Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to actor/screenwriter David Dastmalchian about writing and starring in his new film All Creatures Here Below and that devastating twist that no one will see coming: “We’re going to pull the rug out from under the audience.”
One of the darkest movies you’ll see in 2019 is All Creatures Here Below.
David Dastmalchian and Karen Gillan play a couple desperate for money who impulsively commit a crime that sets in motion a series of dire events, forcing them to return home to Kansas City to confront the secrets of their past. After starring in Avengers: Endgame, this film marks the second 2019 film that Gillan is a part of that includes some major spoilers that shouldn’t be revealed.
Star Dastmalchian (Bird Box, Ant-Man and the Wasp) also wrote All Creatures Here Below and talked to me about the personal connection to the story, what it was like writing that shocking twist, and what we can expect for his next project, Dune, which finds him reteaming with Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve.
Awards Daily: You wrote and starred in All Creatures Here Below. What was it like balancing both of those responsibilities?
David Dastmalchian: It’s the second time I’ve been fortunate enough that something I wrote got produced. The first time around was with a film called Animals—same director Collin Schiffli. What was really a blessing this time around was knowing that our shorthand has gotten even shorter. We’ve developed a way of communicating that’s really helpful. With Animals, we were on such a tiny budget and had such a small team. Collin and I were also helping set up and break down every day, doing the locations, and helping with background casting. This time around, we were able to have people who were really good at different jobs doing them. I could just focus on the body of work I was trying to do to try to create an imposing, physical presence for Gensan. Whenever there was a question about writing stuff, which only a couple came up during production, I was able to be there on hand to answer questions and hopefully be a good resource.
AD: You’re from Kansas City. Did you write the film with the location in mind?
DD: It absolutely was intentional. I had been dreaming up this plot and the narrative about these true characters who’ve been denied the things they want the most in life. For Gensan, a sense of security and freedom, and for Ruby, a child of their own. They’ve dreamed of these things for years, so when they strike out one night and take the things they feel have always been denied them, they have to go on this run. In my imagination, it was always this journey to go back home to confront this monster that they have been living in fear of for years. Although I always found the plot fascinating and I would think about the things that inspired it—my favorite writers like John Steinbeck and Carson McCullers, and filmmakers that really inspired this idea, like the Coen Brothers and Terrence Malick—I would resist writing because it was still missing this underlying major question. I never knew if I would actually write it. Then about five years ago, a bombshell exploded in my family in regards to some really dark and painful history of abuse that we had all known about and that had happened right in our tribe, which we hadn’t spoken of for decades. When it finally began to manifest and come out, I think that’s what lit the fire in me to start typing words. I wrote the script top to bottom in about 48 hours.
AD: That’s amazing. Really inspiring from one writer to another.
DD: It’s really hard to know what to put in, because I also have to respect people’s privacy. With Animals, people know I was an addict. It took me a while to be able to talk about that publicly. When it came to All Creatures, we’re dealing with super painful issues that don’t just affect me directly but other people, so I have to be delicate about how to approach that.
AD: I want to talk about the big reveal about Ruby and Gensan, without revealing it. Were you at all worried about writing that and how this might be received?
DD: I wasn’t worried about it because to me it was always a core element of the journey. I was going to write the script and that was going to be necessary. For me, to write anything that seems to have any effect on people, it comes from a personal issue or question that I’m deeply wrestling with. I don’t make these films for me. They’re not some form of psychotherapy or some spiritual purge. They are stories that I need to and want to tell people. What was scary for me was that we’re going to hit this point in the plot where we’re going to pull the rug out from under the audience that’s going to knock them sideways, but in doing so, what’s not important to me is knocking them sideways—what is important to me is deepening their connection to Gensan and Ruby. I was scared that this big moment is going to happen and—are people going to stay on board and care about and want to remain invested in their story? In doing that you have to trust the magic of people’s abilities and trust the way Collin’s going to shoot it and the performances that convey empathy.
AD: This is a really big departure for Karen. She’s known for more light-hearted comedies or action movies, like Avengers: Endgame. Your character Gensan describes her as “unique.” What does he mean by that?
DD: I was just at the premiere of Endgame watching Karen on a massive screen as this incredible alien superhero and she is by the way freaking phenomenal in the new movie. She’s always phenomenal; she’s so versatile and is a true artist. She has a true calling in her soul to tell stories that really push boundaries and challenge people and confront us with the deeper, darker mysteries of all the big everything. When she read the script, she very passionately and energetically wanted to collaborate with us. We were obviously thrilled and honored, and then when we started working together, I was so moved. I knew it when I was filming scenes with her. What she’s done is manifest this person that is so filled with a purity and a goodness and a longing for that sacred fabled place that we all believe in our hearts is promised somewhere out there. She’s on this diligent mission with this man that she’d love to start a family with. And yet—and this is the best part of what Karen does with her ability as an actor—she conveys all that purity and love and there’s still this razor-thin glint in her eye that belies something underneath the surface that tell us that she’s so determined to get to that place that it’s dangerous and haunting and a little frightening and we don’t know what she’s capable of.
AD: Would you consider her character slightly slow or developmentally slow?
DD: She is the product of non-education and severe abuse. The damage of abuse to an individual, both physical and psychological, can have major lasting effects on the developmental process of an adult. With that being said, I didn’t write Gensan or Ruby as people who were born with an intellectual disability. There is a quality of slowness to them that’s an effect of abuse and non-education.
AD: That makes sense. I also noticed there was a lot of animal imagery in this film, with turkey and chickens. Was this purposeful with how they relate to humans? I feel like in many ways, Ruby and Gensan live like animals.
DD: Most of my adult life has been in very urban atmospheres where I have walked past stray, uncared-for, loose animals—which is one thing. But how they’ll be on a sidewalk next to uncared-for humans, that we just kind of move around? It’s not that it doesn’t happen in rural or suburban areas as well. But there’s something about being smashed in the face with it in an urban environment. There was this idea that Gensan and Ruby are just the forgotten. It’s really interesting to try to write a story representing people who have been forgotten when you’re a writer like me who has been insanely lucky and privileged. I’ve been homeless and struggled with mental illness out in the wild, but I also had resources that Gensan and Ruby could only dream of. I had a family that loved me and helped me get back on my feet. They don’t have those luxuries.
AD: What’s the significance of the title? It sounds like it could be a horror flick, and in ways it is very horrific. Is it related to religion?
DD: I grew up in a fairly strict Evangelical Christian upbringing. There was something soothing to the Doxology hymn “Praise God Through Whom All Blessings Flow/Praise Him All Creatures Here Below.” It put me in the company of everybody. As I have grown and my spiritual journey has evolved and I’ve wrestled with my frustration with my belief system, I have a very strong belief in a higher power. What that has meant to me has changed, but one thing has never changed is the perplexity, utter dismay, and confusion about why certain people suffer so much.
AD: Finally, you have a really busy year coming up, including the highly anticipated Dune. What’s it like being a part of that? Have you started filming?
DD: I’ve only begun prep work. The film has started production, and I’ll begin very soon. I’ll be going to Budapest. The script is incredibly powerful, exciting, and entertaining. It’s as deep as the Herbert text. I can’t wait to see the film that Denis (Villeneuve) makes. He brings so much humanity to every story he tells. I’m also simultaneously shooting a Hulu series called Reprisal. There’s nothing on streaming or TV like it.
All Creatures Here Below arrives in theaters nationwide May 17.