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Finch is the story of a man, a dog and a robot who form an unlikely family on a dangerous cross-country trip across a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s a simple-seeming premise that was anything but simple to pull off — both technically and narratively — after the global pandemic prompted filmmakers to reevaluate the entire idea of apocalypse-as-entertainment.
The tale began as a decade-old short film by Craig Luck about an ailing-yet-resourceful tech wizard who’s quite possibly the last man on Earth after a devastating solar flare. The short evolved into a screenplay titled Bios by Luck and Ivor Powell that, in turn, caught the attention of Powell’s producing partner Miguel Sapochnik, who was making a name for himself directing standout episodes of Game of Thrones. Then Robert Zemeckis came on board as an executive producer and helped entice his Cast Away star Tom Hanks for the lead.
Filming was always going to be tricky. Finch has an Oscar winner acting alongside a canine and an android, and the audience needs to become fully invested in all three. But then, just as postproduction was about to wrap, the pandemic shut down the industry and the filmmakers found themselves in an entirely unforeseen situation of telling a dark, post-apocalyptic tale amid a real-life global tragedy.
“There’s this line, ‘Hope is what keeps us alive,’ and it felt like we needed to lean into that,” Sapochnik says during a Zoom call from Spain, where he’s directing and co-showrunning the Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. “The world’s been going through a lot of turmoil and we realized we didn’t want to add to it, we wanted to somehow find some meaning in all the chaos.”
The 47-year-old English director got his start in the industry as a storyboard artist (his credits include 1996’s Trainspotting) who then began directing television (Fringe, House, Mind Games), as well as the 2010 feature film Repo Men. After he joined Thrones in season five, Sapochnik’s episodes immediately popped. He pulled off an acclaimed battle sequence in 2015’s “Hardhome,” then helmed what’s arguably one of the best action sequences of all time in season six’s “Battle of the Bastards.” Thrones producers and cast praised Sapochnik’s tirelessness focus amid torturous night shoots (the director famously only permitted himself one bathroom break per day while shooting). Critics noted that Sapochnik’s quiet, dramatic scenes were every bit as powerful as his staging of spectacle, and he took home two Emmys for his work on the show. After Thrones, the director turned his attention back to Finch.
“The surprising thing was that I’ve done a lot of dark stuff, and doing something that’s not dark is so much harder,” Sapochnik says. “It’s harder to do something with any sort of hope or lightness for many reasons, but when it hits, you can see how people react. People come away from Finch having really felt something, and that’s incredibly meaningful.”
Universal Pictures was originally going to release Finch — then titled Bios — in theaters in October 2020, but the pandemic interfered with that plan, as well. The studio sold the project to Apple in March (marking the company’s second acquisition of a Hanks film; the first was the 2020 World War II drama Greyhound), and now Finch debuts on Apple TV+ on Nov. 5.
Giving his first interview about the film, Sapochnik discusses (spoiler-free) making Finch and provides an update on his return to Westeros, too.
What surprised you most about working with Tom Hanks?
That he was really collaborative and was extremely engaged from day one. During the very first meeting he said, “OK, so I really liked the movie. Can I be in it?” Then I went into this pitching this and that and it was like, “He already said he wants to be in your movie, why are you still pitching?” … Later, I couldn’t make the film for a year and a half [because of his commitment to Thrones] and Tom said, “That’s OK, I’ll wait” — which is rare.
Then when he showed up on the first day, he never left the set. We designed [his character’s solar protection suit] to be very comfortable so Tom wouldn’t want to be constantly getting out of it; the suit had this air conditioning system and a one-way visor mirror. He would come onto set in the suit, do his scenes, then sit in a chair, close his visor, turn on the AC and go to sleep. Then when we were ready, he’d open the visor and go. That might not sound unique, but it has this cumulative effect. Everybody else was “on” as a result. So those tropes that exist when you make a movie [with a major star] disappeared, like, “Are we ready for Tom [to come back to set]”? Those tropes didn’t exist. It felt like we were making a movie with Tom Hanks instead of making a movie with Tom Hanks in it.
