With Netflix launching its ambitious plan of premiering a new, original movie every week in 2021, the science fiction war film Outside the Wire leads the charge. Helmed by filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom and starring Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris, the film takes place in the near future of 2036 as a disgraced American drone pilot named Harp is forced to work alongside Mackie’s android soldier Leo in an active combat zone.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, Hafstrom discussed making the leap to hard science fiction, the intense production schedule behind the film and working with stars Mackie and Idris to deliver an entertaining, character-driven movie.
You’ve certainly flirted with the sci-fi genre before with films like Escape Plan, but what drew you to this project?
Mikael Håfström: I think part of it was it takes place in the future. I never really made a movie that took place in the future; some in the past, some in the present. And I also liked the [closer] aspect of the future [in the film] — it’s not [set] 100 years from now — so we can lean on the present, just push some aspects of what’s in the film 20-30 years into the future. [This] was a nice character story and a fun adventure that asked some good questions about the future of warfare, A.I., it had a lot of nice things going for it.
This is a fast-paced film with a lot of action set pieces, often spread across multiple locations. How was it maintaining that continuity and intensity?
Håfström: It was tough! [Just like the characters] we were running and shooting and it was an intense shoot. We did a lot of different locations and we were not long in any location so we really had to hit the ground running. I think that gave it a good energy from Anthony and Damson and they were very great. Anthony is probably the most physically capable actor that I’ve ever worked with, he’s just great and that made life easier. We didn’t have a lot of time and a hell of a lot of money so we had to plan, we had to do our homework.
Speaking of Anthony, he’s also a producer on this film. How was it developing his character and role in this story?
Håfström: I flirted with this script three or four years back way before it got to him and Netflix got involved and then other things happened and I was approached when I was in the middle of post-production on a Scandinavian show and they asked if I was interested. The first thing I did was go to L.A. and meet with Anthony and talked about the film and his character. That was a really good creative meeting and we discussing this all through the film, with him as a producer, but most of all, he wanted to be an actor on the film. He’s a real gentleman and we had a great, creative relationship when it came to his character and other parts of the story.
The other side of that equation of Damson and his character Harp really is the soul of the film. What made Damson right for the role?
Håfström: When I first met Anthony, we discussed the script and the character of Harp and the thing for me to go out and do was read a lot of actors, which I did. All kind of actors in that age group: Asian-Americans, African-Americans, white guys, there were no rules when it came to the color of his skin; best man wins. I had a Skype meeting with Damson while he was somewhere shooting something and within minutes I was like “This guy is strong, smart and he has charisma and obviously acting talent!”
And we laughed a lot with Damson throughout the shoot, he’s a very funny guy. I just presented that to the producers and we all agreed that was the guy that we were looking for. I think Damson is a star-in-the-making, I think he can go very far in this business. He’s a very, very talented, young guy.
This movie really does put him and his character through the wringer.
Håfström: We joked a lot about this because he obviously wanted to be the frigging hero and I said “Just relax and take notes. You’re not the action hero here, you have your arc and it’s a good arc.” But he has an interesting story, starting out as a drone pilot before going into a real combat situation on the other side of the planet. So he’s a real different character in the last scene than he is in the first scene. Damson is a very, very smart guy and he understood his character and the emotions he’s going through, he gave a lot to the part.
With this being such a quick shoot within two months, did that inform staging the scenes and set pieces?
Håfström: Yeah, but [it wasn’t] crazy. We didn’t really have time to relax but we had enough time to do what we needed to do. The secret is always preparing and having the right people around you. There are obviously a lot of visual effects in this film and a lot of elements we put in after the shoot so that was challenging, with all the robots and things that didn’t exist physically; we did have stand-ins on set wearing blue[screen]. But to go back to your question, I do like working like that; it was stressful in the right way.
What is something you were particularly proud to bring to the sci-fi space with this film?
Håfström: This is a sci-fi movie but it takes place 20-30 years into the future, the future that’s just around the corner. When it comes to the military robots that are in the film — we call them G.U.M.P.s in the movie — I think they are very close to something we will see in the near future. We took the technology that exists now and we pushed it with the visual effects team into the future. Let’s wait 30-40 years and then we can talk about it. [Laughs] We did a lot of research, obviously, to envision a reality that will soon be here and that was exciting to me.
When it comes to sci-fi, I like films like Blade Runner that, when it was made, took place in the near future, and even though we’re past the date of that movie, it doesn’t matter, it’s still very inspiring to see.
How was it getting to work with Netflix on this film?
Håfström: Well, I did quite a few episodes of a Netflix show called Bloodlines, so I had experience with Netflix though that was obviously a different shooting situation. [This] was a really, really good experience: They came in and made the film happen and they were very generous and respectful and they gave me the freedom to do the film I wanted to make. As a studio, they were extremely easy to work with and I have but positive things to say about the creation of this film.