TV director Joss Agnew had worked on a number of terrific projects before coming to The Man Who Fell To Earth. Even so, plying his craft on this show, a continuation of Nicolas Roeg’s remarkable 1976 film of the same name starring David Bowie, was a truly special project for the veteran filmmaker. In our conversation, we discuss just what makes co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet’s The Man Who Fell To Earth so relevant, remarkable, and why it is one of the highlights of his career.
Awards Daily: How did you become a part of the directing team for The Man Who Fell To Earth?
Joss Agnew: It was in the traditional way. Just like being an actor, directors for hire are very similar. My agent introduced me to the scripts. It was at a time when there were a lot of scripts coming my way. I’d read a lot in those months. My wife said to me “I haven’t heard you laughing like that for ages (while) reading.” So I just absolutely fell in love with (show creators) Alex and Jenny’s work. It’s interesting with all the horror of COVID, one of the positives to come out of it was that they had time to really hone this project. To come out of a period which has been a very serious threat to humanity and to be writing a story about possible solutions to some of our problems on this planet was really special. So, I got the scripts from my agent, and then I met with Alex, and it was like “Where do I sign?”
Awards Daily: One of the things I love that you touched on, is when you said that you haven’t read something and laughed out loud so often. I can’t imagine that when this project was announced and it was starting to come to light, that it would be so funny.
Joss Agnew: It’s that the comedy, the humor, is so recognizable, isn’t it? You just feel “That is what I would do.” Am I the only person in the room that wants to laugh out loud when this terrible thing happens at a time when you’re not supposed to laugh? Maybe it’s why it’s so relatable because they apply the humor so well. I often think drama is a bit like a muscle, the tension and the release of it. The humor being the release and the tension being everything else – all the other conflicts can make for more powerful storytelling. It seemed to apply here to me. They were into some incredibly serious situations, but you’re really laughing along with it.
Awards Daily: When I was speaking to Alex, I asked him how intentional the humor was or did it just develop and he said it was really intentional. There’s just something inherently funny about a guy with a water hose over halfway down his throat.
Joss Agnew: (Laughs) It’s just those reactions he captured from the cops and the girl who’s in the car, and the guy whose garage it is, all the surrounding people – it’s just incredibly accurate, because I believe I would behave in the ways that I’m seeing in these scripts. There’s a lot of possibilities to be had with Faraday.
Awards Daily: How familiar were you with the film and/or the novel beforehand?
Joss Agnew: I was quite young when it first was on TV, where it was accessible to me. So I was completely freaked out by the movie as a kid with Bowie’s revelation of the skin suit that he takes off when he is revealed in the hotel. I thought the whole thing was quite crazy and rude and naughty and extraordinary. It’s quite discordant and that’s very Nic Roeg isn’t it? That’s his style. So to be absolutely honest, I don’t think I really understood everything there. Then of course I got a bit older and watched it again a couple of times and then I understood a lot more. Bowie was such a special special artist to all of us. I think being an Englishman and interested in the creative arts, he’s one of our angels and it’s just so sad that he wasn’t around to see this happen.
Awards Daily: I have thought about that too. If there was a Mount Rushmore of the greatest solo artists, he’s certainly taking one of the four spots.
Joss Agnew: That’s a lovely description. I can see him up there.
Awards Daily: It’s funny that you mention the sort of density of the film. When I spoke with Naomie Harris, she said that she wasn’t familiar with the film before she started considering the part and she said that she found the first watch to be kind of impenetrable. I know what she means, I’m like you, I had to sit through it three times to really start grasping all the themes.
Joss Agnew: Nic Roeg really explores through that stuff doesn’t he? The same with Walkabout as well, another film that he made, and Eureka. Funnily enough it feels of its time but it feels very of the now too. Maybe let’s say that he could have been ahead of his time in the way that he was making his films. I don’t know if at the time when It first came out, when I first saw it, I don’t think it was accessible to me as much as it was later in my life.
Awards Daily: I think one of the most wonderful surprises about the series in general is that I assumed, when it was announced, that it was going to be a remake of the film told out in ten hours. What I didn’t expect and was just bowled over by is that it is essentially a continuation. It takes the film and uses all the film’s backstory as informative for the series that you’re telling. I can only imagine that when you were reading that and when the revelation came to you, as well “Oh they’re not remaking this, they’re extending it” that had to be really exciting because a lot of times, remakes or works that are attached to previous works, sometimes are a little too tied to the source material in a way that they’re trading on the brand. This doesn’t do that. This expands upon it.
