Director Michael Pearce Talks About Sci-Fi Flick, ‘Encounter,’ and Working With Riz Ahmed

Michael Pearce’s “Encounter” is a sci-fi movie that goes further than the genre norms. In this character-focused story about a father and his boys, Pearce brings out the best of Riz Ahmed and young actors Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada.

I spoke to Michael during the virtual “Encounter” press junket, asking him about working with Riz Ahmed and Octavia Spencer, along with the unique third act.

Michael, thank you so much for sitting down. How are you doing today?

MP: Yeah, good. We had a premiere last night, but I didn’t drink any alcohol because I was doing interviews and Q&As today. So, I’m feeling like smugly proud of myself for that.

Well, congratulations on the film. And I just want to ask you, where did the inspiration for the story come from?

Well, I didn’t write the initial script. I need to ask I’m sure. I asked Joe Barton, who did, uh, but it was, it’s been a while ago now. For me, what drew me to the story was just the characters that he created and specifically this relationship of a father and his two boys. I found it [to be] a very tender portrait of how that relationship evolves. It was beautiful how he looked at sort of the forgiveness and the learning and the connection and the coming apart in terms of these three characters and had a lot of personal resonance with my own upbringing and I’ve got a younger brother and when me and him and my father were similar ages to the characters in the [film], we went through a kind of crisis as a family and we had to navigate through it together. And it always stuck with me that, and I only realized this when I was older, that we were really helping our dad get through that crisis as much as he was helping us.

And when I read Joe’s script, it kind of reflected [that and] it told a similar story. So, for me, that’s what drew me to the material.

The parasites in the film, I’m just curious, did you have any hand in creating those?

Yeah, I think [in] Joe’s script, [the film] was more about the insects. And when I was doing my draft a did more research into insects. And I started to feel sorry for them because they were only the hosts, the unwitting hosts the vectors for these parasites. And I thought, I know some people get really creeped out by insects, but the thing that unsettled me more was the microorganisms that they [are].

So we did a lot of research into creating the parasites in the film. And we were looking at extremophiles, which survive in extreme environments. And the one that we created was inspired by a tardigrade, which is a microorganism that can eat, you know, [and] I think it can even survive in space or after [a] nuclear apocalypse.

And so we were really drawn to sort of create a unique version of that. And at some point, I wanted even wanted to call the film “The Extremophile,” because in some ways visitor’s character is someone that can survive in extreme circumstances, but I just thought it was going to be too esoteric [of] a title. So maybe for another.

And you just mentioned Riz [Ahmed], who obviously is an award-winning and a great actor. What was it like working with him and directing him?

Yeah. I mean, I mean, great actors just make a director job much easier because they, you know, someone like Riz, he does an insane amount of preparation for a role, both in terms of just combing through the script, and finding all the nuances of every line and the moments between the lines. He’s coming to the set with ideas, but not with a preconceived [idea or] one specific idea that he wants to execute.

And he does so much research into the background of the character and he spoke to a lot of Marines and he’d done a lot of like physical training. And so it means when you say “action,” it’s already quite magical. You’re not starting at a place where, I mean, you’re starting at a place that we could do one take and then just move on.

But of course, you want to play and you want to discover who just gives you a variety of different versions of the scene so that when you’re in the edit, you have the abilities to sort of calibrate the performance. I think he’s very empathetic to the director’s process and [understands] how you [want] to be able to tweak the performance because if you’ve only got one great take, it could really hone you in.

If the tone of the movie starts to evolve in a different way in post-production, it’s great. My directing work with Riz was more leading up to the shoot in casting him and the conversations with him. And then it was just small adjustments or just trying things out.

Michael Pearce and crew on “Encounter.” Photo courtesy of Prime Video.

And then there’s obviously two young actors [Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada], who plays his [Riz’s] boys, what was it like working with them? They are great in the film, but I imagine the process is slightly different [working with kids].

Yeah, it’s a slightly different process working with kids, but to some degree, it wasn’t radically different from working with [an] adult actor. I didn’t want to patronize them or talk in a completely different language or manipulate them or have to trick them into doing what I wanted. I mean, maybe with a really young child, you might have to do that. If you’re working with a four-year-old kid, it could be hard to talk about a character’s motivation, but they were both emotionally mature enough. We could talk about the character and what they were feeling and what they were trying to get out of the scene. And it was a slightly different approach where Aditya, who plays Bobby, I think he was at his most optimum when he was given a lot of freedom and he could improvise. Lucian-River, who plays his brother, and Riz were great at responding to that.

