A quick glance at Shawn Levy’s filmography reveals the producer-director’s lifelong passion for science fiction—he’s been involved in some of the most influential sci-fi titles of recent years, including 2016’s Academy Award–nominated Arrival and the Netflix runaway hit Stranger Things. Levy’s latest sci-fi project, the big-screen adaptation of the young-adult novel series The Darkest Minds, will be making its way to theaters later this year. The Darkest Minds tells the story of the survivors of a mysterious disease that wipes out an entire generation of young people in a not-too-distant dystopic future. Those survivors emerge from the crisis with rare superpowers, becoming dangerous targets of a government that sees them as a threat to the status quo. Boxoffice spoke with Levy about his involvement in the project—and why he believes its themes are especially timely.
How did you come across this project?
I first became aware of this as an unpublished novel. This was a book in galley form that my company and I found roughly seven years ago, written by a young female novelist named Alexandra Bracken. The ideas in this book were truly compelling. It was a story about a world in which most kids have perished from a mysterious disease. Those young people who do survive are changed. The story is about this group of kids and adolescents, led by Ruby (Amandla Stenberg), who come to terms with their powers. But more importantly, they come to recognize and embrace their powers. The idea of young people in an adult world that has let them down was compelling to me seven years ago, and yet here it is phenomenally timely in 2018. It’s almost uncanny how topical and timely it feels in our current world. I optioned the book; I then sat back and saw the book become a best seller. We developed a screenplay, we found just the right director and cast, and here we are.
How did the production team come together to make this movie a reality?
Once we had a script that we felt strongly about, we knew that we wanted a director with strong visual instincts. Also someone who could tell this female protagonist hero’s journey in an emotional and rousing way. We met with a number of filmmakers, but Jen Nelson—who had never made a live-action picture—came in with such a strong vision that we knew she was the one. Jen is a really thoughtful and perceptive human being. She has an animation background that gives her an incredibly evolved visual instinct. We began the casting process with Jen. We always knew that we wanted the cast to reflect the diversity of our country and our world. We’ve ended up with this multicultural ensemble, with an African American female heroine, directed by an Asian American woman, and characters who are African American and Asian American and Caucasian and British. I like the fact that there’s no uniformity to how people are represented in Darkest Minds. It’s as varied as our world.
When I look at all these choices over seven years, it’s uncanny to me that we have a film about the power of young people rising up, led by and created by female creative voices, manifested with a multicultural cast of actors. It all feels like somehow we stumbled into choices that anticipated a cultural moment that we didn’t even know would exist. So it’s really taken us aback, how this movie which has gestated for over half a dozen years has come together in exactly the right way in this moment.
As a producer, why do you believe it’s important to bring out fresh, original, diverse voices, both on and behind the camera?
I feel like for a long, long time we’ve had one kind of voice and vision telling stories of how human life is. I just feel like when we as an audience fail to see ourselves and those like us on-screen, it has this accruing feeling of exclusion. That’s not right; that’s not compelling entertainment. What I’ve tried to do, especially lately with our film Arrival, our show Stranger Things, and our movie Darkest Minds, is two things. One: to pair character-anchored storytelling with genre like sci-fi, so all three of those things fall into that kind of overlapping description. Also to question the presumption that science fiction and genre stories have a white male protagonist. It was never a question that Arrival was going to star a female linguist and academic, or that Stranger Things is in many ways a kind of love story to the marginalized and the weird. Darkest Minds is similarly about diverse young people who have been kept quiet because their voices and their power were feared by the adult world.
I, for one, raising four daughters, am thrilled that from Black Panther to Get Out to Wonder Woman we are seeing popcorn entertainment undermine those long-standing assumptions about whose story it is. It should be everybody’s story. And I’m trying to be one of those storytellers.
You’ve ushered in hits for both home entertainment and theatrical exhibition. Why does Darkest Minds belong on the big screen?
You know, it is interesting that although I’ve got a career-defining phenomenon at Netflix with Stranger Things, I am a popcorn-and-movie-theater kind of filmmaker. I always have been; I always will be. There is a communal and collective experience that does not happen in our living rooms and bedrooms that I value immensely. There’s also the sheer scale of picture and sound that does justice to us as filmmakers in a way that laptops and phones can’t.
Darkest Minds is rich in ideas, but it’s equally rich in spectacle and action and visual effects. To experience those visual aspects of a film, one needs to be in a proper movie theater. While I know the world is changing, I certainly remain committed to that movie theater experience. I continue to make—and hope to keep making—stories that merit that big-screen, big-theater experience.
How did you settle on the look of Darkest Minds?
We wanted to avoid the gunmetal-gray desaturation of other YA [young adult] dystopian franchises. Darkest Minds is largely set in the natural world, not some futuristic monolithic urban setting. So the presence of nature, the presence of color, and the use of varied and saturated hues was always very important to Jen. Not only as a motif, because these kids have their powers categorized based on color, but in the storytelling style, which is rich in color and vista.