Friday, March 27, 2009

Interview with Ryne Pearson (screenwriter, Knowing)

Preface — earlier this week I had the privilege of being offered an opportunity to interview screenwriter Ryne Douglas Pearson, whose original screenplay was the basis for the hit movie Knowing (reviewed HERE). The offer was snapped up, technical difficulties were dealt with, and Pearson and I had a substantial chat Thursday morning.

As with the review, the first section will be light on spoilers, while the second will focus on details best not known going in. If you're at all interested in thoughtful science fiction with some great eye candy, I do encourage you to see the movie first. Then come back and read both parts.

Pearson had read my review here, and I'd done such research on him as I could, so we both came in with a little knowledge of each other. Ryne said I'd grabbed on to some aspects just right, and had other "takes" on the movie that were "unique"...which, er, not sure if that's a good thing....

We started to argue about whether Survivorman or Bear Grylls is better. Pearson observed that Survivorman would never permanently scar a brain with the image of squeezing elephant poo to get a drink of water.

Good point. Advantage = Survivorman, and Round One goes to Pearson. (My boys would have countered that Grylls doesn't spend the whole show whining about having to carry cameras around; Pearson could have retorted that that's because Stroud doesn't have a whole stinking crew carrying everything for him... it could have gotten ugly. But I digress.)

Then we started talking about the movie.

NOTE: recording equipment wasn't available; hence the lack of direct quotations.


Ryne Douglas Pearson began as a novelist— but not with a silky-smooth start. Before his first novel was accepted for publication, he racked up 139 rejections — and he's kept every one of them. His novel Simple Simon was developed into the Bruce Willis movie Mercury Rising. Ryne has worked on eight or nine screenplays, in addition to the five novels he has published. As proof that he is still interested in the novel-genre, Pearson is now working on a sixth to add to his ouvre. (Pearson would tell me that it also has elements of faith, is a "deep mystery" — and that's all he'd say!)

Knowing is based on Pearson's own original screenplay. It was taken up by writer-director Alex Proyas, who developed Pearson's story in a creative, unique manner. The three principle screenwriters were Pearson, Stiles White, and Juliet Snowden.

In Pearson's original screenplay, the events that drove the plot were assassinations, not disasters (you know this much from the trailers, so I don't rank it as a "spoiler").

Did Proyas commercialize the premise by focusing on spectacular disasters?

Pearson strongly believes that Proyas made the right decision. Pearson's script, if filmed as-was, would have been a more intimate affair focusing on the relationship of the father and the son. By taking the narrative in another, more spectacular direction, Proyas succeeded in bringing in broader audiences for a wider variety of reasons. But once the audience comes, it is the questions that arise from Pearson's story that they are asking and pondering.

Proyas was "smart" to go in that direction and (as he frequently said) Pearson "could not be more pleased."

So, was it a "message"-story?

In reply, Pearson alluded to Samuel Goldwyn's famous quip, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” He did not devise the story to send a message, and the movie was not concocted to send a message. The screenplay (and movie) were story-driven — but ultimate questions do necessarily arise from the tale. (More on that in the next section.)

So, similarly, with an array of elements in the story, including the Biblical allusions. Pearson has seen discussion of the story from Jewish as well as Christian (and other) perspectives, and he's delighted. Neither he nor Proyas were set on "beating anyone over the head" with a Message — or at least not with a specific take on the movie's central questions.

I told Pearson of my own movie-going experience as a longtime, convinced Christian. I told of the sense we all get as soon as we see a religious figure brought into a movie, as happens with Knowing. Most of the time, we know exactly where the story will go; and most of the time, we're right. But Knowing takes a different direction, which I found a pleasant surprise.

So, with that premise, I asked Pearson The Joss Whedon Question — that is, the question I would ask Whedon if ever I had a chance to interview him. (Whedon would probably lie, but I'd still ask him.) Here it is: Do you have close, ongoing, friendly, conversational relationships with any convinced, practicing, pedal-to-the-metal, Bible-believing Christians?

Pearson's reply was an instant, enthusiastic "Yes." He has "lots" of relationships with Christians, including friends who are "very, very evangelical." He himself is Roman Catholic, and recognizes the difference in perspectives; but he counts several Christians as "good friends," and respects them.

Pearson clearly is delighted with the end-product playing in theaters, "one hundred percent pleased" with where Proyas took his story. Pearson had to miss the movie premiere, and saw Knowing in a theater on opening day. Coming out of the movie, he was clearly tickled to hear all the discussions, all the audience debating and speculating about the meaning and significance of this or that aspect of the movie.

