Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson sits down for an interview about The Darkest Minds, a thrilling, romantic and uplifting adventure film starring Amandla Stenberg in the leading role. The film marks Yuh Nelson’s first venture into live-action; she is already an acclaimed director of animated movies.

The Darkest Minds is set in a very near future society where most of the nation’s children have perished – victims of a terrible disease. The surviving children are considered to be dangerous Enemies of the State because they possess extraordinary powers and therefore pose a threat to the government. Stenberg plays Ruby, who escapes from the authorities and teams up with a group of other kids, including Liam, played by Harris Dickinson.

They go on the run, using their powers, wits, and friendship to stay alive.

The engrossing new film The Darkest Minds takes place in a dystopian society. The nation is in a state of crisis; 98 percent of the children have died. For the few who remain, it’s a fight to stay alive. The kids and teenagers, who all have remarkable powers and abilities, have been taken from their families and sent for brutal “rehabilitation”.  Here they are segregated by color according to how dangerous to society they are deemed to be. Ruby is an “Orange” – signifying that she is a major threat because she can  read minds and manipulate memory. She escapes and meets new friends, young survivors from different camps.

Among them is Liam, played by rising British actor Harris Dickinson. There’s an immediate attraction between the two. Together, all the young fugitives embark on a journey, essentially an exciting and perilous road trip, looking for a safe haven, while simply trying to stay alive. Also starring in the gifted cast of young actors are Skylan Brooks as Chubs and Miya Cech as Zu. On the road, the kids empower themselves and discover a sense of family. For Jennifer Yuh Nelson, whose previous hit movies include Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3, the film is an impressive first foray into live action.

Based on the first installment of the trilogy by Alexandra Bracken, and infused with thrilling action, The Darkest Minds is original and compelling with an emotional core and highly relatable characters.

Yuh Nelson sat down in Los Angeles for the following interview.

 

Q: You are known for your animated films – was live-action a natural next step for you? What was the appeal of The Darkest Minds

A: “Because I loved to draw as a child and later worked as a story artist, it was natural for me to direct animation originally, but I’ve always wanted to do live-action. So, after directing Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3, I was going through scripts to choose my first live-action movie. What really struck me about this particular script was that it had an amazing, gut-punching emotional core, even in the early draft, and the relationships were strong. You don’t see that in a lot of early scripts. I immediately read the first book from the Alexandra Bracken series on which this movie is based, and it had such great characters and voice. I was very excited about the film. The thing I always gravitate towards is an emotional hook. If I don’t have that, I don’t know what kind of movie I’m making.”

 

Q: Can you discuss the story?

A: “A mysterious disorder wipes out 98 percent of kids in the United States. We don’t know what it is, it’s unexplained, but all of a sudden these kids are gone. The remaining children have strange powers and abilities, so the government, of course, considers them to be a danger. This is the story of Ruby, a young girl who has the ability to go into people’s minds and perhaps even erase herself. She can manipulate memories. She escapes from the government and finds kids similar to herself with special abilities, and the story is about how she finds a sense of family and belonging. It is her journey going from that scared little girl into a powerful woman.”

Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, Amandla Stenberg and Miya Cech. (Credit: The Darkest Minds)

Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, Amandla Stenberg and Miya Cech. (Credit: The Darkest Minds)

Q: How challenging was the film?

A: “It was challenging for sure; the jump from animation to live-action is not an easy transition at all. It’s a very different process from animation, but I had an incredible team to help me through that transition. Also, the beginning part of the process is similar to animation, in terms of the story and development, so that was helpful; but the production, the actual shooting, was totally different. You work with real people in a real environment. In animation, you work with them in a booth, one at a time, and they don’t necessarily have everything to look at, they just have to use their imaginations. On set, you’re out in the field, you’re seeing things, all the actors are reacting to each other and you have to coordinate this entire army to achieve an emotional moment on-screen, so it’s much more immediate, much more visceral.”

 

Q: It is exciting that we have more women like you at the helm of major films finally? Are you encouraged and positive? 

