Set Visit to Indie Sci-Fi Thriller DARK CLOUD + Q & A with director Jay Ness & lead actress Alexys Gabrielle

Following a horrific accident, a woman voluntarily becomes a test subject to an artificial intelligence designed to rehabilitate her. In a world dependent on machines, she learns not all technological advancement has humanity’s best interests in mind.

Starring: Emily Atack, Alexys Gabrielle, Hugo Armstrong
Written by: John J. Kaiser
Directed by: Jay Ness

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As a huge film fan, it’s always awesome to be invited on set during filming. It’s extra fun when the filmmaker is a personal friend of mine and is one of the talented camera crew of my Hearts Want. So thank you Jay Ness, for inviting me on set and taking the time to talk to me about your film! The day of the my set visit in mid August, they happen to be filming an indoor scene with a Minnesota-based actor Toussaint Morrison and the film’s lead actress Alexys Gabrielle. So I’m thrilled that I was able to get a few minutes to chat with her on their lunch break. Here are pictures I posted on my Instagram from the set…


Here’s my Q&A with Jay:

What is Dark Cloud? Would you give us an elevator pitch if you will of your film?

Following a horrific accident, a woman volunteers to become a test subject of an artificial intelligence designed to rehabilitate her. In a world dependent on machines, she learns that not all technological advancement has humanity’s best interest in mind.

There’s been a ton of films/tv series made that deals with AI, but how do you see this story different from the pack?

I feel like a lot of films jump very far into the future, while this one is closer to present day that we’re familiar with, with hints of what’s coming. It’s also a slight shift from reality. I look at the story as a small stepping stone to a place that’s more of a transition to that AI takeover or post-apocalyptic, James Cameron’s Terminator vibe or Blade Runner. We try very hard to keep this film grounded. The role of Emily Attack is pretty much a glorified Alexa or Siri, so things that are happening right now but more enhanced, the next level of AI technology. For example, the contact lenses that they use is being developed by Samsung, they can project images to your eyes, etc. So it’s definitely a world that’s relatable, but there are little quirks in the characters, such as in the way they dress, that tell the audience this isn’t quite the same as present day.

How’s the experience been so far directing your first feature?

I feel very fortunate that I’ve got a team that really allows me to disconnect from a lot of technical and performance concern in a sense that, the lead & supporting cast, all took direction so well. I have the luxury of talents that take direction so well that I’m not worried about getting what I need or not getting something that is crucial. We have been able to work through every scene in different ways and find inventive paths as not to go down the same route scene after scene. With a film like Dark Cloud where we have a protagonist in one location for an hour and a half, it’s incredibly crucial to be able to vary what the audience is seeing and what kind of journey they’re taking by way of presenting dynamic performances.

I heard that the way you’ll be filming Emily Attack (who’s based in the UK) is quite unusual. Can you tell me more about that?

Right now the current plan is to utilize her likeness with this incredible face tracking technology. It’s not unlike what people are doing with Snapchat, with the face swapping technology. This is on the next level but the same idea, we’re seeing how easy it is to manipulate existing footage or photos. Jordan Peele did that with Barack Obama, it’s very similar to that. At times it would feel incredibly real but other times you’d sense something is not quite right where it touches its uncanny valley. We’re coming at it with that angle in order to walk that fine line of reality and science-fiction fantasy.

Would you talk a bit about casting? Especially Alexys Gabrielle as the lead.

It’s an anomaly situation. We did several calls via Skype and FaceTime, so I didn’t get to meet Alexys until she’s on set. I spent a lot of time talking with her casually so I get to know who this talented woman was. What made the most sense to me, when she read lines, it doesn’t sound like she’s reading lines. It’s important to get on the same page and share a lot of values that goes into art and storytelling and filmmaking. Both John Kaiser (the writer of the project) and I both agree that parts should cater the person playing them, there should be room for adjustments because honesty in a performance is so ridiculously important. If the audience isn’t on board with the performance, then it doesn’t feel real.

You have collaborated w/ JJ Kaiser for a long time. In this particular project, has there been time where you and John didn’t see eye to eye on something?

