“Archive” is the feature debut from writer/director Gavin Rothery. It’s a complex, through-provoking and intelligent sci-fi film which features great performances by Theo James and Stacy Martin. Set in 2038, “Archive” tells the story of George Almore (James) who is working on a true human-equivalent AI. His latest prototype is almost ready, and his end goal is to be reunited with his dead wife (Martin).
What’s unique about the film is how it focuses on the themes of replacement and jealousy as well as proposing the question, “how would an A.I. react if it became sentient?”. ITOL editor Bianca Garner caught up with Gavin to speak about “Archive” and the role of a problematic computer played in the inception of the story.
Bianca: Hello Gavin, thank you for joining me today. Would you mind introducing yourself and your film “Archive” for our readers?
Gavin: Hi, I’m Gavin Rothery, the writer and director of “Archive”. I’m formally a concept artist in the gaming industry and I have worked in the film industry periodically. I worked with my friend Duncan Jones on his film “Moon” (2009) where I helped design all of the conceptual elements of the film. I was very close to the heart of the creative process.
After “Moon” I’d just met a woman in London so I stayed here to see how that worked out, and it worked out pretty good as we now have a little girl! I decided to look into directing myself, which led me to becoming a writer and the story of “Archive” was conceived nine years ago. It was a long process of getting the story from page to the screen.
Bianca: Could you tell us how you came up with the story of “Archive”? Did any classic science-fiction films like “Bladerunner” for example, inspire the story?
Gavin: When you’re a concept artist you can’t really ignore films like “Bladerunner” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, elements from those films do influence your work to some degree. In terms of the story for “Archive” that came from a really specific weekend I was having back in 2011, where I was living in quite a small flat in North London and it was such a mess that I was trying to tidy it up over the weekend.
As a freelancer artist, your computer tends to be the most important thing and during this weekend I’d recently upgraded my hardware and I had two computers (the new machine and a backup) but something odd happened that weekend. Both computers failed speculaturaly at the same time, I’m not sure what it was but perhaps a corrupted hard drive…whatever it was, the machines were absolute toast. It was Sunday and there was nothing I could do about it, so all I could do was continue to tidy up my flat. I had all these thoughts coming into my head in terms of a story.
I felt this really strange emotion of spite, as if my computers had done it on purpose and were trying to ruin my life. I had this idea of a computer committing suicide and I thought of this story of a computer scientist developing an A.I. which kills itself the moment it becomes sentient.
I wanted to make sure that the story contained elements that people could relate to. Quite often in Sci-fi you fall into tropes of big stuff on an epic scale like “the earth’s going to be destroyed” which can be quite fun to watch but I don’t think you can get a proper emotional handle on those types of stories.
“I wanted to build a story around the themes of “love and death” and what I ended up doing was creating a story about the theme of replacement and jealousy.“
Personally I like the stuff you can really get involved in, the stories that focus around people and locations. So, I decided to opt for the themes of “love and death” , these two big universal concepts that we can all relate to. So using the concept of the sentient A.I that commits suicde and the themes of “love and death” the story of “Archive” quickly manifested into what you see today.
Bianca: What I love about “Archive” is how the character of George isn’t a bad or a good guy. He’s aware of what he’s doing is ethically wrong, but he’s following his heart. When developing the character of George did you want to make him and his intentions as ambiguous as possible?
Gavin: I didn’t want to make him the traditional ‘hero’, I feel like when you get into that idea of who’s the ‘good guy’ and who’s the ‘bad guy’ it demystified a lot of what’s taking place in the story so what I was trying to do was to not have a clear villain in the film. I didn’t want there to be a direct challenger that must be beaten at the end of the film, I just wasn’t interested in getting into that territory.
When I was developing the story I came up with the ending quite quickly so it was all about tracing my way back and figuring out how to get there. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to build a story around the themes of “love and death” and what I ended up doing was creating a story about the theme of replacement and jealousy. I didn’t realise until I watched a nearly completed version of the film at home one night and it just occurred to me what had actually manifested during the filming.
Bianca: What I found fascinating about the film was the fact that the A.I. in the form of J2 and J3 appear more human than George. I was also really pleased that the film didn’t go in a direction which was more violent or sinister, with robots killing humans.
Gavin: That was the kind of film I was determined to never make and fortunately for “Archive” I was working with a production company called Independence and they were super supportive the whole way through, plus I had a wonderful producer called Philip Herd. This is a really tiny film with a very tiny budget, so it’s really cool that people are responding so well towards it. People seem to think it has a bigger budget than it actually has, I was using techniques that I had developed from “Moon” in terms of effectively spreading out the budget for the production design.
Bianca: The level of attention to detail is very impressive. The world you created in “Archive” seems very bleak, almost dystopian in appearance, was there any particular reason why you chose that sort of depiction of the future?
Gavin: In the original script, the environment around the characters was going to change over the course of the year and originally we wanted the environment to be its own character in the film. We were going to start with the beautiful sunshine of spring then move into a lush summer, then slide into autumn and then end the film in the middle of winter.
However, because we were such a small film we couldn’t control all the conditions. We scouted our location in Hungry at the end of summer so everything was still green, then two weeks before we started shooting all the leaves had gone, and we were just hoping that there would still be some leaves left when we returned. Then on the day we started to shoot, it started snowing! We had no other real option but to shoot, so now it’s a snow movie! It came out looking so nice, but that’s just a part of filmmaking and reacting on the ground in the moment.
Story wise I wanted the setting to be remote, in this hidden facility where George could just get on with things. At one point I was considering him being in a basement or a neglected tunnel system. However, I thought it would be best if I could open it out and get that nice environmental photography with the waterfall which is why I decided to have it set in the wilderness.
Bianca: What was it like working with the cast and crew?
Gavin: It was amazing to work with Theo James and Stacy Martin, to be able to work with actors of that caliber was just fantastic. So much of what you see on screen was them just doing their thing. It was also really great to work with Laurie Rose (the film’s cinematographer) and Steven Price (who scored the film), Steven’s music was just the most perfect score I could have asked for.
Laurie Rose is just a magician, we had very little to work with in terms of production resources, for example, with the lighting whenever we had to move a shot we had to take everything with us and could only light one part of the set at once. Some of the lighting set-ups that Laurie created was just wow…he managed to create some really complex lighting arrangements and managed to pull it all of with the minimum amount of equipment. I’ll always appreciate what he managed to do for “Archive”.
“I had this idea of a computer committing suicide and I thought of this story of a computer scientist developing an A.I. which kills itself the moment it becomes sentient.”
Bianca: What’s next for you, do you feel at home in the sci-fi genre?
Gavin: It’s my real passion as a fan, I come to the genre as a huge fan after getting into sci-fi as a kid after my dad got me into it. I’ve worked as an illustrator and an artist my entire career as well as being in the gaming industry since 1996 and that got me into worldbuilding. To get into the process of worldbuilding in film is just great as in many ways it’s more straightforward than worldbuilding inside a computer.
When you first come to worldbuilding inside a computer you just have nothing but an infinite void, however, when you’re building a film set you can go and scavenge bits and pieces and before you know it you’ve a robotic laboratory. It’s just two different approaches to worldbuilding. The amount of effort that goes into creating a fully developed and immersive world inside a game is phenomenal, in many ways with film the pressure is off in that regard, and you can concentrate on other things because all you need to worry about is what’s being seen by the camera.