Directed and co-written by Shane Belcourt, Red Rover introduces the world to Damon (Kristian Bruun), a frustrated man in his early 30s who seems like his life is perpetually stuck, both personally and professionally. Feeling lost and alone, Damon spends his free time looking for unknown “treasure” on the beach with his metal detector, but to no avail. However, when Damon meets an offbeat musician named Phoebe (Cara Gee) who is handing out flyers for a one-way trip to Mars, he thinks the deep space journey may be that elusive ‘something’ that he’s been looking for. But, as the relationship between them begins to grow strong, Damon begins to ask whether or not leaving Earth is really his life’s true mission after all. Asked where the idea for Red Rover came from, Belcourt explains that the seed was planted when he and his co-writer heard about the open applications for the Mars One mission.
“Duane Murray (who I’ve known since high school) and I have been dreaming up movies and skits and sketches when we used to have a video camera, with the hundred-foot electric cable with an extension cord going out to VHS. We’ve always been dreaming up usually romantic comedies,” he reminisces. “For Red Rover specifically, we heard about five years ago [that] there was this cultural zeitgeist moment when Mars One was on podcasts. It was on the CBC radio [and] the news. It was out there. You could apply to go one way to Mars to help colonize [it]. This program was going to get people there within five years and they were going to do it by financing the whole thing — for real — by a real-life TV show where people are training and the whole thing will be constantly televised like The Truman Show. We thought that is crazy! No one’s going to apply to that. That sounds insane. And then, lo and behold, you hear [that] hundreds of thousands of people around the world are applying. [We thought] only the most desperate people would apply to go to one way to Mars and not maybe ever come back or die on the journey.”
“We started watching the applicant videos… on YouTube… and we [thought that] ‘Oh, these people are going to be nuts.’ But no, they’re dreamers. They’re people who want to have meaning in their life. Something bigger than whatever it is that they feel the malaise that they’re trapped in their lives. We started thinking, ‘Ooh, if you take Mars and put in the movie business that’s Duane and I’. We want something that feels unattainable… And so that’s when we kind of really connected the dots of, ‘Oh, these people aren’t crazy. These people are us.’ That’s when we had the [idea to] put ourselves into this character Damon and his desire to leave Earth.”
Featuring strong performances across the board, the film is anchored by the solid work of its lead, Kristian Bruun who brings an affability and courage to the role of Damon. According to Belcourt, the decision to hire Kristian was easy given his incredible talent and connection with his co-star, Cara Gee.
“We first met with Kristian to see if he was game,” he says. “Dwayne knew Kristian from the acting circles in Toronto and, of course, everybody loves him. Everybody knows that he’s a great actor in anything he does and he was keen from the script [for his] first time being a lead in a feature. So, that was really great. And then we met with Cara right away, and Dwayne and I [said that ‘We] think these people were going to nail these parts perfectly’ after watching their other work… This is going to be a magical connection between the two. The two were friends. Kristian and Cara knew each other. So, there was already like a really great relationship and energy between the two. It was very easy to get them to laugh and joke around and be natural around each other because they were already in that place.”
In addition to his amazing talent as an actor, Bruun also proved valuable to Belcourt on set. Because of his large amount of screen time, Belcourt notes Bruun became equally important to building consistency and relationships with the other actors as well.
“Those who know low budget films, especially when you have a crew of five and myself as the director, I’m also shooting [as] the camera operator or DP some days,” he recalls. “It’s nuts. So, you’re really relying on the cast to kind of fly solo in a way. You go through things, you do stuff before, but really there’s so much going on [that] there’s not a lot of ‘actors studio’ moments on set. I would say there’s zero but what we did have was Kristian. Not only is he a great actor, he did a lot of work on the character in the script for himself to dial into Damon, but the whole movie is Kristian. It’s his character. Damon is in every scene. As such, every actor who’s also in the movie, whether it’s just a few days or, for Cara, many days, they’re always with Kristian. He’s the connective tissue, not only to the movie as a viewer, but he’s the connective tissue for Duane and I to help actors be involved in the kind of thing that we’re doing. So, hats off to his performance and hats off to all the energy [that] he brought on set every day to make it cool. He was fantastic…”
Struggling to get his life moving after a disastrous breakup and stuck in a dead-end job, Damon’s emotional journey drives the narrative as he looks for something new. According to Belcourt, Damon’s biggest battle lies in his inability to reframe his expectations after things break down.
