You only have to glance at recent headlines to see that emotions are running high in America right now. That makes the sci-fi drama Equals a particularly timely futuristic parable. Set in a society where human emotions have been forcibly eliminated from our genetic makeup, the movie follows two citizens of this gleaming dystopia — Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart) — who succumb to that debilitating disease known as “falling in love.” It’s a star-crossed romance in the tradition of Romeo & Juliet and Like Crazy, the 2011 film from Equals director Drake Doremus.
That Sundance-winning feature starred the late Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as a couple who cling to a summer romance much longer than is healthy for either of them. Similarly, Silas and Nia just don’t know how to quit each other, even though their feelings make them outcasts in their society.
“That’s what interests me,” Doremus tells Yahoo Movies. “The idea that you only know that somebody is your soulmate when you can’t get rid of them, even when you try.” In separate conversations, we spoke with Doremus and Equals stars Stewart and Hoult about the experience of creating a future ruled by logic, rather than emotions.
On the pros and cons of living in a world without emotions
Drake Doremus: I’m such an emotional person that I can’t imagine being in this world. But I think it’s fascinating to remove the thing that makes us the most human, which is the capacity to love. And then it’s really fascinating to think, Should we find a way back to that? Is it more productive for a society to focus on exploration and curiosity, without the things that hold us back? And the answer is no, not really. Life is messy, and relationships are messy. It’s not perfect, and accepting that is really important.
Kristen Stewart: It’s a hypothetical question that’s good for conversation’s sake and good for this movie, but I genuinely don’t think you could have this kind of world. We would just be fleshy masses of uncaring people that never got out of bed; we would have no human response to anything. There would be no intellectual curiosity or desire for progression at all. I wouldn’t even know how to be alive without that.
Nicholas Hoult: It would be an easier society to live in, and there would be a lot more peace without the terrible things that make people feel so deeply. But you can’t have the good without the bad.
The specific sci-fi influences on the film
Doremus: Full disclosure: I’ve never seen THX-1138, and I’ve never read 1984. But I have seen and loved Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. That movie was made in the ’60s, but it feels like it could have been made today, because there’s nothing that ties it to that era. Blade Runner is also an influence from the standpoint of its ethereal music and visuals. It’s kind of a tone poem. With Equals, I always tell audiences before the film to turn your brains off and your hearts on. It’s not a thinking film, it’s a feeling film.
On shooting the film’s intimate scenes, including a steamy encounter in a bathroom stall.
Hoult: Drake gives you a space and an environment where you feel secure to explore and do your thing. But within that, he’s very encouraging and cares so much. It was strange to go from zero to 100 in a sense, jumping between scenes where you can’t feel anything and scenes where you’re experiencing things for the first time.
Stewart: These people know how to walk and talk, and they have jobs. So they’re not infants. Yet they are emotionally and sexually [stunted]. If you just put two people who were born as adults in front of each other, what would they do — especially if they were attracted to each other? They wouldn’t know how to kiss or classically procreate, but they’re still humans. It’s a weird hypothetical, but I can imagine it.
Doremus: Kristen and Nic threw themselves so fully into the film. It was amazing being around that energy. They’re so different; Nic is kind of shy, and Kristen is very passionate and intense. They brought out things in each other that I don’t think other people would have had. You don’t want to direct them too much. On set, I wasn’t saying much, to be honest. I just tried to let the camera roll and let them explore the dynamic that exists and get out of the way more than anything.
On shooting on location in Asia
Doremus: We shot all over Japan, in Tokyo, Kobe, and Osaka, as well as Singapore — all of these amazingly beautiful places. Most of the locations were museums or collages or institutes. I wanted everything to be practical; I didn’t want a green-screen movie. It needed to feel like a tangible version of 10 years from now. 2016 in Los Angeles and 2016 in Japan are so different; when I was there, it was like, “I don’t even know what century I’m in!” It’s such a different world and better world in some senses.
Hoult: The architecture and the look of [those locations’] is very much a part of this world. You notice how lean and precise they were but also how void of any human touch or personality.