Patrick Ness’ celebrated science fiction novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in the Chaos Walking series, is brought to life on the big screen by filmmaker Doug Liman, who reinvented the action movie with The Bourne Identity and challenged familiar science fiction trope into the original and dazzling film Edge of Tomorrow.
In the not-too-distant future, Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) discovers Viola (Daisy Ridley), a mysterious young woman who crash lands on his planet, where all the women have disappeared and the men are afflicted by The Noise – a force that puts all of their thoughts on display. In this dangerous landscape, Viola’s life is threatened, and as Todd vows to protect her, he must discover his own inner power and unlock the planet’s dark secrets.
A global theatrical experience for all audiences, the screenplay for Chaos Walking was crafted by Ness and Christopher Ford (Spider-Man: Homecoming).
Patrick Ness is the author of twelve books for adults and teenagers, is published in over forty languages, and, amongst numerous other awards, won the prestigious Carnegie Medal twice in a row. He has worked as a screenwriter for Sony, Material and Entertainment One, created and wrote the eight-part Doctor Who spinoff Class for the BBC, and is currently working on projects for Warner Bros. and Apple. Ness won an Olivier for the stage version of his book A Monster Calls, which he also adapted for the screen (2016, directed by J.A. Bayona and starring Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones). His most recent novel, Burn, was published to critical acclaim last year.
Christopher Ford, whom Liman brought in to co-write the script, calls Chaos Walking, “a heightened sci-fi adventure about what happens when humans arrive on a planet, and due to some incredible circumstances they fall from the high level of technology of Earth in the 26th century. But it’s really about a boy and girl trying to figure out how to interact with one another. It’s such a relatable theme, and that’s why it’s grabbed so many readers, especially young people, who are beginning to try and figure out all those things.”
Christopher Ford is an award-winning screenwriter based in Oakland, CA. He has written films across genres from comedy to drama to horror and is drawn to stories that explore themes of humanity and technology. Past credits include Spider-Man: Homecoming, Cop Car, the Sundance award winner Robot & Frank, and others.
What if your innermost thoughts were always on display?
The story is set in the year 2257 A.D., on a distant planet known as New World, the male settlers are bombarded every second of every day with each other’s thoughts, in the form of an unrelenting cacophony of sounds, called The Noise. It drove the men insane because women could also hear and see their thoughts, while the women’s remained hidden. After the women were killed off, purportedly by the planet’s indigenous species, the men remain haunted, if not tortured, by the endless barrage of their thoughts come to life.
According to author and co-screenwriter Patrick Ness, the architect of this incredible and foreboding world through his acclaimed trilogy of books, “The Noise is everything you think, fantasize about, wish for, and believe in. It’s the human mind, completely unedited. The disparity between the sexes, which was triggered by The Noise, makes up so much of the history of New World. It’s ever-present – and an intense part of the experience of the film.”
The Noise is one of the most fascinating and singular aspects of the books and, now, the film, and was one of several key elements that drew filmmaker Doug Liman to the project. Having reinvented the action movie with The Bourne Identity and turned what could have been a familiar science fiction trope into the original and dazzling film Edge of Tomorrow, Liman embraced the fact that The Noise gave him so much to play with in bringing to life the phenomenon’s unique terrors, from which no character can hide their truth.
Patrick Ness’ celebrated first book in his Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, was published in 2008, and immediately drew attention for its central conceit – an inventive extrapolation of our world under siege from information overload.
“It felt like we were already loud, especially if you’re a sensitive soul,” says the author, who also penned the best-selling novel A Monster Calls, as well as its film adaptation. “We now use technology and media to shout at each other and at the world. So, I thought, what if the next logical step was that you couldn’t get away from the shouting. It’s a terrifying idea because the brain is a messy place and The Noise is the living, breathing face of that mess.
“When teenagers read the Chaos Walking books, and when they see the film, they aren’t seeing a distant future. They’re seeing an emotional representation of their daily lives,” Ness sums up.
