by Jason Whyte
THE UNSEEN - At VIF
"What would you do if discovered you were becoming invisible? This is the nightmare faced by Bob, the character at the core of our story, and it forces him to make to leave behind everything that he loves to protect them from what he is becoming. THE UNSEEN is a re-imagination of H.G. Wells' THE INVISIBLE MAN, set in northern B.C. and Vancouver. It's a dramatic thriller with a strong genre vein running right down the middle.
I am thrilled to welcome you to VIFF this year. I heard that you have been to VIFF before as a fest-goer?
I have attended VIFF as a cinephile, but this is my first year as a filmmaker. I definitely plan to attend the screenings of The Unseen; in fact, I'm going to make this year's festival my main focus for the full run. In previous years, I would get out to a few days and those days were a wild roller-coaster of running from venue to venue to see films that I mostly didn't have time to fully research. So I see a lot of random films based on a quick scan of the program description. One year I saw a film that was amazing and only afterwards did I discover it was a Palme d'Or winner!
Running around from venue to venue is my job! Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background?
I come from Northern B.C., born in Merritt, raised in Houston. Not Texas. Yes, we have a Houston, B.C. I moved to Vancouver to attend UBC and after that I took a hobby and turned it into a job. I always call special makeup effects my day job, but after twenty plus years, it is a career. I started, like a lot of my peers, on THE X-FILES. That was a wild ride where we learned a lot in a short amount of time, but it is also where I started my real film school. From the beginning, I was quietly shadowing every part of filmmaking that I wanted to learn about. At the focus of this was directing. I had a mentor on THE X-FILES who probably never knew it. His name was Kim Manners and he was one of the main series directors and a producer. He was where I began to really understand the role of the director. As I continued to work in makeup effects, I began writing and directing short films. Eventually, I had nine short films under my belt and had written eight feature screenplays. It was time for a debut feature and THE UNSEEN was to be that film.
So how did making THE UNSEEN come together for you?
It is rare that you can say this, but THE UNSEEN came together quickly. In my experience, most of filmmaking in Canada is proving yourself to people. We did that through the short films, their festival runs and the feature film screenplays being read and placing in screenwriting competitions. We also developed a project with Telefilm and came very close to making it, but we made the hard choice not to. The timing wasn't right. The elements weren't coming together and we realized we might make a film that wasn't all there. Since you only get to make one debut feature, we stopped and asked ourselves, "Is this the right first film?" We decided it wasn't and started over. On the creative side, THE UNSEEN began with another question, "What hasn't been done recently or more important, done well?" After much reflection, a classic character came to me in THE INVISIBLE MAN. It might have been in a dream or at least that's how I recall it. We decided that if we were going to tell this story, it had to be fresh. We took the idea of an invisible man as far from the Victorian laboratory as we could, and we re-imagined it as a mysterious progressive condition. It would be a character driven film, and not an excuse for effects.
The weekend before we submitted the project to Telefilm Canada, I realized that it was an idea that needed to be seen. I messaged an artist friend who did some concept sketches, which I added to the package. I truly believe the image created by Bronwyne Sloley was instrumental in getting the film going. Telefilm Canada came on board right away, so the hunt for our invisible man started. We started working with casting director Judy JK Lee and her first question was has anyone out there really wowed you lately. As it happened, we had just finished watching Rectify, the Sundance Channel's first series. The lead on that show, Aden Young is incredible. I found myself wondering why I didn't know of him before Rectify, so I looked him up and discovered he was Canadian. We reached out to his manager and before we knew what was happening, we were having a Skype conversation with him in Australia and realized he was very interested in the role. After shaping our schedule to work with the upcoming season of Rectify, we had our invisible man.
As the main character in a character driven film, Aden become the center of everything. From a casting point of view, everyone wanted to work with him. From the production side of things, he gave us a level of credibility we couldn't have dreamed of. And as the director, it began a relationship that was hugely educational for me and instrumental in crafting every part of the story.
This credibility and our years of experience in the Vancouver film industry allowed us to put together a crew of very experienced people. The timing was also a key element. We shot in January 2015, which was right before it got very busy in this town. A level of busy that kept building to where we are today and has never let off. It would be a major challenge to make THE UNSEEN in this town now. Producers Katie Weekley and Hans Dayal put together an indie film production like I have never seen. They reached out to key crew and suppliers and put it together. After years of working on the Vancouver Film Studios lot, I found myself with an office in the heart of the studio. I would run into colleagues who would ask what show I was on and I had the thrill of telling them I was on "my" show.
