Alienating with Sci Fi Filmmaker Adam Ciancio on “Vessel”
Pop quiz: What do these four films have in common?
a) El Mariachi
All are micro-budget films with budgets of under $10,000. The first four went on to be wildly successful, and even launched careers of director icons. “El Mariachi”, released in 1992 and made for a paltry $7,000, launched the career of 23-year-old filmmaker, producer, director, writer, special-effects wizard, and editor Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Grindhouse, Planet Terror). “Following”, made in 1998 for $6,000, was the first film by fanboy fave director Chris Nolan (The Dark Knight). To read more on these films, check out this post from 2009 about some amazing low budget film success stories.
If you’re a indie film connoisseur that doesn’t recognize the last name, “Vessel”, well … don’t beat yourself up (unless you enjoy doing that sort of thing!). “Vessel” (tentative title, as you’ll learn in the interview to follow) is a sci-fi alien “ticking timebomb” tale that makes up in substance for what it lacks in a special effects budget. Consider it a “thinking man’s tale” which, come to think of it, was also the case with a variety of other out-of-this-world art house director debuts such as “Pi” (1997, Darren Aronofsky, made on a budget of $60,000) and “Eraserhead” (1977, David Lynch’s surreal freak show, made on a budget of $100,000).
And, by reading this interview, you’ll actually have an inside track on being a part of the picture, as it is filming this summer and is being supported by a crowd funding campaign at indiegogo — http://www.indiegogo.com/Empty-Vessel).
But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself before you’ve had a chance to reach for your wallet, get two tickets and a bucket of pop corn. Settle in to your favorite puffy chair and I’ll let the director of “Vessel”, Melbourne-based filmmaker and commercial creator Adam Ciancio, fill you in.
1) Adam, pitch us your film, VESSEL, in three snappy sentences.
(AC:) VESSEL is about an alien interfacer who has until the end of the day to strip himself of his gift or risk succumbing to its side effects. Basically every time he interfaces with an extraterrestrial, the process zaps him of that thing that makes us human: emotion/soul/character. Essentially, he has to stay on the human side until he can get hold of a past interfacer like himself who figured a way to rid herself of the gift.
2) What three films you’d most likely compare your film to? “VESSEL” is a psychological sci-fi film in the vein of ..
(AC:) It’s hard to compare it out and out to one or two films in terms of straight Sci Fi similarities, as it’s more of a mash than anything. I guess if you got “K-PAX” and that whole extraterrestrial loner story and blended it with the last day time clock of the “25th Hour” that’s sort of what my film is like. Throw in the mystery and the questions thrown up by “Contact” for good measure as well.
Style wise, I want it to have that pressing dark nature that “Se7en” had, I don’t want people to know what city it was filmed in so I’m taking a lot of measures to find locations in Melbourne (Australia) that nobody is aware of, or at least film them from angles that don’t reveal too much.
3) In your mind, what does an alien look like? How do they act? Are they friend or foe?
(AC:) Well, it’s bizarre because in most films we were fed the idea of a little green man. But from my research into Clifford Stone and other sources he claimed there were close to 50 something different species of ET’s. Even more incredibly, they traversed the gamut of forms from reptilian, to human like, to furry to the tried and true little green man.
Personally I can’t shake the notion of them being some sort of spirit entity that is just pure energy, something efficient, and something that is beyond 4th density. A little like Dr Manhattan from “Watchmen”, although nowhere near as iridescent or even that humanly formed. Just an all-encompassing-voice that fills the mind. I’m also a massive fan of “Super Metroid”, the SNES version; so much so that I’ve actually written a live action script for it. But it’s the idea of Mother Brain that has always appealed to me. Not her shape but just the way she could fill the space without words.
Maybe I should of called the film “The 4th Density” … maybe I might???
In terms of how they act … you hear so many stories. They are cold, clinical, calculating, they don’t have a soul. So that’s why they abduct us, to research these phenomena. What is a soul, how do we get one…all that sort of crap. I honestly think they don’t give a huge shit about us at the moment. If they are out there, they’re probably treating us like children at Christmas lunch — basically we’re sitting at the kid’s table in some sort of galactic quarantine.
4) Who is Adam Ciancio? What inspired you to write, direct and produce this film?
