The West

Cerebral side to fantasy
Ethan Hawke. Picture: Supplied

Over the past few years science fiction has been Marvel-ised. That is, the genre has been overtaken by huge budgets, the extensive use of CGI (so much so they are mainly shot against green screens), characters have mind-boggling superpowers and stories rarely transcend the hoary old battle between good and evil.

But there is another kind of sci-fi flick in which the fireworks are mainly intellectual, in which the consequences of current technology are examined, in which we're taken into alternate realities that reveal a dangerous truth about our own and, most enticingly, the linear account of time and history is up-ended.

It is this second more cerebral strand of sci-fi that is followed by Queensland's Spierig brothers in Predestination, a beautifully crafted noir-ish time-travel fantasy about a so-called Temporal Agent leaping across the decades in pursuit of an elusive terrorist that opens the way for paradoxes that will have audiences wishing they could text Stephen Hawking for guidance.

Just when you think you've begun to grasp the relationship between Ethan Hawke's era-hopping agent and the androgynous-looking man (Sarah Snook) he meets in a bar in New York in the early 1970s we're thrown one loop after another as we traverse both time and the gender divide, leaving us wondering how many different characters there are in the movie or if there's just one character or if it's all just a dream.

Ironically (or perhaps aptly) I had the same problem with the fluidity of identity when I interviewed Michael and Peter Spierig: the Brisbane-based 38-year-old identical twins sounded so similar over the phone I kept forgetting I was speaking to two people (it seemed rude to ask them to identify themselves so from now on they will be "the Spierigs").

The problem of identity and not the opportunity for cool settings and stunning special effects is what attracted the Spierigs to adapting Robert Heinlein's 1958 short story " - All You Zombies - ", which Peter had read many years ago.

"Nowadays, when we think of science fiction we assume there's going to be lots of robots and things exploding. But there is a different tradition in which topical ideas are explored. You find this more intellectual version of sci-fi in the works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and Heinlein," the Spierigs say.

"We have never before seen this type of character in a time- travel movie. We've never seen a transgender time-traveller. We're calling Predestination a transgender mindbender."

While the brothers relished in the idea of taking on a tale which pushes the concept of time travel to the limit, what really excited them was the brevity of Heinlein's story, a mere 12 pages long with only the barest description of the world of the Temporal Agent chasing of his own tail across time.

"What really excited us is that while the story and its time-travel intricacies are very clearly laid out by Heinlein - the whole crazy paradox of it all - there is so much room for us to put our stamp on it as filmmakers," they explain.

In order to flesh out that world - to imagine, for instance, the mid-1960s space agency in which women are recruited to "comfort" men on their long, lonely journeys - the Spierigs had the perfect resource, Heinlein's body of work (he was referred to as "the dean of science-fiction writers" and helped bring the genre into the mainstream).

"There is such a beautiful symmetry in the Heinlein world - everything sort of fits together - that we were able to take pieces from other stories and meld them into our movie," the Spierigs explain.

While explaining and expanding the Heinlein-ian world was a challenge, it was nothing compared with the casting of the key role of The Unmarried Mother, the effeminate man who tells his/her story to Hawke's Temporal Agent and kicks off a story that will leave audiences debating what they saw long into the night.

The Spierigs initial thought was to cast two actors in the role, a male and female. "That would have been the safe option," they say. "But it was also the less interesting version and would carry less emotional weight because it would be two people going through a singular experience."

Their search for an actress who could convincingly play a man lead them to Sarah Snook, the vivacious Adelaide-born NIDA graduate who first caught our attention in the ABC series Sisters of War then revealed big-screen potential in Perth director Peter Templeman's under-appreciated romantic comedy Not Suitable for Children.

"We looked at a number of actresses but Sarah blew us away," the brothers say. "Sarah has such a brave, fearless quality to her that she reassured us that this crazy idea could actually work."

While Predestination was shot in Melbourne and Hawke is the only import among the cast (Noah Taylor figures in a key role as the Temporal Agent's suave boss) it looks and feels like an American movie.

The Spierigs say that Australian-ising Heinlein's story was never an option as they were keen to once again work with Hawke, who was the star of their hit 2009 vampire fantasy Daybreakers. And to secure the budget needed to make a sleek sci-fi movie they sold Predestination to Sony Pictures.

"They wanted the film to be marketable in the US, so we had to stick with the US setting and use American accents. The actors in our first film Undead had very broad Aussie accents, so when we were shopping it around in the US one of the distributors said: 'We really like the film but can you dub it into English?'"

Next up for the Spierigs is a movie about the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, a mansion that was once the personal residence of the widow of gun magnate William Hirt Winchester. She believed she was haunted by all the people killed by her husband's rifles, so she built a mansion to trick the ghosts, such as stairways that went nowhere and rooms that opened on to deadly drops.

"We would shoot a little in the mansion, which is a major tourist attraction, and build the rest here. But this situation is constantly changing. We want to continue making international pictures in Australia but sometimes you come up against industry realities."

The West Australian

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