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Writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller on setting, structure and story in 'Settlers'

July 22, 2021
2 min read time

Writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller set his debut feature film Settlers on the lawless, desolate edges of Mars. An excellent vantage point for the film to explore the lives of a nuclear family struggling to survive.

One could argue that Mars itself is a character in the movie. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until Wyatt had the idea to set it on terraform Mars (hypothetical transformation of the planet to one that can sustain lifeforms) that the story opened up thematically.

“I wanted to put these characters in situations where they had to consider options they would never consider,” he shares. “The isolation they all feel forces them to reckon with how far they’re willing to go, or not go. It’s what makes them so vulnerable.”

The movie’s unblinking exploration of isolation, survival and vulnerability is further bolstered by the film’s three-chapter structure in two ways: “The person heading each chapter has a decision to make and dies at its conclusion, but then leaves Remy [the main character] to live with those choices.” 

Much like his characters, as the writer and director of the film Wyatt himself was faced with his own set of challenges. In the original script, there is a pig birth on the settlement, which allows Remy to bond with a runt pig. Shooting in rural South Africa, it quickly became clear that wasn’t possible. “It was changed to a pig death, which was very tempting and seemed to fit, but as we were shooting, I knew it still wasn’t quite right.” Sure enough, in the assembly of the initial edit, there were issues. “You didn’t feel the connection,” Wyatt recalls. “It was a pretty interesting exercise in writing because we had to cut out anything that didn’t heighten or directly relate to the external threat. We made that the focus and reordered it.” He chuckles, “I think it worked out.” 

Reflecting on his experience, whether it’s behind the camera or on the page, Wyatt acknowledges that “filmmaking is all about compromise, and the pressure is on you to come up with something, to change things.” But he encourages writers and directors to “figure out your core starting point and hold onto what’s interesting to you. It’s how you’ll learn where to compromise and where not to.”

His advice to other screenwriters: “Whether you’re giving or receiving notes, talk to the person. You may invariably discover something together that neither of you realized, especially if it’s your own work. Something that you had written that you didn’t know you had written.”

And if Wyatt could go back in time and high-five his younger self, what would he say to him? “Keep going. It might not happen as quickly as you hope it will, and there will be moments where you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing?’ But remember why you’re writing and why you’re writing what you’re writing. That has merit.”

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