It wasn’t so much about a particular person, it’s more about the kind of talent we were looking for. There’s no part that’s written particularly for a person, there’s not one single person we went after. For example, the character Bruce, it could’ve easily been a disaster if Hugo Armstrong didn’t come on board. He’s a character actor who’s able to walk the line between comedy and drama and being quirky so well. We have a lot of disagreements and discussions about that character and how he’d be portrayed in order for him to be a pivotal device for the relationship between Chloe and Ada to grow. We had different ideas about what that’s like so we needed someone that could mash all those things together without resorting to a caricature. He did an amazing job making the character grounded and also weird and quirky.

What has been the most challenging aspect about this project so far?

Well indie filmmaking is just very demanding work, the long hours, exhaustion, etc. I think the most challenging and frustrating of all is also a blessing in a way in a sense that we don’t have a lot of money stored for this so any problem has to be solved quickly. Because we have to problem solve creatively all the time, I think that definitely takes a toll on one’s ability to perform the best. Maybe that’s debatable. I feel when you don’t have tons of cash, it forces you to be creative. It’s a double-edged sword. And then fact that life happens, there are a lot of unforeseeable things that are unpredictable and difficult for some of our crew members but we’re there for each other to cover what we need to cover. Today for instance, Alexys (Lexy) has to give a performance and her co-star wouldn’t be able to be there… I feel awful about that because it’s not easy. I feel that this scenario takes away from what she could’ve given us. Those are the kind of things you just have to have creative solutions for.

All of that makes you grow as a filmmaker, as an artist, but being surrounded by the right group of people, it makes you much more confident about the project. I believe Ron Howard said collaborations fail all the time, and there are a lot of room for error, but we’ve come up way on top. There have been more successes than failures.


Here’s my Q&A with Alexys:

Firstly, welcome to MN. Is this your first visit to MN and also your first time filming in MN?

Yes. My first time in MN and you guys have the reputation of being MN Nice and it’s true, everyone is so nice and I love it here. There’s a great film community and it’s a very artistic place to be, but I’m glad I’m not here in the Winter time.

You’ve done a lot of short films and TV work but this is your first time working on a feature film. How’s the experience been so far?

Yes this is my feature length film as a lead and it’s been incredible. I think that it’s pretty amazing that Craig, John and Jay took a bit of a risk on me because as you said, this is my first feature and they gave me a lead role. But I have quite a bit of experience and I’ve trained for years. Some people asked me, ‘oh are you nervous?’ But honestly I haven’t been all that nervous on set, more of excited nerves but I think I’d be more nervous to watch it for the first time. It’s when everything came together and you wish you had done a great job.

How’s working with Jay Ness and his team?

It’s been great, working with Jay is fantastic and everyone is so good at what they do. We’ve had such wonderful direction and Chloe’s character (Alexys’ role) really goes through incredible transformation from when you see her in the beginning of the film to the end, she goes through quite a lot. So given that, there’s a lot of emotional arc that comes and goes in waves but also builds to the end so Jay and I have a lot of conversations about the character to prepare for filming. That helps a lot because in filming, you do a lot of things that are out of order and we’ve been able to keep Chloe’s emotional state and her feelings right on track despite having to jump around. It’s been fantastic and I feel really blessed to get the opportunity to portray this role and I feel confident about everything we’ve shot so far.

How do you identify and relate to your character? Especially since the world this film inhabits isn’t quite the same to the world we live today?

As an actor, my number one job is to tell a story truthfully but also able to use my imagination to tell that story. We have to use our imagination a lot on this set because certain things we haven’t experienced yet in our world today. For example, we have these contact lenses that project something that we see in front of us. We don’t have that yet but I can imagine having a screen popping up in front of me. And so yeah, it’s fun to be able to wrap your mind and toy with the idea of these [futuristic] things which has been really cool. As far as relating to my character Chloe as a whole, even though this film is set in a world where there’s more advanced technology, I think the root of it, the underlying message of the film is that humans are still humans, no matter what time we’re living in. So that’s very important. When it comes to the emotion and experiences that Chloe is going through, and she’s been through more than I have, but she’s still a human I can relate to. I think the parallel of technology and us, humanity is one of the cool things to see in this film.

How’s the collaboration with John Kaiser (writer) and Jay Ness (director) been for you?