When we started shooting, we very quickly became a runaway train. A key to indie filmmaking is ambition. The notion that you can't do something is quickly removed from the equation. We had a low budget indie that was filming in five towns, in winter, had a cast of twenty, makeup and visual effects, action, a car crash and bears. When things got scary, we pushed forward and made course corrections on the fly.
When filming was finished, we made one more decision, that I now believe was crucial to the success of THE UNSEEN. We took our time in post. We spent almost a year on the edit and the visual effects. Looking back, if we had called the edit done at any point earlier than that, then we would not have the film we have today.
With all of that great production quality, what kept you going? What drives you, creatively?
That is a hard question that can be answered many ways. At the core of it, I strive to make a film that has a fighting chance to have an impact on its viewer. We all have a list of films that we love. The ones that we go back to again and again. The ones that made such an impact on us, usually at a young age, that we never let go of them. For me it is films like JAWS, BLADE RUNNER and ALIENS. And maybe it's overly ambitious to think we could make an impact film for such a low budget, not to mention it was my first feature, but we were going to try. Delivering a good film and striving to make something special is what drives me. I told people from the start that our mantra was going to be, "Can we do better?" Every time we were about to shot something, we would take a breath and ask ourselves if there was anything we were missing at this moment that would make this scene, this shot, this moment better, because every time you find that something that will make it better, you make the film stronger.
With the visual effects at play and the low budget, what was your biggest challenge with making THE UNSEEN?
Another hard question, because as fun as it is, filmmaking is a challenge every step of the way. If it feels easy, you aren't trying hard enough. It's so important to embrace the challenges and one of the things I love about directing, is that it's the one time I feel I am working at the absolute limits of my abilities and sometime even pushing beyond them. I could talk about technical challenges and how we got through them, but those happen all day long. Maybe the best answer I can give you is this: I have come to believe that the main role of the director is to fight for the film. Everyone has different levels of responsibility on a film and some of them are very focused to one area. When challenges arise, there are practical concerns like time and money, but it falls on the director to protect the film. The good directors I have watched know enough about everyone's role on set to make decisions that are best for the film. When the machine is weighing down on you and it says you don't have time to keep working this blocking, this rehearsal or that additional take, you have to know what matters and what you are trading for this moment. It's about experience as much as it is gambling and gut instincts. I don't know if this is a challenge you can ever overcome, but if you always fight for the film, even to the point of being wrong, then you are doing what you should be doing.
If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be? The moment where you thought you had something?
The beauty of filmmaking, like most art forms, is that you can plan and plan and set everything in motion, but even when all of that lands perfectly, it won't hold a candle to that random thing that elevates the shot or scene to a place you never envisioned. We were lucky enough to have a few of those moments, but one that comes to mind happened early in the film. Bob is sitting in his truck, preparing for another day of hard sawmill work in his life of exile. The scene was written to have him look out the window and see a family picking up a worker at the end of his shift. We blocked the scene at the top of a hill next to a scale where the logging trucks enter and exit the mill. We had no control of the logging trucks. On a big film, they would be cued when to drive through the shot, but we had to take our best guess at when they were coming or going and try to get our scene. I think we did a take and a truck drove through blocking the family Bob was supposed to see. Then we went again and just as Bob looked up and registered the family logging truck ripped through the frame cutting off his line of site. When we cut, some of the crew immediately prepared to go again, "Because of the truck," but Aden and I looked to each other with our mouths hanging open. We both knew in our guts that it was perfect. That it was a single true moment that you couldn't plan for if you shot a hundred takes. We did do another take for safety, but I knew in my gut there was no way that take was not going to be in the film.
For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the visual design of THE UNSEEN and how you created the look with your cinematographer Stephen Maier!
