Gavin Rothery is a concept artist/writer/director specializing in science fiction.
Originally an illustrator and comic artist, he’s been working in the games industry since 1996. Through graphic design and visual effects work, this led into advertising and then film. He was responsible for the co-creation and design of the 2009 movie Moon with director Duncan Jones. His first feature film writing and directing debut Archive, is available now on streaming platforms. We caught up with him at his home in England.
Where did you get the idea for Archive?
It was back in 2011 and I was having a I had a weird weekend. I was living in this quite small flat in north London and I was going through a big tidy up, so the whole place was a mess but I was committed to spending one of those kinds of life maintenance weekends to get things in order. And I had two PCs at the time, which was a real luxury for me, because when you do freelance work you are reliant on a computer and then at some point you have to upgrade it. And so, the idea is your old one sticks around for a bit and now you have two computers until the original one becomes obsolete. So, whenever I am in a ‘two computer period’ I always feel really good about the way my life is because it’s like, “Hey, I’ve got a backup machine for a change… Look at me! I’ve really got my shit locked down!’ (laughs) Then, I don’t know what happened, but I had some kind of critical failure, which must have been power related because both computers failed. They just stopped dead.
Now, I work with technology. I work with computers – I’m not the biggest techie guy in the world, but I have built PCs and can do this stud but for the life of me, I could not bring them back to life. I ended up with corrupted hard drives and had to get my data recovered professionally, which cost money which I would have rather not spent, but I had lost everything.
I think it really bugged me was because I was doing all the design and stuff on Moon, everything that was generated for that film pretty much came from me and I had it all on one hard drive and that was the only place existed. Right. And, you know, I was I really wanted that back. So that was horrible, and I was really sulking because it was a Sunday and I couldn’t do much about it in the moment and my house was a complete mess so it was really stressing me out. And I was so upset by this; that these machines had created such a big problem for me and it felt like spite – like these computers were trying to spite me. So, in my head, as I’m tidying up around the flat, your brain gets in a loop and you’re just like cycling things through, and I had this whole kind of vibe of spiteful machines wanting to die just to piss me off. So, I had that in my head and at that time I was looking for something that I might be able to get going as a project. So, I was actually looking for film ideas at the time. Just in my day to day thoughts I was writing everything down in my phone and I was just trying to come up with something that I thought would be worth doing. So, that idea of a computer wanting to kill itself really took hold in my mind, which quite quickly became the idea of somebody building a human equivalent A.I. and when he turned it on, it just wants to die. And that then became, well, there could be a story there, like why? What’s going on here? Why does it want to die? What is it about its situation that it comes to understand that makes it just not want to live? How do you go about stopping that? How does the guy keep it alive long enough even to just ask it why it wants to die? And I found that really compelling and that kind of dark, Philip K. Dick kind of vibe about it, and that really interested me. The other strand of that is generally in film making is that I’m always drawn to films that are about people really. I like sci-fi that’s about people, and some aspect of science fiction comes in to put some kind of a spin on the story about the people. This is stuff that always kind of gets me and I was trying to figure out my own approach to film making, and what I wanted to try and do.
So first and foremost, I’m a fan. One of my favorite kind of strains of cinema is South Korean cinema. I love some of the stuff that’s come out of there is just wonderful. The Handmaiden, has been my favourite film for the last three or four years now. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful story and super gripping. So as a fan, I like films that have stakes that I can buy into and a lot of sci fi doesn’t have that. So, you’ll have things like, “oh well, we’ve got to sort this problem out or humanity will be made extinct or the U.S. will explode”. I thought it would be more interesting to try and approach stakes that people could get some kind of a read on. So, I chose the themes of love and death with the thinking that they were the two big universals that touch us all in some way or another. We all have our experiences with love and death in life, whether they’re good experiences, bad experiences. We can’t help but go through life without those things touching us. So, putting those two things together very quickly became Archive basically. Those were like the core ingredients – it was me being super pissed off about this double hardware failure that really was bad and inconvenienced me a lot that led to the whole thing about the machine wanting to kill itself and then me in a more general sense, trying to get film together based around love, living, death, and putting all those together.
