For a short story that runs just 30-odd pages, George Saunders’ Escape from Spiderhead packs a flood of big provocations.
Set in a semi-dystopian prison lab where inmates swap time left to serve for experimental drug trials that test their perception, mental fortitude and, well, libido, the story – first published in The New Yorker in 2010 and later collected in Saunders’ bestselling 2013 short story collection Tenth of December – satirically rubs against the prison rehabilitation system, our pharmaceutical dependence, science scepticism and biblical redemption across its flighty length.
It’s now been expanded into a Netflix film by director Joe Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool), who lend an engaging, if silly, popcorn vibe to Saunders’ more ethically loaded considerations. Kosinski’s deft world-building transforms the story into a fun dystopian thriller, one where ’70s and ’80s yacht rock from the likes of The Doobie Brothers and Hall & Oates takes on a sinister mood.
For Chris Hemsworth, best known to cinemagoers as Thor, it’s a slight screen departure. He stars as Steve Abnesti, the ethically loose, smarmy, mad scientist playing god with Spiderhead inmates Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). At one point, dressed like your classic tech-world Ted Talk-er, he indulges in a drugged-up dance sequence to Roxy Music’s More Than This.
“I saw a highly intelligent, intellectual, self-driven person with a huge ego and a great lack in social etiquette – no filter and an inability to feel empathy – so there was a mash-up of ideas and personality traits that I thought would be really fun to play with,” Hemsworth says of the character from his Sydney hotel room while on a 24-hour break from shooting George Miller’s Mad Max prequel Furiosa in Broken Hill.
“He’s lured people into a place of trust and been able to manipulate them because he understands human behaviour; he understands how to navigate the chessboard of life, so to speak. He’s unpredictable, and every time I read the script I kept seeing different angles on how to play things.”
Hemsworth says he delved into “tech entrepreneurs, politicians, and dictators throughout history” to help shape his performance, looking at “what is the sort of running trait they all have that gave them the ability to amass a following and convince people that what they were doing was actually for the betterment of mankind?” But the question of free will in Saunders’ story particularly grabbed his interest.
“It’s this idea of are we, or should we be, left to our own devices? Do we need an outside influence to intervene and save us from ourselves? Abnesti, he believes it’s him, that he’s going to play god to save millions of lives - which is often the argument from many individuals who end up doing great harm,” Hemsworth says. “Now, whether he does truly believe he’s going to change the world or it’s all driven out of ego is up to the audience’s interpretation, and that’s what’s fun about [the movie].”
Filmed mid-pandemic on the Gold Coast and in the Whitsundays – a backdrop that lends Spiderhead Penitentiary a unique look, like a tropical Alcatraz – Spiderhead was initially supposed to shoot in the US, but moved to Australia after Hemsworth’s insistence. It’s a common request at this point in his career.
“The last three or four films I’ve done were supposed to shoot in Atlanta or the UK, and I said, ‘I’m not doing it unless it shoots here.’ I’ve said that a few times, and sometimes it goes in my favour and sometimes not, and that’s when I’ll see one of those other Chrises off in the role up in the UK or somewhere,” laughs Hemsworth.
“This was, I think, going to shoot in Atlanta, and I said: ‘Look, I really don’t want to leave home right now, I love shooting here, we have such brilliant crew and cast and talent to use, and locations…’ To the credit of Netflix and the production team, they pivoted and built the sets in Queensland, turned the [Gold Coast] Convention Centre into a studio, and we shot the film in five weeks or something, which is unheard of for a film of this size.”
It shows the industry sway afforded to the Melbourne-born Hemsworth, 38, as an A-list drawcard who’s proved his pull in some of cinema’s biggest blockbusters (Marvel’s Avengers series features three entries in the current top 10 list of all-time highest-grossing films). That’s some useful Hollywood power.
“It’s not so much power as much as it’s, like, I’m willing for them to move on from me, you know? Which they have done many, many times,” Hemsworth laughs.
“I just prefer to be here; I’ve got three young kids and I love being here. I’ve travelled so much over the last few years and loved it, but this is my home. And half the time I see so many Australian crew members on sets overseas, and everyone’s saying the same thing: ‘Why couldn’t we have shot this back home?’ I feel thankful to be able to have an opinion in it, and that it’s worked out a few times the last few years.”
During a virtual tour of the Spiderhead set early last year, director Kosinski – whose Top Gun: Maverick had by then already seen its release delayed over two years, as studio Paramount waited for movie theatres to reopen after COVID– spoke of taking on the Netflix film as a quick, secure proposition: with streaming, it was at least guaranteed a timely release. (To be fair to Paramount’s thinking, Top Gun: Maverick has gone on to blow up box offices to the tune of $US750 million and counting since it finally came out in late May).
Working with Netflix, Spiderhead was made on a comparatively frugal budget and schedule; on Top Gun he could spend a full day looking for 10 seconds of great footage, said Kosinski, whereas on Spiderhead they were shooting five or six pages a day.
It’s a world Hemsworth, who also served as a producer on Spiderhead, knows well. He and his wife Elsa Pataky have become Netflix royalty, and their duel successes Extraction (2020) and Interceptor (2022) have won big viewerships on the streamer. His relationship with Netflix is mutually beneficial, says Hemsworth.
“Being a part of the Marvel Universe and superhero films, it helped bring out big audiences, but it also meant people only wanted to see those types of films at the cinemas. And so you had those in-between films, the smaller budget films, being left behind in this space of uncertainty,” he explains.
“I think streaming platforms, like Netflix, gave an environment for those films to be made and funding for those types of stories – films like this, films like Interceptor, that are done on smaller budgets and are more character-driven. But [Netflix] can also make big popcorn films as well, and I think they’ve done an incredible job at having such an array of content.”
With its current struggles, perhaps not for long. After Netflix took a subscriber and reputational plunge this year, The Hollywood Reporter suggested the streamer would be ending its big-budget push of giving a blank cheque to auteurs like Martin Scorsese to make “passion projects” like The Irishman. Hemsworth isn’t buying such reports.
“I don’t know, I have a couple of things I’m doing with them that are big-budget films, so, you know, they haven’t stopped yet,” he smirks. “Whatever the model is, I think as many different spaces and platforms that exist where we can continue to tell stories is such a bonus, and on any level – whether it be, ‘OK, we’re only making films at the $10-$20 million range versus the $20-$50 or $50-$150,’ or whatever – it’s fantastic.
“Because there was a period recently when there was a lot of uncertainty in the film industry, about, ‘How much work is there now?’ and ‘Are we making films any more?’ And that’s what’s been so great about working at home and talking to crew that have worked here for 40 years. There was a real dip in production, and now it feels like it’s reinvigorated and there’s another life to it. So it’s all positive.”
Spiderhead premieres on Netflix on June 17.