‘Foe’ Director Garth Davis Talks Our Relationship With AI


In Garth Davis’ new film Foe, Earth is so fatigued that the government is experimenting with sending people to space. When fifth-generation farmer Junior (Paul Mescal) is conscripted to the space colony, government agent Terrance (Aaron Pierre) demonstrates the burden of care toward Junior’s wife, Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan) by providing her a replacement of Junior. Though the replacement is AI, he is a conscious human who looks, sounds, and feels like Junior himself.

Dread Central had the pleasure of talking with the director of Foe Garth Davis about adapting Ian Reid, artificial intelligence, and more.

Dread Central: What was it like adapting this film from a novel with the author Iain Reid? What was that process like? I imagine it was somewhat different from adapting a work of nonfiction like Lion.

Garth David: It was actually really exciting and fun. I mean, the novel itself was very filmic in the way that was told, but it was purely from one of the characters’ point of view, and that was hard to bring into the cinematic space, into the visual space. So, I guess the challenge—but also the exciting challenge was to kind of shift the point of view to Hen and to bring it into the filmic language. It was so enjoyable because there’s so many layers to this movie, you know, it’s like an Escher, rich in all of its layers… and how do we do that in a way that’s compelling and intelligent and exciting for an audience?

DC: Part of the premise is that in Junior’s absence, Henrietta will get a “replacement” that looks, acts, and feels just like him. With this film, what are you hoping to add to the conversation about AI? Because it’s sort of AI… but it’s also not really artificial, like it’s created, but you know, there’s a fine line there.

GD: Yeah. I mean, I personally believe AI will be as real as us at some point, there’s no question. But that aside, the reason why I was into the story of Foe is because it was a great way for us to explore the relationship. I mean, what an amazing proposition for Hen to have a chance to live with a version of her husband like when they first met. It’s such a cool idea. So, she’s not having an affair with strangers. She’s having an affair with the man, the husband, who she loves very much, the way it was in the beginning.

It was a really fun way to break open Hen’s journey into exploring this marriage. But I guess in the same way, Hen talks about the urgency and the importance of living a life before she dies, and then the importance of not taking each other for granted. That’s what she ultimately stands up to. I think AI raises all those questions as well around the ethics of our choices, and I find that very interesting.

DC: Yeah, it is sort of a social experiment, with some ethical problems, depending. This seems like it’s the first trial, or among the first that they’re really putting into action. One of the things that the character Terrance mentions when he’s kind of pitching this conscription, one of the things he mentions in the pitch to Junior and Henrietta is that the government feels a “burden of care.” Can you talk more about the concept of the “burden of care?” Like, what does that mean, in general, and then what does it mean when the government tells you that? I feel like when it’s an institution, it’s a little different.

GARTH: Terrance, his job is to try and convince Junior that all these things that are happening are real, and that there are real rules around it. He has no choice ultimately, but Terrance has to do that in a way that’s not confrontational. Junior is actually conscripted to go to space, but he doesn’t say it like that. It’s like, “You’re the lucky guy who got picked, and you’re gonna be a hero!” What actually is probably bad news he kind of changes into good news. That’s Terrance’s skill, and it’s company policy that we’re gonna look after Henrietta when you’re away. They’re just devices, I guess, and rules, so that the character wouldn’t spend the rest of the movie dealing with that [choice].

But it does raise a lot of questions around, clearly, the uses of AI when it gets to this level. Will people just have relationships with artificial beings? I know a lot of people that joke about it. I wouldn’t mind just designing my own husband just the way I want him. 

But I guess the question is, whenever people say that, they’re only thinking about themselves. They’re not thinking about the sentient being opposite. You know, and I guess it’s, that’s why we’re in the mess. We’re in the very thing about ourselves. We’re not thinking about each other, and the planet and everything else. Just be careful what you desire. Be careful about the choices you make.

DC: Definitely. It seems like a good choice at the moment. But three decisions from now, will you be glad that you made this choice? 

GD: Exactly.

DC: So, quick question—maybe—why did you choose to set Foe in America?

GD: Well, the book is set in America, so we just started there. And then I guess, we hadn’t cast Foe. The kind of mega industries and the scale of America’s economy really suited the story as well.

DC: We are definitely mega! The scene when the inciting incident occurs, when Terrance arrives at the farmhouse, from the moment you see his headlights, it’s a really loaded scene. All the characters display super complex feelings. Did you have any strategies to coach the actors to get that scene to land so well?

GD: Excellent. It was an incredibly exciting thing make, but also, it just had to be fine-tuned perfectly because there’s the story you think you’re watching but actually, the truth is completely different. And actors can only work from a place of truth. They can’t pretend something for the viewers. 

So the challenge was, this is a truthful moment. But how do we make that feel like it’s this story? I think that was the great challenge. In rehearsals, we explored a lot where that balancing act set—and also the camera, where to put the weight on the edit, where to put the weight on the framing, and point of view, all of those decisions… hopefully created what felt like a slightly off moment. Like, a weirdness.

DC: For sure. You’re worried about the stranger, but you’re also worried about the person she knows so well, like, why is he reacting so strongly?

GD: Right.

DC: Is there one big thing that you hope your audience takes away from Foe

GD: I guess what I want people to take away from Foe is what Hen telling us in the story, and that is to be yourself. There’s only one of you. And make sure that you honor yourself on your life’s journey. That doesn’t mean you have to leave your relationship. It just means you need to speak up about what you want to do in your life, and work it out together. Your words and your actions are sacred. They have a huge effect not just on relationships, but on the planet itself. 

Foe is out now in theaters.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.



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