Cory Finley on Making a World of Difference in “Landscape with Invisible Hand”

One doesn’t need to see the mass-produced and processed blocks of food that are provided to earthlings in “Landscape with Invisible Hand” to realize that Cory Finley is serving up a real meal. In his brilliant adaptation of M.T. Anderson’s satiric sci-fi novella, the writer/director bears witness to a world that’s been overrun by an alien species known as Vuv that mostly lingers above, interested in the earth for its real estate and curious about the humans for their customs as they might be about the animals that were once their pets. There are few ways to make money when most occupations are rendered useless by an economy run strictly for the benefit of the Vuv, but it’s how the Campbells and the Marshes come to stay together when their son Adam (Asante Blackk) and daughter Chloe (Kylie Rogers), respectively, realize there’s an actual financial incentive in dating one another beyond their natural attraction to one another when the Vuv will pay to observe their courtship practices.

Although the Vuv only communicate in gregarious hand signals, slapping their large paddle arms in approval or dismay at what they see, Finley doesn’t lose anything in translation as he tackles the high-concept comedy with genre elements unlike ones he’s ever worked with before in wickedly funny amusements such as “Thoroughbreds” and “Bad Education,” employing the alien invasion to expose plenty of issues that were preexisting here on earth. The pressures of putting on a show for the extraterrestrials gives way to a backstage look at already taxing socioeconomic concerns of a society plagued by an exhaustion of natural resources and the need to place a monetary value on every act to make it worthwhile and as Adam, a budding artist, toils away on paintings that may never make a dime, chronicling the fallout from the invasion over a series of oil canvases from 2028-2037 (one of which lends the film its offbeat title), the power of art – both his and the film itself – pays off in ways that can’t be measured in any kind of currency in reflecting things about ourselves that cannot be expressed otherwise.

There’s no shortage of priceless elements in the film, which features sharp supporting turns from Tiffany Haddish as Adam’s mother and Josh Hamilton as Chloe’s father, and a partial reconstellation of the same creative team that made “Okja” so transcendent with visual effects wizard Erik deBoer handling the Vuv and producers Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner shepherding the deeply satisfying and idiosyncratic comedy to the screen. Following its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, the film is just waiting to be discovered this week as it opens in theaters and Finley graciously took the time to talk about navigating his first intergalactic adventure, injecting it with as much human artistry as possible and inventing a whole new language for the film.

People might think this is a departure for you, but thematically, this seems right in in your wheelhouse with the incisive observations about class and privilege. Could you see it from the start?

I would say it’s a little bit similar of what I’ve done before in some ways, but it’s maybe very different in genre. In the past, I’ve done more grounded psychological thrillers/dark comedies, but I’m glad you say something about the thematic continuity because I think I keep coming back to some of the same sorts of problems and characters dealing with power moving through money and financial avenues, so it’s definitely in my thematic wheelhouse, but in a very different genre than I’ve tackled before and that was fun.

This seems particularly ripe for an adaptation when part of the charm of the book was how abstract it was. What was it like to bring to the screen?

Yeah, M.T. Anderson is such a fun guy and an amazing author and I was lucky that he was very much on board with this adaptation and was very helpful. He offered me thoughts on different drafts, came to set and was just a lovely guy and a real resource throughout because it was his crazy mind that came up with the premise and the world of the story. And it is a very efficient and literary work in that it does not waste a lot of time on comprehensive physical descriptions. There are a few very, very evocative lines about the aliens — the big ones we kept returning to are the comparison of them in size and stature to coffee tables and the notion that they communicated by rubbing a gritty fin on themselves and the sounds that that created were “like someone walking forcefully in corduroys.” So we had these super evocative descriptions, but very little to work on as far as just what do they fundamentally look like and what’s the structure of their bodies, so that was a long iterative process with Eric DeBoer, our visual effects supervisor, who was another key collaborator.

You build in this challenge that becomes a real strength of the film when they don’t really have a face for expression, so they have to use this form of sign language. What was that like to figure out?

Yeah, they do have no face, but we liked the idea of an almost accidental face [where] it ended up being they have two sort of vision stalks and [they have] inner folds that happen to look like a frowning mouth, [though] it didn’t actually have a functioning mouth. What’s unusual about them as CGI aliens is usually those creatures are all about how do they move? How many scary teeth do they have? How do they chase you? And these are characters that are mostly sitting behind desks talking. So the talking itself had to be visually compelling in some way and we landed on this almost postmodern dance that they do. We changed [the arms] from a fin, which we thought would get a little repetitive in a movie, to these sort of long stalks that can make all these strange dancey gestures and can be oddly beautiful, but also kind of annoying looking.

The sound becomes a real part of the communication as well. What was it like to develop the Vuv language?

That was actually at the encouragement of Erik DeBoer, our VFX supervisor, who said, “Usually the sound is the very last thing you do in creature design. You get often a very detailed rendering of final shots, and you send them over to the soundstage and they just have to mimic or create the roars and screeches and all of that [in post-production]. But because this was like having an actor come in and do the lines, you want to start with dialogue when it’s a dialogue- heavy character and then animate to that, so Gene [Park, our sound editor] very early on drove upstate to work with a Foley team on like finding coconuts and pieces of jagged rock and nailing nails into the coconuts and finding all these ways to make these familiar and earthy, but very strange sounds [that] we would then be able to play like instruments. Then Gene did further electronic manipulation to make them a little more otherworldly and just faster and we created the language that way.

