TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: FLORA + Interview with writer/director Sasha Louis Vukovic

One of my favorite film genres is sci-fi mystery. It’s also a genre indie filmmakers have thrived at, which includes some of my favorites such as Never Let Me Go (2012), The Machine (2014), Ex Machina (2015), and one of my faves that screened at Twin Cities Film Fest in 2014, Time Lapse.

One of the most intriguing films that played at TCFF this year is a feature film debut by Canadian filmmaker Sasha Louis Vukovic. I had the pleasure of meeting Sasha as well as lead actress Teresa Marie Doran briefly during the film fest, but we didn’t get to connect for the interview until after.

Thanks to FC blogger Holly Peterson for the review and interview questions!

In the summer of 1929 -at the end of the golden age of exploration- an expedition of Ivy League University Botanists enter an uncharted forest on the North American frontier. Tasked to study the native flora, the students unearth a deadly organism and are soon in a fight with nature itself, where they must use their limited resources to understand, survive and escape the wild and terrifying forest that surrounds them.

FlixChatter review (courtesy of Holly Peterson):

A misunderstood villain is not a new idea. Excessive violence perpetrated at the hands of a gentle being goes back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the 1800s and I am sure I could come up with an earlier example if I weren’t so gosh darn tired right now.

Point is, that although audiences are used to villains being villainous, we also understand that sometimes a villain just doesn’t have the right tools to express their good will. Everyone would get along fine if they could just talk out whatever is bothering them.

But what happens when a dealer of death, a perpetrator of violence, is not just misunderstood, but completely oblivious? What if it isn’t even sentient?

That’s the story Flora chooses to explore.

A group of intrepid young scientists treks out to a secluded forest to study it, only to find that their point of contact has gone missing. As the scientists try to unravel the mystery of this disappearance, they also begin to study the forest, which they gradually realize is more dangerous than they anticipated. Flora builds a sense of creeping dread with an intense score and several one-off scenes of tempers flaring and traps being set that you can’t help but expect to snap whenever the score begins to build again.

My one quibble with the film is that it wants its audience to see that it is diverse and doesn’t trust us to notice without calling it to our attention. This is problematic because it really isn’t that diverse to begin with. Half of the characters are white males. The Asian character goes off on a weird, unnecessary tangent about his heritage. One of the female characters has a really awful emotional speech about how she’s “just a nurse” because “they” wouldn’t let her study. The other female character doesn’t even get to tell her own story – it is told by a man behind her back and is an annoying soapbox moment about how talented and unappreciated she is because other people in her field cannot see beyond her gender. There is nothing wrong with a character facing adversity because of their gender or their race, but when six people are stranded in a forest, that is probably the adversity we should focus on.

Of course, there were a couple “DON’T GO INTO THE DARK CREEPY HOUSE BY YOURSELF” variety moments, but I think that’s kind of par for the course as far as horror/suspense goes. Humans don’t always use their best judgment and for the most part I thought the “what are you thinking!?” moments felt pretty organic.

The actors’ performances are solid and it is a compelling experience to watch a group of people fight for their lives without fighting against anything. Definitely worth a watch!

*images courtesy of IMDb

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Sasha Louis Vukovic is a filmmaker from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A graduate of the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida, and the Chicago College of Performing Arts, in Chicago, Illinois; his 2017 debut feature, Flora, won Best Feature Film at the London International Science Fiction Film Festival, and Best Original Screenplay at the Amsterdam International Film Festival.

FLORA’s DP Eric Irvin and director Sasha Vukovic on set

Q: Where did the idea for the story come from?

The idea for the story came from my personal lack of knowledge about my ecosystem. I was amazed by how little I knew or understood about the Flora that surrounded and interacted with me everyday. So many people come and go through life subsisting and relying on Flora with very little thought of the life of those organisms. I was also fascinated with creating a non-malicious antagonist. A villain with no villainy. Something beautiful and strong.

