Director Torey Byrne and screenwriter Mahogany J. Slide, who made the new scifi short film Extract: The Ghost Complex earlier this year, did a video interview together this Fall since my webcam was on the fritz. Many thanks to them for taking the time to do this. (Due to length and some audio problems, parts of the interview transcript below have been truncated.)
UPDATE: Byrne’s film Extract will be taking on a new form soon (work is currently being planned), and news about the direction the film will be taking will be posted on the film’s Facebook page at the beginning of 2013.
The entire interview can be viewed on the Her Film YouTube channel or by clicking on the video below. (Total running time about 33 minutes.)
[I]f you ever want to work with me,
you have to watch ‘Firefly’ first.
Extract: The Ghost Complex tackles a huge philosophical question: “are we really only defined by the things we know?” And the main character is under existential threat! Can you give a brief background on the story and talk about what inspired you to write the film, MJ?
Slide: [Inaudible] Well, I guess it was one of these things where I have this thing, it’s basically a library of ideas I’ve come up with that I just haven’t had any time to be able to do anything with, and — long story short — Torey wanted to direct something and she was like, ‘Oh, I need a writer,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m a writer.’
Byrne: Are we really gonna talk about this? [laughs]
Slide: I’m a writer. So, I basically gave her access to the dropbox folder with all the ideas and she picked one she really liked, and we went from there. I just have a crazy obsession with information and data. I think it was sort of the concept, that we were both captured by the idea that society has gotten to a point where everyone and everything is defined by their digital footprint in one way, shape or form, and it doesn’t even have to be just your digital footprint. Information in itself is everything because it also is who you are, and the things that you choose to do and your personality, and all of that. And is there a way to take that and simply strip it down to its rawest form and it just be data and things you know about you and things you know about other people and the world around you, because everyone and everything is sculpted by one’s interpretation and perception. That’s why I found it interesting.
Byrne: I wanted to, I had a campaign, that I wanted to direct my own short film, and we had a plan and that sort of fell through. So I was on Twitter one day and I was like, you know I really kind of want to direct something, I need a script. And that was the whole ‘I’m a writer’ thing from MJ, and she asked me a stupid question, and she was like, ‘Okay, do you want scifi or drama?’ What kind of question is that? Of course I want scifi. So, I don’t know, we made a scifi film. It was awesome.
Slide: She’s just so darn eloquent, folks.
Byrne: Shut up.
Slide: [laughs] So, yeah, that’s pretty much — I wanted an excuse to finally get to cut my teeth on writing or seeing one of something — [groans] speaking of eloquence! I wanted to be able to cut my teeth on something that was science fiction based because that’s the genre that I love the most and it’s one of those things that’s relatively hard to tackle in a short film and just in independent film in the South. We chose something incredibly high concept which has been an entirely interesting journey in itself. So that’s been a fun process.
How did you become involved in the project, Torey, and how have you approached the material as a director?
Byrne: I met MJ on Twitter, was it April? Not too long ago! [both laugh] We haven’t known each other for as long as most [people] think. We just sort of clicked. I stepped off of the bus in South Carolina and it was like we were instantly best friends, it was weird. But I wanted to work with her for a really long time and I finally got the chance to fly out there and meet them about a film that was called Those Lighter Fluid Days and I was cast in that. So, we’d been working together and we had a couple of really awesome opportunities for that, so it [Extract] was pushed to the next spring. So, we have been trying to film and we decided that we were going to make another film! [laughs] We had originally planned on making this back to back with Lighter Fluid Days when I was out there which would have been insane.
Slide: Just a [inaudible] [laughs]
Byrne: That would have been crazy. We were exhausted by the end of the two or three days. But, I don’t know, [inaudible] it was really this small couple minute-long short film just to give me the chance to direct something of my own. And after Lighter Fluid Days was pushed, we decided this story and the universe that the story takes places in — we needed to give it the chance to be what it could. We needed to give it a chance to grow and become something that we originally hadn’t planned, because everything was there, all this information was there, so we had numerous really long phone calls. [laughs] We were up until five in the morning, six in the morning, and we’re in two different states. So there was a time change…
Slide: And then you were in California.
