Arthur C. Clarke’s legendary science fiction novel “Childhood’s End” finally comes to life on Syfy, as a three-night TV event beginning Monday, December 14th. During a recent press call, stars Mike Vogel, Yael Stone, and writer/executive producer Matthew Graham talked about what drew them to the project and how it was brought to life on screen.
How familiar were each of you with the book when you first started working on the project and have you read it since?
MIKE: Initially, I did not realize the full weight of the project that I was committing to until I was on an airplane headed to Australia. Just because everything happened quite quickly, and as I started researching the book, and researching the history, and the sort of the position that “Childhood’s End” held in the eyes and the viewpoint to think of the fan base, I went, “Oh man, wow, this is a big commitment.” But I read the book while we were filming and that will speak to it. But I think Matt has done a fantastic job of maintaining the integrity and a lot of the characters and a lot of the main ideas of the book. There’s some parts of it have been altered a bit, my character in the book is the 60-year-old head of the UN, and from Finland. So we worked with a 35-year-old Missouri farmer. It’s a logical leap. And but I think it made Ricky more relatable, more trustworthy as the everyman rather than the politician. That was my experience with the book heading into this.
YAEL: I was familiar Arthur C. Clarke kind of in a periphery way as the guy who kind of predicted the internet and the use of personal computers and as a visionary and a kind of futurist. I haven’t read the book, and then when the project came up, I then read the book. I think it’s a lot of fascinating big questions. But obviously the book being written when it was – it comes from this very 1950s framework and it’s very sort of hetero-normative viewpoint. I think Matthew has done a great job in just re-imagining the story and this incredible novel, while also kind of paying homage through a truth, but also modernizing it.
MATTHEW: Thank you Mike and Yael for saying that. I mean, it was a book I read when I was 14, and it’s stuck with me mostly because as a 14-year-old to be told some aliens won’t show themselves because we can’t handle it, was just frankly the coolest thing you’ve ever read in your life. You couldn’t wait to get through the pages to the point where they would reveal themselves because you couldn’t imagine what it would be, that it would be awful, so challenging. So that was the kind of the initial thing and then of course the fact that the story plays out the way it does. It’s haunting to specially to kids who’s used to kind of reading stories where things are kind of spoon-fed emotionally to you in the way that makes you feel comfortable. So it kind of was with me for an on-and-off through most of my life. It was a book that I remembered always fondly and was always excited by. So we’ve done something to update it in some ways and make it more accessible to a broad audience, which I think is essential if you’re writing about the future and not knowing what’s going to happen to us. You can’t set it in the 1950’s because we all live in the 21st century and we know that those people in the 1950s had been worrying about the nuclear war and whether it was going to happen at least for a while. So we have to be updated in order to keep a sense of paranoia and uncertainty that purveys the book. And then Mike touched on making Ricky a farmer rather than a politician. I think again that reflects the age we’re in now where we’re more distrustful of politicians and we’re certainly more aware of the cynicism that purveyed, and the problems that purveyed global politics. So I adopted a more kind of old testament approach that it’s really kind of Ga od speaking to the farm boy rather than God – making him a king, rather than God speaking to the king.
What do you think it is that makes this a good time to tell the story?
MATTHEW: I don’t think anything has changed. I mean, in 1950 we were coming out of a very brutal war and a very expensive one. No change there. We were entering an age of austerity in the 1950s, no change there. We were terrified by the Cold War. No changes there. That potentially is rearing up again. And substitute any fear that they had in 1952 to the fears that we have now coming out of the Middle East and you got the same paranoia in terrorists that they were facing. So the relevance I think is not changed one iota.
