Making ‘Mother’, a sci-fi fairytale

It was day two of our three day shoot. The actors, Agni and Krystian, playing Jill and John respectively, were fully committed to their roles, to the moment. At this particular moment, the script called for them to be embarking on ‘a feat of Olympian sex throughout the house’.

This, I must stress, is not my usual filmic fair — I’m a documentary maker who loves to be lost in my own moments, trying to capture secret truths about people as they live their lives. This is about how, thanks to the Imagine Science Film Festival, I underwent a personal transformation as a filmmaker while making a fairytale about a woman who partly transforms into a fish. Oh, yes, and working with the actor who played Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Imagine Science Film Festival, started by Alexis Gambis, holds its 10th anniversary in New York this year (October 13–20). I reckon it’s the best science film festival out there, mixing genres and events in a way that fully captures the variety and magic of what science is and can be — that it’s fascinating and inspiring and can, when the answer feels elusive to an inquisitive mind, appear to be magical.

This year, the festival announced a new project, jointly run by the festival along with another innovative string to its bow, ‘ Labocine’, a digital celebration of what they refer to as the science ‘new wave’ of filmmaking. My own Spotlight for Labocine can be seen here.

This recognition that science filmmaking can be so much more than simply science communication is just one of the things that makes the Imagine Science team so progressive. Science can also be emotive, poetic, beautiful and abstract…

The new project, Chimera Experiments, is intended to enable 10 filmmakers to approach the subject of chimeras, hybrid animals, in their own way. But it wasn’t just our central characters that would be chimeras, the very films themselves would be hybrids of both narrative and documentary elements. A bold and challenging brief.

When they got back to me about the original idea for ‘Mother’ and said, ‘Do it!’, I was shocked and more than a little tentative. No longer was I a fly on a wall; this was front and centre. I needed a script. Actors. A make up artist. Special effects. What on Earth had I got myself into…

This is when those close to you really count, those encouraging whispers and nudges that remind you how much belief other people can have in you.

It all started with the script. This was the first script I’d written in years, but not the first. Growing up with a love of horror and science fiction, I’d taken all my love of film and churned out several shorter scripts (that I hoped to make one day) and even a feature length sci-fi action movie, starring a steely eyed underdog/hero.

Looking at them now, there’d no doubt be transparent allusions to my heroes: Fincher, Scott, Rodriguez, Cronenberg, Whedon, Nolan, Raimi and so on. The difference between those scripts and this one was that it was actually being made.

Two talented friends, Nimer Rashed and Bret Syfert, acted as my idea sounding boards, helping develop the story to a satisfying end. With the script feeling good, the next phase was to contact my scientists, the disembodied documentary voices that would feature in the film. This is where my background in science filmmaking was incredibly useful in locating, contacting and securing interviews with experts in the realms of parenting, stem cells and marine biology.

Next came the actors. This was an entirely new area for me — how on Earth do you find actors! Bret, who was also helping with the effects (another learning curve), mentioned he had a friend who was an actor. In Bret’s usual laconic style, he casually mentioned during one phone call that one of his friends was a great physical actor, ‘…yeah, he played the tree thing in, uh, Saviours of the Galaxy, or something.’

Pauses.

Me: ‘Bret, are you saying your friend played Groot in the blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy?’

Bret: ‘Yeah, that’s it!’

This was a gift. An experienced professional actor, Krystian Godlewski, who had extensive experience of physical roles, was exactly what I was looking for. Mother is kind of a throwback to the silent era, with no dialogue from the actors, they’re job is to try and embody the physical madness of the story.

Meeting with Krystian, it was clear he’d be perfect — he possessed a wiry energy and intensity that just felt right. As we discussed the role, we delved deeper into his character, John. It became apparent that, despite what’s written on the page, actors want more. More backstory, more understanding of their motivation, more details. We realised we needed a ‘Jill’, the female lead. Naturally, Krystian knew of someone he thought might be a great fit, which is how I met Agnieszka Kapuscinska.

Immediately her wide cheekbones and inquisitive, large eyes gave physicality to something I hadn’t even articulated. I knew I didn’t want Jill to look completely ‘normal’, plain. There had to be something about her that felt alluring, enigmatic, intense — and Agnieszka had it. I’d pretty much made up my mind before she opened her mouth.

With the actors and filming dates locked in, Bret and myself got down to discussing the practicalities of a) giving Agnieszka a convincing, illuminated, prosthetic for her head and b) how to attach a man to her body and make him shrink over time (it’ll all make sense when you see it…). We agreed the only way to mix up the combination of magic and playfulness we had in mind was to work with an experienced make up artist — this is how the wonderful Alex Knights joined the team.

Filming itself was a strong learning curve. My usual style of filming is very observational, discrete — I want people to forget I’m there so I can capture natural behaviour and moments. This, it turned out, does not fly with actors.

It became apparent early on that what I considered ‘direction’ was too light — like a feather duster herding a rhino. They wanted more — more direction, instruction, feedback — for every shot. By day two I was finding my flow but day one was a real journey of constantly feeling like a failure in two worlds — the one you know and the one you’re trying to get to know.

The highlight of the second day came during our fairytale’s ‘sex scene’; a rampant fusion of lust across the house as characters, John and Jill, submit to their innate — and possibly pheromone induced — desires.

John and Jill (fully dressed — this is a fairytale, after all) were engaged in the act of passionately, vigorously, ascending the stairs on hands and knees when I yelled, ‘Cut!’. There followed embarrassed glances and a moment of confusion as they both apologised. Following their gaze, it became apparent that the stair bannister had been yanked from the wall in the midst of their grunting and moaning. Note to self — make an especially nice dinner for my wife tonight.

By the time we hit day three, we were all good mates. My direction felt far stronger, resulting in happier actors, the make up was going on a treat and we were moving fluidly from scene to scene.

I’m still only half way there, however. Now, I need to edit Mother together, make it come to life and sing. Then I’ll be working work with the extraordinary New York based musician, Eric Biondo, to score our fairytale, essentially providing a 3rd character, before I can say we have our finished chimera. Watch this space…

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on June 23, 2017.

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