Archive: Writer-director Gavin Rothery tells us about his sci-fi mystery

We speak to Archive’s writer-director Gavin Rothery on being a concept artist in the gaming industry, creating the sets of his sci-fi mystery and the power of collaboration.

In Archive, set in 2049, roboticist George Almore is on the verge of a breakthrough. Stationed at a remote, secret facility, he has been working on a model that is a true, human equivalent android. His latest prototype, J3, is almost complete. Development of J3 has been achieved through two earlier prototypes, J1 and J2. Each prototype is an increasingly advanced version of his wife, Jules, who died in a brutal car crash. Driven by love for Jules, George has secretly skewed the focus of his work: developing the robots towards the goal of creating a simulacra of Jules.

As his work approaches its final and riskiest stages, external forces threaten to discover and shut down his facility while the introduction of the highly advanced J3 collapses the delicate ‘family’ balance inside the facility.

Starring Theo James (Divergent trilogy) and Stacy Martin (The Serpent), with a top supporting cast including Rhona Mitra (Doomsday), Peter Ferdinando (Hyena) and Toby Jones (Uncle Vanya), Archive has been praised as one of the best sci-fi films in recent times.

To celebrate the brand-new Blu-ray and DVD release of the powerful sci-fi drama, we spoke to Archive’s writer-director Gavin Rothery on his background as a concept artist in the gaming industry and how he embarked on his directorial debut, which follows perhaps his best known work as a designer and artist on Moon with director Duncan Jones.

In Archive, George (Theo James) is trying to create a simulacra of his late wife, Jules (Stacy Martin).

Gavin, how did you first get involved in concept art?

I was always fascinated by comics and I’m one of those kids who grew up reading 2000 AD! I was really into art so all I wanted to do was draw. I loved illustration and graphic design. In my last couple of years of university, something interesting happened when Sony launched the original PlayStation console and marketed it really well. They made video games cool again, with great games like Wipeout which featured hot bands making new music for the soundtrack. We’d never seen anything like that in games before. It felt like people stopped reading comics around that time and the focus shifted.

On the flipside, all these new gaming studios popped up and I realised the skills you needed to be a good comic artist were transferrable to the games industry. What I love about comics is that it’s narrative-driven, but there’s tons of design work, just think about that in relation to sci-fi. I’d split time between world-building and then drafting the idea for the comic itself. In the games industry, years before there were courses available, I taught myself about 3D graphics and got myself a job doing concept art in the games industry, with a lot of enthusiasm and a portfolio full of comic art.

Is it right that the seeds of Archive came from a computer mishap?

Oh, you’re taking me back to all that stress! [laughs] I was in the middle of a big spring clean in my old flat and, as a freelancer, I had two good, working computers running and something happened with the power, which meant everything went off. I ended up losing loads of work, which was very stressful and annoying. It was much more than a power cut because the hard drives were corrupted, and those machines were basically dead. I never found out what happened, and I couldn’t do anything to fix them or get them repaired since it was a Sunday. It made me sulk quite badly and I still had to clean my whole flat! It felt like the computers were doing it to spite me, like it was personal [laughs]. So, I had this idea: What if a machine killed itself just to stick it to you?

The seeds of Archive came from Gavin Rothery thinking: What if a machine killed itself just to stick it to you?

How long did it take you to write the film and what was that process like?

Archive was where I learned to write, as I’d never written anything before. Well, I’d written a short but not a feature. I originally planned to get a bunch of ideas down, then find a writer and talk them through it. I spent nearly five years trying to work with other people and it just didn’t gel. Meanwhile, I’d spent so much time explaining what I wanted that I’d basically figured it out for myself. I eventually found I had a 45-page treatment, which is nearly half the film in page length, with all the information. Then it was a case of formatting it correctly as a script and fleshing out certain parts.

Did working with Duncan Jones on Moon help you understand the filmmaking process when you came to directing Archive?

Yeah, me and Duncan have been working together for ten years and we’ve done tons of stuff together. The experience of being so intimately involved in Moon, being with him every step of the way and seeing how he worked demystified the process for me.

In terms of directing, I found that I take the same approach with anyone I collaborate with. I’ve always got ideas I like, but I’m aware that when I’m working with good people, they’ll have their own take on it. In the case of Archive, I was directing and I also wrote the script, so I knew the story intimately, but so did the actors by the time they came to set. I’ll always go in with a plan, so if people look to me, I can help. However, I think good people will always bring something different and if they’re talented, you should trust them to try it.

Everybody in the cast was very cool to work with. Theo James is a handsome movie star but he’s also very smart and funny, so he should really annoy me! [laughs] He’s too handsome and clever, but he’s brilliant, you can’t help but love him! Stacy Martin was fantastic too. I was a first-time director, so a risk in many ways, but everyone was very cool, they trusted me and they were collaborative.

I’d also like to mention Steven Price who wrote the music and won an Oscar for Gravity. He’s a genius. He dropped that score and it’s beautiful, I couldn’t have been happier with it. Going back to collaboration, I know what I like and may have had ideas about what the film needed, but so did Steven, and I can hardly sit behind him at the piano! He may also want to take his own risks and try things I never thought of.

Gavin enjoyed working with Archive’s two leading stars Theo James (pictured above) and Stacy Martin.

What was your approach behind the world-building and showing the technology you did?

People think, as you director, you can do anything you want. But the trick on a modestly budgeted film like Archive, where every penny is on the screen, is to make the right choices. What I generally try and do is pick a couple of battles and make sure we get those right, and those can support everything else.

So, I wanted to build a really nice set, real and standing, meaning we can go anywhere with the camera and it’s good for the actors. Then it’s a case of me designing a set we can build within our budget. Another thing we did was to use robot suits with actors inside them. I love characters like Huey, Duey and Louie from Silent Running, obviously R2-D2 and C-3PO are iconic too. Great characters will always work, and it’s also far more economical to do than CGI.

Would you rather continue working as a filmmaker, or will you still work as an artist on other people’s projects?

It’s all the same thing to me, it’s world-building. At the moment I’m doing concept art on the Star Citizen video game. It’s amazing, satisfying and they have a great creative team. To me, it’s basically like production design because it’s so detailed, some of those ships are huge and we’re designing down to individual bolts and panels. I really get into it. My approach to making a film and writing, directing and designing the visuals is very holistic.

If audiences take something away from Archive, what do you hope it is?

We live in a time where there’s media everywhere. There’s endless shows and films on streaming platforms and TV channels, so there’s more choice than ever. Also, one of the most valuable things we have is time. It sounds funny to say but I think it’s good when people don’t feel like they’ve wasted their time, so that’s a first promise I try to make with myself – don’t waste people’s time!

I realised I like sci-fi stories where the stakes feel personal. I think a lot of contemporary sci-fi stories have these huge stakes where the earth is going to be destroyed, or humanity wiped out. It’s epic and fun but I think it can lose that personal feeling. I wanted to drill down and explore the idea of love and death as themes, which hopefully people can relate to. What’s interesting, which I realised later, is that also manifested itself into a fear of replacement. I don’t know what that says about me, but I hope people relate to these ideas and enjoy spending time with these characters.

Archive is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital. Read our review here.