Chariot director shares the joys of small-scale sci-fi with big ideas


Premiering in theaters, on demand and digital on April 15 Tank clearly shows that life does not get easier after death. A psychological thriller with a sci-fi edge, Tank finds a reincarnated Harrison (Thomas Mann) who is experiencing strange recurring dreams that seem to date back to his childhood. Harrison takes up residence in a run-down old hotel filled with strange people struggling with various conditions while seeking out specialist Dr. Karn (John Malkovich) for treatment. The good doctor has his own agenda, however, and becomes determined to fix Harrison before it’s too late. Even stranger is Harrison’s encounter with a woman, the one he loved in a past life.

Tank’Director Adam Sigal spoke to CBR about creating high-level sci-fi, the meaning of dreams, and working with John Malkovich.

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RBC: Tank is this character-driven drama with sci-fi elements. Where did the idea come from?

Adam Sigall: From my desire to tell a conceptual sci-fi story on a small scale. It’s one of my favorite subgenres, science fiction but not star wars. Something more like Primer and something on a smaller scale where you get people thinking about these big ideas, but not doing it in a very obvious way.

With Tank, it was death. I wanted to write a story about death and these weird concepts about what might happen after you die and [open] this idea that maybe there’s something else out there. Not that I’m defending what I’m portraying in the film, just the idea that maybe there’s something else we haven’t discovered yet.

What does the title of the film refer to?

It’s from a poem by Emily Dickinson called Carriage. It is about death. The poem is actually depicted at the beginning of the film. Hopefully people will see this because a lot of people asked during development and production.

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Introduce us to the main character, Harrison. Who is he and where do we meet him in the story?

Harrison arrives fairly quickly. He’s a guy who has a recurring dream. This is how the story is introduced. He has a recurring dream about something trivial. It’s something that stings the larger concept. He remembers something he’s not supposed to remember from a previous life. This is the basic concept.

Why are dreams such a great storytelling tool?

There is a line that I cut from the film. It was by John Malkovich. This was one of my favorite lines about dreams. The concept of dreams fascinates me so much. It’s as if our brain created this movie for us, then made us believe it was real, then knew it wasn’t. It’s such a strange event. Whenever there is a concept that is outside of our realm of reality, it seems like dreams would be the best way to represent it.

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Harrison is oblivious to what is happening to him. He suffers from “a glitch in the system”. What does that mean exactly? What kind of rabbit hole does that send him down?

What happens in the film is that he always has this recurring dream. He just watches his mother cook and then walks over to talk to his father. What is strange is that there is an attic in his dream, and there is a string hanging from this attic. There was no attic in her childhood home. He is adamant that was not the case. He went back there, and he walked down that hall, and there’s no attic there. For some reason in his dream there is an attic.

If the central premise of Tank is that these two souls or beings keep coming together, life after life, and they’re not supposed to… It’s not supposed to happen, they’re not supposed to remember… It’s somehow so the way he enters this, is through this attic of his childhood home that wasn’t actually there in his dream. That’s the purpose of it. It is the storytelling device that accomplishes this.

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Thomas Mann plays Harrison. What is the halloween kills actor bring to the table?

Thomas is a serious actor. He is very funny and he is very good at reacting. Basically, Thomas plays straight, surrounded by a bunch of crazy people. He was perfect in that regard, in that he’s personal and emotional, but he also reacts a lot to these other weird characters. He plays the audience, basically. He is like the character of Han Solo.

John “frightened” Malkovich stars in this film. How did that happen and what surprised you about him?

He was introduced to me through a friend. He liked the script, and it was a very simple thing. He just said, “I loved that script. I’m doing this movie.” I said, “OK. Let’s talk to your agent and make an offer.” He said, “No, no. It’s okay. Just book my trip. I’m doing it.” I was like, “OK. Sounds good.” Sure enough, he came and did the movie, and it was fantastic.

As for what surprised me, it wasn’t a surprise, but I had heard it could be difficult. You never know what you’re going to get with some of these older actors, who have been around forever, and they’re making a movie with a newer director. It was an absolute dream to work with him – so nice, so professional, the opposite of difficult. Everyone loved him. He offered suggestions, but then stuck to the vision. He was just an awesome guy. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Make movies with John Malkovich.

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Chariot of the ending was very metaphysical. What did you want him to say?

Basically [it’s] what I mentioned earlier, i.e. [that] I like the idea that it continues, that there is something else beyond that. The idea is perhaps that we have not yet understood death. This is one of the last things we haven’t solved, but there could be more. Honestly, I just wanted to give the impression that it continues, that there could be more there. Life will continue in various forms.

A single element of Tank is its structure. What was the importance of dividing the story into chapters?

It was very late in the game. It was honestly such a weird and not typically structured movie. It was the only concession I would make to help people understand what the movie was about.

Written and directed by Adam Sigal, Chariot stars John Malkovich, Thomas Mann, Rosa Salazar, Shane West, Scout Taylor Compton and Vernon Davis and hits theaters April 15.

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