Hot Berlin Pic: ‘Westworld’s Lisa Joy Directs Hugh Jackman & Rebecca Ferguson In Sci-Fi Thriller ‘Reminiscence’

EXCLUSIVE: As the Sundance deal avalanche abates, it is time to focus on the film packages to be unveiled next week in Berlin. In what instantly becomes a hot property there, Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are finalizing deals to star this fall in Reminiscence, a film that Westworld executive producer Lisa Joy has scripted. She will make  her feature directorial debut.

The film will be unveiled for major studios later this week by Endeavor Content, which is brokering domestic; FilmNation’s Glen Basner will be at the European Film Market to make international deals starting next week. Joy will make the trip to pitch her vision in a theater. Joy, Jonathan Nolan, Michael De Luca and Aaron Ryder will produce a film that is being mounted as a co-production between Kilter Films, Michael De Luca Productions and FilmNation Entertainment. Principal Photography begins October 21 for a film that will shoot in New Orleans and Miami. This allows Joy and Nolan to complete their work on the third season of their HBO series Westworld.

It is a re-team for Jackman and Ferguson, who worked together on the hit musical The Greatest Showman. The script, which made the Black List several years ago, is complex and layered, but essentially, Jackman will play a private eye who deals in recapturing vivid cherished memories for clients. He becomes vexed by one of those clients (Ferguson).  It is set slightly in the future in a Miami that has been changed by global warming, with much of the city submerged underwater.

Joy partners with Nolan on Westworld, which took an old Michael Crichton script and blew it up into an intricately woven world that has fueled two seasons and heads into a third. The world in Reminiscence is just as complex. While she’s stepping behind the camera on a feature for the first time, Joy has been writing and imagining this film for the past five years. “It has been a labor of love and also vision,” she told Deadline. “I know exactly what I want this to be, including all of the action set pieces, and turning Miami into a sunken world. Working on Westworld has been an incredible experience in learning to make something with the scope of a feature on a TV timeline with a budget nowhere near what you would expect for a feature film equivalent.”

Joy, in fact, conceptualized the movie so completely without giving away its spoilers that, in a first for Deadline, I have invited her to pitch her vision here. If you’ve never been pitched a big movie project by a ferociously intelligent, passionate filmmaker, buckle up.

“I’ve always been fascinated by memory and I remember Jonah, when we first started dating, was working on something involving memory. It was early on in our relationship and I was like, damn it, I wanted to do a movie on memory. That was Memento. It was a fascination that took me back years and years. I remember in high school; one of my science teachers was talking about how, when people are having brain surgery and their brains aare being operated on and when different nerve endings are stimulated given the electronic impulse, patients having the surgery report having the most vivid memories, while they are under.

Almost as though that electrical stimulation is unlocking some raw date file in their mind, from a moment from long ago that they haven’t thought of, since. Our memories, the way we tend to experience them, are sort of fuzzy around the edges, like a watercolor that has bled into the past and is not totally clear. In this procedure, when people would think back and have this stimulation in their nervous system, the memories that they impact are so immersive and vivid, it was like they were there, again. The smells, the touch, the sound. It wasn’t like they were remembering from a distance, a third party on their own life. It was like they were transported over time, to that very moment.

I was thinking about that phenomenon a lot, while I was writing this piece. I was pregnant, for the first time. It’s such a beautiful and strange moment, and there’s this whir of hormones and feelings you are going through. As I was finishing the first draft, I had my baby daughter, and I remember holding her in my arms. It was that feeling for me where, there is that smell…I remember holding my daughter, this tiny baby in my arms, and I remember smelling her hair. And that precious smell that only babies have, and that evaporates after a while, and you never smell it exactly the same, again. But in a moment when you are smelling it and you’re holding them in that dark room, trying to get them to sleep, and you’re sleep deprived and crazy, but it’s still the most magical moment in your life. And you think, I wish I could bottle this moment, this smell, the feel of their little hands in mine. The feeling that I have, right now, with all my fears and my worries, and my dreams. I wish I could go back to this moment, forever.

There was a lot happening in my life. There was birth; there was family members passing away, and there was this idea of the ephemerality of all these experiences and how, even if you have the happiest of lives, it’s sad at the end. Even if you live to be a ripe old age, you live long enough to see the people you love pass away. You live in memory, and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go back and feel those sensations, again. That’s kind of the underpinning, conceptually, of this film.

