Hugh Jackman, Lisa Joy tease the mind-bending Reminiscence: 'Everything you know is flipped on its head'
The star and writer-director also discuss uncooperative eels, lost phones, food poisoning, and... Brad Pitt?
In kinetic sci-fi thriller Reminiscence (out Friday), Hugh Jackman is Nick Bannister, a war vet living on the fringes of the sunken Miami coast who helps people access lost memories. When new client Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) goes missing, his life is changed forever. Here, Jackman, 52, and the film's writer-director Lisa Joy (Westworld), 44, break it all down for EW — to a point. "Whatever you think the movie is going to be," says Jackman, "it's going to pivot constantly and keep you on your toes."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: To get us started, Hugh, how did Lisa pitch this film to you? I understand she flew to New York to pitch it to you personally.
HUGH JACKMAN: She did fly in to pitch me. I was a fan — I had seen Westworld — so I knew of her work. Normally what would happen is you read a script and you have a meeting. But she was like, "I just want to pitch you first before you read the script, and I want you to get an understanding of the world that I'm creating." So she came over to the house. And I mean, I don't think I'm known for my poker face, but in my head halfway through the pitch, I was like, this is the most inventive, brilliant thing I've heard in a long time. And unless the script is completely 180 degrees the other way, I'm pretty sure I'm doing this. I was fully invested. Even if it didn't end up with me being in it, if she cast someone else, I would be rooting for Lisa completely because it's coming from such a pure, creative, passionate place. And the story was her baby, years and years ago. And she told me she'd pictured me all along, which I take it with a grain of salt, but I did actually believe her for some reason — normally in my head I'm just like, "Yeah, sure, whatever. Brad Pitt said no, I get it, that's fine."
JOY: It's actually completely true. And Hugh, if you ever asked my agent, they would tell you they thought that I was crazy. But I was like, "Well, if he doesn't do it, then I'm not going to do it and I'll just let the script languish, because I'd rather see it not made than made poorly, or with the wrong person." They were like, this is a terrible strategy on your part to go all or nothing. [Laughs]
Why did it have to be Hugh for you?
JOY: There was a very strange compulsion that I had. And I walked around New York after the pitch listening to [The Greatest Showman's] "A Million Dreams," and being like, "Oh god, I hope he liked it." But it's one of those things where I knew that the role was going to look from the outside immediately as this iconic kind of Bogart character, this sci-fi P.I. essentially, in some of those really classic ways of this somewhat tortured, but handsome and capable, little bit laconic hero who opened his heart up to this woman. But what I was really interested in was looking deeper than those tropes, and really examining the idea of love, the idea of obsession, the idea of masculinity, the idea of heroism and villainy, and to show a character who would surprise you with some of the steps in his journey. And for that, I really felt I needed a character actor who could just be a complete chameleon.
What can you tell me about your character, Nick Bannister?
JACKMAN: In the not-too-distant future, there's a long, protracted war at the southern border of the United States. One of the things he was doing in the war was using this Reminiscence machine as a form of interrogation to get accurate information from prisoners of war. Now you find Nick Bannister as fairly solitary, very walled-off emotionally from the world. He's good at his job, but it's certainly not a thriving business; there are newer, fancier versions of what he does. [But] he's good at reading people, at getting inside their mind, of sort of journeying through their psyche to get to wherever they need to go. He's hiding a lot of secrets. And I loved playing the character. There was so much to it and also working with Lisa was a joy because she was — as I always am — interested in all the depths and all the nuances and all the different angles of who this man is, who on the surface seems very sort of stoic and a classic masculine archetype that is really quite broken underneath. And so as he unravels during the movie, it was a really fun and challenging character to play.
JOY: I'm always impressed if Hugh has anything positive to say about me at all, because the first week of shooting he was waterboarded. It was like I was actively trying to kill you, Hugh. But you were such a sport about it, and you were underwater for a lot of this film.
JACKMAN: That's true. And actually, if you remember the first day of filming, we had a leak in the location we were on because of this massive storm. And one of the biggest action sequences in the movie, we shot that week. I said, "Lisa, that's a challenging beginning. No softballs being thrown here for the first few days."
If the Reminiscence machine existed, how would you use it?
JACKMAN: Stupidly, I would use it for lost keys, lost phone, lost things on an hourly basis. Yeah, I would definitely use it for sure. I think the older I get, the more interested I am in wanting to know more about my past that is hazy, I think. Also, it's one of the themes of the movie, actually, that we're not really the most reliable narrators of our life. Nick is the narrator of this movie, but is he the most reliable? And I think it's the same with memory, you know, memories change, according to why are we telling them now, according to where we're at now in life, and what that memory serves. So I would really love to relive some of that stuff, even just for some clarity, and also just to relive some really beautiful moments. I am a big believer in the present, and I'm very hopeful for the future, but I think I would definitely use it. What about you, Lisa?
