Director of new film produced by Obama's company reveals key role former president played in shaping the script

 September 29, 2023

Former President Barack Obama, in his role as co-head of a film production company, reportedly provided several notes and suggestions to the screenwriter and director of a new disaster film his company is producing, according to Deadline.

The recipient of those suggestions on the project, Sam Esmail, recently opened up in an interview about what it was like to have an ex-president offering him advice on how best to transform a thrilling apocalyptic novel into a believable movie that people will want to see.

Barack and Michelle's first work of fiction for production company

The Independent reported that former President and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground Productions is set to soon release its first work of fiction, an adaptation of author Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel "Leave the World Behind," which the former president had enjoyed and included on his 2021 list of books to read over the summer.

The film stars Hollywood A-listers Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as a married couple with teenage children staying at a rental property on Long Island while a mysterious apocalyptic event unfolds around them, and conflict ensues when the owner of that property, played by star actor Mahershala Ali, and his daughter show up at the vacation house to seek refuge as well, forcing everybody to figure out how to work together to survive.

Esmail, the director and screenwriter of the adaptation, revealed that the former president sent him "a lot of notes" while he was working on the script that helped the story stay somewhat grounded in reality and be as close to the book as possible.

Obama's role in adapting the novel to the big screen

In a recent interview with Vanity Fair about the project he was working on with the Obamas' production company, Esmail said, "In the original drafts of the script, I definitely pushed things a lot farther than they were in the film, and President Obama, having the experience he does have, was able to ground me a little bit on how things might unfold in reality."

"I am writing what I think is fiction, for the most part, I’m trying to keep it as true to life as possible, but I’m exaggerating and dramatizing," he continued. "And to hear an ex-president say you’re off by a few details … I thought I was off by a lot! The fact that he said that scared the f--k out of me."

The director shared how Obama's suggestions helped him correct parts of the story that were too pessimistic or unrealistic and provided valuable observations on human nature and how strangers with competing goals could come to work together toward the same thing.

"He had a lot notes about the characters and the empathy we would have for them," Esmail said. "I have to say he is a big movie lover, and he wasn’t just giving notes about things that were from his background. He was giving notes as a fan of the book, and he wanted to see a really good film."

High praise for the stars of the film

Esmail would go on in that interview to sing the praises of the on-screen stars of the film, including Roberts, whom he has worked with before on other projects, Hawke, whom he had never before worked with but was a fan of, and Ali, who he compared to a modern-day Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart.

He also lauded actor Kevin Bacon, who plays a sort of doomsday prepper and conspiracy theorist who the other main characters come into conflict with while trying to survive the world crumbling around them, as well as the young rising stars who play the teenaged children of the married couple and the property owner.

In reference to Roberts, Hawke, Ali, and Myha’la Herrold, who plays the daughter of Ali's character, Esmail said, "All four of them just brought another dimension to how to react to a crisis that just clashed and then overlapped in beautiful ways," and added, "To me, that’s the special effect of the film, watching those A-listers just go at it. That’s more exciting than any CGI disaster set piece."

Film will be released in theaters and on Netflix in the coming months

According to the Independent, "Leave the World Behind" will first be premiered at the AFI Fest in October, while Deadline noted that the film will debut in theaters nationwide in late November.

Vanity Fair reported that the new movie is set to eventually be available to stream on Netflix, with which the Obamas' production company has a lucrative contract, in early December.

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