Basically I graduated film school in 2005, I went to VCA for the foundation year and at the time Robert Lucketic had just left and directed “Legally Blonde” and Adam Elliot had just won the Oscar for “Harvey Crumpet”. Then I went and did my main three years at RMIT, which is like NYU.
Funny thing, when I arrived at RMIT the guys who made “Saw” had just graduated like a year or two prior and were just getting big. RMIT was great because it was more hands on than other film schools so you got right into it pretty quickly. What was really insane was in my final year I used the newly released Sony HDV camera. We had DV500’s and I was just so sick of how damn bulky they were and the images they were spitting out, one of them actually needed a car battery to power it! But when we shot with the HDV we were just freaking amazed at how good the resolution was. Now I look and I can’t believe these kids at film school get to use Red Cameras and 5D’s. It’s almost cheating, but I guess they’re the cameras of the time as the technology has evolved so quick.
Most recently I’ve been trying to earn a living directing commercials It’s been a bit of a slog. You have a lot of false starts, join companies that don’t always work out, some even go bankrupt and you’re left once again looking for a new home. But when you’re working on good campaigns, there is no better way to exercise your directing muscle. Here are YouTube videos of two Levi’s virals which will give you a flavor for my work and directing style:
Go Forth with Dan Flynn
Go Forth with Mark Robert Fuller
I wrote the script for “Vessel” between Christmas and New Year’s. The idea had been festering ever since I read about real life interfacers like Clifford Stone, which was at least four or five years ago. So it didn’t take long, roughly two writing sessions. It was already there. I just had to get it on paper.
I sat down and thought “What resources do I have at my disposal that I could get involved/excited about the project?” And when I listed through them, I realized that basically I had a full cast and crew who would most likely want to get involved in the project as much as I would because we were all at the same stages of our careers. It boils down to being the purest form of filmmaking, a skeleton crew, the actor and a camera so you can move at the speed of thought, to use a Robert Rodriguez term.
For me, the film industry is like a boxing match. Specifically, the “Rumble in the Jungle”. You’re Ali and the Industry is George Foreman, this giant hulking behemoth; and for eight rounds he’s pounding on you. Each round representing a year, and each punch representing a rejection. By round 5 you’re thinking “Is this this ever gonna stop?” … but then you reach round eight and you realize this guy is out of punch, and he finally opens up. It’s basically the industry saying YES; it’s said no for so long that it had to say yes at some point. And that’s when you hit, you get one shot to knock him down so you take it with everything you’ve got. You’re tired, it’s been eight rounds, the ego has been beaten out of you, but you’ve been waiting for this moment for almost a decade now.
5) What’s the film’s budget and what camera will you use to shoot in on?
(AC:) The films budget is around $8,000. Originally I was going to shoot it on my Canon 5D and spend the budget on rigging it up with some lenses and a Zacuto. But a few weeks back my DP Aaron shot a short on an Arri Alexa run-and-gun style and said it behaved brilliantly. So we’re looking at maybe using that if we can finagle a good deal from a rental house. Plus, we’re seeing the film tonight on the big screen so we’ll be able to see what the camera is capable of. I personally want to use it to take advantage of its low light capabilities and the latitude it gives you in grading, even when shot in Log C. Not that the 5D isn’t amazing. I just shot that Levi’s campaign on it and it produced crazy images – all at night!
6) Seriously? You can produce an “in-the-can” film for under $10,000? How are you able to cut corners?
(AC:) A lot of it has to do with my team. Everyone involved is at the cusp of their career where things can take off for them because they’ve paid their dues. Everyone wants to get involved because they get a free creative outlet and its success can mean bigger and better work for them in the future. That’s my hope.
If you break it down, the things we are spending the money on are equipment, some location fees and public liability insurance – that’s it. Plus the rental houses in Melbourne are great and always willing to give you a good deal.
On top of that we’ve reached a point with digital technology where the argument is over: RED, Alexa, Canon, they all give awesome images now. There is no point in fighting over picture quality. You buy the camera or you hire it, you shoot it and you edit it at home. I shot some Alcohol virals a year ago and all I had was myself, my DP Aaron, one small LED and a Canon 5D and the result was pretty fantastic in terms of our non-existent budget.
Your biggest worry now is finding good locations, getting some actors, and getting some insurance. If everyone is onboard, believes in the story, and wants to take that next step then it really shouldn’t cost that much as they’ll be willing to work on it for free because it helps them as much as it helps you.