Byrne: I was, I did go to California for a couple of weeks for a couple auditions and to go to Comic-Con, which was awesome. And so that was — is it three hours?
Slide: Three hour difference.
Byrne: So it’s already difficult for us to find time to do this ‘world-building,’ as we called it, but that was even more difficult. But we did it! We did it. This story is its own world. It’s just really insane, it’s really awesome what we did. [laughs] I’m really proud of us because we turned something that was, well, just an idea that you had into a living universe.
Slide: Yeah, and I think it’s deliciously ironic with the whole concept of the film, and I don’t want to give a whole lot away, but the fact that we’re doing, like, predominantly, most of our collaboration has taken place online, is — you will understand the irony once you see the film and see how it all comes together. But it’s been a very, very interesting process. It’s just something that any writer or any person who has a massive love for scifi understands and has the desire to be able to create a world from the ground up.
Sci-fi’s such a popular genre, but the production of a sci-fi film isn’t typically considered an affordable process. How have you put together this film to portray the world and characters of the story in a way that you feel is believable, working with a less than astronomical budget? What were your biggest challenges?
Byrne: Am I taking this one, or are you taking this one?
Slide: You’re the director.
Byrne: Obviously, it was difficult. MJ is so talented that any time that she writes — [laughs] — and I’m [inaudible] to do this now and I’m quite proud of myself, but any time that she’d write something I would want to film that. I don’t want to change anything, I don’t want to do anything to it. I just want what you wrote. And that’s not possible a lot of the time! [laughs] So I’ve started in this next film we have on the docket, I started to [inaudible] to do that, but we basically went line by line and was like, what do we need for this? Do we need special effects for this? Is it something we can do in wardrobe? Is it something we can do in the art department? Which was us! By the way, if any of you are wondering —
Slide: We had a fabulous art department.
Byrne: People were like, who did you have for costuming and art, and, that was us! Basically we went on Etsy and found everything cool that we could.
Slide: Pretty much.
Byrne: There was a little more planning.
I’m really proud of us because we turned something that was, well, just an idea that you had into a living universe.
Slide: [inaudible] The thing about it is this is where the seven plus hour conversations every couple of days came in and everything that we decided that the characters ended up wearing and that were portrayed was very, very purposeful because the two leads are, like, they’re polar opposites physically, but there are so many things about their characters that are oddly similar that we wanted to sort of create that contrast but let the audience pull together the similarities to how they actually are as individuals and how they play off of each other. So that was all very purposeful. Like any indie film, you spend the money you have and you make it happen and you make it work. There are always sort of surprising expenses, but we had a movie on our hands, and we had a film that we absolutely adored and we wanted to see come about and happen, so we made it happen. It was cool because there was like — we needed bikes — so we had a local bike shop, we called them up and were like ‘hey, what can we do to get a bike for free?’ And that all worked out and people were being incredibly supportive of the film, and I think they’re kind of surprised with, like, by the way, two 19 year old chicks and we’re just doing this film for it, and there’s just something refreshing about the whole situation and there have been a lot of people who’ve just signed on simply because first of all, they love the genre, they love our take on it, and they want to see cool films happen.
Byrne: And that’s my favorite part about the whole, the entire indie film community, and I’ve said that from day one, the fact that everyone is so incredibly supportive. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, if you’re making an independent film, another person from the independent film community will come and help. That’s how our entire crew — I talked about this in my director’s statement — we didn’t know each other. With the exception of you and I, and you and Rebecca, none of our crew knew each other, we just, we talked with them on Twitter all the time.
I’ve seen more than a few mentions of “world-building” and creating a “world” for this film on your film’s facebook page and MJ’s blog. What does that process entail and how are you going about tackling such an enormous task? You also have to create a world of the film in terms of social media — for fans — so how are you going about doing that for Extract?
Slide: I think, hilariously, now, I think part of it we do unconsciously because we’re so darn excited about the story. So many people ask me ‘what’s your mentality for promotion?’ And I’m like, ‘Um, I just think it’s really exciting so I tell lots of people about it.’ I say that, but it’s obviously a lot more complicated. But as far as the world-building goes, there aren’t any questions that you don’t ask. That’ where we got, like half, wow, more than, more like three-fourths of the things that we concluded will never end up on screen.
