When making his new film, The Rover, director David Michod may have uncovered the only location on Earth where Robert Pattinson is not followed by a hoard of paparazzi. The poetically sparse film, out nationwide this Friday, takes place in a desolate world 10 years in the future after the collapse of society, and reveals what could happen if humans are forced to survive by any means necessary. To create that world, Michod took Pattinson and his co-star Guy Pearce to the Flinders Ranges in the Australian desert, an area several hours north of Adelaide with few roads and fewer people. The cast and crew spent eight weeks shooting in early 2013, moving around to various locations throughout the desert, including the town of Marree, which has a population of 90.
“I didn’t quite realize how remote a lot of it was going to be,” Pattinson tells TIME. “It’s quite a big paparazzi culture in Australia. So I was expecting more of that. I remember setting up the contract and really thinking ‘If we’re going to be shooting exteriors all the time there’s going to be tons of people around. It’s going to be awful. I’m going to be playing this part and everyone’s going to think I’m weird.’”
“For Rob to shoot in a city like here or London you’re going to have a hundred people following the film set around,” Pearce adds. “Imagine if that’s how your work environment was all the time. So it’s not surprising that Rob thought it was going to be awful. But it wasn’t like that. There was like one person and the crew stopped them. I pity that one photographer that managed to find where we were.”
It was a hot, dusty environment that lent itself to the film’s bleak narrative, which follows a weathered man named Eric (Pearce) who encounters a simpleminded young man named Rey (Pattinson) and uses him to find his stolen car. It’s a minimal premise that showcases the grittiness of this future world, packing a subtle but hefty punch at the end. For the actors, the landscape helped channel the visceral survivalist nature of the story. “You know you’re going to be out there when you read the script and you’re aware of that being an aspect of the whole piece,” Pearce notes. “You almost can hear your own heart beating and you can hear yourself breathing. That feeling of possibly left out there alone is really palpable.”
The production moved from small town to small town over the eight weeks. Pearce, who drove himself the long distances, scored a crack in his car windshield that grew each leg of the journey. Pattinson, who says he was not allowed to drive himself, found the nomadic process fascinating and unlike any of his previous filming experiences. “The driving was incredible because there’s one road,” Pattinson says. “There’s so much wildlife [that has] not quite figured out that there’s a road. Literally every day someone would hit a kangaroo. There was blood all over the cars. It was crazy.”
Michod, who wrote the initial story for The Rover with actor Joel Edgerton back in 2008, selected this as his follow-up to 2010’s Animal Kingdom, his debut feature, largely because it embraced this elemental sense of survival in a hostile place. There is little explanation of what has happened that caused society to crumble in the story, but Michod’s underlying idea feels realistically possible.
“There wasn’t one single, sudden, almost unimaginable event that destroyed everything,” the director explains. “There was just a breakdown that was, in all likelihood, caused by a Western economic collapse probably running in tandem with the effects of extreme environmental degradation. Possibly the kinds of wars that might come as a consequence of peoples and countries fighting over limited resources. My hope is that you would just generally get the sense that things have just broken apart as opposed to exploded.”
Pearce and Pattinson’s characters are our window into this broken world, one with a brutal, animalistic instinct and the other with no real method of self-preservation. Pattinson embodies Rey as a twitchy, awkward migrant worker with a deep Southern accent. Michod sees the character as “not fully comfortable his own skin” and was impressed with Pattinson’s immersion into a role that is so different than his prior work, particularly in the Twilight series.
“I didn’t have any concerns,” Michod says of casting an actor as recognizable as Pattinson. “I don’t think I really had any idea how that baggage might manifest in terms of the film is received. And if anything I really liked the idea of taking someone so recognizable and giving them something wildly different to do. I found it kind of exhilarating watching him demonstrate that he’s actually a really wonderful actor.”
“I had quite an obscure, kind of obtuse, backstory for him,” Pattinson says of Rey. “Part of the whole thing with Rey is that his brother has played all the positions in his life. He doesn’t even really have memories – maybe there are memories of a place but it’s not like he had to put any particular effort in as he was growing up. Everything is blended together. It’s like being an actor – you can’t remember anything.”
The film takes on a meditative literary quality, falling somewhere between The Road and Of Mice and Men, which makes its moments of violence even more jarring. The Rover is the first film where Pattinson has really had to use a gun and he was not entranced by the opportunity. “I’m quite anti-gun, especially for idiots like me,” Pattinson says. “I didn’t like it at all. I don’t like the feeling of it. I get the thrill and the power trip of it but I felt silly as well holding a gun, especially pointing at targets and stuff. It’s just this bang-making machine. After a while it loses its luster.”
“I, too, have a real issue with guns,” Pearce adds. “I think they should be banished off the face of the earth. They’re awful things. There is an incredible thrill and sort of power as soon as you have one in your hands. That understanding of what you’re capable of doing with this thing is off the charts. It’s ridiculous and it’s enticing and it’s awful all at the same time and it just astounds me that so many people own guns in the world.”
Seeing as this possible incarnation of the future involves a lot of weaponry and the ability to commit violent acts, would either actor survive a similar collapse? “I think I’d end up in the opium den flophouse,” Pattinson says, referencing a depressed drug den seen briefly in the film. “Just hanging out like ‘I’m good.’” Pearce agrees, “Yeah, I’d probably end up there as well.”