How the New Thriller Serenity Was Hatched on a Fishing Boat

Writer and director Steven Knight delves into the origins and production of his tricky crime drama Serenity.

Serenity Director Steven Knight and Star Matthew McConaughey
Aviron Pictures

Serenity is the kind of movie that you can’t talk too much about without getting into heavy spoiler territory, so suffice to say that the movie starts out as a sort of sun-bleached noir set on a beautiful, remote rock known as Plymouth Island. It is there that we meet Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), a charter fisherman obsessed with catching one fish — even at the expense of driving away customers — and just as haunted by the past that always seems to hang around the necks of guys like this.

Enter his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway), who arrives on the island with her brutish current spouse Frank and asks Baker — of course — to kill him, dangling millions of dollars and a somewhat more intimate reward in an initially reluctant Baker’s face. But when Baker learns that Frank has been abusing not just Karen but Baker’s son, his hesitation begins to melt away…and then the movie takes an abrupt, jarring left turn that turns everything you’ve been watching on its head.

Serenity is written and directed by Steven Knight, who’s known for writing both distinct crime films and character studies such as Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Pawn Sacrifice and 2014’s brilliant Locke, which he also directed, in which Tom Hardy spends the entire running time behind the wheel of a car (and keeps you riveted all the way). Knight has also created shows like Taboo and Peaky Blinders (both also featuring Hardy), with the latter getting ready to launch its fifth season.

Knight tackles the crime genre again with Serenity, until he takes his story into some unexpected territory, and we sat down with him recently to discuss the genesis of the film, some of the ideas behind it, the physical production and more. The conversation has been edited to remove spoiler material.

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Den of Geek: The idea for this actually came to you on a fishing boat.

Steven Knight: This was a few years ago, but I was on a fishing boat out of St. Lucia with a tuna boat captain. He was great and very accommodating. He brings you beer and he’s very polite until the fish gets on, and then he was obsessed. All that mattered was the fish. All that mattered was the fish. You didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

Captain Ahab.

Exactly. And I went out a couple of times with him and asked other people about him. He lives in paradise, but his only concern is the fish. So I started to build the back story. But at the same time, whenever I direct something, I direct it because I want to set myself a particular challenge. With Locke, I wanted to see if could make a film out of the most ordinary man in Britain with two kids, doing the most ordinary job with the most ordinary material, doing something very ordinary which is driving down a motorway. Could I, first of all, make that into a film? Second of all, almost in real time, could I change his life totally in that journey? So that was the thing.

With Serenity, I wanted to set up this conventional story, if you like, which was the fishing boat and the fisherman, which I think is part of the American tradition throughout American literature and movies where you have the drifter, the wanderer, the man, if it is a man, out of place with secrets that draws people in to find out why. That’s what I wanted Baker Dill to be…and then at the most inconvenient time in terms of conventional film structure, I wanted to destroy it all and take everything away, and break that.

Locke was filmed in a confined space. Did you maybe subconsciously want to follow that with a film set in a great open space, like the ocean?

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I’ve tried to make everything as different from the last thing as possible and also in terms of the people I work with. I’ve done two films in pretty cold, wet, horrible environments and I said, “The next film, I promise it will begin exterior, beach, day.” That was why I wanted to do something sunny.

Further Reading: Serenity Review

Is working on the water as difficult as people always say it is?

It is, but I decided very early on not to use green screen at all because I think there is a difference no matter how good it is. So everything on the boat is on the boat and the boat’s always on the water. We wanted the depth of the water to be a certain color, so we had to go far out. To do that, we took a big steel platform and anchored it, and so we worked off that which isn’t the nicest place to be in a hot afternoon. But it’s worth it because you get the genuine movements of the boat. You get the real light off the water. It’s a pain because the light keeps changing, but you just have to deal with it.

This is the third feature you’ve directed. You touched on the idea earlier that you’re selective when it comes to what you actually want to direct.

Maybe it’s just things that other people wouldn’t want to direct, but all three have been things I’ve written for myself to direct. I quite like the challenge of trying to set yourself up to do something, see if you can do it, see if you can make that work.

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You shot the movie in Mauritius, and this is the first full length feature film that’s been shot there.

Yeah. No one had been there before. We thought it’d be quite easy to find Paradise Island. It’s actually not. We tried a few and it didn’t quite work out. And then we went to Mauritius. It was as if, “Why have we been anywhere else?” Because the unreality of the place is sort of intrinsic. It’s had so many waves of immigration and different colonizations that you can point a camera one way and it can look like India. It can look like the Caribbean. It can look like Africa. It can look like colonial France. The mixture of the races is phenomenal and everybody sort of rubs along. You’ll see people in saris. You’ll see people in Western clothes. You’ll see people in African clothes. You never quite know where you are so it really fit what we were doing because it didn’t feel like part of any particular part of the Earth.

The movie takes some big creative risks. People go in thinking they’re watching one movie and it turns into another.

That’s the idea. I’m glad it’s a risk and I’m glad that it’s sort of difficult. And I think, for some reason, filmmaking attracts rules like no other form of art for obvious reasons because it’s expensive so people want certainty. But I quite like the idea that you can do something, but question the rules of it.

Further Reading: Top 10 Film Noirs

You’ve got season 5 of Peaky Blinders coming up, and I think you’ve said it’s going to go for seven.

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We’re just finishing filming (season 5). And yeah, it will run consecutive to the Second World War.

In England it’s won awards and it’s a big deal, but here it’s more of a cult item. Do you get the sense that it’s been growing here in the States as well?

The people from the States who are fans — I’ve had three hours with Snoop Dogg. Just before Christmas, A$AP Rocky came to visit to say how much he loved it. It’s across the board. Julia Roberts did an interview where she…there is a real, as you say, undercurrent of fandom for Peaky, which I think is just going to get bigger.

What can you say about season 5?

It’s set in 1929, 1930 and it begins with the Wall Street crash, and it’s the beginning of the rise of fascism.

How oddly relevant.

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There’s a character, Oswald Mosley, who was the head of the British fascists and I started going through his speeches. His project was called Britain First and he would start every speech with, “This is false news.” I swear to you. People think I’ve made that up and it’s not. He used to say, “This is false news. You can’t trust Jews who run the press.” Honestly, this is 1930, ’31. When I read it, I thought, “I can’t believe this.”

I see that you also did a draft of the World War Z sequel a while back. Are you still involved in that?

It’s the good old Hollywood system. You write a draft and then (you’re off the project). I hear that it’s close. That’s what I hear.

You write in a lot of different genres. Crime’s obviously a big one for you. Do you have any other favorites?

In truth, you have to write in a “genre” because otherwise it’s impossible to market something, but I like to think that there are ways of crossing over the genres and doing something that isn’t a genre. It’s just that story. But with film, it has to be shoved into a genre for some reason. It’s something I try and resist.

Serenity is out in theaters this Friday (January 25).

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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye