A Social Thriller Masquerading As A Disaster Film

“What we love about Rumaan Alam’s novel, and writer-director Sam Esmail’s screenplay adaptation, is that it leaves nothing behind,” says Executive Producer Tonia Davis. “Leave the World Behind is a rare story that deals with race, class, what it means to raise kids in today’s world, and how external events start to seep into our consciousness and create fears where maybe there shouldn’t be any. This is a story that doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but asks fundamental questions about how we live, how we think, and who we trust.”

In this apocalyptic thriller from award-winning writer and director Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot), based on the National Book Award-nominated novel by Rumaan Alam, Amanda (Academy Award winner Julia Roberts) and her husband Clay (Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke), rent a luxurious home for the weekend with their kids, Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). Their vacation is soon upended when two strangers — G.H. (Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la) — arrive in the night, bearing news of a mysterious cyberattack and seeking refuge in the house they claim is theirs. The two families reckon with a looming disaster that grows more terrifying by the minute, forcing everyone to come to terms with their places in a collapsing world.

A conversation with writer-director-producer Sam Esmai

What drew you to Rumaan Alam’s novel?

The book drew me in because of its characters, first and foremost. They all seemed authentic and a true
product of modern society. There was something about the way they clashed with each other in this near-apocalyptic setting that resonated with me. There’s also a theme of uncertainty that’s prevalent in the book; I loved the way Rumaan played with that idea and used it to pit these really fascinating, well-drawn
characters against each other. To watch them grapple with the unknown while society around them is collapsing — it felt like a really rich subtext for a film.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND (2023) Ethan Hawke, Julia Roberts, Writer/Director Sam Esmail and Mahershala Ali. CR: Courtesy NETFLIX

Why did you want to adapt it and how does it align with the kinds of stories you’re drawn to as a filmmaker?

I had been interested in doing a disaster movie for a while, and I specifically wanted to do one surrounding a cyber attack because I don’t think a lot of people have a concrete idea of what that would look like or how detrimental it would be, not just in America, but globally. I thought that could be a very interesting subject to dramatize in a film. So that had been percolating in the back of my head when my agents gave me an early copy of Leave the World Behind.

I read it in one sitting and then reread it a few hours later — the first time as a fan and the second time imagining it as a movie. And I realized that there was something about the mystery of what Rumaan was doing with his story that I could combine with what I was thinking about with a cyberattack disaster movie. It really was kind of one in the same.

The impact of technology on society is something that I’ve always been fascinated by because I really do think it dramatically changed the way we interact and evolve as people. What Rumaan did so well with this story is that he kept it centered on these characters and the journey they’re all on, and I found a way to expand upon my obsessions while translating it into a cinematic experience: What if technology was the driver behind this collapse? What if this thing that we as a people and as a society rely on so much, blindly turns against us? From there, everything just clicked into place.

An adaptation is naturally going to diverge in places from its original medium. There’s one notable change from the novel that readers will notice immediately — that Ruth is now G.H.’s daughter instead of his wife. What was the impetus behind that decision?

Changing Ruth from the wife to the daughter was one of the first things I thought about after I started writing the screenplay. Obviously, Rumaan and I talked about it. The idea was that if this film was going to explore the idea of humanity grappling with the fragility of society, I wanted to include as many points of view as possible. I thought it would be interesting to have Ruth embody a millennial point of view to see how it would contrast with the adults as well as the younger kids. It was a way of giving a panoramic view of what a collapse would feel like through different eyes and across different generations.

You worked closely with Rumaan as you were writing the screenplay. What was that like?

Rumaan is such a gifted writer and his book is so beautiful. When I choose to adapt anything, there has to be a really compelling reason, especially if the story works so well in its original medium. So when I spoke to him about translating it into a film, I was very upfront about my vision for it and the changes that I wanted to make. He was so open and generous and it’s such a dream to work with someone like him. Artists can get really protective and defensive about their work. It was never like that with Rumaan.
Our agenda was always about creating a wholly new experience that would recontextualize his novel cinematically. How can we add layers now that we’re in a different medium that could talk about the themes of the book in different ways? Having his trust has been an amazing experience.

Author Rumaan Alam on working with Sam Esmail: “There’s a trust you have to establish with people as an artist and in my first conversation with Sam, I trusted him and felt I understood him as an artist. The process of adaptation requires reinvention, and I trusted Sam’s ability to reinvent and reshape this story. But he really had his work cut out for him: the novel is told in the voice and interior perspectives of all these characters — a tool a filmmaker can’t use — so his script had to reinvent how the narrative works. When he sent me the script, it felt as if I was seeing this story I had come up with being reborn, yet the emotional truth remained the same. It showed me that I had chosen a creative partner who enriched the story, deepened it, and created a different experience but one with the same destination…I have many colleagues and friends who are also novelists who’ve had their hearts broken in Hollywood. I never had that experience working on this project. I always felt like my book was in great hands.”

