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DF Interview: The future is a fix in Justin Trefgarne’s film, Narcopolis
By Byron Brewer
Narcopolis is a 2015 British science fiction thriller film written and directed by Justin Trefgarne. The film is set in 2024 after all drugs have been legalized in the UK. Elliot Cowan stars as a police officer who becomes obsessed with solving a case that involves an experimental new drug developed by the largest pharmaceutical company.
On Dec. 28th, Heavy Metal will release a collection of its spin-off comic book from that movie, Narcopolis: Continuum. Last time around, DF brought you an interview with that book’s writer, Scott Duvall. Today, we went to the writer/director of Duvall’s source material, Justin Trefgarne.
Dynamic Forces: Justin, for the uninitiated or those who have been under a rock, tell us a little about the plot of Narcopolis, your 2015 science fiction thriller.
Justin Trefgarne: Narcopolis is set in a British city of the near future where all classes of drugs have been decriminalized. An elite unit of cops called Drecks patrol the streets to shut down the black market and keep the licensed drug manufacturers rich. One such cop, Frank Grieves, is called to the scene of an unidentifiable body that appears to have a rogue substance in its veins. Grieves pursues the case further, against the wishes of his corrupt supervisor, and uncovers a deadly conspiracy that involves a radical new drug and its manufacturer, the enigmatic Todd Ambro.
DF: Narcopolis was your debut feature film as writer and director. What caused you to want to shoulder both of these very demanding responsibilities?
Justin Trefgarne: I wanted to direct a feature film and I also write scripts for money so the best way to do that was to write one for me to direct. Less money, more fun! And I think in seriousness writing my own script meant that I could have total control over the creative vision of the film, which meant in turn that if I wanted to change something I could without worrying about hurting another writer’s feelings. And in turn I would be the only one to blame if it all went wrong.
DF: I know the name “Morlock,” found by your protagonist, Frank Grieves, on a body which later proves to be very instrumental to the film’s chief mystery, was based on H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, a novel that Grieves had given to his young son Ben. Were Wells’ works an inspiration for you in making this film? Were there any other inspirations (I’m thinking of its title, “Narcopolis,” and Metropolis, the 1927 expressionist epic sci-fi film directed by Fritz Lang)?
Justin Trefgarne: The Time Machine is a seminal text that explores totalitarianism and fate, and through the mechanism of time travel, a possible future and asks whether that can be altered. I wanted this theme to be at the core of the movie, and I also wanted there to be an intellectual element to that, as supplied by this idea of the butterfly effect of handing the boy the book and thus sealing everyone’s fate in the story. I was also inspired by a range of other films and stories and, indeed, my own love of graphic novels and the bold, heightened and daring choices they make. But most important of all, I wanted to make a film that felt different and even rebelled a little against the expectations of what a British film is supposed to look and feel like. In that way, it became its own influence.
DF: Tell us about Frank Grieves as a character. What part of the lawman is you?
Justin Trefgarne: I think I’ve always felt a little outside the system. I had a very conventional upbringing in some regards but from an early age I became suspicious of the institutions that we rely on, for whatever reason. I think Frank’s dogged sense of what he thinks he must do, whatever the odds, is close to my own often blinkered determination to achieve something, regardless of the cost to me. Making this film is a very clear example of that. But I think Frank is closest to me in his sense of his role as a father. I have two sons (one of them plays the young Ben in the film). And I think of how much I would do differently if I had a second chance, and how far I’d go to protect them, and I think that’s the real me in there. The father who wishes he could have done better, and who gets a chance to redeem himself and seizes it. I want to think that in Frank’s position I would do the same. I hope so.
DF: In the movie’s setting of the year 2024, all classes of drugs have been legalized in the UK. Yet there is still an underground black market for unlicensed narcotics, and Grieves’ division of law enforcement is dedicated to keeping unlicensed drugs off the street. (Of course, the “laws” turn out to be just a way of keeping competition down for monopoly drug company Ambro.) What is the film saying here about drugs, big business and human nature?
Justin Trefgarne: I think we live in a time when more than ever we have allowed large corporations to infiltrate the most intimate spaces of our lives, through social media, food, lifestyle choices, etc. Now this all looks friendly – the marketing for these products is more sophisticated than ever. But we have to remember that the profit motive drives these companies which means, occasionally (or a lot), they will take steps to ensure our dependence on their products whether that benefits us in reality or not. For me the Ambro Corp in Narcopolis is a metaphor for this kind of enterprise. “We are your friends, and we want you to be happy” – but beneath this is a sinister social experiment whose regulation is limited by the immense economic and lobbying power these companies possess. And the need to grow, expand, is also a need for power. Power over our consciousness – that’s what drives Todd Ambro. It’s both exciting and terrifying depending on who runs the show.
DF: With addiction to drugs a real-world problem and all drugs legalized in Grieves’ UK, I found it ironic that HIS true addiction was his obsession in solving the mystery of the body he discovers at Ambro’s corporate headquarters, one his DNA scanner cannot identify. What would you say is the film’s message regarding Frank and the devils that dwell within us all?
Justin Trefgarne: I’m not sure there’s a conscious message; the film is an unapologetic entertainment. But what drives Frank is the need to do something that feels real, morally sound and ultimately for the good of all and not just personal gain. He’s a stoic in some ways, someone who sacrifices his own welfare for the survival of his beloved family. But he’s also a participant in his own fate. There was a time when he was corrupt, addicted and that led to some dark choices and some very selfish behavior that broke up his family. So he’s both light and dark, a force for good and self-destructive. I guess if there’s a message to all this, it’s that we’re all a mixture of light and dark and that redemption, whatever that means, is within our grasp but it means sacrifice. Real sacrifice. And that’s a bitter pill for some.
DF: So what do you think of the comic book series from Heavy Metal by writer Scott Duvall, Narcopolis: Continuum, which centers on Frank’s son, Ben, and takes place in a film “universe” you created?
Justin Trefgarne: I absolutely love it. I think Scott’s idea to tell the ‘missing’ story of Ben is genius, and the way he weaves the film’s narrative into that is astonishing. I read it again and again, and every time I marvel at how sophisticated and simple it is. And Ralf [Singh]’s artwork is equally thrilling. If you’d told the younger me I was going to have a comic book spin-off/adaptation of my film, I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s a dream come true and an honor to work with such brilliant people.
DF: Finally, Justin, do you foresee a sequel to Narcopolis?
Justin Trefgarne: Not so much a sequel, but I am in fact working on a TV adaptation that works as a prequel to the movie. It’s about how drugs became legal, contrasting the rise of Todd Ambro with the fall of Frank Grieves. It’s tough, but it is a chance to explore these characters that I love on a much deeper level. And there are a few surprises in there too.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Justin Trefgarne for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to answer our questions. The Narcopolis: Continuum Collection from Heavy Metal, based on Mr. Trefgarne’s film universe, hits stores Dec. 28th!
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