I'll admit I'm not a big fan of disaster, end-of-the-world movies, perhaps because such films typically focus on an event and not the human consequences. I'm all about the human story.
So, for the first 20-odd minutes, Zak Hilditch's These Final Hours, which screened in Cannes in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, appeared to me like a really well shot, fantastically acted B movie. There was a buff, handsome leading man fighting, testosterone oozing, a hammer, nails embedded in flesh and even a machete wielding lunatic. All in your face, loud and vivid. But then a little girl took over the screen, Rose, an intricately written, important, wise girl who changed everything. And the movie became, suddenly, my kind of movie.
These Final Hours has a wisdom beyond its apocalyptic theme, just as Rose is a girl wise beyond her years. The message of the film comes across perfectly because of Hilditch's great script, Bonnie Elliott's wondrous cinematography, Emma Bortignon's epic sound design, but also, most importantly, the two leading performances by Nathan Phillips as James and Angourie Rice as Rose. Their chemistry on screen is the stuff cinematic dreams are made of, and their relationship hints at the best of humanity. While they await together the end of the world, quickly approaching Perth, Australia, after having rolled through the rest of the earth for the past 12 hours, we find within their characters our fears, our hopes and our best intentions. It's a brilliant premise.
I sat down with the filmmaker and his stars on a beach in Cannes. The result was insightful, interesting but also super fun, thanks to the give and take between Rice and Phillips, which carries on beyond the film.
This feeling of humanity redeeming itself has been a thread for this festival. So what made you want to make a film like These Final Hours?
Zak Hilditch: I'm just a lover of genre films that do more than you'd expect. Films that focus on how people react to a fantastical situation. The human condition during that and not the other way around, films that focus on the event and the people are kind of in the way of the explosions. Which is usually what you get. I love movies, smart science fiction like 12 Monkeys, 28 Days Later. They've got heart, they've got soul, they make you think. This was my attempt to make a film that I would hope would be in that vein. I just think that looking at the ultimate question, what would you do in the last seconds on earth, it's actually a universal question and one thing I love about it is that everyone has their own answer. And I just happened to have made one film about one character's journey. Everyone will have their own answer and everyone will have a completely different answer from the next person, about what they would do, what they would be feeling, where they feel they would truly belong. You think about these natural disasters that happened to people and their lives are taken away in an instant, they don't see it coming and it's all over. But I thought, what if you turn that on its head, you could see it coming, you still couldn't stop it, what would you do? You would be forced to act. Instantly act, where should I go, who should I see and again, ultimately, how should I behave. Will I hold on to my moral fiber, or will I just throw it away to go the party to end all parties? It's such a loaded question.
Another thread at this festival has been about strong, independent women. So how do you play a role like Rose, so wise beyond her years?
Angourie Rice: I was 11 when I did the film and I think Rose is one of those characters who knows everything and she knows how things have to be and that some things are best left unspoken, and I think she's just really wise, because she really believes in God and she's been teased before. I think her dad definitely influenced her strength, because her mother died so she would have needed so much strength to get through that. I think that powers her through the journey to get to her dad.
But a lot of those really strong choices, you've made as an actress. What place did you go to, in order to find that?
Rice: I really like to make strong choices and I don't mind my opinions to be heard. But I think it comes from my parents, they are very artistic people, they love showing their work. My mother is a playwright, and my father is a theater director. They've really influenced me about what I say, and that helped me with Rose.
So it's the end of the earth...
Nathan Phillips: Is it??
In the film, I mean. You find your humanity, or has James always had that humanity but just needed to reconnect to it though Rose?
Phillips: I think, we all have it. James represents the human condition, that we all get lost and we all forget how simple life really is and how important it is just to be connected with each other... And James has that opportunity through Rose, she's the protagonist for change, for growth. It's cool that the characters are inspired by this.
How did you cast your actors and did you have to try them out together a lot, to make sure Rose and James worked onscreen as a duo?
Hilditch: I was just really lucky. I didn't really know who I wanted to cast so we auditioned everybody. There was no person attached to the script. We auditioned a lot of people for each role and especially James, we saw a lot of people. When I saw Nathan's self test, that he sent through from Los Angeles, it blew me away. When you see something and someone is bringing your words to life for the first time. He was given nothing, he was given the scene and filmed himself. Did his own interpretation and he just was James. He could handle himself in a fight and handle any man but he also needed sensitivity, and vulnerability. He needed that tenuous mix and Nathan had it in spades! With the two of them, they'd never met each other but they were both cast and so it was all really in the rehearsals before we shot.
You didn't test them out?
Hilditch: No, not together, I just knew. Sometimes you just know and then we had a lot of lunches in the lead-up, the weeks before we shot, to meet each other. We got to hang out a lot, more than overcook the script. We didn't want to make it stale, we wanted to keep it fresh. So we'd do the scene and then do it again and then we'd talk about it and move on to the next one. Just for me to hear it aloud. I like to work like that. I like to keep things as fresh as possible on set, and if you've got the right cast, you've got the right players, you can throw them into the game and play with it. You don't have to rely on a tedious rehearsal period.
And what drew you to the role of James, Nathan?
Phillips: The premise, the story, so surreal yet it's believable, not that far from a reality that could happen now.
Were you ever afraid that it could be unbelievable?
Phillips: No, because I saw his short film so I already knew that the proof was in the pudding, as a filmmaker. I saw Transmission, and I knew the producer, Liz Kearney and Zak already had something special, and I saw her [Rice] already and there she was a year younger, I imagined her a year later. I was really lucky because I trusted it. But I knew filmmaking and I knew how important it was to have Rose, as part of the film. People would follow and believe her, for a young girl to take on that role.
And Zak, how has your experience in Cannes been?
Hilditch: Mind-blowing. First time in Europe, first time in Cannes and I don't think it's really going to sink in until I'm home, and I get to process it. When you are here, you don't have time to stop and process, when I go home I'll look back at all of this, this blur and I'll go "Wow! I was actually there?!" I keep looking out at this view and wondering if I'm here, really here. It's been an amazing festival, the Olympics of film festivals. I'll never forget this experience.
This may be a bit cliché. What would you, Nathan and Angourie do on your last day on earth?
Phillips: It's not cliche at all, that's why we made the film.
Maybe a bit cliché now because you've made the film...
Phillips: But we've thought about it every day. We talked about it every day. It's always fundamentally the same. Be around people you love and do something special. What we should do every day.
What would your last meal be?
Phillips: I would cook some beautiful asparagus, with garlic, and salmon on the barbecue.
And you Angourie, last day on earth?
Rice: I would go somewhere I've always wanted to go...
Phillips: Which is?
You make a great journalist, Nathan!
Rice: I'm not sure...
Phillips: Oh but you must know, what if the world was ending tomorrow...
Rice: I've never been to Asia, I've never been to China, Thailand, Japan.
Phillips: OK, now pick one now.
Rice: I don't know... Egypt! I've never been to Egypt before and I loved it, when I was a kid, I always wanted to go there. See the Pyramids.
Phillips: That was clarity!
And your last meal?
Rice: Raisin toast with Nutella.
Images courtesy of the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, used with permission