Interview: Director Mark Raso Explains the Themes of Netflix’s Awake

Netflix’s sci-fi thriller Awake is now live on the streaming platform. The film is directed by Mark Raso and stars Gina Rodriguez, Ariana Greenblatt, Frances Fisher, and Shamier Anderson.

Awake focuses on the global hysteria that occurs “after a mysterious catastrophe wipes out all electronics and takes away humanity’s ability to sleep. Scientists race against the clock to find a cure for the unexplained insomnia before its fatal effects eliminate the human race. When Jill (Gina Rodriguez), a former soldier, discovers her young daughter may be the key to salvation, she must decide: protect her children at all costs or sacrifice everything to save the world.”

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Awake director Mark Raso about the film’s themes and how it differs from other apocalypse stories. Check out our video interview below, or check out the full transcript.


Tyler Treese: Awake was very interesting, and I really love the core conceit of the film with the lack of sleep and how it’s getting people to react. It’s a very novel idea and that’s something I haven’t really seen explored before. How’d you come across that concept?

Mark Raso: So the concept was interesting. We basically had this like logline of “A solar flare happens, and what if no one can fall asleep.” [We were asked] can you do anything with it? We’re given [it] by our producers and me and my brother [Jason] came up with this story. There’s lots of directions to go with it, but what cracked the story opened for us was this idea that not, it’s not everyone who can’t sleep. There has to be one person who can sleep to kind of balance the film or ground the film in something real. That’s kind of where we came up with the mother-daughter, family story.

I really liked that you didn’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on what caused it. It was more just the human side of how people are impacted by it. What made you go in that decision?

I think as the concept that, or kind of what I wanted to explore and it’s something I kind of like to explore in all my films, is characters and choices. So something that was very important to me was that there are no evil characters. There’s no good and bad in this film, although we can perceive them as good as bad. It’s just like when you’re presented with something so stressful, that’s such a burden on society, how are different people going to react and how is that kind of true to them? They have to believe they’re doing the right thing, even though for some, it might seem crazy, and for others, it might seem normal. So that was basically the concept. We quickly realized that why it happened, doesn’t matter. It’s really the thing, how people react to it that matters. I guess we’re getting a little glimpse, like this was all written and directed pre-pandemic, [but] we’re getting a little glimpse of that now with the current circumstances of like how different people are reacting to in different ways.

It’s a very interesting human drama and I wanted to get some thoughts on how you depicted insomnia in the film. You bring up sleep deprivation and that type of torture in the film. Did you talk to experts on how to properly showcase those effects?

So we did a ton of research on it. Talk to different doctors, a lot of books on how it’s used as torture, articles on how to use its torture methods. It was important for us to [get] a good grasp on it and it was a little bit tricky. Cause you make movies shooting out of order and trying to track it throughout the film and trying to make sure people are at the right stages at the right time. But we did a ton of research. The biggest difference, I guess between reality and the film is that in reality, people have these things called microsleeps where it’s like the brain just can’t function. So it’ll just like force your body to go to sleep. Sometimes it’s only like 30 seconds a minute, even if you have insomnia and you think you’re awake. So in our movie, those do not exist. So it’s even like amplified two to three times you see in the movie because there’s no rest ever for the brain. So that was like the one leap. We don’t know if that’s actual because it’s not proven, but that’s one leap of science that we made.

Gina Rodriguez is so great as the mother. Can you just talk about how she embodied that character and she really brought it to life? She’s so great as a protective person, she’s trying to get her life back on track when this happens, and she’s willing to just sacrifice so much of herself to protect her kids. It’s a great story.

The genesis of the story is this mother, who despite best efforts, again, this kind of like not quite black or white, but despite her best efforts all she wants to do is provide for kids. She’s been damaged and she’s not quite good at it. Her history and her background really give her the opportunity to step forward. As you watch the movie, you can also question some of the decisions she’s making, but what we know [is that] at the core of it is this love and desire to protect her family. Even if the way she’s going about it might not be the way other people would go about it.

