Directed by Bert & Bertie, Troop Zero centers on Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) an eccentric and free spirited girl who enters a competition (along with her fellow Birdie Scouts) that offers the chance to be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record. In the following interview, Bert & Bertie discuss their collaborative process, the “micro to macro” scope of the film, and why Mckenna Grace is a one of a kind actress.
What is the key to a successful collaboration between the both of you?
Bert: We always put the story first. So when you’re collaborating, it’s what serves the story best. We come at it with very different ideas and a lot of ideas that are very much the same but when you’re trying to decide which way you’re moving, it’s a lot about instinct. That means, what does the story need from us? And that’s what we use to move forward.
Bertie: We are meticulous beasts. Pre-production is really where we make the movie. Of course you read the script and you form your own ideas about it. But then it’s the process, and we love that process of coming together and talking about the minutiae of different ideas. If it’s not a collective idea that we both love, there may be a better way.
I think we always say if anything is too much about our egos (then we) just focus on what we’re trying to create and all of that stuff fades away. At the end of the day we’re trying to make the best story we can. That’s part of that process, but it takes a lot of conversation, a lot of pre-planning.
Bert: Whether it’s between us or the production team or the financiers, or whoever’s on board, make sure you’re making the same film. That is something you need to carry all the way through the process. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it is not.
From the outside looking in, one may see Troop Zero as an uncomplicated, feel good film. But it’s actually an ambitious movie that doesn’t pander to sentiment. Can you talk about approaching your film in a realistic manner?
Bertie: Thank you for saying that. There is one level of looking at this and I think when you watch the trailer or you see the excerpts, you might think it’s only a surface, feel good film. But as you say that’s so belittling to Troop Zero because Troop Zero has such an incredibly powerful message for young girls and and all the outsiders out there. It’s about familial relationships and letting your freak flag fly and we always say it’s for the little girl in every grown up woman and for the grown up woman inside every little girl. That’s who we are speaking to with this.
Bert: The thing about this film that transcends the outer comedy that you perceive it to be is that there has never been a film that shows a story about a group of girls going on an adventure to achieve something greater than themselves by working together and doing it.
That does not exist in society, which kind of blew our minds when we realized we never had The Goonies for girls. We never had the Stand By Me (type movies). That story is missing from our society. It was always boys.
Can you talk about the visual scope and planning behind the film?
Bertie: Troop Zero is a real story with real characters but there is a perspective of the South in the 70s which is Christmas’ childhood perspective and it’s full of joy, optimism and vibrancy. There is meanness and darkness to some parts of her story, but overall we created a world that is slightly of less reality and slightly tweaked in a way. And for us that was Christmas’ perspective, so we shot-listed very heavily.
We planned shots with our DP (James Whitaker) far in advance and since we are limited with the hours we have for children, sometimes we had to revert on that plan and just get something in the can and sometimes the pressure of that makes something even more beautiful than what you’re planning. Really that was a perspective of the movie for us.
Bert: And the ambition of the film is going from the micro to the macro. It’s going from where am I right now standing barefoot in this trailer park to the greater universe out there. Our inspiration was Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot. That moment he turned the satellite back towards where Earth was and this sun ray caught Earth and it looked very much like a speck of sand on the beach. You realize how significant and insignificant we are. We wanted to capture that sense in a movie. And we did.
Christmas Flint is filled with hope and optimism, and she wants to make a difference in her life as well. Could both of you relate to that point of view?
Bert: I grew up in a very remote farm in South Africa, barefoot until I was 5 years old. There was always that sense of wanting to leave that and wanting to travel the world and tell stories. My mum says that’s been in me since I was young. What are the chances of growing up there and ending up here. I don’t know, but it’s been quite the journey.
Bertie: Troop Zero is about finding your place in the universe, but it’s also about reaching for the stars and I think we both had that in us. We keep going and it’s a real kind of marathon. Sometimes we jog, and sometimes we walk for a while and sometimes you’re sprinting like hell but you are trying to achieve something and you keep going. And I think all of us, wherever we’re from, can use a little bit of that hope.
It’s pretty safe and obvious to say Mckenna Grace is an actor who’ll be working for decades to come.
Bertie: I (Mckenna Grace) she carried a lot of Mckenna into this role and I think a lot of the times the industry tells her to be one thing but actually I think she wants to be odd and fun and herself. When she walked into the room, that was Christmas. We hadn’t seen anyone else like Mckenna. At that stage, we didn’t even know her potential and on set we just saw the depth that she had and the ability to bring all the kids together. It was quite remarkable. We’d forget she was just 12 – she turned 12 on set. We just forgot how young she was, and she’s just phenomenal. She’s just great.
Can both of you name one of your favorite films and why does this film still resonate?
Bertie: In the context of this, the film that myself and my brother broke the VHS tape on was Stand By Me. We used to watch it pretty much every weekend. And I think obviously, within the context of what we said earlier on, that was boys going on an adventure but there was so much humanity and hope and wisdom in those young boys. It was one of those films that was about a small adventure which had big, universal themes. That film I still carry to this day and it was one of the touchstones in making Troop Zero which is to bring aspiration but also a sense of reality and authenticity.
Bert: She stole mine (laughs). I’d go with The Princess Bride. It was kind of the anti-Princess story. It was a story about love and authenticity and staying true to yourself but it had this craziness to it in this fantastical adventure. We wanted (those elements to) Troop Zero, with going on an adventure, finding yourself, and finding love.
Troop Zero premieres on Amazon Prime Video on January 17.
****The full audio version of my interview with Bert & Bertie, as well as Troop Zero screenwriter Lucy Alibar, is featured for CinemAddicts Patreon members.