Equals explores love, identity, and the human need for emotional fulfillment.
Equals began its journey to the screen with a question that Doremus posed to producer, Michael Pruss: “What will love look like in the future… do you think we could potentially evolve away from the thing that makes us most human?”
It would take a little less than three years from the question to the start of principal photography.
The question stuck with Pruss, who had career-defining stints as an Executive at Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures and Focus Features before joining Scott Free, the production company owned and operated by Sir Ridley Scott, as Vice President of Production and Development.
Pruss says: “We had worked together on Like Crazy and Breathe In. Equals felt like the culmination of those films that explored love, identity, and the human need for emotional fulfilment.”
While Pruss admitted to not knowing what the future held, he told Doremus he “knew a man who has lived in the future.” That man was Nathan Parker, who wrote the critically acclaimed film Moon, directed by Duncan Jones in 2009.
Doremus and Parker instantly clicked and began brainstorming the question and the myriad of ideas it conjured, before landing on the idea of a society where humans are genetically modified to be absent of feeling for the betterment of society.
A nuanced, slow-burning love story, the film is set in a futuristic utopia where emotions have been genetically suppressed in an effort to protect society from the war and strife that has destroyed previous generations.
On occasion, the suppression fails and emotions emerge in individuals – the Collective dubs this illness Switched On Syndrome, or SOS.
As society is increasingly threatened by this health crisis, all SOS sufferers are heavily medicated or sent to the Den, a corrective facility from which no one returns.
Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult are Nia and Silas – the film’s star-crossed lovers who encounter each other as colleagues at the science journal, Atmos.
As Silas begins to experience the onset of SOS and his own awakening emotions, he finds himself inextricably drawn to Nia, who is hiding her own SOS. The longer they attempt to suppress their palpable connection, the more the tension fans the flames of their attraction. But with this newfound pleasure of intimacy, comes the threat of discovery and consignment to the Den. With the support of a group of like-minded SOS patients, they realize escape is their only option
In developing the story, Parker strove to examine not just the positive aspects of love, but also the pain and agony that accompanies caring deeply for another person.
“We wanted these two characters, once they discover love, for it to feel like it was a curse,” Parker says. “They don’t want it, they want to run away from it, but are drawn back together because they can’t resist it.”
While Doremus and Parker worked on the story and script night and day, Pruss and Scott Free strove to assemble the players necessary to push it into production.
With the blessing of Scott Free production chief Michael Schaefer, the project attracted a group of heavyweight backers and the project’s journey to principal photography gathered momentum. Putting the project in front of Ridley Scott played a pivotal role in getting Equals made.
Pruss says: “Having Ridley Scott as a producer on the film and as someone who is going to present the film, was not just crucial, but very inspiring for us all. Obviously Ridley is someone who knows a thing or two about science fiction and I think you can really feel his imprint on the film.”
Ann Ruark, Jay Stern, and Chip Diggins of Route One, who are also financing the movie, combined their expertise with that of executive producers Ridley Scott, Russell Levine, Lee Jae Woo, and Choi Pyung Ho.
New York based producer Ann Ruark has worked with an extensive roster of filmmakers, to include Bill Pohlad (Love and Mercy), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Biutiful, Babel), and Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road).
Ruark says: “The project presented so many exciting opportunities to re-imagine the way that a film set in the future could be shot – utilizing unique architecture and environments rather than visual effects.”
Chip Diggins is a former Walt Disney Company production chief and founder and former managing partner of Route One Films, the production and finance company in which he retains a minority stake.
“I’m very proud to be a small part of the film because it is commercial but it also has artistic ambition. It works across a broad spectrum of taste without letting anyone down,” says Diggins.
Jay Stern is also a co-founder of Route One Films who now runs production and finance banner Boone Entertainment and was formally a New Line Cinema high flier.
“When I first read the script, I was very moved,” he reveals. “I thought it was a profound expression of the importance of connecting deeply with another human being. Drake has a real knack for expressing the nuances and details of romantic love. I think he’s the perfect person to capture the actual details of intimacy in the futuristic world that he created.”
First Among The Equals
Drake Doremus, a Sundance Grand Jury award winner with Like Crazy, knew he wanted to experiment with a genre that he had never done before in order to grow as a filmmaker. Picking the sci-fi genre was a bold move and making a love story in a world where love doesn’t exist perhaps even bolder.
“For me the film is about long-term relationships, what it means to fall in love, to ride the wave and changes of a relationship, and how by the end of a journey you need to remember what you felt and why you were in that relationship in the first place,” Doremus says. “It’s about trying to maintain what the relationships and love actually mean and love that changes and grows and becomes something else. It fascinates me and I wanted to portray that.”