Byrne: Oh my gosh. We know way more about this world than we should.
Slide: And scenarios, and it’s sort of, I actually posted an article on Extract’s Facebook page about sort of, Steven Spielberg did an ‘idea summit’ for Minority Report, and Tim…our graphic designer actually linked me to it. I read the article… and basically he just got a bunch of intelligent people in a room and started asking them questions about what they felt the future would be like. And that’s pretty much what me and Torey ended up doing, where fashion, art, culture, how would the [inaudible] of the McGuffin in our storyline affect…world economics and all of that jazz. Those were the kind of conversations we had, and we started off with a very large view and then pull it down to how does that affect the characters’ mentality, the leads and all of that? So it was really like, as a writer, it was really the greatest process ever. They were these ridiculously long conversations and there goes all of my sleep, but I was okay because my brain was happy.
MJ stated in a video posted on YouTube about the production, that “a lot of the inspiration for the process and the approach has come from Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly,'” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Byrne: When you watch something that is done, you don’t question the universe that he created, and the universe that the characters live in. And it’s because of all those details that normally people don’t think about, you know what I mean? Like the fact that they speak another language, because that’s probable. That’s probably going to be the case in the future that there are brands everywhere, things that you don’t pay attention to, it’s all art department and things like that, but it brings that to life. And we tried to do the same thing, so we created brands, not that would exist in the future, but that would help us bring that to life. We had slang that people would use.
Slide: That was fun.
Byrne: We talked about culture a lot and where we are headed in the future. We actually, originally it was in 2097, [but] we pushed it back to 2067, just to close that gap. That would give us —
Slide: Primarily because technology moves so quickly, I was just just thinking about, 1957 was the technical birth of the internet, and what, it’s 50, 60, 70 years later and we have all of this. So it was, it was one of these things, like I tried to talk Torey into bumping it to 2036 but we had already, like, made stuff official. It just is the opportunity to interpret something that is, that doesn’t exist but could. I think that’s the allure, playing with the familiar and making it unfamiliar but approachable at the same time. And it was empowering, it was a lot of fun, because who else goes to work, serves ice cream and then comes home and builds a world on the phone with some person in Oklahoma? It’s like, we love our lives and we love our jobs because it’s absurd and fantastic… Joss Whedon is kind of my hero. It’s funny…if you ever want to work with me, you have to watch ‘Firefly’ first.
Byrne: I had to do it.
Slide: She did.
Byrne: It was great.
Slide: She did.
Byrne: Really good.
Slide: Yeah, and just to sort of gather the mentality, because it’s really, it’s why I write. Like, ‘Objects in Space,’ final episode of ‘Firefly,’ probably one of the best hours of television ever. And it’s like, I just sit around and I’m like I’m just gonna write that good one day, like, that’s the goal, to get to the ‘Objects in Space’ level.
Shiva Rodriguez has a long history of working in costumes, makeup, set construction/dressing, and prop-making for theatrical productions, but, her greatest love has always been for horror and splatter FX, a generally male-dominated occupation that she fought tooth and nail to get into. She and her husband D. Duckie Rodriguez founded Siren Productions in 1997 and began producing photography series and stage shows. Shiva’s primary responsibilities for these productions were building sets, costumes, & props and executing any practical FX or casualty makeups when needed. In 2008 she made the switch to working for film and video productions primarily as FX / makeup artist and has since become a familiar face in the Central Florida independent film scene. Recently she’s been involved with the feature films Dangerous People and Rough Cut, as well as the live-action comic series Moonie VS. the Spider Queen.
Shiva Rodriguez (Photo courtesy of the filmmaker)
The story: Field researcher Kyle Reading believes that the terrible bear attack that he is investigating is actually the work of something far more sinister. Acting on his suspicions, he reaches out to the only survivor who is beginning to display some very unusual behavior.
But someone is also watching Kyle… someone who sees an advantage to having a stranger in town who cries “werewolf”.
Predatory Moon is a very old-school style horror film geared toward fans of the genre. This production will be shot on location in Florida in 2013, utilizing a talented cast and crew of local film-makers, natural locations, and 100% practical effects.
