Interplanetary is Chance’s follow-up to Hide & Creep, his locally filmed feature debut. Both movies feature a lively and organic blend of horror and humor, independently financed and crewed and cast by volunteers; what the films lack in Hollywood slickness they possess in originality and fun. Three-plus years in the making, Interplanetary has been described as “Office Space-meets-Alien,” a stab at corporate office life that just happens to feature a high body count.
Just as Hide & Creep did five years ago, Interplanetary will get its first presentation at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival (Sunday, Sept. 28, 4:30 at the Carver Theatre). Chance took a few moments out of his filmmaking life to talk about the experience of making his second movie.
So, you’re really a glutton for punishment, yeah? Did you ever imagine that making movies would take so much time and energy?
Not really. All the short movies that Chuck and I made before Hide were pretty easy. Heck, Birthday Call, probably our most successful short, was shot, cut, and scored in one night.
I should have probably realized that features require more effort when I worked on Robb Rugan’s Alice’s Misadventures In Wonderland, but I was just AC (assistant cameraman) on that show, and there was a decent-size crew (big enough for an AC). When Chuck and I co-directed Hide, I finally figured out that low-budget feature film making is, indeed, hard work.
Interplanetary is your second feature-length film. What lessons did you learn from Hide & Creep that made Interplanetary an easier/more pleasant experience?
I made a big mistake. After Hide, I thought “I know how to make a feature film now. Next one will be easy.” In actuality, all I learned from Hide and Creep was how to make Hide and Creep.
If I was asked to remake Hide today, I could do it twice as good for half the cost. Unfortunately, Interplanetary is a very different kind of movie, at least on the technical side. That said, now that it’s mostly finished, I know how to make Interplanetary. So I guess I know how to make two feature films now.
I did learn a couple of relatively universal things from Hide. Unless you’re Robert Altman, it is probably a good idea to keep the number of speaking parts reasonable (i.e. less than 50). And spend some money on good glass. When it comes to lenses, you get what you pay for.
Having done these two features, both on your own dime, would you at this point be willing to trade off some control of the end-product in return for financing to make the absolute best picture you could? Do the constraints of the wallet affect your vision enough to consider compromise, or are you forever an “indie director”?
I love my actors. But I would love to get an actual budget at some point so I could pay them up front. Also, cameras, sets and effects cost money, and it would be nice to be able to spend more on those things.
The kind of movies I like to make are pretty commercial to begin with, so I’m not sure getting financing would involve that much compromise. I mean, I wouldn’t ask somebody for a million bucks to make some incomprehensible art film that no one would want to watch.
That said, I’d rather spend two years making a movie with credit cards than spend two years begging investors for a budget that (more likely than not) would never materialize.
Assuming the existence of credit cards — or maybe a small trust fund — what advice would you give someone who wants to try to do what you’ve done, and make their Great American Feature Film?
Was it the Boy Scouts or 4H who had the motto “learn to do by doing?” That’s one thing I love about filmmaking — you can watch good movies to get an idea of the basic techniques, then get a cheap video camera and try it for yourself. When you get more experience and confidence, move up to a better video camera or a film camera.
Do you have the experience seeking financing to make recommendations on that to those who don’t have the capital to back themselves?
I don’t have any real experience dealing with investors. I hear dentists are easy targets. And film school can be a good place for making contacts if you’re interested in getting into the studio system. I’d love to go to film school, but I was nearly 30 when I finally caught the movie bug. If it had happened when I was younger, that’s probably the route I would have taken.
Did you allow yourself a bigger budget on Interplanetary? It certainly looks more expensive, or perhaps polished is the word. Was that money, the amount of time you allowed, experience behind the camera...?
I didn’t plan on a bigger budget — I was shooting for about the same budget as Hide. But we went over budget. One of the dangers of credit card financing — it can be a little too easy to spend money.
As for the look of Interplanetary, going over budget including spending more on lenses, production design, and a high-def transfer, and I expect all of those factors helped give the movie a more polished look than Hide. Not that anyone will mistake Interplanetary for a Michael Bay movie.
You shot both features on 16mm film. Why 16mm? Why not make the change to digital, since it’s so much more affordable?
I’m not quite sold on the “digital revolution” yet. It is true there are some nice video cameras available, and there are some affordable video cameras available, but I haven’t found a nice and affordable video camera.
As I have slowly put together my own 16mm camera kit over the last several years, my only costs for shooting are film stock, processing, and transfer. To get quality approaching 16mm film, it would actually be more expensive for me to shoot on video.
I guess I could sacrifice some quality, but why skimp on the image when you’re investing months, if not years, of your life working on a movie?
I’m currently planning to make one more feature on 16mm. After that, I’m hoping the video camera bang-for-the-buck factor will have improved to near-16mm quality.
Having said all that, what I would really like to do is get an actual budget and shoot a feature on 35mm. I don’t think even the best/most expensive video cameras can match the quality of 35mm, and I’m not sure if they ever really will.
Both Hide & Creep and Interplanetary seem to have personal connection in the content — Hide with the unique Southern reaction to the end of the world, and Interplanetary with a not-so-subtle commentary on corporate life. Do you ever insert deeper, hidden meanings into your movies?
I don’t know about “deep,” but there is a little more going on in my movies other than the obvious horror/sci-fi things. I’ve said Hide is about where I grew up (tiny little towns in Alabama) and Interplanetary is about my adult life (writing computer code for “the man”). And my sister pointed out that Interplanetary is also very much informed by the stuff we watched on TV when we were kids (especially the 60s Star Trek TV show and ‘50s monster movies).
It seems to me that all the little specifics are just as important to making an interesting movie as the acting and cinematography. And for those specifics, I go with the old “write what you know” thing.
Besides Star Trek and your day job, what other influences did you have while writing and filming Interplanetary?
Those are probably the two most obvious influences on Interplanetary. My favorite horror movies ever are John Carpenter’s The Thing and the original Alien, and both of those flicks were on my mind during the writing process. My favorite movie ever is Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove,
and I tend to think about that movie when writing anything—I love the way Strangelove is so funny even though the situation (the end of the world) is deadly serious.
By the time we started filming, I was thinking about another Kubrick movie, 2001, and tried to incorporate some of that sort of stuff into Interplanetary. But, let’s be honest, 2001 is a masterpiece, so I might have been aiming a little high. As Interplanetary also features some 80s-slasher-movie-style gratuitous violence and nudity, I don’t think there’s much of a possibility the movie came out too highbrow.
If that last sentence doesn’t sell people on buying a ticket to see the Sidewalk debut of Interplanetary, then maybe you can give them a one sentence reason to do so?
How about I steal a sentence from David Cornelius, critic at eFilmCritic.com? He says Interplanetary is “...audacious, intelligent, and start-to-finish entertaining, a slice of genius standing in bold defiance of the budget.”
Which might be setting expectations a bit on the high side, now that I think about it...
Chance Shirley’s Interplanetary will be shown on Sunday, Sept. 28, at 4:30 p.m. at the Carver Theatre, as part of the 11th annual Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival.
A writer and filmmaker himself, Kenn McCracken is a longtime contributor to Birmingham Weekly.
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