We speak to Chaos Walking star Daisy Ridley and writer Patrick Ness about creating a world with no women and where innermost desires and thoughts are open for all to hear…
“It’s a story about two young people on the run from danger and ultimately, it’s about trust and hope,” Daisy Ridley tells us about her upcoming sci-fi thriller, Chaos Walking, which sees her character crash land on a planet that not only does not seem to have any women, but also has a mysterious phenomenon whereby all men can hear each other’s thoughts in a stream of images, words, and sounds.
Ridley plays Viola, a woman who has been on a voyage to this promised ‘utopian’ planet of New World her entire life and when she gets there, it is anything but. “There is so much layered underneath [the film] about gender politics and colonisation,” Ridley continues, “and making a promise to people about ‘when I get to this place, this is what I’m going to do for you,’ and then when those people aren’t there anymore, and you’re trying to make the best of the situation, that’s incredibly difficult.”
Indeed, Chaos Walking is a complex story not only about the colonisation of new worlds but of political power plays, toxic masculinity and loneliness. It should come as no surprise, then, that the movie is based on the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, who wrote the novel and screenplay for A Monster Calls, 2016’s heart-breaking story about grief and love.
Ness takes on screenplay-writing duties here as well, basing the movie on The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in the YA trilogy, and though he should be an old-hand at adapting his work by now, it never really gets any easier: “I’ve said this a lot about [taking] a 500-page novel and turning it into 105-minute film is kind of impossible if you’re going to be super, uber faithful. But I’ve viewed it from the very start that the movie is a remix of the book. The book stays the same, it’s never going to go anywhere, it’s not going to be erased. But you just remix it for a different purpose for a different media.
“That involves taking some things away, adding some new things. I don’t mind that, because I always have the book. So I’m happy when other creatives come in and think, ‘Okay, well, this is how it could work as a movie’. That doesn’t really bother me. I’m more excited by a new creative process to make it work as a movie. As long as the spirit is there, as long as the relationships are there, I’m really happy with that.”
Speaking of relationships, when Viola crash lands on New World, the first person she bumps into is young Todd (Tom Holland). Soon realising that she’s in danger in his home village of Prentisstown, he leaves everything he knows to take her to safety in the nearest town, embarking on an epic adventure that sees these two strangers slowly learning about each other and of the world around them.
“I was part of quite a few conversations of how to make it really work and figure out the Viola/Todd relationship,” Ridley explains. “You really have to understand why he has left everything he knows to go on this adventure with her and obviously with her, it’s more simple because he knows the way to where she needs to go!
“Her relationship with Todd [is] so sweet. Because it would be hell on earth to hear what other people are thinking. And even though his thoughts are embarrassing, and he thinks about kissing her and whatever, they really figure out a way to be with each other that signifies hope for everybody, for the future. So there’s something about the two of them I find very sweet. And I like watching things that ultimately are hopeful.”
What makes this relationship all the harder is The Noise – that strange anomaly that takes place on New World which results in mens’ inner thoughts being projected via sound and images. Ness describes this in the novel as: “The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.” Hearing each other’s thoughts mean secrets are hard to keep, opinions are unfiltered and innermost desires are laid bare for all to see. This can obviously be very jarring for all involved (especially when meeting someone from the opposite sex for the first time as Todd quickly finds out) and funnily enough, Ness came up with this idea when experiencing Earth’s own jarring version of The Noise – people speaking on their mobiles in public: “It was being forced to listen to people’s mobile phone conversations while you were in line for the cinema,” he laughs. “You know, where they’re just ‘blah blah blah blah’, and I thought ‘I don’t want to hear this. I don’t need to. None of us needs to.’ So I thought, well, what if we had to hear it? What if everybody was on at the same time? What if it was worse than that? What if we had to hear thoughts?
“I found the world quite loud and there’s a quote from Middlemarch which opens the book where she talks about the sound of life – that if we could hear all of it we’d go crazy. It’s just too much. When I started writing the book, the issue that concerned me was just how do you deal with the Noise? How do you deal with the too-muchness of life? So mobile phones lead to darkness and death! [Haha] that’s not true…”
Ironically enough, Viola embodies the opposite of this loudness and spends a large majority of the film in silence, trying to figure out the situation she’s been landed in – a characterisation that she shares with Ridley herself: “When I am out of my depth, or uncomfortable, I clam up. So I apparently am one of the only actresses/actors that the script supervisors have worked with that has asked for lines to be taken out of a film!