Campaign goal: $7,476 goal (At the time of this post, the campaign is about 14% funded)
Campaign ends: January 2, 2013
Photo of Shiva working on FX for “Dangerous People” in 2012 (Photo by Richard Anasky)
From the director:
This will be my first time sitting in the director’s chair.
Predatory Moon is a feature-length film that was written to be an extremely challenging project…I expected many of my friends in the industry to think that I’d lost my mind when I decided that I was not only going to take on a werewolf story, but also feature an elaborate on-screen creature transformation without using any computer-generated effects.
…I still have a few more hurdles to jump before I can yell “Action!” for the very first time…
One of the perks for donors:
Artwork by Daniel Byrd (Image courtesy of Shiva Rodriguez)
“Blood Drive” video, part of the fundraising campaign. A plea from the First AD to give money to help them kill a zombie!
Synopsis of Predatory Moon:
Kyle Reading is a zoologist who has been studying wild animal attacks across the country in hopes of finding ways to prevent them. When a young boy is allegedly killed by a bear in Florida, Kyle launches his own investigation. He quickly turns his attention to Dean Clout, the child’s uncle, who somehow survived the vicious attack.
Dean, infamous for being the town drunk, remembers very little about his brush with the bear. Found unconscious in the woods, he only recalls that he and the boy were left there by a friend who went to run an errand and never came back.
But in the weeks following the attack, Dean begins to drop some of his bad habits and pick up some strange new ones. Kyle is convinced that Dean was actually attacked by a werewolf and wants to help him deal with his new condition while keeping the rest of his family safe. He knows that the lycanthropic disease runs in a twenty-eight day cycle and that Dean is running out of time.
Unfortunately for Kyle, there is someone who has been keeping a close eye on him. Someone who sees an advantage to having a stranger in town who cries “werewolf”.
Photo of Shiva with some of the crew of Predatory Moon during filming of the “Blood Drive” (Photo by Richard Anasky)
Shiva Rodriguez (Writer/Director/FX Supervisor)
Virginia Jasper (Producer/Casting Director)
Garith Pettibone (Director of Photography)
Daniel Byrd (Creature Designer)
Dee Dee Seruga (Makeup)
Garo Nigoghossian (Co-Producer)
Daiv Russell (Unit Production Manager)
Jeremey Westrate (First Assistant Director)
Connect with this filmmaker and learn more about this new film:
Interview with Director Amy Berg and Producer Lorri Davis – West of Memphis
at Women and Hollywood
This is a film I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. More than 10 years ago I heard about the West Memphis Three through something I read or heard from Henry Rollins, and soon after, saw a fascinating and heartbreaking documentary film about Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley, all just kids when they were accused, tried, convicted and sentenced (living for years on death row) for the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. This was a deliberate effort by the criminal justice system to “hang” these young men for the disgusting and abominable murder of three young boys despite evidence pointing to the stepfather of one of the boys as the murderer. The story of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley is a story of injustice that was overcome — in part (they are now out of prison but are still fighting (and paying for, quite literally), to be legally absolved of all charges) — through years of tedious and torturous work by legal teams including Echols’ now wife, Lorri Davis; celebrity supporters (among them Henry Rollins, Margaret Cho, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson who produced this film); and unfathomable dedication. Berg’s film opens in theaters on December 25.
Can you describe your career up to this point and talk about why you became a filmmaker?
I would consider myself a mid-career filmmaker at this point in time. I started out as photographer but found the photograph limiting because it did not provide multiple perspectives, temporal and spatial context. This was a problem because it did not represent how I viewed the world and the multi-dimensional reality of human experience. While I was studying photography, I tended towards producing photomontages, photo essays and super-impositions to avoid the single perceptive frame. My thesis project became my very first video/film called 24 Hrs which addressed everyday violence against women. My father had bought me a video camera for my birthday and I went out and shot and edited an 18 minute video, without any clue of what I was doing and taught myself in the process. It was during the making of that video when the polytechnic massacre happened at Université de Montréal where 14 women were shot and killed by Marc Lépine. The video premiered at The Montreal International Film Festival of that year and launched me into filmmaking.
