Breaking Down the Eerie Ending of the Postapocalyptic Drama 'I Think We're Alone Now'
Cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano's second feature I Think We're Alone Now begins with a menacing bang. It's the sound of the apocalypse, an unspecified event which leaves a man named Del (played by Peter Dinklage) believing he's the last man on Earth and enjoying his solitude by cleaning up the dead bodies and debris in his upstate New York hometown. When Grace (Elle Fanning) drives into town, she brings the possibility of companionship, which had been missing in his life both pre- and post-apocalypse. The movie seems like it's a meditation on the difference between being alone and being lonely, and on our need to connect. But then the movie clarifies its intentions with a nifty third-act twist. We're going to discuss the ending here, so consider this your massive spoiler warning.
The surprise -- heralded by the sudden appearance of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Paul Giamatti -- is that Del and Grace are not the last people on Earth by a long shot, and that the other survivors have formed a cultish community. The catch? Members, except Giamatti's character, Patrick, must undergo an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-type treatment and have their memories wiped from the time before the apocalypse. Patrick wants to lure Del to "join the fold," but Del has some reservations, as does Grace, who evaded this procedure once before.
Thrillist recently sat down with Morano, Dinklage, and Fanning to obsess over the film, which is available to rent on iTunes and On Demand, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 23. Read on to learn more about the movie's ending, the brain modification procedure and coping mechanisms, and its gorgeous sound design and aesthetics.
Thrillist: I watched the movie in a theater, then I watched it on my laptop, and then I just listened to it...
Peter Dinklage: Wow.
Reed Morano: You are my favorite person.
Elle Fanning: The sound design is so incredible, right? There are whale noises in there.
Yes! But I still can't figure out what the sound is at the very beginning, before we see anything. What is it?
Morano: My editor and I were very concerned with sound. If the ambient sound, if the room tone doesn't sound right and have all the layers, it's really hard for me, so I deal with that element first. Downstairs where Del lives in the library, there's a cave sound. When Grace goes in and explores his room, there are whale sounds. So at the top of the movie, over black, we have this sound. We never talk about in the film what the apocalypse was, or what happened, and one of the things we experimented with our sound designer to come up with this big sound: "What if, at the opening of the movie, we had this crazy sound?" And it's a bowling ball being dropped, and then circling around the whole audience in the room. And while it's circling, it sounds like a tiger or a creature circling you. When I first heard that mix, I was like, "That's the sound of the apocalypse."
Dinklage: I love that, because with the whales, it's very animalistic. And animal sounds would be the only sounds we have left, if there is no one around.
Fanning: It's very primal.
Morano: We had to remove all the sounds of real life now, and replace them.
Dinklage: We wouldn't hear the air conditioning. We wouldn't have background chatter. And then with loneliness, you would start to think you're hearing things -- like in that scene where Elle is looking through all of the pictures, and we hear faint sounds of laughter because you go a little crazy in isolation. When you have a child, you hear all these phantom baby cries -- and it's not there. That stuff is really lovely, in the sound of our movie. Del's not crazy. And it would be healthy if he talked to himself, probably. He's the opposite. He needs a little crazy in his life.
The look of the film feels very natural, too. A lot of natural light during the day, hazy through curtains. And very dark at night.
Morano: Curtains were a big deal. I have a folder on my phone that is called Curtains. I'm not even joking; I'll show it to you. It's one of the ways you can set the atmosphere in a room and light a room, because it's not the light itself, but what you put in front of it. So the curtains set the tone. In his kitchen, they're really warm. We made those curtains specifically for that room. Same with his room. It was very purposeful that he had all these blue curtains and then one yellow curtain, because I didn't want it to be an even tone of all blue. It was all strategically planned, so we could light from the outside and not get in the actors' way.
Fanning: Sometimes head lamps were the only light.
