A Talk With Ryne Douglas Pearson
Knowing More About the Story
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Ryne Douglas Pearson, author and screenwriter behind the new sci-fi thriller Knowing.
Knowing is a film about a series of predictions found in buried in a time capsule that foretells every major disaster in the history of mankind including the imminent destruction of the world. Since its release it has created on online buzz and conversation regarding the deeper meanings behind the story and some of the spiritual connotations associated with it. I was given the chance to ask Pearson about what his intentions were when he came up with the story and how he and his team of writers developed a script that had some very apparent references to spirituality, the Bible and divine power in the universe. Here is his take on what was intended, what is inferred, and what is left open to interpretation.
Jeremy Zondlo: Hi, how are you doing today Ryne?
Ryne Douglas Pearson: Very good, very good!
JZ: Good! Alright, well let’s just jump right into the movie here. When I was watching Knowing I noticed some very clear spiritual ideas and themes and I was wondering what kind of a spiritual background you have and how that played into the development of this script in particular?
RDP: I’m Catholic, I was raised Catholic, but the interesting thing was I didn’t actually try and put those things as like a part of a message, I just asked myself a question: If a person was confronted with knowing that the end of the world was at hand, how would they act? How would that influence their belief on anything, you know? And you’ve seen the movie, correct?
JZ: Yes I have.
RDP: Then you know it’s that whole idea of the main character John who comes full circle at the end. You know, he starts out a person who has lost his faith because of losing his wife and is estranged from his father, and it’s a father/son story on two different levels here. At the end of the movie, after he’s made the greatest sacrifice by letting his son go, he returns to his father, and his father, in the most poignant scene in the movie and I didn’t even write it and I love it, he says, “This isn’t the end,” and Nicolas Cage says “I know”; and that’s sort of how he answers the whole medial meaning there, that he’s come through that journey and he understands now.
JZ: Was the apparent journey of John’s character from non-belief to belief, or belief in some type of power at work at the end, something that you intended to include?
RDP: Well, there’s, you know, the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s true. If you’re confronted with knowing you are going to die or knowing that everyone is going to die, I think the natural question is that you’re going to wonder what’s next.
JZ: Right. I noticed there is a reference to an afterlife and not being able to know for sure made very early on by John when he is having a conversation with his son Caleb. What is the significance of that knowing versus not knowing for you in particular?
RDP: Well for me in terms of the script and the movie, for him it’s the journey. I wonder, you know, because we’re starting from a place where he has in essence not lost his faith completely, just is completely unsure of how things could happen to this point with God. You know, how could he lose his wife? How could his son be left alone with him? And he’s starting at that point. So I wonder and question, what was he like before? Was he closer to his father? Did he have a relationship with God and had he lost that? And so from that point forward where we start the movie, you know, I’m anticipating that he’s sort of almost at the down side of the hill and is now going to have to climb the next hill to get back to where he wants to be or should be.
JZ: Can you describe what some of the spiritual symbolism in the movie was and if you intended some of the characters and some of the events to represent something more than what they at first appeared to be?
RDP: Well you know I’m one of three writers on this. You know Stiles White and Julia Snowden who worked on it also and did an amazing job, and Alex Proyas who was brilliant enough to put things in this movie that people are interpreting. They are interpreting it in many different ways, and I told the story where I was watching comments online that people who have seen the movie, people are saying about the black stones. Someone said, “Oh, I know what those are. Those are ‘seer stones’ which Joseph Smith used in Mormonism,” and someone else said, “No no no no no. That’s from Islamic scripture, the black stones.”
JZ: Right right, totally open for interpretation.
RDP: Well, I think that what Alex did here is he created something where the story is a message. He’s not trying to hit you over the head with a message, the story is a message and you can interpret so many different things in it. You know, someone pointed out something to me the other day which I didn’t see when I saw the movie and I’m probably going to go see it again tomorrow and I’m going to look for this. He said there’s a certain point when Nicolas Cage, after he’s let his son go and he’s laying in that field of stones, everything is wet. They said, “Oh, he was bathed, he was baptized, he’s cleansed now.” And I didn’t get that. I didn’t even see it! So that, I think, was one of the things that Alex did in this that just worked beautifully. He allowed people to find the meaning and find the things in it that they either wanted or needed to find.
JZ: Okay, that also kind of runs into my next question about the transformation of the whisper people near the end of the film. It was very ambiguous at first, it was like, okay, so now we’re going to aliens but then I was like, “Wait a minute, these look more like angels,” and kind of leading into that whole scene; so I was wondering if that was intentional or that was just kind of, we were supposed to draw from it what we could.