You are an illustrator, comic artist, writer and now director. Do you prefer one over the other? If you had to choose just one.
If I choose just one, it would be what I am doing now but the reason why I would choose that is it’s like a cheat answer – it combines all the other stuff. It’s like when we were doing Archive, I was doing the same work I did on Moon, plus a load more. On Moon, I did all the graphic design and the motion graphics on the monitors and all that stuff and I did all of that on Archive too. I was doing all the same stuff, but also actually properly writing and directing in my own right.
So, I’d say it’s what I’m doing now, I’d say it’s directing but that’s only because it encompasses all that other stuff.
How close is the final film to your original concept?
Because I’m an artist and constantly doing a concept type visualization, when I’m writing I pretty much know what I want things to look like. There might be a little bit of refining going on as we move along, but I know what I’ve got. One of the big things for me is if I’m ever trying to write something and I can’t see in my head, I know there’s a problem with it some way that’s some kind of a problem. I need to fix it because if I can’t see it in my head, I don’t know what is. The thing about Archive really that gratified me the most is that it’s the same thing. I got to the point where I went all the way through, spanning nine years and it’s what I was thinking of back in 2011. It’s just not changed. I think part of that really is because we were never going to have the budget to do anything crazy, so, I was deliberately using the same production approach I did on Moon of building one big set, and doing everything practically. So, all that stuff was locked in really early because it was the only way I was going to be able to get this film to screen.
Did you have anybody in mind for the lead when you were writing the script?
Yeah. Originally back in 2011, I thought it would be dead cool to work with George Clooney, which is where the name George came from. (laughs) Then when I met Theo I was just like, “oh, this is the dude”.
So how did Theo get involved?
My producer Phil had his feelers out and was talking to Theo’s agent at WME and
he got us together for a lunch with Theo whilst he was rehearsing a play. So, me and Phil went and met up with Theo and we just got on great. He totally, totally got it. He got what you were doing. We spent a bit of time hanging out and I watched some of his theater work, which was just… it really blew me away. With some of the films he had done before, you could tell that you had more in him. Theo has a lot of things going on. Smart guy, super handsome, super hilarious on his feet, really engaging… just the kind of person you want to collaborate with and I think his performance in the film was just amazing.
With films like 2001, Blade Runner and others really setting the standard for how we imagine sci-fi films, is it harder to do something original without having the same tropes or clichés?
Well there’s a couple of things to this. There are quite a lot of troops in Archive and what I was hoping to do was like, sort of take people a certain way and then do something else. In the same way that with Moon, when I designed GERTY, I very consciously put that kind of HAL, single light on the front of GERTY. The idea was that people would draw parallels with HAL and think “the robot’s going to get him”, and then whilst people are expecting that in the story, you can do something else with it, and hopefully I’ll feel fresh and satisfying and fun to watch. So that’s always my approach with this stuff and I was trying to do that with Archive as well.
I just find things like that to be more engaging personally. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s the kind of stuff I like and I feel like it’s the kind of stuff that I can do and hopefully just get better and keep working on. So as far as, like deploying tropes goes, I think they can be quite useful to mislead a little bit if you want to do that, to get some surprising in there, because when you see a trope, you think you know where something is going and it seems to be a good way to then do something else.
Something else you managed to do in the movie, which I thought was really effective was just how much you humanized the robots…
I think a lot of that actually comes from Theo. So, with the robots, when I was designing them, I wanted them to not really be able to emote much. They can talk, J1 can make noises and J2 can speak but they can’t actually give you a sad face. It’s something I was doing a little bit with GERTY in Moon, but it went a bit further with GERTY because we had the emoticons. I wanted to pare it back even more and just not have any of that stuff and see how far I could push it, and a lot of this stuff comes from Theo because I find it’s a kind of balance effect that happens. I felt confident that this would work because I saw it done in Castaway with Wilson. When he loses Wilson, it’s a big deal in the film and it’s just a volleyball. The power of that all comes from Tom Hanks and in Archive it all comes from Theo.