Also a lot of the work and savings come in Pre-production. I know Melbourne pretty damn well and yet, in the last month as I’ve gone location scouting, I’ve found areas of the city I had no idea existed. This includes lanes, shops, diners, stairs, everything. What I realized is it’s a lot cheaper to find locations that are already set designed than trying to do it yourself and wasting your money on creating an atmosphere in an empty space with little to no furnishings because you can’t afford it. It’s about creating depth. Nothing sticks out more or looks more amateur than a scene set in a location where it hasn’t got a strong sense of set design. That’s what I admire about (David) Fincher — the director of “Fight Club”, “Se7en”, “The Social Network” — he creates a lot of depth in his scenes. Three or four dimensions behind the action there is detail, and there is a life to that location that existed far earlier than when we actually arrived at it.
7) We’re intrigued! Give us five good reasons to invest in your film.
1) You’ll be seeing a very different Australian film than the ones you are used to. I’m really going to paint our city in a different light. Very grey, very concrete-jungle-like. I want people to say “There is no way you shot that in Australia”. It looks like an Eastern Bloc country.” And when was the last time you saw an Australian Sci Fi film?
2) You’ll be adding to the very light selection of Sci Fi films that don’t depict aliens shooting shit at us. Don’t get me wrong, I have a soft spot for ID4 but if we as a species are going to try and reach out, then we have to propagate the idea that there is possibly a civilized dialogue between us. That there is more to our time than taxes and a mortgage and a 9 to 5 job.
3) Because I want this film to create a dialogue, not just entertain … but create a dialogue. I want people talking and asking the question how far can we go, is this character Ash (the star of the film, to be played by Mark Diaco) just the tip of the iceberg?
4) Because I can assure you it will be your most original film experience in a while. The story is original, the execution is original and you have a team of professionals that are putting everything they have into it to make it the most immersive story possible.
5) Lastly, coming from a place of truth, I’ve been on a pretty up and down journey over the past 8 years and it’s finally come to this. I want this to work, I want to create a great film to share with everyone and have him or her involved and feel like they are as much a reason for making this happen as I am. You get one opportunity to make a memorable first impression and I’m sure as hell not going to spit up an inferior film.
– Plus you’ll get to see some futuristic props, which is always cool.
8) What are some of the perks – or “swag” as they say in the biz – that you’re giving to people who support the film?
(AC:) We’ve got a few things, besides a copy of the film and the poster, which is being designed by my mate as we speak. There are also credits you can gain with your contribution. So for one click you can get yourself an Associate Producer credit or even an Executive Producer credit! But the coolest thing is definitely the props that are being worked on by our prop master at the moment. I’ve seen some of the initial mock-ups and they look awesome. So if you wish to contribute, you can get yourself a futuristic prop from the film like an inhaler with insert vials or a bizarre audio recorder.
We might even throw in the Alien glyphs – actually that would be a great idea! They’re pretty random in their design, like those paintings that you see in galleries and just don’t understand. You frame that up and you’ve got yourself some post-modern art right there in your house.
9) Who are the actors that will be in the film?
(AC:) The lead actor is Mark Diaco, I met him a few years back when we shot the teaser for a film with a larger budget (~ $500K) that we were very close to getting produced in the United States. From that experience, I knew Mark was a unique talent; one of those guys that, if given the right role, would be able to create something that would launch his career. Hopefully “Vessel” is it.
I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but Mark test screened for the upcoming big budget “Man of Steel” franchise that is being made right now and got pretty damn close to nabbing the role of “Superman.” From what I gather, he played him in a totally different way to what most people expect with the whole upholding justice theme. Instead, he played Superman as someone who felt burdened by the gift, as if he doesn’t even want these powers and it’s more of a cross to bear than anything. Apparently they were almost blindsided by his interpretation, as they had never seen such an iconic character played like that before.
But words don’t do justice to his ability. You can check out his demo reel here:
He’s also been cast in some pretty decent sized films in the US but have the money fall out at the last minute due to the GFC (“global financial crisis”).
Mark also runs a theatre company here in Melbourne called Human Sacrifice Theatre which has a bevy of super talented people which I’ve seen perform over the years. So I wrote a lot of the roles based on these actors in terms of their look and their strengths. The plan is to get most of the theatre company onboard as the film is basically seven “one on ones” between the main character and seven of his old acquaintances.
