Writer-director Sam Esmail premiered his latest film Leave the World Behind at the opening night of AFI Fest on Wednesday night, where he opened up about getting notes on the film from the Obamas — who served as producers — and comparisons of the project to his past work on Mr. Robot.
The film is based on the 2020 novel of the same name by Rumaan Alam, and unfolds as Amanda (Julia Roberts) books her family an impromptu staycation at a luxurious home in Long Island. As she and her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) get settled in, two strangers — G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la) — upend their trip in the middle of the night, claiming ownership of the home. Together, they contend with the mysterious ramifications of a nationwide cyberattack that leaves them vulnerable to the earth’s elements and human nature’s darkness.
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“It was a crazy time, those early days [of the pandemic], and when I read the book what really resonated for me was this idea that in a moment of crisis, just how easily we could forget our common humanity,” Esmail — who walked the carpet without his stars amid the ongoing actors strike — said of his interest in adapting the story. “That’s something that’s as relevant back then as it is today with what’s going on in the world.”
After reading the book upon its debut six months into the COVID shutdown, Esmail was one of the first people to discuss the project with Alam, who was also an executive producer on the movie.
“You’re sort of in a vacuum when you’re on a project like that,” the author told THR on the carpet. “You talk to your editors, you talk to your agent, but there’s no one else in that metaphorical room with you. So to have that first conversation with this director and really have it be about his emotional and intellectual responses to what I had done was really meaningful.”
Esmail is most known for his work on the Rami Malek crime drama vehicle Mr. Robot, on which he served as creator, writer, producer and showrunner. When asked about the series’ similarity to the Netflix flick, he described the two cyber-themed projects as the “yin and yang” versions of each other.
“In Mr. Robot, we were following someone who was really knee-deep in technology, he was fluent in it and he was narrating that for us,” he said. “In this film, we took the opposite approach. It really is about these people who have no clue what’s going on around them and it was really more about the fear of the unknown and how technology could be used against us.”
When it came time to cast the project, Esmail looked to previous collaborator Roberts, with whom he’s worked on series Homecoming and Gaslit. He said it was a “no-brainer” decision for the Pretty Woman icon, who also serves as producer on the film.
“It took her America’s sweetheart persona and flipped it on its ear,” Esmail explained. “Knowing Julia — we’ve been friends since we worked together on Homecoming — she’s game to do something challenging. So she read the book in one sitting and called me right away and she said she was in.”
Alam added, “When her name came up, I mean, what kind of response am I gonna have beyond enthusiasm to know that a performer of that caliber is going to dig her teeth into this person who only existed in my imagination?”
The project is also produced under Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company, with their involvement dating back to when the novel appeared on the former President’s beloved year-end list.
“They gave notes on everything from the disaster elements to the characters,” Esmail said of working with the couple. “And it’s amazing, it’s a surreal moment, it’s a highlight of my career that I got to work with the Obamas. They’re some of the most brilliant minds on the planet and I’m really grateful for their involvement.”
Leave the World Behind starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 8.
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