Q: What was it like shooting a period piece on a budget?

It was excellent fun. And actually a great creative box within which to imagine and create. Every element of the script was written with budget/period in mind. So I actually found it to be quite an interesting puzzle. The period was far more boon than bane.

Q: What was the most challenging part of the shoot?

The most challenging part of the shoot was by far contending with Nature. As the entire film is shot outdoors, we dealt with bugs, rain, heat, wild rivers, storms and dense forests. In many moments it felt as if we as a team were on an expedition into a dense wild forest as well. Thankfully a little less toxic than in the film.

Q: What is it like writing a script about / acting against a non sentient “villain”?

Again, a wonderful challenge. Creating action sequences in which characters are ostensibly running from a stationary pursuer was intersting.

A lot of the film focuses on the eeriness of how silent the forest is, coupled with the mystery of what befell the past humans who inhabited it. That way, suggestion and ambiguity does a great job at allowing the audience to build up a monster in their heads.

Then, the key is creating a believably toxic environment, from which there is an immediate need to escape. Think about the urgency that befalls people during an earthquake or hurricane. Flora is about non-symbiosis, about what happens if we have to run from nature.

Teresa Marie Doran and Dan Lin on the set of FLORA

Q: How did you find your composer?

Our composer Nathan Prillaman is incredible. He was introduced to me by one of our lead actors/executive producers Dan Lin.

Nathan and Dan went to school together as kids and right around the time that we were hunting for our Composer, they ran into one another -for the first time in years- at a dim sum restaurant. It was fantastic luck, and lead to a great creative partnership.


Thanks Sasha for talking to us about your film!

For more info about the making of the film,
check out this article from Sound & Picture magazine:

Check out this behind-the-scenes video of FLORA:

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Indie Film Spotlight: GUNN + Interview with writer/director C.J. Renner & four cast members

It’s always fun being able to wear my film journalist hat once in a while. So whenever there’s an opportunity to chat with a filmmaker, whether locally or from other parts of the world, I always jump at the chance. This time, we’ve got something special because I get to do the interview on a different format… on video! Thanks to Minnesota-based filmmaker C.J. Renner and producer Sasha Rayl, as well as four of GUNN cast members for taking the time to chat with me last Friday afternoon.

I always love a good noir. GUNN is a gangster crime drama unlike anything I’ve ever seen. From the way the story is written to the deliberate surrealistic production style, it’s so refreshing to see a classic story done in an unconventional way.

All Elston Gunn ever needed to survive was a little luck and his Tommy gun. But when he discovers his whole world is just a staged play, he must dodge not only cops but stagehands… he must save not only his crumbling empire, but his last hold on reality.

There’s a lot to like about GUNN. The film is quite stylish with great camera angles and lighting for maximum effect. Despite the limited indie budget, Renner and his team are very creative and resourceful in constructing the minimalistic sets to support the narrative. Right from the fantastic Mondrian style opening credits, this is a cool, stylish film. I like the deliberate dreamy/surreal quality which fits the themes and storyline well, and he’s got a terrific ensemble cast to bring his story to life.

Andrew Stecker as Elston Gunn

Andrew Stecker portrays the inner conflict of Elston nicely. The fact that he doesn’t look like a typical gangster works in the story’s favor, and I like the vulnerability he brings to the role. Amanda Day and Anna Stranz are two wonderful talents I’ve seen in previous films before, glad to see each have a decent character arc in the film. Richard Keats as the mob boss and Noah Gillett as Elston’s closest crony, as well as Peter Christian Hansen and Tyson Lietz as the two cops hot on the gangsters’ tail, are all terrific in their roles.

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Some films that are shot mostly on set sometimes felt constricting, but that’s not the case here. Once you accept the surrealistic nature, the film flows quite nicely. The creative use of lighting and camera work create some striking imagery on screen. Because of the minimalist set, the costumes play a huge part in conveying the Prohibition era and boy, do the cast look fabulous in 1930s outfits. I love the satin dresses, fur accessories on the women… and the guys look oh-so-dapper in vests, suspenders and Fedoras.

