The Inverse Interview

Molli and Max in the Future Borrows a Page From the Past

How '70s Star Wars movies paved the path for the quirky sci-fi romance.

Originally Published: 
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The Inverse Interview

A classic romantic comedy set amidst hi-tech environments, Molli and Max in the Future is a unique accomplishment in the indie science-fiction genre. The feature writing/directing debut of Michael Lukk Litwak, the Brooklyn native brings his fully imagined future on four different planets to the screen with colorfully fantastical visuals and a surprisingly analog approach.

Molli (Zosia Mamet) is cruising along in her personal spaceship when she literally runs into Max (Aristotle Athari); the movie announces its tone right away when Molli’s first line is to ask Max what his insurance company is. The clever, spiky banter that follows makes it clear they’re made for each other, but in time-honored rom-com tradition, it will take Molli and Max over a decade, and the rest of the movie’s running time, to figure that out. Periods of several years separate them, she becomes part of a weird quasi-religious cult overseen by a floating tentacled head, while he becomes a champion “super mecha fighter.” Yet all along, they keep finding their way back to each other, as the sci-fi trappings serve as an endlessly inventive backdrop to the “will they or won’t they?” between its protagonists.

If I had made this movie with 100 percent realistic CG, I don’t think it would necessarily work as well.”

It’s no surprise that Litwak cites dual inspirations for his first venture into the feature realm. “I grew up watching big-budget action-adventure/spectacle films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park,” he tells Inverse, “and that’s what got me into filmmaking. Then as I grew older, I found myself gravitating more toward character-driven stuff like When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, and Amélie. Movies about people dealing with relatable, real-life problems, living in major metropolises, complaining about their therapists.”

It was the process of making several short films that made Litwak realize that he “wanted to tell stories similar to what got me into filmmaking, but also true to what kept me there.”

The will-they-won’t-they romance set to the backdrop of a charmingly analog future is what makes Molli and Max in the Future so unique.

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Those shorts, including the multi-award-winning The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger, gave him a chance to experiment with techniques that would see full flower in Molli and Max.

“There was a VFX element in some of them, so I got to kind of crash-test my approach to the effects, and I learned about compositing,” Litwak says. “I had enough experience to know what I was getting myself into, but I still ended up having to learn a lot of the skills while we were making Molli and Max.”

“Star Wars is the perfect example of a lived-in universe, and I wanted that.”

Those skills eschew the reliance on CGI that has become the norm even on the smallest genre productions these days, instead combining old-fashioned methods that give Molli and Max in the Future a visual personality as distinctive as those of its two leads. He and Stoltzfus spent 18 months building a wide array of miniatures, researching 3D printing and other processes on YouTube to help create them, and then shooting and compositing them to create background plates. They were then able to spend a week on an LED stage, filming the actors in front of those plates, and then spent another three weeks on a traditional stage using classic rear-screen projection. This kind of analog craftsmanship, also seen in many of the onscreen props (it’s nice to know that VCRs will still be in use many years from now), harks back to ’70s and ’80s films like the original Star Wars.

Zosia Mamet in Molli and Max in the Future.

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“There was the reality that we could never afford to hire amazing digital effects people, whereas it felt achievable to build these things on our own,” he notes. “But also, if I had made this movie with 100 percent realistic CG, I don’t think it would necessarily work as well. If you look at the technology in Star Wars, it feels very analog. It’s so much warmer and friendlier, and you can understand the way a machine works much better when you crank a dial vs. when you just tap a touch screen. Star Wars is the perfect example of a lived-in universe, and I wanted that. This is a world that is dirty and has dust around things, that isn’t completely slick and fancy, because that’s the way life is. Things break down, and nothing ever works the way you think it’s going to.”

It was really nice to be able to build out the world and then go back and rewrite things when we stumbled upon a fun little detail.”

There is one significant difference between Star Wars and Molli and Max, though: “The greatest fantasy Star Wars has ever conveyed is a world without capitalism.” While he was crafting his small-scale cityscapes, he realized his futuristic cities needed advertising signage and digital billboards, and acting on that decision exemplifies the way Molli and Max’s parallel technical and screenplay development fed each other.

“I was like, well, what’s the Coca-Cola of this world? And that was Glorp Soda,” Litwak explains, referring to the beverage Max pitches as his celebrity rises. “That worked its way back into the script, where I knew I wanted Max to sell out and become a corporate shill. And then that meant Molli and Max should talk about not wanting to drink Glorp Soda at the beginning. It was really nice to be able to build out the world and then go back and rewrite things when we stumbled upon a fun little detail. Part of what I love about science fiction is the ability to drop those little Easter eggs and setups and payoffs throughout a script, and come up with a rich, detailed world that has depth to it. And having these advertisements and brands in there, which was obviously a big part of Blade Runner too, makes it feel a little more relatable.”

Zosia Mamet and Aristotle Athari make a charming couple as Molli and Max.

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There’s one other immersive sci-fi favorite that Litwak cites as an influence on his overall M.O.: “I love science-fiction universes like the one in The Fifth Element. And, you know, Moebius [aka Jean Giraud] is a French graphic designer I love who worked on Fifth Element, and that’s why the cult leader in Molli and Max is named Moebius. I also love Futurama and Rick and Morty and these worlds where anything can happen. There are certain types of science fiction where one thing is different and then you explicate off of that.”

“But for Molli and Max, I wanted to create a universe where anything is possible,” Litwak concludes.

Molli and Max in the Future opens in select theaters February 9. It arrives on VOD March 22.

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