“When we got into [our] mid- [to] late thirties and we were kind of dreaming some of the stuff up, it’s hard not to see [people] around you,” he observes. “Some relationships got very serious and people got married or they lived together for a long time [and] became common law or otherwise. There was this expectation in themselves that, sort of, that’s the end. Not the end in a bad way [but] the end of searching, the end of struggling and the end of ever feeling the threat of being alone. When that shatters…, how difficult it is for somebody to get over that rejection. It’s that sense of standing on the ice [that’s] finally secure for you to stand on and then it cracks and just melts away. You’re just gasping for air and trying not to drown. That’s [what] we sort of perceived as Damon’s issue. Damon’s issue fundamentally was just that he was like, ‘I’ve completed the circle, I’ve got to the end zone. I’ve met the one. We have a house together and we’re common law, but that’s a small bit. We’ll get legally married and we’re all done.’ So, his projection of life was complete only to realize [that], when she comes back in the film and things change in their relationship, he had to sort of figure out like Humpty Dumpty. What do you do to put the pieces back together? For the first part of the film until it gets going, he’s just lying there with egg spewed over the grass. It’s gross. And then, eventually, he puts it back together with the help of Cara and other characters pushing him in bad ways. But that’s what we saw as the fundamental thing. We see it in friends who had had that unfortunate circumstance where what they thought was true love for the rest of their lives, [falls apart]. Not high school [but] for adults, when it fell apart, it was quite devastating and, oftentimes, one-sided. Maybe it’s a kid thing. “You want kids, I don’t want kids. Well, then, I’m out.” Whatever it might be. But it was very clear to one party but the other one was really struggling. So, that was what we had with Damon.”
In one of the film’s more unique story points, Red Rover points to the tension (and relationship) between beauty and science. As he learned more about the scientific philosophy behind space exploration, Belcourt was amazed to see how modern engineering does not see division between the two concepts.
“I had the pleasure of working with a friend on his live performance in New York City that combined a lot of NASA footage,” Belcourt states. “So, we had a chance to go meet with some NASA scientists down in Maryland and people who’d been out there and worked in the Hubble telescope and other things. Being around those level of scientists was extremely exciting and beautiful because it was philosophical. It was speaking with these scientists and they had this idea of putting this poetic vision of what they experienced out there as the overview effect. That was something that I realized that science is not this mathematical thing. Yes, it is expressed in language. It’s like music talking about notation. But there’s something quite profound about what they’re trying to experience, what they’re trying to understand or what they experienced when they get out into outer space and see things all as one. Not as a theoretical study, but it’s almost like the Buddhist meditative place where you finally feel ‘all as one’ as a real thing…”
“Really, I think that the complexity of that is when you watch some of these early NASA videos – because everything NASA has is available online so you can just watch it – one of the big buyers of that information was mining because it allowed for their view of a geographical topical view,” he continues. “They could then say, ‘Oh,… there’s still a lot of places that were still untouched or unknown in detail… I bet you if we follow that river further, we could get this or that.’ There’s sort of this conflict perhaps between the exploration and the desire to feel something more profound about life that’s in science, especially in the science that we attribute to something like a NASA journeys and then, ‘How do you pay for it? What do we need?’ We’re speaking on technology that’s all made from materials made from mining. That kind of conflict was something that we wanted to sort of explore in the outer edges of this character world. Do we or don’t we go? Why do we want to go into outer space?”
“Now, there’s this COVID thing and everyone’s [thinking], ‘Get me out of here. I want a special bunker, you know? [laughs] But there’s no place more profound than this. Everything you’d need is in the space between you and everything around you. Those kinds of ideas were the things that we were trying to have inside and that was just a fun romp at the same time. Not to be too preachy the whole way through, but to have some stuff underneath.”
Interestingly, Belcourt’s script also highlights the philosophical concept of what it means to be ‘called’ to greatness. While previous generations have had a clearer understanding of the idea, he also believes that the people have today are struggling to find clarity regarding their own calling.
“I think ultimately what we’re trying to get at is… this feeling that I got somewhere and I answered the call,” Belcourt explains. “The bell rang and I was there. Some generations in some places get that immediately. When you think of the people who served in war, they answered the call. The greatest generation, you know. These kinds of things. But how do we define that now? It can’t just be famous. It can’t just be wealthy. We see so many examples of that being empty. So, what is that feeling of something great? How do we define greatness? Not as grandeur, but as something that feels like I was alive and it mattered. Not to everybody, just to me. All the characters definitely are on the edge and the precipice of trying to have a feeling that what they are part of — their lives — is going to give them a sense that their time on earth was worthwhile… That sense of fulfillment is not so much attainable through stuff or through going places, but it’s attainable through relationships with other people and relationships and adventures. That’s what we’re trying to get at.”
Of course, with Red Rover’s emphasis on looking to the stars, it begs the question as to whether or not Belcourt would join a mission to Mars if he were given the opportunity. When asked, he simply laughs and dismisses the idea, claiming that there’s simply so much left here to explore.
“No, I would not,” Belcourt chuckles. “If you could do the Star Trek [which] moves me to Mars and I could be there and get me right back, but the months long [journey]? I don’t know how we’re going to figure that science out. I am very much what the character of Phoebe describes [when she says] ‘there’s way too much sense of wonder and joy and discovery here’ that I would never want to go. It’s going to take me 500 lifetimes to get through this place to go, ‘Okay. I think I’ve seen it.’ We’ve been going for walks and new neighborhoods all the time and there’s parts of Toronto [that] I’ve never been before, let alone the whole planet. So, no. Not for me.”
For full audio of our interview with Shane Belcourt, click here.
Red Rover launches on demand on Tuesday, May 12th, 2020.