By Tom Ue.
After the Dark, written, produced, and directed by John Huddles (originally titled The Philosophers), tells the story of a group of philosophy seniors who had to choose, in hypothetical situations, which ten of them would seek refuge underground and repopulate the human race in the event of a nuclear apocalypse. Working through a number of case studies, the film raises and leaves us with questions about existentialism, discrimination, and exclusionism. After the Dark explores the ethical implications behind its characters’ choices, while arguing strongly for the importance of philosophy in our everyday lives.
The following interview with Huddles was completed by email, shortly after the film’s release in the US on 7 February 2014.
Tom Ue: Congratulations on this richly fascinating film!
John Huddles: Thanks, Tom! Glad to be “speaking” with you!
Tom Ue: This is the third one that you wrote and directed. What inspired it?
John Huddles: I was interested in exploring a story for younger audiences (teenagers, plus or minus) that started from the proposition: kids are smart and in fact eager to engage in battles of ideas. Rather than what we are usually told, which is: kids are idiots and you have to dumb down whatever you’re going to offer them because the life of the mind is of no interest to them.
Tom Ue: What are some of the challenges of writing and directing your own work?
John Huddles: I’ve never directed something I haven’t written, so it’s hard for me to say. I think in certain cases it would be harder to direct someone else’s script and have to do all the mental archeology to get to the deeper levels. With my own scripts, I already know where the bodies are buried!
Tom Ue: What are some challenges that you experienced with this particular project?
John Huddles: Since there’s so much narrative arithmetic in this story (concerning which of the 21 characters make it into the bunker in each iteration, plus each character’s skill-set, plus his/her secret characteristics), it was advantageous that I had written it. I can only imagine what a pain it would’ve been for someone else to keep track of all that data and apply it correctly in the story. Even in my case, I needed charts to keep it straight—and I knew all the characters from birth, so to speak.
Tom Ue: Tell us about your research.
John Huddles: If you mean research on philosophy, I did the necessary reading. Then a little Wikipedia work. Then I called the philosophy department at Brown University and asked for their top graduate student to check my script! (They were very generous and said yes.)
Tom Ue: Why keep the class size at 21?
John Huddles: Again, it was about the arithmetic of the bunker and how each iteration required a specific shuffling of the deck of characters to equal a certain result. 20 students + 1 teacher was the largest number that was narratively manageable while also being realistically credible (with respect to class size).
Tom Ue: Tell us about the casting.
John Huddles: We tried hard to represent the diversity of cultures that you’d find at an international school, though with an emphasis on American and English kids, since this school (and indeed the actual international school in Jakarta) is based on the American system. In the end, the story includes at least one or more characters (or actors playing the characters) who are: Nigerian, American, Emirati, Indian, Canadian, Australian, Indonesian, Japanese, Iranian, Malaysian, British, Vietnamese, Turkish, and African-American (which of course is just “American” in another sense).
Tom Ue: Why set the film in Jakarta?
John Huddles: It was an opportunity to get a glimpse of the world as it really is: diverse, interdependent, multicultural, fascinating in its variations. Also Indonesia offered cinematic assets (temples, islands, volcanoes) too good to pass up.
Tom Ue: Tell us about shooting in Indonesia and about the film’s special effects.
John Huddles: The Indonesian people were categorically wonderful to us. Indonesia is an extremely important nation geopolitically (FYI: it’s the fourth most populous country in the world, right after the U.S.!) and yet it’s little seen in movies and barely known to average Americans. Shooting there was a privilege and a great boon to those of us who love to compose cinematic images on an epic scale.
Visual effects were all done after-the-fact of the shoot. For a modestly budgeted film like ours, our number of visual effects (over 400, though many of them “invisible” effects) was, some might say, insane. In the end, we had teams of visual effects artists working in Jakarta, Mexico City, and Rome—all of which I did my best to keep on top of while editing the film in Santa Monica. Here’s my warning to other indie filmmakers contemplating films heavy on visual effects: try to keep your vfx artists in one time zone or you won’t sleep during post-production!