[Hanks came away from the production with some high praise for Sapochnik, as well, calling the director in an email to THR, “a glory to work with,” noting: “I’ve never had as specific a rehearsal as with Miguel on Finch. Not just every scene and every line, but every emotion, every intent, every emotional beat as preparation for shooting days weeks and weeks away — and he recalled every moment of our talks. I have never worked with as prepared, and as specific a director as is Miguel.”]
You also had the great Robert Zemeckis as an executive producer. Was there any specific insight that he gave that was helpful — either for the filmmaking, or working with Hanks given his history of directing him in films like Forrest Gump and Cast Away?
Like meeting Tom, I grew up watching these people, so you’re in awe of them and slightly intimidated. But at the same time, you’ve got a job to do. He said one thing he had learned is that people go to a Tom Hanks movie because they want to see Tom Hanks in it. At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant. But the character of Finch has a dark aspect to him and we explored that in the making of the film. Tom was absolutely willing to explore the dark side. But we pulled back on that in the final cut. There was a lot of back and forth between myself and Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and others on how the movie should end. You don’t want to go completely off the beaten track.
The film was shot before a global pandemic, and before its star became one of the first major stars to get COVID-19 — and there are scenes in the film where Finch gets ill and coughs. Did real-world events result in any creative tweaks to the film?
There was. We were just two days away from locking picture when we had to shut down for three months. The script had a different ending and there was a darkness to the ending that shifted as we went deeper into the pandemic. We became aware that hope is a really important thing. There’s only so much you can club an audience with emotionally before you risk losing them or it becomes the resonating aspect of the experience they have. That’s the part from real-life events that we took into the movie. We never set out to make a postapocalyptic film, the idea was to make a family drama that was a road trip. The sci-fi is incidental. We realized you didn’t need the world turned completely upside down for it to feel very close to home. The problem with making post-apocalyptic movies is we’re getting closer and closer to the truth and that’s kind of terrifying, you know?
How do you feel about Finch going direct-to-streaming? It’s so clearly a big-screen film and you can imagine just how certain jokes and moments would play before an audience. I’m sure as a filmmaker, you must have wanted viewers to experience that.
There are many things that have happened as a result of the pandemic that you didn’t see coming. Some are minor and some are massive. I never thought the film industry would be brought to its knees. I’ve grown up with movies all my life and so the idea of no one going to the cinema just seems completely alien to me. We made this movie for lots of people to see together and, more specifically, for families to watch together because it’s about them. I lament that they won’t be able to experience it the way it was intended. I also think the film industry, if nothing else, is adaptable and filmmakers are adaptable and hopefully we’ll find a way through this. So thank God for the streamers because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to show films to anyone.
I enjoyed your directorial style in this, which is hugely cinematic without being “look at me” — it all felt like it was in service of the story and characters. Given we’ve seen so many post-apocalyptic films before, what look-feel were you trying to achieve?
Because we were thinking of the film as a family drama, we wanted to shoot it on those terms. So we agreed we were going to find a way to use as little greenscreen as possible, and were thinking about how to get past the technical issue of having a character (the robot, Jeff) that doesn’t actually exist. Initially we had conversations about having one guy do the physical movements and then having somebody else do the voice, or maybe have an animatronic puppet. Then Caleb Landry Jones auditioned and he was really unique. I’ve also never heard of a Texan robot. So that galvanized us and we put him in a displacement suit where we make him look half like the robot — he’s wearing a mask — and put him on stilts. Then he was Jeff.
What was the trickiest part about bringing Jeff to life?
We built a fully animatronic Jeff, but we only ended up using the Jeff puppet for one scene. The rest was Caleb and our CG character based on his performance. I would say 98 percent of everything that that robot does is all directly lifted from Caleb’s performance, whereas we thought what we’ll do is have Caleb perform and then we will make these adjustments — everything from the voice development to his movement. He did so much research he came so prepared and was a robot. We would get to the animation process and they would make it slightly more robotic and I’d say, “No, you’ve got to go back to the performance.”
