With Atlas, director Brad Peyton wanted to challenge himself. He wasn't necessarily also setting out to give Jennifer Lopez one of the most demanding roles of her career.

"I'm really glad she likes me, because otherwise she would hate me," says the filmmaker, who is no stranger to huge action films, having helmed the Dwayne Johnson-vehicles Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2011), San Andreas (2015), and Rampage (2018). With Atlas, the die-hard sci-fi fan finally got an opportunity to try his hand at the genre he so loves.

"I wanted to go do something different," Peyton tells A.frame. "What drew me to Atlas was trying to find a movie that you couldn't compare to other movies. Even pitching this movie was difficult. We were pitching it like Cast Away in space — but if Wilson talked back. That was the best that I could come up with. Because a woman trapped inside of a mech suit on an alien planet? I've never seen that movie."

A sci-fi action-thriller set in a near-future world where artificial intelligence have led a robot revolution, Atlas features Lopez as Atlas Shepherd, a genius data analyst with a tragic past. When Atlas leaves Earth in pursuit of Harlan (Simu Liu), the AI terrorist who upended her life, she finds herself stranded on the distant planet GR39 in an armor suit. In an ironic twist, her only ally is Smith, the artificial intelligence that powers her suit. (Oscar nominee Sterling K. Brown co-stars as Atlas' commanding officer, Colonel Banks.)

"I really responded to the thematic material. I love this idea of a woman who had forgotten how to trust and she had this trauma related to AI, and then the whole movie, she is stuck inside of a device that is driven by AI," says the director. "I just thought there was a lot to play with."

A.frame: What was it about this entire package that made Atlas something you wanted to take on?

For years, I've said that I really wanted to do science-fiction and fantasy. That's what I grew up on, that's what I really love, that's what I watch. I can name so many B- or C-movies that most people have never heard of that I would devour. At one point, Rutger Hauer was just putting them out it seemed like every week, and I was happily watching them every week! So, I was telling anyone who would listen, "I really want to make a sci-fi movie, and I really want to do a movie with a strong female lead." That's how it came to me, because I've been saying this to everyone for so long around town; eventually someone had to pay attention to me!


Knowing that we have seen so many futuristic sci-fi films over the years, how did you go about looking to differentiate this world to make it fresh and unique?

Because I'm such a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I already know what's been done, so I literally would just go in the other direction. I didn't look at other movies whatsoever. I'm a big fan of science-fiction art, so I'd look at a lot of that. My head space with this was, "There are no creatures here, so I need to show an alien planet that is the villain." I wanted to throw at you everything that could cause anxiety, whether that's fog and you can't see very far, or it's plants that look really dangerous. I literally went to my home library of art books and started pulling them down and looking at Christopher Foss and all of these old, great '60s and '70s sci-fi artists.

One of the first trailers I ever saw was Return of the Jedi, and that stuck with me because, in that trailer, they have space, they have desert, they have forests, they show inside the Death Star. As a little kid, I remember going, "Oh my god, this has everything in it!" For a long time, science-fiction and fantasy had been like, "This takes place on a snow planet, period." Or, "This takes place on a swamp planet, period." What Star Wars did is they opened it up to, "No, this is going to be intergalactic." So, when I got the chance to design and craft a space planet, my instinct was to do everything I can. I wanted to make this as unique and expansive as humanly possible.

Did you have a favorite bit of world-building you included in Atlas?

This story wasn't about separating where we are today with where we're going to be tomorrow. This was like a story of how we might organically grow to be in this place. So, there was no drastic, controversial thing like, "Los Angeles is going to be a desert!" I worked with futurists and we talked a lot about ecology, weapon systems, engine systems, and obviously AI, so that this movie had more of a nuanced story. It's not going to be all good, it's not going to be all bad, and specifically with AI but with all the technology, there is going to be good and there is going to be bad.

In terms of my favorite stuff, I loved building out the ARK-IX, the mech-suit. I knew it was such a huge character and I knew this was a two-hander between Jennifer and Greg [James Cohan], who voiced Smith. The idea was that it's like a buddy-cop movie, except one of the cops is the car, so this car has to be awesome. I went through so much design with that one piece. I needed it to be this good, this lived in, and have this whole history.