10) This is an alien movie without special effects, but you are still creating your own alien mythos. Tells us about the props, glyphs and other alien traits you’re developing for the film.
(AC:) Yeah I always see these films that are low budget but try and pull off the whole horror/sci fi/fantasy thing by doing all the special effects themselves. The problem is they rely on them too much because they know they can be done to within 85% of what you see at the cinema. But what it ends up looking like is a box of Adobe After Effects has spewed up all over their movie. Kinda like using every instrument in your band on every note on every beat. Too noisy! Less is more a lot of the time – especially in filmmaking (see Alfred Hitchcock’s famous bomb theory to show what I mean!).
I can’t do special effects myself, and I didn’t want to attempt them in my first film, so I came to the realization that the film’s strength can come in its realism. You never see the aliens in “Contact” and Kevin Spacey is in human form in K-Pax. But you always get the feeling that these ET’s are around or at least watching. It’s the story and their current environment that pushes you to want to know more.
That’s where the skill in storytelling comes from. My best bet to create this environment is to have a few very well made props, just to give the inkling that there is something different about this environment, that in a few year’s time this is where this incarnation of planet earth is headed.
In regards to the glyphs, they are actually part of the time clock feature in the film. I won’t spoil it; however, they will be used to indicate to both the audience and Ash (the main character) how much time he has left. They are Alfred Hitchcock’s “ticking timebomb under the table”, so to speak.
I found all these Alien fonts on the net and just started using Illustrator to integrate them in designs that you would see on the side of a spaceship or maybe marked in the dirt or even in a dream. Most of the evidence I researched was of the ilk of formulas and people saying that there was something almost artistic about the writings they witnessed. There are also some simpler ones that are just writing so it will sort of build up.
11) What are your plans for distribution? Are you going to self distribute, submit to festivals or hire a sales agent?
(AC:) Definitely the festival circuit would be my first bet, I’ve never really entered any of my work into festivals, or at least the big ones, so I would definitely like to give it a fair crack in terms of some of the top tier fests in the US. Whether it gets in is another story.
I guess the dream like anyone is to have it screen as some prestigious festival and then get the attention of a distributor or two have a bidding war. The reality, of course, is so far from that. Luckily I have relationships with some distributors based on past work, so there is always a chance to just go direct or even carve out a Pay Per View or Video on Demand deal. Aliens, like vampires, are very hot right now thanks to 2012 and paranormal craze.
12) Lastly, how can we contribute. And how else can we help?
(AC:) Contributing itself is pretty easy. Just go right here:
… and click the CONTRIBUTE NOW button at the bottom of the page.
You can contribute any amount, and it’s all appreciated and gets a shout out on my Facebook page. The bigger contributions get the bigger perks, and even a chance to get on-screen credit and your name listed on IMDB which is pretty cool.
Basically, with Mark’s work and my directorial stuff (and my video on top pitching the project), you should already get a good idea of what the aesthetics of this film are going to be.
If money is too tight then you can still help out by spreading the word. Tell everyone that there are a bunch of guys in Melbourne ready to make this Sci Fi/Drama (Sci Rama) film, and they need all the support they can get.
Either way, the film will get made this summer. But by helping us out you could be part of the next El Mariachi, Primer, Following … and VESSEL! Thanks for your time.
Thanks Adam. It looks like you’re on to something and we admire your talent and passion. Here’s a personal plea from myself for everyone to dig for some pocket change and help this very cool project come to life.
Do it now.
An award-winning indie comic creator and screenwriter, Bob Heske is currently writing/producing a micro-budget horror film called UNREST. Bob wrote THE NIGHT PROJECTIONIST, a vampire horror series to be published by Studio 407 (http://www.studio-407.com) with film rights optioned by Myriad Pictures. Through his Heske Horror shingle, Bob self-published his critically acclaimed horror series COLD BLOODED CHILLERS. Bob’s trade paperback BONE CHILLER (a “best of” CBC anthology) won a Bronze medal in the horror category at the 2009 Independent Publisher Book Awards. His “end times” anthology 2012: FINAL PRAYER was also released in late 2009. Bob was editor and contributor to InvestComics’ ONE AND DONE charitable anthology. Buy it here.