Foe Director Garth Davis Shares the Secret to Adapting an Abstract Sci-Fi Novel
“We had to shift the point of view.”
Foe is a unique story. In Iain Reid’s original novel, readers are dropped into the lives of Hen and Junior, a couple living on a remote farm in the near future. But their marriage is threatened by a stranger who announces that Junior has been selected to travel to an orbital space station. To keep Hen company while Junior is on his two-year assignment, the aerospace corporation the stranger works for will create a biomechanical duplicate of Junior, right down to his personality and memories. Readers of Foe will notice a structural quirk: only some characters get quotation marks with their dialogue. It’s a clever narrative trick the author uses to reveal a jaw-dropping twist.
But in Garth Davis’ feature adaptation of Foe, the filmmaker had to figure out a different way to lay out this twist. Davis, who co-wrote the script with Reid, solved the problem by shifting the story’s point of view.
“Even though the book was written through Junior’s point of view, we felt it was Hen’s story,” Davis tells Inverse. In the novel, “you can go back and forth, but in a film that’s more complicated. We had to shift the point of view.”
So Davis widened the scope — literally. Hen (Saoirse Ronan), Junior (Paul Mescal), and the mysterious stranger Terrance (Aaron Pierre) are still the center of the story, but Davis and Reid give their near-future world a little more detail. The Earth is barren and humanity is starting to look to space travel for salvation, but Hen and Junior are stuck in place.
Inverse chatted with Davis about the environmental metaphors he added to Foe, working with Ronan and Mescal, and what he makes of that elusive ending. Spoiler alert for the end of Foe!
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What drew you to adapting and directing Foe?
There were a lot of reasons, but the passion came from the central relationship. What Hen represented in that relationship for me, I really connected with her struggle to live her life and to counter the forces that go against that. I found a kindred spirit in Hen, and I could see the greater metaphors playing out to the jeopardy we’re in with the environment. And the sleepiness of society as a whole, as we kind of sleepwalk into what is being brought up to us constantly. I saw this story as an awakening, in many ways.
An awakening of what, exactly?
Awakening of our consciousness and being reminded of who we are and that life is short. We need to find our agency and our purpose in our lives, and we need to be kind to each other, because if we don’t, if we take that stuff for granted, we’re going to pay the price, we’re going to lose it. The planet is foreshadowing that. And we’re one and the same thing. We are nature as well. We’re completely connected. So, as a human being, I’m concerned that a lot of people have lost a sense of who they are and a sense of community. And we’re losing the planet at the same time. So this is a movie that just brings it right back to something simple and very powerful.
There are so many environmental sci-fi movies and shows being released because we’re seeing the effects of climate change as we speak. How does Foe set itself apart from the other cautionary tales?
First of all, I think Foe just feels way more imminent and real than other sci-fi movies. It feels like half the stuff was coming true while we were making the movie. So I feel like Foe is a very realistic portrayal of where we could be going. And I think it’s very imminent. I think that’s interesting, but it’s not a movie about environmental catastrophe. In a way, the environment is a way to fuel Hen’s urgency to not waste her life. And when Junior asks, “Are you afraid of dying?” She says, “Only of not being ready.” And by that she means, “I don’t want to go before I’ve lived my life, or fulfilled all the things I yearn to do.”
The environmental pressure is something that also gives no excuse for Junior to hold onto something. The farm doesn’t work anymore. The environment, for me, was really just like a ticking clock in a way. And in terms of filmmaking, it’s a really beautiful device to use. It feels real. It feels like it’s representing where we are. The artificial intelligence as well, [represents] our responsibility and ethics in the choices we make.
You co-wrote the script with the original author of Foe, Iain Reid. What was it like collaborating with the author of the original material?
I know this is going to sound strange, but it was the most enjoyable process. There was never a disagreement. It was just such a healthy journey. What we realized is we have two very different skillsets, two different qualities. And when they come together, we did something we couldn’t do alone. We saw the potential of that and we felt that’s what the material needed. I think the high concept, philosophical meeting, the human, down-to-earth, grounded qualities came together in such a beautiful way.
It’s such an intimate three-character, mostly single-location, story. With such a small focus, what’s your priority as a director? What do you want to convey to your audience when making a movie like this?
When I’m inside the house, the characters are my landscape. They’re my action movie. So all the subtleties, the lies, the deceit, the strangeness, are the very things that keep the viewers watching. That was a really beautiful challenge, to do that in such a simple, restrained way. This is an antidote to typical ways we try to entertain people because I want people to go into a different part of themselves. I didn’t take it for granted. I knew that was a challenge, but the story had so many secrets, and lies that it just allowed this super electric subtlety moving around with the gazes, the performances, the hot-and-cold nature of the characters. All of that I thought was just a really great challenge and just something that I personally as an artist really love to watch.
With the film happening so much within the subtle nuances and expressions of the characters, of course you have to have a talented cast. Were Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal your first choices for Hen and Junior?
Yes. I had to cast Hen first, because for me she’s the spiritual totem of the movie. I was just so lucky and honored to have Saoirse connect with the material. I waited around nine months for her to be available, so I was very passionate about her. And then once we cast Saoirse, I work very much emotionally and with a sense of alchemy in terms of how the chemistry is going to work on screen. So I did meet Paul Mescal and he just seemed to have such a beautiful take on the material and really, really understood Junior. He was a bit fascinated by sentience, and all of these things.
They both come from Ireland, which was not intentional at all, but actually it was a fantastic thing because then our characters would’ve married straight out of high school, walked about the same area. So it just felt so perfect. And then Aaron Pierre I met later, he was the final piece of the puzzle.
The original novel is such an internal story whose plot twists unfold through language and structure. What was your biggest challenge in adapting it to a visual medium?
Even though the book was written through Junior’s point of view, we felt it was Hen’s story. So we wanted to honor Hen in terms of the telling of the film. And obviously the book was just so internalized. That’s what novels do, you can go back and forth, but in a film that’s more complicated. We had to shift the point of view. Well, the point of view shifts a couple of times in the film, so we tried to bring it more into a mystery and try and uncover those things that the book had in a more cinematic way.
Let’s talk about the ending. Obviously you can’t deliver the story’s twist in the same way as the book, and the bugs end up becoming that indicator of the reality of the identities of the human substitutes. So why the bugs? What do they represent to you?
To me? What do they represent to you? I guess the bug is something for everyone’s interpretation. I don’t know if I want to express what it means to me. I don’t think I’m going to answer that. I want to leave that one a mystery for everybody. But it is a totem. It is an object for people to reflect their own meaning into at that point of the story. Also, it’s about our inner nature as well and how we decide to treat our inner nature. I think with Junior crushing the bug at the end, is he aware that she’s a replacement or not? There’s complexity in his choice, but almost crushing the bug is denying something that is precious and living in many ways. So there’s something in there... maybe inner nature, for me, is the bug.
Are the human substitutes’ affinity and softness towards the bugs an indication of their being more in touch with their humanity?
Absolutely. I think what’s fascinating about this is the AI version of Junior and Hen seem to be more alert to things that we’re blind to now. We see a bug, we just crush it. It’s just like an automatic thing. We forget to see what it actually is. It’s this miraculous living thing and we don’t see things anymore, in a way. There’s something very refreshing about how the AI see the world in a fresh way and reminds us this is how we started. We used to know how to see things and appreciate things. Eckhart Tolle talks about looking at the flower. Are you looking at the flower, or are you looking at the meaning of the flower? You’re looking at its beautiful detail. And there’s something about the AI and this pure consciousness within it that is, like you say, coming through in these moments.