Set on an evolving Martian frontier in an unknown future, sci-fi drama Settlers centres around a family’s battle for survival. As parents Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) try to build a life for their daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince), their home is threatened by mysterious stranger Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova) who is looking for answers. I took the opportunity to sit down with the writer and director Wyatt Rockefeller to chat about his striking debut…
You’ve had quite the journey to finally making your first feature, after lots of shorts, commercials, and docs and a break for politics too. What was it about Settlers that made you take the plunge?
Well, when I first had the idea for Settlers, I was actually working on another feature to come off the heels of one of my shorts. I had the spark of an idea and then it all came really quickly. It hit me at a gut level which is a good sign! I mentioned it to a few producers including my wife who’s actually one of the producers on this, and the story really told itself. Within 15 minutes, I had the plot in my head right up until Jerry puts the gun on the table.
I then shelved the film for a while because I was working on something else so it was only when I thought about setting it on a changing Mars that I thought it could be a feature. It opened up a lot of visual opportunities. As discussed in the film, the sunsets are getting bluer on Mars. This came from us finding out that sunsets on Mars today are blue! If you were to Google ‘Martian sunset’, you can see images the rovers have taken of it. The idea is that it’s now collapsing and regressing back to the dead planet that we know. It’s reverting back to this colder bluer state. That was really appealing and thematically it opened up opportunities. Suddenly, these folks were effectively refugees from Earth, which begs the question ‘What’s gone wrong there?’. There was more to sink your teeth into.
The visuals you created reminded me of Mad Max and Blade Runner 2049 with the dusty landscapes, and I’ve read others compare the film to The Martian. What were your influences and are there any specific films or filmmakers that you drew upon in the aesthetic and atmosphere you crafted?
I actually was really thinking about westerns. There are specific references to the earlier, John Ford era westerns, but also the later stage Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah era, which I just love.
I think of Settlers as a Western, first and foremost, because it is about people struggling to survive on the fringes. Going back to this thought of ‘what if it were on Mars?’ and how that opened up opportunities. I think westerns are inherently immigrant stories. They’re about people trying to build a new life in an often hostile place.
In terms of writing the script, there wasn’t a lot of exposition or explanation of the where, why, and when of the story and the world it takes place in. Was it a very conscious decision to drip-feed the backstory to the viewer and to have a less is more approach to upkeep the mystery elements?
Very conscious, yes. It was something I agonised over throughout the writing process and in pre-production, and certainly in the edit as well. There were things we actually cut out that were more expositional and as the writer of this as well, I was so worried about whether people would understand what’s going on. But, at the same time, you’d never want to have to rely on exposition, you always want to somehow try to work it into the emotions. I think film is ultimately an emotional medium, right? Audiences just don’t even see something unless they feel it.
How has your filmmaking process been impacted by the current climate?
So we were fortunate enough to actually shoot this in the fall of 2019 and actually finished just around the time that COVID descended in March of 2020. And so, how it affected us is that we had an extended post-production schedule. The work on the colour and the lighting, the sound and especially the VFX was stretched out and, frankly, worked in our favour because we just had more time to really tweak things. It’s meant that we’ve sat on this longer than expected but I think the film is probably better for it.
Hopefully, as you’re releasing it now, the film will get an audience on the big screen as well as being available for people to download at home.
Yeah, yeah. Every movie is probably better on the big screen but with this film’s landscapes I think, if you can, definitely try to see it on the big screen!
For a first-time feature, you’ve pulled together an amazing cast. What was it like directing the actresses that play Remmy in particular?
I think with both of them, and all the actors, I really learned a lot. As you say, this was my first feature, so they all definitely rolled the dice with me and took a chance. With Brooklyn, she is mature beyond her years, I suppose as a kid sometimes has to be. It wasn’t my first time working with a kid, but her method is that she convinces herself of what’s going on. It’s like she believes it so she’s not acting, and she is a powerhouse. She’s a star, what can I say.
It was the same with Nell who has, I think, a pretty tough job, taking the movie from Brooklynn.
It reminded me of the movie Lion where Dev Patel takes on the leading role about two thirds in from the little boy Sunny Pawar. It can’t have been easy. I’m a fan of Nell Tiger Free because of The Servant and thought she took on the role brilliantly.
I think Nell does a very convincing job as the older version of Remmy, and I do think that they both recognise this inherent strength and determination within the character despite the things that they have to go through. Similarly, Nell has this capacity to really put herself there in the reality of the situation, and she has to go through a pretty serious ordeal. Her response to that actually informed some of the decisions we made in the film that weren’t in the movie originally. We changed the script as a result and had the trust in her to do that.
Bizarrely, one of the most interesting character relationships in the film was between Remmy and Steve the Robot. I thought his personification was really well captured. Was this a challenge to pull off without the budget of the likes of Star Wars and the sci-fi juggernauts?
Steve is basically a mix of VFX and puppetry. That is partly a budget consideration because, you know, the effects cost a lot of money. We had a budget for some, but we really needed to be incredibly exacting about where to deploy it. So basically, when you have more elaborate movements, that’s the effects, and the close-ups and whatnot is a puppet.
During the design process, my main direction was that the design has to come from the function. Let’s really nail down exactly what Steve was built to do. We wanted to work out his place within this homesteader package that they’ve got and build from there. He actually started much more like the Mars rovers that are there now I was thinking like a smaller, mass-produced version of that. One of the ways that changed as we got into the design process was recognising that if he’s there to help this world and make it green by cultivating the plant life that would emerge, he’s got to be able to tread carefully, and therefore, rather than having treads or wheels, he really needed legs.
Being from Edinburgh myself, I know Jonny Lee Miller best for his iconic portrayals of Sick Boy in the Trainspotting films. I know he has great range from his other roles, but Reza in Settlers couldn’t be more different to Sick Boy in that he’s strong, brave, and loyal. How did you come about casting him?
First of all, I do like casting against type to an extent. But also, Jonny’s got real range, you know, and has played a variety of parts. Even though I mean, like you said, it’s hard to dissociate him with Trainspotting as it’s such a big movie in our culture. Frankly, if Jonny Lee Miller expresses interest in being in the movie, you’re not going to say no. I think we’re just very lucky to have him.
I always thought of Reza as a leader of men, and Jonny does bring that kind of gravitas to the character. I think the beard helps too; I think he looks really good. There’s an intensity to him that I think really comes through in this character. I learned a lot from him, and he was also really fun to work with.
What’s next for you? Do you have the bug now for feature filmmaking and if so, do you have any projects in the pipeline?
I’m actually working right now on a script about the man who killed Rasputin. His name was Prince Felix Yusupov. It’s set during the night of the murder when Felix brings Rasputin back to his family’s palace with an eye to poisoning him, but as Rasputin imbibe the poisoning and nothing seems to be happening, Felix resorts to increasingly brutal measures to kill this guy.
What’s interesting about this is for me is that it’s set during the blood red twilight of this empire that is sort of crumbling under its own decadence. Also, at the same time, I’d say even more importantly for me, it’s really the story of this guy who was at war with himself, who was trying to cut out this part of himself that he’s come to see as abhorrent…and he just can’t do it. He just won’t die. I’ve become quite fascinated by it and can hopefully crack the script soon.
You can watch Settlers in cinemas and on digital from 30th July