Wyatt Rockefeller on Going Places with “Settlers”

A few years ago, Wyatt Rockefeller was working for an energy distribution startup on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, a logical next step after working in the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama Administration, and every night he’d have trouble getting to bed. During the day, he’d be inspired by the small business owners he’d meet, seeing the impact they had in their communities by being so specifically focused on what they were good at, and when he came home, he couldn’t help but think back to how much he had enjoyed making movies when he was a kid.

“I was working in a part of the world that I’d always wanted to work and yet I was lying awake at night, thinking about stories I wanted to tell and I wouldn’t sleep until I’d write down the dialogue that was in my head,” recalled Rockefeller. “And at some point, you just recognize, ‘Look, I’m going to be better at this than I will be at anything else because I just care more about it. I can’t not do it,’ and whatever impact will be greatest by just doing whatever it is I care most about.”

It was a train of thought that would ultimately lead Rockefeller to enroll in NYU Film School, and if his debut feature “Settlers” was once an idea he couldn’t get out of his own head, he’s daring audiences now to get it out of theirs, imagining the future colonization of Mars after Earth is no longer hospitable. Although the family in “Settlers” appears to live parsecs away from human contact of any kind, Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) are faced with a crisis when an intruder they come to know as Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova) arrives on their farm, looking for safe haven. Though Jerry is clearly prone to violence, he is impossible to turn away with nowhere to run when the family has so specifically tailored their surroundings to their survival and can identify with the fact that he’s a refugee like themselves. However, even as they see their best laid plans to live a sustainable life on Mars hold up to scrutiny, the environment grows toxic around the clan, particularly as Remmy (played in her teen years by Nell Tiger Free) begins to wonder whether she’s being shielded from the outside world for her own protection or reasons that are more sinister.

With Mars recreated just south of where Rockefeller conceived the idea in Vioolsdrift in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, “Settlers” impressively shows the writer/director’s ability to convincingly build a world and take on big ideas inside of it when even in spite of having the ingenuity to leave one dying planet, the characters can’t seem to leave some of its more unfortunate societal constructs behind, whether it’s the constantly fraught gender dynamics on the farm are constantly fraught where women are still expected to be deferential to men and there is still difficulty to see the humanity in one another for people not born in the same place. Following its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, the film arrives in theaters and on demand and Rockefeller spoke about how he poured his passion into the provocative sci-fi potboiler and setting up an environment on set that would feel real to the actors and ultimately audiences.

How did this come about?

I was in the woods with my dad three years ago now and it was snowing and when it snows, it can absorb all the ambient noise. It’s quiet in a way that we almost never hear, and there was a real eeriness to it. I remember just feeling very vulnerable, looking over at the tree line and imagine being watched by someone beyond what I could see. I looked up ahead of my dad and his 40-year-old brown tattered coat and I imagined this guy patrolling the outskirts of his farm and started thinking about what he might be guarding against. By the time we got inside, I basically had the plot of the film, [though] at that point, Remy was a boy. And it was actually only when I decided Remy’s got to be a girl [I thought I had something] because if Remy is a boy, then it’s this sort of “Hamlet”-esque story of will he avenge a parent’s death or not? Whereas as a girl where there’s this potential for a future together that just was so much more interesting and kinetic.

That was the spark of the idea and when I told it to my wife, who’s my producing partner, and a few friends, [I heard] “Yeah, it’s really dark,” but it stuck with me. I was working on something else at the time, and initially, I thought this would be a short, but I decided to pursue it when I had the idea to set it on Mars because that really opened up all these aesthetic and thematic opportunities. Like for example on Mars today, the sunsets are blue in real life, and if you’ve seen the movie, Jerry goes into why that is, but it just seemed like a real opportunity to not only hint at [how] the world is basically dying around them, but also thematically, suddenly it made them refugees. These were people that were fleeing a place for whatever reason — and I purposefully didn’t want to go into too much about what happened — but I settled on this idea that I didn’t need to concoct this crazy backstory, just extrapolate out where we are today and if we don’t get our act together, we could find ourselves in a situation where we basically would have better options away. There was a poem that was blasted around social media during the refugee crisis in about 2015 in Europe, especially during the Syrian War, where it said you don’t leave your home unless your home is the mouth of a shark. That was something that really stuck with me as it did with millions of people and it felt like this is something that’s going to be an issue wherever we are.

I couldn’t help but think your time in Tanzania as part of an energy distribution startup contributed to the film’s ideas about sustainability, as well as perhaps the right location for this when you shot in Africa ultimately.

In terms of the environmental standpoint, I was raised by environmentalists and I took this job in Tanzania because at the EPA, it was very much administrative, which was fascinating, but very abstract and I wanted to get back to more of a foot soldier level, which is what I did when I worked on the Obama campaign. This is a long time ago now, but the environment is something I care a lot about as we all do and I don’t think it’s a political film really, but my wife made a very good point at some point when she said, “I know you didn’t try to write a political film, but you do have to appreciate you started writing this in the fall of 2016 after the U.S. presidential election and you’ve somehow written a movie about climate change, the resulting mass displacement of people and sexual power dynamics.” Point taken. [laughs] But the power of working within genre is that you actually can do an end run around people’s biases basically by changing the characters and the places, and people are more open to engaging with the same kinds of issues we’re dealing with today, but they’re not coming at it with their own baggage from the get-go, so perhaps they’re more open to the idea as a result.

That’s what makes this so powerful and I wonder because of how you’re able to build a set that really can be fully functional for the world you’re trying to depict — where you really see the distance between characters and how they live inside this space — what was it like creating an environment that was conducive to the performances like that?