MIKE: Yes, I think that’s the scary thing – to fast-forward 60 years and we’re kind of still in the same place, which I think is all the more reason why the story needs to be told. The whole reason that these aliens come down to earth — to say, “You guys have had your shot. You screwed it up. That’s enough of that right there. It’s time to fix some things.” And that we’re still having these conversations this far down the road, and that you can almost insert the same players into the story; the same international and global players in the story then as now, shows that for all the advancements that we had for in technology and medicine and everything else as it comes to people, as it comes to us dealing with each other. Sadly, not much has changed. And so, and as Matt would say and as the history of this book, it has been many people have tried to undertake the huge task of somehow taking this book and putting it into film or the television. But I think I’m glad that it’s going to happen today because the ability that we have to reach such a global audience with a project to deal with some issues amongst humanity, which are global issues. So I think now is a great time to tell the story and I’m glad we’re able to be a part of doing that.
Mike, you got some really heavy emotional scenes in CHILDHOOD’s END. Those meetings with Karellen where we can’t see him, was that tough to shoot? Was Charles Dance around or was this all kind of using your imagination?
MIKE: Yes, it’s interesting because when I read that script and was preparing for it – like when you’re reading it on the page you’re seeing two characters interacting — but it didn’t really dawn on me until I got there and was talking over with Matt, and was talking over with Nick Hurran about how we were going to shoot it. It was then brought to my attention, and you realize that you’re by yourself standing in front of a mirror that there’s no one physically there that you’re acting against. And there was this instant feeling of vulnerability and nakedness that, “Oh crap. I have to somehow hold this thing.” Now don’t get me wrong, the voice of Charles Dance demands – the man yawns and everyone snaps to attention — that was that was a great help. We had Charles off stage and we piped him through a loud speaker that was hidden on stage there with me. So I had his voice to respond to. But it’s a lot of time kind of sitting there in front of a mirror, which was great and as Matt pointed out, it’s sort of this thing with Ricky where part of the reason they choose Ricky — because he’s not a guy that’s too worried about appearances, and too worried his ego doesn’t play a huge part in who he is. But then all the sudden, he’s kind of thrust into this world stage, thrust into this spotlight. And he’s having that moment of a bit of that start to creep in, and he start to believe his own presence for a second, and kind of like the power and the position that he’s finding himself in, and here he is in front of a mirror basically playing to his vanity, almost the overlords that kind of playing to that vanity and constantly everywhere he looks is reminding him of this other world. So I thought it was a really great touch. It was an interesting switch that I went through of when I finally realized that, “Oh man, it’s just me kind of out here by myself doing this whole thing.” It’s funny how your mind doesn’t connect that when you’re reading because it just reads like a normal script until you realize that wasn’t the case at all.
If aliens were to land tomorrow, and offer to solve all the world’s problems but it will mean the end of science, the end of culture, would you take that deal?
MATTHEW: You just hit on the ballroom conversation we had almost every single night in Melbourne. It’s a really tough one because there’s a bit of me that kind of sides with Colm Meaney on this one — Colm’s character, Wainwright – and that in some ways you kind of want to be just in charge of your own destiny for good or for bad. We don’t want to be condescended, we don’t want to be mothered, and we want to do it ourselves. But right now, with everything, whether it’s the fact that we’re going to run out of antibiotics, and we’re going back to medieval medicine in the next generation, I think I would take the gamble. I think I’ll have the overlords.
YAEL: I got to say I agree with you. I feel like it would be deeply egotistical to say, “No, no, our culture is much more important than people’s lives in the state of our environment.” I guess, I look around and I think, “You know what? We haven’t been doing such a crash hot job so far.” So I’m interested to see what the aliens would do.
MIKE: And I follow on the other side. Daisy has an interesting saying that I’ve heard she say. She said, “We should strive for utopia, but maybe never achieved it.” And I fall on the other side and maybe that sick-sadistic side of me, but I just think if we look at the story, yes, the aliens come down and solve the problems but it comes at a price, doesn’t it? It’s not for free. There’s a time where everything works out, but there’s still a price tag attached to it and a pretty hefty one. So I look at it and say, “Yes, we screwed a lot of things, but I still have a strong belief in the ability and the decency of humanity, as ugly as we can get and we can get pretty sick and ugly, that in the end decent people, people of courage will rise up and will stand for what’s right.” And what comes out of that will be something beautiful and it leads to great culture, great art, all of those things I think come from that. So I maybe alone on an island on the other side of it but that’s where I side.
