Enlisting the cream of Hollywood’s young talent – Lily-Rose Depp (The King), Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk), Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One) and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Game of Thrones) amongst many others – writer-director Neil Burger blasted off his cast for a once-in-a-lifetime experience in his new sci-fi thriller, Voyagers.
With the future of the human race at stake, this crew of young men and women, bred for intelligence and obedience, embark on an expedition to colonise a distant planet. But when they uncover disturbing secrets about the mission, they defy their training and begin to explore their most primitive natures. As life on the ship descends into chaos, they’re consumed by fear, lust, and the insatiable hunger for power.
“It’s about human nature in a vacuum – who we are at our core,” Burger tells STACK. “And about a group of extraordinary young people waking up to sensual desires, to freedom, to power, and the thrilling euphoria that goes with that experience.”
A kind of Lord of the Flies in space, Burger spent months prepping his starkly visual set, all of the scenes taking place onboard a spacecraft bound for a new planet, even visiting Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory for inspiration.
“We were allowed to hang out with the engineers and see what they were working on, literally designing and manufacturing the rockets. It was impressive and so interesting to learn about next generation propulsion and space habitats,” says Burger, who longs to visit space. “It would be very powerful to have that perspective on your own life, seeing the Earth from that distance.”
Talking about his intriguing script, he says, “I didn’t write it to be a version of Lord of the Flies but once I got through a draft, I realised that some of the scenes were undeniable. At that point I could have either run away from that and removed all those Lord of the Flies connections, or I could lean into it. So, I decided to lean into it because I loved the book. I thought it was an important cultural reference for the movie,” explains Burger, no stranger to working with young casts having directed Divergent.
“I had the idea for this a while before I did Divergent so, in a way, that was probably one of the reasons I did that film because I was interested in the idea of young people in these crisis situations.”
His original idea for Voyagers was quite simple. “I built the story about young people confined on a spacecraft. Who are they and why are they there? And then I thought about these ideas of artificial insemination and if we want to get to this distant planet, who would be willing to go on this one-way trip? So, I thought of these young people as the first generation of a multi-generational journey to the unknown.”
As father to a 19 and 22-year-old, Burger looked no further than home to get inside the mindset.
“It’s a constant consultation with them and I learn so much from them and what they’re going through and how they evolve; what choices they make under certain kinds of pressure. It’s a case study in and of itself.”
On set, he describes himself as a “lenient father” to his cast. “I give them a long leash because I want to see what they’re going to come up with. I’m very specific about what the scene is, so I nudge them into place and then let them run.”
In the film’s earlier scenes, his task was much more difficult, as the young cast must appear emotionally stilted, almost autonomic.
“It was hard work to take that youthful vitality out of them,” says Burger, who had his cast do meditation sessions where they learned to become still and quieten their energy.
Launching his career directing commercials, Burger found himself in the employee of one of the pioneers of space exploration fantasy, Ridley Scott. The irony is not lost on him that today he is helming his own space thriller.
Unfortunately, he never got to discuss the genre with Scott. “I was working at the company he owned but Ridley was doing his own work, so he wasn’t around that often. Obviously, he is incredible and a massive influence,” says Burger, who went on to direct Limitless, The Illusionist and The Upside.
In casting father-of-two Colin Farrell as the sole adult on board, in the role as both mentor and scientist, he says, “Colin is a very compassionate but also an effusive and emotional person. He’s very generous and wants to connect with people. The cast certainly looked at him as a father figure and they wanted his wisdom and to talk to him about how he handles things.
“I think what Colin liked about his character is that Richard is a purely good person; an altruistic character who sacrifices himself for the wellbeing of these kids.”
Adds Farrell, “Richard is somebody who was always there to corral, guide, monitor, and care for those kids – from birth into young adulthood. I loved how contained Neil’s script was and that the story felt like a pressure cooker that was ready to explode. And when that happens, it’s really, really cool.”
As the spacecraft’s young crew suddenly discover their emotional and sexual selves, there’s an awkward moment involving Depp’s Sela and Whitehead’s Zac, Burger treading carefully around this important scene.
“They were both really game for it and understood what it was about. They were brave and fearless, willing to jump in and try stuff, but we choreographed that scene so they would be comfortable, understanding the need for this scene.”
For Depp, the role provided the opportunity to “explore naturalism in a very unnatural circumstance,” she says. “How do you portray that kind of numbed effect that Sela and the rest of the crew feel before their awakening? Sela is intent on pursuing her humanity, and to experience an authentic human connection.”
Still, the attention Sela receives from both Zac and Sheridan’s Christopher, initially leaves her a little lost. “Zac is really aggressive towards her, and then Christopher comes along, and it’s all kind of jarring for Sela,” she says. “But she quickly comes to understand that she and Zac are definitely not on the same wavelength. So, their two sides of this ‘triangle’ represent the good and dark sides of our nature, as well as the way she’s grappling with that.”
Zac and Christopher are close friends, at least at first. “They’re kindred spirits,” says Whitehead. “Zac and Christopher make a stunning find that gives them considerable power over most of the crew, and once Zac has that he’s never coming back. I really liked his confidence and how he grows more feral.”
The first among the young crew to sense that something is off about their life on the ship, Christopher is confused.
“At first, Christopher can’t quite define what’s troubling him about life on the ship, and so he acts out in a defiant and rebellious way,” says Burger. “He has an instinctive moral sense, a goodness, but he starts to abandon that and give into his selfish urges.”
Adds Sheridan, “Within the context of this big space adventure, the story is really about human nature. Neil has created a world that’s visually striking while providing an opportunity to really dig in and put a magnifying glass to each of the characters.”
Rounding out this talented cast is actor and LGBTQ activist Quintessa Swindell (Euphoria), Archie Madekwe (Midsommar), Chante Adams (Monsters and Men), Viveik Kalra (Blinded by the Light) and Madison Hu (Bad Words).
Burger has yet to make a film or even visit Australia, but it’s high up on his bucket list.
“My wife lived in Australia for about five years when she was a child and has a deep connection to the country, so we’re always looking for reasons to visit. Hopefully soon,” he says.
The pandemic has certainly been kind to him, writing three screenplays and today talking to us from Canada where he’s on set prepping to direct Daisy Ridley in thriller, The Marsh King’s Daughter.
“It couldn’t be any more different than Voyagers in that it takes place in current times, taking place in the wilderness. It’s a welcome change to reimagining space on a soundstage.”