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SxSW ’10 Interview – “Mars” director Geoff Marslett

Mars - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“MARS is a lo-fi, sci-fi, rom-com, but don't come in expecting space battles and strange new worlds. Buried somewhere in all those hyphens is the most important part, the romance. Three astronauts set out on a shiny new space race to reach the red planet...and on the way life and love flourish. That love, as so often is the case, is irresistible and exciting...but it is also just a tad out of reach. Everything from the unique visuals to the actual adventure they embark on follows this approachable almost real reality, and all of them fall just outside of it. MARS explores why we risk our lives to explore, and it turns out to be a lot like why we risk our hearts to fall in love.” Director Geoff Marslett on the film “Mars” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW?

First feature, yes, but not my first film. Over the years I've had a couple music videos and shorts show up at SXSW. I think Monkey vs. Robot, Bubblecraft, and Out of Bounds (as part of Six in Austin) all showed as part of SXSW; and Trip To Roswell, Ten is My Favorite Number, and North Side Blues all played as part of the AFS showcases at SXSW.

Do you have any other festival experience?

I have been lucky enough to participate in a lot of festivals over the years. Well, at least I was able to show films at a lot of festivals. I usually can't afford to attend them all. Monkey vs. Robot really got out there and showed at several dozen festivals worldwide. It got me hooked.

Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

Yes, luckily I live here. I will be at all my screenings...and a lot of the other screenings. There are so many good films this year.

Could you give me a little look into your background?

I took the circuitous road to making films. My undergraduate degree was in the Great Books; a double major in math and philosophy with minors in the history of science and language studies. After I did that I toyed around with the idea of studying more physics. But I had a fatal flaw, I really like learning about everything. It keeps me from getting too good at any one thing. Filmmaking gave me the chance to take my interest in painting, photography, music, storytelling, and writing and jumble them all together. Suddenly I can find different people doing things I am amazed by and bring them all together to make some other thing none of us would have done on our own. I really love that aspect of filmmaking, and I think that's what ultimately brought me to it.

From a more practical standpoint, I got an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin in film production about a decade ago. I have made around 14 shorts since then, and now teach animation and 16mm film production in the RTF department here at UT.

What led you to the desire to want to make film?

Simply put, I really like telling stories.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

When I was around 8 or 10 we had to dress up as what we wanted to be when we grow up. It was a career day thing. I came in dressed as a sort of super-astronaut with a homemade jumpsuit and helmet. I got my picture in the paper for it. When they asked if I wanted to be an astronaut, I said no. I want to be a costume designer. Someone then politely told me that costume designers don't get to wear the costumes they design. My career aspirations were crushed.

The next year I came in a homemade jumpsuit and helmet with cardboard skis taped to my shoes. I got my photo in the paper again. This time I said I wanted to be a professional skier. Since that time I have been skiing exactly once. I just really liked making the costumes, and then getting to wear them. Funny thing I just made a movie with jumpsuits and helmets.

How did this whole project come together?

Wow. I am going to give you a truncated answer here. Otherwise I will ramble longer than I am already about to ramble.

I knew I wanted to make a romance. That's where it started. For me romance is this amazing, attractive, adventure...but it is also scary and maybe just out of anyone's grasp. I wanted to reflect that in the film, in the story, in the hair-dos, in the characters, and even in the visuals. So the next thing I did was work on the animation process we were going to use. I spent a couple years, and used Bubblecraft as a trial run, developing out visuals. I wanted it to look almost real, just not quite. I was looking for a visual that retained the expressions of the actors, but not their reality...maybe something half way between the dreamy digital rotoscoping of “Waking Life” and the processed reality of “Sin City”. With the help of my friend Tray Duncan, we wrote a program to let me combine a lot of different visual techniques like image processing, hand drawing, shadow creation, 3D animating and digital rotoscoping, to get something that feels like a graphic novel moving around.

Once I had the visual format figured out, I was able to start thinking about the story itself. It freed me up. I knew we would have a pretty tiny budget, but now we could go anywhere. We could do anything. And what is probably the coolest thing you could do for a first date? Have it in space.

I wrote the script and called in as many favors as I could. Luckily a really talented bunch of cast and crew were willing to work for cut rates and willing to work abusively long hours to help me realize this project. So we jumped into a two and half year process of shooting and animating “Mars”.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

The money. It is pretty hard to find a way to finance an independent film without a long track record. And the hardest thing about having limited money was that several of us had to work day jobs while we made this to pay for it...then since we were broke we also had to stay up all night, every night, for two years to get the work done. We animated this with essentially six animators and a handful of interns. In case you are unfamiliar with animated features, that isn't enough people.

So the short answer: getting the animation done was really, really hard.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

It is animated, but all of the people were actually shot. Jason Eitelbach was the DP, and he did a great job. I had to get him to unlearn half of what he had learned. In order to use our animation program – of which allowed us to process the actual colors from the footage, composite that together with hand drawn lines and computer generated textures --- he had to give me consistent smooth lighting with as few shadows as possible. He also had to keep the cyc lit evenly. Then to make it harder, we only had one green wall, so he had to keep the camera pointed in the same direction even when we needed to do a 360 around an actor. So we built giant lazy Susans and often rotated the floor beneath them. It was a crazy way to shoot. But Jason did it without complaint, or at least without complaining to me).

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film.

This will be the world premiere for MARS. So festival-wise I’ll have to answer that question next week. I think the film is a very different film that a lot of the other projects on the festival circuit. Story-wise it is pretty different than most of the other projects on the festival circuit. I wanted it to meander. I wanted it to be upbeat. I didn't want it dark and edgy, but I also didn't want it to be a "feel good" movie. So some of my friends have really responded to it, some prefer a different type of film. I expect the visuals will have a similar effect. They are different than any other film I have seen. Some people are going to like them, some wont.