Joss Agnew: I don’t know if you could ever manage the weight of expectation on something like this if you were going to remake it. So when I heard the title, it was “Okay…” but then very quickly afterwards it was effectively the big “What happens next?” It was a massive relief and very exciting, because what are the possibilities? They’re limitless with it. But I think if you were going to try to redo that, you could easily describe The Man Who Fell To Earth, the original, as a cult classic if not just a classic. So, I think to find out that it was another man who is going to fall to Earth and let’s see what happens next. Will we see the original? All those possibilities. Will we actually get to see him save his planet this time? I always wondered how he was going to get all that water home. But I bet there’s a really cool answer, it won’t be a big pipeline. (Laughs).
Awards Daily: Of course where we sit now, to take matters to a more serious place, the question about our own future is so salient. We’re not trying to save the Earth, we’re trying to save our ability to exist on the Earth. The themes of a film that took place forty-six years ago are very present and up to the moment. It’s completely relevant for today’s audience.
Joss Agnew: Sadly, it couldn’t be more relevant. It’s the hope that the story delivers that I find incredibly appealing. I’m a natural optimist. There’s a saying, have you heard this one, David? The difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist is in charge of all of the facts. Even knowing that, I’m still an optimist. I think if we can imagine with the advances in technology that there are now, and it seems to be exponential, can we save ourselves? And you are absolutely right, it is about our ability to live on this planet, but it’s everything else. I would love to think that we are capable of saving ourselves and everything else and stop destroying so much. That’s partly why I think this show is so exciting.
Awards Daily: The series clearly plays in many ways as a Bowie tribute. You have the Stardust Hotel and the episodes named after Bowie songs. There’s a danger in potentially paying too much fealty. I thought one of the impressive things was how the show withheld using any of Bowie’s music until the finale. There’s a mixture of restraint and Easter eggs and more obvious references. Alex told me that when he picked the song titles for episode titles, he didn’t just pick a title that was espousing what was going on in the episode, he wanted to pick a song that he could take part of the theme of the song and intersperse it with the episode. He said that is a way, “David Bowie was our co-writer.” When you were going through this and seeing these Bowie references was there any point where you said I wonder if this is going to work or if it will feel like too much?
Joss Agnew: I think they’ve been very careful with paying tribute to David Bowie’s work, but not pulling us back too much all the time to his canon. I think it’s enough to have that gold dust sprinkled about it. Too much more I think would start taking you out of that story, back to the movie, the original. It was a thrill to me that we were working with the TV array and the dental chair. That kind of thing was plenty I think. It’s an incredible foundation that the film gave us that everyone built on. Personally I think the balance is just about right.
Awards Daily: Let’s make sure we are talking about your particular work on the show. In episode seven, one of the things I loved about what happens there is that Faraday learns about the importance of deception and how it applies to Earthlings. Bill Nighy playing what was essentially the Bowie part of Newton is the one explaining this to him. When you were filming that sequence and Faraday is taking in that information about basically giving people what they want and telling people the story that they want to hear, did you think to yourself this has to be nimble and smart and the balance has to be just right or it could spin out of control?
Joss Agnew: We did quite a lot of preparation for those scenes, but I’ve got to tell you David I can’t take credit for the Bill Nighy work. The way the other scheduling went and so on, Alex directed all the stuff with Bill. I had lots of conversations with him about it. The way it shook down, there were complications that were going on and a bit of Covid sprinkled in there. Alex handled that beautifully, I thought. What we were talking about in terms of comedy, using comedy or humor in that speech with Bill and Chiwetel, when he’s talking about how you’ve got to look with human eyes and understand about the Easter bunny and things like that – telling someone how to become human, I thought it was exquisite and extremely effective in terms of that character’s development. It’s a great build up to his effectively becoming Steve Jobs stepping out onto the stage later, isn’t it? But no, I mustn’t claim any credit for directing those scenes. I was there when the others were shooting it.
Awards Daily: Then let’s segue to something that you can definitely take credit for. (Laughs) At the end of episode seven, with the reveal that Newton wants to bring the aliens to Earth. It’s almost like something out of a spy movie, turning the music up loud, coming in close and having this conversation about what really is happening here. It’s just fabulous.
Joss Agnew: I’m so pleased. The idea with episode seven, what I had in my head was that the whole thing was a pressure cooker. All the way through the whole episode, the heat’s been turned up slowly and the pressure is building and it’s just going to pop at the end in an unexpected way. The suspense leading up to that revelation, we were just trying to push that as much as possible. The very clever designer James Merifield, what he said stayed with me, he said “I’ve TARDIS’ed this set.” So from the outside it looks like a regular, not spacious house in Notting Hill, but inside the set is so big that we were able to really get a bit of movement going on around the two characters just to disorient and to show the world’s beginning to spin out of control a bit more for those two. Chiwetel and Naomie had such an intense chemistry.
