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Discovering Our Better Natures: Writing The Screenplay For Captive State

A Q&A with screenwriter Erica Beeney

Focus Features 03.14.2019
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Rupert Wyatt’s Captive State—which opens in theaters Friday—begins with a simple, terrifying premise: For the last nine years, mankind has been under the colonial yoke of an occupying alien force. In Chicago, some citizens continue to resist, while others seek an uneasy peace through collaboration. Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) and his best friend Jurgis (Colson Baker aka rapper Machine Gun Kelly) hide in the shadows trying to piece together a future. Gabriel’s brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors) was a rebel leader before he disappeared, and William Mulligan (John Goodman), an old friend of Gabriel’s father, leads a collaboration agency tasked with rooting out rebels. As the resistance plans one more uprising, everyone is again forced to choose a side. Erica Beeney—who rose to national fame for winning HBO’s Project Greenlight with her screenplay for The Battle of Shaker Heights—co-wrote this realistic sci-fi drama with the film’s director (and her husband) Rupert Wyatt. For over five years, the two traded ideas and played out scenarios, slowly crafting a world that was at once epic in its scope and intimate in its portrayal of characters.

We spoke with Beeney about how the story developed, how she begins with characters, and the film’s timely message.

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The official trailer for Captive State

Where did the idea for Captive State come from?

We would often come up with ideas driving in LA, talking about different things. We talked about movies like Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville’s incredible movie about Paris under the Nazi occupation. The idea of how situations like that test human relationships really interested us. How some people collaborate and how some people put their lives on the line. We wanted to approach it from the idea that many of us do not know what choices we would make under circumstances like that. We wanted to treat all these characters under alien occupation with compassion. We built the story from that premise. What would that occupation be like? How much of it would we see? Where would we begin this story? We are both interested in either elevating or subverting genre. Since genre is such a great engine for storytelling, how can you make the best of it but also surprise people along the way?

Screenwriter Erica Beeney

You previously wrote the screenplay for the comedy The Battle of Shaker Heights. What is the connection for you between these two very different stories?

That was ten years ago and I've written a lot of screenplays in between—some of which ended up in drawers and some of which are development deals. What connects them all is that I approach storytelling from the place of character. How would real people act under extraordinary circumstances? Sometimes those extraordinary circumstances are, as in The Battle of Shaker Heights, being in love with your best friend's older sister—which is a small-scale extraordinary circumstance. And sometimes that extraordinary circumstance is there is an alien occupation. In both cases, I'd like to believe I argue for the characters and let the characters guide the storytelling, opposed to forcing the characters into making plot moves that they would not otherwise make.

In creating the screenplay for Captive State, who were the first characters you started with?

The starting point initially was the boys: Gabriel, Rafe, and Jurgis. We played around with different configurations. If this had been the Civil War, we considered how two best friends might end up on different sides of the conflict. For this scenario, we considered how one might end up as collaborator, and one might not. We always came back to these really close friends—whether they were a pair or a trio—and how they would be forced by circumstances to make different choices. Then we built the story from there.

Colson Baker and Ashton Sanders in Captive State

The scope of the film is rather epic. In writing the screenplay, did you have a master plan, or did you constantly adjust things as you went along?

The plot of the story is quite complex. There was a lot of going forward, realizing where we wanted to end up, and then going backwards to make that happen. That often meant changing the way characters were set up in order to get them where they needed to be. With Gabriel, for example, it was never clear whether he was going to be a freedom fighter alongside his brother or whether he was going to be by himself. It was a very interesting process to watch as the story developed. The one thing we held on to is the belief that the story should have a very emotional impact. How can we create these characters so that the audience feels the impact of their choices?

How did the choice of Chicago as the location impact your screenplay?

From a very early point, we knew it was going to be in Chicago. Rupert had shot a TV pilot there and was very interested in the city. In picking it, he considered its geography as well as its diverse makeup. Rupert thinks of Chicago as the quintessential American city. So Chicago was baked into the story from a really early point. As such we made Gabriel’s girlfriend Rula (Madeline Brewer) Polish American and Jurgis (Colson Baker) Lithuanian American. The cast represents the great melting pot that America is, especially Chicago.

John Goodman and Ashton Sanders in Captive State

Is there a message you would want audiences to take away from the film?

Most simply, within everyone there is the possibility to be a hero. When things are at their toughest, hopefully our better natures will be revealed.

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