I think these things that made the film stand out a little have gotten us some good attention leading into the fest. I hope that some of that attention will translate into people enjoying the film...or at least coming up to me a telling me what they thought of it. The audience reaction is really what I am simultaneously most excited and nervous about.

Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

I hope people ask me about my awesome New Zealand accent I use during my cameo. I guess I also hope people notice some of the bigger ideas I hid in the film. I mean I want them caught up in the romance between various characters...but there is some other stuff in there, that I won’t mention here, but I hope someone catches.

Who would you say is “the audience” for this film?

People who like sci-fi. People who like romance. And the other people.

I guess I am not sure if it has a specific group of people. I know from the few folks who have seen it, we have had really positive responses from girls/women who grew up reading comic books and watching sci-fi just like the boys did. I think it is the kind of sci-fi a lot of them enjoyed.

Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

Just the ones with good taste.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

Wow. Too many to count. Visually, I was definitely inspired by a couple of local films, "Walking Life" and "Sin City". I was also inspired by a lot of mid eighties comic books I grew up reading.

Story-wise, I was actually inspired a lot by Hal Hartley's early stuff ("Surviving Desire' and "Simple Men" especially). Real direct dialog, words that are the conflict itself, and also the dialog in James Kochalka's graphic novels. I love the way his characters just throw out what they are thinking directly at one another. I wanted to do that. That made casting James himself as one of the characters really rewarding for me.

Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man" is one of my favorite films. I love the meander of it. I also love the way the music works its way into the soundscape organically. I wanted my Marsnauts to drift towards the new world without really knowing the William Blake does in Jarmusch's film. To create this drifting feel I wanted the music to be a reoccurring character, again similar to "Dead Man". I listened to a lot of Giant Sand/Howe Gelb records while I was writing MARS. So when Howe agreed to write the soundtrack I was thrilled. Now that it's done I couldn't imagine the film without his music.

I am sure "2001" and "Star Wars" had some effects on my portrayals of space, and I try to think about David Byrne's "True Stories" during the production of every film I make. I think "True Stories" is an under-rated masterpiece. "True Stories" shows the subtle humor and specialness of the simplest little things. I can only hope I created a few similar moments in “Mars”

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry?

Is that a trick question?

Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I just want to keep making films. Either way is A-OK.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

Well I have a karate rock band. We play Tuesday night after our film premiere. I figure there is a lot of money in that too. If both those don't work out, I'd like to be a park ranger. Seriously, I would like that.

Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Wow, this would be a really long answer too. I got to work with some of my favorites on this film. Both James Kochalka and Howe Gelb, though not filmmakers, certainly have influenced my style, and working with them was fantastic.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

As an independent filmmaker, it is super important. There is no built in mechanism to get my film out there. If the critics and media don't take an interest in it reaching distributors and potential audiences is super hard. It is also nice to occasionally have someone "important" tell you your work is okay. That helps you get through the many days when you doubt that it is.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

I'll take quantity over quality here. I'd like a lot of people to see it, and if I had my way, I'd like them to see it on a big screen. I still love the movie theatre experience. So there isn't a particular theatre that would make me happier than the others. I would just like it to be out there.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

Variety. I love megaplexes too. Some days I eat Mexican food, other days I eat pizza. They are different. You are going to see a different aesthetic, you are going to see stories that take more chances, you are going to see different types of actors, and hear different types of written voices when you see a film like mine.

In particular, if you see my film, you aren't going to get a hairpin adventure with set ups and pay offs accented by conflicts to be resolved in the end. You are going get a film about falling in love. It’s a film about the little things that may not make sense but keep drawing us in. I didn't need very many explosions to do that…though we did need a couple. As with a lot of indie films, there were not that many cooks in the kitchen, so a lot of my individual ideas and idiosyncrasies show up in “Mars”, so it ends up being as much about me as it does the story. I think this happens less in the megaplexes. That viewer on the street might be into it.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie (if at your own screening or another movie you attend)?

I don't really like confrontation so in reality I'd probably put up with it, then complain about it later while eating Mexican food. It is pretty uncool though. Someone worked hard on that film, be it big or small, if you are more interested in texting than watching, just leave. I feel the same way about people on the phone at the dinner table. So to finish answering the question, I would then fail to confront the person on the phone at the table while I was eating my Mexican food and complaining about the person on the phone during the film.

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

Love is a strong word for this business. Maybe if you call it an art or hobby, I really love telling stories. I really love working with people who can do amazing things I can't do and incorporating them into a bigger project.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Yes. That is kinda my day job. Having that advice.

Don't give up. Filmmaking is really hard. Things will often not turn out the way you expected or wanted. You will get rejected a lot. It will be hard to not get resentful and jealous of other people's success. It is hard to make a living at it. There are dozens of reasons you shouldn't try it. But if you do try it, and keep trying it even when these things go wrong, you can have some amazing times and create something that you look back on and are proud of. And sometimes other people will like it too.

Don't spend your time trying to figure out what critics or festivals want you to make. And don't wait for everything to be perfect. Go out and figure out what you can make with your resources. Then jump in and do it. And make something you would want to see. Then cross your fingers and know you did your best. the at least you will be happy with what you made, and chances are it will resonate with someone else too.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

I don't think I have an answer here either. It is hard to pick a favorite. Let me just say “True Stories”, “Dead Man”, “Office Space”, “Night of The Hunter”, “Surviving Desire”, “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”, “Whisper of the Heart” and “Star Wars” are all on the list.

This is one of the many films screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film in Austin, Texas between March 12-20. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 03/11/10 05:28:02
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