A: “I think there is definitely a change in attitude and there’s a lot more support for women directors right now. But there still aren’t enough women doing this job. It really comes down to this: ‘Is there support to give women these jobs?’ You can yell and scream until the cows come home, but you still have to be given a job. Women need to get these opportunities if they can do the job. Then, having women directing films will become a completely normal situation. The more women are allowed to direct movies, the more normal it will become and then the more people won’t notice it and everyone can just focus on doing the work.”

Amandla Stenberg plays Ruby, an

Amandla Stenberg plays Ruby, an “Orange” in The Darkest Minds. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Q: What is it about Amandla that made her the perfect choice to play Ruby?

A: “Shawn Levy [the director of hits including The Night at the Museum films and Date Night] is the producer of this film. His daughter and Amandla went to the same school and they’re friends. Shawn has seen Amandla grow up and he knew even from her early work at school and her early career that she’s an amazing actress. When I met her I was so impressed. She’s so powerful, her presence is so strong and she is very wise. She is utterly genuine and that was something I definitely needed to see in Ruby. She needed to have power but also vulnerability; she needed to be genuine and real, rather than a ‘processed’ actor who is just being an actor all the time. Amandla is so grounded, she’s different, she’s gorgeous in her own completely, unique and wonderfully rebellious way. I just adore her, she’s so good!”

 

Q: What does she bring to Ruby?

A: “She’s luminous. In the script, there are a lot of internal things going on with Ruby. You see her grappling with things and struggling, and you see the relationship with Liam and all that is beautifully portrayed in Amandla’s performance.”

 

Q: What do the colors mean – for example, Ruby is an ‘Orange’?

A: “The children’s powers are on a scale – a spectrum of threat. At the very bottom are ‘Green’ kids; they are highly intelligent, like savants. Above them are ‘Blue’ kids who are telekinetic – able to move things with their minds; that’s what Liam is. ‘Gold’ kids have the ability to control electricity. Above them are the ‘Red’ kids, who are pyrokinetic – they control fire. And above them, at the very top, are the most dangerous: ‘Orange’ kids can control minds, and that is what Ruby is.”

Amandla Stenberg and Harrison Dickinson in The Darkest Minds. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Amandla Stenberg and Harris Dickinson in The Darkest Minds. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Q: There’s a great rapport between Amandla and Harris Dickinson, who plays Liam. 

A: “Yes and the minute we saw Harris and Amandla together, sitting and chatting, we could tell they were going to be best friends. They’re good people and you could see there was great chemistry right away. Harris is genuine in everything he does; he’s such a consummate performer. I particularly needed someone with a genuine warmth and he has that. He’s an amazing actor too. He is very easy to direct and the most important thing is that you care about Harris and Amandla’s characters together. You see them together, you want them to stay together, you want them to live happily ever after together – and that’s the backbone of our movie. It’s all about their relationship and the relationships they have with the other kids.”

 

Q: Can you discuss the other notable cast members?

“All the kids are great. Skylan Brooks plays Chubs; he has humor and wit, and he’s really smart. He’s like that in real life too. He’s got a great energy to him and he is also very genuine. Miya Cech is great as Zu. Patrick Gibson (who plays Clancy) is not a shabby actor either. He is so good! Nuanced is the word for him because you can focus on his face and see everything going on – wonderful little shapes and shifts of emotion. He’s really good!”

Mandy Moore plays Cate, a resistance leader. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Mandy Moore plays Cate, a resistance leader. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Q: Why did you cast Mandy Moore and Gwendoline Christie in prominent adult roles?

A: “Mandy Moore plays Cate, a resistance leader. She’s trying to protect the kids from being thrown into the camps, but she also has to be the face of warmth. She is the one adult who might be able to help Ruby. Mandy is a genuinely sweet person. I seek out nice people to work with because life’s too short not to do that. She resonates warmth and strength. Gwendoline portrays Lady Jane, a bounty hunter who chases and takes down the kids who escape from the government. Her goal is to take them back and get paid a bounty. She makes money off the scheme and is one scary lady. Her character is the malevolent force chasing after the children, and Gwendoline has great presence on-screen. She’s tall and powerful and scary in this film. Such a badass! But in real life, she’s the sweetest human being ever. She has a wonderful laugh and she’s fantastic. She was so game in the stunt scenes, being whipped around in the car, shooting out the window and doing a lot of crazy stuff.