It has been interesting to note how polarizing the movie is, how diverse the reactions of the critics have been. We agreed that it's more than strange that so many lament the lack of "thoughtful" science fiction, in favor of violence and gore — and then when just such a movie comes out, they complain that it is too complex and "convoluted."

There is a designed ambiguity to the whole that is palpable but not frustrating. I would say that Knowing is like Sixth Sense, with a significant difference. As with Sixth Sense, the whole story can be taken in one of several ways. However, whereas Sixth Sense has an ending that frames and explains the whole, Knowing leaves that to the viewer. Plus, while Sixth Sense would only be a so-so story without that ending, Knowing tells an engrossing narrative in addition to provoking the questions it raises. But you, the viewer, provide the interpretive frame.

Ryne agreed with my suggestion that Knowing is something like a cinematical Rorshach test, in that what people "see" may or may not say much about the picture, but does say a lot about them.

I asked him if there was anything left over from his original screenplay that he wishes had made it to the movie? He say "Not really; I could not be more pleased" with the final product.

Before we move off to spoilier ground, I want to thank Ryne Pearson for taking the time to talk with us; it was a pleasure. Also, thanks to Tamara Brown, of Special Ops Media, for putting it together.


The short version is: I didn't get any of my specific what-does-this-mean questions answered. As I suspected, the ambiguity is designed and deliberate; it isn't a subtle (much less ham-fisted) way of saying ____.

For instance: were the beings at the end aliens, or angels? Someone asked asked screenwriter Juliet Snowden that question, and she answered, "I don't know — and if I did, I wouldn't tell!"

Pearson has loved the discussion and debate about all these aspects, and how spiritedly people are entering in. For instance, on the same question, one person insisted, "They can't be angels. Angels don't need space ships!"

And he was answered: "Yeah, but the kids aren't angels, and they do need something to move around in!"

I asked Pearson if he had himself supplied the various Biblical allusions, and Pearson said he hadn't. (I wonder which writer did, then.) Pearson had more general Biblical themes; and in his version, Nicolas Cage's character and his son are named Adam and Noah (in the movie it is John and Caleb, respectively).

In some ways, Ryne is noticing things as he watches along with us, which has to be a unique experience, for the creative father of the plot-seed. For instance, he hadn't noticed the van I mentioned with (I think) John 14:6 on it (someone else had told him), nor had his wife noticed the wings on the creatures at the end. Also, someone pointed out that when John "comes to," after his son is taken, everything is wet, as if he's been washed clean (baptized?). Like us, Pearson wants to see the movie again, to pick up on what he missed.

The scene in the movie he finds most moving is when Cage's character is reconciled to his pastor-father. When the pastor says, "This is not the end," and Cage replies, "I know," Pearson choked up.

An aside: this impressed me about Ryne Pearson. The element he's praising here is one he didn't create. So, in effect, he's extolling someone else's addition to his creation. A lot of bloated egos would have spent the interview griping and sniping about the foul scars some lesser light had left on his opus. There wasn't a whisper of that with Pearson.

Ryne did not sit down to write a "message" movie. The message and questions arise from the plot. The plot deals with the end of the world — and that naturally raises questions of "What does it all mean?" and "Is this all there is?"

People watch Knowing, and come out asking questions, speculating, debating.

Its creator, Ryne Pearson, couldn't be more pleased.

