In late October 2022 at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, actress Sofia Boutella is having an unexpectedly full circle kind of day. Just 14 months ago on the very same soundstage, Boutella had her in-person screen test with director Zack Snyder and his wife/producer Deborah Snyder for the lead role of Kora in their Netflix sci-fi, fantasy epic, Rebel Moon. Flash-forward to today, and she’s pushing through the latter days of a marathon, 152-day production shoot, battling actor Ed Skrein on a dramatically canted, green screen stage that VFX will eventually turn into the Brutalist surface of a Dreadnaught battleship.
Taking place in an original sci-fi world born from Snyder’s brain more than decades ago when he was still a student at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design, the Dreadnaughts are the enforcement ships of the oppressive Mother World empire. As the ruling entity in the galaxy, the Imperium maintains the bulk of the wealth, the political power and a military might to enforce its whims. No species wants to see a Dreadnaught thunder up to their planet’s atmosphere because the naval class vessels carry enough soldiers, equipment, and artillery to reduce any planet to ash.
Boutella’s Kora used to be part of that totalitarian mess, but she escaped in her ill-gotten ship and has been hiding out on the remote agrarian moon, Veldt. She’s slipped into a peaceful, rural life but then the Imperium arrives to demand the locals give them their future harvest, and their right to cherry-pick whomever of their people they want to take with them. The hubris and unfairness of it all prompt Kora to talk Gunnar (Michiel Huisman), a smart but naive wheat farmer, into helping his people make a plan to fight back before the Mother World returns and decimates their idyllic world.
She knows what the Imperium will do to these good people because Kora used to do their bidding and she’s not interested in furthering the Mother World’s agenda anymore. What she can do is take her knowledge, Gunnar, mercenary pilot Kai (Charlie Hunnam) and his ship on a recruitment mission to find the galaxy’s dirtiest fighters to help them pull off their impending stand. They’ll collect former Imperium General Titus (Djimon Hounso); fighter and comic relief, Tarak (Staz Nair); Mech swordmaster, Nemesis (Doona Bae); sibling insurgents Darrian and Devra (Ray Fisher and Cleopatra Coleman) and revenge-seeking Milius (E. Duffy).
During a break from blocking this slippery fight scene, Snyder tells IGN that at its heart, Rebel Moon is a “straightforward, good versus evil, few against many” kind of concept. “It’s also very much clear with its morality, who’s good and who’s bad. We don’t do a lot of the Imperium is misunderstood,” the director jokes with mock air quotes.
In fact, the Mother World has a long lineage of unleashing its particular brand of enforced acquisition across the galaxy. “The old king was much more of a straight-up imperialist,” Snyder teases about the deep world-building he’s constructed in his head about every aspect of this world. “But now, the Regent Balisarius [played by Fra Fee] is much more like a dictator. He’d be happy to raze a planet just for its natural resources rather than land and see what the people are like. The modern Imperium is much more aggressive. It was aggressive, and now it’s worse.”
One of the Regent’s most feared enforcers is that big guy trying to thwart Kora as they scrabble on the battleship surface, Skrein’s Admiral Noble. Typically possessing the jackbooted silhouette of a Nazi Gestapo officer, it’s safe to say that despite the name, Noble is anything but.
Of his character, Skrein offers, “When we meet Noble, we meet a man with an incredible amount of military power and might, with an arsenal behind him. When I read the script, I said, ‘This guy’s a dream role. I understand this and I’m built for this.’ If you’re gonna step on the big stage, Noble is the one.”
Assessing what makes Noble tick, Skrein says there’s a “self-motivation” and a “sadism” inherent to the man in the way he carries out his duties for the Mother World. “As much as the military might of the Mother World is harsh and brutal and oppressive, he is cool and sadistic and that’s on him. And me,” the actor laughs.
Typically found in more art house fare, Skrein dips into more mainstream work when something worthwhile presents itself, like playing Ajax in Deadpool or Zapan in Alita: Battle Angel. After reading the script, and having Snyder explain Noble’s arc, Skrein saw Rebel Moon as a modern “Star Wars with sex, violence and swearing.” And that was enough for him to say, “Sign me up!”
Why? “Because in this age where we’re not making new IP so much, it is such a privilege to be a part of new world building,” the actor explains of his interest. “Also, as someone whose taste is so much more in the subversive, underground arts, to be part of a commercial behemoth such as this with such subversive tendencies, it was just a mouthwatering prospect.”
Noble also gets a delicious, intense antagonism with his current scene partner, Kora. “She’s not a respected adversary in the slightest,” Skrein says of his character’s measure of her. “She begins as a prize bounty, simply that. As it becomes more complicated in bringing that bounty in, it becomes very, very personal.”
The Origin of Rebel Moon
When lunch is called, Snyder settles in with IGN and a few select outlets to unwind the origins of Rebel Moon. A rare pre-Deborah Snyder project, the director says Rebel Moon was initially the answer to an assignment, which was to pitch an original movie idea. Snyder remembers asking his professor’s opinion about The Dirty Dozen in space, or an ensemble movie like Seven Samurai in space. “He was like, “That’s a pretty good pitch.” So, Snyder kept working on it post-graduation, and even tried to sell it as a video game and then as a movie at Warner Bros. a couple times. But no dice.
