Spotlight on indie sci-fi 400 DAYS – Q & A with writer/director Matt Osterman

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400 Days is a psychological sci-fi film centering on four astronauts who are sent on a simulated mission to a distant planet to test the psychological effects of deep space travel. Locked away for 400 days, the crew’s mental state begins to deteriorate when they lose all communication with the outside world. Forced to exit the ship, they discover that this mission may not have been a simulation after all.

Starring: Brandon Routh, Caity Lotz, Ben Feldman, Grant Bowler, with Tom Cavanagh and Dane Cook
Directed and Written by: Matt Osterman

Available on VOD (Amazon) and iTUNES: January 12, 2016
Available in Theaters: January 15, 2016
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Rated: Not Yet Rated

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MattOstermanI love indie sci-fi films and I had seen the trailer a few months ago and was intrigued by it. When I later learned that it was made by a Minnesota-native, who still lives in the Twin Cities area, I definitely wanted to feature it on my blog. Thanks to my friend and fellow Twin Cities Film Fest’ staff Matt Cici who introduced me to Matt Osterman. He was one of the speakers at a TCFF Educational Events back in October, but I wasn’t able to make it then, so I’m glad I finally got the chance to meet with Matt to talk about his film.

Matt grew up in Wisconsin but since college he had made MN his home. Filmmaker wasn’t on his career checklist but he was a big movie geek. His parents gave him a black/white TV for his room so he could watch reruns of Twilight Zone from an early age. He had always been into writing and telling stories and one day he had a lightbulb moment that he wanted to go into making movies.

Here’s my Q&A with Matt:

Q: You wrote as well as directed this film. What’s the biggest challenge in adapting your own work?

A: Well, that in and of itself is literally the biggest challenge, not having the aesthetic distance to properly judge something. You get so close to it, and though you know it better than anyone else but that’s also a curse because you can’t take a step back and look at it objectively. So that’s difficult but what I did was I tried to get as many feedback as possible throughout the entire process. Hopefully they can be honest with you and say ‘hey this part sucks, what are you trying to do, etc.’ So I tried to incorporate that into the process, you know, just lose the ego and try to take it all in. Whatever makes the project better.

You chose to live Minneapolis, far away from the filmmaking mecca of L.A. and NYC. How have you been able to make it work somehow, as you’re also raising a family here in Minneapolis?

You know, it’s been ok so far. Luckily living here we have a great quality of life and it’s a lot cheaper to live here than it is out there. I have a family so living in Minnesota has afforded us a lifestyle that you can’t really get anywhere else without a huge bank account. So I have to travel up there quite a bit but I have a manager who lives out there in L.A. so he’s sort of my ear to the ground and he can set up meetings. I’d say, ‘hey I can be out there for a week so let’s get all of our meetings in.’ I don’t know what opportunities I’m missing because I’m here. But because I’m a self-generating writer/director, you can write from anywhere. I don’t have to be over there to write, and in some ways it’s better because you’re away from the ‘bubble’ y’know and you can bring your own unique voice and not get caught up in the industry’s crap.

Q: Now, let’s talk about casting. You have three actors from CW’s superhero series (Brandon Routh and Caity Lotz were in Arrow and now in Legends of Tomorrow, and Tom Cavanaugh’s in The Flash).

A: Well, Brandon, Caity and Tom weren’t [in those series] before we cast them in this movie.

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Q: Ah so that came afterwards. So did you have a lot of input into casting, a certain wish list if you will in terms of what type of actors you want for the roles or did you just trust your casting managers?

