Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
A private detective! A dame with a cloudy past! And a near-future set, neon nighttime world! These are the compelling components of writer-director Lisa Joy’s REMINISCENCE, a noir, sci-fi mystery starring Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton and Daniel Wu.
Joy, speaking from the virtual press event, explains that idea for the film was inspired by a trip home to visit family.
“In my grandfather and grandmother’s house there was a plaque announcing the name of the home as if it was this grand manor – a gold plaque that read, ‘Suki Lynn.’ When my grandfather passed away and I was going through his things, amongst his things, I found this really old photograph of this beautiful woman and on the back of it was labelled ‘Suki Lynn.’ He never mentioned her, or saw her, but something about her left such an impression that he named his house after her.”
This made her ponder deeply about the universality of this message she was receiving.
“It made me start thinking about memory and our lives, in general – and the moments that pass by, that don’t stay with us, but that meant something and changed us. And how nice it would be to go back to those moments and live that life and feel the way you felt when you experienced them.
Around the same time, I was pregnant with my first child and I finished writing REMINISCENCE after giving birth. I remember holding her in my arms. This delirium set in, rocking her back and forth and smelling her head, and I thought, ‘I wish I could bottle this. She’s not smell like this [forever]. I knew this was a magical moment. More meaningful than awards, or graduation, or fancy dates people memorialize. It’s the small moments that mean everything. It made me think how much of life is in those small moments and wouldn’t it be great to be able to revisit them.”
She also pulled from what she learned taking a science class long ago.
“When touching certain neurons during brain surgery, the patients would have really full memories of moments long thought forgotten.”
The trailer was released today and it’s a beauty. Take a look:
Joy introduced the trailer with her pitch.
“The world posits a Miami in the near future. The water has risen and there are walls to block off rising water from going too far inland. In that sunken city, where day has turned to night, because it’s so hot during the day, all of the daylight hours are for siesta and the city has become nocturnal. It’s a time after some strife in the country where there was a war and you find a very international community of people who are left within these borders disassociated from their past and trying to figure out what their future is.
Amongst those people, you find Nicholas Bannister, played by Hugh Jackman. He is a private investigator of the mind. During the war, they developed a technology for interrogating people, looking at their memories to see what they felt. This technology can help access lost memories and put you back in that moment where you can experience them fully.
Nick Bannister and Thandiwe Newton’s character, Watts, have this somewhat struggling business where they help people retrieve memories for cost. Until one day they get a new client, the mysterious Mae, played by Rebecca Ferguson, who has lost a set of keys and wants a nudge where they were. This nudge where Nick gives her memory starts a torrid and passionate love affair. At first, it’s this saccharine obsession, that disappears and leads Nick into a dark world where he tries to investigate what happened to her, who she was and what she really wanted.”
The Main Characters
Joy testifies there was only one person in her mind to play Nick Bannister – and that was Hugh Jackman.
“When I was writing it, I knew [this character] was him. I couldn’t imagine anyone else.”
Jackman was intrigued by this character-driven journey.
“My character is a fairly broken man at the beginning. His experiences in the war and as an interrogator has left him really quite disengaged and distrusting in the world. He has this company which is fading. In comes, Mae, who he wasn’t expecting. He’s memorized. He knows in his heart something bad has happened to her. He goes on this great odyssey and through the darkest places in the world of Miami.
He’s drawn because there’s the potential that she’s freeing him. He’s stuck and immediately he feels something for her. It’s an unusual thing for him. As soon as she’s gone, he knows something is wrong. He goes down to this dark path of the underworld and fed information that should make him doubt, but he’s sure in his gut is real. Is it the real person we’re seeing, or is it the projection of them. That’s his journey.”
When it came to finding her leading lady, Ferguson proved to be Joy’s number one choice.
“I knew I needed somebody who could do tragedy, who could seduce, but be vulnerable. Who could be witty and sing. It was like 5 characters in one and trying to cast 5 people. There was only one choice. I knew that she understood the themes I was trying to explore, about being a woman and the gaze of others can define us and the ways in which we try to define ourselves in our search for our voice and humanity. She understood this intuitively. She could bring incredible layers to it.”
Ferguson loved the multi-dimensionality of Mae and that she was able to upend the stereotypical portrait of a femme fatale.
“What drew me to this role was [this idea of] questioning your persona. The whole idea who we really are. What I am to others is not the same way I see myself and also not the way I’d like to be perceived as sometimes. We are seeing this character build through the eyes of every other character but herself. I found that challenges. It was unpredictable.
Yes, I was always supposed to play a femme fatale, but it was also for moments for a purpose. There’s strength to the femme fatale in certain circumstances for a cause later on that’s explained. It was fun to go into the realism in all of us. I sometimes get sick of getting asked, ‘what’s it like being a strong woman,’ It’s quite simple journalism. What is strong? What is strong is vulnerability and what we hide and the secrets. I got to play around with different versions of Mae. The question is which is the real one?”