“With me, when I’m scared… I remember my friend was driving years ago on an icy road and we were almost in a car crash. She pulled the handbrake and we did a spin. And I didn’t say a word, I didn’t scream. So my reaction to things when I’m out of my depth is to just go quiet and sort of try and process it. So that’s the main thing we have in common!”
Viola knows a thing or two about being out of her depth when she lands in New World. She has spent her entire life on the journey to this idealistic planet but when she gets there the woman have apparently all been killed by the planet’s indigenous people and the male population are living a basic existence – living off the land and controlled by a strictly patriarchal society.
“She is so out of her depth,” Ridley laughs. “Viola literally lands on a planet where she thinks she’s going to be fine and she knows nothing. It was fun playing someone who’s come with all of these expectations [but] then doesn’t really know what’s going on, is terrified and out of her depth, but continues to try and do the right thing.”
A militant life spent on a spaceship means Viola is very capable with technology and combat but she’s never experienced life on a real planet before. “She’s literally never eaten fresh food,” Ridley explains. “I thought it was so interesting that she thinks she’s going to this place for this new life and then it’s absolutely not what she thought it was. Ultimately, all she’s trying to do is the right thing. She could be like, ‘Okay, let’s just sit back and let whatever happen’, but she goes against everything essentially the planet is telling her. All of the fear, all of the danger, simply to warn other people that it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. I think there’s something in that – trying to stay optimistic, even though the circumstances are dire.”
Ridley was dedicated to exploring this complex character, so much so that she got in touch with Ness before filming to really grasp who Viola was: “She wrote me a letter before we even started shooting,” Ness tells us. “It was all the nice stuff that you’d expect like ‘I love the book’ but it was also more ‘Here’s how I see Viola’. The complexity of that impressed me because that’s what I was always after with Viola. The word that gets applied to YA heroines is ‘fierce’ and I don’t think that is fair because I think a lot of YA writers are trying to make complex heroines, and then when they get reviewed and when they get talked about they’re just called ‘fierce’ and that’s it.
“So for her character in the book, I was very much trying to make her as much a flawed, interesting human as the hero. That was very much my specific goal. Daisy really understood that. She wasn’t simply ‘I’m brave and I’m going to get through this’, there was another side [where] she could make mistakes. The most important thing is we believe she can take care of herself, so when she chooses to trust Todd, that means something. It’s much, much more meaningful than if she’s just in distress.
“Those are the kinds of things we talked about. She could maybe find a way to survive here but we would talk about how it’s a conscious choice to allow Todd to help her. That to me is far more interesting than simply being rescued.”
After playing Rey in the latest Star Wars trilogy, Ridley is obviously no stranger to embodying a capable sci-fi heroine on screen, and the consistency of empowering female characters in movies like Chaos Walking can only be positive: “I think we’re really lucky in that we’re moving into a time where there is a greater representation for everybody on screen in different ways,” she says. “Something that always stuck with everyone about the first Star Wars is me saying: ‘Don’t take my hand.’ It was funny, because it really meant so much and at the time, I just thought it was like a cute line! [But] I think it’s also amazing that we are able to see women who perhaps are having more of a difficult time, and that do have to lean on other people. Because the reality is, we live in a world where some people can do things for themselves, and some people need extra help. So I feel wonderful that we’re part of a time where we’re seeing all sorts of women on screen.”
Indeed, Chaos Walking has clear foundations that go further than its YA sci-fi adventure label, exploring deeper elements than a simple fight for survival. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun along the way. “The general thing about sci-fi specific films is escapism. It’s a world that’s close to our own but reimagined in a way,” Ridley tells us. “So there is some sense of relatability but also, it’s far enough away that I don’t think that message bogs you down as an audience member, you’re just like: ‘Huh, this is a warning about communication between the sexes’. I think it’s a fun way to explore very human feelings in a slightly distant way.”
Being based on just the first book in a trilogy means we could be seeing a lot more of Viola and Todd if audiences connect with them in Chaos Walking. “There’s lots of material,” Ness nods. “But as you know with any brand new series, the audience has got to tell us they want more. The books have loose central themes to me – the first book is ‘flight’ as in flight from knowledge, flight from your past and the second book is ‘tyranny’, so there’s a real theme of radicalisation and how you can be slowly pushed into a position that is dangerous and violent. The third book is all about war. So there are definitely potential things to come if you want more…”
Of course you do!
Chaos Walking is out now on digital from Lionsgate.