After directing Ewan McGregor in the award winning drama Young Adam in 2003, David Mackenzie cast McGregor with actress Eva Green in the apocalyptic love story Perfect Sense, which makes its theatrical debut in the United States on February 2. In Perfect Sense, Ewan McGregor plays Michael, a chef who falls in love with an epidemiologist named Susan as an epidemic begins to rob the world’s population of their sensory perceptions.
A story that tackles love, loss, and what it means to retain hope in troubled times, Perfect Sense is a film that challenges its own genres of romantic drama and science fiction. Set in a grounded reality where people begin to lose their senses one-by-one, Perfect Sense is a story about the struggle to hold on to hope as humanity seemingly slips away. At the same time, Perfect Sense is also about adaptation and the resiliency of human beings in the most darkest yet hopeful times.
Ahead of the U.S. release of Perfect Sense on February 2, The Deadbolt went one-on-one with director David Mackenzie to learn more about how he made sense of the script, working with Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, balancing chaos and love, and how Mackenzie views Perfect Sense now that the production is a series of memories.
THE DEADBOLT: Since there are so many layers to Perfect Sense, what did you immediately connect with when you read the script?
DAVID MACKENZIE: The immediate connection for me is that I find the script very emotional and very moving. But I find it moving in a way that seemed powerful and didn’t seem cheesy. It seemed like I was able to get to an emotional place. From a narrative place it felt – although we’re also dealing with this in a fable – it felt grounded and real. That felt like an interesting adventure and quite a brave story to tell.
THE DEADBOLT: How did you prepare Ewan and Eva for the intensity of the story to get the right romantic intensity out of them?
MACKENZIE: I think when you’re doing that kind of thing, you’re trying to create an environment which makes them feel as comfortable as possible. These guys have to pretend that they’re romantically engaged with each other, they have to create some real chemistry, and with those things you want to be as close to the bone as possible and make it feel real.You want to create an environment where they feel comfortable to expose themselves in that way.
It’s a delicate juggling act. It’s part of the job of being a director, really, is how to create that environment while actually feeling comfortable with each other to do what’s necessary to tell the story.
THE DEADBOLT: Since you were already familiar with Ewan after working with him on Young Adam, what was the experience like with Eva coming into a film with a script like this?
MACKENZIE: Well, I knew Eva socially and had admired her, so it wasn’t completely a cold experience. I sort of fought to have her and was keen to work with her. It was one of those weird things, you just get everyone in the room together and make the film. That was really what it was like.
THE DEADBOLT: How did you balance the apocalyptic concept without sacrificing the love story at large?
MACKENZIE: That was a major juggle. Obviously from the story itself helps that, because that’s the way it’s written and you’re making the film scene by scene. You’re holding on to the intimate, the personal, the joyous, and the microcosm and then trying to express that tragic macrocosm. It was emotionally very hard to do.
Most of us have access to all of our senses, so it’s really hard to imagine. It’s really hard to imagine what it’s like to be without them so you try to put yourself into that emotional space. We were all kind of reaching out into things. You can’t just switch off your hearing. It’s still there but you try to create that sense.
The game of the film is that juggle between the apocalyptic and the romantic and hopeful. That was the challenge of it. It was always there in all of our minds when we were doing it. It’s a tough one. It’s a tough sell in terms of concept and it’s a tough one to pull off. I hope we did. It’s pretty much the core of the film, really. Hopefully the apocalyptic helps the romantic and the personal and they compliment each other.
THE DEADBOLT: How do you feel when people call the film science fiction?
MACKENZIE: I’ve had trouble with the way that the film can be expressed, because I feel people want to put it in a box of one genre or another. It’s quite subconsciously trying to rebel against that as a film. It’s sort of a miscategorization. I understand that people need to put films in certain boxes, but almost all of the films I’ve tried to do have not fit very comfortably in boxes. People go to see films based on one or two line previews. Everything is always kind of in shorthand, so those things push it there.
In some ways it is a science fiction film. It’s a science fiction without the bombast of an effect movie. I guess it’s a science fiction concept, so I’m not uncomfortable with it. But it doesn’t feel like that’s really what it is.
THE DEADBOLT: There’s a really interesting shot when Eva and Ewan are in bed together and their angle turns two faces into one. What were you trying to convey with that?
MACKENZIE: When we were rehearsing I saw that frame and shot some stills of it. I just thought there was something almost Picasso-esque about it. It felt like this couple, who were divergent in ideas, unsuccessful in love in both of their ways and all of this crap was happening around them. It was a point in the film where they’re coming together in a really strong way and so I felt it was a good way to formalize it in that way. It’s pretty much at the center of the film and it felt like the right thing to do. It was something I was waiting to do. It was actually one of the last shots we shot.
THE DEADBOLT: How did you feel the narration served the story differently as compared to what was taking place on screen?
MACKENZIE: The really interesting thing about the narration is that the voice of the person reading it is the very first person we chose to do it. It was designed as a temp track for another voice over. There was this unaffected nature and this naturalness of the delivery that we just really liked. We tried replacing it two or three times with actors’ voices but we found the actors were giving it too much.
Part of the whole idea of the film is a bit minimal, it’s trying not to try too hard. That was kind of a subconscious thing for me. I didn’t want to make a bombastic, big effects movie. I wanted to make something that dealt with those themes but did it in an intimate way. Somehow the voice over seemed to belong more comfortably within the voice of a non-actor. Eventually she came back three times to redo it – and she was an actor by the end of it – but still kept the unaffected nature of the delivery.
THE DEADBOLT: Do you think that because people adapt and move on from loss is proof that humans are really hopeful at their core?
MACKENZIE: It’s a very hard one to say. Right here, right now in my belief I do kind of feel that we’re hardwired for hope. Right up until the candle is snuffed out, there’s this direct channel to this notion of hope. You know, I’m not allowed to say that because I haven’t had my hope taken away from me. But there’s something in me that feels humans in some way are hope machines and designed that way.
THE DEADBOLT: Since working on the film is now just a series of memories, what does Perfect Sense mean to you today? Do you feel a loss, or a sense that life just moves on?
MACKENZIE: That’s interesting. I guess because the film is just being released in the U.S. on February 2 and it’s still carrying on, it’s like one of those children trying to get in touch. Some of the other films just kind of disappear completely. I don’t feel a strong sense of loss yet. I do feel hopeful that the film will find its way. Tilda Swinton once said to me that a film will always find its audience, and I thought that was a sweet thing to say. I want the film to find its audience. It will be those people who connect with it and relate to it.
Perfect Sense opens in the U.S. in select theaters on February 2, 2012.