The opening scene of the new Netflix original film The Discovery is a three-minute television interview between Robert Redford, playing a scientist, and Mary Steenburgen, playing a journalist. It’s a smart bit of exposition that orients you to a near future where science has proven the existence of an afterlife. And it ends with a powerful jolt that puts the rest of the film in motion.
The film exists at the edge of science’s definition of life, but it’s too grounded in a familiar reality to play as science fiction. Still, it manages to ask big-picture questions like what happens to our consciousness when we die and whether there are moral consequences for those who discover the answer. It’s a thinker, like The Fountain or Ex Machina, that will come back to you at the strangest times.
Charlie McDowell, who co-wrote The Discovery with Justin Lader and directed it as his follow-up to 2014 brain teaser The One I Love, sat down with Playboy.com to talk about working with Redford (and Steenburgen, his mother), why ambiguity works better in film than it does on TV and—of course—the meaning of life.
You’re pretty young, right?
Why does a 33-year-old make a movie about the meaning of life starring Robert Redford? Isn’t that a movie you make a little later in your career?
I didn’t really think about it like that. For me, it’s about exploring questions and ideas that have come up in my life. People were surprised that I made The One I Love, which is about a marriage, without ever having been married. It’s about connecting to ideas and telling a story through characters.
Robert Redford is a movie star and a big-deal director. Did you have an impulse to ask him at some points, “What would you do here?”
My job is to be as prepared as I can to make the film, so we did a tremendous amount of the work in preproduction. For me, that’s where I feel like I make the movie. Still, it’s a scary, daunting idea to direct Redford. I was awestruck many moments while we were shooting closeups with him and just could not believe he was actually in my film.
Watching The Discovery, I thought a lot about what the film was asking, what the characters were asking and what I was supposed to be asking. Is that something you think better films do, or do you think of that as a particular mode of filmmaking?
I was purposefully trying to make a movie that makes you use your head and—hopefully, by the end of the film—connects that to your emotions. I don’t think everyone necessarily wants that from a movie, but I want to make films that make people question and debate.
What did you sit down to write? Were you trying to get some things out of your head about life and death?
We started with the question of how people would react if the existence of an afterlife had become a proven fact. The idea of people taking their own lives came up, because if death isn’t really death anymore—if your consciousness is just transferring to a new place—then you never really stop living. That idea became fascinating to us, but we didn’t want to explore it at the massive studio level, where you show the global effects. I wanted to explore it through a handful of characters and tell a love story set in this world.
Two other recent projects—The Leftovers and The OA—have been asking similar questions. Did you pull any influence from either of those as you were working on The Discovery?
I had not seen either of them. It’s funny about The OA that Zal Batmanglish and Brit Marling, who created it, are both good friends of mine. Zal and I went to film school together and see each other all the time, but we never send each other our scripts. We didn’t realize until we were both shooting that we were exploring similar ideas.
Have you talked to them since seeing The OA?
Oh, yeah. We’ve talked a lot about it, and Zal was sitting right behind me at the L.A. premiere for The Discovery. I think when you have close friends that are at the same place in their lives, you start to think about similar ideas. It was pretty crazy how close The OA and The Discovery are, but we executed them very differently.
We started with the question of how people would react if the existence of an afterlife had become a proven fact.
Where did you find your visual ideas for the film? Stanley Kubrick?
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was a big influence. Stanley Kubrick. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the love story was definitely an influence. I like the idea of finding my own tone, so I looked to other films more for framing and color.
Mary Steenburgen is your mother and has a small role in The Discovery. How did you ask her to be involved in the film?
I knew she really wanted to work with Robert Redford. I asked my mom’s manager to call and tell her that a role was being offered to her. He called her and said, “It’s one scene in this really small movie, and the scene would be with Robert Redford.” Then he told her it was an up-and-coming director named Charlie McDowell. I had always thought about her for that part, so I was really happy she was able to do it.
Was that opening scene, in which your mother plays a journalist interviewing Robert Redford, always the beginning of the film?
We wrote that scene before we had any of the other characters because it gave us a chance to explore what we wanted to talk about. I gave those first 10 pages to Rooney Mara and she said she wanted to be in the film, so we started writing a character for her that would be the emotional focal point of the story.
When did Netflix get involved?
Netflix bought the film while we were shooting it. We had already done a streaming-rights deal with them, and once the cast came together and we started shooting they came in and bought the whole project. They let me make the movie I wanted to make.
Do you watch movies mostly on streaming now, or do you still go to the theater a lot?
I still go to the theater. I still believe in theatrical, but there are small movies, like mine, that will be seen all over the world because of Netflix. Especially with a film that’s asking big, global questions, it’s really great to see people on my Twitter feed from all over the world talking about the movie.
There’s some ambiguity in the film. Do you think people accept that more in a film than they would in a TV series?
I think it’s about the time commitment. You’re investing hours and hours with characters when you watch a TV show, and at a certain point you feel like you know you them. You feel that less when you watch a movie.
You’re directing an episode of Netflix’s Dear White People series, which is coming up later this month. Do you want to work in film and TV going forward?
Justin Lader, my writing partner, and I are doing a TV project with Noah Hawley and Scott Rudin. We’re writing it now. It’s an adaptation of a Don DeLillo book called Zero K as a limited series for FX. We still have more ideas for original films that we could pursue after that. For me, it’s more about what projects and characters are exciting to me.
Zero K is kind of a sequel to The Discovery. It’s what could have happened if the technology had been a little different.
We’ve talked about that. In a certain way, it picks up where The Discovery ends. We focused on the characters in The Discovery in a very contained way, and Zero K feels like expanding into even bigger ideas and having time to get into that.