Clip from The Incredible Shrinking Woman:
In 1994, I made the short film The Incredible Shrinking Woman which was a satirical commentary on anorexia in a sexist culture that humorously appropriated pop cultural and cinematic tropes. Later, I was selected in a nationwide search for innovative documentary filmmakers in a program called “Fast Forward” by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) that gave me the opportunity to write and direct my first professional film which became the feature docu-drama Desperately Seeking Helen. The film juxtaposed my (fictionalized) search for the Bollywood movie star and vamp “Helen” with the real life experiences of my mother, an immigrant and housewife who struggled to find a home in her adopted country, and her tragic death in the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182, which also took the life of my little sister. It was a deeply personal film that addressed universal themes and took risks in style and subject. It was a hybrid of forms, genres and mediums, blurred fiction with documentary in unconventional ways – something that had never been done before. It was truly post-modern in that sense and could not be put into a box, which I feared might also be its downfall and become a promotional nightmare. I was also nervous about how it would be received and terrified that my life so exposed would be open for ridicule. Thankfully, it was a critical success; it received several awards and had a theatrical run in several cities. After five years in the making however, and no longer at the NFB, I found myself quite lost and alone. It was as though I had come out of a rabbit hole after that difficult process and emerged into a foreign world. I had a hard time finding my place in the industry that had been changing very rapidly in early 2000. Technologies were changing, film was unaffordable, video had limitations and funding bodies were restructuring and downsizing and becoming more heavily burdened. Despite the success of my feature docu-drama, I was not finding much success in my filmmaking career with the subsequent films I was looking to get produced.
Poster for “House for Sale”
Still from “House for Sale.” Photo credit: Bobby Shore
I felt I had not established an identity as a filmmaker, even after all these years. Was I a documentary filmmaker? Sort of, but not really. Fiction? More likely but I had no actual experience in traditional dramatic filmmaking. I found myself starting over and searching for a “home” within the industry, while producing screenplay after screenplay. Naturally, I thought training in fiction film directing was in order. I turned to the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto (the CFC) and applied to the Director’s Lab, but because of my lack of fictional filmmaking experience, I was refused and told to “go home and make a short fiction film” and apply again once that was done. Frustrating, to say the least. So “naturally,” I fled to Germany! There, from the success of my NFB film, I met a producer and found a supportive community of media professionals that were excited about helping me produce a short film that I shot in Munich. I invested $2,500 of my own money and with volunteer help and post production grants from Montreal, I made a film aptly called The Tourist which is about a wandering loner and misfit who finds himself in Bavaria during the Oktoberfest and entangled in a couple’s troubled relationship. I have since been developing several feature film scripts, and establishing myself as a feature film writer and director.
Clip from Desperately Seeking Helen:
Clip from The Tourist:
How do you see yourself fitting in, or not, to the Canadian film industry or even the Montreal filmmaking community?
I don’t fit in. I have given up trying to fit in and resolved by just producing work that I feel connected to and am passionate about. The most relevant creative work that I will do are films that delve deepest into subjects that most profoundly move me. Those stories emerge from the subjective and idiosyncratic nature and course of my life journey that is unique to me. Not fitting in might be the best thing that could happen to my creative life. Yet when it comes to realizing this “creative life,” I have to believe that my difference is a strength, not a hindrance and convince others of that too, and that my stories have relevance and a place within the cinematic landscape. As women, I think we do set the bar really high and demand 200% from ourselves before believing in ourselves and stepping out taking up our space. From the films that I have been making, I am slowly finding a place within the film community in Montreal which is kind to noncommercial filmmakers because it supports and encourages marginal voices and more creative approaches to film. However, as I develop and grow in my craft, I am increasingly clear that I am a filmmaker without borders. In other words, I am not identified with any nation or culture, but perceive myself as someone who is transnational and sees through the limits of cultural, racial, religious, gender based identities and views a world in which differences give way to universal human experiences.
Does Quebecois film, which is supported so much more than English-language film in the rest of Canada, play a role or have a major influence in your own work?