Joy, who had known Newton from working with her on WESTWORLD, knew she wanted her to have a role in her feature film directorial debut.
“I knew I needed someone who could encapsulate stoicism and heart, who you would believe as the toughest lady there was and could be a soulful, steadfast friend to Bannister and a tour-de-force in her own right. I remember saying to her, ‘I want you to be my Watts, but you’re very, very beautiful. Could anyone ever just be friends with you?’ She was like, ‘I’m an actor, Lisa.’ She puts her whole soul into this. She’s scarcely in any makeup. She’s full of heart.”
Newton says of Joy’s pitch to her playing Watts,
“She said to me, ‘I mean, you could be Watts, couldn’t you?!’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Lisa.’ She had a struggle whether I could do it. I hadn’t read the script or known anything about it only that she was going to be able to make her labor of love. She said, ‘I think you can do this. Why not?!’ What a thrill! It’s a pleasure to work with this woman.”
When it came time to cast an antagonistic force in Bannister’s life, Joy discovered Wu’s work and re-wrote the part to better suit the dynamic actor.
“I didn’t know who I was going to cast as Saint Joe. I tweaked the character and wrote it towards him, when I became familiar with his work. I wanted him to explore many themes and use his physicality and soulfulness and put more depth into his characters. I didn’t want any of the villains here to be villains. That’s not how life works. I knew Daniel could be a formidable force and see the portrait of good and evil is never so black and white.”
Wu said of Saint Joe,
“Bannister was in the war, but Saint Joe was a victim in that war – being that he was interred. Out of survival, out of this world in New Orleans, he could be the king of that world. He’s providing an escape for the moment, because the moment at the time was terrible – it was hot and the poverty dichotomy, economy is split. People don’t want to be in the present anymore whether you are rich or poor. Saint Joe offers the poor people an escape through the [drug] Baca that he sells. He’s an interesting character Lisa allowed me to create. I’ve played villains before, but nothing like this. He’s three-dimensional and human, but at the same time, evil.”
The Futuristic Technology
The actors genuinely valued that they had practical effects and sets to react to on set, rather than green screen. Newton says,
“It was a completely new technology that was innovated for this project. We weren’t sure it was going to work. I’m supposed to be this hard-nosed character whose seen it all, done it all and is jaded. But there we were on set with this beautiful art instillation where we were able to use the technology as they were acting. It was astonishing.”
Jackman quickly jumps in,
“When I first saw it, even though [Joy] explained it to me, it broke my heart that audiences might not believe that’s real. It’s not created on a computer. As an actor, it’s another example of how brilliant it is work with Lisa. The understanding that this is not just sci-fi, this is memory, this is humanity, this is our reality. For us, it was technically so much easier to work with.”
The World of Miami in the Near Future
Joy says that she consciously chose not to assign a specific year to the futuristic events taking place in the movie.
“The future is catching up to us so quickly with the walls being constructed in Miami. I didn’t want it to feel like sci-fi set indefinitely far away. I wanted this film, at its core, to be really relatable and present and analogue. I asked for the colors in the set to be warm-hued, instead of those cool lights.
The future isn’t this distant thing. It’s here in the things we do right now form our world so quickly. There were aspects in this film that I’m sure people will say, ‘Oh was this a reaction to this or that?’ I had rising waters and you see it’s a scientific fact. As a source of conflict, I have the disparity of wealth in America – the idea that people without resources are pushed to borders and left to sink or swim and the wealthy are able to isolate behind these walls of privilege, both physically and emotionally. That all came because that’s the world we live in. For me, Science fiction is metaphor on a grand scale for the tremors we feel in this world will become quakes. So it’s set here and imminently.”
Joy teased that REMINISCENCE’s score and soundtrack are a vital aspect.
“It’s extremely important to the theme and the plot. Rebecca beautifully sings as Mae. The idea that her appeal isn’t just beauty and her personality and warmth, but the way a song is sung, putting that into the world can grip someone. Music has always had Proustian quality that can transport us in memory when you hear a song to a time and place before. In a way, it’s the first reminiscence machine.
I knew I wanted it to be really specific. I worked with Ramin Djawadi on the score. We play with noir tropes, but wanted it to be updated and to reflect the kind of swagger Nick Bannister has. So we added a lot of guitar and bass guitar and tuning it down low and a lot of drum beats to underscore the action. Each of our characters has a theme in the film. If you listen closely, there are clues given through music as to what we’re exploring.
When it came time to find the song for the trailer and credits, ‘Save My Love,’ I wanted something that grew organically from the film itself. It was important to me for the song to arise from passion. I met with music producer Jeff Gitleman and told him about the sounds I wanted and he introduced me to Lonr and Amber Mark, and I knew their internationalism and soulfulness would be perfect for this. Together we worked on the theme to have that sense of swagger and scope, but also sensuality and mystery. We wanted the music and instrumentation to be like what’s used throughout the score.”
REMINISCENCE opens in theaters and begins streaming on HBOMax on August 20.