One of the best things about independent features is that everyone is really open to creative collaboration. Jay and John have been really cool about involving me in the writing process and the overall vision for the film. From day one since I agreed to be a part of this until now, when dealing with some rewrites or changes, they’ve been open in asking me for my thoughts. Jay from day one has always said to make Chloe’s character my own and he tells me if something doesn’t feel right, if some words don’t roll off the tongue as Chloe, then change it. You don’t often get the opportunity to do that and that’s understandable too. But this way it’s just been really great in allowing me to encompass Chloe as a whole and be able to combine elements of myself into this character, which a lot of the times can bring so much more life to it. So it’s been really, really fun. I feel so grateful that they both have trusted me enough to ask me for my opinion.

How do you prepare for the role of Chloe?

I’ve been trying to understand the hardship that she’s gone through. I spoke to a couple different people who have been in a similar accidents, how they deal with the trauma after an accident, just to see what that would be like. It gave so much insights to that world. With memory loss, they’re afraid to lose moments in the future because they don’t know if those memories will stick around. That’s huge. They feel that with any time they’ve gone through a physical or mental trauma, that their family don’t even see them the same way, or they lose their independence. All of these aspects are so important to Chloe so I feel that I need to do the research do the very best to honor what people go through in these situations. I hope that reads well when the film comes out.

What have been your inspirations in preparation for this film?

I did watch a few sci-fi films just to feel the vibe of the film and try to make connections between what I think this film would bring versus what those films brought. So I watched HER, Ex Machina, there’s one called TAO that’s on Netflix. So I’ve been watching a lot of those sci-fis, specifically around the theme of artificial intelligence. I have some important takeaways but I also feel that our film is so unique in the way that the approach between the AI (AIDA) and my character Chloe so it taught what to do and what not to do in terms of how we approach our character. For example, in HER the AI is customary and seems very natural in the way that she spoke, she sounds very human. But with AIDA she seems very real but there are times that her speech patterns where it tells you that’s not quite human, there’s something that’s slightly off. That’s an important note for me to take as an actor, as that’d affect how you’d interact with the AI. The other end of the spectrum, there’s Alexa and Siri that feels/sound obviously artificial. So I think that the way Jay explains AIDA in her fashion, her sense and her essence and her speech is important to me when I’m watching all these films. Obviously Emily who’s playing with me isn’t here but we have a wonderful actress, Anna Stranz (who also plays my sister in the film) who’s reading with me in her place. She’s been doing a fantastic job in giving me something to play off of and it’s amazing just how the voice makes a difference, how a mechanics in the voice makes a huge difference.

More pictures from the set!
Thanks Ivan Maramis.

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Thanks Jay and Alexys for chatting with me about Dark Cloud! 

Indie Sci-Fi Film Spotlight: HOVER – Review + Q &A with director Matt Osterman

HOVER takes place in the near future, where environmental strain has caused food shortages around the world. Technology provides a narrow path forward, with agricultural drones maximizing the yield from what land remains. Two compassionate care providers, Claudia and her mentor John, work to assist sick farmland inhabitants in ending their lives. After John dies under mysterious circumstances, a group of locals helps Claudia to uncover a deadly connection between the health of her clients and the technology they are using.

Starring: Cleopatra Coleman, Shane Coffey, Craig muMs Grant, Beth Grant
Written by: Cleopatra Coleman
Directed by: Matt Osterman

Available on VOD (Amazon) and iTUNES: July 3, 2018
Running Time: 1h 26min
Rated: Not Yet Rated

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It’s always a pleasure to chat with writer/director Matt Osterman. He suggested we went to a boutique coffee shop called KOPPLIN’S in St Paul’s Merriam Park Neighborhood. We chatted over the refreshing Iced Chai about his new sci-fi film HOVER. It’s been over two years since I chatted with him about 400 Days, which he wrote and directed. It’s always fun to chat about movies with someone who’s passionate about storytelling and the filmmaking craft. Just like Debra Granik, Matt also lives ‘off the grid’ away from Hollywood, as he and his family resides in a Twin Cities suburbs, but that hasn’t stopped him from making movies wherever it takes him.

