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Indie Spotlight: Chatting with Olfactory Creator Christopher Piazza

What do you do when you’re ready for a personal challenge after years of directing, overseeing photography, and operating cameras for productions as varied as PBS’s Live From the Artists Den, Jerry Seinfeld’s COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE, and live shows for Beyonce, Eminem, Public Enemy and others?

If you’re Christopher Piazza, you create an intriguing look at memory and the clash between our dreams and reality with a sci-fi short film called OLFACTORY. We chatted with Piazza about his film, his interest in the sci-fi genre and more.

RECURSOR: Where did your passion for filmmaking originate?

PIAZZA: From when I was a little kid, it was the only thing I was ever going to do. I was obsessed with movies since the first time I saw PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, and I never looked back. I was making my own movies with my dad’s camera by the time I was 10. I went to film school at Syracuse University and started working in the film business immediately after graduation.

Filmmaker Christopher Piazza at the Berlin Sci-Fi Film Fest, on Recursor.TV

Piazza at the Berlin Sci-Fi Film Fest

Who are your filmmaking and storytelling influences?

The filmmakers I admire most are the ones who create entire worlds, with their own rules, in their filmmaking — Spike Jonze, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and many more.

But my biggest influence is Christopher Nolan. I really respond to the way he creates elaborate narrative puzzles with his films, and his obsession with memory, dreams and narrative loops.

Some viewers have compared OLFACTORY to MEMENTO in the way that deals with memory loss and the way the main character actively recasts his past. That’s comparison is pretty much the highest compliment I think the film can receive.

What do you consider great examples of sci-fi filmmaking?

My favorite science fiction films tend to be set in a slightly heightened version of our own reality. The earliest film I can remember blowing my mind was Terry Gilliam’s 12 MONKEYS. The time travel narrative, and the idea of witnessing and in some ways causing your own death, is just brilliant. And the film is so simply and tragically emotional on top of being trippy as Hell.

I also love Spike Jonze’s HER” Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION, Denis Villenuve’s ARRIVAL and so many more. It’s hard to pick just a few!

What is it about sci-fi that you find appealing in terms of story and filmmaking?

From OLFACTORY by Christopher Piazza, indie sci-fi film on Recursor.TV

From OLFACTORY by Christopher Piazza

Science fiction is great for telling stories about our world and where it’s headed. In some ways, I feel like it’s the best way to tackle the Big Questions — why are we here, where are we going, what does it all mean? It’s a genre that allows you to reconsider the most fundamental parts of your world and experience, and I love that.

How did this sci-fi sensibility impact the story you tell in OLFACTORY?

I wanted to explore how technology affects the composition of our memories, and how that relationship defines our “selves.” In the film, the main character relives, and eventually reprograms, his own memories. The way we interact with social media and our iPhones feels like it alters the nature of our brains and how we recall our past and interpret our present, and I wanted to take that idea to its logical conclusion — if we could actually rewrite our past, how would it affect our present?

What inspired the story of OLFACTORY?

OLFACTORY is based on a short story by my friend Lucas Kane, who I have been writing and collaborating with since high school. We were trying to figure out how to adapt it into a film for years, but the original story’s scope and ambition were too big for a short. And then I saw an excellent film called THE ONE I LOVE, about a couple who encounter doubles of themselves at a therapeutic retreat. It’s an amazingly economic film, telling a brain-melting story with two actors in one location. Once we decided to apply the basics of the OLFACTORY story to a single location, the whole thing fell into place.

How did you handle the challenges of making sci-fi on an indie budget?

The biggest challenge of filming OLFACTORY was time. We had a limited budget and had to shoot a 30+ page script, full of twists, turns, flashbacks and subtle visual effects, in just four days. Fortunately, I was working with an amazing cast who truly understood the layers of the script and an incredible crew.

I also was determined to keep the film visually interesting, even though 90% of it takes place in just three rooms, which meant coming up with a lot of creative camera moves and lighting setups.

How has being a director of photography lent itself to helping you direct films?

Piazza's camera operator work on Seinfield's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, via Recursor.TV

Piazza’s camera operator work on Seinfield’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

When people ask me the best way to train to be a director, I tell them to go through the camera department. From behind the camera, you really get to witness how the combination of visuals and performance truly create the world of the film. Filmmaking is a truly collaborative medium, but it’s the camera that really glues everything together.

You’ve also done tons of live shows for music artists. Has that provided a unique advantage as you work on your own films?

I have been shooting live music for many years for artists like Pearl Jam, Coldplay, Kendrick Lamar, and lots more. Big concerts and narrative films have more in common than people may think. There’s a lot of rehearsal and storytelling involved, but once those cameras roll, it’s an electric feeling of spontaneity. I feel like working with actors is very much like filming live music — once I’ve called “action,” we are in their world and it’s our responsibility to capture that magic.

What advice would you offer to indie filmmakers interested in making sci-fi?

I think the biggest thing to keep in mind when making a sci-fi film is to always remember the human element, and never to allow your concept to overwhelm the story. I would encourage people to think of their stories and characters as humanely as possible — how does the world you’re creating affect the people within it?

I would consider OLFACTORY a romantic drama first and a sci-fi film second. We use the device of memory alteration as a way to explore the very human way that we create and reinterpret our own past in a manner that allows us to move forward, and how denying our own past mistakes can cause us to repeat them over and over again.

What are you working on right now?

Still from Baby Won't You Please Come Home by Christopher Piazza, via Recursor.TV

Still from Baby Won’t You Please Come Home by Christopher Piazza

I have another short film that I wrote and directed called Baby Won’t You Please Come Home that’s about to start on the festival circuit. It’s about a jazz singer struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s and her daughter’s struggle to cope. It stars Michelle Hurst from Orange is the New Black, Melanie Nicholls-King from The Wire, and Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Jazzmeia Horn. Even though it’s not sci-fi, it deals with the unreliability of memories — in this case, losing memory due to a disease — in a very similar way. You can view the trailer here.

If you have thoughts on Recursor.TV, we’d love to hear them!

I love that Recursor.tv highlights the cutting edge of indie sci-fi. I traveled the world for film festivals with OLFACTORY and saw some amazing sci-fi short films that many of us wouldn’t have access to online. Short films tend to fall through the cracks online, so it’s important for aggregators like Recursor to highlight the best of the best.

To learn more about Christopher Piazza and his work as a director, director of photography, and camera operator, visit his website. And check out his indie sci-fi film OLFACTORY here on Recursor.TV.

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