Director Michael Pearce follows up his psychological thriller-horror Beast (2017), with the multi-tonal genre film Encounter (2021). Combining crime drama, thriller, science fiction, and the road movie, it tells the story of a former marine Malik (Riz Ahmed), on parole and suffering from PTSD, who claims to have classified information pertaining to an alien invasion. Kidnapping his two young sons to protect them from the impending invasion, the three of them set off for a place Malik claims they’ll be safe.
In conversation with PopMatters, Pearce talks about how he saw, in screenwriter Joe Barton’s script, instances from his own upbringing. He considers whether today’s film audiences are culturally disconnected from complex characterisation. Finally – and essential to this film – he ruminates on the slow progress made thus far in representing mental health issues onscreen.
Some novelists have talked about the intimidating “presence” of their first published novel and then feeling that they’re looking over their shoulder as they work on their second. Is it a similar feeling as a filmmaker, the achievement of scaling the mountain that then becomes a weight of expectation?
People say that it can be harder to make your second film than your first because there’s a certain amount of expectation. I know some talented directors that have made one film and have seldom made their second. I don’t know why.
A film is generally hard to get off the ground, and with your second film, there’s more expectation. You’re more ambitious because you’ve got to make a film that lives up to your début, but you have to turn the noise down on all of that. It’s not helpful.
I wanted to make something that had a sincere approach, similar to Beast. I was looking for a film that was a portrait of a complicated anti-hero. I’m interested in making films about characters that test an audience’s identification. Who do you fall in love with and who are you rooting for? The characters will behave in certain ways and make mistakes that will then test your engagement. This puts you in a place of jeopardy as an audience. You don’t know whether to retract your investment or to stick with the characters on their journey.
I love it when films make you feel insecure about whether you’re watching a hero, an anti-hero, or a villain. This was the approach I took with Beast and Encounter, which is part character-based and part elevated genre film. With Beast, it was somewhere between psychological thriller and psychological horror, and Encounter also plays with the crime film, sci-fi, and thriller genres. Encounter is a different genre, landscape, and character, but it has the same intention, using genre to do a deep dive into characters. I was trying to stay true to all of those intentions.
Maybe I would have felt more uncertain if I was doing something that was a genre exercise, or something that felt removed from my voice, but [the subject] was very close to me. I saw in the script instances of my own upbringing. So in some, it’s a more personal story than Beast. This gave me confidence that I could find my way through it.
The advice often given to writers is to write what you know, but there are different levels to this concept. Writing about what you know refers to emotion, tapping into familiar feelings and experiences. When you say Encounter is personal, we have to be cautious to not confuse it with being autobiographical.
It’s not autobiographical, in the sense that we didn’t go on a road trip across America’s western landscape with the FBI chasing us when I was a child, but I grew up with a younger brother and for much of my childhood with a single father. We had to navigate through a crisis as a family and we were the same age as the characters in the film. It wasn’t easy, but it brought us together in unexpected ways. How we got through that crisis was to show compassion for each other, and when I look back now, we were helping my dad get through a lot of that stuff, as much as he was helping us. This is what I honed in on, and I understood that dynamic.
I wanted to create a portrait of these three characters that all have the emotional nuances I knew well. They have these explosive arguments and tender reconciliations. The two kids are competing for their father’s attention and there are unexpected moments when the child becomes the parent in the relationship. I wanted to study the warmth, the connection, and the forgiveness.
There are many lines in the script that are taken verbatim from my childhood. The first time I read the script, I’d lived through many of these scenes. I confronted my dad in this way, I tried to protect my brother, and my dad tried to protect us in this way. The story isn’t literally autobiographical, but the characters’ relationships, their behaviour, and their compassion for each other I knew well.