Netflix’s ‘Leave The World Behind’ Helped Debunk A Conspiracy Theory

There was a light bulb moment for some of the ensemble cast of Leave the World Behind that blew them away. Netflix’s
apocalyptic, psychological thriller boasts Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, and Kevin Bacon.

“I remember that there was a moment on set where it dawned on all of them, and it was like, ‘Wow, we have never done this together. Why did that not happen?’ It’s a little baffling because they all broadly came up in the industry together and working on these projects that kind of overlap on the circuit,” explained director Sam Esmail. “I can now take a small credit in some way for the three of them finally coming on board on one film. I’m happy to take that credit, but it was definitely a moment that dawned on all of us on set.”

He continued, “I don’t think Ethan and Julia have ever worked together. Julia and Kevin worked together once on Flatliners decades ago, and Ethan and Kevin never worked together.”

Esmail believes he “got lucky” with his cast due to the complexity of the storytelling and what the roles demanded. “I reached out to the best of the best, and they humbled me by saying yes,” he mused. My cast is pretty much the cream of the crop. I write very specifically, and to write good characters, you have to be as specific as possible, but then I stay out of the way and let the actors do their thing.”

“I can only do so much with words on a page, and it’s really the actors and their craft that bring it to life and its three-dimensionality. That’s where the magic happens. It’s challenging material, and actors wouldn’t do this if they weren’t up for the task.”

Esmail, who also produced and wrote the adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s titular novel, was also happy the experience allowed him to put an urban myth to bed once and for all.

“I didn’t realize this, but there’s this sort of conspiracy theory out there that Ethan and Kevin were the same person,” he laughed. “I’m happy to dispel that myth and actually show them in the same shot. It was great working with the three of them. Like you, I’m of that same generation, and these were my heroes growing up. I loved watching them, so it was great to watch them in a movie I was making and go at it with each other.”

Leave the World Behind, which premiered at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, sees a family’s getaway to a luxurious rental home taking a terrifying and dramatic turn when a cyberattack kills all their devices, cutting them off from the world. As they search for answers, two strangers turn up at the door out of the blue.

Getting Roberts on board was a no-brainer for Esmail. After Homecoming and Gaslit, her performance as the Karen-esque Amanda Sandford marks the third time they have worked together.

“Julia read the book in one day, then called me and said she was in,” the director explained. “She was someone I pictured immediately when I read the book, and she saw that it takes her ‘America’s Sweetheart’ persona and flips it on its ear. What’s great about casting her for this is that you don’t have to worry about the likability factor; she has this uncanny ability to channel the humanity out of any character, regardless of how flawed they may be, so it was probably the easiest casting decision I’ve ever made. Julia also came on to produce and has been a great partner on the film.”

“I’ve always considered Julia to be the Michael Jordan of acting. When you have somebody on that level, your project will attract anyone and everyone who wants to work with someone like that. The cast on this is incredible.”

Aside from Roberts, Hawke, and Bacon, Leave the World Behind‘s headline talent also boasts Mahershala Ali and Myha’la as father-daughter pairing G. H. and Ruth Scott. Their relationship is one of the significant changes Esmail made from the source material.

“Mahershala and Myha’la complement each other because they are so different, and that is what makes an excellent drama,” the director explained. “When you have characters that maybe agree on certain things, they come at us from very different perspectives. That’s one of the reasons why I made one of the changes I made from the book.”

“In the novel, Ruth was written as G.H.’s wife. I changed it because I wanted that sort of Gen Z, millennial vantage point that I thought would clash really well with G.H.’s more cautious, measured approach, especially in a crisis like this.”

Aside from the central performances, one of Leave the World Behind‘s most captivating creative elements is the complex and sometimes disorientating cinematography.

“The visual concept was largely derived from Julia, Ethan, and Mahershala,” Esmail confirmed. “The first thing I did during prep was take the entire cast to our set, and we would essentially block most of the scenes they were in together. That drove the visual language, not just from a cinematography point of view, but from a production design point of view.”

“They were intimately involved in it and were part of the reasons that motivated some of those camera moves and where our compositions were, even including how the living room and kitchen are laid out. I knew from the get-go that because this story prioritized characters above the disaster elements, that needed to work, and the conduit for the audience was this emotional journey of the characters. It started with them, and from there, the visuals were arranged around how they drove everything.”

He continued, “Because these camera moves are usually long takes and encompass a lot of the scene, it was almost like theater work, which really jazzes actors up. It’s frustrating to do bits at a time, but because they can always start at the beginning of a scene and run through the entire scene while the camera’s moving around and capturing all these moments, it’s an infectious energy that the cast loved.”

As well as Alam’s novel, Esmial gave his cast a list of movies to watch as inspiration. While creatively original in its own way, genre fans will notice hints of deep-cut classic movies such as the 1984 British-Australian TV movie Threads.

“I take this very seriously,” he laughed as he pulled up the complete list on his computer. “Whenever I start any project, I like to get my whole creative team on the same page, and movie references are always a good way to do that. When I created this list, it was about 20 movies, and Threads was on there. There was Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, The Day After Tomorrow, The Shining, Miracle Mile, High and Low, and Vertigo.”

“There was also Fearless, a movie that Ethan actually recommended because he’s worked with the director Peter Weir several times, and he’s absolutely fantastic. Other movies on there were 2001, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Seven Days in May, Funny Games, Signs, The Thing, The Mist, and Chinese Roulette, the Fassbinder film, so those are the ones we were watching to get inspiration. That’s quite a list.”

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