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
Moviemaking can be a real beast. Just ask THE TOMORROW WAR director Chris McKay and stars Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, Jasmine Mathews and Keith Powers. It requires lots of hard work and pushing emotions to the extreme. Some actors even found themselves conquering deep-rooted psychological fears and anxieties while making the film.
This sci-fi actioner, debuting on Prime Video on July 2, is centered on war vet/ high school biology teacher Dan Forester (Pratt) as he learns he’s about to be ripped apart from his wife (Betty Gilpin) and young daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) to go fight in a war set decades in the future against a deadly breed of alien creatures, “White Spikes,” who are the cause of human extinction on Earth. It’s there he’s teamed alongside Major Greenwood ( Keith Powers) and Lt. Hart (Jasmine Mathews), led by Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski), who’s tied to Dan’s past.
At the film’s recent virtual press conference, the panel spoke about how they conjured the magic used in the feature’s intense action sequences. Hint: it wasn’t a tennis ball on a string. Strahovski says a lot of the time, they were tasked to use make-believe and act against nothing.
“To me, the process was fascinating. I think that was my first time having to perform with something that isn’t actually there. We had Troy [Brenna] sometimes and they built this great prosthetic half-alien with the head and the front legs. We would often do a take with nothing at all, which, at first, feels a little funky, but in the end, I found it pretty liberating. You’re really just free to create the action and the physicality of what is going on that then later in post get gets built around what you’ve done. I thought it was really fun. I was definitely impressed with Chris Pratt’s ability to work with a non-existent tentacle.”
“It’s true that it’s more liberating when you don’t have a prop to work with because you basically force the animators to do whatever they have to do to make your choices work. If you have a real tentacle, you’re limited to how you can move it, but if you have a fake one, then you just imagine an animator pulling their hair out being like, ‘Oh, great. I have to make that work somehow.’ It’s pretty fun. I’ve had my fair share of experience of running from and fighting against creatures that aren’t there. Yes, there’s certainly a craft to it.”
He continues, praising their stuntman Troy Brenna.
“You could have a whole podcast episode about the way to achieve it, but it’s a combination of various things you’re going to look at, whether it will be a tennis ball or the guy named Troy who’s seven feet tall, a mountain of a man, and very scary. You look at Troy and you think, ‘That’s certainly a person who could lift me up and break me in half.” He becomes significantly less scary when he’s put in a giant gray leotard. Still, he’s scary.”
Powers voices similar admiration for the massive, 6’8’ stuntman’s contributions.
“Troy definitely helped me and reminded me that I need to hit the gym too. He was perfect for acting. The hardest thing I had to do was just fall on accident, but I’m like, ‘Yo, Troy really has me sweating.’ I don’t know how you make that look real, that you’re pulling something without literally having it. Even when we would do it without the rope, I found myself getting sore because I was just trying to do so much physical movement within myself. When Troy was there, I was like, ‘Yo, this really helps.’ Troy is huge, man. He probably definitely got the same strength as a white spike for real. Troy is huge.”
Pratt found that whatever, or whoever, they acted with would vary depending on what sort of shot McKay needed.
“Sometimes in the big wide shots, you may have nothing. It really depends on the angle that you’re in because, of course, these big sequences consist of so many shots and sizes. If you’re doing a close-up and it needs to be really scary. You’re not trying to have an emotional relationship with one of these creatures, but in a close-up, you might be looking into the eyes of an actor. You have something you can pull from, you can draw – [and] they can draw something out of you. It really depends on what the shot is. It’s the most embarrassing acting you’ll ever do. Acting opposite something that’s not there and fighting something that’s not there is particularly embarrassing.”
One such sequence that involved the actor’s imaginations comes in the third act, when Pratt and his estranged father (played by a jacked J.K. Simmons) go out in the frozen tundra to hunt for the White Spikes. McKay shares that the raw footage of this scene shows how much work the two put into the film.
“Chris and JK on the glacier that at the end, it’s towards the end of the movie, we shot it, we’re fighting daylight and trying to get the shot, and the sun is setting, and it’s really this really beautiful thing with the creature in the middle of them, and JK and Chris are fighting with it. If you look at that raw footage, it’s just two guys who are just throwing themselves in the snow this way and then throwing themselves into that way, and then rolling around and rolling out of the way, and getting back up, and then getting back down. I really wish we had choreographed that to some music, or something like that because it is really fun to just see.”
“You really put your trust in the director, that they won’t allow that to become a viral YouTube sensation.”
McKay continues, giving credit to what his actors were able to create out of thin air.
“Well, the thing is most of the time we ended up using the stuff that you guys did on your own. For the majority of the visual effects shots because you guys were using your imagination and it was very playful at times or whatever, you were making up this reality and that stuff ended up being better than when you were acting against Troy or when we had the dummy and stuff like that. There was all this stuff that you guys created, it was the stuff we ended up using in visual effects.”
Powers loved working with McKay as it gave him a sense of security performing, specifically in one of the film’s big scenes set in a Spike’s nest.
“Chris, you really helped though with how you would direct how you want my body to move. I always started doing over-exaggerated stuff, didn’t seem as real. But maybe like how Pratt was saying, maybe it’s just because I felt so embarrassed doing it. I was like, ‘I don’t really want to go too big,’ but when you would come in, you would come into the nest, you’d be like, ‘No, really pull it.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I look nice, you’re right. Let me do that.’ It feels awkward, but when you watch it, it just makes so much sense.”
Mathews was happy the opportunity allowed her to drop any sense of vanity and just go with her instincts.
“That was my favorite part, being able to use my imagination too. Once you say, ‘I look stupid, whatever, I don’t care,’ it allows your inner child to come out and play. Given the times where I couldn’t pull from my imagination and my image of the White Spikes, I would just substitute somebody who pissed me off and I never could reconcile my emotions with them. I put them up there and just take all my anger out on them, which was really fun.”
THE TOMORROW WAR will be streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting on July 2.