with films — the way he cuts and edits and gets performances out of people makes him one of the most exciting directors around," says Hoult. "He has a way of getting a performance out of you but not making it a performance, and instead making it very true and honest. He made me feel very comfortable during the filming."
For both Hoult (X-Men: First Class) and Stewart (The Twilight Saga), two veterans of global franchise movie series, Equals provided a very different challenge and change of pace from mixing it up with mutants and vampires.
Producer Chip Diggins says: "Kristen and Nick have done what very few actors pull off. They are both part of enormously successful franchises, and yet they have also chosen to challenge themselves with interesting material. Not everyone does that. And this a perfect film because it can be commercial and yet also has artistic aspiration."
Hoult had never done any sort of rehearsal process before Equals. "We got in a room and were honest for a week, didn’t even touch the script," says Hoult. "We touched on things lightly, but it was mostly just talking about life and our experiences and came to know each other so when we got to set we were comfortable and felt safe."
It was also a brave new world for Stewart, who enjoyed throwing herself into the way Doremus operates as a director. "His goal is to have no expectation and have everyone willing to use fear in a productive way," explains Stewart. "His preparation is very up in the air. If you think you’re going to learn your lines and come to set ready to tell the story, that’s not what Drake wants."
Doremus says both Hoult and Stewart nailed the parts and his methods of filmmaking. "They poured themselves into it, and really lost themselves in the improvisation and the flow and the process," the director says. "They had never done anything like this, so it was new for them. They really owned it by the end."
The magical screen chemistry between Hoult and Stewart is a testament to the actors and director's hard work in rehearsal. The two actors would sit in front of each other saying 'hello' for an hour. "By the end of it, you’ve fallen into this vacuum of honesty,” Stewart says. “For whatever reason, that acting exercise carried over into the way we addressed each other on set. I knew when he was lying, he knew when I was lying. That alone is scary and bare and very vulnerable."
Hoult says: "Kristen is incredibly intelligent, and her understanding and passion for this is amazing to see. I find it very inspiring because I can’t quite figure out everything that’s going on, but she explains it and once she’s in the scenes, I believe her."
Doremus knew that Kristen was initially apprehensive about taking on the role. "It’s a very difficult arc to pull off, but I think after the first day of rehearsals, she was very excited and embraced the challenge, and felt really comfortable.”
Stewart says Doremus simply does what so many people want to do --"to allow themselves the freedom to discover."
Hoult says: "This is the first time Drake is doing work with a script, so we’ve got exactly what we need and at times what we’ve got on the page is exactly what we do, but at other times, he told us to go off and see what happens. With Kristen as the other lead, that’s very easy to do because she’s able to go anywhere and be honest."
Screenwriter Nathan Parker describes watching Hoult and Stewart bring his words to life on set in Japan as "thrilling".
Doremus secured the acting chops of Guy Pearce for a small, yet vital role. Pearce, the male lead in Doremus's Breathe In, took on the crucially pivotal role of Jonas In Equals, as a man also experiencing SOS who meets Silas and introduces him to a self-help group of fellow sufferers who meet in secret to talk about their feelings.
And Doremus also cast acclaimed Australian actress Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) in another of the film's small but essential parts, as Bess. Bess plays a doctor who has SOS but hides it from her co-workers. She works in the "Den", the corrective medical facility where final stage sufferers go to die, and has seen countless harrowing sights of suffering.
Doremus describes Pearce's role in Equals as "essentially our Friar Lawrence character from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet."
The filmmaker describes Pearce as a chameleon who can conform to any world and story.
"He plays these cold characters, so it was great to watch him play such a warm, open, and giving character in Equals," says Doremus. "He is someone who has gone through what Silas is going through, so he can help Silas through the beginnings of the journey and ultimately ends up sacrificing a lot."
Parker also used another Romeo and Juliet character, Nurse, as part inspiration for Weaver's character Bess when writing the script. Bess, an initially skeptical and hardened "hider", is won over by Nia's passion and love. "Just as Jonas is a parallel for Silas, Bess is a parallel for Nia," explains Doremus. "In the end, she opens her heart and it’s a beautiful change for Jacki’s character to go through."
Weaver believes that most good stories are love stories, whether it’s platonic love or intellectual love or erotic love.
"Equals is a love story,” she says simply. “It’s got some serious philosophical ideas behind it, as well as suspense, thrills, and a very tender love story — not just between the two lovers, but also about love of humanity and love of each other. There’s kindness shown in this story that is very selfless, and which says a lot about the human spirit."
The arrival on set of Pearce and Weaver had an energizing and positive impact on the production.
"Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver are brilliant. They’ve got this laid-back Aussie thing going on, and they know what they’re doing," Hoult says. "It was scary because I felt like 'I don’t want you guys to think that I can’t do this.' They were so friendly and warm."
Stewart says: "People always say that cast and crew shooting a movie is like being in a family, but in this case it genuinely felt like we had each other’s backs in a way that deleted the fear and gave us the desire to succeed."
The look, location and futuristic feel of the film plays as big a part as any of the actors tasked with delivering Nathan Parker's taut script. Coupled with the film's fantastically emotive, unsettling and arresting score by Sascha Ring and Dustin O'Halloran, the movie achieves a look that should feel modern to audiences for years to come.
“The idea was to create a minimal, Zen-like palette, for our love story to exist in a world that’s not distracting, but functional,” says Doremus. “It’s futuristic but it isn’t fake futuristic. It’s not dated, it’s very classic, very simple. The idea is that twenty or thirty years from now the movie won’t feel dated, there’s nothing that ties it to 2015...the love story takes centre stage rather than the world taking centre stage. In some sci-fi films, the world is what the movie is about."
To achieve the look, the filmmaker and producers went to Japan and Singapore to create a futuristic utopia without the resources of a large studio film.
"We wanted architecture that felt not of our world but also very grounded that would calm everybody and keep them productive and focused on things that mattered instead of strong feelings like hate and greed and love." Doremus says.
Producer Ann Ruark says while many people who read the script thought it should be primarily done via green screen, creating the world in post-production to achieve its futuristic utopian look, she had other ideas.
"When we were location-scouting for the futuristic looks, the question was where to go. I knew there was a lot of beautiful minimalist architecture that seemed to speak to the world Drake was imagining, but that hadn’t been photographed or seen in any international feature film project," Ruark says.
The filmmakers were specifically drawn to the work of minimalist architect Tadao Ando. "If you look at Ando’s buildings, they’re another aspect of why Japan works for our ‘Equals’ world,” says production designer Tino Schaedler. “All of the buildings are set in a lush environment, none of them are in a city context and that’s what we really needed for telling our story. We wanted this to feel like a new type of a garden city. Everything is embedded in nature, with parks and gardens,"
Schaedler, a Berlin native who trained as an architect before moving into movie design, describes the look as "a very rational and minimal world, very geometric."
"When I studied architecture, I was a big fan of Tadao Ando, who is probably the best known living architect in Japan," Schaedler says. "His use of concrete in a poetic way always spoke to me. It was an incredible experience when we went scouting to see his buildings that I’d seen in books. Those buildings were a big inspiration for the movie so I’m glad we got to use some of his buildings."
The production had locations all over Japan from Tokyo down to south of Osaka, and back to the north coast. It used the conference centre on Awaji, an island in the bay of Osaka, which was the epicenter of the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the Tadao Ando building at the Sayamaike Museum outside of Osaka as key locations.
"In many ways Tadao Ando’s Sayamaike Museum building defined the society that we were dealing with in Equals, because many people would have thought of the Den as this grim, dark, forbidding place, and Drake chose a place that was beautiful, light, and peaceful for their end-of-life scenario, which told me a lot about the compassion of the collective," Ruark says. "The interaction of minimalist architecture in this lush reborn world was very important to Drake. The Japanese architecture has very elegant refinement, and when we laid out the photos, it was clear that this was the future, a utopian society."
The other component was Singapore, which provided the lush greenery for location work and the film's key studio work and set construction.
Shooting on location in these spaces of visual contrast between cold minimalism and lush greenery, Doremus was able to capture spontaneous moments with his two lead actors whenever inspiration struck.
"Once we knew that it was feasible to shoot in Tadao Ando's buildings, it changed and transformed the whole look of the movie to make it cohesive and minimal," Schaedler says.
The film's lack of normal city markers helps steer the viewer into the future. "When you go into a regular city, streets are dominated by cars and retail spaces, and the Equals world doesn’t have any of that," says Schaedler. "It was great to shift our thinking; if we don’t need that, then it’s all about living, so how can we make that as beautiful as possible? Embedding the city into the natural landscape was part of that."
Chip Diggins hopes that Equals will become essential viewing for everyone, especially anyone with an interest in Japanese architecture. "Equals works through the boundary of architecture as art, but also as a representation of inner emotion,” he suggests. “What’s spectacular is, the filmmakers have used what exists in Singapore and Japan, but have also managed to augment it through camerawork to almost give an individual presence to the architecture itself, so that it’s almost another character in the film."
Producer Michael Pruss says: "I feel we could only ever have made this movie in Japan, because it feels like the future there in some ways, with the architecture and buildings."