What was the most challenging part of filming?
YAEL: I never worked with imaginary things in front of me. I have to say that was a first time for me. And on my first day of set, I was looking at a piece of green tape and imagining the arrival of a being that represented everything that my whole life was set against, and perhaps the thing responsible for the loss of my mother. I got to say was pretty tough to be working of that green piece of tape. I think I wrote on my script, the date, and I wrote, “This is the day I have to stop acting because I can’t do it and it’s impossible.” [Laughs] I didn’t tell anyone, but that’s how I felt.
MIKE: I would second Yael’s issues there with acting to a lot of things that weren’t there. It was an incredible surprise once I saw the effects laid in and saw the ships laid in. But literally all we had was a black rectangular box that we’d be stepping in and out of and we step in the pod that would take us to the ship. So maybe not rewarding in the moment and difficult in the moment, but the payoff was pretty fantastic. I was blown away when I saw what they were able to kind of craft around the black box that I stepped into and out of and seeing how it all seamlessly fit together. It kind of blew my mind a bit.
MATTHEW: I think probably the most difficult aspect of all it all for me was every single morning seeing what we have to shoot and do in a day. It never seemed to get smaller. I kept thinking, “One day we’re going to look at a call sheet and it’s going to say: Mike sits under a tree and eats an apple with the tune” and it never did. It just said 5,000 extras, 100 utopian giant spaceships, huge aliens. I mean, it was daunting. It’s a good idea, I think, to never fully know the scale of something — it it’s a big project — to never fully understand the scale of it going in because you just wouldn’t do it. Once we got going, as exciting as it was, every day was so daunting, just so much to do, and the scale and the ambition of it all. So, yes, that was probably it.
YAEL: And you didn’t like the insects very much, did you, Matt?
MATTHEW: No, I don’t. Everything seems to want to kill you in Australia. Even the little plants. The little lovely flower that you’re supposed to touch or there’s a nice bush and someone says, “Oh, there’s probably a snake in there that eats babies.”
MIKE: [Laughs} Like, “Don’t go in the water, the jelly fish will kill you.”
YAEL: I like when people talk about these kind of rumors because it makes me feel really tough.
MIKE: Yes, right, right.
How did you become involved in this project in the first place?
MATTHEW: I basically went from meet-and-greet with producer Mike De Luca and he brought the book up from behind his desk and said, “Do you know this book?” And I said, “Yes, I love the book. I read it as a teenager.” And he said, “Well, Syfy has asked me to bring it to TV as a miniseries. Do you want to do it?” And I said, “Yes.” And it really just sprang from that. I mean, I had to jump through a few hoops for Syfy and for the studio and talk to them at length about my take on it. But that’s kind of how I got involved.
Adapting a novel to the screen is always a challenging process and playing characters who first appear on the page on the screen is always a challenging process. How were those challenges for you?
MATTHEW: Well, the challenges were enormous. But you do have to kind of put that to one side and you have to be like daunted. The book exists as a book and nothing I ever do will change the brilliance of what Arthur C. Clarke wrote. I just have to think all the way of adopting it and making it relevant today and to be honest with myself if there are things in the book that I don’t think I’m going to play well on TV. As long as you just keep on telling yourself, it’s not going to work and you change that, then that that’s your kind of roadmap. But it is a huge challenge. It’s not as big of challenge as something like the “English Patient” which is very elliptical book which turned to a very mainstream format. So in the structure of the “Childhood’s End,” it’s very clear and it’s just more about getting in the philosophy and the other ideas behind it and making sure that you get the right thing in at the right time and you don’t overload it. Because the worst thing is when you suddenly feel that you got to find a way to figure it out without turning into a PowerPoint presentation.