You couldn’t hope to work with better artists that could take that ball and run down the field with it. I effectively just tried not to get in the way. If anything there were some small adjustments on the day. It went like a dream. They were so across the script always and completely championing and in charge of those characters. My job is really just to set the atmosphere right and get everyone in the right position so that they can…they’re incredibly vulnerable aren’t they? Artists in front of the camera. I have a huge respect for anyone who can act, I certainly can’t. I think it’s all about trying to set the tone to allow them to articulate those incredible lines in the safest way they feel. That’s how I see my job.
Awards Daily: On the other end of the spectrum, you shot the most action based sequence which is the shootout. I love that you were able to maintain that thrilling nature of action, but you never lose sight of the humor. Juliet Stevenson as Mary Lou is given these hilarious lines that don’t somehow steal from the drama of the moment. That balance can be hard to maintain. It’s a complex bit of cutting and maintenance of tone.
Joss Agnew: When I first read it, episode eight just becomes a completely different beast doesn’t it? The pressure pops at the end of seven, and eight is a chase effectively. Of course with that tension and release of the suspense and then the action, that plays out well in eight. The film that kept bumping into my head was Night of the Hunter. The way she kept getting his name wrong all the time, that’s such a great device. It really got under his skin. Of course he has got the wrong name. Who was the actor that played the grandmother, when those kids are on the run and they finally found safety and she’s sitting on the porch with the shotgun and Robert Mitchum is the wolf out in the woods. There’s something quite magical in that film Night of the Hunter.
I kind of felt that was a good reference for the action side of things. We were so lucky, we shot on location and there were houses nearby and we were letting loose with assault rifles and shotguns during the night, and we never had a complaint. (Laughs). We had an understanding. In this sleepy Buckinghamshire village there’s this gun battle going on. We planned it all out and the one thing I wish I could have done was I wanted to shoot Juliet earlier with her big speech calling out to Jay. She was just such a pro. With the logistics of it we shot Juliet at four o’clock in the morning or something doing that. I’d once worked with her as a trainee on a Jim Henson Hour show. It was her and Michael Maloney and I always thought wow, one day wouldn’t it be great to get to work with her in a different way. I finally got to direct with her so that was nice.
Awards Daily: She is one of those actors that I always feel like not enough people know how great she is. Everything she is in she makes better.
Joss Agnew: She’s one of those top tier – it doesn’t matter that she’s British but she happens to be – British actors that are just so skillful. It’s her intellectual insight into the character. It all comes from there, doesn’t it? Their ability to interpret that for the camera. It’s terrific. I love her eccentricity. That earlier scene where you see her doing her penance with the bees for that guilt she’s carrying. She’s been carrying that guilt around for forty years, hasn’t she, and trying to make the best out of her life and helping these other people which I think is such a clever thing to do with her. When she knows another angel is coming, it’s her chance to put things right. I think it’s just a wonderful opportunity.
Awards Daily: The close of episode eight where the transfusion is taking place she goes and holds Josiah’s hand until her hand falls and then the blood that’s draining from her body forms these angel wings. It’s a very tricky thing to do in that sequence because if it’s too obviously angel wings you’re not allowing the audience to reveal it to themselves. That sequence is just so beautiful. I remember my wife speaking out loud as if she couldn’t not say the words “Oh my god, those are angel wings.” She got it before I did because she’s smarter than me. (Laughs). Was there any trepidation in trying to make sure that moment landed right?
Joss Agnew: I think that may be one of the things that helped me get the job when I was pitching that idea to Alex. I thought that could be kind of a cool image and he was like, yeah well maybe you could try putting that in there.
Awards Daily: Wait, wait, wait. That was your idea?!
Joss Agnew: It was an idea I pitched to Alex that he went with. That was a special moment. It’s easy that you can go too far with it too quickly so the best thing to do is give yourself the flexibility afterwards. It’s a visual effect. Then you’ve got the latitude to play with it to totally see if it works or not do it. I’m really pleased that it stayed in. the way she fades and gives life to Josiah, one goes and one comes back to us, it’s real poetry.
Awards Daily: This show is taking humongous chances with a mixture of tone and humor and subject matter. It could have easily been silly. Having a moment now to step away from it and see how it’s been received, that you must feel like, “we got it.”
Joss Agnew: I think Naomie got it, and I think Chiwetel got it. In a way, Chiwetel’s got so much work to do, from where he starts to where he ends. That’s a hell of a mountain to climb, but Justin is the one that we can fully relate to. I think it’s the authentic portrayal that Naomie put into it that’s the thing. You just cannot be silly with her portrayal of Justin. It makes it authentic.