ACHIEVING THE EQUALS LOOK
Interiors also play a vital role as another of the film's components. Tino Schaedler spent a lot of time designing the interior of the apartment. An elegantly minimal white box, the room provides everything as it is needed. So when Silas needs to sleep, a sleep pod emerges from the wall. When he decides to eat, a kitchen pod emerges. And all of it is played out in a box that has a giant window offering a panoramic view of the city.
"The idea of the apartment was, we wanted to create a moment where Silas walks in and it’s an empty box. In the script, it talked about his room being like a hotel room, very impersonal, and we wanted to push that even further and show that it’s completely empty," says Schaedler. "He doesn’t have any personal items. It’s very rational and programmed in such a way where you press a button and your couch pops out. It allows us to make the apartment really small and optimized in its footprint."
The team used a rear projection technique out of the window now seldom used create an imaginary landscape of a beautifully conceived elliptical city.
Using a trio of giant projectors from within the set, the image was projected onto a colossal 70 ft by 30 ft screen that was directly outside the set. It was a technical challenge and an optical illusion but in the finished scenes it plays very evocatively.
A lot of time and work also went into the design of the film's Razor train, another Japanese inspired element for the film's world where there are no cars. The Razor train that goes to a very deserted area on the outskirts of the Equals world was a variation on the same method as the main set with massive windows in it to allow for the projection of countryside rolling by.
All passengers are facing a screen, whether at the front of the carriage or on the windows, which also serve as screens for digital data transmission. "When they come onto the train since they don’t have emotions, they’re more interested in screens than socializing. It made sense to orient the seats facing the screen," Schaedler says.
The utopia of Equals also features no cars and humans with no cell phones or tablets. "Instead of them having tablets and cell phones we wanted to recess and integrate everything into the buildings or the train wherever we could so 'Equals' could wander around without carrying anything," says Schaedler.
Fellow production designer Katie Byron, who has worked on all Doremus's previous films, says a big challenge for Equals was to create a world where each of these characters had a workspace that felt different from anything we’d experienced before.
"One thing we wanted to stay away from was the Minority Report swiping-finger world. So we came up with this world where we use these digi-pens for the illustrators and writers played by Stewart, Hoult and company," Byron says.
Costume designer Abby O'Sullivan describes the process of creating a look for the inhabitants of this utopia: "What we did for our costumes is something functional but also stylish, sleek, and in a way, slightly asexual. Both the men and the women are wearing the same costumes. There are only subtle differences where it adheres to their bodies."
Doremus and costume designer Alana Morshead brought the idea of a beautiful white suit to their collaboration with O'Sullivan, who sought to make that idea a unified costume, but at the same time individualize the characters.
"I did that through texture. Kristen and Nick both have small subtle texture differences in their clothing, which brings me back to the lush green environment," O'Sullivan says. "The beauty of having one suit tailored to each person, is that you can play with textures and very subtle colors within a limited palette in order to individualize people. For me, I think a lot of creativity comes from
limitation. If you’re given a complex world, it’s not as much fun."
Kristen Stewart is one of the most accomplished, talented and in demand young actresses in Hollywood. She recently became the first American actress to be awarded a Cesar Award in the best supporting actress category for her role in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, in which she starred alongside Juliette Binoche. Stewart is currently in production on two films: The Untitled Woody Allen Project in which she will star alongside Bruce Willis and Jesse Eisenberg; and Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper. Most recently, she wrapped production on the Untitled Kelly Reichard Project and Ang Lee’s War/Drama, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Stewart will next be seen in the Drake Doremus directed film Equals which will also star Nicholas Hoult. Stewart can most recently be seen alongside Oscar® winner, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Tim Blake Nelson’s Anesthesia, which premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival as well as Camp X-Ray. Stewart starred as “Bella Swan” in the hit franchise The Twilight Saga. The series has grossed over $3.3 billion in worldwide receipts and consists of five motion pictures. On top of that she starred in Universal’s box office winner Snow White and The Huntsman; and in Walter Salles’ screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Introduced to worldwide audiences in 2002 with her gripping performance alongside Jodie Foster in Panic Room, Stewart’s star continued to rise, hitting a milestone when she garnered the number one spot on the Forbes list of highest paid actresses in 2012. Kristen’s career has displayed a challenging assortment of characters in films including: Adventureland, Into the Wild for director Sean Penn, starring as Joan Jett in The Runaways, Welcome to the Rileys, The Cake Eaters for director Mary Stuart Masterson, The Yellow Handkerchief alongside William Hurt, What Just Happened, In The Land of Women, The Messengers, Zathura, Speak, Fierce People, Catch That Kid, Undertow, Cold Creek Manor, and The Safety of Objects. Stewart resides in Los Angeles.
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