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND (2023) Mahershala Ali as G.H., Myha’la as Ruth, Julia Roberts as Amanda and Ethan Hawke as Clay. CR: Courtesy NETFLIX

From the opening scene, you have the viewer riding along a razor’s edge of uneasiness that continues to build in such a way that the film ends up sneakily morphing into several different genres. How did you approach the film tonally?

Tone is everything. A movie could have plot holes, it could have questionable performances, questionable music choices, subpar cinematography, but if the tone is there…that to me is key in locking an audience into an emotional journey. That’s how they get sucked in. One of the things I think about when it comes to tone is how to make it undefinable. If you start falling into the trappings of, “Okay, we’re making a thriller, so it’s going to have a certain kind of music and these certain kinds of tropes,” it engenders a level of predictability that subtracts from the tension that you’re trying to build with the audience. So, for me, it’s always about finding ways to mix things up and clashing different genres, tones, and styles together
so that you’re always subverting expectations. In doing that, there’s a kind of alchemy you’re creating so that when you’re watching a film, you’re not quite sure how to feel. What that affords you is this indelible sense of disorientation and anticipation. Because when you’re watching a film and you don’t know what’s going to happen next but at the same time desperately want to, that’s probably the most exhilarating experience you can give an audience.

Esmail Corp producer Chad Hamilton on the craftiness of Leave the World Behind: “This movie is a bit of a roller coaster that will defy audiences’ expectations at every turn. It’s not only a fun and suspenseful ride, it’s a social thriller masquerading as a disaster film — one that will ultimately make people think and reflect upon their lives in a way they haven’t before and, hopefully, allow them to leave their world behind…at least for the duration of our film.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND (2023) Mahershala Ali as G.H. CR: Courtesy NETFLIX

You mentioned you’re a fan of disaster movies. Did any in particular serve as inspiration?

Given the mash up of genres, were there other types of films or auteurs that influenced this film? Clearly the disaster genre in general was a big influence. The classics being Earthquake, Towering Inferno, films that really take a panoramic view of an ensemble cast of characters that are going through this singular event together and how it fractures or connects them. Disaster movies have a tendency to rely on
set pieces and the characters become secondary. But what I loved about adapting this story was the opportunity to invert that process — the set pieces become about who these people are and the disaster elements are secondary.

In that regard, Hitchcock bears a lot of influence on this film. He was a master of suspense, but it was his characters who really made his stories interesting. We all remember the plane in North by Northwest, but if you’ve ever seen it, you know that scene is just a fraction of the movie. The bulk of it is about Cary Grant’s journey. Using suspense and anticipation to carry audiences through every section of the film, while also digging deep into the psychology of these people, their choices, and their fears — it’s a visceral way of injecting your audience into a story.

I also remember horror being the predominant feeling I had after reading the book. How can you not be horrified at the world after seeing how little it would take to have it all collapse? So, the first film that came to mind was The Shining. And that definitely loomed over our set design, the way we framed certain shots, the opening sequence when the Sandfords are driving to the house.

I can go on all day, but my last reference point would probably be the classic, paranoid thrillers. Specifically Pakula’s. Because the other thing that goes along with a lot of suspense films — and certainly the ones I make — is that feeling of the unknown and being paranoid about what you don’t know, being paranoid about what’s going to happen, and having the audience looking over their shoulders along with the characters.

There’s a remarkable interplay of big ideas and topics in this story. You’ve spoken about technology and the fragility of modern society, but there are also undercurrents of racial prejudice and class divides that create new layers of tension. How did you weave this into your film?

One of the things the book explores so beautifully is the unspoken side of racism, the subtle or not so subtle microaggressions that permeate throughout every power structure in the world. When you have these unconscious biases that are controlling the choices and emotions of people, and they’re not even aware of it, that’s a potentially more dangerous and eye-opening facet that I haven’t quite seen explored in this way before. I think we’ve all seen films that overtly talk about racism, our film observes a more inconspicuous manifestation of it. And it becomes even more insidious when classism is woven throughout.

There are some overt choices we made in the filmmaking where we move the camera from all the way up top in the bedroom, down into the basement as sort of an upstairs-downstairs metaphor. The irony being that the owners are the actual ones down in the basement and the guests are the ones all the way at the to.

Why is this film perfect for audiences today and what do you hope they take away from it?

I think this film is right for audiences today because it speaks to the uncertainty of how we feel. I don’t care what your beliefs are or what you’re aligned with politically or religiously or racially. There seems to be a wide consensus that there’s a lot of fractures in our world, and there’s a lot of uncertainty on how we’re going to heal those divisions. And I think that’s what this film grapples with: how do we make sense of something that inherently feels ambiguous? How do you even relate to one another? How do you relate to your family members or strangers? What do you do when you must confront this elusive enigma that is our society?

I’ve always viewed Leave the World Behind as a cautionary tale, and I say that because there’s no hero’s journey in this film. There’s no moral lesson. It’s really about where our world is at and where it could go and what that means. And what I want more than anything is to provoke conversation, because I do think no matter what the solution, if there even is a solution, the path forward is to talk about it.

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