Quick Thoughts on HOVER:

Hover is a sci-fi thriller set in the near future. The two main characters we saw are Claudia (Cleopatra Coleman) and John (Craig muMs Grant), two caregivers who help terminally ill farmers ‘transition’ as they call it. There’s an air of mystery that something isn’t quite right, which gives that unsettling tension throughout the movie. Without giving too much away, soon Claudia has to face her suspicion about the flying drones and uncovers a conspiracy that’s more sinister than meets the eye.

What I like about HOVER is that the film doesn’t feel like a sci-fi in the traditional sense. The characters inhabit a world we’re familiar with, with a few futuristic elements thrown in. The fact that it’s set in a rural dystopia, it sets it apart from most sci-fis that are set in urban areas and immediately feels more grounded. It helps too that both Coleman and Grant are instantly likable, which makes you want to know more about their journey.

There’s genuine tension in the initial built-up, the flying drones hovering above certainly gives that voyeuristic feel. In the world we live in now, there’s that fear of ‘Big Brother’ watching over us that is relatable. There is also a subplot about Claudia involving someone she works with that adds more complexity to her character.

I do wish there’s more to the characters. It’d be great if the relationship between Claudia and John is explored a bit deeper. Shane Coffey and Beth Grant turned up midway though the film, and both add interesting dynamic to the story, though the finale gets a bit too bombastic for my taste. The flying drones also don’t seem all that menacing, though the design itself is pretty cool looking, as is the way it kills (or you could say ‘fry’) its prey.

Overall HOVER is an enjoyable sci-fi that at 86 minutes moves at a relatively breezy pace. It’s a cautionary tale about the misuse of technology, especially deadly when mixed with corporate greed, without making it feel too heavy-handed. This is the first time I saw Cleopatra Coleman and she’s certainly got a charismatic presence on screen, as well as screenwriting talent. I certainly would love to more of her work in the future.


Here’s my Q&A with Matt:

How did you become involved in this project?

I was sent the script by a producer by the name of Travis Stevens. I’ve known Travis, we’re friends of friends for a few years. He’s kind of a big deal in the indie genre world, he’s got a great taste and he’s been producing stuff that pushes the boundaries so I’ve always wanted to work with him. He approaced me with the script and later on SyFy got involved. I had heard of Cleopatra Coleman, and when I read the script I knew I wanted to play in that world, in that sandbox, so that’s why I signed on.

So Cleopatra Coleman wrote the script and did you collaborate with her?

Yes she had written the entire thing, she built that world. When I got the script, both Travis and Cleopatra said to me, ‘Hey we need some input. We’re running into some problems here, we want to flesh this out more, etc.’ So it’s a great team approach to take it to the next level.

The theme of rural dystopia is not something that’s rarely explored in sci-fi films. Movies of that genres tend to be set in a metropolitan or large cities. What’s the inspiration behind setting this story in a rural area, especially in farmlands?

Part of it is the fact that we don’t see things set in rural areas. I mean it’s easy to set things in the future in an urban setting and I find it boring. We want to make something that showed the haves and the have-nots, something that plays out in today’s society. People who have one foot in the future, one foot in the past, we wanted to explore that kind of dichotomy a little bit further.

Cleopatra actually started with these two care providers that helped transition people, but then in the rural environment there were these farm drones. She thought those farm drones were pretty interesting and she started exploring more about the drones and how they’re affecting the farm community.

So I’m curious about how you worked with this cast, especially given the fact that the lead actor also wrote the film. How did the collaboration process go in this filmmaking scenario?

Well to be honest, that was my first concern. It could go sideways in a hurry. If you butt heads, how do you work your way out of it? But luckily for us in this case, she’s an amazing collaborator. She’s totally open to ideas. On set, performances comes first for her and that’s how I wanted it to be. Every now and then, a problem or an opportunity came along and we’d have a little powow and discuss ‘Hey what can we do here? What can we do for that? So it works in our favors quite a bit and she’s able to wear multiple hats.

Cleo came from an improv background y’know, having been in the show Last Man on Earth, so she’s really quick to turn on a dime. Because she knows her character so well, having written it, it’s easy for us to play. It helps that she’s already inhabit her character when she wrote it.

Let’s talk about the drones. They look like something we’d see in the world today, it’s not too futuristic. Did you help design the drones, capturing the movements and all that?