That was a really collaborative process with both Noam Piper, the production designer as well as Willie Nel, the cinematographer. I always wanted to shoot it on location because I just think you get better performances out of people, it gets them in the mindset and morale tends to be better because people really become a family. We were seven hours from the nearest city, and it’s great when you’re in a place that there’s not a lot around there you can do other than shoot a movie, and they all really showed up and quite literally hit their marks. It was a very, very tight shoot under very difficult circumstances. We had one day where it was 125 degrees or something and our actress got heatstroke and then her double got heatstroke, so my wife is actually in the movie, she’s dirty in the frame on one and then sitting on a hill in a super-wide shot. [laughs]

All of them gritted their teeth and really pushed through and hung out around set set when they weren’t shooting, which was actually really helpful. and I think they all really leaned into the difficulties of the circumstances and tried to channel that into their performances. The villain of the movie in my view is how isolated they are and that’s what forces them to consider these choices they wouldn’t consider in a million years. All of them have to figure out their own way of making sense of their decisions, and that all extends from how vulnerable they are and how difficult their life is. When you’re just trying to survive, things that you would never contemplated suddenly become options and actually that is something that I took from my time in Tanzania. It wasn’t uncommon for men to have multiple wives and I remember thinking if you’re a 20-year-old woman, why would you want to be a third wife of a 60-year-old man? But the answer as I got to know them was that he probably was able to provide certain amenities that they just otherwise wouldn’t have had and when you’re worried about security, I remember where we lived, the power or the water didn’t always work and you quickly realize that there’s a hierarchy of need.

For whatever hardships [the actors] faced within the environment, I think they really drew on those to bring that necessary intensity and to make it feel like things are not going well. I know Jonny [Lee Miller] grew a beard and lost weight — not that he had much weight to lose to begin with — he was committed, and being able to build a 360 degree set was great for the actors to feel immersed. It was a really harsh environment. We were contending with heat that got into the 120s. We had sandstorms and lightning storms in a place where it’s not supposed to rain. And these all hands on deck moments on the set, but we all came together on those challenges.

It looked like you’ve given the blueprint for future Mars settlers – what was it like to design?

Noam and I from really early on focused in on this idea that they’re very modular, that these are effectively like a franchise model where you get your home and your lab and your greenhouse and your pigpen and you have all the building blocks you need to basically set up a homestead and start terraforming everything under the dome. The idea [was] that this was one of thousands around the planet, so everything needed to feel [like] it could be transported and placed there or it could be 3D printed. Also, what was really helpful was working in South Africa, which has a very good crew base where the budget can go farther there, we were able to build a much bigger set there than anywhere else and Noam had the foresight to build everything a little bit bigger than it probably would be in real life [which] not only gave us more room to maneuver, but just gave the whole thing a greater sense of scale and depth.

Once you cast it, did anything change your ideas about who these characters were?

Specific to the casting, we were very, very fortunate to be able to attract the actors that we did. Brooklynn [Prince] was the first one to sign on and with each actor that expressed interest, you write a character and then you hope that someone is going to come along and bring so much more and with each of the actors, that was completely true. They each have a different way of going about it. Sofia [Boutella] thinks like a director. She is so methodical and specific about wondering why a character does this and [asking] why is that that prop or that set dressing [there]? And sometimes I’d be like, “You’re right. Let’s get rid of that,” because I wouldn’t have a good answer. Whereas others like Ishmael [Cruz Cordova] has almost the opposite [approach], which is very freeform [where] he’ll just run and give three or four very different takes without cutting. That’s how he likes to work and I was very happy to accommodate each of their styles and learn from them [because] I think your job as a director, especially if you’re a writer too, is just holding onto the the spark of the idea, making sure that you are staying true to what you liked about this in the first place, but also giving the actors and the crew whatever freedom to really make it their own. When you get to work with actors that are just that good, it’s really more about making small tweaks to make sure that everything’s fitting in, but still very much a process of discovery because they’re going to bring so many great ideas and options to the table.

You must’ve brought Nitin Sawhney on early to compose the music since he wrote a song for Sofia Boutella to sing in the film. What was it like getting him involved?

He came on very early and it was this pinch me moment when we heard he was interested. It turns out he’s a big fan of sci-fi and we’re big fans of his music going back, so we just really hit it off and I think I played him maybe one reference in my very long list of song references and we talked about it for a few minutes — this was months before we shot and he was like, “Okay, I think we’re on the same page.” Then just sitting at his studio, he was able to pump out three minutes of score in as much time. [laughs] And what was so great about that is we could then iterate and really try different things. That really allows you to go into what can the music bring to this scene that’s not there or that can really be heightened by it? That was a real process of discovery that we went through together, and to be able to work with someone of that kind of talent was one of the more fun things about the entire process, being in the studio and just watching him work.

What’s it like now having your first feature under your belt?

It’s been great. We shot it in the fall of 2019 and we had actually just locked picture when COVID struck, so we were able to extend out the post-production process at the request of our post house, which probably made the movie better because we had the time to tweak things and get them right, but this has been a long process and it’s just so great to finally be able to show it to people and it’s been really gratifying to see how they respond. Right now, we’re all in this nostalgic moment remembering back to almost two years ago when we were shooting this thing and I feel very proud of what we accomplished. I’m just so thrilled people are finally able to see it and I’m excited for what comes next.

“Settlers” opens on July 23rd in select theaters, including New York at the IFC Center and Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale and Monica Film Center, and on demand.