Awards Daily. If you don’t believe her for a single second, the whole house of cards comes down. She is the anchor to the show. One time I was talking to Ethan Hawke for The Good Lord Bird, and he was referencing making Training Day with Denzel Washington and he said Denzel is the event but my character is the story. I think it is the same with The Man Who Fell to Earth. What Chiwetel is doing, his character is the event, but Justin is the story.
Joss Agnew: That’s such a good comparison. They’re both experiencing loss but in very different ways. It’s his choice to leave his planet, and he’s learning the emotion of that loss by becoming more human, isn’t he? But I think everything that’s happened with Justin, her ability as a scientist and the consequences of that and the way she’s punishing herself for it, and what happens with her father as we go on, her care for Molly…Molly really is a representation of everybody’s future. Justin is the mother to all of us because she is the mother to Molly. You’re immediately rooting for Justin.
Awards Daily: I’m glad we spoke about Naomie’s work because it is so anchoring for the show, but I am of the opinion that the performance that Chiwetel is giving on the show is the best thing going; film, television, theater, stage, I don’t give a damn what medium you are talking about. What he is doing is remarkable. Alex revealed to me, and I didn’t think about it, but of course shows are shot out of sequence because of availability of actors and locations, and, in this case, COVID too. Chiwetel’s character starts as this superior being as far as mental capacity, but the nuances of becoming human and integrating into a new society have to evolve very gradually. With each episode you see the advances but they never leap too far. Then you think about the fact that in shooting the show out of sequence, Chiwetel had to keep putting himself at different points of Faraday’s evolution. What is it like to work with somebody of that capacity?
Joss Agnew: You just completely trust that he is in charge of the whole of that process. I’m there just doing two parts out of ten. Exactly as you say, how he’s kept his eye on the ball charting it when the ball’s zigzagging up and down and backwards and forwards in three dimensions, who knows. I’ll give you a good example of it, when he has the interview with the journalist and he’s basically saying I’ve got to come out, and he’s assessing her in the moment and shifting his body language and it’s not working, it’s very subtle. On the day shooting it you think, well, that’s great but you see so much more later in post. He’s one of those actors. In fact, both Chiwetel and Naomie have that in common. You know on the day they’ve absolutely nailed it, but later you just see more and more.
Awards Daily: They just both have wonderful faces. Expressive faces.
Joss Agnew: Oh yeah they’re both blessed with those features. That scene is an especially good demonstration of his ability, because it’s one scene where you see Faraday trying out different versions of being a human, and then to go, okay actually I’ve just got to be honest. I love that journey in that scene.
Awards Daily: There’s a moment when he reaches over and touches Justin’s knee during the interview and Justin asks later why he did that and he talks about how he understood the reporter to be a competitive person. So, in that sense, when he gives his attention to someone else she wants it back. That scene is working on so many levels.
Joss Agnew: He’s got lightning fast intellect, doesn’t he? But like you say, it’s the emotional intelligence that he’s picking up and grasping so quickly and becoming dexterous enough within that scene enough to make it work his way. I love the duality of that. Of course at the end you’re not sure has he just done that for the journalist’s sake? He’s saying that, but is the subtext as well that he is instinctively becoming closer emotionally to Justin and vice versa? The writing is pure joy because it’s working on all these different levels. When you read it cold for the first time, they just did such a beautiful job. You don’t see it with that many scripts that just hold your hand and walk you through it just talking to you in the stage directions. I remember reading William Goldma’s Butch and Sundance script, and there’s a line at the beginning of one of the scenes, I think it’s quite early on where Butch is walking around scoping a bank out and it’s all written like it’s long shadows and he says something along the lines of you might not get this now but that’s ok, don’t worry you will understand it later. Jenny and Alex’s approach is very much like that I think.
Awards Daily: As the show goes on you find your trust in it that what I’m watching at this moment I may not clearly understand the importance of it but I have a sense that it will pay off later. The show never fails in that. It always completes that circle. I know you’re being humble about your work on episode seven and eight but it is absolutely tremendous work.
Joss Agnew: Thanks David I appreciate you saying that and that’s made my week, my month hearing that your wife responded like she did and that you both enjoy the show. It’s interesting, I’m making my way through Yellowstone at the moment and I’m watching 1883. It’s a huge show, there are so many huge shows and they’re all worthy. When I was watching it and looking at the Emmys I was thinking there’s never been so many movies. I suppose so many movies are either huge or they’re small and the middle budget stuff now is amazing TV, all the TV that we wished we had fifteen years ago. You finish one job and you move on, but there’s something really special about The Man Who Fell to Earth, because of what it’s trying to say and because of those characters. It’s so optimistic and hopeful. I really hope it finds its audience within this ocean.