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Awake Interview: Director Mark Raso

I got the chance to talk to Mark Raso, the co-writer/director of the new Netflix end-of-the-world drama AWAKE, and it was an enlightening conversation about how this project came together. From co-writing the film with his brother Joseph to choosing specific visual cues to set his film apart from other dystopian movies, Raso has a deep passion for the project and it's clear that he wanted to bring a bit more humanity and depth to a genre that occasionally sets that aside for more action and thrills. It was a really fun conversation and it was cool to get a small look into the process of putting a story like this together. 

Awake hit Netflix last week and, as of yesterday, the film ranked second on the platform's Top Ten rankings so it's certainly doing solid business on streaming. I particularly enjoyed the film and you can see what I thought about the movie from last week's review! Definitely offers up a little something different from the typical end-of-the-world stories.

Alright, well, it's great to finally get to talk to you. My name is Gaius from JoBlo.com and I had a chance to watch your film twice now, actually. And I was completely blown away by certain aspects of it. I mean, because initially, there's just, there's the hook about, you know, everyone not being able to sleep except for one person. And then there's a kind of mass hysteria that causes, but then at the heart of the story is this relationship between, you know, a mom and her two kids. So I was kind of curious, like, which aspects of the film kind of came together for you first when you were developing it?


Mark Raso: Um, so for me, I always wanted to be this, I mean, that the ideas that I had been in my mind for a long time, was this kind of end, unspecific end of the world scenario, where, you know, if you have kids, and you thought you weren't gonna make it, like, what do you do? How do you prepare for them? How can you prepare them? Sure, right. So that was always the family element of it was always what kind of came first, then we were kind of presented with this sci-fi idea by the production company, and it just kind of made sense to meld the story that I'd always had a curiosity about and turn it into this kind of event piece. And, and I think, for me, the story really cracked open. When it was, you know, you have two kids, and they're not on an equal playing field, and you kind of have this choice thing.


Yeah, yeah, yeah, because you really feel for the people in that situation, you know. And when you have people at the heart of the story like that, you kind of care about what the outcome is gonna be, especially with someone like Gina Rodriguez's character, who clearly has been through some stuff in the past. And you know, this event kind of gives her this moment of sacrifice, like, What do I do? Do I go in this direction or that direction? So I thought that humanized the story. I know you also wrote the movie with your brother. What was that process like? Was there a pretty good second hand when it came to collaborating with him? Or did you just kind of bounce ideas off each other and see what works?


Mark Raso: Yeah, so it was interesting because we're both in the entertainment industry. And for a long time, and we've always kind of worked, helped each other with each other's work. But it's been to each other's stuff, get feedback on stuff, but we never actually sat down to write something together. So when it came time to doing this, I guess we had just years of honest feedback, kind of criticism, you'd be the guy that I would send to that to and I knew I'd get the right answer, you know, the real answer, right? Yeah, he's not worried about hurting my feelings, right. So when it came down to writing it, it quickly developed into this kind of thing, where, you know, if both of us really liked something, then it had legs, right. And if one only one of us did, and we couldn't convince the other person, why it should be this way, then, you know, we'll put it to the side for now, maybe it will be revisited. Maybe not. Right. But in that sense, it was really good process, because it was like two minds working on it, but we have the respect and the relationship where we're not gonna hurt each other's feelings. If we say we don't like something we're not gonna, you know, so we could really just keep pushing forward and pushing forward and weren't holding any grudges, you know, it was all about just getting to the best result. So it was, it was quite a great experience.


That's awesome. That's really cool to hear. I was also pretty impressed with a lot of the visual choices that were made during the film, because usually, like with these kind of global event end of the world kind of stories, it's usually really kind of dark, and bleak. And even though some of the movie does take place at night, there's a lot that happens during the day, when you wouldn't normally kind of see that in a movie like this usually. And I was just wondering, was that a conscious decision on your part to kind of make it stand out from other movies that are kind of similar?


Mark Raso: Yeah, it was. And it was, it was two prong. But the most important thing was, we have this map, it's a survival story, or it's about a mother trying to like, you know, help her children survive, right. And the deteriorating world and I really felt it's important that the world looks and feels like a place we want to live in that we want to fight for that we want to survive in. I really wanted to show that, okay, this is a journey worth fighting for. And there's, you know, if they can solve this, if they can get through this, there's a beautiful world waiting for them. So that's why I decided to kind of move away from the typical aesthetics of these dystopian movies, and try to show something beautiful. You know, I had more of it, I had this whole idea that kind of ended up not being in the film, but just just like holding onto nature a little bit. And just allowing, like, the beauty, the beauty of the world to seep in.

Yeah, because I guess there's, you know, so many ways you could go with that. And like, some people would make a movie like this and keep things dark and bleak. I think it's kind of cool to have hope at the end of it. That is really rare for a movie like this. That's what really stood out to me when I was watching it. And it's a really, you know, sometimes you need a little bit of that, I think, and everything doesn't have to be, you know, all doom and gloom all the time, it's okay to like, kind of have a little light at the end of the day. It's a fun, you know, kind of dark movie, but at the same time, you know, there has to be a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.