A: No, we actually cast them ourselves. So I had a say as to which actors we hire. We met with hundreds of actors out there, it was insane. We didn’t have auditions as we went with a higher level of actors who already had a lot of taping and projects to look at. You get a sense of what skills and range they have. Especially for a low budget film, it’s more like they did you a favor than the other way around. So with a lot of them you just met with them and talk about the story and try to understand it, and see if they have the right vibe for it. So I easily have met with at least a hundred actors for all the roles. Now, for these four in particular, I was familiar with all of them and I went back to watch some of the stuff they’ve done and was sold. It’s a business as well, so you want to get people that would get the distributors excited and people around the world would want to watch. So it’s always a mixture of who’s right for the role, who has talent and who is well-known enough to make it happen.

I couldn’t be happier with people we cast, they were all amazing and did an awesome job.

Q: Talk about the filming locations a bit. Where did you shoot this film?

A: The ship we built in a sound stage in L.A. It’s all custom-built and again, we’re very low-budget so we had to be very smart with how we build things. And since it’s all a simulation it didn’t have to look like a real working spaceship. So we’re afforded an extra wiggle room there where if it’s truly a spaceship, people might say ‘hey that didn’t look like…’ but luckily we didn’t have to deal with stuff like that.

When I wrote the script I knew I wanted to do it and I knew I wouldn’t have someone give me $20 mil to make the movie. So I made sure that the spirit of the story would fit into this film.

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Ben Feldman & Brandon Routh

Q: I just read an article on Metropolis.com that the future of sci-fi films are indies instead of big blockbusters. It made me think about indie sci-fis like Another Earth, Ex Machina, and The Machine which also stars Caity Lotz. So what are your thoughts about that, do you think the future of sci-fi films are independent films vs big-budget ones like say, Interstellar?

A: Well, Interstellar is sort of its own thing. It’s done by Christopher Nolan who pretty much could do whatever he wants right now. And that film, I’d say, still kept a lot of the indie spirit because it wasn’t afraid to tackle big ideas and challenging concepts, which are the opposite of what most studio films are right now. So they [the studios] usually go with something very broad so they could sell internationally and they’re very smart about what they do, obviously it’s a business and they’re doing it extremely well. So I can’t begrudge them at all for that. But yeah, you’re exactly right, indie films are more about challenging ideas which sci-fis need, it’s giving us a different lens or perspective to view things. You need that to be able to talk about various issues and what not, so I think we’ll see a huge explosions of indie sci-fi films. Especially where sci-fis has been traditionally effects-driven films and you can do that on the cheap now, or find ways to get more bangs for your bucks. Like what we did, a lot of the effects in our film are practical effects. We had a few visual effects here and there to elevate the rest of them.

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Tom Cavanaugh

Q: It makes me think of how good District 9 was, the film by Neill Blomkamp which was made relatively cheap by Hollywood standards ($30 mil) compared to its follow-up Elysium which was nearly four times more expensive to make ($115 mil). The latter was all CGI, explosions and had no heart. It was like a superhero Matt Damon in space or whatever. So a lower-budgeted sci-fis actually appeal to me more.

A: Yeah well, most low-budget films, you don’t have money to throw at a problem, y’know. So you have to think hard about how to solve those problems. A lot of the times with big-budget movies, they run into an issue and they’d just throw money at it to camouflage it. Whereas we, we have to find ways to organically incorporate something or find an interesting solution that’ll make a movie better because of it. And a lot of limitation is actually more freeing, and that’s the fun part for me, like engineering has always been interesting to me. Problem solving is always so fascinating.

Q: This is the first project out of Syfy Films out of the gate. How’s it been working with them. Were they involved from the beginning in terms or financing or just distribution?

A: Syfy has been absolutely amazing, real supportive and a real champion for the film. A lot of smart people over there so I’ve been really lucky to have been associated with them. They came in after we started shooting. I’m not even sure if Syfy Film had existed or not as an entity at that time, perhaps they were in the process but certainly they weren’t ready to buy anything at that point. We tried to finance this ourselves but we did have other partners come on that bought the film so we have a domestic and international distribution. XLrator Media for domestic and Content Media handles the international rights. So they bought the film a week into production so we didn’t even have anything to show, we had some footage and they saw the cast and they liked it so they jumped on board. Then later when we had the rough cut, Syfy jumped on it immediately.

