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“I thought I could tell a story that I kind of knew” – Benjamin Brewer talks Arcadian

8 min read

Nicolas Cage, Maxwell Jenkins, and Jaeden Martell in Benjamin Brewer’s ARCADIAN. Courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder. An RLJE Films and Shudder Release.

Benjamin Brewer's second collaboration with acting powerhouse Nicolas Cage, , is a post-apocalyptic monster tale about brotherhood, adolescence and resilience. After working as a VFX artist on Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), Brewer and his collaborators from Pretend joined forces again to build a new, terrifying entry in the creature feature renaissance. Ahead of its UK release, FILMHOUNDS spoke to Brewer about his latest genre film.

What attracted you to Arcadian as a project, as a director? 

It was a few things that I really loved. I had gotten to work with Nic (Cage) on another movie that me and my brother did with him, The Trust (2016), and I really loved working with him. And then this project came up, I read it, and I thought the script was really cool and it had this great brother story. Me and my brother were super close and I thought I could tell a story that I kind of knew.

I liked the idea that the post-apocalyptic genre would let us externalise these coming-of-age subjects, that we could really lean into what it felt like to be 16 and make it so that the feeling of isolation, but then also dealing with the shame of your actions, all that stuff could be really heightened.

I think my favorite ever post-apocalyptic movie is Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and I love it because it is so rich with theme. It's really examining what it means to straddle society and chaos, humanity and animal instincts. And so I saw that in [Arcadian], and I thought, that's great. If I'm going to participate in the post-apocalyptic genre, I haven't necessarily seen an exploration of a childhood, adolescent, brother story in that context. 

The last bit was that I had worked designing visual effects for Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) and the group of people I'd worked on that with, it was very small, and we started a company afterwards, Pretend. I thought, I want to do another movie with the company, another very small-budgeted film with a big visual effects demand. And I thought, we haven't done a CGI monster. There's just stuff in the script we hadn't done before. And I thought this would be a great way to have the company do another movie and see what we can do with a horror film.

An RLJE Films and Shudder Release

Can you tell me a bit about how the creature design process came about, your experience with it, and how collaborative that process was?

I knew when I signed on that I wanted to design [the creature] myself. I, like anyone going to movies, have fantasised about what kind of monster I'd make for something. My brother is a sculptor and designer at a company called Mondo. And so, together, I would draw this creature, and then he would sculpt it, and he would change things, and we would just go back and forth. In Japan, they have these Kaiju and Sofubi toys that are wild. The Kaiju Japanese monsters are playing on psychological ideas that a lot of monsters in our movies don't have. And so I think because the movie was so small it allowed us to escape a really crazy pipeline with a lot of voices involved; I think that homogenises your creativity. Because everyone's got to sign off on the thing. Whereas I said from the beginning, look, I think we can make you a great monster, but you've just gotta let us cook. You gotta let us figure it out. And it's incredibly useful.

I was exploring different psychological subjects, and they were letting me explore it and they weren't freaking out or asking why. And it's funny because one of my early influences was A Goofy Movie (1995) and this sequence in the movie in particular in which Goofy's son is having a nightmare about becoming his dad. And it freaked me out as a kid – there's something unnerving about this Disney stuff. So I was going down that path and they were I think pretty nervous, but it's just the artistic process. Eventually we got there and I'm really proud of where we got to with it. I gotta give credit. Nobody ever came in and tried to force us to make it look more like the monster from Cloverfield (2008) or anything like that. We got to just come up with our own thing, you know? 

What you came up with is definitely unique and scarring to witness. It's funny you say A Goofy Movie, because they also have big snouts. The script for Arcadian came before you, and then you attached yourself to the project. There are environmental and climate hints in the script. Was that something that was important to you, or how did that come about?

I think that was in the script from the beginning, Mike (Nilon) had that in there. He wrote it during COVID and I think that there was this kind of reflective period a lot of people went through, thinking not just about COVID, but also the impact we're having on the earth and how we're doing absolutely nothing substantial to head it off.