The visionary filmmaker taking on these bold ideas and characters is Doug Liman, who brings a unique sensibility and perspective to building the world of Chaos Walking. He is well known for breaking the rules, and that, says Ness, “works perfectly for this story.”
Doug Liman is a film and television director and producer. His began his career with the 1996 audience favorite Swingers and has directed film titles including Fair Game, The Wall, Go, American Made, The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Edge of Tomorrow / Live Die Repeat, and Locked Down. In the television space, Liman has directed and produced two seasons of the hit series Impulse, based on his feature film Jumper through his Hypnotic label. He also served as executive producer of nine seasons of Suits, the first season of The O.C. (for which he also directed the pilot), five seasons of Covert Affairs, and numerous other TV shows. Liman also works on web, non-linear and VR content through his label 30 Ninjas, which earned a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records for their show Invisible as the first scripted VR series. He serves on the board of the Legal Action Center and the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School.
A World-Changing New Arrival
Ridley’s Viola crash-lands on New World, the sole survivor of a spacecraft scouting for the larger mothership, which was bringing a second wave of settlers to this distant planet. Her impact on the men, who haven’t seen a woman in years, is immediate and powerful, especially on young Todd, who had never before laid eyes on a member of the opposite sex.
Ness, and now Liman, envisioned the character as being something readers and audiences had not seen before.
“I had grown tired of stories where the boy was brave and a little bit thick, and the girl was brainy and sassy, and together they solve crimes,” Ness explains. “I thought, why can’t they be equally smart, scared, messed up, and glorious in their curiosity. Viola is strong, but there are moments when she’s tentative, like Todd. I wanted her to be a fully human, complicated person because that’s what teenagers are about – discovering that they are a contradiction. The story is about them both learning that they have the capability of relying on someone other than themselves, which is a huge step. Their adventure is not about how to avoid failure; it’s about how you address those failures.”
Among the books’ legions of fans was one Daisy Ridley, fresh off her turns as the heroic Rey in the recent Star Wars Trilogy, who says she “devoured” them upon being asked to portray Viola. “Like the books, our film is an amazing action-adventure, as well as a compelling look at gender politics,” Ridley notes. “What happens if something drastic happens to one gender and not the other? How does that affect the dynamics within a community? Viola and Todd are on a big adventure, but there is so much underneath that they’re figuring out.”
Moreover, Ridley appreciated how the story presents “a kind of emotional dystopia and an extension of today’s social media landscape, where people put things out into the world without perhaps thinking of the repercussions. The film reflects our current states of information overload and oversharing.”
Ridley embraced the character’s failures, strengths, and first, tentative steps to understanding her unexpected partner in adventure, Todd. “Viola is the catalyst of Chaos Walking,” she points out. “Viola and her crewmates had traveled to New World believing they were going to find a better life. But after she crashes on the planet, Viola must recalibrate her expectations and somehow make the best of it. She is isolated and has lost everyone she knows. At the same time, Viola is also the funniest character in the film – not in the sense of making jokes, but in the way she perseveres despite incredible obstacles. She’s relentless on her journey, but naïve about her new environment. That makes for some fun moments.”
Ridley credits her onscreen partner, Holland, who of course plays your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in several Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters, with helping her build the unusual dynamic between the two characters. “Tom brings so much to the role,” she says. “He plays a young man on the cusp of adulthood, and he makes us understand why Todd chooses to run with Viola. The audience has to really be with the two of them on this journey, and I think the film succeeds with that.”
Those special moments include a rite of passage for teens: the first kiss. But The Noise once again proves to be an enormous complication. “It’s a sweet thing and also very funny,” says Ridley. “Todd has just met a girl for the first time and his brain, and Noise, are in overdrive.” The Noise renders an audio and visual manifestation of his attraction to Viola, as well as a stew of confusing signals, which surprise, repel, and intrigue the young woman.
Ridley further asserts that Todd’s awkward, uncomfortable and hilarious gesture, has a lot of relatability. “Audiences will remember that kind of feeling. It also adds to the evolving relationship between Viola and Todd, and it’s nice to see a young man and woman become good friends and help each other out.”