Dinklage: That was a later idea which was kind of fun. And it solved a lot of problems, because there's no electricity in the apocalypse. Sometimes what bothers me in films, people are walking and just being lit by the moon -- and it's like stadium lighting! I've never seen that. The moon's been nice and full and bright, but you can't see every pore! Reed is so good visually, and she can shoot so wonderfully with natural light. What it really would be, if there were no electricity. And it's dark. It's beautiful. And it's the way it should be. There are great shadows.
Morano: We were lighting a scene with where the characters wear head lamps, so when we see her car in the rain, it's literally just the headlights on the car and the head lamps that are shooting towards the rain, back lighting her. When she gets in the car, I had Elle tilt her head lamp up so it bounces toward the ceiling for when he comes to the window, and it lights the whole scene.
Dinklage: And the upstate New York towns that we shot in were so cooperative. They shut off the lights in the far background, because it would have been too much in post-production to fix all of that. That was so helpful.
That takes care of the beginning of the film and the aesthetic. But let's dissect the ending. Just the whole third act.
Morano: We never get to talk about that with anybody! It's been such a secret. It's like the dirty little secret of the movie.
Dinklage: The New Yorker gave it away.
Fanning: They did?! What?!
Dinklage: Yep, in their review blurb. It was one pinned to the early release. They said, "… and then Charlotte Gainsbourg and Paul Giamatti arrive…"
Morano: I gotta tell you, I don't think it's worst thing in the world for people to know, because people already love this combo, and it's such a random combo…
Dinklage: But to do that in a review? I feel like it's much harder to keep a film secret nowadays. If you made The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game now, everybody would know the twist, because of the Internet. It's impossible.
Morano: My uncle ruined The Usual Suspects for me. We were just watching it, and he went, "Oh, yeah. It's that guy." I was like, "Dude! I'm just watching this for the first time!"
Fanning: You know I didn't know the spoiler about The Sixth Sense until about two weeks ago?
Dinklage: You are so crazy!
Fanning: I had never seen the movie!
Dinklage: And somebody spoiled it for you?
Fanning: No, I saw it! And it was like, "Ohmigod! That's amazing! That's what all those memes were about!" I had no idea. I don't watch a lot of films. You guys know that!
Dinklage: You watch Naked and Afraid. If we're going to talk spoilers, what if someone doesn't see I Think We're Alone Now until 20 years later? Like Elle does?
Morano: I feel like that's when our time is going to come.
I find it really fascinating that these people, this cult, would enforce the erasure of your memory of the time before the apocalypse.
Dinklage: There are a lot of people who would prey upon that. "Oooh, a fresh start. Let's make everybody have a fresh start together… and control them." Any sort of cult, really, wants you to have a fresh start. I know people who've joined a cult, and they just leave everything behind. Their family, their kids -- it's incredible, the lengths they will go to, to sever ties from what was. And I think what's fascinating about this is how far people will go to enforce it. I think we're being enforced about how we think all the time, especially with what's happening in politics right now. I think there's people that if they could do this, they would. And that's a terrifying thing. They're just not allowed to. But if everything was gone? They would be allowed to. And the true nature of people like that, like Paul's character, would come out.
Morano: No one ever thinks, "How do you come back from an apocalypse?" If you've been through an apocalypse, and there's a number of people who survive, I could see that there would be a faction that would come out and say, "We want to move on from that pain and create this utopian society. But if these people over here still remember what happened, they're going to poison all these people who don't want to remember, so we have to do it all together. That's just the only way it can be." So that's why Paul's character is trying to lure Del to come join them.
Dinklage: I love the casting of Paul Giamatti and Charlottte Gainsbourg, because they're such kind souls, and they usually play really kind people, and they are, in the movie. But they're also sort of creepy. They're creepy, but approachable.
They break into your house and make pancakes.
Morano: We had a lot of consideration about …
Fanning: …how to introduce them into the movie?