I can’t write this review without mentioning the wonderful music by Travis Anderson, one of the biggest strengths of the film. The jazzy score and some of the songs performed in the film are not only catchy, but they add so much to the mood and atmosphere.

The pacing could be a bit more dynamic, some of the heavy-dialog scenes, as the scene between Keats and Stecker in the middle of the film felt a little too long. But really it’s a small quibble in an otherwise a smart, enjoyable debut film. Kudos to C.J. for coming up with such a cool story, but also in executing it in such a clever way.

I hope GUNN will get some kind of theatrical release or VOD distribution soon! Check out some of the clips from the film embedded in the two videos below… enjoy!

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Interview video with writer/director C.J. Renner:

In my 7+ years covering Minnesota films and filmmakers as a blogger, I’m even more impressed by the local talents we’ve got in this town. C.J. is definitely a filmmaker to watch and I truly hope he continues to write and make more films in the future!

Interview video with cast members Andrew Stecker, Noah Gillett, Anna Stranz and Peter Christian Hansen:

It was so fun interviewing the cast! It was so great meeting Andrew for the first time just before the interview. Peter & Noah are both in my short film Hearts Want, so it was lovely seeing them again. I had met Anna last year at Twin Cities Film Fest and was impressed by her performance in Miles Between Us, surely she’ll have a fruitful acting career ahead of her.

I’m really grateful to everyone for taking the time out of their busy schedule to do this on a Friday afternoon. In fact, Peter had just got done filming another MN indie film shortly before the interview!

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Thanks so much C.J. Renner and the GUNN crew
for the delightful interview!

Just days left on HEARTS WANT Kickstarter campaign

Can’t believe we’re in mid July already! Time sure flies in the Summer time… and time seems to fly even faster when one is running a Kickstarter campaign.

Yep, it’s just 9 days to go until our campaign ends folks… and we could really use your help in crossing the finish line. We are still hoping to submit this film to Twin Cities Film Fest soon to be eligible for 2017 run in October, so time is of the essence. If you’ve always wanted a chance to be a part of a female-led indie film with talented indie filmmakers and actors, this is your chance!

Watch this video from our leading man Peter Christian Hansen on why you should back our film…

Minnesota theatre goers might’ve seen Peter on stage in various productions, including at the Guthrie. He’s also the artistic director of Gremlin Theatre), as well as the leading man of the Australian indie sci-fi Project Eden whom I interviewed last February.

Did you check out the rewards yet?

On top of the automatic rewards of feeling good for being a big supporter of indie film [natch], there are also actual rewards!

My hubby and co exec-producer Ivan had been working tirelessly to make props for the film just a week prior to filming! This is NOT the film poster, but rather a poster of the play within the film that’s called Hearts Want where the lead characters Jacques & Lily reunite for after seven years apart.

Check out this time lapse video of Ivan’s poster sketch:

My hubby also created these theatre posters that’s posted on the wall of Lily’s dressing room:

Check out the various updates posted on the Kickstarter page… including meeting the mostly-female crew who were super fun to work with on and off set.

As a longtime supporter of #womeninfilm I’m extremely grateful for the chance to work with so many amazingly talented women in the Minnesota film community!


You can follow the journey of Hearts Want film on Facebook, Instagram and also Pinterest!


 

A film blogger’s journey into indie filmmaking – writing/producing ‘Hearts Want’ short film

It’s been forty plus years in the making. No, no, it didn’t take me 40 years to write the script, though if I had written something as an infant I might’ve been a literary genius by now.

Some of you know my life’s been consumed by my short film project lately. Well, I had just launched the Kickstarter campaign to help fund the film, so I thought I’d share the journey of how I got here…

It feels as though I’ve been wanting to make a film for as long as I remember. Even in grade school, whenever the recurrent question ‘what do you want to be when we grow up?’ came up, I always proudly answered that I wanted to be a screenwriter. Yep, even long before I knew what a screenwriter was! For some reason, I had always had this longing to follow my late dad’s footsteps, who worked in the Indonesian film industry long before I was born.

