SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains massive spoilers for the movie Serenity. If you have not yet seen the film, please continue on at your own risk!
Matthew McConaughey characters have experienced many different kinds of twists over the years, but we’ve never seen the actor play out anything like what goes down in Serenity. At first the protagonist, Baker Dill, is shown to be a simple fisherman caught up in a noir-esque murder plot, but as the story unfolds he winds up discovering that he is actually fictional and living in a video game. It’s a pretty crazy development, but according to writer/director Steven Knight, it was one that McConaughey went the extra mile for in his approach. Said the filmmaker in a recent interview,
I had to have the extra layer, particularly for Baker Dill, [so it was a discussion with] Matthew, because he had to calibrate his character through the impossible business of beginning to question your own reality. It's a fantastic thing - he got this massive sheet of paper and he charted the progress of his character on it with arrows and comments. The thing was just like a visual depiction of a character's unraveling. So he always knew. Obviously we're not shooting in sequence, so you always knew where he was at in terms of 'Am I real, or am I not?' It was an absolutely amazing feat.
When I had the chance to hop on the phone with Steven Knight earlier this month, I took the opportunity to dive into spoiler territory and discuss the development of Serenity’s big twist. Part of that discussion included his relationship with Matthew McConaughey through the navigation, and it was in his response that I learned about the actor’s special inside guide to the mind of Baker Dill. While it’s not exactly clear what it looked like, apparently the guy went as far as to create a special map of his character’s mind.
Those who have seen Serenity know that the whole experience doesn’t make for an easy reality shift for Baker Dill, as he certainly has a slight understanding that things are a bit off from the start, but is ultimately pretty blown away by the totality of the truth. Because of this arc, each scene required an understanding of the character’s particular mindset at a particular point in time, but clearly this was a challenge that Matthew McConaughey was more than prepared to take on.
Speaking on a larger level about the implementation of the twist in Serenity, Steven Knight offered that part of his thinking for the film was that he wanted to upend the conventional approach to the narrative device – specifically in terms of setup. While he understood that he had to give the audience at least a slight inkling that things weren’t quite what they seemed, he also wasn’t terribly interested in an overuse of foreshadowing and laid groundwork. Instead, he wanted the development to feel like it came out of left field, as he explained:
I think a lot of time in storytelling a surprise is set up so that it isn't a surprise. And genuine surprise is difficult because it's not part of conventional way of doing things. So there's a lot of resistance to the idea that you genuinely have a surprise that comes from nowhere. You do have a few [hints], but I tried to do that as little as possible, and it's not what people would normally do.
This approach interestingly makes Serenity a bit different than most twist-centric features, in that it’s not the kind of movie where you go back to see it a second time and read everything differently than you did before you fully knew where the story was going. This is a film designed for that drop-in-the-lap feeling – which certainly can be passed on by people showing the feature to others while you sit next to them watching their face change with the surprise.
That being said, Steven Knight did add that he does still hope that audiences give Serenity multiple viewings – just not for the aforementioned typical reasons. Instead, his thinking was that he wanted to give the feature a certain timeless quality, meaning that those who see it in the future won’t exactly be able to pin point exactly when it was made. He made the movie with the idea that it can exist as a movie completely independent of the world that is going on outside the room in which it is being screened (interestingly not too dissimilar to the life and actions of the kid who creates the game in which Baker Dill lives). Said Knight,
I hope it will be watched two or three times, and also I think I always like to try and do something that isn't part of whatever's happening right now in terms of film, so that if it's watched in 10 years’ time it won't be identifiable as a film that was made in 2018, 2019 - that it's not part of the current zeitgeist. So I do hope it will be watched that way.
It’s an interesting perspective on the film, but also an accurate one. The main story isn’t exactly one that is overly dependent on technology – something that dates any film in the modern age – and it’s almost entirely set in a location isolated from the rest of the world. Ignoring the ages of the actors, even watching the Serenity on the big screen today you could think that it is a feature from the 1990s that was brought back to theaters.
Those who want to see Serenity again, or, as mentioned, share the experience with a friend, have the chance to do so right now, with the movie still playing in theaters nationwide – sporting a cast including not only Matthew McConaughey, but also Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane. And to see what else will soon be coming to a theater near you, be sure to check out our 2019 Release Calendar.