The kids in The Darkest Minds need to stick together in order to survive. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

The kids in The Darkest Minds need to stick together in order to survive. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Q: How challenging was it directing the action, including the thrilling car chase?

A: “That car chase was awesome! It happens where Lady Jane finds the kids. She is running after the van with the kids in it and she’s being followed by Cate. So it’s a three-car chase scene. I have an amazing stunt supervisor, Jack Gill, who did THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies, so he’s got a little experience (laughs)! It was amazing to watch him coordinate the three cars zipping around. And they are real cars, not green-screen cars. That’s Gwendoline in a real car. There’s a guy on top of the car so she can focus on her performance, but she’s actually in the car while all this crazy stuff is happening. We destroyed several cars (laughs)! There’s one scene where the cars got a little close together and we were filming with Gwendoline’s car (she wasn’t in it at the time) and the front axle broke. They were fixing the car on the fly so they could go back to the set.”

 

Q: There are some nail-biting, frightening moments in the film. Are you not afraid of showing brutality and fear?

A: “There are scary elements to this movie and I strongly believe in contrast. You can’t create an uplifting emotion without also going into darkness. You can’t have people overcoming something if there’s nothing to overcome, and the kids have to go through things that are pretty brutal in order to show their strength and what they are able to overcome.”

 

Q: What sets the film apart do you think? 

A: “I think a lot of young adult franchises are very dystopian and focus on the darker side of things. I wanted to make sure this film was uplifting and positive. Despite adversity, you see the kids being strong and standing forward, trying to do something about their own situation. That empowerment, that uplift, and that encouragement are important and they were the things I wanted to get across. Ruby is insecure and scared and sees her own flaws, but to see someone take those unique things about themselves, accept them, and actually step forward and do something positive is great – I think that is a very good message for everyone.”

The Darkest Minds sports a diverse cast. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

The Darkest Minds sports a diverse cast. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Q: How important was it for you to have a diverse cast?

A: “It was very important and I think that started with the book. The book’s characters were diverse even though the diversity was never spoken about – it is just who they happen to be, and to the author that was important. When I spoke to her about it she was clear that we could add more diversity in our cast, but was adamant that we not ‘take any out.’ I totally believed in that, the studio believed in that and everyone was really excited about the diversity in the film. It’s a very diverse cast in that the lead actress, Amandla, is biracial, African American. We have another African American in Chubs, we have a Caucasian in Liam, we have an Asian in Zu, and we have me as the director, which is unusual I guess (laughs). Hopefully, it won’t be unusual for much longer. I think it will become quite normal and people will become bored with it… but that’s the future. The thing that’s really nice about the diversity is that it’s not highlighted. It’s just normal within the context of the story. The characters are who they are, they just happen to be diverse. That’s the way it should be. We see them as their characters rather than what they look like.”

 

Q: There are very strong female characters.

A: “Yes, I like the fact that there are female characters who are also just characters. I love the fact that they are empowered and interesting; they have flaws but ultimately we can see ourselves in these characters.”

 

Q: What do audiences have to look forward to with this movie?

A: “The film has an emotional heart. It’s like seeing a road trip with your best friends and having that sense of joy in the face of a lot of adversity. And there is a great love story between Ruby and Liam. I’m not going to give anything away, but that is why I signed on for the movie. And then you have an amazing cast of characters who are fun to watch. You want to see these kids together going on this crazy journey through all this madness. It’s a ride; it’s fun; it’s empowering. It’s a movie that won’t make you depressed. It will make you feel positive and uplifted.”

 

Q: You are so passionate about the film and your job. From an early age, did you have dreams of being a Hollywood director?

A: “I wanted to make movies when I was growing up. I love drawing, but drawing for me was always a means to get the movies that were in my head out of my head. I just never thought that being a director was ever an option for me, so I hadn’t even hoped to do this for a living. At one point on the shoot, I was standing on the side of the road watching cars zip by like crazy and squeal around, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a dream come true. It’s pretty cool,’ (laughs).”

This article was contributed by Twentieth Century Fox.

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