It’s not easy making indie sci-fi films that address the morality and ethics of scientific advances, feature believable characters and keep audiences on edge …all on an indie budget. That was the challenge facing Jacob Leighton Burns, writer/director of “Electric Nostalgia” – a full-length, award-winning indie sci-fi thriller made in Oklahoma. Recursor spoke with Burns about making sci fi on a budget.
RECURSOR: What did you find to be the challenges of creating indie sci-fi?
JACOB LEIGHTON BURNS: The biggest challenge in creating indie sci-fi is building a new world within your film that is both believable and fantastical. A lot of that starts at the screenplay stage. I wrote it and rewrote it until the balance felt right. But the challenge definitely followed us throughout production and post-production. Our budget was incredibly low, so instead of trying to make our film look expensive, we embraced the gritty, intimate roughness that comes with a low budget and did our best to use it to our advantage.
R: Why did you choose the sci-fi/horror genre?
JLB: I’ve always been a fan of science fiction stories that were less focused on CGI and special effects, and more focused on story and character, like The Twilight Zone, and I wanted my first feature film to be in that vein. I think science fiction is under-utilized and capable of doing so much more than many give it credit for. It allows us to examine things from a different perspective, and gives us the opportunity to tell stories in new, interesting ways.
R: Do you have any favorite filmmakers or authors who are influences?
JLB: I was really struck by the recent influx of indie sci-fi films that were doing incredibly well on the festival circuit — like Another Earth, Sound of My Voice, and Primer. They proved it was possible to tell a compelling sci-fi story on a micro-budget, as long as the characters were strong and the world was believable. There’s a John Frankenheimer film called Seconds that had a huge impact on me. It’s a very Twilight Zone-esque, character-based story that involves body swapping. It really gave me some great insight into how to tell a story like that visually and also how to present exposition without it becoming overbearing.
Even though Electric Nostalgia is a sci-fi/horror/thriller, I think it’s important to look to other genres for influence and inspiration. I happened upon a film called Frances Ha, an indie dramedy directed by Noah Baumbach. Though it lacked any fantastical elements, I was charmed and overwhelmed by the incredible dialogue and characters. It really motivated me to take another crack at the script and find ways to strengthen the characters in my film.
R: Electric Nostalgia won the Best Oklahoma Feature award at deadCENTER. Tell us about that experience.
JLB: Watching as the seats filled that night was incredibly surreal. I’d dreamed of making movies since I was a kid, and now there was a theater full of people excited to see my movie. Then deadCENTER surprised us with the Best Oklahoma Feature Film Award right before the screening. I was completely overwhelmed with shock and gratitude. Making movies is a tough process, and that award was an acknowledgement of all the hard work, money, time, and talent that many Oklahomans had put into the film. The screening itself was magical. To hear people laugh when they were supposed to laugh, and gasp when they were supposed to gasp, it’s difficult to put into words what a wonderful feeling that is.
R: Do you see yourself and your production company making more science fiction films in the future? What do you have in the works right now?
JLB: Our goal at Planet Thunder Productions is to make thoughtful, imaginative and memorable films of any length or genre. I plan to explore genres beyond sci-fi, but I have no doubt it will be the genre I return to the most. Currently, Zachary Burns (Electric Nostalgia Producer) and I are working on a short documentary about teaching photography to blind and visually impaired students called Fleeting Light. We’re also gearing up for another feature film that will be directed by Vinnie Hogan (Electric Nostalgia Producer) called Werewolf Scouts. And I’m also working on a script that we hope to get off the ground soon. Won’t say much about it yet, but yes, it’s a sci-fi film.