In an effort to give us just enough details of the plot with giving things away, as we find a lot of the cast and crew do their best to avoid, John details us the plot from his perspective.
“Toby plays a character called Vincent McCarthy who’s daughter has got something called Rett syndrome, which is on the Autistic spectrum.” John continues, getting down to the nitty gritty of the narrative, “So as a genius scientist he devotes his life to try to fix this problem with his daughter, fixing neural connections in her head. He has varying degrees of success with it, and that’s where we cut into the movie. He’s doing another test on one of these soldiers, and these things aren’t working properly, for some reason they completely imbalance the people they put them in and the soldier in the beginning tries to kill him. He almost gives up on his research until he meets Ava, Caity Lotz’s character, and Caity or Ava has been developing her own strand of AI, and together when they merge their findings they come up with something quite special. And actually The Machine passes the Turing test, which is the test to see if something is human or not or how close to human it is. They can’t catch it out for the first time, it’s the first time they failed to do that to a machine. So they take it a step on and put this machine, this brain, into a body.”
We get a tour of the warehouse, a large unit with wide corridors full of lines on the floor, buggies and wires, it feels like they are manufacturing the film in each window we look in, with sets everywhere we turn, yet the focus for the day is closer to the entrance of the warehouse, which we find is a large chained up camp complete with automatic doors, a large tented area full of bunk-beds and actors in yellow jumpsuits sitting and standing within the confines of the camp. it feels like the room goes on forever, as dust and smoke and atmosphere mostly block out the bright lights on the far ceiling, flood lights for the compound. We find director Caradog James here, sorting out set-ups for the afternoon and giving us just enough time to discuss the film, and how he’s dealing with making what is essentially a very intricate and detailed science fiction story something for a mass audience as well.
“Every third scene someone punches someone or shoots someone up. No, the idea is obviously films are made for an audience and I don’t want to see this become an intellectual exercise, the whole thing is to engage the emotions of the audience and to make this as thrilling and exciting and romantic and emotional as I can. It’s that balance, that high-wire act, trying to make something that’s not disposable but at the same time, I see this film hopefully as something that will cross over.”
We see them shoot for a while, with Toby Stephens walking through gates with a few crates, giving Sam Hazeldine some looks that suggest this isn’t the first act, followed by a few set-ups of Toby talking at Sam with the chained fence between them, yet the dialogue seems inconsequential to the scene, and the visuals feel key. When we bring the lack of dialogue up thus far to Caradog he replies “I’m trying to strip it out wherever possible, because cinema is all about images and looks, and part of the edit will be stripping out unnecessary dialogue.”
We catch Sam back in the mess after that part of the shoot, and where once he had his hands behind his back, now his arms are out, and he seems to embrace being able to let blood flow down his limbs. “I’ve lost my arms before the film begins, there have been things I’ve tried before, but they’ve all been rubbish. There’s been no sensitivty there, so at this point, the moment you’ve seen in the film, they give me these arms which are incredible, and they are incredibly sensitive and powerful. I’m aware of the power they have, it’s actually quite dangerous but I’ve ingratiated myself with Thompson, the boss, and he likes hearing my old war stories. So I’m the one they try these things out on, and I hate them and have to keep my mouth shut and pretend to be charming. When Caity’s character comes along, I see her as being this new person who isn’t part of the poison of the MoD, I see her as a possible way of getting out. I try to get her to help.”
After all this talk of Ava, The Machine and Caity Lotz, the actress makes an appearance before the huddle of journalists in the mess, about the same time as an absolutely giant dog, the kind of dog you’d imagine would cuddle up to your feet on a cold night, walks across. Apparently the dog will be used in the shoot as a vicious guard dog, but at this point in time the only aggressive thing about him is the speed with which the entire populace of the room surround the dog to pet him. Not to be upstaged, Caity sits down looking as down to Earth as she can, which appears to be stunning despite the fact that it’s the middle of a shoot day in Wales.
“I think I’ve come here before when I was on tour with Avril, but I can’t remember. When you’re in a different city every day and only for a day, it feels like my first trip. Wales is beautiful.” she notes as we discuss her dancing work with stars like Avril Lavigne, and her turn into acting, and eventually The Machine, where Caity plays dual roles of scientist Ava and The Machine, a sentient human-like robot.
“The robot, well, she’s a machine, not a robot technically, but I love playing her. It’s really fun. Ava’s great too, she’s a cool chick. Very fiery and passionate, but The Machine is so different. It’s always really fun for an actor to do real character work. With Ava I still feel like me, with The Machine it’s almost like you have a mask on, and then you feel more free because it’s so different from you.”
We discuss further The Machine’s performance, and how she’s handling playing something so seemingly innocent and childlike, “She’s actually extremely difficult because, when you watch the film, she goes through all these stages of growing up from being a baby to being a young child to a teenager and her maturity level, which is really hard because in each scene I had to figure out where she was at this point, and her reactions are determined by her maturity level at that point. So sometimes she’s more bratty and there’s times where he’s like ‘you can’t do that’ and she says ‘Why? Why? Why?’ like kids that age do, and as she gets older, it’s more mature and she understands things more.”
As Caity leaves to shoot another scene, and the dog takes a walk outside, with one assumes his owner rather than all alone, recklessly, actress Poonah Hajimohammadi steps in, with jet black slicked forward hair, shaved on one side of her head. A startling image, and certainly something that inspires the conversation. “The first make-up we did it didn’t work very well for my character, she looked too pretty and too fragile, and I did want her to be fragile but I wanted her to be very strong and different from other roles I play. I discussed it with Caradog and Jenna [Wrage -Make-Up] and I went to a hairdresser 2 days before shooting. I discussed it with him, and we came up with this hair, and they shaved my hair. I was really shy in the beginning when I came out and people were staring at me.”