Quebecois cinema has been influential in my work and has presented an alternative to American mainstream and Indie cinema. Naturally I am proud of cinema that has come out of Quebec that has been quite stellar, however I do find that it’s an industry that has not been easy to penetrate, for someone like me who is not white, male and Francophone. Apart from documentary films, I have not seen much of myself or my experience reflected in most if not all Quebec movies, commercial or otherwise with the exception of films like Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar, which were however both written, directed and produced by white Francophone males who are also my peers. I do think there is a desire for diversity and a multi-cultural and global perspective, yet resources and funds are limited, and they tend to fall into the same hands. I am bent on changing that.
Still from “The Tourist.” Photo credit: Eisha Marjara
How do you go about navigating your identities (as you put it to me) as a Canadian South Asian Quebecois feminist woman? Do you consciously inject your identity into your work, or do you avoid such a personal point of view?
It’s incumbent upon me to avoid consciously injecting my identity into my work, and to consciously seek ways to make implicit my subjectivity in the stories that I tell. Research and development prior to that phase lays the groundwork, shapes my opinions, prejudices, politics and allegiances. I rely on that process to inform the story that my creative brain will end up generating. Viewers and critics are quick to put a film into a box and if it screams “feminist” or “a film about racism” or “a movie about women’s issues,” it will immediately get marginalized and set apart from “regular” boys’ films and not taken as seriously, and more likely receive less exposure, which happens with women’s work in a sexist culture. Such labeling also discourages men and a white mainstream audience, those who would most benefit from the film, access to the films. I am eager for the day when such descriptives as “female” or “black,” “gay” or whatever else will no longer apply to filmmakers.
Have you found or worked with many women within the film industry in Canada? Do you belong to any women’s film or media organizations?
One of my very first jobs was at the notorious Studio D of the National Film Board of Canada, which was a feminist run studio that was mandated to produce documentary films for and by and about women. There I met Kathleen Shannon who spearheaded the Studio, Cynthia Scott and Ginny Stikeman who was the executive producer that the time, director Ann Claire Poirier who was in the French sector and Susan Trow one of the few successful women cinematographers who really inspired me to direct. The Studio produced films like If You Love This Planet, Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, Academy Award-winning I’ll Find a Way and Flamenco at 5:15,among others. Sadly I watched the studio shut down in 1996. Since then, I have worked on only a few indie films (documentary) by women as cinematographer, but I am seeing increasingly more women appear in the industry working as cinematographers, producers and directors.
What has your experience been with funding your projects? Have you ever depended on any of the numerous and established funding schemes available in Canada?
All of my projects except for my docu-drama that was exclusively funded by the NFB, have been funded by artist grants, such as The Canada Council for the Arts and Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Quebec. There are also grants offered by film coops and the NFB which has resources to assist independent filmmakers. Filmmakers and producers who have a company, have more options available to them for financing. They can approach several other financing institutions like SODEC and Telefilm among others. In most cases, there are up to two deadlines a year, and it takes three to four months to receive the results from the application. If the submission is unsuccessful, the applicant can apply again, which also means that it can take years before a film, even a short film or documentary can receive funding. A new jury or assessment committee is selected for each application period. I have tried my hand at crowd funding, but I need more skill to be truly successful at it.
What is your latest project, and what are you working on next?
My latest project is the short suburban drama House for Sale that is having a successful festival run now. Since its release last February, it has picked up six awards. It is from the momentum and success of this film that I would like to get produced a feature film called Venus which, like the short, centers on a transgender protagonist and grapples with themes of identity, belonging and love. I am also developing the drama Calorie which is about an Indo-Canadian mother who travels to India with her troubled teen daughters, only regretting the trip which turns to tragedy.
Montreal filmmaker Eisha Marjara first drew attention with the witty and incisive The Incredible Shrinking Woman followed by feature docu-drama Desperately Seeking Helen, an NFB production which received the Jury Prize at the München Dokumentarfilm Festival and the Critics’ Choice Award at the Locarno Film Festival in 2000. The Tourist (2006) was nominated for best short at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto.
She’s currently developing several features including Venus as well as the controversial docu-drama Lolita Diaries which explores girlhood and sexuality through the lens of Nabokov’s Lolita. Her latest film, House for Sale (2012), has received several awards. (Contact Eisha.)