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RIZ AHMED: ‘You don’t often see a family that looks like this, in a movie like this’

RIZ AHMED: ‘You don’t often see a family that looks like this, in a movie like this’

Undated film still handout from Encounter. Pictured: Behind the scenes on the set of Encounter. See PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Encounter. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Courtesy of Amazon Studios. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Encounter.

Danielle de Wolfe learns more about sci-fi thriller Encounter from director Michael Pearce and star Riz Ahmed.
Silence can often speak louder than words. When executed correctly in cinema, its power is tenfold – particularly when you have the undivided attention of a room full of sci-fi fans watching an impending intergalactic invasion.It is a concept director Michael Pearce has unequivocally embraced as part of his latest offering Encounter – the film’s opening sequence is without a doubt one of its greatest achievements.Eerily silent, beautifully shot and with what looks to be a meteor shower dusting the world’s inhabitants with spore-like organisms, attention quickly switches to Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed), as the decorated marine sets about saving his family following the unprecedented event.The follow-up to the British director’s thrilling Bafta-winning 2017 debut Beast – a film Ahmed describes as having “incredible flare” – Pearce, 40, says his hunt for an equally complex challenge led him to discover the scripts of writer Joe Barton.“There were just a lot of similarities with my own family upbringing as well, between the father and his two children,” says Pearce of Encounter’s story arc.“I spent about a year rewriting some aspects of the script, in fact I put my own personal background into it. It was an opportunity to tell a very personal story, but on a very grand canvas.”

A project former Bafta and Academy Award nominee Ahmed describes as containing “thrills and spills”, the actor says Encounter serves up the “rare combination” of a character-based storyline with the “imagination” of a genre film – something he says is scarcely seen on screen “and even harder to try and pull off”.

Recounting the back and forth that ensued after Sound Of Metal star Ahmed, 38, watched Pearce’s award-winning debut Beast, the actor says his assertion of “I want to make this film with you” was followed by “a couple of years of Michael exhausting every other possible casting avenue open to him”.

“He came back to me as a last resort,” says Ahmed with a wry smile.

It is a plot that sees Malik, a man with access to military intelligence, confronted with evidence of a cover-up by the US government in relation to the intergalactic dusting.

And with that very government now on a mission to track him down and nearly half the US population infected by the spore-like creatures, time is fast running out.

Making the decision to save his two young sons from his ex-wife and her new husband, the marine sets off in search of a secret military base in Nevada that he believes holds the key to safety.

With the desire to keep his sons safe at all costs, audiences are left questioning whether there is anything Malik will not do to ensure their safety.

With Pearce describing his desire to “test” the audience’s identification with a film’s lead character through “multiple calibrations”, the director references the way in which Encounter sees Ahmed’s character “come across as the hero, the anti-hero and the potential villain”.

“You see Malik in one way in the beginning and the middle and the end – and that felt like what the heart of the film had to be about,” says Pearce.

“You as the audience are sort of left in suspense about who you’re watching.”

With the filmmaker’s decision to forgo a “big twist” ending in favour of an early attempt to “show our hand”, it’s true to say Encounter turns its back on the traditional suspense-building structure.

A concept that stems from his own desire to be challenged as a viewer, the director describes his natural reaction to “lean in” when an audience is forced to “investigate” the moral fibre of a character.

“Having archetypes to frame your characters can be really helpful, but if they remain as archetypes for the whole story I kind of disengage because I can predict where my sympathies are going to be,” says Pearce.

The decision to lead the film with a black character adds another dynamic to the mix.

Depicting multiple tense stand-offs with heavily armed white men, the current real world backdrop only serves to permeate the story, elevating existing levels of suspense.

“One thing that was really clear was the levels of tension were going to be escalated with those encounters and we could sometimes do that with a very light touch,” says Pearce.

“The character’s ethnicity was never decided in the script, so a lot of those encounters were already there. When I met Riz, and we talked about all the nuances and layers and story and what it means if it’s a South Asian character, it became more amplified and vivid.”

Describing the current climate’s ability to elevate peril as “fortuitous”, Pearce says his search for a lead initially focused on a white actor “as a default”, noting that stories of a sci-fi nature traditionally involve “a white character saving his children from an alien threat”.

“You don’t often see a family that looks like this, in a movie like this, in situations like this,” says Ahmed.

“I think ultimately what drives the film is the relationship between the characters – but of course, who’s playing those characters will always add a layer.”

Encounter is in cinemas on Friday, December 3, and available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from Friday, December 10.

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