I know that actors often need all of this to make sense to them in order to play it, but did having this sci-fi aspect actually make that harder or easier to do.

Yeah, certainly Tiffany had done plenty of visual effects work, but had been in movies with visual effects partners. She had just filmed “The Haunted Mansion” — out now, go check it out — so that was very comfortable for her. Our younger actors haven’t done it as much, but we had a few things working in our favor. We did have proxies — these little 3D printed objects, and if you have a CGI wizard or something, then it’s a little weird that a human is sitting across from an axe on a wall and pretending it’s like a person emoting at them. And in our case, we considered initially [having] an actor come in and read the translated Vuv line so they’d have a scene partner, and ultimately, after doing a little bit of rehearsal, it became clear that the stiltedness of that interaction [between the humans and the models] was actually appropriate. These are very awkward, strange creatures. A human being is never comfortable in the room with them, so it felt appropriate that they were these sort of odd inanimate objects [on set]. Then of course we showed our actors extensive pre-visualization animatics so that they would know what they would ultimately be working with on screen.

When you come from the stage, was it exciting to do as much of this in the room as possible before handing it off to VFX artists?

That’s the hardest part I think of any visual effects movie, and I came away with so much. I don’t know if you can call this a visual effects movie, but certainly, my first movie had zero VFX shots, my second had five and this had over a hundred, so it was a big jump. Whenever possible, we wanted to be as practical as possible — even small things like actually projecting “Rebel Without a Cause” on film on the wall of the basement rather than just digitally putting in a projection, to bring realism to the scenes. Our two big visual effects elements, which are these floating real estate developments and the Vuv themselves, there just wasn’t a great way to do them practically in the grammar of the movie. If you’re going for a more deliberately B-movie, “Mars Attacks” [vibe] — although “Mars Attacks” actually used CGI — you can use puppets for a certain effect, but we didn’t want it. We wanted a little bit more of a suspension of disbelief.

One of the shrewdest things you do in adapting this is how the chapter titles in the novella allude to Adam’s paintings, but you’re able to extrapolate this entire larger experience he’s having by seeing his art throughout. What was it like to figure out that element of the film?

William Downs was the amazing artist who did all of Adam’s art in the movie from the giant mural at the end to the chapter title paintings and he’s just the best — so fun to be around, so intensely collaborative and just a real visual genius. And he and Asante, who plays Adam, got to spend some time together in pre-production and I think it was helpful for both of them because it’s almost a version of the classic middle-aged actor plays an adult version [of a character] and then they meet with the younger actor playing their child version. William has a very distinctive personal style as an artist, and we wanted to preserve elements of that, but he did have to essentially do character work, like drawing earlier stuff and figuring out how his artistic style and even the brush strokes and the hand movements would change as the character matures. Then Asante also just got to observe William painting and do some impromptu art lessons together and see his body language and really just connect those two elements of the character. That was very cool to watch.

Race isn’t really mentioned in the book, but it becomes an interesting undercurrent in this when particularly with the character of Hunter, the Marsh son played by Michael Gandolfini, part of the resentment he feels in having to live with this family is clearly because they’re Black. Was that actually in mind from the start or developed along the way?

The way it developed was just that I really wanted to work with Tiffany Haddish, ever since “Girls Trip.” I was such a fan of hers. She’s just an ebullient comic presence who just grabs the screen any time she’s on it and I also really liked the idea of giving her a role that was funny — because her sense of humor has a surreal element that jives really well with the tone of this movie — but also I love the idea of her carrying this really strong dramatic role, which is something she does less often, although she’s great at it. So that made [these characters], by necessity, a Black family [living on the ground floor], and the Marshes in the basement were a white family, so there’s this class element [between these] newly lower class families competing with one another, and I thought that just added another layer of richness to the scene that you’re talking about and felt maybe disturbingly real.

What was it like to put music on this? The sound really carries so many eras.

That was awesome, and this is my second time working with Michael Abels. He did “Bad Education,” my last movie and because we had a little bit more of a shorthand [this time], he started working pretty early before he’d seen any finished cuts of the movie. And I’ve heard about other composer/director duos working that way, but I hadn’t really ever done that before and he sent me some musical sketches — or I think maybe he thought of them as sketches, but a couple of them were so good, I’m like, “Please don’t change any of this. We’re using this as it is in the movie.” A lot of them were built around this theremin, which is a retro-futuristic ‘50s/‘60s, “Star Trek”/“Body Snatchers” type of instrument, but is usually used for more of a “Woo, creepy,” creepy sound, but what was so cool about his use of it was he wrote these very romantic, yearning, beautiful lines with this instrument that’s become kind of a novelty and has this very sincere emotionality that made it really dynamic and interesting.

It really just adds to how you’ve pulled off something so tricky tonally and thematically here. What’s it like getting this out into the world?

It’s always exciting. It’s hard to let these babies go after you’ve spent so long raising them and it’s always a strange feeling when your work is done and people are going to see it and you can’t continue to tinker as one would like to forever. But I’m excited. It’s hopefully a provocative movie and a unique one, so I’m eager to hear from friends and family — and the Internet — what everyone thinks about it.

“Landscape with Invisible Hand” opens across the country on August 18th. A full list of theaters is here.

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