It’s what a lot of us are feeling right now. What is our identity without our work, without an office to go to, and without our money to earn?
The coronavirus outbreak has many convinced that we are headed towards a scenario similar to the one depicted in the 2011 thriller Contagion, which has experienced a popular renaissance. According to Warner Brothers, the Steven Soderbergh film about a pandemic with a death toll in the millions, is now the second most popular title in their entire catalog.
There are many, many plague movies out there, and zombies are an entire category to themselves. The famous scene depicting Cillian Murphy walking through an abandoned London in 2002’s 28 Days Later seems eerily prophetic in the wake of coronavirus. There’s also the film’s 2007 sequel, 28 Weeks Later, about a pair of youngsters—including Imogen Poots in her breakout role—who take an ill-advised trip to find their mother amid an outbreak. It’s a brutal film with a sombre ending, which has also enjoyed a popular resurgence. So what does this have to say about us?
Lorcan Finnegan’s sophomore feature, Vivarium, is most certainly not about a literal plague that ravages the world, but a more insidious force that speaks to our collective anxiety and desperation further exacerbated by social distancing. It is a film about, among other things, the corrosive effects of simple loneliness and not knowing what lies ahead of us.
Gemma (Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple with vague plans of purchasing a home. Following a visit with a real estate agent, they agree to a tour of Yonder, an unoccupied housing development riddled with endless Monopoly-like homes stretching out forever under a cartoon sky. Inexplicably abandoned by their agent mid-tour, Gemma and Tom come to realize that they’ve been lured to this nowhere place. Finnegan wastes no time getting to the truly weird stuff. As the development warps and loops around them, all attempts to escape bring them around to the same house, over and over again. In short order, vacuum-sealed food and medical supplies arrive out of nowhere, swiftly followed by a boxed-up newborn. The boy grows into an unbearable 10-year-old in a matter of days, and he’s learning at great speed. Behind the outwardly idyllic picture of the suburban ideal that’s thrust upon Gemma and Tom, a brutal fight for survival is taking shape.
Vivarium arrives on VOD and Digital HD on March 27.
Vivarium is a unique vision. I loved it.
Thank you very much for watching it and getting through it. I know it’s not exactly a release—or relief—from the time that we’re living in right now. [laughs]
It was great to see you and Jesse [Eisenberg] reunite after The Art of Self-Defense, and you also share executive producing credits on this film. When did Vivarium start taking shape?
We had done The Art of Self-Defense a year prior. I had a wonderful time making that with all of those folks. When Vivarium came around, they were thinking of different actors for the Tom character and I suggested Jesse because I always have such a great time working with him. I’ve known him for a very long time. I also knew that he was up for traveling around. Vivarium was shot in Belgium and Ireland, and Jesse came out with his family. We did the exterior stuff in Belgium and the interior stuff in Ireland—I guess that’s how movies are made these days. It was a really cool thing to work with Jesse again, especially on a very intense film. You also have the relief of working with someone who’s so entertaining and lovely and smart.
Vivarium taps into our shared anxieties about entering adulthood: The commitment to our partners, the rearing of children, and climbing the property ladder. Did Lorcan [Finnegan] and [co-writer] Garret [Shanley] set out to critique conformity and the aspirational ideals of the suburbs from the start?
I think so. But I think they would also be cautious about pinning down exactly what they wanted to say. They wanted to leave that open-ended. Inevitably, things like the housing crisis in Ireland did play a great part in the formation of the film. Lorcan and Garret are both deep thinkers so there’s no doubt in my mind that they had wanted to explore suburbia, and they were fully up to hearing other points of view. If I had some feelings about gender roles or motherhood and the question of femininity and all of these things, they were brought up. They really enjoyed the different meanings that people pulled from the film, alongside others just enjoying it for the psychological horror aspect of it or what you will.
It is telling how Gemma and Tom fall into their gender roles once the baby arrives on their doorstep. When the baby grows up and becomes unbearable to them, Tom wants to put the boy away, so to speak, whereas Gemma’s maternal instincts kick in.
But I think it’s difficult for her. In a Disney kind of world, she would just take to it naturally like a doctor in a ward and be a wonderful mother, but there’s a sort of grating tension that develops between Gemma and Tom, between Gemma and the child, and between the child and Tom. It’s almost something that has more to do with just sheer human empathy. I wonder if it wasn’t the child and it was just another person that this instinct wouldn’t still apply for Gemma. I liked that it was messy. I liked that she didn’t immediately jump at the chance to be motherer—it was actually her inclination to not take responsibility. In a way, she becomes meek and smaller when confronted with rearing a child. It was quite a harsh portrayal.
I wonder how different my viewing experience would’ve been had I seen Vivarium prior to the pandemic we’re in. Maybe Gemma and Tom’s isolation and growing desperation in Yonder hits especially hard. Has current events recontextualized the movie for you?
