South African production designer Johnny Breedt is one of the creative minds that brought the much anticipated Sci-Fi thriller Replicas to life in Puerto Rico.
“While the shoot had its challenges – the island was reeling from the twin blows of the Zika outbreak that had hit their tourism industry, and a financial crisis which left the economy in tatters – the beauty of Puerto Rico shined through, and turned out to be the perfect location for a “Caribbean” look,” says Breedt, who was also the production designer on Eye in The Sky and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and made his directorial feature debut with Die Ontwaking. “Its lush, vibrant greenery gave it the tropical look it needed. At the same time, this movie needed to feel authentic yet somewhat separated from the real world.”
“I felt that if we want the audience to buy into the sci-fi premise of this movie, it was important to create a sufficiently impressive visual environment for BIODYNE” (the lab),” says director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (Traitor), who directed Replicas from a screenplay by Chad St. John (London Has Fallen).
“That meant building and designing a set to the standards of a Hollywood movie, even though Puerto Rico didn’t have existing stages big enough to do so.”
After a car accident kills his loving family, a daring neuroscientist (Keanu Reeves) will stop at nothing to bring them back, even if it means pitting himself against a government-controlled laboratory, a police task force, and the physical laws of science themselves.
The story behind Replicas came to life through an idea that producing partner Stephen Hamel shared with Keanu Reeves.
Both had an enthusiasm for telling a story that raised interesting questions, while still playing in the genre of which both are huge fans. As Hamel describes, “Replicas was born from my interest in the benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations as well as ethical limitations of using
such technologies. Specifically, that human beings may eventually be able to transfer their consciousness from one body to another.”
The goal was to create a dynamic where the hero (Keanu) is faced with both enormous intellectual and emotional stakes, simultaneously. In this convergence, Hamel felt there was something deeply moving and perturbing.
“I think the questions raised in the movie are particularly relevant today,” says Nachmanoff. “That is not to say they are new questions; ever since Icarus there have been morality tales warning against the perils of unfettered technological innovation and man’s hubris. Movies and books are constantly reminding us that humans aren’t supposed to play God. We wanted Replicas to explore that familiar trope in a less judgmental way. Is it a good idea for William to try to bring his family back from the dead? Perhaps not, but we’re still rooting for him to succeed once he tries. Who among us wouldn’t be willing to defy the laws of nature to save our loved ones? If you were in his shoes, what would you do? If you were in Mona’s, would you want to be brought back? The movie is intended as a fun and entertaining ride. But that doesn’t mean the core premise is completely fantastic. Neuroscience is a rapidly changing field. One day, perhaps, the idea of transferring a mind won’t be just a subject of science fiction.”
For Keanu Reeves, playing a role in this type of genre is different from his previous work. It was the complexity and traumatic events of the character William that intrigued his acting instincts: “I’m playing a husband and scientist who loses his family. As we all have lost people in our lives, there is something very relatable there. And then the tormenting thought of – how can you bring them back – was definitely the connector that made this character attractive and powerful to play,” says Reeves.
Once he wrote the story, he brought together their core team, including genre producer icon Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, to further develop the project, and help produce the film.
After finding genre writer Chad St. John, who had the same thoughts and a great alignment with the producers (a story that tackles science vs. ethics) it quickly turned into a script.
Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, Nachmanoff adds, “has a long history of involvement with science fiction and with Keanu, dating back to The Matrix and Constantine. He has a very strong understanding of how to make this kind of movie and he was invaluable in helping us shape the story, particularly at the script and editing stage.” Nachmanoff came on board shortly after to direct and of course the movie was on its way with the Start of Principle Photography set in Puerto Rico on July 10th 2016.
“As a fan of grounded science fiction, this story really appealed to me,” explains Nachmanoff. “The idea of taking a serious idea and turning it into commercial entertainment has always appealed to me. I believe we are approaching a time, in the not too distant future, when we will indeed be able to unlock some of the mysteries of how the brain functions. This will raise increasingly thorny ethical dilemmas – where is the line between AI and human consciousness? Is there a threshold for prolonging human life? Should there be? I found these underlying questions provocative, but most of all I liked the characters and the story and I was excited to tell it,” says Nachmanoff. Reeves adds to this: “Part of the film’s entertainment is that there is something to speak about.”
Nachmanoff continues, “One could say that the movie is a modern-day twist on the Frankenstein myth – a man of science uses his skills to defy the laws of nature with unintended consequences.” Tonally it was an interesting world to play in. The subject matter could be perceived as quite dark, but the new technological sci-fi element created an interesting balance.
“Much of the film takes place at night so there is a certain Gothic darkness to the tone of the movie. But we were shooting in the tropics where it is very lush, green and alive. I wanted to embrace both of those worlds to create a visual palette that would put a fresh spin on the thriller genre.”