“Write Films That Say Something.” Charlie McDowell On Netflix Hit, ‘The Discovery’

[This Interview originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.]

In the Sundance hit The Discovery, Robert Redford stars as Dr. Thomas Harbor, the man who discovers definitive, scientific proof that an afterlife exists. As thousands contemplate suicide to move to the next life, Thomas’ son Will (Jason Segel) falls for Isla (Rooney Mara).

Following on from the success of their previous film The One I Love, writer-director Charlie McDowell teamed up once again with co-writer Justin Lader to create this fascinating sci-fi romance.

Creative Screenwriting spoke with McDowell about making exposition interesting, the importance of regret, writing for your actors, and news of an upcoming adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Zero K.

Did you know that this interview is available to listen to as a podcast?

Listen to it Here!

Charlie McDowell with Riley Keough, Jason Segel and Rooney Mara, at an event for The Discovery

What first attracted you to get involved with filmmaking?

My parents are actors, so I grew up in this kind of funny circus, moving from set to set. We went wherever they were working. As a kid I didn’t really care about the process of filmmaking or making films; I was more interested in just being a kid. But it was always ingrained in me, and is definitely a part of who I am.

Then when I went to college, I started to get really into film, and then I ended up going to AFI for directing, where I’ve been pursuing it ever since.

Where did the idea for The Discovery originally come from?

From my writing partner, Justin Lader. He approached me with this idea whose basic question was, what if the afterlife was scientifically proven? What would happen? Is death even death any more, if you are just going somewhere else?

That idea was fascinating to us. And then the idea that people would start taking their own lives became interesting. If you can’t pay your mortgage, or you’re going through a horrible breakup, or whatever, and you are guaranteed to go somewhere else when you die, would you want to do that?

Would you press that reset button?

And so we wanted to explore that as far as we could. But ultimately we wanted to make it a character story and a love story, a father-son story. And so, this big premise became the backdrop to a character piece.

Rooney Mara as Isla and Jason Segel as Will in The Discovery

The intro to the film is rather heavy. How important is it to establish a hard-hitting introduction like this to a thought-provoking film?

Well, I think it’s important. In this particular film, we are saying that something is happening globally and affecting everyone’s lives. But we’re not going out into the world and showing it throughout the film, so the opening scene becomes really important because we’re setting the state of the world and the tone of the world.

And then the story starts.

So, in my mind, the first scene was almost like a prologue to the story, that then starts with our main character, Will, on the ferry.

But, in terms of a screenwriting perspective, it’s really about taking exposition and making it interesting. We had a lot of exposition in the beginning, and explained, and so it was a question of “how do we heighten that exposition and make it interesting?” So that’s what we tried to do with the opening scene.

The film could have easily gone further into the sci-fi or perhaps even the horror genre. How do you see the film in terms of genre?

I don’t specifically think too much in terms of giving it a label. I do a lot of visual work in terms of pulling photographs or stills from films, and things like that, in terms of how does it feel and look. But in crafting the story it was always important for us not to do something that felt futuristic, or leaned more into the sci-fi genre.

I think if you did that, you would lose the element of “what if this happened to me?” And that was always a really important idea and question for us. We wanted the audience to really ask the question, “If this happened to me right now, what would I do?” And I think if you’re leaning too far into sci-fi or a futuristic world, then it becomes about that genre and that style, and less about connecting yourself to the movie.

Rooney Mara as Isla in The Discovery

What were some of the cinematic influences on this film?

We looked at films like Eternal Sunshine, which was one where, again, it’s taking a simplistic theme — at its core is a guy trying to get over a girl, and then a girl trying to get over a guy — and then tackling it in such a unique, interesting way. I think, as a result, people connect to films like that more than if it was just traditional, or something we’ve seen before.

So I think that that was something that we talked about and looked at.

And then, for me visually, I think the main film that I looked at and really responded to was The Master. And Martha Marcy May Marlene was another one, in terms of some of the cult and atmospheric stuff.

So it was those pieces, and then, ultimately, something like Eternal Sunshine where, at its core, it really is a love story, so there are these moments where we need to feel and connect to our two lead characters. And so it couldn’t feel too dark and bleak. We needed an emotional element in order for it to work, so that was the love story part of it.

