"This isn’t your typical dystopia..." - Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson talks making new YA drama The Darkest Minds...
Hollywood’s love affair with dystopia shows no signs of slowing down and we get another taste of it this week with The Darkest Minds.
An adaptation of Alexandra Bracken's hit YA novel, the film is set in a future after a plague has killed nearly all of America's children, the ones left acquire special abilities.
We follow 16-year-old Ruby Daly, one of the most powerful, who runs away from her government internment camp with other teenagers to form their own group, a group which quickly decides to lead a rebellion.
The Hunger Games' Amandla Stenberg leads the way as Ruby with Mandy Moore, Gwendoline Christie and Bradley Whitford starring alongside her. Jennifer Yuh Nelson, director of Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3, makes her first foray into live-action.
As the film arrives in cinemas, we spoke to Yuh Nelson about what had attracted her to this story and her journey from animations to live-action…
How did you first get involved in the project?
“I’d wanted to make the jump into live-action so I was reading a lot of scripts and this one really jumped out at me. It had a great emotional core, which the book it’s based on does too and that’s hard to find in the early drafts of a script so I wanted to do it and help bring these characters to live.”
Could you immediately see how you would bring the world to life on screen?
“It is a very different world, but it’s realised so well. The world is a new one, one we haven’t seen in a movie before. This isn’t your typical dystopia, the land is green and warm and it was a great opportunity to do something different.”
How did you find casting? Was it a difficult process?
“It was actually quite different. Once we had our Ruby in Amandla Stenberg, who I was delighted to find because she embodies so much of the character, she’s so strong and so emotionally intelligent, and we wanted all the characters to have chemistry with her. That’s a big part of the book and what fans love about them. We needed that from our actors, and, as the shoot went on, the leads all became really good friends. That doesn’t always happen!”
Which was the most difficult part to cast?
“Probably finding Harris Dickinson who plays Liam. He and Amandla needed to have great chemistry and we got lucky with him. He’s an amazing actor and a really good guy.”
How was it finding the locations for the movie? Is it easy to find empty roads and abandoned woods?
“We shot in Atlanta and there were a lot of great places to choose from. It’s basically five years in the future so we didn’t have to do a lot in times of setting up the landscape. It was more of a case of finding interesting places, I wanted colourful places, I did not want to make a grey movie.”
What about the military camps?
“That’s the dark part of the film. We found an old military supply depot for that. Even that is quite green, it was this gorgeously decrepit place.”
How involved in the movie was Alexandra Bracken?
“She was around a lot, that was important to me, I wanted her to feel good about the movie. Chad Hodge (screenwriter) is a friend of her’s and was desperate to do a good job. We spoke a lot and she was on set for all the big emotional scenes. When she saw the final film she wept a lot, she was having a good time…”
What was the hardest scene to shoot?
“The finale. That’s shooting at night, 300 extras, flamethrowers, wind machines and a lot of mosquitos and mud. We tried to do as much practically as we could and avoid soundstages, we spent most of the movie outside.”
What was that like for you coming from animation where you can tweak things endlessly? Did you enjoy the pressure of having to get things done?
“I loved it. Animation takes a lot longer and I loved the immediacy, working at breakneck speed, knowing you have to get it right then and there. I also loved seeing all the departments at work at the same time. Everyone is so good at their jobs!”
Finally, do you have your next project lined up?
“I’ve got a few things in development. I hope to do another live-action film, that’s still new and exciting, so I’d like to keep going…”