Michael Pearce • Director of Encounter
“I wanted to explore that coming-of-age moment when you become a peer to your parent”
by Kaleem Aftab
- We talked to the British director about his film, which stars Riz Ahmed as a father determined to save his two sons from an alien invasion
The Californian-set Encounter [+see also:
interview: Michael Pearce
film profile] has had its European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, following its world premiere at Toronto. Mixing sci-fi with domestic drama, it stars Riz Ahmed as a father determined to save his two sons from an alien invasion. In order to do so, he must take the kids from his estranged wife.
Director Michael Pearce rose to prominence with his acclaimed first film set on the island of Jersey, the award-winning psychological thriller Beast [+see also:
interview: Michael Pearce
film profile], released in 2017. Pearce talked to Cineuropa about the inspirations for his new movie.
Cineuropa: What inspired Encounter?
Michael Pearce: It was a script that had been around for some time: it was on the Brit List in 2013 [when it was originally entitled Invasion]. When the director attached to it moved onto another project, I read it and immediately understood the family dynamic between this father and his two sons. I had a younger brother, and when we and our father were similar ages to the characters in the film, we encountered a crisis – or, rather, a series of crises. And the three of us had to navigate them together. I saw an opportunity to tell a personal story on a grand canvas.
What made you cast Riz Ahmed as an anti-hero?
I’m drawn to films that paint sympathetic portraits of anti-heroes – complex, conflicted and flawed people whom you can empathise with. Riz has an incredible range as an actor; there’s an undeniable warmth about him, but also an edge. He’s very playful and relatable, but he’s also laser-focused and driven. He is always looking for roles that stretch and challenge him, and he immediately saw an exciting opportunity to play a character he’d never explored before in a film that challenges the audiences’ identification with him. At different moments in the movie, you don’t know whether he’s the hero, the anti-hero or the potential villain.
The film is very different in tone and style from Beast. What drove you to change things up as a filmmaker?
I wanted to continue the same project as Beast – to make character portraits of complex anti-heroes within a genre story engine. I’m interested in how wounded people navigate highly pressurised situations. So, Encounter had the same intention as Beast, but featured different characters, themes and locales, and of course, I’m doing that because I want new challenges whilst continuing to explore my interest of studying human behaviour under extreme conditions.
It’s also an American road movie – how did you choose your locations?
We scouted in Utah and New Mexico before COVID-19 made both of them difficult. California was off the table initially because it can be so expensive, but when COVID made it the most production-friendly location, we were incredibly excited. It has such a range of landscapes and has that mythic grandeur we were looking for. We didn’t want the locations to be recognisable or “Instagramable”. We wanted environments that were raw, ravaged and otherworldly, and deep into the California deserts, you find an abundance of those.
The film shows the problems that men have when they lose patriarchal power. It’s remarkable that Encounter shows patriarchy through the story of a father and sons; is there a generational shift that you wanted to capture?
It comes back to my own upbringing. Because of what we experienced, my family never had a hierarchical structure or a sense of patriarchal authority. I wanted to explore that coming-of-age moment when you become a peer to your parent – when you realise your parent isn’t all-knowing or all-powerful. They’re a human being, and that means they’re vulnerable and fragile, and sometimes they need the help of their children.
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