Look, there’s no way of getting around it. In the film, The Discovery, which explores what might happen if there were scientific proof of an afterlife, millions and millions of people murder themselves.
While not much of this self-annihilation is shown onscreen, one can infer that for pretty much the entire runtime, the opening scene of The Happening is occurring just out of frame. Asking potential viewers to ignore such a macabre motif would be like asking someone not to think of an elephant. Lucky for Charlie McDowell, who directed the film, there’s a lot more than suicide going on, and it all ends up rather, well, life-affirming.
“It was not an easy, traditional sell by any means,” McDowell says of getting The Discovery made. “I think the obvious thing that people went to is that it would become the suicide movie, which I never viewed it as.”
The director’s initial conception for the film, which just debuted on Netflix, developed out of a thought experiment proposed by writing partner, Justin Lader. The pair was on the way home from filming their first feature-length collaboration—the minimalist mind-melter, The One I Love—when Lader floated an idea. It was the kind of idea that wouldn’t be out of place in a foggy dorm room smoke sesh: What would it mean for society if the afterlife were empirically proven to exist? How would people react if death no longer meant the end, but the beginning of something other than eternal nothingness? McDowell had been looking forward to enjoying a period of not developing a movie for a while, but the idea grabbed him.
It also led him very quickly to thoughts of suicide—on a mass scale.
“This idea that people are taking their own lives is less about suicidal people, but people whose lives are kind of shitty or they can’t pay their mortgage or they’re getting a divorce and they want to just go somewhere else, into a different life,” McDowell says. “How many people would do it?”
The more he and Lader thought about it, the more questions they had. The more they kicked around those questions, the more uncomfortable ideas tumbled loose. Without a story, however, these ideas existed in a vacuum. Only with a compelling plot and characters would they move the project out of the danger zone of becoming the Suicide Movie.
McDowell and Lader were used to plotting their films out in unconventional ways. For The One I Love, which they made in 2014, they had a location at which to shoot, but nothing more, so they walked around the property and built a story about marital dysfunction out of details from the villa. For The Discovery, they tried an equally unusual tactic: they wrote the opening scene as it appears now, but without deciding anything else about the movie. When McDowell showed the pages to actor Rooney Mara, she demanded to be in the film, so he developed the character Isla for her. When it came to creating one of the other main characters, though, the director looked within.
“I think bringing in some of my own stuff from my past and my childhood helped form the story,” McDowell says. “My parents are actors and they’re larger than life in certain ways and there’s always a sort of ‘who am I in that equation,’ since you’re in some ways cast in that shadow. It’s an interesting place to live and a part of that became interesting for me to explore with this movie.”
McDowell is the son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. When he was 18, he became a production assistant on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and stayed with the show for three seasons. (“In a way, it was my film school before film school.”) Being in the entertainment industry at all, however, only made him further aware of the need to forge his own identity his own way. From this dynamic, the director decided to give the fictional scientist behind the afterlife discovery a neurologist son with a chip on his shoulder. Jason Segel eventually took the role, and Robert Redford signed on to play his Einstein-like dad. The less revealed about the plot, the better, but it’ll suffice to say that The Discovery is a low-key sci-fi thriller crossed with a movie about cults, with some lofty ideas about what makes life worth living.
“There’s a whole other movie with this premise that explores the religious thoughts and ideas more, but we wanted to focus on more of the scientific idea behind it,” McDowell says. “Ultimately, though, it really is just a love story and a father-son story—and not, you know, the Suicide Movie.”
Just like the afterlife in the world of the movie, you don’t have to take the director’s word for it; you can see The Discovery for yourself on Netflix.