There's clearly a timeliness to this film, with the ongoing conversations about the role of AI in our own reality. As you're making a movie about AI taking over the world, have your own feelings about the themes changed in any way? Does it ever feel like you are predicting the future?

No, because I got the original script five years ago and, five years ago, there were no AI conversations like there is today. So, I've had five years in my own imagination. Now, I will say that both the execution of Smith and how Greg voiced it made me realize, "Oh, AI might be nicer than even I pictured." And then Simu's execution of the villain, Harlan, made me go, "Oh, AI might be creepier and deadlier than I also pictured it!" [Laughs] I got to explore both aspects of it. But in all honesty, I've been prepared for the AI thing, weirdly without knowing I was going to be prepared for it.

Before Atlas, three of your last four movies starred Dwayne Johnson. Having worked so closely with him on those projects, is there an adjustment period when you find yourself collaborating with a new star like Jennifer Lopez?

They're very different performers. In fact, they might actually be the opposite in a lot of ways, and so there was definitely a little bit of a learning curve. Jen needs to feel things out, and Dwayne needs to understand the mechanics of them. Jen is incredibly, incredibly intuitive, and my approach to filmmaking is intuition. Jen's choreography comes from the inside, and her intuition is what leads her and drives a great performance. No matter how much conversation you've had, you can't really lock onto that until you're on set. So, I realized I had to switch up my approach and get the technical out of the way as much as possible, because these movies are so technical.

So, very specifically with her, when we got inside of the Mech suit, I realized in order to allow her the freedom that she needed to give me the best performance, I needed to put as many cameras on her at once. Then she can just let go and let her intuition take over. There's not a lot of meddling from me, and the directing that I did would actually go through Greg, so she's not even aware that I'm doing a lot of it. She's up in this mech suit, and I'm like, "I've set cameras up all over the place. Just lose yourself in performing this." After we'd worked out the blocking, I got out of the way and let the cameras roll, and most of the time, we would get the whole scene in one run. I'd never shot a movie like that. And so, as soon as I figured out how she worked, I could really maximize her performance, and I think that ends up showcasing itself, because she delivers a fantastic performance.

Director Brad Peyton with Jennifer Lopez on the set of 'Atlas.'

She really has to do it all here: She has to be an action star, but she also has to deliver in the emotional scenes, and there is the buddy-cop element that you mentioned. What was it like putting her through that gauntlet?

I'm really glad she likes me, because otherwise she would hate me! Because it was a gauntlet. Like you said, it was literally a little bit of everything. I ultimately zeroed in on Jen to be Atlas because of two of her many attributes: First, how super-hardworking she is. You don't have the amount of success that she's had unless you have a work ethic that is unparalleled. I have met a lot of hardworking people, and she's on another level when it comes to that. The second thing is her courage; I think that's her greatest virtue. She has this, "I'm not scared of anything, I'll go try anything" approach. 

There's a lot of people that would've shied away from being in a mech-suit for six or seven weeks, acting opposite no one, and she took that on head-on. Also, by halfway through, she loved it. She didn't want to talk to anyone else, she just wanted to talk to Greg and be in the mech-suit. I'm sure she was exhausted because it's her emoting all day long by herself, but she was so good at it. With her background, as a singer out there on stage in front of a stadium with people, I think that amount of pressure and the ability to connect and not have to have another person opposite you made her incredibly suited for the role.

And yet, when you do actually give her other actors to actually talk to, you loaded up the cast with great actors like Simu Liu and Sterling K. Brown.

I look at a talent like Jen and I'm like, "You have movie star chops. You just have an aura to you." I'd show up every day and be like, "Simu is a movie star. Sterling is a movie star." And it's because they alter the reality around them. They're not just saying lines, and they're not just in a scene — they become the scene. All three of these people were movie stars on set. Jen's been doing this a long time, and Simu obviously has Marvel, and then Sterling got nominated for an Academy Award. So, I was basically just directing movie stars all day long!

By Derek Lawrence


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