Reminiscence posits a world where that technology does exist. And there’s a character named Nick Bannister, played by Hugh Jackman. He is a kind of a P.I. of the mind — think Wolverine meets Humphrey Bogart — and he has a business where, when people want to remember something, they come into his office and he’s almost like a psychologist. All the files from our past are stored in our minds, and the question is, which one do you access? How do you get it to the right moment, the moment you’re looking for. His skill is asking questions and taking people through this lulling experience, where he finds the moments that you desire to reengage with and immerses you back in them. For a small fee.

People come back to remember their youth, their loved ones, their children, the dog that they used to run around with in a field behind their parents’ house in childhood, old lovers, things like this.

One day, a beautiful mysterious woman comes into his office. And she has a very simple request. She lost a set of keys, and she just needs a quick nudge, to remember where she dropped them. That meeting is the beginning of a really epic romance, where they fall madly in love and you just watch the relationship evolve. And then one day the girl, suddenly, goes missing. Nick Bannister is completely bereft, confused and lost, at the loss of his love. He decides he has to find her. He has to get her back.

It turns into a thriller, where, to get the girl, he has to unpack her past. And see different aspects of her personality that he didn’t know before, in order to find her again. This entire thing, the heart of it, is this love story.

It’s wrapped in this very thrilling world of action set pieces that we haven’t seen before. I’m a huge fan of directing action, it’s one of my favorite things. This world is particularly unique, so it lets me do action set pieces that I’ve never seen before. Part of the conceit of this world is, it’s set mostly in Miami, and it’s ten years from now.

For futurism, there tend to be two different types. I love both. One is an iPad store, sleek, gleaming buildings, flying cars, holographs. It’s beautiful but it’s a little cold to the touch. And it’s a little far away feeling from where we are now. Then there is the dystopian, very gritty version of the future, which is also very thrilling to watch. Neither of those is what I’m going for. What I’m going for is the way the future will probably naturally unfold. Buildings don’t change that much over ten year’s time. If you look out the window, it’s probably the same bodega that was there 20 years ago. Cities tend to have an evolutionary pace, all their own.

The one thing that has changed the evolution of this city, as it’s Miami and global warming has made the oceans rise. You see a much changed Miami, where the waters encroach the land itself and the outskirts of the city are flooded. The dry lands that are more inland have become the home of the rich, who have taken over the dry inland part and left the rest of the community to create new communities on the flooded outskirts. The way that this looks onscreen will be beautiful, as though Miami — turned into Venice — meets the floating markets of Thailand. That’s what this culture looks like. I wanted to create a really immersive culture of life and sensuality that’s really appealing. My parents are European, and Asian on the other side. So whenever I would travel I would look at different communities and the way they are often presented with a distanced gaze as though their way of life is apart from ours, and something to be pitied or idolized. To me it’s like, no, this is just life, and it’s beautiful and it’s rich and complicated. And you get the hustle and bustle of what Miami would look like, in those circumstances.

There’s one other element to it. Which struck me when I went to Spain for work. When it gets hot enough in Spain, they have siestas, and they take naps in the middle of the day because the sun is just so unbearable. So I extrapolated that principle for this, and imagined not only a world where the waters have risen, but where the city has essentially become nocturnal. So when the city sun starts to set and the neon lights go on, on Ocean Drive with the waves washing over them, and people commute to and fro in boats, you see school children waking up as the sun goes down, and packing off to school. You see commuters waking up, eating cereal and bagels in the morning, and ferrying themselves off to work.

It’s an inverted day rather than a night dynamic and that itself creates really interesting opportunities for action set pieces that, typically, when you’re in the chase or meeting the villain, it happens at night on a dark and gloomy street. Here, it happens literally at high noon. There’s a touch of that Western aspect, where the sun is beating down on you and our heroes are winded, sweaty and looking through the city that is essentially empty save for the people who are the denizens of the night. That’s the general world we’re looking at.

A little bit about the characters and the love story. The beating heart of this, is the love story. For me, there’s a reference within the film, but it’s loosely inspired by that myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus is this man who’s a wonderful singer, and the love of his life, Eurydice, dies. She’s bitten by a snake and goes down to hell and Orpheus’ grief is so extreme that he descends into hell, of his own volition, to try and barter with the devil and get his love back. And the song that he sings, is so beautiful and pure of heart, that it even moves the devil himself. He says, you can have your life back, you can take Eurydice back to the world, on one condition: don’t look back. As you’re descending up to the mortal realm, you can’t look back at her. The struggle is, will he or will he not look back. It started me thinking about love, itself. Both my philosophy on love, and there’s this meta-philosophy about film.

For me, love, and I married my love and we’ve been married a long time, but love is an ever changing thing. You fall in love with one person, but that’s not who they are, entirely. An entire person takes awhile to discover. It’s not just the glossy exterior. There are regrettable moments, from their past and that will happen in the future. There are flaws and darkness, along with the light and the beauty. For me, true love means not just seeing the good and saying I love you, but rather seeing all of it, the entire portrait of a human being, flaws and all, and saying, you. I love you. The greatest act of love is seeing, unconditionally, and accepting. In this movie, in order for Bannister to be reunited with his love, that’s exactly what he has to do. He has to learn to see her.

For me, in terms of film and TV, and it’s something I think about a lot on Westworld, it’s the ideas of tropes in femininity and masculinity. Film has this way of being able to say, push closer. Look at this person, fully. Don’t just look at who they should be, or who society thinks they should be. Try to embrace all of them. For me that’s really important for the women and the male characters. A lot of time in thrillers and any kind of major genre films, the women are either the good girl, a little bit passive and waiting around for love. Or they’re the bad girl, that comes with sexuality and all sorts of things that are thought of as more risqué. And the truth is, that’s complete nonsense. Women have just as many multitudes as men. And men have more dimension to them than we are usually allowed in film. This odyssey in love is seeing characters, fully. Both the women and the men.

That’s why casting was critical for these really challenging roles. For the woman, you have to be the romantic hero, the siren, the girl who needs saving, the girl with secrets. All twists and changes. While Bannister is discovering that about the woman, he’s going through his own changes and you see different sides of him. He starts just as the laconic veteran of a war who’s a bit closed off. He opens up into this emotional creature with this woman. He goes through these twists and turns within his own arc that take him through from hero to villain and potentially back again. And you have to be with all of these characters and totally understand their emotional landscape, throughout.

All the years I was writing this, I would see the scenes fully in my mind and I was directing it and planning the set pieces and drawing the artwork for the world. The one person who was always in my mind, from the first day, was Hugh Jackman. It’s this crazy love story and it’s totally unreal to me. I drew his costume on him, I have all these sketches and I thought, it has to be him. This is a man who, whatever character he inhabits, whether it’s in Prisoners, or The Greatest Showman, he has a range that’s like that of a character actor. You always believe his characters. He has so much heart. Even if he’s playing a flawed character. You can just see that heart underneath that and you forgive him because you see in his flaws, your own.

Then you couple that with, my God, he’s Wolverine. The most charismatic, handsomest movie star. The idea he’s all those things combined, with the sensitivity and the action, the sheer physicality to pull off this physically demanding role. He was all I could picture. I didn’t talk to anyone else. I sent him an email and went out to meet him and we talked about the script. I stayed so long, they were like, you want to have dinner here? We were in his living room that long. I decided to leave him to dinner with his family and not encroach anymore. It was an instant connection in that way. He totally viscerally understood and inhabited that character.

I just recorded some voiceover with him and it was so moving to see him say these words that I’d imagined in my head so long. The life he brought to them was even better and more nuanced than I had imagined. That’s my lead.

Once I started talking to Hugh, it was, who do I find for May, his romantic partner, this mysterious and elusive woman? For me, these films are always about the woman. It has to be someone who, you want to be her, you want to be her friend, you understand her, even if she’s doing something morally compromised. When I started watching Rebecca Ferguson, I was blown away. In very intense scenes with huge movie stars, my eyes would drift to her because she was this powerful core in the center of this whirlwind film. She has this intelligence to her eyes and her performance speaks volumes. You just want to keep looking closer to figure out who she is. She’s got this timelessness to her performances that defies expectations and she’s beautiful and sexy. But that is literally just the tip of the iceberg.

She’s riveting and you can see all these emotions, roiling underneath her surface. One of my favorite actresses is Lauren Bacall, especially in To have And Have Not. I thought, who’s the actress today who could do that line, “You know how to whistle, don’t ya?” Who is that person who can have every man, woman and child lean forward and just stop breathing for a second? For me, that’s Rebecca Ferguson. Then, unbelievably, this builds into a love connection where my emails are now just filled with the back and forth with Rebecca Ferguson, where we are finishing each other’s sentences when we talk. It’s a really great creative match, and they have great chemistry. They worked together before, and I thought, I want to see more of you guys together. I want this to be the main story and now it can be.”

Joy and Jackman are repped by WME; Ferguson is repped by ICM Partners and Tavistock Wood.



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