Julia Roberts disappeared for months to make blockbuster with Mahershala Ali and Ethan Hawke

Julia Roberts disappeared for 3 months to film blockbuster with Mahershala Ali and Ethan Hawke

Barack and Michelle Obama executive produced this unsettling apocalypse thriller.  

 

If society actually did begin to completely break down, you probably would never know exactly how or why. You’d be aware that something was wrong, but the specifics would get cloudy once phones stopped working, the internet was severed, and media networks turned to dead air. Ominous late-night electronic shrieks from the sky; explosions in the distance; planes and boats plowing into the ground, and animals flocking in eerie patterns would only hint at the chaos. A whisper network of survivors might convey contradictory rumors, but how would you know if any of it was true? That’s the unsettling premise of Leave the World Behind, the new Netflix thriller that compounds its terror through uncertainty.

The film is directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, who adapted the screenplay from the 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam. Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke play a New York couple who happen to take their two children on a woodland getaway to Long Island just as things fall apart, while Mahershala Ali is the owner of the property they’ve rented, who shows up in the middle of the night to seek refuge in his own home with his daughter (Bodies Bodies Bodies actor Myha’la Herrold). Can they survive together, or will they turn on one another as the situation gets desperate. Leave the World Behind is more interested in those questions than answering the mystery of what’s happening to the world at large.

“The disaster genre is one of my favorite genres, and the trick that we did in this film that differs from most disaster films is that in that genre, the focus—the priority of the storytelling—is on the set pieces,” Esmail says. “It’s on the spectacle of whatever the disaster might be for that story, and the characters were secondary to that. They’re more there to react and become the audience avatar. What I think Rumaan did so well in the novel, and what I tried to capture in the film is to invert that and make the focus be on the characters, and their reaction. The spectacle of the disaster is secondary and off in the distance.”

Esmail’s hope is that it brings authenticity to the troubles. “We’re grappling with ‘What does it mean?’ or ‘What is causing this? Is it going to hit me? Is it going to hit my family? And how are we going to protect ourselves from that?’” he says. “Having gone through the pandemic, and then the take-your-pick of any number of other disaster-related events like climate change, and the heat wave that we just experienced over the summer, it is the unknown—and the fear of it—that we try to capture in this film.”

 

While Leave the World Behind takes a more esoteric approach, Esmail is careful not to trash-talk traditional Hollywood disaster blockbusters. “I love these films. One of my favorites is The Day After Tomorrow, and I’m a little biased because my wife’s in it,” says Esmail, who is married to Emmy Rossum. “But they invariably always have some setup where they show a model on a computer screen of what’s going to happen to us in the end. So you know exactly what the end game is, and then you’re watching the story unfold, and these characters resisting that or fighting that off, or finding a way to save it. Whereas here, you don’t know the culmination, you don’t know where this goes. Even as the film ends, we’re left wondering, where are we going to go from here?”

Leave the World Behind opens in the United States on November 22 and elsewhere around the world two days later before making its Netflix debut on December 8. It is the first fictional movie executive produced by Barack Obama and Michelle Obama through their Higher Ground Productions company. Previously, the former president and first lady have focused their executive producing endeavors on children’s programs, documentaries, or historical dramas, including the upcoming Rustin, about the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. 

 

If there is a moral to Leave the World Behind, it’s that we will, at some point, face an overwhelming crisis, and we better be able to count on each other in some capacity. “And we shouldn’t wait around until the catastrophe happens—the work begins now.  I think [Obama] would say the same thing,” Esmail says. “Again, a trope of the disaster genre is that you’re set up with a few characters who are divided and then they come together and defeat or overcome or get through what’s occurring. But that is just not true to real life. So the work begins now. It’s not really a message film, it’s more of a reflection on where we’re at as a society. But if there is a message, it’s a warning.”

President Obama put Alam’s novel on his 2021 summer reading list, and would offer Esmail thoughts on the screenplay. The filmmaker essentially had access to one of the world’s most seasoned experts on managing a crisis. “In the original drafts of the script, I definitely pushed things a lot farther than they were in the film, and President Obama, having the experience he does have, was able to ground me a little bit on how things might unfold in reality,” Esmail says. “I am writing what I think is fiction, for the most part, I’m trying to keep it as true to life as possible, but I’m exaggerating and dramatizing. And to hear an ex-president say you’re off by a few details…I thought I was off by a lot! The fact that he said that scared the fuck out of me.”

The filmmaker was more reassured when the Obamas suggested some of his potential plot points were too bleak or unlikely. Most of the former commander in chief’s notes, however, stemmed from what he’d observed about human nature, particularly the way fissures form between people who might otherwise find common cause. “He had a lot notes about the characters and the empathy we would have for them,” Esmail says. “I have to say he is a big movie lover, and he wasn’t just giving notes about things that were from his background. He was giving notes as a fan of the book, and he wanted to see a really good film.” 

