Francis Lawrence Tells Us About Building The (Ironically) Eye-Popping World Of ‘See’

Apple TV+‘s November 1st launch arrived with a handful of programming selections, including See, a wild, woolly, and wacky bender starring Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard. Francis Lawrence (whose credits include I Am Legend, the Hunger Games franchise, and Constantine, among many other films and music videos) directs the first three episodes and builds a post-apocalyptic show that’s imperfect but beautiful and undoubtedly engaging. Along with writer Stephen Knight (Peaky Blinders), Lawrence led the production through a strange frontier wherein Apple poured many millions of dollars into a series that many people will watch on tiny streaming devices.

This inevitability presents some irony, along with the fact that most of See‘s characters are blind and can’t see the lush world in which they inhabit. Lawrence sat down with us to discuss how these ideas impact the Apple TV+ series. We also touched upon the recent Netflix-related kerfuffle involving a user-activated test feature and the creative pushback that arrives with such a move.

In terms of budget, See is huge. Per episode, including the pilot, it might be one of the most expensive shows ever?

Oh, I don’t know about that! I’m not sure about that. Plus, I did three episodes, so I’m not sure what the pilot cost because I did multiple episodes as a whole block. The budget was [also] constantly shifting, and I was also thinking about the whole season, not just my three, honestly.

You’re obviously no stranger to post-apocalyptic material. How did you approach this differently than the Hunger Games franchise?

Well, Hunger Games was a very specific kind of narrative world that was very spelled out in the books, and this was very different. It’s hundreds of years after a viral apocalypse, and we’ve just kind of reclaimed the world. It’s a more beautiful place, I would say, than the Hunger Games, and so I could approach it from a much more grounded, wild, beautiful point of view. Because the idea is that the environment has healed somewhat because of the drastic reduction in our population.

The idea is that the earth is ultimately better off, hundreds of years after people lose the sense of sight, right?

To me, the earth benefits because there’s been a huge and dramatic reduction in population, right? And people having to start all over again without convenience in terms of burning coal and fossil fuels and all that goes away. Nature starts to reclaim, so that’s one of the bigger things. I think that one of the themes that starts to come into play in the series, which starts in this season and will continue further as the series continues, is the idea of — if the characters in the show end up going back to the knowledge we have now and start to implement and rebuild based on that — would one start making the same mistakes that we make now?

So the fear of change and the political nature of mankind would come back?

Yeah, I just think that, as a civilization, we are imperfect and certainly toward the earth. And if you start to look at a show like ours, you can see in episode two that there’s a box of knowledge that’s opened up, and people start reading and learning, and, you know, the things that we hold to be sacred knowledge now, and [the question is] if we rebuild civilization in our image, is that going to actually be good, or are we going to make the same mistakes? Are we going to start wrecking the environment, what’s gonna happen politically?

Well, the world-building takes off at breakneck speed in this show.

That kind of stuff is fun for me, that kind of narrative propulsion. The world building is something that I love to do, whether it’s I Am Legend or Hunger Games or this, I’m into visual storytelling, and part of what’s fun is that you get to learn a lot, and to work with the sort of experts that we worked with to make this world feel as authentic and as realistic as possible, it’s, you know, a great experience.

And it provides a visceral viewing experience, probably close to what R-Rated material would be in a theater.

Yeah, I think it’s MA, since it’s streaming.

It did surprise me that Apple TV+ would go in so hard with the graphic nature. Was that part of the original plan for the show?

That’s all kind of there from the beginning. When I signed on, there were two scripts, and the tone and sort-of graphic nature of this series were set with those scripts, and nobody there seemed to be squeamish about it, and I certainly wasn’t, so we set out to make the show the way it was when we sold it to them in the room. And they never backed down, and we certainly didn’t back down.

Also, this show very visually cinematic. Do you worry that people who watch on small devices won’t feel the same effects?

I don’t think they will necessarily get the same effect, but I think the story translates and works. Anything that’s “cinematic,” and I mean that visually and in terms of sound, is different than just watching on your phone with a little set of speakers. It’s gonna feel different than if you watch it at home or on a theater screen, for sure.

There’s also the irony that your characters can’t see the beauty, so did you want that to be felt in the story?

Oh, 100%. That’s part of it, but the truth is that these characters utilize all their other senses in ways that people who have not evolved over hundreds of years without sight, can’t. So they experience the beauty of their world in different ways like smell and temperature and touch and sound and things like that, but absolutely, you can go to these places like British Columbia and shoot, and the characters can’t see the environment that they’re in, yes, there’s an irony to that.

We’ve gotta touch on that eye-popping slaver-fight scene. Jason mentioned that the scene was very collaborative with you. How complex was that to execute?

Any fight scene is complicated. There was just a lot of brainstorming that went into any of these scenes in the series. Whether it’s the big battle of episode one or the slave fight of episode three, there’s a lot of thinking with many departments — stunts included, Jason included, me, costumes, props, whatever, coming up with ideas — but that one sort of came around creatively. It was very different on the page, and the sort of location was described differently. Once I found the space that I wanted to set the sequence in, it reminded me of a scene that Jason described to me when we first met. The idea of clearing a room, and a specific weapon that he was going to use, which I won’t spoil. So I thought, this is actually the perfect environment that Jason said we were going to do at some point. I brought it up to him, and he loved the idea, so we talked to the stunt team and then choreographed it. Usually, in such a scene, I’ll walk through the emotional beats, we figure out how many people will be involved, and then start to video tape it and make sure the action beats are happening, and then we’ll take those rehearsals to the real location. Then we have a real roadmap. I’d say that this one was a combination of me choosing a location and then taking this idea that Jason pitched to me, randomly, seemed to be a perfect fit.

So we’re talking about Apple TV+ here, but Netflix has been doing limited testing for a fast-forward feature, and there’s been creator pushback. Do you have any reaction to that?

You know, I would have to see it in action, but my gut instinct is that it’s very strange because you have a script that dictates pacing, and you shoot things and block things with certain actors, and that’s a pace, and to speed it up feels like it takes a lot of creative choices that have been made out of the picture and start to throw it out the window, and so that idea bothers me.

‘See’ debuted on November 1 with the launch of Apple TV+.