Tom Ue: Did your thinking about the film, especially the different scenarios, change in the process of filming?
John Huddles: Honestly, not much. The puzzle pieces of the story are so intricate (and as an indie our mandate was to complete the necessary work before time/money ran out) that I focused on shooting the script rather than exploring alternate directions to the story. Character motivations and energies evolved, sure. But the scenarios themselves were locked.
Tom Ue: Let’s talk more about the film. One of my first queries after watching it was what the class dynamics were like prior to this experiment. What did/do you envision it being like?
John Huddles: I think they’re a class of smart, ambitious, worldly kids (the latter by virtue of being expats living with their parents in foreign countries) who don’t have too much interest in wasting their time. I imagine that this philosophy class is a senior elective, so everyone in the class wants to be there, which eliminates characters who can’t keep up (or don’t want to).
Tom Ue: Repeatedly, Zimit pushes his students to make selections based on the utility of their skill sets and personal attributes, but he rigs the system by selecting Petra’s and James’ for them. Could the experiment have worked had he not done so? How so?
John Huddles: I think the experiment works whether it’s rigged or not, because the kids are making decisions based on the assigned skill-sets. The rigging by Zimit seems to me to be a separate matter. I think of the story as a canvas painted on two sides. On one side is the story we’re mostly watching; on the other is Zimit’s story (which we only get to glimpse a bit of). I don’t think that Zimit’s rigging impacts the validity of the thought experiment. It may impact his ethical approach to it, but in the end the experiment yields results regardless in the minds of the kids. Zimit is, despite everything, a good teacher—as Petra affirms in the last line of the story.
Tom Ue: Toby the poet is immediately killed in the first two rounds, and yet he does not rank ostensibly lower in utility than some of the other students’ professions. Why kill the poet?
John Huddles: Ah. I have an answer to that, of course, but I think I’d better keep it to myself and leave the viewer’s imagination to engage on that point.
Tom Ue: With which character do you identify with more?
John Huddles: Most people seem to think I’m the teacher, but I’m pretty sure I’m the poet.
Tom Ue: One of the recurring questions that the film asks is the relevance of philosophy in the wider world. This is made more pressing in recent years when the humanities are criticized for their utility. In what ways do you see philosophy as being relevant?
John Huddles: Let’s start by defining philosophy very simply as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” If knowledge, reality, and existence don’t matter to you, then good luck. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it: “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please—you can never have both.”
Tom Ue: What is next for you?
John Huddles: Movies in fascinating places: Brazil, India, Luxembourg, and Britain (Cambridge). Movies that (I hope!) will access more of the dream-power that the art form originally promised. People say we only use 10% of our brains (which may or may not be true, though it sounds right); I feel most of the time that we’re only using 10% of cinema’s dream-power. It would be nice to improve on that number.
The Philosophers (aka After The Dark) was shot on location in Indonesia and stars James D’Arcy (Cloud Atlas; Hitchcock), Rhys Wakefield (The Purge), Sophie Lowe (Once Upon A Time In Wonderland), Bonnie Wright (Harry Potter), Daryl Sabara (Spy Kids), George Blagden (Les Misérables, Vikings), Katie Findlay (The Carrie Diaries; The Killing), Freddie Stroma (Harry Potter), Maia Mitchell (The Fosters), and Jacob Artist (Glee).
John Huddles’ previous picture as writer-director is Higher Love (aka At Sachem Farm), starring Academy Award nominees Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) and the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George), and Olivier Award winner Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist, A Knight’s Tale). Higher Love premiered as a Special Presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Before that, John wrote and directed Far Harbor, starring Academy Award winners Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) and Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), and Academy Award nominee Dan Futterman (Capote). Far Harbor premiered at New York City’s GenArt Film Festival.
John is a graduate of the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, as well as Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. and Brown University.
Tom Ue writes for Film International. His collection World Film Locations: Toronto is published by Intellect Books, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films. Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London.