My thoughts. What do I make of a movie that is deliberately, designedly ambiguous, and that raises questions without providing answers?
  1. The reason I can live with the ambiguities of the movie is precisely because I don't see it as preachy. In fact, I thought (and Pearson confirms) that it is very deliberately not preachy. A few lines here, a scene or two there, and it easily could have been, and I would have hated it — but at each point, they don't.
  2. If the "message" of the movie were "Hey, nobody has answers, nobody can 'know'; what really matters is the questions," I'd have to resist the temptation to fire back a sharp, barnyard retort. But the movie does not preach that PoMo dribble.
  3. "Knowing" whether that glass is filled with milk or poison matters. Bring it to your lips, you've made a decision. Make a bad one, you're dead. Worldviews are no different; faith is no different.
  4. I think a savvy Christian could use this as a conversation-point. Here is a miserable man with a chaotic worldview — which is dead-wrong. He tries to seek help from a friend who also denies a determined future — who is also dead-wrong. Where does he end up? Back with his father, who does have a transcendent, objectively-based worldview and faith. That's not a conversation-starter? It is a classic Acts 17:23 situation, and we should be ready to make good use of it.
  5. What's more, here are people (and, ultimately, a whole world) running, seeking trying — and they are all ultimately overwhelmed and destroyed by an event far beyond their control.
  6. Meanwhile, here are helpless children, saved by a power from beyond them.
  7. The framework the movie does not (and cannot) give is that our doom will not come with a flare of the sun's mindless heat, but with an explosion of God's holy and just wrath (2 Peter 3:7-13). Our problem is not a soulless universe before which we are helpless pawns, but an infinite-personal God before whom we are guilty rebels (Romans 1:18-32).
  8. The answer the movie does not (and cannot) give is that we really are living on precisely the sort of edge Cage's character is when we meet him. He has no idea, but his doom is charging down a street that ends at his door. So it is with the world. "Repent," Jesus preached, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). It still is. As it was in the days of Noah (Pearson's original name for Caleb, the son who is taken), so it will be when God's open judgment falls on the world before the return of Christ (Matthew 24:36-44).
  9. The solution that the movie does not (and cannot) give is that God has already acted to accomplish salvation and deliverance for "the chosen ones." God the Son, Jesus Christ, took on human nature just so that He could satisfy the law we had broken, and just so that He could fulfill the righteousness we'd defiled, and just so that He could receive and absorb the righteous wrath of God in our place and in our stead (Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
  10. The certainty that the movie does not (and cannot) give is that there really is "something more." Jesus rose from the dead; He is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). And so His perspective is that now "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). That is the "something more" awaiting every man and woman. We either live eternally in the joy and love of God; or we exist eternally under the wrath and judgment of God.
  11. The "knowing" that the movie does not (and cannot) give is that eternal life is to be had only through faith in Jesus Christ, and in Him alone, by the free gift of God alone. He is "the way, the truth, and the life," and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). So "whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life" (1 John 5:12). But here's the good news:
"I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God
that you may
know that you have eternal life"
(1 John 5:13)

Now, that's a truth worth "Knowing." (For more, see here.)

Oh, and... Ryne?



NoLongerBlind said...

Very Cool!

Certainly worthy of supplanting the H & T for the week!

I can't wait to see the movie, and then read the middle section of this post!

Thanks for sharing this - awesome wrap-up as well!

candy said...

I think it was Bear Gryllis who tried to capture "wild" horses in the Sierra range by putting together a willow loop...but...look closely and you will see that the horses have shoes. The horses came from a nearby ranch. That wild and crazy guy!

DJP said...

OK, I knew this was going to happen. Let's NOT turn this into a Bear vs. Les meta... even though I have only myself to blame!

(Candy, we watched the DVD; I b'lieve they've added narrative, as he's frequently saying "I had help from my crew..." and "A local farmer provided..." and such. Different shows, different purposes, I like them both. And the truth is, I admire Les more for what he does, but enjoy Bear all the same. Just once, I'd like to see Bear do what Les does.)


NoLongerBlind said...

Not even BG can make skunk-burgers seem appetizing, or even something to remotely consider when lacking food.

His description of the flavor (using the term in it's broadest, most inclusive sense) still makes me go


The Squirrel said...

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie (YET!).

I appreciate a movie that is deliberately ambiguous, as opposed to the sledge-hammer like preachy-ness of so much Hollywood fare, like The Day After Tomorrow, or the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

HST, I don’t mind a movie with a deliberate message, if it is gently delivered, as if to an intelligent life form. Especially if it’s the right (Gospel) message!

Now, if we could just get them to do a big-budget movie about Noah, with Ken Ham, Michael J. Oard, and John Woodmorappe as technical advisors!


The Squirrel

Anonymous said...

I've purposely not read this post beyond the Les Stroud vs. Bear Grylls section as I plan to take in the movie per your recommendation soitbetterbeworththeeightbucksi'mjustsayin'. However, they're predicting a major winter storm for us tonight and tomorrow so Everyday Mommy and Daddy prolly won't be taking in more than PPV this weekend.

Anonymous said...

p.s. The Everydays vote Bear Grylls. Les is much too whiny. We call him WhinerMan. It would be like my husband setting up a video camera while he mows the lawn and stopping every ten minutes to put his nose on the lens and tell you how hot and tired and miserable he is.

DJP said...