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Brandon Routh & Caity Lotz

Q: If you don’t mind sharing, what’s the budget and financing process for the film?

A: It’s all privately-financed, so I partnered with producers that are L.A. based. So they have producers and financiers that they work with, and they said ‘hey we have this movie, it’ll be great, trust us.’ So they’re part of various production companies, not big studios, so they’re pretty much involved in the indie world. So they’re able to get the money and we went and made it. Our movie’s made for well under a million dollars.

Q: You mentioned that your film is like a puzzle. What do you want the viewers to get out of your movie, or what do you intend it to be for the viewers?

A: Going into it, and all the way into the process even up until now, I want people to watch it and after that they’d have a conversation afterward about their own interpretation. Because there are multiple interpretations that they can get out of this film. For me, I enjoy movies that aren’t wrapped up in a neat bow at the end and hand you the ending on a silver plater. Nothing wrong with those movies, in fact most movies are that way, y’know, nice resolution. But I really like movies that challenge the audience and say ‘we’re not going to connect the dots for you, you have to pay attention and come to your own conclusion at the end and then hopefully talk to someone else who perhaps have a different interpretation of it.

I also love movies that has those *refrigerator moments.* It’s when you watch a movie and you enjoyed it but something sticks with you. Then you find yourself a couple of nights later at 2 am, you can’t sleep, then you’re staring at your refrigerator looking for a snack and go ‘oh that’s what that meant’ or ‘ oh I get that now’ I love movies that live beyond the time you watch it and I find that it’s frustrating for people. Now that the film’s out internationally, and of course some are illegally downloading it, I’m getting angry tweets from people. Some said ‘how could you forget to write an ending?’ and I said, ‘well that wasn’t quite THAT, but there’s been a history of movies that didn’t get wrapped up in a pretty neat bow.


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Where to watch 400 Days


Have you seen 400 Days? Let me know what you think!

Question of the Week: What’s your favorite film(s) on Man-Machine relationship?

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I saw The Machine back in April and while I didn’t think it was perfect, it’s a pretty darn good sci-fi that’s worth your while. I think the concept is intriguing, with fantastic acting [Toby Stephens, natch!] and compelling direction. I have been re-watching clips of this film recently, especially the scenes between the scientist Vincent (Stephens) and his robotic creation Ava (Caity Lotz). At the core of it, it’s the relationship of man and machine that makes the story memorable.

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One of my favorite scenes in the movie

Sci-fi classic Blade Runner, which The Machine undoubtedly paid homage to, explores that man-machine relationship brilliantly. I actually love the original title of Philip K. Dick novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?‘ Now it doesn’t sound as cool but it’s effective as it immediately makes you think about the humanity [or lack thereof] aspect of man-made machines better than Blade Runner.

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All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain …

I love sci-fis, especially those that explore this topic, perhaps even more so than sci-fis involving aliens from outer space. So no doubt I love movies like Terminator, Iron Giant, The Matrix, A.I., Her and the Battlestar Galactica (BSG) TV series, which is a big space soap opera of Cylons (android race) and humans. I think there’s something about ‘men playing God’ aspect that captures my attention, as in some ways these androids are part of us humans who create them, in the same way that we’re created in the image of our Creator. But of course the fantastical aspect of seeing machines somehow developing consciousness is what I find fascinating AND entertaining.

Often the depictions of these androids actually remind us of what it means to be human, as the Blade Runner ‘tears in the rain’ scene so poignantly illustrates. In this scene in The Machine, Vincent [a scientist akin to Dr Frankenstein] asks his own robotic creation…

‘Just who are you really? How do I know that you’re alive and not just some clever imitation of life?’


