CS Interviews: Chaos Walking Author Patrick Ness
ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to speak with author Patrick Ness about adapting his novel “The Knife of Never Letting Go” into Doug Liman’s new film Chaos Walking, starring Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley. Ness talks about the difficult process of developing the complex narrative featured in his Chaos Walking trilogy, and also shares his thoughts on the cast and weighs in on the notion of noise. You can check out the full interview below!
In the not too distant future, Todd Hewitt discovers Viola, a mysterious girl who crash lands on his planet, where all the women have disappeared and the men are afflicted by “the Noise” – a force that puts all their thoughts on display. In this dangerous landscape, Viola’s life is threatened – and as Todd vows to protect her, he will have to discover his own inner power and unlock the planet’s dark secrets.
Based on author Patrick Ness‘ young adult sci-fi trilogy novel, Chaos Walking stars Tom Holland (MCU films) as Todd Hewlitt and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker) as Viola Eade, and co-stars Mads Mikkelsen (Doctor Strange) as Mayor Prentiss, Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) as Davy Prentiss Jr., Demian Bichir (Alien: Covenant) as Ben, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter as Cillian, and David Oyelowo (Selma, Interstellar) as Aaron.
Chaos Walking is directed by Doug Liman from a screenplay written by Patrick Ness and Christopher Ford. Doug Davison (who worked with Liman on American Made) and Alli Shearmur (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Cinderella) are producing Chaos Walking with Robert Zemeckis and his ImageMovers’ partner Jack Rapke.
ComingSoon: How did you come up with the Chaos Walking trilogy?
Patrick Ness: It started with an idea of information overload, you know, when I was writing it, even back in the — I mean, I’m a grandpa, 2007. You know, in 2007, even then, when social media was sort of in its first golden age, I was still fascinated by the idea of how much people feel obliged to share. You know, how much of ourselves we felt obliged to share. And as I’m doing it, this is like, this is not all terrible because social media has allowed people to find their tribes and so there’s lots of great stuff. But I thought, well, what about the privacy you need when you make a mistake? Do you really want to screw up something and then have it on YouTube an hour later? And so, I began to wonder, well, what if there mixed logical steps that you had no choice but to share out, so you think, what might that be? And particularly what it might be if you were young. And so, that’s where it began, a place where you had to share.
CS: You cowrote the screenplay to the film alongside Christopher Ford. How difficult is it to stay true to the novel, whilst also allowing the film to breathe the way it needs so?
Ness: I have a really strong philosophical approach to that, which is, first of all, the book remains. I’m a real big believer in that. The book’s not going to be erased. It’s like, remember all the absolute nonsense about the Melissa McCarthy Ghostbusters, all that stupidity?
Ness: And I was like, all of you people who are arguing against this that it’s going to bomb, oh, it’s going to ruin the memory of the first one? I’m like, well, did you see Ghostbusters 2? It’ll be fine to just calm down and enjoy the movie, you know? And so, that’s how I feel about the books. The book isn’t going to be erased. It’s not going to go anywhere. And so, if I can abridge that, then the movie becomes a creative challenge, because it’s like, okay, well, 500 pages of a book is not going to translate into a 105-minute movie, so the word I always use is remix. And it’s a remix of the book. And that’s how I really strongly feel about it. Let’s remix it. Let’s be creative and remix it, because the best remixes are as creative as the original song. So I feel there’s something exciting. There’s a challenge to, oh, how can I keep the spirit of the book? How can I keep the essence of their relationships and the feel, the excitement of the book with different tools? I find it really exciting.
CS: Does it also like, give you an opportunity to maybe do something more that you wanted to do with the book or that maybe like, put in an idea that you had later after the book had already been published?
Ness: When I’m done with the book, I’m done with the book. And there’s nothing I can do about it — you know, whatever flaws it might have, I still love it and I’m ready to send it out into the world like sending a kid off to college. You have to let the book stand on its own — but there are chances to see new things. And so, it’s not like I’m perfecting the book, but it’s not quite the same kind of setup, but I am excited to see what else can be done. Like for example, there’s a very sweet and funny moment in the movie when [the characters] are under a piece of tarp in the woods sheltered from the rain, and it’s — well, they’ve released the clip, but I’d hate to spoil it. But his thoughts go somewhere, and he imagines something and she sees it and it’s very funny. That’s not in the book, and I think that’s wonderful. It’s wonderful. I do kind of wish I thought of it, but it’s perfect in the film because it works so perfectly as a visual joke. So that kind of thing delights.
CS: The idea of noise is interesting. Do you see any benefit to people being able to read other people’s thoughts at all times?