Poonah explains her character, who she says “No one in the film talks about her, she’s a black shadow in the background everywhere, making sure everything is in the right order.” but there’s more to it than that, as Poonah details her part of the story, “I am a robot human, I have implants and am half human so that’s difficult to play because I didn’t want to go too robotic or too human, so she actually wanted to be the assistant so she can be in control of the human because she doesn’t want people, humans, to know about this kind. They are able to talk to each-other but she makes sure no-one knows about it, and any human robot who shows it to other humans, she kills them.”
As dinner rolls around for the cast and crew, courtesy of the awesomely titled Christopher Lee Catering, Denis Lawson sits down with us. He plays Thompson, the corporate executive in the film, who one of the journalists likens to his role in the TV series Jekyll. “That only occurred to me the other day that this character is not unlike that guy, it’ll be exactly the same performance obviously… No, but that kind of corporate villain, yes that’s true. Well spotted.” We ask if he likes being bad as an actor, “Yes, they are easier in a sense to play. And this particular villain also is very funny, too, I hope. He has a dark twist to his humour, and he is a very dark character in fact.”.
As the focal point of the visit seemed to be talking to star Toby Stephens, we gathered word from others about him, to spice up any potential articles. Director Caradog James took a fair approach to answering. “This film will change people’s opinions of Toby, I think he’s been typecast totally unfairly, he’s an incredibly gifted actor with a massive range and I think it’s one of those things, Bond made him a villain, and because he’s such a good actor he was a good villain so everyone thought he could just play a villain. I had that initial concern, but after I met him, he understood the character and this was one of the best decisions we’ve made in the casting process, he’s just fantastic.”
Similarly producer John Giwa-Amu had reservations first off, “I’d seen him in the Bond film Die Another Day so I wasn’t expecting the warmth that he came across with. After seeing him, it was like ‘wow, i think he’s the guy, it’s settled’ He just had an energy, that’s how he comes across, and he is just warm. That’s exactly what I had in my head, was that [a sneer]. He didn’t do that at all, he did something completely different.”
As we sat with Toby, who was far removed from any dark swirling vortexes of evil and ice palaces, we began by discussing the warehouse as a set, and the claustrophobic nature of the shoot. “The way it’s working out where it’s supposed to be happening in this sub-terranean place and that it is very claustrophobic, but the idea of this complex that’s disused, decommissioned, it’s very ad-hoc. It seems to be grounded in a physical world, it’s quite real, it’s not some sort of futuristic place where everything is pristine, clean, like in a lot of sci-fi movies where everything is immaculate white. This is more like it would be, slightly dusty, slightly ad-hoc, bits of old equipment and bits of very very new stuff.”
Toby mentions a few science fiction films as we talk, which begs the question does he like the genre? “I’m quite selective about what I like. I do like escapism, and I do like certain kinds of sci-fi, as I say the ones that I grew up with were 2001, Blade Runner, the original Alien. Unfortunately what happens, and what’s working in our favour, is when you’re working within the limits, you’re slightly constrained. Imaginatively you have to come out, you can’t just throw money at things, let’s just create everything for our audience. What I love about Alien is there’s a lot of what you didn’t see, there’s a lot left up to your imagination, it’s used very sparingly, and what was more interesting was the ship itself, the architecture, the design, which I thought was beautiful, the sets and the atmosphere.”
The elephant in the room is, of course, Toby’s lack of film work post-Die Another Day, and he’s more than happy to discuss what happened at that point in his career, “After Bond I can’t stick to doing one thing, that’s what they wanted me to do, I was offered various villains and I didn’t want to do that. I felt that would be career suicide, you’d just end up playing the same thing over and over again, so I went away and did other things. I’ve been doing a lot of other things to get back, because it’s such a huge impact, those movies, and once you’ve played that, that’s what you are in people’s heads. So it’s taken me about 10 years to get back to a point where I can do other films which are totally different and playing different parts from that. And people can see you as that, there’s a distance between that and now. It serves you as people say ‘oh yeah, it’s that guy’, but they’re not going ‘yeah, but he only plays villains’ which I think would have happened if I continued doing what I was doing.”
Briefly we discuss Caradog as a director, to which Toby is fervently in his camp. “He’s very sure about what he wants, how he wants to shoot it, I really like that. When you’re working with a director who knows what they want, rather than sometimes you go on set and they’re not quite sure how they want to shoot it or they do loads of coverage which you don’t need because they’re nervous about ‘oh shit, what if we get to the edit and I’m missing something’. Caradog knows, and within the time constraints that we’re under, it’s just brilliant. We don’t have to worry about all of that stuff, let him get on with that and we get on very well. He’s very good with me as an actor, I really relate to his notes, it’s easy to read what he want,s sometimes it can be very difficult to understand what a director wants you to do, but he’s very specific. I’m really enjoying it.”
Toby is asked about the possibility of robots replacing actors at some point, “I hope I’m not around when they do, that’s all. They do pretty much everything else.” And with that, we leave the warehouse as The Machine prepares to shoot into the evening, and possibly the night, to create what would become an award winning science fiction film that has played at festivals across the world.
THE MACHINE is in cinemas 21 March and DVD/VOD 31 March