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SxSW 2016 Interview: OPERATOR director Logan Kibens

by Jason Whyte

"Joe (Martin Starr) decides to use his wife Emily (Mae Whitman) as the template for a new digital customer service agent. As Emily becomes more independent, Joe comes to rely on the replica more and more for his emotional and even sexual needs." Director Logan Kibens on OPERATOR which screens at the 2016 edition of South By Southwest Film.

I am thrilled to hear OPERATOR is showing at SxSW and I can't wait to see it! Are you planning to attend your screenings?

Absolutely! My wife Sharon Greene, who is also the co-writer and executive producer, will be here with me and I will be at the festival for a week attending the first three screenings, and doing Q&As afterwards. Much of our cast and crew are also attending, and will join us for the Q&As!

Talk to me a bit about how you got your start in the industry and your previous work!

I have been making films since I was 15, when I enrolled in a Radio/TV/Film class in high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I studied experimental film and video at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and my work developed to be more narrative and involve more terrific actors as I engaged in the theater scene in Chicago. This brought me to pursue my MFA in Directing at CalArts, and a great side benefit was that not only did I love the school, but I loved living in Los Angeles and being a part of the film community here. After CalArts I was fortunate to become an HBO/DGA directing fellow, and during my time at HBO I began writing OPERATOR. That dovetailed into being invited to the Sundance Screenwriters lab, where my co-writer and wife Sharon Greene and I developed the script for OPERATOR.

So after writing and getting it developed, what was the process like for getting OPERATOR made?

Through massive determination, and the help of a lot of wonderful people. OPERATOR was supported by a number of arts organizations that helped connect us with collaborators, develop the project, and give us a really helpful seal of approval when approaching people for financing. The Sundance Institute, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Film Independent were huge and continual supporters of the project and us as filmmakers.

I like what I am hearing. So what keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

There is definitely a driving stubbornness inside of me that won't let me stop making things.

Ideas lodge themselves in your brain, and they won't let go until you find a way to express them. For me, I put those ideas and feelings into films. It's such a dense and malleable medium, that it can hold so much thought and emotion. And when the driving need isn't enough, or massive self-doubt or exhaustion creeps in, that's when the support and kind words of other people are so incredibly helpful. Even just a touch of encouragement, or someone acknowledging what you're doing, can be enough to keep you going through the long stretches of uncertainty.

So with making OPERATOR, what was your biggest challenge with making this movie, and the moment where you knew you had something special?

Raising the money was the most challenging part of the movie. We met with many production companies and since we were new to the business side of filmmaking, the process was very confusing. People would seem to say "yes" and then later someone else would have to explain that that particular wording of "yes" actually means "no" in Los Angeles. It took us years to find a film financier who was excited about our script and my vision for it and I will always be grateful for his trust and faith.

There were so many incredible moments on set, where we knew we had something special. In our first rehearsal, I took Martin to Hollywood Pier in Chicago, which was a significant location for his character. We talked about anxiety, vulnerability, and opening yourself up to the uncertainty of life and human connection. Watching Martin take all that into his creation of the character while sitting amidst Lake Michigan was so awesome. Seeing Mae on stage at the Neo-Futurists, where my wife Sharon had performed for so many years, completely owning the words and performance, was very powerful.

I must get all techie on you, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and how it was shot.

We shot with the ARRI Amira, and for the live theater scenes, where Mae Whitman's character is a performer in the Chicago Neo-Futurists, we shot with three cameras; the Amira and two Sony A7S cameras. I always knew I would need a cinematographer with a huge range of skills and I wanted each characters' environments to be shot very differently, so I needed a cinematographer who was flexible. I chose Steeven Petitteville, who is so talented and a complete joy to work with. He started as a photographer, and has the ability to create beautifully composed graphic wide shots, fluid dolly shots, intimate and intuitive handheld shots, and aggressive, chaotic panic-driven shots, all of which I ask him to do for OPERATOR. This is the first project I have worked with him on, and I want to art-marry him and make more and more movies with him. Steeven is a brilliant artist, and incredibly strong technically. I had a wonderful time on set with him, and an immediate mind meld, sharing a non-verbal aesthetic style.

So what are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

The audience! I hear the audiences are amazing at SXSW. I'm incredibly excited to see the film screen with an audience for the first time, and am really looking forward to seeing how people react. I am also excited to meet filmmakers and other people who love movies; I grew up taking family vacations with my parents while they attended academic conferences. Film festivals feel like that to me; you get to see what new ideas people are working with, and talk to other people who love making things just as much as you do.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?

We are excited to screen at more film festivals, and hopefully line up an LA premiere and a Chicago premiere, to celebrate with the many people who helped make this movie possible.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

I would love to screen at the Music Box theater in Chicago, and invite all the wonderful local cast and crew who made making this movie such a pleasure. We had an awesome group of people, and I'm eager to bring the film back to Chicago and celebrate there. I would also love to screen at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, where both my wife and I are from. It's a beautifully restored movie palace, and where I grew up watching movies. It would be wonderful to have a hometown premiere there.

What would you say to someone who was talking or texting through a movie?

I would take a deep breath, try and stifle my frustration, and ask them nicely to please be quiet, giving them a chance to be cool about it. If they didn't?

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?

If you are entering filmmaking as a business, everyone you encounter will have a lot of opinions. Your work is unique because it is yours and don't doubt what you're trying to make. As a creator of things and ideas, you are immensely valuable. And that work will only be stronger if you hold true to yourself, and what you want to say. Find the people who respond genuinely to that, and work with them. And if people aren't getting it, keep refining how you say it until they do. You have a vision in your mind, and your job is to find a way to evoke that vision in other peoples' minds. Never doubt that what you have, as a filmmaker and an artist, is valuable. And be humble and grateful to those who help you.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen?

My favorite movie of all time is Albert Brooks' DEFENDING YOUR LIFE. And while this wasn't at a film festival, I still remember seeing Chantal Akerman's JEANNE DIELMAN at the Michigan theater in Ann Arbor when I was fifteen. I didn't understand it then, and it took me two more viewings over the next ten years to really get it, but when I finally did, that film will never leave my mind, and will always be an influence on me.

Be sure to follow the progress of OPERATOR by following @operatorfilm on Twitter and Facebook, and follow Logan on Twitter at @logankaija!

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2016. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 11-19. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 03/11/16 07:28:10
last updated: 03/11/16 07:47:56
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