"Knowing" Screenwriter Ryne Douglas Pearson
Ryne Pearson is a published novelist with five books (soon to be six) in print, one of which was the source novel for the 1998 Bruce Willis film Mercury Rising. Father of two sons and a devout Catholic who has two priests that are uncles, Ryne's worldview of faith comes through in his latest screenplay for the Nicolas Cage film Knowing.
There are some small spoilers in this interview, so if you have not seen the film and intend to, be warned.
Can you start by telling us about the evolution of the idea from when you pitched it to the finished production?
Ryne: It was about 8.5 years ago that I pitched the original idea and then wrote the screenplay. From that original idea, a few different writers had input, like Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, who did an amazing job. As with many screenplays, you know as a writer that things are going to be interpreted and things are going to change, especially when it gets into the hands of the director.
From my original idea to what's up there now, the story is basically the same and the themes are the same. What Alex (Proyas, the director) did just brilliantly was take the original smaller scale of my screenplay, which was more intimate, and turn it into something that was more epic, more of a spectacle. In doing that, he made it more accessible to more people to get them to come see it.
From that sort of original idea, I'm very pleased with what ended up because the relationships are there, the story is there, the theme is there. I'm completely pleased with what he did.
Part of what was so fascinating was the father-son relationship. In most epic movies the protagonist is usually male, but you added the factor of him having a son.
Ryne: What you're working with in this movie is that when you already clearly know what the ending is going to be, which Alex clearly did, if you know that your hero is not going to, in the traditional Hollywood sense, "Save the world," it's freedom. You can then focus on what is really the important core of this movie. It's the theme and the relationships. I think that's a very liberating thing.
When you watch the finished film, what parts of it are closest to your original idea and story?
Ryne: It would be the father-son relationship and the journey they take to finding out there is something bigger. My original ending was different than what's there, but the theme of it is the same, that there's something bigger. That remained.
There is a theme I didn't write, which is one of my favorite themes in the movie now. That is the last scene with John Koestler (played by Nicolas Cage) when he returns to his family and his father. His father says, "This isn't the end," and John says, "I know." That's my favorite theme in the whole movie, and I didn't write it.
I think that's something else rare about this film, that there's a positive statement that there is something bigger that comes after the end. Many films might pose that question, but don't give a positive or definite answer.
Ryne: That's interesting too, because I didn't intend to write this as a religious movie or anything like that. To me, the natural thing was if you are confronted with knowing that things are going to end, what do you naturally turn to? You turn to questions like, "Is there something after this?"
If someone knows they're dying, there's the old saying that applies, "there are no atheists in a foxhole." Most people want there to be something else, and you try to understand and reach for that.
That's why I think the way Alex did it works, because he's not creating a message movie, he's leaving it to interpretation. He's giving you the playing field and you take away what you want from it, which I think is absolutely brilliant.
John's father is a pastor who has a biblical perspective of the events unfolding.
Ryne: I didn't actually have his father as a pastor in the movie, this was something that was added later. I think it was a nice touch. John is similar to the one I described in that he was suffering grief because he had lost his wife and is a single parent now. So he's trying to move through his grief and keep his son moving forward also.
It was good for him to have that story back-up also, that he was having struggles with his father. These were probably exacerbated by the idea that he had lost his wife and couldn't find an explanation for that in the world that his father came from, which was God and belief. That had to be difficult for him. So I think that was a nice touch to add in there that he could sort of come full circle and come back to his father in the end.
There's a poignant scene where John says that if he had had the sheet of numbers a year earlier, his wife might not have died.
Ryne: Her death had been predicted, just like other events, and he goes through the stages of wondering if this is just a sick joke. In the film, one of the central questions is about what you would do knowing the end is coming, and having this reminder of her death, he thinks, "if I had only known…"
Once you move past that, you being to wonder if this was all pre-ordained, and am I powerless? It's interesting in the way Alex chose to end the movie because there is that question and I think there are two answers to it. There are some things you can't change. But you can change how you end it yourself. You can change how you relate to it, and that's what John Koestler did. It's not going to be the Hollywood ending of him stopping the solar flare and saving the world. But he does take control over what he can take control of, and that's what he did at the end.
John's son has hearing problems, but he is able to hear the Whisperers. I thought it was a great choice because he can't hear things very well in the natural, but he can hear the words of these beings.
Ryne: In the original, the idea was similar in that they could hear certain things, but it was almost like he had been marked. There's no explanation for what's wrong with his hearing, but he has to wear this hearing aid to correct whatever's wrong. In the original, it centered a lot more on the son and what becomes of him.
The original characters' names for the father and son were Adam and Noah. I didn't name them that for any specific purpose; I just thought those two names sounded neat together. I didn't intend for them to have that sort of larger connotation that they ended up having toward the end.
The visuals at the beginning and ending of this film are brilliant reversals of each other. Did you have any input into that, or is it from the director and art director?
Ryne: That's from the director and art director. I feel my job is to give them the paint to work with, then they grab the brushes and work with them. People have said they see two endings with this movie. You have the ending where everything happens and the world literally ends. And you have that sort of coda with John getting back with his family.
