With his second feature, The Discovery, screenwriter and director Charlie McDowell continues to craft high-concept sci-fi stories that straddle scale, telling an intimate love story set in an otherwise sprawling internal universe.
This sophomore effort in some ways echoes his first film, 2014’s The One I Love, which McDowell says “delved in comedy, drama, sci-fi [and] romance.” That film was about a married couple (played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) who went on a retreat to patch up their sputtering marriage, and found themselves in a situation far more surreal than they’d anticipated. The Discovery, which like the previous film was co-written with Justin Lader, “has elements of that, but it’s a much darker subject,” McDowell says. With visual influences as disparate as The Master, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Buffalo ’66, McDowell takes these cues and crafts a heady drama that walks a tonal tightrope.
This love story is between two people (Jason Segel and Rooney Mara) who find themselves caught in the mythos of one man: Thomas Harber (Robert Redford), a maverick scientist whose titular discovery is definitive proof of an afterlife. McDowell and Lader followed the natural progression of that idea, which McDowell says led to the question, “If death isn’t death, would people start killing themselves? We thought, ‘Yes, they would,’ and that would be interesting to explore.”
The story enters Harber’s world through his son, Will (Jason Segel), who returns to his father and brother (Jesse Plemons) after being away for the past year in the aftermath of Harber’s findings. Will is baffled by the place in which he finds his father living: a giant old mansion where Harber conducts his latest experiments, with workers who look and act suspiciously like a cult, with matching jumpsuits and rampant groupthink. Will’s bewilderment about his father’s methods, as well as his discomfort with the mass suicides going on, continues to mount. He is the sole voice of reason in this otherwise hermetical compound where Harber is revered and rarely challenged.
Initially, McDowell and Lader envisioned a farm-like compound for Harber and his team, something in the vein of the property inhabited by the cult characters of Martha Marcy May Marlene. McDowell explains how his search went: “I tried to find that [farm] in Rhode Island, and I never found one that felt perfect. So I described to this realtor in Newport what I was looking for: ‘I just need something where all of these people would come together and be under the same roof, and it feels interesting and weird and different.’ She said, ‘There’s this super creepy house down the road.’ She took me over there, and you step on this property and feel like you’re in a different country. I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I took all of these pictures. I called up the producer and my writing partner, and I said, ‘This is totally absurd, and it’s so not what we wrote, but this place is really interesting.'” They tweaked the script to accommodate that location.
The Discovery premiered this January at Sundance Film Festival with a distribution deal already in place with Netflix. As for what’s next for McDowell, he says, “As long as I’m making people use their head and their heart, then I’m excited to explore whatever stories are out there. That’s who I am as a filmmaker. If there’s a way to connect those two things… I want to swing for it.” MM
The Discovery is available to stream starting March 31, 2017, courtesy of Netflix.