“SWALLOWing GENRE, FESTIVALS & other INDIE SCI-FI”
— by JUSTIN D. HILLIARD —
Okay, so the final draft of the script is complete. Now, the majority of our efforts will be exhausted on funding and attaching a name to “SWALLOW.” This is going to continue to be our game plan for the next few weeks. With this week’s entry, I wanted to take the chance to get a little “geeky” and talk about some other indie sci-fi out there at the moment. This all ties in to our overall development and distribution plan when we are considering our niche fit in the sci-fi genre and which festivals we have a shot at debuting at.
Over the last couple of years, both Sundance and SXSW have debuted quite a variety of sci-fi independent films. As I look over some of those titles, I can’t help but feel like “SWALLOW” really is something remarkably different for the genre. It’s neither sci-fi in the sense of aliens, flying saucers and mutant monsters, nor is it an exploration of loneliness and isolation in space or on another planet. It is simply an examination of love and relationships in the near future. It’s sci-fi as much as “Children of Men” or “A Clockwork Orange” are science fiction. I think of those films as cinematic experiences based in drama (with, yes, some elements from the genres of either sci-fi, horror or even comedy). “SWALLOW” will have humor, horrific elements and quite a bit of science fiction; however, at its core, it’s a relationship drama. This is what makes me giddy about venturing into science fiction, because I’m doing it from a purely cinematic mindset of storytelling.
But enough about “SWALLOW” for this week! It’s time to geek out about some other indie sci-fi playing the festival circuit. Before discussing what’s currently playing, I’m going to go back to 2004 as an important day for independent film and science fiction. Shane Carruth’s $7,000 (initial) budgeted “Primer” debuted and shocked critics and filmmakers by taking home the grand jury award at Sundance. This was definitely considered a “return to their roots” for Sundance, and a big win for the “little guy.” It was also crucial to the current respect for the low-budget indie sci-fi genre. It proved that special effects were worthless without a great story and also that a great sci-fi story is not dependent on tons of special effects. Last year at Sundance, Duncan Jones’ “Moon” took that bar and raised it even further, at least on the surface.
I do love the fact that it put storytelling and performance first, but have concerns about what it does to indie sci-fi genre expectations. “Moon” had an estimated $5 million budget according to IMDB, and that doesn’t even include marketing. Five million by studio standards is still pocket change, but I look at that number and think “wow, I could make at least 20 (or really 100) quality films for that price-tag.” Sadly, on the other hand, because of that “lower” budget, Sony Pictures Classics didn’t mount a full-on lead actor Academy Award campaign for Sam Rockwell. Either way, it did help continue to build respect for the genre. I guess our Striped Socks Productions co-founder Ryan Hartsell said it best when he described filmmaking as “having no weight divisions, it’s the lightest-weights forced to compete with the heaviest of heavy-weights, and that will always be the case.” In the end, the product just has to speak for itself.
This year, I noticed a big shift in Sundance’s representation of sci-fi. One of the premiere sci-fi films debuting at Sundance 2010 was “Splice” starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley (two actors I really enjoy). My problem is that it had an estimated $26,000,000 budget, according to IMDB. The movie looks enjoyable and all, and I’m sure bringing that type of star power to Park City is a major “win” for the fest, but what about highlighting another “truly independent” sci-fi movie? Why does a film like that now have a place premiering at a top-tier fest? I’m not completely against the idea (especially considering the marketing perspective), but where does it stop? And who was possibly deserving of a Sundance premiere, but lacked the star-power to make it happen? Also a couple of other good-looking “higher” budget sci-fi films out on the top-tier circuit – watch the hilarious trailer for “Cold Souls” and check out the SXSW Magnet pick-up “Monsters” interview and exclusive clip. Instead of giving into the cynical questioning of festival programming, I’m going to look at some of the other lower budget sci-fi out there, and highlight those films. These are my picks for the indie sci-fi feature films that are doing it right!