That’s interesting! Because we obviously set up these interviews for today, and for once, I felt a bit nervous. I was like, “Why are we talking about a movie? It feels so irrelevant.” Thank goodness that the ideas in Vivarium are relevant. I think I would’ve found it a lot tougher if we were talking about a romantic comedy right now: “Everybody needs to have a good time once in a while!” Vivarium is very relevant, and as you say, it has to do with the isolation and the unknown that we all feel connected to right now. We’re unsure as to what to expect next. When does this thing end? What does it mean when it ends? What’s the world going look like afterwards? It’s also a specific age group that this crisis seems to be focusing on. That’s all mirrored in Vivarium. It’s a kind of miasma. There’s a sense of the unknown and they’re living in this fog. They got this thing they wanted, in a way: The comfy house, the cable TV, the kid, and the food being delivered to their door. They got the time they always wanted. And yet, it’s like a hell rather than a paradise. It’s what a lot of us are feeling right now. What is our identity without our work, without an office to go to, and without our money to earn? It’s a very scary and strange existence.
Gemma and Tom have shrink-wrapped provisions delivered to their door. The gift of strawberries left by the real estate agent don’t taste of anything. Like everything that’s pristine and ready-made in Yonder, they’re lacking a soul and a substance.
Yeah! Something that always strikes me when I think about this movie is this idea that one size fits all with society. We don’t question certain things. We just accept them and consume them and move on. We sort of forget that we have independent minds or thoughts. Obviously, that comes into play with politics and ideologies and all of that, but Gemma and Tom go along with the plan in the sense that they eat certain things and expect certain things that are being diluted down. There’s an inherent nausea to all of that. We’re being fed this by something bigger than us. We don’t question it. We sort of take it. It’s culture and society. It’s what you’re born into and what you accept, and you go along with the plan. This is probably a disturbing take on it, maybe because I’m feeling a bit morbid today. [laughs] It’s the very idea of a vivarium: The voyeuristic quality of watching these people go through that and thinking, “It’s not us, it’s them.” You can even see it in the way that the child feeds off Gemma and Tom. As he gets bigger and bigger, they get meeker and meeker. It’s pretty grim.
“Nausea” sounds right. We also see strange patterns being broadcast on their TV. The boy is totally under its spell. It seems logical to think that it’s brainwashing him—a pointed commentary on advertisements, propaganda, reality TV, whathaveyou.
And I also think the fact that it’s in black and white touches on something that has to do with extremes—the extremities of opinion. We’re living in a time where nuances are fading away. You either think this way or you think that way. It is a reflection on that, too, and I think Lorcan would agree. He deliberately chose black and white. It’s either side of the coin. There’s no in-between.
I just revisited 28 Weeks Later. It’s interesting that our current crisis seems to have reignited people’s appetite for movies like this.
Yeah! It’s really strange, isn’t it? I think for a time, genre films always seemed suspended just outside of reality like, “Wow—imagine if that really happened!” We’re playing with these fictitious notions. And then things like climate change and people going to the moon hit closer to home. Even with something as deeply strange and spooky and traumatic as what a lot of people are experiencing with coronavirus, movies do sort of help sometimes to make sense of it. These movies have no answers, but they depict experiences of a people persevering and perhaps joining together to overcome something. It’s about the human capacity to endure and to go against the threshold and to not give up. So I think that’s part of it. I also think there’s perhaps a sick fun, a grotesque fun, in indulging in the time we’re in and seeing what is reflected. I watched A Quiet Place last night—a movie I hadn’t seen before—and I really enjoyed that. I just had a whole day of sitting between these news sites and articles. The news right now are so addictive that I didn’t really feel like breaking out of that. I wanted to sort of stay in this realm.
I think it should be said, too, that Vivarium has humor in it.
Yeah! You’ll have a great time. [laughs]
On the page, what did the overall tone strike you as?
When I read it, I really hooked into this couple more than anything. There was a dream-like sensibility to how they spoke. It was almost like they were suspended in space and time. So my number one question was how to ground the film, because in all of the stage directions, there were some absurdities and expressionism and strange atmosphere. Are the characters also in line with that tone or are they remaining very truthful? We ultimately decided to go with being entirely truthful in the moment rather than trying to have the characters match the absurdist tone.
You also have I Know This Much Is True premiering next month. What can we expect?
Mark Ruffalo bleeding all of your hearts out. He is so incredible in this show. He’s true blue. He’s a proper actor and an unbelievable human. I had one of the best experiences of my life on that set with those guys. Oh my god, they were just amazing. And the actresses they had? Kathryn Hahn and Juliette Lewis… It was the coolest collection of humans to be amongst. I was over the moon to show up to work every day.