Ness: I think it’d be terrible and I always thought that the – I think there’s so much wrong with “Chronicles of Narnia”, let’s put it that way. And but the one thing he gets rights is when Lucy accidentally overhears her friend talking about her. And it’s, you know, a friend that was impatient on that day and short of temper and said something about her — and everybody does that to all of their friends. And I don’t want to know that. You know, we’re human because of what we choose to say and choose not to say. And yeah, that has some drawbacks, and yeah, it’d be nice to know some stuff. But I think the other end of the spectrum would be a nightmare. I think relationships would be difficult. And in a way, that’s kind of the hopeful theme of the film, which is that despite the fact that she could hear everything he thinks, she still decides to trust him and they still become close. Yeah, despite this, not because of it, definitely not because.
CS: As you’re writing your stories, do you picture the film adaptation in your mind or structure the book in a way that would lend itself to a film adaptation or is it just a completely separate experience?
Ness: I still look at it as a completely separate experience. And you know, I do obviously visualize stuff, because you know, the way I describe it in the best way for the prose and in the book. But I’m never writing a book for a film adaptation. And you know, and I can say that hand on heart. The first book I wrote after finishing the screenplay to A Monster Calls and Chaos Walking and doing a television show for the BBC, the first book I wrote was an homage to “Mrs. Dalloway”. So it was set over the course of a day. It was almost entirely internal dialogue. And that book is not film-able. I was still responding to whatever the story needed to be, whether that was film-able or not. A book is a book and a film is a film and they’re exciting in different ways.
CS: Okay. So you get Doug Liman as a director. You get Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen, David Oyelowo. Were you sold right from the start on these actors taking on these characters that you had written? Or did you have to see them in action first?
Ness: Oh no. I mean, Daisy was first aboard and she showed me this wonderful letter about how she saw Viola and why she wanted to play her so much. And then, Tom came aboard and then they both promptly became stars of the most gigantic movie franchises in history, which is very helpful. But also, they both have a kind of approachability that is important for the characters. They’re not untouchable. And then, our casting director, so clever — it was cool choice after cool choice after cool choice. I can’t imagine in any other situation where I’m going to ever have a cast as cool. Because I mean, seriously. I’m trying to find the casting director’s name because I credit them a lot and I cannot keep the name in my head. I’m looking on IMDb because Mads Mikkelsen is a wonderful choice, that incredible, incredible face. That incredible just gravitas and the way his accent, even, it’s just so, it’s perfect. And then, they said, well, how about Cynthia Erivo for the mayor? How about Kurt Sutter and Demián Bichir. I mean, it’s just cool thing after cool thing after cool thing. And I’m never going to have a film that is this cool of a cast ever again. So I am very, very happy with how it’s gone.
CS: And so, how much input were you able to have with that? When you were describing these characters to the casting director, what is that process like?
Ness: No, you know, it’s very sweet on how many readers think that the author is in charge of casting the film. But I just tried to be – I just trying to be friendly and helpful, not obstructive. I just try to say this is how I picture Todd and this kind of energy. And so, I’ve got to find that casting director — there you go. It’s Jeanne McCarthy and Nicole Abellera Hellman. So, they are very, very – they’re geniuses at it. And I think I talked to the studio from the start that a lot of the races of the characters in the book aren’t mandated, so I am extremely open-minded, and would very much like a cast that looked like my family, for example, which is not – I come from quite a diverse family. And so, they just found the coolest people. I love this cast and I will never get it again.
CS: The story deals with some pretty heavy themes – ramifications, war, gender politics and even the notion of like, invading a foreign country and destroying another race of beings. Are these themes that you set out to write about? Or do you create the plot, as you were talking about before, involving social media and then allow the themes to work their way into the story naturally?
Ness: It’s the latter, but it’s not quite working the story naturally. I’ve always said that even if I agree with every word of sermon, I don’t want a sermon, I want a story. And so, there needs to be a story first and foremost. However, that idea that it needs to be a story first has been used to cover up a lot of crimes. It’s been used to tell the same story over and over again. And so, accompanying that idea, I have always argued that script needs to be a story first, but make sure you are absolutely 100 percent paying attention to what the story wants to be. You know, you’re not forcing it into a template and you’re not guessing what a studio or a publisher might want, that you’re really genuinely just following where the story goes, because I think if you do that, and if you find the joy in that of what you’re responding to as the writer, it’s going to have all the things you care about and all the things you worry about and all the themes that are important to you are going to show up in it because that’s why you’re responding to the story. It’s part of your psyche and your personality and your heart. They’re all going to be there, if you really trust the story to go where it needs to go, rather than trying to force it somewhere, if that makes sense.
CS: I know you may not have too much to say about this, but I have to do my due diligence, I know we’re only on part one, but has there been any headway on the sequel to Chaos Walking?
Ness: The studio has all three books, but because it’s a new title — it’s a brand new story. We’re not bringing back a character or something like that. So as always, you gotta hope the audience responds. I think they will. I hope they will. But yeah, we’re ready to go if they want it.