Esmail’s next step was assembling a cast to go through the travails of Leave the World Behind. He had previously collaborated with Roberts on the shows Homecoming and Gaslit and wanted to see her as Amanda, someone whose suspicions harden her heart during the unspecified catastrophe. “I immediately saw Julia in the role, and in a role that she doesn’t typically do,” he said. “It sort of takes her America’s Sweetheart persona and flips it on its ear…. I sent her the book, and I think she read it in one day. She called me and she said, ‘I’m in…’” Roberts also served as a producer on the film.

Ali’s character of G.H. is a contrast to Amanda—someone who trusts in the decency of strangers. (Or so he says.) “There’s these action-hero types that I didn’t want,” Esmail says. “I thought of G.H. as the Hitchcockian archetype, the Cary Grants and the Jimmy Stewarts, the sort of everyman who is smart and capable and always half a step ahead. They’re not five steps ahead, they’re not superheroes, but they’re clever and they’re always sizing the situation up. Mahershala has that quality. He’s magnetic in the way that those Hitchcockian heroes tend to be. But he is also deeply smart and has an authenticity about them where you just buy what he’s saying because it feels genuine.”

 

His character’s daughter, Ruth, is more of a steamroller. While G.H. wants to reason with his renters, and work together to survive, she doesn’t see why they should honor an Airbnb contract that has surely been voided by the end of the world. “When I was trying to cast Ruth, I wanted the opposite of G.H., and I wanted to see where she felt more entitled: This is their home,” Esmail says. “She’s more brash and upfront about letting the visitors know that. I think she lets them know it about three times and in the span of 10 minutes. And that’s a very specific energy to pull off, without coming across to bratty. You can see her point of view.”

A connection with his wife, Emmy, led Esmail to Herrold. “She directed an episode of Modern Love and cast Myha’la in a small part. I don’t think I had ever seen her before that,” he syas. “She didn’t have a big part in that episode, but she had a quality that caught your attention. Then when I saw her in Industry, she exactly had that combination Gen Z brashness that can come off as entitled, but at the same time an accessibility.”

Esmail had never worked with Hawke before, but found memories of his overthinking romantic in the Before Sunrise movies led him to cast the actor as Roberts’s affable but somewhat ineffective husband. “That’s probably my favorite franchise, honestly, in all of movie history because I think each movie is so perfect. What he brought to those films, and really what he brings to every role, is this lack of self-consciousness,” Esmail says. “The character just who he is, and he’s not going to think about it too much. It’s kind of the opposite of G.H., where he is trying to discern and read the room and navigate things. Clay just blurts, which he does when he’s vulnerable, when he’s scared. He does it when he is hiding something, he does it when he is trying to insist on something.”

Last is an outsider named Danny, played by Kevin Bacon, a construction worker, conspiracy theorist, and doomsday-prepper whom the families reach out to for help. “Kevin and I talked a lot about that because there is the stereotype, but what he wants is the same thing that our characters want: to protect his family. And he sees these people as a threat. It’s really as simple as that,” Esmail says. “We did not get into the politics of Danny. Is he for the Second Amendment or not? None of that mattered in that scene, and none of that really mattered through his eyes…. People come into that scene with their own biases about who that guy is. We really wanted to make that scene a human moment.”

For Roberts and Hawke’s son and daughter, Esmail chose 17-year-old Farrah Mackenzie (United States of Al) and Charlie Evans (Everything’s Gonna Be Okay). “The way it’s written in the book and the way I wrote it in the script as well, I always pictured someone a little oafish and brutish, kind of a jock,” Esmail says. “That was the directive I gave to my casting directors. They wisely ignored my directive and found Charlie, who’s kind of the opposite to that guy, who’s actually so smart that he doesn’t want to learn anything new. He ignores people who are trying to give him more information or trying to educate him because he thinks he’s too smart for it, including his sister.”

Mackenzie’s character, who is obsessed with finding a way to stream the final episodes of the sitcom Friends, is a low-key observer. “These two kids are not dumb-dumbs,” Esmail says. “Farrah’s wise beyond her years, which came across so easily and effortlessly.”

As things go from bad to worse to unthinkable in Leave the World Behind, the horrors of what may be happening elsewhere around the globe are left up to the imagination. There are plenty of horrors to contend with inside the house they are uncomfortably sharing.

“All four of them just brought another dimension to how to react to a crisis that just clashed and then overlapped in beautiful ways,” Esmail says. “To me, that’s the special effect of the film, watching those A-listers just go at it. That’s more exciting than any CGI disaster set piece.”

This piece has been updated.

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