RDP: When I came out of the movie, you know I saw it on opening day with my wife, and we walked out and I said, “Did you see the wings?” And she said, “What wings?”
JZ: Oh really?
RDP: Yeah. And then her aunt later on called her and said, “Oh we loved the movie,” and [my wife] said, “Did you see the wings?” and she said, “What wings?” and her husband, my wife’s uncle said, “There were wings!” So at first I was thinking is this just a guy thing? Are we just seeing wings? But then she went back and saw it a second time and was like, “Yeah, they’re there.” But it is that nebulous enough to have you look and it and go, “Wait a minute… are those wings?” And then that created this debate online, which people are having, and one of the greatest exchanges online which was so hilarious that someone said “Oh, this makes no sense. You have angels there. Why do they need spaceships?” And then someone within about ten seconds answered, “Dude! Dude! The kids need a spaceship! They’re not angels. The only way for the angels to get them out of here is in a spaceship.” So I was thinking, here are people creating their own questions and their own answers.
JZ: And their own answers.
RDP: Yeah, I mean, you can’t ask for anything better than that as a writer that people are arguing about this.
JZ: Yeah, definitely. I noticed in the production notes that I believe it was the producers that had said that they wanted to create a movie that people would talk about after the movie was over, and for me this definitely did that. I was questioning, you know, what had happened and what the people that I was with thought had happened and all of that and so that was definitely done.
RDP: Well if you looked at it, we received scathing reviews, you know, in the week leading up to it. Just scathing! And then, you know, Roger Ebert came out with his highest rating and said, “You’re missing something here.” You guys all want intelligent science fiction, thoughtful movies; go see this movie. And what was interesting was actually as people started seeing it, the people who saw the movie had been giving it, you know, basically from a seventy/seventy-five percent, like, off the scale positive rating. And the other twenty/twenty-five percent hate it! And there’s a little bit in the middle, but the great thing is that seventy-five percent and the twenty-five percent are arguing about it. They’re discussing it and debating it! In fact there was a great quote online that someone put, you know, they put, “I’m an atheist, but for the first time in thirty years I opened my Bible to read Ezekiel.”
RDP: Because there was so much symbolism from Ezekiel in it. I mean, that’s neat.
JZ: That’s incredible! So, what do you think drives John’s quest throughout the movie like when he first gets that prediction and he starts to see that some of these things have come true; what is it that’s driving him to know more?
RDP: I mean his ultimate drive for anything is what any father would be: that I want to make sure that my son is safe. You know, and the need to understand first what is the scale of this and the scope of this. And then once he understands what the scale and scope is he almost takes the false belief that he can do something about it and prevent it. You know, maybe I can stop it. And then when it comes to that point where he realizes I can’t stop it and he’s confronted with that ultimate question of letting his son go, you know that’s the big question for him. But yeah, for the first part of the movie as he goes through it, [he wants to] just understand what it means, you know, which makes sense to someone who might not have fully embraced their faith at that point for him. You know, there’s allegories to not just this movie but to faith in general. If you don’t understand it and you’re not looking into it, it could be a mystery.
JZ: Right. So at one point in time John’s sister Grace questions his desire to know more about the impending disasters and the predictions of global end; so what’s your take on John’s desire to know, and if he will benefit from knowing or if he should just leave it alone and let the future run its course?
RDP: You know there’s the part where he tells his father, “Head to the caves,” try this, try anything and his father says, “No, I’m ready. I don’t need to. I’m ready for this.” And the same thing with the sister when she’s confronting him about trying, and [tells him to] just forget about it. But for him his journey is, he has to go there first. He has to. He has to satisfy his own need to know before he can make, like I said, that next great leap into making the sacrifice. And then acceptance. I don’t think he as a person could do that as a character without going that way, because he’s proactive in that sense he doesn’t want to just let anything happen. He wants to understand it first.
RDP: That, I think, comes from the character of who he is and a professor and everything such as that. But I think it also comes from a character as a personal standpoint. I mean this is someone who lost his wife in a tragedy that was predicted fifty years ago! He’s going to naturally want to go “How is this possible?”
JZ: Okay, now switching over to how the world actually ends in the movie, was the climate change and talk about current events and, you know, the environmental changes going on right now something you had included from the beginning and wanted to capitalize on in that particular way, or did that kind of just work its way in?
RDP: Well my original concept had a different sort of set up to that. It did have elements of something very bad was going to happen to the planet. But it wasn’t a sense of climate change, global warming, or anything like that, you know and even this was weird, you know; the solar flare was going to come, you know, whether you stopped driving oil based cars or not. You’re not going to control the sun.
