Michael Rymer readies sci-fi series ‘Tremula’, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ mini
Australian director Michael Rymer started his career with 1995's Angel Baby, going on to direct features such as Queen of the Damned in 2002 and Face to Face in 2011.
Rymer has also become a prolific director of American television, with credits including Battlestar Galactica, American Horror Story, Longmire, The Killing, Hannibal, The Man in the High Castle and Jessica Jones, for which he recently received a Hugo Award.
The director has been in Los Angeles for most of 2016, pitching a TV show that he hopes to shoot in Melbourne next year: Tremula, based on a feature script written by Queensland writers Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause.
"Their agent Jean sent me the screenplay of the movie and I liked it a lot," says Rymer. "I just thought it was a good elevated sci-fi piece; very conceptual, very character-driven."
Rymer describes Tremula, in which a group of international astronauts go missing on a Mars training simulation in the middle of the Australian desert, as "The Martian meets Picnic at Hanging Rock".
"They've been under duress for over a year in these training conditions. And it's a competitive thing because not all of them are going [to Mars]. And basically they vanish. The premise was that you had eight scientists lost in time, in a time warp, trying to figure out what had happened to them and how they can get home."
"The other story is what's going on in mission control. The various scientists who have designed the mission [are] trying to figure out what happened to their vanished astronauts and what the hell to tell the public."
Finding the money for the feature proved problematic, even for a director with Rymer's CV.
"I had a real struggle trying to get the money together to make a medium level feature, because sci-fi is tricky at that level. A few years ago Moon was a hit and that spawned about a dozen sort of attempts to do elevated sci-fi. Many of them were quite good films that did not work. It's a capricious market."
"One of the problems I was having in selling was that the screenplay had no third act. It had a very long, twenty-page monologue to explain what was going on. It occurred to me that I had a perfect pilot if I finished the show at the end of the second act, and that the third act, which was much more complex and difficult, was enough to base a whole season of a series on. So I went to Shane and Shayne and I asked their permission and they were fine with that."
Pitching the longer-form version of Tremula in LA, Rymer realised that "my pitching skills aren't great. I'm a good filmmaker [but] not a great salesman."
"And what I was pitching was just too intellectual, basically. I was trying to do a time-travel movie that dealt with time-travel in a realistic manner. And I don't know that I cracked the way to do that in a way that wasn't going to make people's heads explode."
"Between Battlestar, Hannibal, American Horror Story, Jessica Jones, Man in the High Castle, I would have thought my pedigree was very high – and people were very flattering about my work. But no-one's star-struck in LA, and the bottom line is you have to be able to pitch a season. I had a season but as I pitched it, it became apparent to my audience that this was much too complex and sophisticated a set of notions to absorb."
"We're dealing with the concept of time travel where you can't change time. Every single time-travel movie ever made, the concept of time is linear, and people go back on that line in order to change the direction of that line by killing Hitler or whatever they're going to do. And according to science that is a highly unlikely scenario about the way time works and the way time travel might be possible."
"But the multi-verse and the concept of using quantum mechanics and the conscious universe – all those sorts of concepts are highly theoretical in scientific circles right now, and fascinating [in] the way [that] they're basically coming around to concepts that are already contained within many spiritual traditions. So it's a very interesting time we're living in. Battlestar Galactica was able to crack that set of ideas and present it to an audience in a compelling, exciting way, [but] I haven't quite figured out how to do that on Tremula. I'm a good filmmaker, I'm not the best populist in the world."
Tremula plays with a concept that was also central to Battlestar: "[that] the only guarantee of survival for our species is to get the hell off this planet somehow. And it's sort of a daunting and depressing thought to most of us," says Rymer.
The Melbourne native is is currently looking for a local producing partner, and hopes to shoot the entire thing in his home town.
"We're always trying to shoot Melbourne for Los Angeles, or Sydney for New York, and it's always frustrating because it's very limiting in terms of the filmmaking. This was one of those rare circumstances where it was organic for me to have a completely international cast, but it was also organic to say that it was a completely Australian-set story. The hope is to base it out of Melbourne and go to some place like Lake Mungo to do the exteriors."
After a year spent pitching and writing, Rymer is about to return to work as a director for hire.
He's signed on to direct the second half of FremantleMedia and Foxtel's mini Picnic at Hanging Rock. Rymer will be taking the baton from a female, non-Australian filmmaker, as-yet unannounced, who is directing the first three episodes (to the chagrin of the ADG's Kingston Anderson).
Rymer describes the scripts, written by Alice Addison and Beatrix Christian, as "interesting and surprising, and not what you'd expect. Very much worth doing."
"As a fan of Peter Weir and a fan of the original, I was sceptical when I picked up the scripts and it was strange, because I'd been using Picnic at Hanging Rock in my pitching [of Tremula]."
"Before I read the scripts – which are based more on the book than the movie – I thought I'd have a look at the book, and it's one of those strange, alchemical pieces of storytelling where for no good reason the hair stands up on the back of your neck, reading it. Inherent in the story is something very powerful and mysterious."