ENTERTAINMENT
08/28/2015 08:02 am ET

Chiwetel Ejiofor's 'Z For Zachariah' Is A Poignant Post-Apocalyptic Tale Thats Stands Out From The Rest

"It felt that race being a part of it was a perfectly honest way of looking at what would happen in society."
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The dystopian genre has quickly become exhausted in recent years, with a surplus of post-apocalyptic tales shoved in between big screen adaptations of sci-fi YA novels. Luckily, 2015 has, so far, surprised us with the refreshingly feminist "Mad Mad: Fury Road," and now with the emotional and contemplative indie "Z for Zachariah." The film, which star Chiwetel Ejiofor described to The Huffington Post as "a dystopian sci-fi drama with a dash of comedy," follows three of the presumably last people on Earth after a nuclear-based incident that wiped out most of mankind.

But director Craig Zobel's ("Compliance") sci-fi indie doesn't waste time recapping the apocalypse with news footage or Roland Emmerich-style CG. Much like Damon Lindelof's "The Leftovers," the meditative film, based on Robert C. O’Brien's novel of the same name, focuses on the aftereffects and the what's-next perspective when the the three main (and only on-screen) characters must start over. We first meet Margot Robbie's Ann, a religious farm girl who's survived in her hometown valley, which remains miraculously unaffected by the deadly radiation released by the apocalyptic event. While hunting with her dog, Ann finds Ejiofor's Loomis, a wandering scientist in a hazmat suit. The two begin fostering a meaningful relationship, believing they are the last man and woman on Earth, until Chris Pine's Caleb arrives, upturning Ann and Loomis' dynamic.

HuffPost sat down with Ejiofor and Zobel to discuss the film, the racial and religious tensions that arise when three people are left on Earth, and the ending's bold but commendable homage to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. 

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Loomis' first scene is a huge emotional catharsis. Chiwetel, what was it like playing this character who's disposition is largely based on a backstory we never see?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: What I did know of Loomis is he had almost given up any kind of hope. To be in the state that he’s in, to be in the kind of mindset that he’s in, the post-traumatic stress, and to then find himself in this valley. It’s so dreamlike to him. I thought that it was probably so extraordinarily emotional as a moment. [...] The suit -- I wasn’t wearing it for a year [as Loomis was] -- is incredibly uncomfortable. I can but imagine the relief and the unbelievable elation that that moment would bring.

Craig, what was it like for you to direct a cast of only three actors?

Craig Zobel: It was fantastic. That was kind of one of the draws that drew all four of us to do the project. What was nice about it was that we were able to develop it and learn each other in a way that by the end, we had a communication I don’t know that we would’ve had if it had a lot more people in the cast. And it helped us all explore what we wanted to get out of it as a movie. It wasn’t the sort of thing where there was so much in a day that you couldn’t try [scenes] a different way.

Chiwetel, how did you use that opportunity to approach scenes multiple ways?

Ejiofor: What you’re really trying to access is whatever emotional intelligence you have, and you’re just trying to galvanize that. Every sequence is simply about that, every bit is about your own experiences, what you would do, how you would feel. Then what the better version of you would feel perhaps, or what the lesser version of you would feel, what the more selfish aspect would feel. And if that had dominance in that particular scenario, how would you then play the scene? [...] It was an exciting, challenging exercise emotionally and artistically.

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In the novel, Loomis isn't an African American man, but racial implications eventually play into the film and cause him to feel alienated from Ann and Chris. Was that initially a part of the script?

Zobel: I literally wasn’t thinking about that aspect of it. [Chiwetel’s] just really talented. It certainly wasn’t about trying to politicize it in any way. But we did see in the arch of the story this being one of many ways that Loomis starts to -- and I think in some ways in his head -- feel like the minority or the excluded person, and that’s a thing we wanted to highlight.

EjioforYeah. When I came on, the racial implication wasn’t in the book or the script at that point. But in coming on I think it was an interesting opportunity to talk about that element coming back into the society with the arrival of the third person. Because when there’s two people, the ideas of religion, for example, kind of balanced out, they didn’t matter. The ideas of race, certainly, are completely irrelevant. [...] So when there’s a third person, it completely disbalances all of those things. The kind of societal norms start to pop back, whatever they are. So the importance then of [Ann and Caleb] having religious ideologies minoritizes Loomis, race minoritizes Loomis, and then therefore, the power structure changes. People are then led to using other means, manipulation, outmaneuvering and so forth that gets more cynical and complex. It felt that race being a part of it was a perfectly honest way of looking at what would happen in society.

Craig, one thing I have to ask about is the reference to the famous ending of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker" near the end. Why did you decide to pay homage to that?

 ZobelI’m a fan of all of his movies, but I’m a fan of “Stalker” a lot. I think that is the one that speaks to me a lot and I found a lot of similarity in this [film]. There’s three people in “Stalker” and three people in this. Also kind of tonally. It's a beautiful sort of abandoned, strange world. It is sort of wrestling with faith versus science. I just couldn’t resist.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

"Z for Zachariah" opens on Aug. 28.

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