Little Miss Sunshine

How important is regret within this story?

Without giving away too many spoilers, ultimately we are saying that it’s our kind of basic instinct in terms of what we think about, and relate and connect with.

I think that that was something really interesting for us to explore in the writing process. As humans, we all have regrets, and at times they outweigh the way in which we’re living our lives. And I think it’s just such a powerful feeling, so ultimately that was the direction we naturally took it. Because, again, we felt like audiences could really relate to that idea.

There are a lot of big names in this film. Did you write any of these roles for specific actors or actresses?

We did. The first scene we wrote was the opening scene with Robert Redford’s character and the interviewer, and we hadn’t figured out the characters yet. We knew that we wanted the character of the man who came up with the discovery, but we didn’t have our other main character or characters yet.

So I gave those pages to Rooney Mara, and she read it and really responded to what we were exploring, and said she wanted to be a part of the film. When one of the best young actresses on the planet says she wants to be in your movie, then you figure out a way to write a really good part, and a part that is ultimately the focal point to the piece.

I don’t think we would have done that if we hadn’t known that Rooney wanted to be a part of it. So, we focused on that, and then the rest of the characters fell into place. We just felt like this was the best way to tell the story.

Rooney Mara as Isla in The Discovery

What are your writing rituals?

Well, I have a kind of great partnership with Justin. We do a lot of story and character work in discussion and outline. Then, instead of doing scenes back and forth, which I know some people do, Justin will put the first version of it on the page. And then from there, we will go back and forth, and rewrite, and discuss, and change.

Justin’s doing the really heavy lifting in putting this thing on the page for the first time, and then we take it from there.

I wake up really early, and that’s when my brain is working at its best. So I like to work first thing in the morning, and then by the time it’s evening, I just want to relax and be done, and not think about it, and try to tune my brain out. So, that’s kind of the ritual for me.

I definitely think it’s important to live your life and not force something if it’s just not working. So I try to just stay grounded and happy in life, and then try to dive into another world when writing.

What have you found to be the most difficult step in the writing process?

I think the balance of exposition, and how much to put in and how much to let the audience feel or interpret for themselves. In the writing process, but also the editing process, I’m constantly reworking in terms of how much I want to give the audience and how much I want to hold back.

So, it’s a balancing act. I think it’s just about showing people pages in the scripting process and getting their opinion, and then in the editing process as well. I really like to screen the film multiple times for people and get their thoughts. Because a lot of times, someone who’s not so connected to the idea can easily just say, “Oh, you don’t need that line. We get it.” And I tend to listen to that.

Robert Redford as Thomas in The Discovery

Do you have any advice for new writers or filmmakers? Where could they best spend their time?

I do mentorship at AFI, and so I talk about this a lot. And I think it’s mostly the focus. People put a lot of focus on the business aspect — agents, managers, things like that — and it’s almost like a little benchmark forward for them. Like, “Look, I have an agent now. I’ve done it. I’ve made it.” And, really, while representatives are really important, I think the main thing to do is focus on your script, focus on your feature.

It’s all about “what’s the story that you want to tell?” So I always tell young writers and directors to really just focus on your script, and have that be something ready to go when people are interested in meeting with you.

From my experience with The One I Love, I feel that a great way to break into the industry is to write a film that’s contained in a few actors, so that you’re not telling a big story where you’re going to need a lot of money. Because it’s really hard to get financing nowadays.

And if you can tell a story that’s limited to a few locations, or in The One I Love’s case, basically, two locations, then I think there’s a lot better chance to move forward and actually make your movie. Because you can control it, and make it for a lot less money than something that would need a big budget.

Is there anything you’d like to share about the film?

It’s definitely a film that you have to think about while you’re watching, and not everyone wants to do that. But I really like to challenge people in that way, and ultimately make you think, then hopefully by the end you’re feeling and connecting that to your emotions in some way. So, that’s the purpose for me. And, ultimately, when we’re putting these stories together, that’s the thing that excites us the most. We’re trying to say something.

Finally, can you reveal any details about what you might be working on next?

Justin and I are writing a limited series for FX. It’s an adaptation of Don DeLillo book called Zero K, with Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion) and Scott Rudin (No Country For Old Men, The Social Network) producing. We’re developing that into a limited series and underwriting the pilot right now.

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