YAEL: I was sort of fortunate that I didn’t have the pressure of this character in that it does not appear the first in the book. Tereta is a wonderful invention of Matthew that springs very interesting and critical questions about religion and that happens in the middle part of the book as the book is kind of structured in three sections. So I skipped that pressure. But I was delighted with what Matthew did to create the character. I think, number one, it’s great to have a woman in the story driving her own story, which is fantastic and I’m very happy to be that person. And in terms of looking at this character, who’s so deeply motivated solely by kind of emotional history and also religious text, I think that’s fascinating in our current climate and has always been a fascinating question where humans are concerned where we gripped to face where we use it as justification for certain things. I think that character is crucial and really interesting in this exploration of the story.
Talking effects for a second, it seems that there’s a lot of effects in this mini-series. I know production also use a lot of practical effects. How did that help pull you into this setting into your character?
MIKE: For me, it was shocking. I know, Charles had a monumental task in that suit acting and kind of pulling that off in all of that, in all of that makeup and garb — but for us, as the actors, I mean, I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to see his suit or see even the concept of what they wanted to look like until it was until we actually did the first scene I think the first scene that he and I did together was in the hotel room, which is essentially the last scene of the movie. It is the one that we did first, at least one of the last scenes for me with Charles. And I was shocked to turn around and to see these guys looking like he looked. That they made that choice to do that practically rather than adding all of this stuff and post and I would say 95 percent of what was there was what you saw in person. And I was grateful for that.
YAEL: Absolutely. I completely agree. The difference between working with the piece of tape and working with Charles and also his amazing stunt double, it was incredible because we had both this incredible appearance, which I can’t describe obviously but also have the size of the alien as well by using the stunt double we were able to actually relate to the creature in terms of our eye line, and our physical relationship to this being which was just as enormous, that 7 foot imposing terrifying creature.
The original book of “Childhood’s End” has inspired a lot of alien invasion TV shows and movies, like FALLING SKIES and INDEPENDENCE DAY and so on. So what would you say to audience coming to this? What would you tell them the qualities that make this one different from ones they have seen before?
MATTHEW: I think the big thing is that it’s not about fighting them. It’s about a conversation between humanity and the superior intelligence that may or may not be here to hurt us. We don’t know. They don’t know. No one knows for sure. But all the science points to them being benevolent, but omnificent. So I think it’s the game we’re playing with the audience, and hopefully, it’s a relatively subtle game, it’s not “Oh, they’re here to help us. But, oh look behind closed doors, they’re cackling and rubbing their claws together and they clearly got a scary plan.” It’s more about how we perceive them. They don’t change. They stay pretty true to themselves and that they are here to help us. Obviously, towards the end of the story the end game becomes apparent. But it’s about how they look about challenges from the characters’ viewpoints and, obviously, Yael’s characters and other characters are profoundly affected by questions raised in their minds about them. So I think that’s what we’re trying to hang on to — the philosophical aspect of real science fiction as opposed to laser guns and it’s not a wham-bam action type piece. It is trying to honor its literary roots, and I think that’s what make it different. I also like that the three nights are different. I would depict as the first night is “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the second night is more of a “Rosemary’s Baby,” and the third night is more like “Titanic.” And there are three different movies with three different vibes, and I think that’s something that doesn’t normally happen in television. So I think these things make it very fresh. I would say this is a relatively smart alien-invasion movie, and it’s about a dialog between human and aliens rather than they’re trying to take our bodies over and grow it in pods or something. And that what is so different about it.
What it’s like for you, Yael, filming home in Australia?
YAEL: It was wonderful. Yes, it was really fantastic. Obviously, I wasn’t filming in an Australia accent, so still doing some verbal gymnastic there. But it is wonderful to be working in Australia, the Australian crew members that we work with were just always incredibly professional, and incredibly talented. So that was great to feel proud of the Australian industry that’s so strong and full of wonderfully talented people. There were also a lot of Australian actors, a lot of familiar faces I see recently when I watched night one and two — I haven’t quite seen three yet — but that’s also a wonderful thing. And I’m about to head home again for another three months and I’m really excited to do that. It’s a great place to work.
CHILDHOOD’S END airs as 3-part movie event, starting Monday, December 14th at 8:00 p.m. on Syfy, and continues on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, December 15th and 16th at 8:00 p.m. on Syfy.