Okay, I will at least make this rule.

Anyone who wants to weigh in on Bear Vs. Les also has to comment on the interview.

Which, you're good, EM.

Herding Grasshoppers said...

I just have to say that comments like this,

Ryne agreed with my suggestion that Knowing is something like a cinematical Rorshach test, in that what people "see" may or may not say much about the picture, but does say a lot about them.

are an interesting counterpoint to your "Next" series over at Pyro.

Michelle said...

I can't remember the last time I saw a movie in the theatre (gotta get out more), but as one of your faithful readers, I would like to see this one on the big screen in your honour (he's influential, Mr Pearson).

I did see the elephant-dung-being-squeezed-for-drinking-water episode. Eeeew.

DJP said...

Wow. You must tell me what you think, after.

Herding Grasshoppers said...

I can relate with Michelle - hardly ever go out to see movies. I don't usually mind waiting for the DVD, as opposed to paying theater prices, but now I'm intrigued. I sense a date-night coming on :0)

Ironically, however, we've postponed homeschool today as my husband is taking the boys to "Monsters vs. Aliens"... in 3D.

I somehow have resisted the temptation to join them, in favor of two quiet hours at home.

DJP said...

I want to see that movie, too.

My criteria are, generally, two:

1. Do I particularly want to support the movie financially, so there are more like it? (Fireproof)

2. Does it have sound, effects, etc., that are best experienced with big screen, big sound?

This movie is in the second category, to me.

As I'm thinking about it, I realize: I would have given it four stars, if I could have cared for the father and son characters as I did for the leads of Sixth Sense.

The Squirrel said...

"I... resisted the temptation to join them"

Oh, Julie, how could you not go! MvA has been on Mrs. Squirrel's & my list since we first saw the trailer on the Kung Fu Panda dvd! :-)

The Squirrel

Herding Grasshoppers said...

How could I not go? Well, chances are, when Grandpa and Grandma return from vacation the boys will talk Grandma into taking them again, and I'll go :0)

Still, if you have three delightful-but-always-noisy boys underfoot, you'll understand.

Dan, I'm with you on your criteria. Which is why we don't go to very many.

It's more difficult for family movies as Boy #2 is deaf in one ear and HoH in the other, so it's difficult to pick up a lot of dialog, especially with all the amplified sound effects. I end up spending one third of the movie explaining or repeating another third, and missing the last third.

Not that we'd be taking kids to "Knowing."

The last kid movie we went to was WALL-E. Perfect for my HoH guy. Very visual and not a lot of dialog :0)

But I digest...

Stefan Ewing said...

What a wonderful opportunity this was!

Just don't go all Hollywood on us now, Dan, and all will be well.

DJP said...

Have your people call my people.

We'll do fellowship.

Stefan Ewing said...

By the way, I wonder how he stumbled upon your movie review in the first place?

Sure, within the Calvinistic sub-blogosphere, you're right up there along with Phil, Frank, Justin, Tim, and all the usual suspects, but in the wider world?

Apparently you have a wider reach than we realize!

Stefan Ewing said...

"We'll do fellowship."


Sad that that attitude is all too common.

DJP said...

Oh, Stefan, they probably just Googled "Knowing movie review," and there I was.

Herding Grasshoppers said...

Still, kudos you you!

"We'll do fellowship"...

Michelle said...

Stefan may be onto something 'cause you're nowhere near the top of google. Or Yahoo.

Michelle said...

Oops - Google, not google.

Rachael Starke said...

This was cool!

We've been pretty anti-movies ever since we went away for the weekend sans kids and went to one on impulse that was so truly abominable that we walked out about twenty minutes into it. We got comped tickets and went back later to try a different movie and should have left that one too! It was unbelievable.

But cool SFX + thought provoking = plus really great interview = worth giving it one more try. :)

Anonymous said...

"We'll do fellowship."

I definetely shouldn't drink coffee and read your comments at the same time:)

DJP said...

Sorry. I should post warnings. My bad.

Chuckles27 said...

I'm going with Bear Grylls. He's more of a general bad ass, and his show is a lot more entertaining. I'll admit he does do the shock factor a lot especially eating stuff live, but that's what's goin down if you're stuck out there. I would've died on more than half of those shows.

Michelle said...

Ok, dh and I went to see this movie last night.

