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Director Gavin Rothery Chases Small Sci-Fi in ‘Archive’

We chat with first-time director Gavin Rothery about transitioning from a conceptual artist on ‘Moon’ to behind the camera on the similarily themed ‘Archive.’
Archive Gavin Rothery Interview
By  · Published on July 10th, 2020

Check the Gate is a new column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that script? Why that location? Answers found within.

Take a breath the next time you experience intense pain or rage. Let it simmer. Think on the hot emotion. There may be something valuable within. You can exploit it for your purposes later.

Archive, the debut feature of Gavin Rothery, began in an atomic mushroom cloud of exasperation. Nine years ago, two of the filmmaker’s personal computers suddenly and mysteriously died, erasing years’ worth of work, including the conceptual designs he had done for Duncan Jones’ Moon. The infernal machines could not be resuscitated, but thankfully, he was able to retrieve most of his data by switching the hard drives into two other units.

When the sweat and anxiety lifted, and Rothery could resume his duties as a conceptual artist, he imagined the desire felt by the computer to cease operation. The blasted thing had effectively killed itself. Why?

The question was the first of many that lead to the creation of Archive. Set eighteen years in our future, George Almore (Theo James) toils in seclusion. He is on the verge of cracking the code that will give birth to a true-human equivalent A.I. The latest prototype (Stacy Martin) is practically complete. George merely needs to convince the machine to accept his dead wife’s consciousness.

With his first film behind him and ideas for future projects percolating in his head, Rothery can now laugh about the day that brought him such tremendous pain. However, when prodded to relive it, the director is still determined to make others understand the terror of the moment. That afternoon scarred his psyche forever.

“It was a real nightmare,” chortles Rothery. “All of a sudden, I’ve got a work emergency to deal with. My head was a complete mess. And the whole thing was just shambles. I couldn’t do anything about it because it was a weekend.”

To make matters worse, Rothery was in the process of moving. He had to get out, and his apartment was already in dissary. He didn’t have time to worry about the eradication of his life’s work, and there was no savior open for business until Monday. His only option was to stew.

“I had an idea pop into my head,” he continues. “About somebody creating an A.I. When they switch it on, and it becomes self-aware, the first thing it does is kill itself. The idea was really weird and a bit creepy and a bit dark.”

Rothery was smashing about his flat. Tidying what he could. Rather than ignoring the problem that was growing inside his mind like a black hole, he leaned into its center of gravity. He could hang a story on the mechanical monster destroying his day.

“I was trying to expand on where that might go,” he says. “Who was this person that created the A.I. How might they try and convince it to live, how might they try and convince it not to kill itself?”

For a creator looking to make the jump from one production department to the big seat behind the camera, the afternoon panic quickly became Rothery’s lifeboat. Here was a story that he could relate to, and that others could transplant their grief and dread. Like his favorite films, Archive uses its genre to crack into universal quandaries.

“I was keen to make sure that I had stakes that people could buy into,” he explains. “In a lot of sci-fi, the stakes are too big. You’ve got to fix this problem, or the world’s going to end. I can’t get on board with any of that stuff. But love and death are the two human constants that touch all in some way or another.”

Rothery doesn’t bother with inspiration. Sure, he loves a good movie as much as the next fanatic, but when it comes to the business of making his own, he concentrates solely on the story he wants to tell. If a little bit of Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg sneaks in, that’s fine, he can’t control the subconscious, but his active mind is only concerned with translating the idea as deftly as it can.

“Whenever I’m doing something,” he says, “my barometer of whether I’m proceeding in the right direction is, am I into it? Do I want to watch this? Has this got value? Is this going to bore me? Does this interest me? Is this the point where I want to walk out of the room and have a sandwich? I’m always looping it back to my watching experience, how I feel as a fan, and what I would be like if I sat in the audience.”

Making movies was never Rothery’s original game plan. He was working his way into the games industry when he and Duncan Jones stumbled into each other. They were co-workers and fast-friends. When Jones mentioned a short film he was contemplating, Rothery talked his way onto the production.

“I was just stretching my legs by playing in CG,” he says. “We ended up moving in together, and for ten years, we were trying to make a film. Eventually, Moon was what came out.”

As far as first film experiences go, you can’t ask for a better example than Moon. The low-fi sci-fi one-manner (kinda sorta, no spoilers) excels through sheer force of will. Each element of the movie was cobbled together by loving hands who didn’t know what they didn’t know. Moon was made because it had to be.

“My role on Moon was very creatively liberal,” he continues. “I was just doing all this stuff. I was in all these people’s areas, and I can see in hindsight that it was a bit frustrating for the people on the crew because normally on a production, people’s roles are quite specific. I was kind of walking into all these other people’s departments and sorting things out and fixing things, but I can’t apologize for that, because it was all to make things better.”

Duncan Jones behaved as Gavin Rothery’s prototype. He ripped the job from the clutches of icons. Moon was a deeply satisfying creative endeavor, and the crew was not its only supporters. Rothery can barely escape a day without someone mentioning the film to him, but he understands and appreciates their passion.

“I was basically right there for the whole process when we did Moon,” he says. “I saw the whole thing get done and it demystified it, and I just felt like I could do it.”

Confidence via experience is what got Rothery through the nightmare of two bricked computers. He let the panic and the rage take over for a few minutes, well, maybe a few hours, and then he did what his friend would do. He took the human elements of the personal horror and transformed it into the narrative for Archive. In grounding his agony, he offers an outlet for others to process theirs.

Archive arrives On Demand and VOD on July 10th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)