Stephen Maier and I had worked together on a short film earlier and since then we had been on a lot of the same sets. On shows like ELYSIUM, WARCRAT and FALLING SKIES I had seen that he was an amazing camera operator and that he would always find a way to get the shot, no matter how physically demanding it was. THE UNSEEN was going to be a handheld show. Most camera rigs, dollies, cranes, etc. take a lot of time to setup. We needed to be small and fast and handheld was an approach that had worked for us before. And I'm not talking crazy found footage handheld, but a handheld style that doesn't scream handheld. Stephen and I spent a lot of time designing the approach we would take an overall look and feel, which we relied on this more than meticulous shot lists or storyboards. We shot on Arri Alexa 2K in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The camera was Stephen's preference. We debated briefly on the 2K versus 4K, but in the end, it came down to the additional costs that come with managing 4K data and pushing it through post production. Also, the demand for 4K material on the distribution end is something that is growing, but at the time it just wasn't there. The 2.40 aspect ratio was my choice, and one that Stephen very much supported. We both love the wide frame and felt it was right for a story of isolation and hiding. The northern landscapes were gorgeous. If you are looking to save costs you must know that a lot of distribution will require a 16:9 version, so if you can't justify the additional costs, then 2.40 might not be for you.
The visual effects were something I had never worked with to this degree. My experiences on set built my understanding of them enough that I feel I was able to integrate them with the makeup effects side of it, which I knew very well. The most elaborate scenes involved an actor in prosthetic makeup with green screen elements to be replaced with VFX element and a life-sized animatronic puppet version of his character. We had Bob Habros there from Encore guiding us through it. I have been on a lot of huge shows where cost doesn't seem to be the biggest concern, but in our world it was all about approaching each and every shot in the best and most affordable way. In the end, we kept the sequences manageable from a VFX and cost perspective, but still created effective and dynamic story points.
While I am eager to see audience reactions after seeing the film months ago, what are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie to audiences at VIFF?
Experiencing first hand the audience's reactions to all the choices we agonized over is the final piece of the process. Realistically, we can't change anything at this point, but at least we can learn from the film we made. This is the time and place to figure out what worked and what didn't. So far, I have been very pleased with a lot of the subtle choices we made and seeing that they work. I asked an audience in Montreal if they noticed a tiny clue we hid in an early scene and at least half the audience raised their hands.
Where is this movie going to show next? Any ideas of how you would like to distribute the film?
We were just invited to our tenth film festival! After VIFF, it's going to Europe and Scandinavia for a couple of months. Distribution-wise, I'd like to see a little bit of everything and we have secured a theatrical run.
If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?
I would love to see it play The Paramount theatre in Austin. I have watched festival films there and it's such a wonderful classic theatre. I believe it is over a hundred years old. And Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood would be a dream, because of the history. On a more personal note, we were invited to screen it in Houston, B.C. in the theatre where I watched many an inspirational film growing up. We will try to make sure that happens at some point.
What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?
I don't think I would say anything. I would probably get real close and glare at them. Subtext speaks volumes. I think the perfect response to a texter, if it was possible, would be to text them and tell, them to put away the fricking phone and watch the film that people worked hard making.
There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on efilmcritic.com. If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?
I usually encourage people to get started doing whatever it is they want to do, because the sooner you get started, the faster you will develop that skill. It is one thing to decide you are a filmmaker, but everything you will need to do as a filmmaker involves craft and it takes time to develop it. Get on a film set and learn. You might be born with a knack for something, but you need to see it in action to really understand it. And watching talent adds to your own.
And even if you never become a good writer, write. The execution of every role in filmmaking is made better by understanding story, character and structure. I yearn for the day I can direct a script that was written by a better writer than me, but until that day comes, I will create material, so I can direct it. It also empowers you to recognize the problems with scripts that are not well written and gives you a fighting chance to fix them.
And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?
Well, I mentioned above that I had walked into a Palme d'Or winning film and didn't even know it. That was DHEEPHAN. But the all time best festival film experience for me was seeing NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN at TIFF. We knew it was the Coen Brothers, so we expected a good film, but I didn't really know anything about it. It could have been one of their comedies for all I knew. After it played, I was stunned. Not only was it one of their best films and would go on to win Oscars and all that, but it was completely my kind of film. It has shaped the way I approach writing and directing. I now read everything Cormac McCarthy publishes. And the best part of seeing No Country several months ahead of its release was knowing that it was coming. Teasing friends with tiny nuggets. It was like having a really big, really good secret.
Be sure to follow the adventures of THE UNSEEN online on Facebook and Twitter!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 29th to October 14th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.viff.org or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3976
originally posted: 10/01/16 01:14:00
last updated: 10/01/16 01:30:45