Briefly, my opinion is that it was so devoid of happiness, laughter, hope really, that it was almost oppressive. The brown and yellow, colourless hues of the picture didn't help. The human elements of loss, grief, lack of meaning and estrangement are so weighty and inadequately resolved that the science fiction side of the movie is rendered bizarre, almost corny, and both human and science fiction sides are consequently unbelievable. The themes of determinism, predestination/election, etc. are too confusing and weird to lend themselves to further, meaningful dialogue on real Biblical themes.

I came out wanting to pop a happy pill, or watch Mr Bean for some comic relief.

I will say that the one disaster scene in particular was truly spectacular and for that alone the money I spent was worth it :).

I think cinema audiences everywhere are currently burdened enough by global gloom and this flick seems a bit ill-timed in that respect. On the other hand, from a Christian perspective, a full-scale global purge akin to Noah's sometimes seems an appropriate, even desirable option given the overt depravity we see everywhere.

Two questions I have: did the bunnies represent impending repopulation or just the benevolence of the elongated, anaemic Anderson Cooper look-alikes? And what kind of pastor was he with that ghastly, gothic lion's head thingy at the bottom of his staircase? :)

DJP said...

Well now there are two reasons I need to see it again: to see whether the long shot I thought was a long shot really was one long shot; and to look for the creepy gothic lion thingie.

I'm sorry it wasn't fun for you, Michelle. Everything you say I think is valid. Probably the single reason why I didn't give it four stars is that I just never connected sympathetically with its two leads, as I did with the two leads of Sixth Sense.

But would you want it to be happy, given that it doesn't give the Gospel? See, that's where I see the "You're very religious, you worship this 'unknown god,' let me tell you about Him" opportunity. The movie raises a bunch of questions it can't really answer, though it is clear that the movie's stance is that there IS an answer. The Bible gives it, and the Christian can tell it — whether that was the writers' intent or not.

Michelle said...

If the continous long shot you're referring to is the first disaster, I agree with you. That contributed to it being so spectacular and I'd be keen to watch that part a few more times.

"But would you want it to be happy, given that it doesn't give the gospel?" The problem is that the movie does end on a comparatively happy note. Sort of. It offers one sliver of hope for the unchosen ones and that is that they will all be reunited in heaven together one day. I think that's what many people, Pepsi in one hand and popcorn in the other, are pleased to have affirmed. As someone once said, most people want to go to heaven, they just don't want God to be there.

So it doesn't give the gospel, but it does give a deceptive, substitute universalism, a blanket "I'm ok, you're ok". I felt that the writer ended on that note rather unconvincingly, though, which I suppose is a good thing.

A.K. said...

I just watched the movie. I thought it was interesting and thought provoking.
At the end of the day, God can use anything to speak to anyone. I am sure He will use this movie to speak to hearts that are open to want the Truth and to know Him. God is not limited! Many will not go to church but may watch this movie and hear the subtle spirit call them closer to Him.
Overall a pretty good movie. I have watched a few lately and been disgusted! So, this was a pleasant surprise.


DJP said...

Arianna, I'm glad you felt it worth your while. It really was pretty remarkable, all considered.

Times of Trouble - Really said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
truthseeker said...

I am fascinated by this movie. I have watched it 3 times. This movie mirrors something that is actually going on in the world. Electrical malfunctions due to unknown reasons. Even before this movie came out I have been noticing more planes having electrical problems and sometimes crashing. The one that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean near Brazil is a big example. I have a strong feeling it is electromagnetic in nature. I wonder if Mr.Pearson has also been noticing these things... The movie is very suspenceful and entertaining, but in real life there will be no aliens to rescue us.

Unknown said...

I do not know much about the Mormon religion but this movie seems completely of the Mormon religion.

Donnad3713 said...

The interview with Pearson was really enlightning. One question I hoped would be answered; what was the significance of the smooth black stones? I had an experience in 2000 riding the commuter train home from work. I was the only person on the car as it was late. Sitting alone I felt something slide through my hair, down my neck and gently rest on my shoulder. It was a smooth black stone just like the stones in Knowing. I looked on floor around me and as far as I could along the car there was no one else on the car with me. I've wondered ever since then what was the meaning of my receiving this stone. Then in 2009 I see Knowing featuring the same stone. In my case, even if the stone had been resting on the baggage shelf above me which was round poles, it would have knocked me on my head, it didn't. It was as though it suddenly appeared in my hair and then gently slide down. I have watched Knowing over and over since first seeing it wondering what could be the connection and if Pearson himself ever had an experience with a smooth black stone which inspired his plot.