Based on the beloved novel of the same name by M.T. Anderson —who worked with director Cory Finley to adapt the pages to the screen—this story of young love, aliens and a society that is unforgiving to those who are left impoverished and unemployed may take on the look of a YA sci-fi film, but it involves so much more than that.
To dive a little deeper into just what that may mean, Finley sat down to chat more about ‘Landscape with Invisible Hand.’
Your friend and producer on this film, Jeremy Kleiner, sent you this script after your first film ‘Thoroughbreds’ came out. What were your first thoughts on this novel and idea?
It was something that really intrigued me—[Jeremy] knew that I had an interest in kind of weird, off-kilter, sci-fi and sort of surreal science fiction. He came across this book and he fell in love with it, and then I fell in love with it. It was such a unique tone, very playful, very kind of youthful, but also very dark and it took on cerebral themes in a playful way.
I was drawn to the challenge of doing something super different from anything I’d done before. I did that first movie, which was sort of a psychological thriller, the second one was kind of a dark comedy and crime drama—and neither had any elements of world-building or anything like that. So I wanted to stretch myself and do something different. The book really spoke to me with the themes, and the characters just wouldn’t let me leave them alone.
From a director’s POV, what went into creating this film visually, especially with the aliens?
Certainly from a directorial point of view, there’s a huge challenge of just bringing these aliens to life. What’s so cool about fiction and particularly the kind of spare style that M.T. Anderson uses is that you can really leave a lot to the reader’s imagination and sort of enlist the reader as a collaborator in bringing these creatures to life in their heads. He’s so great about these kinds of minimalist but incredibly memorable descriptions. I think in the book, they’re described as being sort of swat-like coffee tables, and they’re described as communicating by rubbing a gritty fin against their bodies and making a sound that is like someone walking forcefully in corduroys.
So that was sort of my North Star in the creature design, where I wanted to preserve these evocative, strange descriptions, but obviously, you have to do a lot of practical thinking about the anatomy of these things if you’re gonna put them on screen. So I worked with Erik De Boer, who’s our visual effects supervisor from very early on. He was kind of the first person in this pre-production, and we worked with a bunch of concept artists.
We did a lot of movement mockups and [we were] just always trying to keep them feeling physically real in the world, but also visually amusing and trying to be just as simple as possible and not make some sort of baroque, showy, alien design. We wanted something that really let the situation do the talking but also delivered on your expectations of what an alien movie is going to give you.
And speaking of visual effects, one of the parts of the film I really enjoyed were the paintings that were involved, not to give too much away. Can you tell me a bit about that aspect of ‘Landscape with Invisible Hand’?
It’s a sci-fi movie, but I want it to be human-hearted. So the other big visual ingredients are these real paints by the artist William Downs, who is a super talented Atlanta-based artist—that’s where we shot. He makes these amazing, kind of surreal, possibly disturbing, possibly fanciful, black and white ink drawings. We got him to work with color paints, which he hadn’t done in a very long time, but I thought his style translated so beautifully to that medium. He had to work both as a painter and almost as an actor by inhabiting this character through the various stages of Adam’s life and his growth as an artist over the course of the movie.
What were you looking for when casting the two main leads, especially since their characters are beloved in the book?
I was looking for a lot of qualities: Adam (Asante Blackk), has to do so much and he’s sort of the heart and soul of the movie. You have to find him compelling, both when he’s sort of speechifying and chewing the scenery, but also, and more importantly, in the moments when he’s quietly taking things in and making decisions or choosing to do things or not to do things. Asante just has such a natural magnetism and a sort of calm and comfort with stillness as an actor, which I think is so important.
And ditto for Kylie Rogers who plays Chloe and is just a fantastic actor. She was recently in ‘Beau is Afraid’ in a very memorable, very different role in Ari Aster’s movie. I think that’s the thing I always look for in actors—all the things you usually look for, plus a real sort of comfort with stillness. That’s the way I like to shoot and pace my movies. I could say all kinds of things about them, but I think that was one quality they shared.
Working on a sci-fi film in a short amount of time (34 days) must have had its challenges and moments of production creativity. Are there any scenes that stand out to you for that reason?
There’s one shot that was very cool, I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler, where we kind of pull back from the two young lovers watching ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ in their basement. They sort of transition into a hologram and you reveal these aliens around them watching. We obviously didn’t have the aliens there, and we’d heavily pre-visualized that scene, [but] we kept as much of it real and in-camera as possible.
We actually projected the film from an old film projector, which we had to pre-clear before we shot it. We really worked on getting this kind of nice smooth camera move with the silhouettes and the lighting, and it was just really lovely to see the falling-in-love scenes with the two young leads. It was one of the moments where the crew and everyone was just really energized that we made something really cool with that shot.
I saw you mention that you hope this film evokes feelings. So, what do you hope audiences take away from ‘Landscape with Invisible Hand’?
I think a movie needs to be interesting enough to hold your attention at a base level. The next level is, you hope it has some emotional impact and that it’s not just popcorn, right? And that something sticks with people emotionally. If you hit both of those, I think you have a chance to really make people think and sort of work on that cerebral level. But I think it’s gotta always start with an emotional core
I hope it makes people think about some of the ideas about modernity, and capitalism, and colonialism, and all of that. [I hope] it causes people to approach some of these issues that we think a lot about as a culture, but approach them in a slightly skewed, different and unusual way.
‘Landscape with Invisible Hand‘ will be released in theaters Aug. 18.