“When I was growing up, there was no pathway to making movies that I knew of, so it never really was an obvious career choice,” Ruairi Robinson says, thousands of miles from Dublin, Ireland where he grew up. “There was a point when I was in college where suddenly computers became cheap enough that I could get my hands on a PC with 3D animation software to learn how to do animation on it, and once you learn those tools, you realize actually, I could tell a story with this.”
One might think that background would’ve led Robinson to go nuts with CG for his feature directorial debut, a possibility that might’ve been in the cards had his planned live-action remake of “Akira” come to fruition at Warner Brothers. But not long after, Robinson shifted his attention to “The Last Days on Mars,” a smaller-scale thriller that demonstrates his ability to build tension as much as to build worlds, doing both with as little digital augmentation as possible. Heading to the sand dunes of Jordan to get the closest approximation of the red planet as possible, he didn’t need color correction to turn them crimson, requiring only the bloody tale of a group of astronauts whose discovery of bacteria capable of cell division may prove there’s life on Mars but leads to the revelation the undead exist there too.
Beset by a surfeit of zombies, a grizzled Liev Schreiber leads a crew including Romola Garai, Elias Koteas and a headstrong Olivia Williams into the fray, a battle where the rush to anoint a new species results in the astronauts losing their sense of self, both mentally and eventually, physically. However, “The Last Days on Mars” reveals a filmmaker with a distinctive identity in Robinson, who balances the sleek sophistication of high-end sci-fi with the gritty remorselessness of horror and brings out the best in each genre while injecting his own personal brand of wicked fun. While in Los Angeles, I got to experience a little of that firsthand as Robinson spoke about making the most out of a limited budget, working with actors with more experience on a film set than him, and the benefits of building up to a bigger movie.
You’ve had some other films in the works. How did this become the one to make your feature debut with?
Basically, when I worked on a studio movie for almost three years a few years back, it fell apart, and I was only working on that film, so I realized you have to have like three projects at once. It comes down to financing it actually. The one that gets the money first is the one that goes. That’s just the practical reality of it.
Did the experience of working on something of the scale of what “Akira” would’ve been change how you approached a smaller-budgeted project like this, which still feels big?
That was a movie that couldn’t get the budget below two hundred million for the first good drafts of our script, so that became too difficult to make. I came back and did “Blinky” in between, which was done for nothing, €47,000, and that was done to go, alright, I need to do something I can take ownership of, and if it’s good, it’s my fault, and if it’s bad, it’s my fault, but either way, I can say it’s my film. It was psychotherapy for the experience of going through the studio machine as a first-time director. I think the thing coming out of that was to realize I need to do a smaller budget movie. You watch people like Chris Nolan who do a small movie, then a slightly bigger movie, then a bigger movie, then a really big movie, then the biggest movie in the history of the world, and it’s a good way to never do a movie where the scale of the movie exceeds your grasp.
What’s striking about “Last Days of Mars” is how it’s able to achieve a sense of otherworldliness while still feeling tactile. Was it hard to get that balance? For starters, you hold back on zero gravity.
The gravity on Mars is like 38%, so most of the time you probably wouldn’t notice the difference, probably. But obviously we don’t have “Inception”‘s budget, so we had to make some compromises to the physics of it to get the movie made. There were certain things that were bigger actually in the script that we had to find an equivalent. Originally in the script, the end sequence was in an orbiter with all these “Inception”-style sequences of Vincent’s character alone fighting seven of the undead in zero gravity, and it was bigger than “Inception,” so we couldn’t afford to do that and had to tighten the focus and judiciously use those effects where absolutely necessary, and find simple solutions for things.
For example, there’s a scene where the character is spinning dead in zero gravity, but he’s just on a chair trying to turn, so it’s the cheapest way you could possibly do it. We had some wire effects, but they weren’t the kind of level of [research and development] that they can do on a movie like “Gravity.” We’re doing the cheap and dirty version of those kind of effects. It’s not style over substance where there’s some grand, soaring camera moves just to show off an expensive CG model or anything like that. It’s only used to absolute minimally tell the story, where absolute 100% necessary.
One of the best scenes in the film, I felt, was where you can see Liev Schreiber being attacked and the only source of light in the room is the flashlight he’s holding.
Actually, the cinematographer was carrying a torch as well, but there were the only kind of two real sources of light in that scene, it was pretty minimal.
You seem to rely on the light from the outside of the helmets as well. Is that an element you leave largely to the actors in terms of what you see and what you don’t in those scenes?
Most sci-fi movies have the helmets lit from within, so you can see the actor’s face, and in the real world that doesn’t make any sense because what’s that doing? It ‘s just basically creating reflections to make it impossible to see out. We decided to kind of go a bit more realistic, which creates its own set of challenges because there’s all these sequences where people come in and out of the shadows, and you can’t quite see the face, or the actors have to light each other with torches to put light on their faces or the cinematographer has to be in there with a torch shining this fake extra light on their faces that’s coming out of nowhere. You make a choice and that creates problems that you have to solve.
Speaking of which, you’re able to make a wonderful pivot here from a calm, sedate exploration film to a horror flick where all hell breaks loose when someone hits the panic button. Was it difficult to make those tonal transitions seamless?
If you saw “Blinky,” it spans four different tones in 12-and-a-half minutes, so I do like playing with different tones. Hopefully, it was successful in this one, but it is tough to do those kind of transitions and make it feel like it’s a surprise. People like Tarantino do a movie where they’re chatting one minute, and then the guy’s brains are being picked out of a trunk of a car in the next second, and it’s disgusting, then funny, then emotional. You can do that tap dance if you know what you’re doing.
You also seem to really have an appreciation for actors and what they can bring. Did that make working on something feature-length interesting for you?
Yeah, I mean sometimes it’s tough because I’m the least experienced person in the room making my first film, and Liev Schreiber’s been making movies for twenty-five years, so I’m getting in the ring with a heavyweight, and I’m light featherweight. You have to have a point of view and know what you want and stick to your guns and also collaborate. People like Liev come on set really prepared — he knows what he’s doing, so you better. There’s a cast of great actors [here] that all have a point of view and you have to sort of filter all those points of views to serve the story, but also get the best out of them, and make everyone comfortable. It’s a lot of work, but they’re all great actors and it’s a pleasure to do it.
“The Last Days on Mars” opens on December 6th in New York at the Sunshine Cinema and in Los Angeles at the Nuart before expanding into a wider release on December 13th. A full schedule is here. It is also available to watch instantly on Amazon and iTunes.