He even pitched Kathleen Kennedy the bones of the premise as his own, standalone Star Wars trilogy, but then Lucasfilm got sold to The Walt Disney Company and the conversations died. All toll, it took 21-years for Rebel Moon to get greenlit as part of the Snyder’s first-look development deal at Netflix. And since, it’s morphed into two separate films (Part I releases December 22 and Part II in 2024), with PG-13 versions and then R-rated cuts to come after. If audiences respond positively, then the intention is a Star Wars or MCU-esque universe with more movies and spin-off series.
While much has been said in the press already about Rebel Moon’s Star Wars ties, Snyder is gently adamant that untethered from the yoke of Star Wars mythology and constrictions, the films are now very much their own thing, possessing just some basic allusions to George Lucas’ world.
“I don’t think you can make a sci-fi movie now that’s not going to be compared to a Star Wars movie in some way,” Snyder says pragmatically. “And I do welcome [it], and I’m happy to discuss its place, or where it will end up in popular culture in regards to the legacy of Star Wars.”
Snyder says the comparisons are unavoidable because Star Wars still possesses the lion’s share of creative thinking when it comes to audiences who still adore it. “It’s a rare thing because the Star Wars fan base basically aged with the movies and then had children that then also became fans of the movie and their children had children who became fans of the movie. I understand the love of it and how canonized it is and actually how immobile it is. Which is probably why I’m here now doing it the way I’m doing it, because we really have no rules except for the ones we make.”
A Flawed Savior
Later, Snyder relaxes on a woven beach chair behind the video village monitors. He watches Boutella and Skrein, and their stunt doubles, wallop the hell out of each other, each set precariously balanced at odd angles. Even this deep into a grueling, COVID protocol-filled production, Snyder is calm. All of his director’s notes are delivered up to the performers with mostly blocking adjustments for the camera.
During adjustments, Boutella either hooks herself up at the top of the sky high set, or she slides down to see it from the video monitors. Back in the early days of her career, Boutella was a hip-hop and street dancer who transitioned to appearing in videos and then as a tour dancer for artists like Madonna and Rihanna. She goes back to those days in terms of qualifying how rigorous it’s been. “This is the hardest project that I’m doing since I was dancing on tour,” she confirms. “The closest in terms of intensity and length and I suppose pace, also. But I wanted my next project, if it was physical again from the previous ones that I’ve done, I wanted it to be special and meaningful, and this could not have been better.”
Snyder is clearly impressed at her stamina, filming two movies back-to-back where she’s the lead character in both. But he says her screen presence was clear right from the first tape auditions. “The funny thing is that the fact that Sofia’s really physical, understands and has done an amazing job with the fights—and pretty much everything in the movie—is a little side benefit for me,” he shares conspiratorially. “If she was the most uncoordinated person in the world, I would’ve put her in the movie. It turned out that she’s actually quite coordinated, and thank God because it would’ve been really hard to do. So thank you for that,” he says to her.
Asked her thoughts on playing Kora, Boutella is honest in appraising that she’s not going to have a clear perspective on her until they wrap and she gets some distance from her considering how long they’ve been grinding to get the movies done. But she does share that there are commonalities she found between herself and the character.
“I was born in Algeria and Kora is found on another planet that’s not her home. I was not abducted, but my roots are not necessarily where I live and not where I grew up, and not where I was born. I can relate to that,” she explains. “There’s a sense of freedom to that aspect, but also a sense that home is everywhere, but not specifically somewhere. That was very relatable for me. And then not to be dramatic, but there was a civil war growing up in my country. Not that it was as dangerous as an actual war, but I grew up in that environment. It’s lodged somewhere in me and I felt that.” She also sees Kora as very “human” which doesn’t make her an obvious hero. “There are some downfalls to her and some bad choices that she’s made that makes her human.”
With the sun now setting over the studios, Snyder and his cast and crew continue their march towards a wrap day on the near horizon. With another cinematic universe perhaps being born in these seven months of creation, Snyder is optimistic audiences will embrace Rebel Moon as tightly as what he did before with 300 and the DCEU.
“This is a movie that even in its concept, would beg for a follow-up, regardless of whether you made one, only because the Imperium is ridiculously huge,” he says of its future prospects beyond the resolutions in Part II. “There’s a sci-fi weirdness that I love, where everything’s just not that straightforward, and it’s like a million mysteries, a lot of questions. We’ve gone down a lot of rabbit holes with all these little details throughout the film. And I’ve done little back stories, and we’ve been talking about doing comic books and some other stuff, to take you on these little tangents, because I do that all the time. I think it’s just cool… I can’t help myself.”
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Rebel Moon Part 1: A Child of Fire will be available December 22, 2023 on Netflix. Rebel Moon Part 2: The Scargiver launches on Netflix on April 19, 2024.