Morano: Yeah. And that was always one of the things that drew me to the story, imagining Del walking down the stairs and hearing their conversation. I think in an earlier draft of the script, they were eating eggs, because there were chickens in the story, which I eventually got rid of. It was hard enough for us to get dead bodies on this movie! We decided to eliminate certain things. But anyway, pancakes, you could make, potentially, in an apocalypse. We know all the foods you can make in an apocalypse. I took it very seriously, what foods we could have.
Dinklage: Like red wine. It gets better as it ages. So Del drinks a lot of red wine!
Morano: That's how you survive the apocalypse! Note to self.
Fanning: To me, the pain would just be so great… Why would you necessarily need to remember? It would be very scary to remember. Everyone deals with grief and trauma differently. Do you hide it? Do you get angry? Do you go into a depression? There are so many different types of grief in the world.
Dinklage: Some people celebrate it. Irish wakes are parties.
Morano: And it's what brings these two characters together. Grace is really brave because she knows she can forget it. She has that option. It's an open door. But she's running away from that, because something is telling her, "I don't want to forget this, even though it's painful for me. I don't know what I'm going to do with myself, but I'm not going to do that." And Del thinks his life is better now. Even though their experiences were both unique, because they both remember, because they both embrace it head-on, it's what bonds them together.
Dinklage: But guaranteed, there are a lot of people who would choose to erase their memories. Who would erase pain if they could. Because they've had so much of it, we couldn't even fathom. I guarantee people would, because the pain takes over. Depression.
Dinklage: That's what people do.
Morano: They medicate. Prescription drugs. That's how we came up with the deep brain stimulation, because in an early draft of the script, it wasn't really described what it was. It wasn't explained at all. And so I was like, "Would there be a way, technically, medically, where you could erase people's memories?" And of course, there is. There have been some experimentation with that, and it's related to how you medicate people for psychological reasons…
Dinklage: And electro-shock therapy…
Morano: And some of the experiments for Parkinson's, they do a thing called deep brain stimulation. I think the procedure takes a long time, or at least, in my version, it takes a long time. So Elle's character, she's hooked up to a machine as if they had just done a procedure, and she has electrodes which would measure her brain waves while she sleeps, which would detect if she's having a deep sleep or a disturbed sleep. It's almost like a PTSD thing. And I came up with this because my son had sleep apnea, and it's all based on legitimate medical research. Everything that happens in the movie is a sort of exaggerated, heightened reflection of exactly what's happening right now -- with social media, with psychologically medicating ourselves, etc.
Dinklage: We have memories of bad things that happen so that we hopefully avoid them in the future. And if we're not doing remembering them, which doesn't seem like we are, man, what's the difference between real life and this?
How do Patrick and Violet even find Grace?
Morano: In the scene where she's in the bedroom, Grace says, "You told him." The idea being that there is some bond, even though they're not related, and they were both approaching Patrick's treatment with some trepidation. And so Grace had confided in Violet.
When Grace ran anyway, she wasn't planning to end up in Del's town. That's an accident. So how do Patrick and Violet know to go to that specific house? Is there a tracking device involved in the brain modification?
Fanning: Yeah, because my neck is scarred…
Morano: We thought it could be something like that. We had that, and we had Grace telling Violet, and we decided that there was a specific path that Grace took with her family to go see all the landmarks, that it was something she did with her family. Of course, we never really explain that in the movie, but we have her say, "I'm going to see all the landmarks, and I'm going to Niagara Falls. That's my last stop." So we're saying if she told Violet about the landmarks, she would know that Grace would pass through this town. It's a little suspension of disbelief, but we figured, out of all of the holes in the story, it wasn't the biggest. It seems not to bother or distract people too much, even though we thought about it endlessly.
Dinklage: How did Elsa freeze all of the… If we're getting into it! Sorry, I have a six-year-old. [Laughs] That's how their brains work.
Morano: We can erase brains…
Dinklage: And Elsa can freeze shit.