Life has an interesting way of working out. So no, I didn’t end up going to film school or anything remotely close to it. I had been a longtime film fan, but I didn’t even start blogging about film until well after I graduated college. Little did I know that this wee film blog finally led me to realize my lifelong dream!

How it all began…

Thanks largely to Twin Cities Film Fest and being a press member with a couple of PR companies, as a film blogger I had the privilege to interview various indie filmmakers. There’s nothing more gratifying and inspiring to learn from filmmakers who love making films and passionate about the craft. Whilst blogging about film, I’ve also been writing all kinds of film concepts, but nothing has been fully fleshed out until the one I started writing about a year and a half ago…

The journey of making Hearts Want truly has been a whirlwind… and it’s not over yet.

So yeah, the reading became the catalyst for this short. I still can’t believe how far we’ve come since the script reading back in January… and how well the two-day shoot went despite barely having any pre-prod time. When people say your first film is made w/ your blood, sweat and tears… well they aren’t kidding. This is a passion project w/ a capital ‘p’ and it’s a personal one for both Ivan and I. My hubby is not only the exec producer, he’s also a prop master, stage hand, behind-the-scenes photographer, video editor (for our Kickstarter video)… all that on top of juggling his full-time day job and lending emotional support during the most stressful times of making a film.

The people who’ve inspired me…

As I mentioned in my Kickstarter page, I’ve been a long champion of #WomenInFilm and am constantly inspired by female filmmakers who’ve thrived in a male-dominated industry… powerful filmmakers such as these…

and this…

I’ve also been blessed with meeting fellow directors in person whose work have inspired me… Emily Ting who directed Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong, Ashlee Jensen who co-wrote/directed Project Eden Vol I, Pamela Romanowsky who directed The Adderral Diaries, Rebecca Weaver who wrote/directed June Falling Down, and Kate Nowlin who wrote and starred in Blood Stripe, just to name a few. (Also shout out to Remy Auberjonois, Kate’s husband and Blood Stripe‘s director who narrated my script reading! I’m forever grateful to them for having inspired me to finally take the leap and make my first film!

My own film also wouldn’t have been made without the help of my two producer friends, Kirsten Gregerson and JoJo Liebeler

With Kirsten & JoJo at the script reading in January

… as well as my two amazingly-talented leads Sam Simmons and Peter Christian Hansen who’ve stuck by me despite all the various setbacks during pre-production…

I also have to thank Noah Gillett, another actor from the script reading who also reprised his role in the film.

… and of course, my phenomenal MN-based crew!! Thanks Jason & co! Check out the bio of our cast/crew on Hearts Want‘s IMDb page.

I also want to shout out to people who’ve lent support during filming, from helping with the company move, catering, being extras and help with networking, etc. I appreciate you Noah Gillett, Shawn Dunbar, Becky Kurk, Dani Palmer, Emily Fradenburgh, Whitney Khan, Holly Peterson, and Briana Rose Lee.

Special thanks to my dear friends Julie Tan and Vony Bedford for coming to set and be extras on day 1. Vony’s cutie-pie daughter Chloe is ‘Brigitte’ in the film (you’ll see who she is when you watch it) 😉

But the journey isn’t over yet…

If you’re familiar at all with the filmmaking process, principal photography is only half the battle. As I learned in my crash course, filmmaking is always more difficult and more expensive than you ever thought it would.

So yeah, consider helping us cross the finish line, even if it’s just helping spread the word that would mean a lot to us. The ultimate goal is still to make a feature film of Hearts Want, so if you help support us now, you’d also help bring us closer to making that huge-but-not-impossible dream a reality! 😀

Would you consider making a pledge or spread the word about the campaign?