The original intent of 65 was always to give audiences a false sense of familiarity. A lonely astronaut in the far reaches of space, awakened from cryo-sleep by his ship’s computer; a crew of passengers endangered when they’re forced to land on a strange world; and the distant foreboding sound of something out there in the dark. As writer-directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods concede, it’s more or less the setup of Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi horror movie, Alien (1979). Only 65 has an added hook. Or perhaps it’s a claw.
“I get it, there’s aliens, we’ve seen this,” Woods says with a smile, recalling the effect they wanted the movie to have on audiences at the start. “But then those aliens and that planet turn out to be Earth during the age of dinosaurs.” Suddenly, you have a story of sci-fi desperation and survival that makes it look like Sigourney Weaver got off easy.
It’s a vivid departure from what audiences expect out of their science fiction and proverbial “dinosaur movies” in the 21st century. But that was the point since Beck and Woods have long looked for a new way to make a movie about these not-so-gentle giants.
65 marks the pair’s directorial debut, following up on their success of co-writing the original A Quiet Place, but the duo has been letting their minds wander toward the potential of dino-spectacle all their lives. Their appreciation for the eclectic subgenre goes back to the first blend of live-action and dinosaur special effects, the seminal The Lost World (1925), an adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel of the same name and a movie that introduced audiences to the SFX wizardry of Willis O’Brien (the future creator of King Kong’s stop-motion majesty). And since they grew up in the 1990s, first collaborating on projects at the age of 11 after the bell rang at their Iowa middle school, they also quite happily came of age in the afterglow of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), the proverbial King Kong of the modern era.
But while Spielberg’s seminal dinosaur epic has seen its story continue (for better or worse) through a continuing slew of sequels, Spielberg’s vision of dinosaurs has more or less been the last word on the subgenre for the last 30 years.
“That was a huge, huge influence on us growing up,” Woods says, “Jurassic Park is such a towering achievement that it’s almost scared off anyone in Hollywood from ever doing a dinosaur movie, which is a totally valid reaction to that movie. But at the same time as fans of dinosaurs and as fans of the subgenre of dinosaur movies, we kind of felt like there was a little something missing from the landscape.”
Beck later adds, “As much as we love Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, there’s a little bit of a safety net around the dinosaurs’ behavior. And for us, we’re transporting audiences back 65 million years ago. We want to make sure the raw predatory behavior of each of these dinosaurs makes it feel like the most suspenseful rollercoaster ride that you could possibly subject a character to.”
Hence the novelty of that original idea which the pair had about a decade and a half ago: What if the crew of the Nostromo in Alien (or at least a member of it) landed on Earth 65 million years ago? It gets away from dinosaurs in the modern day, and also skirts the idea of exploring time travel (another setup the pair felt “had been done before” and was perhaps one too many logic leaps for an audience). Instead, and like yet another ‘70s sci-fi touchstone, 65’s central characters come from an alien civilization that existed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… and they landed on an Earth that would’ve been far more inhospitable to a humanoid presence.
For example, one of the most immediate threats to the film’s visitors is dromaeosaurs, nasty three-foot tall creatures that would’ve been in the same family of carnivores as the velociraptor.
“We have the dromaeosaur in there as kind of like a facehugger [from Alien],” Beck says, “because they’re so small and nimble and can be everywhere.” Only these guys don’t need to reach your face to do incredible damage with their razor sharp teeth and claws. Their inclusion also gets back to the reason the filmmakers wanted to set the film during the late Cretaceous period—they could revisit some audience favorites like a Tyrannosaurus Rex (which definitely appears in 65) and raptors… but they’re unlike what you’ve seen before. Additionally, there are many less famous but equally lethal monsters out there in the wilderness.
“Scott and I talked a lot when we were writing this project about the Marianas Trench,” Woods explains, “and how every time they dive deep into the ocean, they discover new species of sea life. That’s amazing to us. When we think of it like that, there are alien creatures that live on this planet that we haven’t discovered yet.” So while the pair felt obligated to speak with paleontologists and ecological researchers about the late Cretaceous period, exploring the fossil records of that time, they also saw liberation to explore the gaps that exist in the fossil records. After all, it can help create just one more type of terror stalking the film’s terrified survivor.
Oscar-nominee Adam Driver is the actor who plays this poor fellow, a man named Mills. As a pseudo-space trucker, Mills reluctantly agreed to take a long transport voyage carrying colonists across the cosmos because his daughter (Chloe Coleman) is sick at home with a disease that creates expensive medical bills (so maybe not so alien a civilization from our own). However, when an unexpected brush with asteroid debris knocks Mills’ ship off course, he wakes up only in time for a brutal crash landing on Earth. In the aftermath, the only other survivor is a girl named Koa (Ariana Greenblatt), the child of would-be colonists who does not even speak the same language as Mills. But in a setting this visceral and dangerous, the only language needed is one of survival.
Says Beck, “We love the idea of pure cinema where you’re able to activate all the different tools of filmmaking and really fire on all cylinders to tell the story without the crutch of dialogue. [That’s what] we ultimately respond to when looking at a big screen: not needing anything but the sound design or the camera movement, or the music and the visual FX to get the ideas across.” They even hope to make a true silent film version of 65 for Blu-ray one day.
The duo have certainly had success before with that approach. Beck and Woods were famously the original screenwriters behind A Quiet Place, the 2018 phenomenon about aliens with hyper-sensitive hearing hunting humans like cattle. The draft of a screenplay that caught Platinum Dunes and John Krasinski’s eye was only 67 pages, and even then it was an unconventional 67 pages where different scenes or moments would use different fonts; and entire pages would consist of a single word of dialogue, emphasizing the deadly seriousness of an uttered syllable.
The 65 script used similar methods to grab the reader’s attention.
“To a certain degree, 65 was no different,” Beck says. “We played with some of the formatting; when we were in the cave, the text would invert and it would be white on a black background—just to get the feeling across at what the suspense or sound design might be intuited at that point.”
It made an impression on Driver, an actor not typically associated with high-concept genre fare despite playing Kylo Ren in the Star Wars movies. Just as well known, if not more so, for idiosyncratic character work in films like Marriage Story and The Last Duel, it was the actor’s bold character choices that made him a top pick to the 65 directors.
“Our hope was to find someone who is extremely expressive without having to say anything,” Woods explains, “because this movie was an exercise in not having a lot of dialogue, and we needed an actor who could speak volumes with just a look. And Adam also has an incredible physicality.” Driver, a former U.S. Marine, can do all his own stunts, yet he also is as concerned with Mills’ internal thought process. As he runs across a field to save Koa, it’s about conveying the epiphanies of a bereft father as opposed to looking cool or heroic. Driver also came in with his own ideas that, once again, takes everything back to the crew of the Nostromo.
According to Beck, during one of their earliest conversations with Driver, the actor said, “I think this guy is kind of like a character in Alien but he’s the Harry Dean Stanton type. He’s kind of the unassuming guy who can get shit done, but he’s not the main character; he’s just an ancillary character but who’s got such a three-dimensional quality.”
It’s definitely a fresh take on a sci-fi and dinosaur movie, and very in-keeping with Driver: Take inspiration from the dude who got chomped second. In a month of big Hollywood releases defined by sequels and spinoffs, it’s an original spin on an old favorite.
65opens only in theaters on Friday, March 10.