Gina herself is great. You know, it’s funny because the first thing I was worried about when I talked to her about it was, I think she was 35 and I’m like, “You’re playing a mother of an 18-year-old and 13-year-old girl here. Are you okay with this?” And she’s like, “Oh yeah, I don’t care.” It’s in the script, she’s supposed to be a young mother, but just her willingness to embrace that. I know a lot of people don’t want to be typecast as a mother when they’re so young and mother teenagers, but Gina was just so on board with this and was really embracing it. Just thought it was an important story to tell.

I also love the performance of Shamir Anderson as Dodge. As you’re saying, there are shades of gray here. Here’s a convicted felon and he’s one of the biggest heroes in the film. He’s supportive and just kind of flipping that on your head. Like you see somebody in a prison uniform, and he stole their car at first and you’re like, “Oh, this guy’s going to be bad news,” but everybody’s trying to survive. Can you talk a bit about his performance and what he brought to the character?

Shamir is great. He’s really, really good, and one of the things for all the characters we delve into this like deep background of how they got where they were when we meet [the apocalypse]. So Shamir and I, we had this understanding of who he was before we meet him in the film. Part of the reason is, there’s massive mass inequal incarceration. So our idea was always like, and I don’t want to give away the film too much, but Shamir is a guy who you meet him as a prisoner, but he’s a guy who should’ve never been in prison to begin with. He turns out to be this kind of good guy. So we just wanted to touch on that subject a little bit in the film. His performance is great because he brings something different and he brings, I wouldn’t call it humor, but there’s a lightness at times where he brings a different thing from a mother trying to protect their kids at all costs. He has something else going on and I think it counterbalances Gina and what she’s doing particularly well.

Then the young actress you have playing as Matilda. She’s fantastic. Can you talk about the challenges of working with a younger actor? She plays the part so well, so it definitely works and in a lot of ways, she’s the heart of the film.

It’s interesting. She’s great. She’s fantastic. Ariana Greenblatt, she’s done a ton of stuff since we shot Awake and she’s currently doing a lot of stuff. I think she will be a name that a lot of people will recognize in years to come. It was challenging for me. I’ve never worked with kids before [and] it constricts your day. They have to be in school during the day. They can only work a certain amount of hours. So from a technical standpoint, it was very difficult, but in terms of working with her, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in that. She’s just so professional, so prepared, really [and] willing to do whatever it took. You can see she was kind of born to do this, so [I’m] very excited for her performance.

One of the interesting things in the film is it’s different than other films in the sense that, not to give too much of it away, but clearly Gina Rodriguez and her character Jill is our protagonist throughout the film, but there is this kind of crossing that hasn’t really been done too much in film. Where I think feel by the end of the film, [Matilda] is our protagonist. The young girl is our protagonist. So there is this kind of handoff, which was incredibly challenging because it’s just not conventional, but Ariana was able to handle it so well.

I just want to talk a bit about the film’s depiction of humanity. I really liked how it’s a very dark film and we’re seeing people break under the pressure, but we’re also seeing, in Gina’s character, just the lengths we’re willing to go for family. It’s very two different sides. Was it difficult to keep that sort of hope alive in the film with it showing so much mayhem and sad moments throughout?

What was very important to me coming into this film, and it’s weird because as I mentioned we shot this kind of pre-pandemic, so it might even feel darker now, but was that this world and this quest to survive. Cause it’s pretty early [when] we set up that if we don’t solve this, everyone’s going to die. It has to be meaningful. There has to be a desire. So we have to depict the world as a hopeful place. We have to want to survive in it, right? We did that a little bit visually, we tried to do a color palette that was very hopeful with bright saturated colors instead of our typical dystopian doom and gloom. Why am I fighting to survive in this world? That’s chaos. We want to say, “No, the world has the potential to be a beautiful place. Let’s fight for it. Let’s want to survive in it.” So visually, aesthetically we try to convey that message. Then also in terms of their relationship, I think, and their love for each other, we try to kind of convey that it’s worth fighting for.