I had a lot of freedom in the edit to incorporate a lot of those improvisations and with Lucian-River who plays the older boy, [Jay]. He’s more of a trained actor and he’s been in a couple of TV shows and I mean, it’s almost like a mini-Riz because he really comes prepped to the shoot.

If you’re going to do an emotional scene, he’s [Lucian-River] sitting in a quiet corner building himself up, you know, and as [the] crew are putting up lights and sat in a camera, you’ve got [a] 10-year old kid in the corner, crying his eyes out, and everyone was just quietly working around him because he’s zoning in.

So, they already bought so much professionalism and like character and enthusiasm. It wasn’t a case of me having to coax a performance out of them [Lucian-River and Aditya]. It was just trying to create the right conditions.

Was your production at all affected by the pandemic at all?

Yes, but not in such a way that we had to dramatically rewrite the script we just had. We were going to shoot in Utah, [but] then we moved it to California, which turned out to be a blessing. We originally didn’t scout in California because it’s so expensive to shoot here or can be so expensive if you don’t get a tax credit. But we did so because of safety and it meant that people weren’t traveling out of the state. But then once we made that decision, [there] wasn’t much we changed. We just had to figure out how to do it safely, you know, and we weren’t one of the “Guinea pig” productions.

I think we were the first Amazon [Prime Video] production out there, so we were kind of having to make it up as we went along. And I think other productions learned from us about what to do or what not to do. And it was difficult because it was all unknown. I think if you make a film now it’s [how to handle COVID] kind of set, you know, the ways that [it] works and how much time you lose with COVID and what the difficulties [are] but we were going into the unknown.

I just think it added a layer of pressure on our shoulders. But we were determined for it not to feel like a movie like, “Oh, they obviously made a lot of compromises and shot this during COVID.” We were still trying to make the movie we wanted to make.

Even despite the fact that film has a lot of sci-fi elements, it is very focused on a father and his relationship with the boys. Could you talk me through that last kind of standoff, you know, in the third act? It’s a very quiet and tender scene and it’s a lot different than what another sci-fi movie might just go for something [big].

I really liked the idea of using the different genres as you know, ultimately they’re at the service to tell a very intimate character portrait and go on this deep inward journey. And yeah, I love that we’ve got this car chase scene and it’s something that feels very climactic. But I didn’t want the end of the film to be [abrupt], either [with the] audience to be gratified by gun violence or for there to be a kind of a blunt tragedy. I felt like we could go for something that was more sophisticated and more in the spirit of the film. And I suppose [that] what we were aiming for was for the most powerful weapon in the film [show], we’re going to be compassionate and understanding. And I’d like the idea that the climax of a movie could be a really sort of tender one, between this father and son, and of course, when the kid runs out [of] the car to confront the sniper, I thought, “Well, now we have an opportunity for this climax to be one about de-escalation.” And I hadn’t really seen that on-screen too much. You know, usually, it’s about someone [making a stand], and I thought, “Well, maybe the most heroic act in this movie could be about someone trying to get someone else to put [the] gun down.” [This] was actually in Joe Barton’s original script and I just thought that was really unique.

Yeah, it’s very powerful and unique. And I think those are the scenes that Octavia Spencer really stands out in. But was she like [to] work with?

Again, she makes it very easy. I mean, she’s so sweet-natured and so easy to build a simpatico, creative relationship with.

She’s very empathetic to a director’s process, you know? Some actors can be tricky to work with, or they’ve got a way that they want to do a scene and you kind of have to it’s their way or the highway to some degree, it’s not always a collaborative process and that can be difficult to manage, but with people like Octavia, she was really interested in how it was written on the page, how I saw it. And, and she wants to get in tune with that frequency. And then from there, she wants to offer up her own suggestions. And she’s like, “What about if we try it this way?” [Or,] “How about if I look here? Should I sit here?” And it’s all comes up from a place of like wanting to play and discover.

And it feels very collaborative, both with [the] two of us working together and also the way she works with others. You know, she really makes it fun. And sometimes filmmaking isn’t always fun. It can be quite tense because you’re going against the clock, but she dissipates a lot of that tension just with her personality.

Is there anything you can say about any future projects, any plans for directing?

No, I’ve got this really bad habit of just finding one thing and focusing on it and making it and then having nothing [planned] afterward. And then I’d go through a six-month or one-year journey of trying to find the next thing.

If I was wiser, I would have like six projects on the go like other director friends of mine. But now, I’m at a process where I’m just reading books and I’m reading scripts and trying to figure out what I want to do next.

Thank you to Prime Video and Ginsberg Libby for letting me speak to Michael.

“Encounter” will be available to stream on Prime Video on December 10.

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