“What if the afterlife was proved?”
The log line for director Charlie McDowell’s new movie, The Discovery, is that simple and that complex. It’s a question McDowell’s writing partner, Justin Lader, pitched to him immediately after production wrapped on their first film, 2014’s mind-bending relationship two-hander, The One I Love. Lader and McDowell have a thing for high-concept, nose-to-the-ground science fiction, and a keen grasp of twisty, satisfying endings. But it’s the beginning, the opening scene of The Discovery, that really grabs. In the movie, Dr. Thomas Harbor, played by Robert Redford, has made the titular scientific discovery, and it has unleashed a wave of societal tumult.
“If science and religion came together, what would people do?” McDowell told me during a recent podcast conversation about the movie. “The idea of suicide came up — not the idea that suicidal people take their own lives, but more like, ‘What if you don’t love the life that you’re in? What if you can’t pay your mortgage? What if you’ve gone through a horrible breakup?’ We’ve all had these feelings where we’ve said, ‘Oh, I want to kill myself,’ and we don’t actually mean it. But what if death isn’t death anymore? What if you’re constantly living, but just in a different place each time. That was our starting-off point.”
The Discovery focuses largely on characters played by Jason Segel and Rooney Mara, two wandering souls searching for meaning in a world that’s been stripped of some of its unknown. But the movie opens on Redford, who is cagey and entitled in his intelligence. (It’s the 80-year-old icon’s best performance in 20 years.)
“We wrote the first scene, which is this interview between Dr. Harbor, who proves the existence of the afterlife, and an interviewer, and that was the first thing we wrote,” McDowell said. “We didn’t even have other characters.”
“[An opening scene like this] is a really easy way to say, ‘This is the world and now we’re going to focus on a small part of it,’” he said. “This concept’s big enough that a filmmaker like a Christopher Nolan, someone who explores these big ideas, would do a huge, big-budget version of this where we would see globally how this is affecting the world. For us, we never really had the opportunity to do that, and nor did we want to. For us, it was more interesting to just follow a set of characters and focus on them and have this concept be the backdrop. That opening scene was a great way to show this is what’s happening in the world, and now the story begins. It’s a prologue.”