Screenwriter Ford enjoyed helping shape the character, noting that Viola is “relentless in her mission and she’s super-tough. At times, Todd becomes a kind of sidekick to this really strong woman, who’s not taking any guff.”
The story’s principal antagonist is Mayor David Prentiss, the leader of the village outside of which Todd resides. Prentiss is a charming, ruthless, and power-hungry figure whose goal is to rule over all of New World, having already taken control of the settlement that bears his name, Prentisstown. “He’s the boss and nobody gets near that,” warns Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Hannibal), who takes on the role.
But there’s an intriguing complexity to Prentiss that sees him assume an almost paternalistic interest in Todd, who’s impressed the imposing leader with his ability to control some of his Noise. Moreover, says Mikkelsen, Prentiss has “a troubled relationship with his son, Davy. Prentiss sees Davy as a disappointment, even though the young man is trying his best to live up to his father’s ambitions.
Of course, none of this sits well with Davy, says Nick Jonas. “Jealousy is a big drive for Davy and his father mentoring Todd drives him crazy, to the point where Davy begins to unravel physically and emotionally. I appreciated how he embodies the town’s physical violence and aggression.”
“It’s the classic story,” Mikkelsen continues, “about trying to get the approval of your dad, who is looking somewhere else – in this case, at Todd. He thinks Todd has a certain brilliance and potential that he does not see in Davy. Prentiss sees Todd as the future of this pathetic town, and is intrigued that Todd can manipulate The Noise in a more effective manner than others.”
Creating a New Cinematic Vision
Visual effects on-set supervisor Jeff White, who has twice been Oscar-nominated for Best Visual Effects (Marvel’s The Avengers, 2012) and winner of an Academy Award Scientific and Technical Award, notes that the key to creating the cinematic vision of The Noise was “finding the balance between something that’s purely abstract, where we’re representing the characters’ emotions through color, line work, and movement; and conveying important story elements through The Noise. The audience will experience what’s happening in the characters’ heads. We wanted them to understand, right away, the importance of The Noise and what it was revealing about New World. The Noise becomes a part of that world; it becomes a physical thing. Each character’s noise is unique.”
White devised some initial and intriguing concepts for the phenomenon, but it was visual effects supervisor Matt Johnson who came up with the final iteration of The Noise. Early on, Johnson says he “riffed on the idea of noise pollution and of ‘stuff’ in the air. We wanted The Noise to feel organic and not like magic or pixie dust in the sky. The Noise is very much a byproduct of New World.”
Johnson was inspired by simple but relatable things like the sheen of water vapor emitted by lawn sprinkling systems. “It’s very much in line with the film’s earthy style,” he observes.
Johnson divided the types of Noise into what he calls different “levels” and always considered the fact that whenever the characters had powerful thoughts, “the audience needed to see them. The effect was triggered by previously recorded audio of the actors recording their thoughts. We analyzed the sounds’ peaks and troughs, and loud percussive dialogue was reflected in the respective imagery of The Noise.”
Todd’s signature Noise, says Johnson, “can be powerful and realistic because he was born of the planet and of The Noise. For example, when he conjures up a snake.” In addition, Todd has a kind of Noise mantra, in which he repeats his name over and over again as a way of hiding his secrets from others. But some of his deepest thoughts and yearnings, especially those about his new companion, Viola resist even a seasoned Noise practitioner’s control. This points to what Johnson terms The Noise’s “final” level – when images of people or animals appear.
Another major character, Mayor Prentiss uses his Noise “like a Zen master,” describes Johnson. “He has mastered his thoughts.” Like Todd, he has a mantra, “I am the circle; the circle is me,” to hide his innermost thoughts. “He doesn’t want people to know what he’s thinking, so we created a Noise imagery for him of an ethereal blue spiral, as if he were meditating.”
The figure of Preacher is all about fire and brimstone, so his Noise needed to frighten the other characters – and the audience. “His Noise is a swarming, flaming mass that would flare and recede around him, and give a violent feeling,” says Johnson, who admits this was his favorite Noise to devise.