Yeah. We wanted the technology in this world to feel utilitarian y’know, like it’s actually being used. It’s not as if some production designer just sketched something really cool and say, let’s make that a thing. We wanted the world in our movie to feel lived in and real, because when you talk about fantastical things like killer drones, we have to ground it in as much reality as possible. So we ended up hiring a technology designer, a great artist Calder Greenwood out of L.A. He built the drones, hand-built them out of found objects. The ‘eyes’ are lens from a camera, the rotors are from slide projectors, so he built them by hand. He was able to found parts so he could build multiple of them. We have a bunch of puppet drones that we could move them around in different ways, some on a string, or on a different rig and obviously the CG drone. So they did a 3D scan of the practical drone and they built things with CGI.

Where did you film this?

Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Lots of Agriculture down there. I lobbied to shoot it in the Midwest but we were shooting in February and March. It’s perfect to shoot there in that time, it’s not too hot but the bugs aren’t out yet. The shoot was 21-22 days so things happened pretty fast.

What’s been the biggest challenges on set of HOVER?

The first day, there was lightning storm nearby. And when there’s lightning, you have to stop and wait like 60 minutes before you do anything. This is the first time I shot Louisiana so I didn’t know if it’s going to be a daily thing. Luckily it only happened a handful of times, but an hour is kind of a big deal when you’re filming. But I would say the hardest part was dealing with all the action stuff, you always want more time and more money to do those. We used every tools in the books to shoot those truck chase scenes. We used actual drones following the truck, but we only shot that scene in less than a day!

Is this film a cautionary tale about technology? What message does the film want to convey about today’s technology and where it’s heading?

Yes and no. First and foremost, it’s a movie and we want to have fun with it. There’s a lot of liberties you can take with a movie, because y’know, it’s a movie, it’s entertainment. At the same time, we’re entering a pretty scary period in terms of technology. There are some people in power using technology in ways that can be awfully scary.  So if there is a message, it’s about unchecked technology and people in power without repercussions can lead to some pretty bad things. I mean, just how fast technology is moving right now, I think it’ll get worse before it gets better. I’m a technology guy, I want to see progressive technology happen ‘cause it can make the world a better place. Some people say it’s already being used for its intent and purposes, it’s gonna get more powerful, faster, smaller… well, it can get creepy. I’m not really a tin foil-hat type of guy but when it comes to drones… I’m a little nervous.

Rightly so, I feel the same way. Now, I’d like to switch gear a bit and talk about you as a filmmaker. You live here in the Twin Cities, but you make films out in L.A. or elsewhere. How do you juggle your filmmaking career and being a dad/husband?

Yeah, the hardest part outside the production is finding a way you live your life while keeping all the plates spinning at the same time, so to speak. Luckily I have an amazing wife and cool kids. They get it you know, daddy has a job and he’s not a coal miner with black lungs, he’s not a soldier going overseas. He gets to make movie, which is not so bad and they can come and visit. They came once because they have school and my wife also has to work. It’s not easy during [filming] but the rest of the year, I mean I’m a writer first and foremost and you can do that from anywhere. Staying outside of the L.A. bubble also has its advantages too, so you can bring something fresh and original.

Lastly, any advice for aspiring and emerging filmmakers, esp. those living in the Twin Cities, away from the filmmaking hub of LA/NYC/Atlanta.

This industry is filled with ego-driven jerks. Don’t be one of those. Be grateful, communicate and most importantly, finish something. There’s so many people that start projects, they ask for help and support and they don’t finish. Then those people are hesitant to help them again, or anybody else. You’re just wasting people’s time. You gotta walk the walk. Lots of people come for the glory, for the fame, but you gotta come in [to the entertainment business] for the right reasons and work your tail off. It’s not easy, so don’t expect things to happen overnight.


Don’t miss the Twin Cities Screening!

Friday, July 13th, 2018
6:30pm – Red Carpet Interviews/Photos
7pm & 9pm – Screenings

 Q&A with Director after each screening

Location
Emagine/Willow Creek Theater
9900 Shelard Pkwy.
Plymouth, MN  55441
TICKETS
Earlybird (13+ yrs of age) – $10
Same Day (13+yrs of age) – $12
(TCFF Members receive complimentary admission – must pre-register)

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*TCFF Members receive FREE entry. Another reason to become a member today!

HOVER is currently available on Amazon, iTunes, and VOD