RDP: So no, for me it was just sort of a processing that something really bad was coming. And I think Alex gave it the spectacle of here you get to see what it really is.
JZ: You get to see the end, and I thought that was a very poignant scene at the end when they are all together and I realized, you know, the title, Knowing: going in you think that it’s talking about knowing about these predictions and knowing that disaster is imminent and is coming, but it seemed like at the end that it was more about knowing what’s coming after the disaster.
RDP: Exactly. Yeah, if anything, because there’s been such a debate about not the end, but the end-end; you know, the little part after the end. Such a debate about, “Was that necessary? Do we really need to see the kids somewhere else?” Things like that. And I thought about it and I thought, “Would you really want to go to a movie and see everybody dead?” And even if they have embraced some sort of belief that things are going to be okay after, in an afterlife, are you going to feel okay not seeing some sense that things have gone on? Because you’re not going to see them after. You’ve got to see something else. And so I think that it was the right way to do it. And one of the things I point out has been if you notice that last little minute of the movie when the children are wherever they are, it’s like a painting. It doesn’t look like the rest of the movie. It’s ethereal, it’s like you’re wondering, is this real? Are they in another place? Is it heaven? Is it another planet? He created something that looks so different.
JZ: How did you feel about the tree? Did you think that it kind of pointed back to the beginning of mankind according to Bible?
RDP: Yeah, I don’t think that you could avoid that. I don’t think you could look at that and not take that away from it. In fact, someone had asked something about, “Well could there be a sequel to this movie?” And I said, well, you know the sequel was kind of already written a long time ago, if you think the end is a starting point. So yes, I think it’s fairly clear. You can interpret it a different way if you want. You know, that’s fine. You know [it’s what you can do], you can interpret it differently. But it’s beautiful.
JZ: It was. It was a very beautiful ending and definitely kept me talking. So going back to the beginning and starting all over again, do you think it’s like a cycle that’ll just continue to happen, that humanity continues to reinvent itself like that?
RDP: That’s an interesting question because that’s the front of the debate that people have been pointing out: so is this just a cycle? Is the symbolism of Ezekiel’s Wheel even bigger than that with the circular logic of it? Does this just happen over and over? Are we saved each time so we can start over? Has this been going on for longer than we know? That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. I mean that’s one of those questions with this movie that you can take from it.
JZ: And I noticed also in the end there, the kids had come in that spaceship looking thing, but there were other spaceships; so it kind of led to believing that maybe there were some other kids, some other fathers and some other parents that had been going through the same exact thing that John was going through. Was that something that you had intended to come out of the story?
RDP: Well, I didn’t write that part of it, but the interesting thing is in the very original version of my script the father, the Nicolas Cage character and his son, the Caleb character, their names were Adam and Noah.
JZ: Oh, really?
RDP: Yes, so when you look at that ending, there’s the very “ark” sort of stereotype to it, you can say the “two” is coming and these other ships are just part, and you don’t have a huge ark, you have lots of little ones, you know, things like that. There’s all these allegories to things you can see what you want in it.
JZ: Yes, definitely. There was so much that was open to interpretation and I think that’s one of the great things about it; and it sounds like people are doing exactly what was intended and they’re talking about it and kind of questioning what they believe in and I think that’s an important part of the film.
JZ: That’s a great part of going to see it. So how do you feel about that? I read also that the pitch was just originally an idea about a time capsule and it containing predictions of the future that were true. So how do you feel about the journey that the film took to being so highly spiritually charged?
RDP: I’m 100% pleased. As a writer, especially as a screenwriter and not a novelist also, with your novels you know you’re the god of your own universes, I think; and as a screenwriter you let go. It’s going to be interpreted. It’s going interpreted by other writers, it’s going to be interpreted by a director, and now it’s being interpreted by the audience. That’s what film is, you can’t hang on to anything too tight. I’m just glad that it turned out the way it did.
JZ: Yeah, it’s a really good dialogue. Okay, let’s talk about the whisper people, about those beings, especially the dream sequence that Caleb has towards the middle of the movie. Was this like a prophetic vision that he was having, or was it something that he really did see or was it just something like a dream that had been placed into his mind?
RDP: I believe that he was being given that vision because in that scene before, one of the whisper people points to him and then points to the window and he goes there and sees this apocalyptic vision, so I believe that that was given to him at that point and you can interpret it different ways, I think; but I think it’s pretty clear that that was something that was given to him. And at that point I think it was also to… I don’t want to say convince, because for a child it’s not a question of convincing; but I think it’s more for, after that he starts scratching and writing in the desk if you remember: he’s also carrying on what Lucinda wasn’t able to finish. She was never able to finish after she wrote the last things of what that last coordinates were, where people were supposed to go, so I think he was being in essence given what Lucinda had been given. Show them the future, give them the information and then at the desk, what is he doing, he’s writing it down.