I had been thinking about the risks of climate change and AI, all of these existential risks, and so if I have an opportunity, even in a movie that's fun and horror, to couch in the very true statement that we are causing our extinction, I'm happy to do so. I'm at an age where a lot of my friends have kids and a lot of people are in that same age-old moment of, what world are you bringing your kid into? There's the scene where Max (Jenkins) and Sadie (Soverall) are sitting under the tree and they're playing a game and saying, what do you think ended the world? I'm hoping people stare at that and think, eventually there's going to be kids who are just going to be so in the dark about why they've inherited all this horrific stuff. And we won't even know what to say. There'll be no rational explanation as to why we destroyed everything. So, yeah. I think that's definitely the message. 

I think it comes across, along with hope in the next generation, watching these young kids taking ownership of their lives in a post-apocalyptic landscape. On that, how was that experience of directing two ends of a spectrum, a powerhouse like Nicolas Cage, and also the next generation of talent? 

It's fun, it's different. My whole method with directing is just listening to actors, because they are the best resource on any set when it comes to understanding humans, understanding what the scene's about, understanding what the scene's not doing, that it should be doing. I would say that the young actors in the film blew my mind. In both scenarios, the key is to be a humble receiver, because everyone's different. Directing Nic is obviously different because he's made so many films on such a different level, so it's a different kind of conversation, it's not like you're getting in there giving line readings. Before scenes, we would be standing in the backyard just talking about our dads and talking about what the scene's about. Even with the younger actors, it might be a little bit more specific, but in general I kind of just like to listen and almost let them do my job for me. We got super lucky with the casting, I didn't have to pull out any tricks to make anything work. They were all brilliant and they already have great careers – they're going to have huge careers. I hope that they remember me. 

Talking about great casting, we have to discuss the dog. Can you tell me about the role of the dog and the decision to include him – and what the experience of working with one was?

The script is, from a directing standpoint, a nightmare of stuff that they tell you not to do. There's a dog, there's babies at one point, there's driving scenes, there's action, there's everything that you're like, don't do any of that. But the dog, the actor's real name is Timo. The movie's name's Rocco. Very funny. Timo was a pro, incredibly well trained. It's funny cause when you shoot with a dog, you're working out the whole scene and then your AD or your script supervisor goes, [in a defeated tone] oh the dog's in the scene.

You're like, the god damn dog's in the scene too? What do I do with that? Because when you shoot with a dog, the only way it works is the trainer is off screen being like [gestures dog commands emphatically]. I love watching movies with dogs because they're clearly just looking at their trainer all the time.

It is a nightmare, but it pays off because then you have all these adorable shots of the dog to cut to, when you really want people to kind of feel what's at stake. The innocence at stake. I remember trying to figure out what the hell to do with him at the end, because you know, it's this whole giant scene, and I was like, [hesitantly] alright… They're gonna go get the stuff out of the garage. He's gonna be like, Rocco, come here, we'll be right back. And that's it. I can't have to deal with the dog biting a CG model. And it's funny too, because in the script originally the dog was around in the house and got in the refrigerator with them. And so I'm like, how the hell are we fitting all these people in this refrigerator, plus a dog? And we cast the dog based on like, you know, dogs in Ireland. And then the writer, Mike, showed up. And he saw the dog and he's like, “no, I – he's supposed to be small.” And I was like, oh, no one told me that, I just cast a fun dog. So I created my own problem with that. But I loved working with him. He is a sweetheart. Wouldn't it be amazing to be someone who has a dog that's trained up to be in movies because, I mean… Do you have a dog?

No, I don't. I live with one though, it's my housemate's. So, by proxy. But he doesn't know how to do anything.

Imagine you put on a Nicolas Cage movie and your housemate's dog is just like, in it, how funny would that be? You know, Timo ruined the last shot of the movie. I had to paint a dog out of the whole last shot. We had one take of it and he messed it up. Tense day, tense dog performance.

For Timo's reputation, I will leave that out. I will protect him.

Arcadian is out in UK cinemas on June 14th.