Astraea Sees the Future
Director Kristjan Thor brings snowy apocalypse to Austin
By Richard Whittaker,
11:50AM, Wed. Jul. 20, 2016
"Two years ago, it felt like every other movie was a zombie apocalypse movie." That was the challenge for director Kristjan Thor when he started work on Astraea, to find a new take on the end of the world.
The film (which receives its Austin debut this Thursday as part of the Other Worlds Austin festival's year-round programming) focuses on two intersecting couples, months after much of the world has been wiped out by a mysterious ailment known only as "the drops." Teen Astraea (Nerea Duhart) and her half-brother Matthew (Scotty Crowe) are trekking across Maine, headed to find relatives in Nova Scotia, when they stumble across James (Dan O’Brien) and Callie (Jessica Cummings), who may conceivably be the only other humans left alive. The complicating factor is that Astraea is convinced that she is psychic, an element that Thor describes as "sci-fi not just for sci-fi's sake."
While there are four survivors onscreen, there was another quartet behind the camera. Thor and scriptwriter Ashlin Halfnight had worked together in New York's theatre scene. They had already adapted Halfnight's play Diving Normal for the screen, "and we fell in love with the process," said Thor. Theatre was also how they met Cummings, who appeared in Halfnight's play Balaton, and now the writer and actress are married. Then it was Diving Normal that brought Crowe into the group, as he both acted in and produced the screen adaptation. On Astraea, while Halfnight and Thor were working on the performances, Crowe and Cummings were pulling double and triple duties as producers. "Whenever they weren't acting," Thor said, "they were making phone calls and organizing lunch."
As a result, Thor said, "the four of us, we were very tight knit [and] we had a bold shorthand." Their shared independent theatre experience spilled into the development process. "Because we've done so much work developing new plays, we're used to throwing out 20 pages and adding 20 pages. So there was a lot of work on his end and us giving feedback."
The structure and tone changed dramatically ("the early versions were much darker, with no hope at the end") but the process revealed the story's real focus in an unexpected way. "One of the things that was not always there was that Astraea was not always the central character, and it was much more even among the characters [but] we changed the title a thousand times, but it always landed back on Astraea." That made the casting of the young lead a complex part of the equation, one that was only solved as "the result of a very exhausting casting process." Ironically, after seeing "a lot of young ingenue actresses who had their moment in soaps," it was one of his former students, Duhart, that took the title role. Thor said, "She was very green when we started, but I think that served the role." The key was that the young woman is supposed to be separate from the older three, a teenager growing up in this icy apocalypse. Thor said, "We have these three people who have the baggage of the world, including the rules, and one who is completely free of them. What is losing your virginity, what is coming of age and sexuality in a world where you're the only teenager that you know of?" It was a tough balancing act, but central to the story. After all, Astraea is the first native of the new world, and her responses are born of that environment. "Nerea and I spent a lot of time trying to get these things right," said Thor. "I love that little moment when she sees the dead woman in the rocking chair and she just cocks her head. There's no scream."
By contrast, Halfnight's script depicts the adults struggling to contend with the death of the old world and the old mores. Thor said, "What I was really pushing for and hoping for was that it wasn't going to always be easy. It's so easy to make these things where everyone falls in love and yay! But there are so many scars."
With the pieces in place, the Astraea shoot came hot on the heels of completing Diving Normal. Thor said, "We finished in August, and we knew that we wanted to do it in winter, and so we just hustled." However, there were consequences and lessons learned. "I can tell you a lot about snow continuity," said Thor. "The one thing you never think about is that there can never be footsteps, so we had to carve these long pathways."
Yet the season was important, not least because it provided an elegant solution to where the bodies of all the victims of the drops had gone: They were under the snow. It also tied in with the implications of Astraea's powers. Thor said, "The idea that she could feel the bodies under the snow was a real theme for me."
Other Worlds Austin presents the Austin premiere of Astraea with Kristjan Thor in attendance, 9pm, July 21, Flix Brewhouse, 2200 S. I-35, Round Rock. Tickets at www.flixbrewhouse.com.
The Other Worlds Austin festival runs Dec. 1-4. Visit www.otherworldsaustin.com for more info.