My first selection is Clay Liford’s “Earthling.” Clay and the film were recently profiled in Charlie Jane Anders’ io9 article “Earthling’s ‘Space Slug Bad Touch’ Is Destined For Cult Status.” The article features some great clips with stunning cinematography and intriguing effects. Clay also discusses his influences behind the story and style, which solidifies my interest in the project. I missed the film at SXSW, where it premiered, but will get my chance to check it out at the 2010 Dallas International Film Festival in April. I also want to give a quick nod to Yen Tan (award-winning director of “Ciao”), who designed the beautiful and haunting poster for the film.
My second highlighted film is Amber Benson and Adam Busch’ 2010 Slamdance debuting film, “Drones.” The film looks like an enjoyable and clever genre splitting sci-fi that is more talk and less schlock. It’s also nice to see some of the original “Freaks and Geeks” cast in the trailer.
The third feature film selected is Geoff Marslett’s “Mars.” I first read about the film on Jenn Brown’s Blog at Slackerwood, as a 2010 SXSW highlight. Although reminiscent of Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” the trailer for “MARS” definitely gets my attention and the style looks incredibly well executed.
I first read about “Wake,” my fourth highlighted film, in John Gholson’s SXSW Exclusive for Cinematical. Despite the “name” actors and the glossy front, the trailer keeps “Wake” from being tossed up in the “higher” budget list (the signs seem to point that it belongs there, though). But I’m sticking it here, because I kind of dig most of the actors and some of the clips from the trailer. I will be honest though … a couple of the lines uttered in the teaser could easily come off as unintentional camp. Here’s hoping that’s not the case.
How about some short plugs for indie sci-fi shorts? First, check out the jaw-dropping trailer for the short “Analog” featured on Quiet Earth. Todd Brown with Twitch Film first posted info about my next pick, Dan Gauds’ hypnotic RED Camera shot short “Leap.” Check out this trailer posted by Darren at Scifiscoop.com for Michael David Lynch’s “Burden.” I met Michael briefly at the AOF Film Festival in Pasadena last year and was really impressed with his short. Check out the official site for “Burden” and this great article/featurette.
Hopefully, this gives some other hard-working independent sci-fi filmmakers out there a little extra attention. I salute all of you for attacking such a difficult and tricky genre with outstanding independent gusto!
Now, to prove I have nothing against bigger budget sci-fi fare, here is the trailer for one of my top most-anticipated films of 2010, the sci-fi mind-bender “Inception.” I can’t wait for this film!
I also want to take the time to highlight what I can only sneak into this article by desperately trying to link hallucinatory after death experiences to sci-fi. The film is Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void.” Check out this low-res Japanese trailer for the film.
“Enter the Void” has played pretty much every single top-tier fest in the world, and I’m looking forward to catching it and seeing my friend Nathaniel Brown’s performance in the leading role. Congrats to Nathan on being able to work on such an incredible project. Watch the Sundance Q & A here, where he sneaks a few statements in between Noe’s answers. Great Q & A, wish I could have gone!
Thanks again for reading! In the next few installments, I’ll be referencing some other terrific independent films out on the fest circuit (not necessarily sci-fi). Hopefully next week we’ll have some big news to share!
And now, for the winner of the STANTON “The Other Side of Paradise” soundtrack (based on last week’s comment section) – Comment #1 by Dani gets the prize! The first comment also happened to be a great suggestion … congrats on winning the soundtrack. Submit your info and address to the It’s Just Movies team and we’ll send the soundtrack.
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“Making SWALLOW” — a weekly column exclusive to It’s Just Movies — is following the film from pre-production through distribution.
Justin D. Hilliard is a writer/director/producer and co-founder of Striped Socks Productions. He attended the University of Texas at Arlington and received his BFA in Film – Cum Laude in 2004. His previous films are “The Other Side of Paradise,” “3 Thumbs Up Doc” and “Wednesday.”