Then there's the little ending that people are debating and arguing, that last little bit that, when I first saw it, I said, "that is visually different than the rest of the movie; it almost looks like a painting. It's almost unreal."
I wonder if Alex did that because it's the most highly-interpretative part where you ask yourself, "Is that real? Is this a vision of heaven? Is this another place?" I think that was a really smart choice because it separates itself completely from everything before.
Something else that seems to be left open for interpretation is the symbolism or meaning of the black rocks. Is that original to your script?
Ryne: I had some different elements in there which were similar, but they weren't black rocks. The black rocks have been interesting, because I've been following all the debates, arguments and comments on the Internet about it. It's amazing because I've seen people from three or four different religious faiths grab onto that and say, "That's Mormonism. Those are the seer stones that Joseph Smith had." Someone who's Islamic said, "No, that's part of Islamic Scripture." Then a Christian would say, "No, it's something else."
So people are grabbing onto these pieces and it's really interesting to see. When I see the movie, I look at them more as markers. Maybe markers of a place or an event. You find all these stones where Lucinda lived in that trailer, and you wonder about them. You find one with the mother when she's killed in the car. I think they're beyond what's real.
I look at it as markers left by the angels/aliens/whatever you want to think they are, that say, "We've been here, and it's OK." Again, that's the beautiful part of this movie is that people are interpreting it in so many ways.
I think you've succeeded in a way that many Christians who are making movies want to: your faith comes through the worldview presented, and it's organic to the story. It is not a message or sermon disguised as a film.
Ryne: My beliefs are from a personal level. I'm friends with people of many different faiths. The other day someone who knew I was Catholic asked me in an interview if I knew any card-carrying Christians, and I kind of laughed. I asked one of my friends later, "Do they give you cards?" He's a very evangelical Christian, and he laughed at it too.
I didn't try to beat a message in there. I wanted it to be very natural. As I said, if you know that the world is ending, where do you naturally go in your thoughts and actions?
There were moments where I saw comparisons to The Day the Earth Stood Still, which came out last year…
Ryne: I worked on that movie too. I was one of the uncredited writers. You know, in Hollywood, you work on a lot of things and you don't always get credit.
The angels or aliens in this film aren't coming to destroy the world because we've messed up (like The Day the Earth Stood Still) and have been so bad that the aliens just want to wipe out mankind. Rather, this is a natural catastrophe because of solar flares, and the beings are coming to give man a chance to start over.
Ryne: Alex created some things in here that took it to a level where the surprise is coming from for people, I think. They go in and don't expect some of the things that happen. It's generating debate and there's not a lot of middle ground; you're on one side or the other.
We spent the entire last week hearing critical reviews that were just scathing and hated it. Then Roger Ebert comes out with his review, which was actually written before most of these other reviews came out. He was very surprised, and I think the audience is at least looking at the movie, and that debate is what's getting people interested in it.
Was the ending with the children in your original script? It made me think of the Garden of Eden.
Ryne: That wasn't in my original script. That's part of the spectacle that Alex brought to it, and is another place for interpretation. Some people have asked me if it wasn't unnecessary to tack that on, but I ask, "Would you really want to go out and just watch the entire world end and not know that there's something else?"
For the sacrifice of the father and mother to have real meaning, there has to be something else. There are enough movies that tell us the world is ending and there is nothing else, that it's good to have one that offers hope. As the writer, what's the most challenging thing for you when the script goes into production?
Ryne: Letting the director do what they want to do. You have to just let go of it unless there's someone who wants you to do more work on it, or do something different. You have to let the director do what they need to do. Film is a collaborative medium.
I'm also a novelist. I've had five novels published, and as a novelist, you're more like the god of your own universe. You create it and you may get a little edit, but nothing near what happens with film, then it goes out there. With film, it's a collaborative process every step of the way, and you have to just be able to let it go.
Before production what's the most challenging?
Ryne: Just sitting down and getting it written. Writing is one of those processes that I just hate. I like the idea of writing, and I like having written. But writing itself is the hardest thing I've ever done. That's going to sound really wimpy. I've had other jobs. I've been a plumber and a bus driver, and those were physically hard. But writing is one of those things you just want to beat yourself over the head sometimes because you can't get it right. I'm never happy with my own work, it can always be better.
Writing novels and writing screenplays are very different methods. Which came first?
Ryne: Novels for me. My first novel came out in 1993, and I've published five, the last one in 1998. That's when I transitioned into film work. I'm just actually within a few months of finishing my sixth to prove to my literary agent that I still write novels.
In writing novels, like I said, you're the god of your own universe and you can go off anywhere you want. Screenplays are more mechanical devices. You have pieces and do things with those. The nice thing about screenplays is you can complete them in a very short period of time. The nice thing about novels is you can take your time.
What made you decide to start trying screenplays?
Ryne: My agent who handled the film rights for my novels was bugging me for many years to do this. I finally listened to him.