Mark Raso: I think so too. And it's, you know, there's no right or wrong choices in this. But for me, this was like, I'm actually quite happy you have noticed that and that you felt it, because I wasn't sure if people would feel it. But that was definitely the intention of like, let's give it a little bit of hope, you know.



There were a lot of directorial choices that I really loved where you're generating a lot of tension. You know, you have this event where you have a lot of people who are sleep deprived and desperate and losing their minds and that would be a very scary kind of world and environment to live in. I think from the start, when you kind of kick things off with that the car wreck that kind of sets everything off. I thought the way you shot that was completely amazing. I felt like I was in there with them. And there are a couple other scenes like that to where you have Matilda kind of slowly driving the car, and then people start attacking the car and and start to try to rip them out of it as its moving. Those scenes really stuck with me. I think you were really good at generating that kind of tension in the film.


Mark Raso: Yeah, thank you. Yeah, so both of those choices, and a few other ones similar is like, the goal going into this was that, you know, we're telling a very small story, in this kind of big world event. And I just felt like we need to be with these characters as much as we can, to feel what they're feeling. There's no TVs, there's no monitors, there's no, let's see what's happening all over the world. We're just understanding like, this is one story, it could be happening everywhere all over the world. Alright, let's get into the psyche of these characters. And let's really feel what they're feeling. And so that's why I tried to keep the camera with them as much as we possibly could in these scenarios, and really try to almost like it almost, you know, the way the movie starts is that it's very controlled, the cameras very controlled, and we're kind of in a movie. And then once this event happens, and as we progress, the camera kind of gets a little more hectic and hectic and almost feels docu style, you know, like right in there with them. That was by design, just to kind of to live inside their attention.


Well, yeah, I certainly caught a lot of those moments. It was awesome. So tell me a little bit about the casting. I mean, you've got a lot of really good people in the film, you know, you got Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh. I was also really impressed by Ariana Greenblatt. I wasn't familiar with her until I watched this. And she does a lot of heavy lifting for being so young. What was it like kind of getting some of these key members of the cast for you and seeing them create these characters that you wrote?


Mark Raso: Yeah, it was great. I mean, so to start with Ariana, it's funny because we shot this a couple years ago, and the pandemic kind of slowed everything down in terms of the release, but since we've done that, she's gone on to do a lot of stuff that's coming out, you know, she's in In The Heights, I think is coming out next week. She's in that and she's in a bunch of stuff, and she's great. You know, she's one of those people who's everyone's gonna know about in a few years. And she's so professional, so, so talented. So she really helped. I mean, it was a exhaustive, exhaustive casting process. But when I found her I knew that she's the one. And Gina of course, is great, but even even like some of the other you know, Berry Peppers in it, Frances Fisher, Gil Bellows. And I have to give a lot of credit to Netflix because these are, you know, originally when we're putting together the film, these are, you know, roles that were just supposed to go out and cast and I just feel like oh my god wouldn't it be awesome to have someone like Barry Pepper and Netflix has to kind of okay that decision you know, and luckily they're interested and involved. Even Finn Jones, Shamir Anderson, we do have a great depth of, it's a great ensemble of actors. And they'll come in for a bit and you know, do their thing and then kind of leave and it was really great.


That's cool! Was it a happy coincidence that Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gina Rodriguez ended up in this together? They're both Annihilation. I was curious how that came about.


Mark Raso: It was a happy coincidence. I was very excited about Jennifer potentially doing this role. And we went out to her and I did say to Gina, hey, Gina, you know, if you still have her number from the film give her a call. Yeah, so that was a coincidence. But, you know, Jennifer, I, I've loved as, as an actor for, you know, 30 years or something crazy. So she's so great. So to be able to work with her was wonderful.

 

Well, I know, we're coming up to the end of this here, but I want to let you know that your film, Kodakchrome, our managing editor at JoBlo.com gave it a rave review when it came out and loved it. And I know that relationship with Netflix on that film compared to this one was a little different since they acquired it. But it's good to see that you're still having a nice working relationship with Netflix, and I'm pretty sure that really worked on the film like this, where you have so much of your own personal creative stuff that went into it.


Mark Raso: Yeah, hopefully that will continue. Yeah, for sure. You know, I don't know if this film would have been at Netflix if I hadn't already, you know, been involved with Kodakchrome. So it was great to build that relationship. And they had that trust in me and they they let me kind of see my vision.

Well it was a pleasure talking to you. I really dug the film. I hope that everyone enjoys it. And I'm really looking forward to what you do next. I mean, I've gotten kind of caught up on you last minute, but I'm really happy that I did. I was very impressed with the film.

Thank you so much. It's good to hear. Thank you.

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