JZ: So is that something that was just intended only for him? Especially with the coordinates, that piece of paper that was in the time capsule was something that was kind of meant for everybody to see and if she had finished then everybody would have known and had that opportunity. And yet when John goes there, he’s not able to go with his children, so was it something that was kind of like a predestination just for those children?
RDP: I think what’s interesting is that Lucinda was never able to finish that; maybe that was meant to be, that she was not meant to finish it. That there was a higher order to things, that it was not meant for everybody. There’s even the scene near the end when, “Only the ones who’ve heard, only the chosen ones, can go, only the ones who’ve heard the call.” You know that fits in to that, so maybe when the teacher grabs and pulls the paper from Lucinda before she’s done, that’s what it was suppose to be.
JZ: That was the way it was meant to be. Did you write that?
RDP: I didn’t, what I wrote was similar to that, it wasn’t the exact thing, but it was very similar to her writing it and such, yes. In the movie, in my version of it, the father is the one who sees the apocalyptic vision in a dream. The whisper people are similar; but it’s not that they don’t say anything, but they are giving things that are going to be necessary to the young boy.
JZ: Okay, so what kind of power do they have? Is there power to put things in people’s minds? Are they angelic beings?
RDP: Well, one of the questions that had come out this movie, which goes back to everything when you talk about God, is the idea of free will. These people are not going to grab you, throw you in a spaceship, and kidnap you. People have to come to their own choice. And it’s the same thing there at the end when Nicolas Cage is saying to his son, you have to go with them, this is the right choice, you have to go. And Caleb has to choose! He can turn around and say, “No I’m staying!” And it comes down to the idea of free will. There’s always the discussion of why God would let this happen? Well, it’s part of the natural order of what’s going to happen physically with the sun. But you know, free will entails we can make the decisions that we need to make to let someone go like Nic Cage lets his son go, to reunite with our family like he does with his father. That’s a big question.
JZ: Yeah, especially when John says it’s chosen for some people and I’m not meant to do this; I mean, that seemed like it was pulled directly from the Bible in particular.
RDP: Well, like I said, there’s things in this movie that people are still pointing out to me that I didn’t see. Apparently there’s some scene which I didn’t see, where’s there’s a van with Scripture written on it.
JZ: Yes, I did notice that at the end.
RDP: You know, I didn’t notice it and someone said, “No, it’s there. You gotta go see it.” So I mean, I don’t know any other brilliance you could do that Alex did that put these things in there that allow people to find them when they find them and not beating them over the head with it!
JZ: You know, that’s one of the conversations that I noticed had come up after seeing the movie was there was really no definite explanation of how things were and what the meaning behind things was because I think people are more willing to accept things like that when they come to that conclusion by themselves. It seemed like the idea was to just give the impression that those things were there, so it’s interesting to see that that was kind of the intention.
RDP: If you make this that way, Nicolas Cage finds some laser beam and saves the earth. I mean that would be the traditional ending to a movie like this, but Alex took it in a bold direction and I think was right to do it.
JZ: So that kind of fit in with the original intention.
JZ: That’s very interesting. Okay, one more question. Let’s talk about John’s relationship with his father, especially the end part where they come together again. What was the inspiration for that? And did it come from a personal place, as far as being reunited with his family and finally making that decision to give his dad and call and kind of ending the movie together?
RDP: You know, since I didn’t write that scene, I can speak to it from a place of actually having read it before and seen it and I think that that was just, you know, you have to go there. You have to allow Nicolas, the Nicolas Cage character John, to go to that place. You can’t leave him grieving that he’s given up his son. You have to give him something back. And so by going there, he’s just released the thing that’s most meaningful in the world to him. And he’s going back and it’s like trying to refill the glass a little bit, getting those last moments with his father and his family and giving him something, some sort of peace at that last moment where then it comes to that; like I said, the “This isn’t the end,” and he says, “I know.”
JZ: I know. That’s it.
RDP: That answers the movie.
JZ: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for your time. I was really interested to talk with you about this because of all of the symbolism; I mean, my mind was just spinning after the movie, it was so unexpected. I had so much to think about afterward, so I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about it with me today.
RDP: My pleasure; and thank you for your interest in the movie. I do appreciate it.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Jeremy spoke over the phone with Mr. Pearson.
This interview also appeared at Hollywood Jesus.