JOY: I would definitely dabble. My kids now are 7 and 4. I would love to put myself back at that age and remember what it was like so I could empathize with them more in their frustrations and their curiosities, and to feel that wonderment. But I think also, wouldn't it be fun to go back on your first date with Deb [Furness, Jackman's wife] or Jonah [Nolan, Joy's husband] and feel all the butterflies and everything?
JACKMAN: Well, my view on that…actually, it wasn't our first date, it was our second, but we both got food poisoning. So I'm not sure. I'll tell you, it's a great litmus test for a relationship. If you can get through that, you can pretty much get through anything.
In the film, night and day are essentially inverted. Tell me about that choice.
JOY: Well, for me, it was in doing a kind of modernized sci-fi noir, but also wanting to challenge a lot of the basic tenets of noir. It made sense to start by challenging the idea of noir itself, the idea of darkness being where sin resides. And in positing a world in which global warming and the scorching heat of day has made everybody nocturnal, what we were able to do was literally shift the palette of what you know darkness and the underworld look like, because what it looks like now is searing, searing light. So in some ways it allowed us to do less night shoots, because all of the investigation was in day.
JACKMAN: It was like the second thing you told me, that Miami is now underwater. It is so hot, that everything's flipped. I just thought that is such a cool idea, and it's kind of emblematic of the whole story, where everything you think you know is going to be flipped on its head.
What were some of the unique challenges of this film for you two?
JACKMAN: For me, one of the unique things that I haven't done a lot of was the water work. There's a really, really great, beautiful scene, it was one of the things in the pitch that I saw photos of. This idea that now buildings — so a hotel lobby, which has always got a big sort of ceiling height — that's now completely under water. So, floor two is now the lobby basically of every building. And so this idea that there's this massive fight at what would have been on the floor of the lobby with a grand piano and chandeliers and all this stuff, was awesome. We ended up working with the team that has been working on Avatar, doing all the underwater work. I learned a lot on that. And it's difficult and challenging and really fun.
JOY: It's fantastic to see underwater scenes shot practically, too, because there's so much beauty in the light refractions. There's nothing quite like doing it real, and it was very challenging work in terms of stunts, because it can be dangerous, of course. So you have to be really careful when when one is pretending to drown underwater, and with as brilliant an actor as Hugh, it's very difficult to tell if you're actually killing your actor or not. So it was a nail biter. But I will say on a much lighter note, the thing that was very hard for me was eels. Do you remember those goddamn eels?
JACKMAN: Those eels. That was all in that first week of filming. It was a tough start. [Laughs]
JOY: So, some eels make an appearance in this film, some terrifying eels. So we got the animal expert and I told him we need eels for an intense scene. And the guy was like, "I got your eels, but you got to put a heavy metal grate on the tank, because the eels are so powerful that they will bust off the lid and come out and bite your face." He told this horror story about what the eels were going to do, right? So we bring the eels in. The eels had like first billing this day, they were the most high maintenance actors of the entire film. We bring the eels in and there's like this hallowed silence that falls as we prepare to take off the lid and see the crazy menacing eels work. And what happens is… absolutely nothing. All the eels are on the bottom of the tank, sleeping. They try to wake them up, they stir them up, they put food in there. The animal wrangler was doing all sorts of stuff. And I'm like, "I thought the eels were like killer crazy eels? We have a whole safety protocol with them." And he's like, "Yeah, but they're nocturnal, so they sleep during the day." So the eels were fired. They were not camera ready at all.
JACKMAN: Who is their agent? Call their agent. By the way, I'm remembering now that the Reminiscence machine, particularly that last sort of 15 minutes of the film, it's very emotional, and it's in some ways, quite technical, because the point of view of the camera, of looking back into memory and then entering into memory — I'm not sure how to actually say it, without giving too much away — but that really stretched my mind. That was like Olympic chess.
JOY: It definitely required incredible, consistent, and skilled acting in very dramatic scenes under very strange circumstances. But it arose from the fact that, in order to make the machine come to life, we actually invented a machine. We created a 3D hologram machine. And in order for it to work, basically, Hugh's character and Thandiwe's [Newton, Bannister's partner] character, they watch memories in essentially a 3D space. And we wanted for them to be able to actually watch the memories in a 3D space as a hologram. But in order to do that, we had to film all the memories first. And using the camera move, in which we had to imagine the vantage point from which Hugh and Thandiwe would be examining the scene later, and match the camera move to their height, and the pace of their predicted walk in order to get a fully dimensionalized hologram. And it basically involves incredibly complex math. And many rulers were involved and much technical precision on the part of our actors and recreating some very intense scenes, again, and again, and they did an incredible job. I can't wait for people to see that.
A version of this story appears in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.