Now even Vincent himself probably realizes he might never find the answer. Now another the burning question being asked time and time again is can man and machine co-exist? In the BSG series, the Cylons threaten human extinction, forcing the humans into deep space confined in a spaceship. The tagline of The Machine says ‘They Rise. We Fall.’ which suggest that the much-more advanced and powerful machines are more dominant and that the future seems uncertain for the humans.


So what are your thoughts on this topic? What’s YOUR favorite movies about man & machine?

Weekend Roundup: The Machine (2013) Review

Happy Monday everyone! I’m slacking off a bit here, I was hoping to get my Breathe-In review this weekend but just couldn’t find the time to do it. But I was supposed to catch the Brendan Gleeson/Taylor Kitsch comedy The Grand Seduction on Friday but I made a snafu that I didn’t order an extra ticket for my hubby so I have to go to the Sunday night screening instead. So I’ll post my review of Breathe-In together with that one as soon as I get around to it 😀

Well, this weekend I got to see a pretty cool sci-fi indie The Machine: TheMachinePoster

This British dystopian sci-fi has obvious nods to Blade Runner. In fact, it says right on the synopsis and the marketing itself. As a fan of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, I was naturally intrigued. Instead of a story of a cop hunting down replicants aka robots, The Machine‘s protagonists are two artificial intelligence (AI) engineers who are working together in a futuristic era where a world is in an economic crisis and a cold war with China is brewing. Their boss is the Ministry of Defense Thomson (Denis Lawson) who’s hellbent on winning the arms race by creating a robotic soldier. The main scientist, Vincent (Toby Stephens) is morally conflicted about his job, but he does it because it’s the only way he could have technological access to help his ailing daughter.

The meat of the story takes place after Vincent’s new science partner Ava (Caity Lotz) is brutally murdered and he then created a cyborg in her likeness. Soon Thomson’s real motive is quickly revealed and Vincent’s life is endangered as he becomes a potential victim of his own creation.

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Despite the low-budget production (less than $2 mil), I think writer/director Caradog W. James‘ did a nice job in creating a thought-provoking film that’s also visually arresting. The homage to Blade Runner is evident in his stylish visual style with the bleak futuristic setting and use of neon lights, as well as its use of synthesizer music that evokes Vangelis’ theme. I like sci-fi films that’s more atmospheric and even a little bit moody, instead of an all-action extravaganza like Elysium, and that’s partly why I enjoyed The Machine. There’s a lot of heart in the relationship between Vincent and his daughter, as well as with Ava even in robotic form. The developing relationship between a human being and an AI is nothing groundbreaking and foreseeable, but when done well, it’s still fascinating to watch. The love story is also not overblown which adds to its realism.

Both Stephens and Lotz did a nice job in their respective roles. Stephens’ got that brooding, tortured soul thing down pat which works well for this role, and Lotz whom I’ve never seen before is especially impressive. Her transformation from a curious scientist to an AI with childlike vulnerability but deadly power is quite convincing, and I find her struggle with the loss of her humanity pretty moving. She obviously looks more robotic than any of the replicants in Blade Runner, and Lotz gets the mechanical mannerism perfectly. Action fans would certainly appreciate her dance-like but lethal kickboxing moves. The film is rated R for some brutal and bloody action sequences from start to finish.

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The story is not perfect though, it gets predictable as the film progresses and some things are not explained too well. The side effect of the sensor-restoring brain implants on the fatally-wounded war veterans *recycled* for the project is that they render them mute as they become cyborgs. For some reason they can still speak in intelligible robotic voice to each other, though later they regained their speech ability and it’s never fully explained why. Despite that, it’s pretty darn entertaining and I highly recommend it if you’re into this genre. The intimate feel of the story gives a nice lingering effect after I watched it, and the ending is perfectly eerie as we imagine what a plausible future shared with an AI could be. The Machine proofs that you can still make an engaging film even on a shoestring budget, I’m curious to see what James would do with more resources at his disposal.

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Has anyone seen this film? Curious to hear what you think.