Doremus uses extensive rehearsals to build trust among his cast, for him and each other, and employs his now established signature use of close-ups and delicately edited cuts of actors when portraying intimate and pivotal emotional moments. Equals represents a step up in scale and ambition for Doremus, while working entirely from someone else’s script.
“It was daunting to figure out how monotone but intellectual and forward-thinking the characters would be. We worked with all the actors in order to find the right tone, because ‘Equals’ are very intellectually stimulated and not robots. There’s just a lack of emotional capacity and empathy. Finding the right gear was difficult, but I think we did it early on in the rehearsal process,” Doremus explains.
Doremus and his principals spent a week in Tokyo doing acting exercises to help embed them in the characters to help take them to a place where they felt extremely comfortable with each other and the journey on which their characters travel.
“The rule was no ‘Equal’ improvises and any person who’s ‘switched on’ can and does…so in a lot of intimate scenes where they’re together, it’s a lot more free,” Doremus reveals.
With Silas and Nia on screen in almost every scene in the film, it was necessary to cast two young actors capable of delivering nuanced and subtle turns over a demanding schedule. But it was a familiar pressure for Doremus who had proven adept at drawing out such performances in the first two of his love story films. In both Like Crazy and Breathe In, Felicity Jones provided show-stopping performances while Oscar winning actress Jennifer Lawrence also shone brightly in her cameo in Like Crazy. But it was another in- demand young megastar, Kristen Stewart, who landed the part.
“I only met with a handful of actresses for this role, and when I met Kristen, it was really apparent that she was willing to throw her heart into this and go for it. I thought she had a tremendous amount of range and poise and emotional maturity,” Doremus says. “It was really exciting to watch her slowly ease into it throughout shooting, and at the end really become the character Nia.”
As for Silas, Nicholas Hoult had been the actor in mind from the start. Doremus had met Hoult a few years previously and the character of Silas was conceived with him in mind. Nathan Parker said the part of Silas was written for the actor from the start.
Says Doremus: “It’s rare to find actors that bring value to a film but also are right for the part, and Nick and Kristen really embody that. I feel really lucky to have them both.”
For his part, Hoult was a fan of Doremus’s work and was switched on by the script and its sci-fi future set story. “Drake has got this brilliant touch with films — the way he cuts and edits and gets performances out of people makes him one of the most exciting directors around,” says Hoult. “He has a way of getting a performance out of you but not making it a performance, and instead making it very true and honest. He made me feel very comfortable during the filming.”
For both Hoult (X-Men: First Class) and Stewart (The Twilight Saga), two veterans of global franchise movie series, Equals provided a very different challenge and change of pace from mixing it up with mutants and vampires.
Hoult had never done any sort of rehearsal process before Equals. “We got in a room and were honest for a week, didn’t even touch the script,” says Hoult. “We touched on things lightly, but it was mostly just talking about life and our experiences and came to know each other so when we got to set we were comfortable and felt safe.”
It was also a brave new world for Stewart, who enjoyed throwing herself into the way Doremus operates as a director. “His goal is to have no expectation and have everyone willing to use fear in a productive way,” explains Stewart. “His preparation is very up in the air. If you think you’re going to learn your lines and come to set ready to tell the story, that’s not what Drake wants.”
Doremus says both Hoult and Stewart nailed the parts and his methods of filmmaking. “They poured themselves into it, and really lost themselves in the improvisation and the flow and the process,” the director says. “They had never done anything like this, so it was new for them.
They really owned it by the end.”
The magical screen chemistry between Hoult and Stewart is a testament to the actors and director’s hard work in rehearsal. The two actors would sit in front of each other saying ‘hello’ for an hour. “By the end of it, you’ve fallen into this vacuum of honesty,” Stewart says. “For whatever reason, that acting exercise carried over into the way we addressed each other on set. I knew when he was lying, he knew when I was lying.
That alone is scary and bare and very vulnerable.”
Stewart says Doremus simply does what so many people want to do –“to allow themselves the freedom to discover.”
Hoult says: “This is the first time Drake is doing work with a script, so we’ve got exactly what we need and at times what we’ve got on the page is exactly what we do, but at other times, he told us to go off and see what happens. With Kristen as the other lead, that’s very easy to do because she’s able to go anywhere and be honest.”
Screenwriter Nathan Parker describes watching Hoult and Stewart bring his words to life on set in Japan as “thrilling”.