Watching the film, I was convinced at least some of the shots of Goodyear the dog were CG given his spot-on reactive performance amid so many complex scenes. There’s the famous W.C. Fields quote, “Never work with children or animals.” How maddening was it to have an Oscar winner giving his level of performance along with a canine that surely had to have blown some of Hanks’ amazing takes in nearly every scene in the film?
There are no visual effects at all with the dog. I can’t tell you how amazing he was. His name is Seamus and he was a rescue dog with an amazing trainer, Mark Forbes, who was super calm. Mark never got angry with the dog — which was super important. If in the process of making this film we’ve harmed this dog, then we’ve failed completely. We were trying to not anthropomorphize the dog either — we wanted to let the dog be a dog. [Others] kept asking, “Can we find a dog that can do this, or that?” and I was like, “I don’t care [about the dog’s training history], let’s just find a dog to be a dog then we’ll use editing wizardry to make it work.” So I just wanted to find a dog with a good rapport with Tom. Seamus was so nonchalant about being there. He was never that interested when we were shooting the scenes, then we’d do a shot directly on him and he would start doing these weird crazy reactions, which was the kind of things we’d end up using.
So wait, Tom Hanks auditioned a dog?
Yes. What happens is you’re shown a bunch of dogs, you choose the kind you like, then you go to a dog park. There were like six dogs and we narrowed it down to three. Then Tom came out and they would let the dogs go to him, one at a time, for Tom to play with. Then Seamus came and when he walked away, Tom’s like, “That’s the dog.”
Why the name change from Bios to Finch?
I always loved Bios. It was felt that it was hard to understand. If you say to somebody, “What do you think Bios means?” it will take them a beat. The working title was Goodyear, which I also really liked — you don’t know the dog’s name until late in the film and then that would mean what the movie means. But there was a brand issue with that one.
And, of course, there’s your other current project. What’s it been like for you to shift from directing to co-showrunning for the first time on House of the Dragon? I got the impression on Thrones you often had your own creative ideas about how things should go, and now you’re in the driver’s seat along with co-creator Ryan Condal.
It’s a lot of work! It’s a pretty interesting shift. I’m producing other directors and getting involved in a lot of the minutiae. Directing feels really simple by comparison. I feel vaguely elated on my directing days because I don’t have to think about anything other than directing. I’ve also learned, as I learned on Finch, that’s it’s becoming more and more important to me as I’m getting older to work with people I like. The journey is the destination, and if you can’t enjoy the journey then the destination has so much less meaning. I’ve got a group of filmmakers on House of the Dragon I have a lot of fun working with. I’ve never had that level of repeat business of working with the same people again and again. The way I work with [GoT veterans] Fabian Wagner, my DP, and Tim Porter, my editor, we have fun and make jokes and we never used to have that. I can’t tell you how important that is. Because there’s not a lot of funny stuff going on in the world of Thrones, so it’s quite nice to spend time with people you enjoy spending time with.
And what’s been the look feel and tone like on Dragon compared to the original series?
I think we were very respectful of what the original show is. It wasn’t broken, so we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. House of the Dragon has its own tone that will evolve and emerge over the course of the show. But first, it’s very important to pay respects and homage to the original series, which was pretty groundbreaking. We’re standing on the shoulders of that show and we’re only here because of that show. So the most important thing for us to do is to respect that show as much as possible and try and complement it rather than reinvent it. And I was involved in making the original show, so I feel like that’s been useful. Like, I’m not arriving going, “Let’s change everything! Let’s do a different color palette!” No, I quite like the color palette.
That said, we can’t say, “Well, when we did Thrones, we did it this way …” If you start every sentence with that, you’ve lost. This is something else, and should be something else. It’s a different crew, different people, different tone. Hopefully it will be seen as something else. But it will have to earn that — it won’t happen overnight. Hopefully fans will enjoy it for the thing that it is. We’ll be lucky if we ever come close to what the original show was, so we’re just putting our heads down and getting on with it and hoping what we come up with is worthy of having a Game of Thrones title.
Finch streams on Apple TV+ starting Nov. 5.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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