With several million views so far, the indie sci-fi short film FTL has received incredible buzz since it first came out in 2017. FTL‘s writer/director, Adam Stern, shared with us his experience making the film, his thoughts on indie sci-fi filmmaking in Vancouver, and his visual effects company, Artifex Studios.
RECURSOR: Tell us about your background and interest in sci-fi.
ADAM STERN: I’m definitely a lifelong sci-fi fan. My dad was a huge STAR TREK: ORIGINAL SERIES fan. He introduced it to me when I was little. I absolutely fell in love with it. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I started having rocket ships up on my wall and all that kind of stuff. I just loved it.
I love Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke and all that stuff. One of my favorite authors is William Gibson. Stanley Kubrik’s 2001— that was big. I could keep rambling about this forever.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your filmmaking style?
In stuff like FTL, I’m exploring my love of Kubrick and Christopher Nolan. I love Nolan’s filmmaking; I loved INTERSTELLAR. And I love Kubrick.
At the same time, I have projects I’m working on in the sci-fi realm that are not space stories. I love things that play with the nature of reality and question what is all around us. Even TV shows like MR. ROBOT— tonally and atmospherically, I love stuff like that. Stylistically, I absolutely love David Fincher as well.
I’m still working out what I want to do and what I want to move forward with stylistically, but those are definitely some influences.
How did you end up in filmmaking?
It was circuitous. Creative pursuits for me started with music. I went to Berklee (College of Music) in Boston and studied piano. I loved composing.
While I was learning about that stuff, I was introduced to what you could do visually with computers. And between that and my love of sci-fi and always loving photography, they all started to amalgamate into this desire to tell stories using all of these mediums.
How did you get started in visual effects?
A friend of mine was working on THE X-FILES, and William Gibson had written an episode of it. My friend called me and said, “I know you like William Gibson. Would you be interested in working with me on doing some computer graphics on this episode?” I couldn’t say yes quickly enough.
After that, I started working more in graphics and then moved into VFX. Since then, my VFX company Artifex Studios, is up to about 40 people here, working on tons of stuff for Netflix and Amazon, and all the networks. We’re currently working on the last season of MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. We’re working on a new series for Netflix called WU ASSASSINS. We’ve done TRAVELERS. We’ve done tons of stuff like that.
What drew you to writing and directing your own short films?
I’m interested in the stories I can tell. It doesn’t matter if I’m not the best writer or the best director in the world. I’m trying to find the stories I’d like to tell, and I want to experience the fun of telling them. That’s really important to me.
What themes do you drift toward in your filmmaking?
I am fascinated by the nature of identify and the nature of the world around us. When are you you? When are you no longer you? Ideas of identify and ego, I’m absolutely fascinated by. Everything I write in some way or another tends to explore that.
What inspired FTL, and what were your goals in creating it?
I had done my first short film, THE ADEPT, intentionally as very small, one location, two actors, entirely character, because it was intended at the time to show I could do something other than VFX.
For FTL, part of the original thought was to see — as myself as a filmmaker and as Artifex — what can we bring to the table? How much can we push something visually in a short form? And I love space exploration. I love the idea of looking up to the stars and trying to figure out what’s out there. It was about trying to tell a story that could feel big but be shot small.
What was it like shooting FTL?
The reality of FTLis that it was one day with two actors looking at a green screen, which became mission control, and it was one day of our pilot sitting on a rented flight chair with some plywood around him to be in the space craft, and then it’s the dynamics going back and forth between those two scenes. And then we shot half a day at my brother-in-law’s house to get some of the location stuff.
By design, the idea was, “We need to be able to do this very small, very inexpensively, and see what we can throw at it in post-production.” A lot of it came from the question, “How can we tell a big story, but shoot it small?”
Your VFX experience no doubt helps you make indie sci-fi like FTL.
100%! When I write, it’s not that I write to visual effects, but I’m probably less afraid than others of incorporating big visual ideas because I know how they can be executed. In financing conversations, it’s great to be able to say, “This may look big on the page, but I know how to attack this, and it’s not as scary as it seems.” I feel a lot of confidence both directing and writing because of my VFX background.
What challenges have you faced with making FTL?
In interesting ways, FTL has been a victim of its own success. The great thing, and something I’m very proud of, is it looks very expensive. So, then people hold it to a certain standard. They’re comfortable being critical of certain aspects of the film — which is great — but people don’t necessarily realize we did this for no money, and we shot it in two and a half days.
The challenges for me were less on the money side and more on getting a cast and crew that were able to commit to it because of how busy it is in Vancouver. I wanted good actors. I wanted experienced people.
What has the reaction to FTL been like since it debuted in 2017?
The film did about a year of really fun festivals. It won a bunch of awards, which was fabulous, and audiences seem to really enjoy it. One of my favorite experiences was watching it at the Chinese Theatres in Hollywood on this massive screen to a packed house of festival goers, which was really fun.
Then I put it on Vimeo and YouTube. It exploded at that point. It’s had several million views. It’s been really fun to see what happens with it. I got some interesting phone calls and have been back and forth to Hollywood having some very interesting conversations about the feature version of FTL.
Where is the feature version of FTL now, in terms of development?
A feature script is now in its third rewrite. The short film is essentially the first act of the feature film. The feature explores what happens afterwards, and it’s the movie I want to see in theaters. I’m excited about it, but it’s been a challenging script to get right. I’ve had several conversations with interested parties that would like to see it become a feature film.
What’s it like working in Vancouver?
Vancouver has a great city; it has tons to offer. It’s extremely busy in terms of the film business. What’s great about Vancouver is that we’re in the same time zone as L.A., we’re very close, there’s a lot of great shooting opportunities, and the crews here are robust. From the VFX perspective, it’s become, over the past 5-10 years, a major global center for visual effects. What makes things challenging is that the indie scene is not as easy in Vancouver as it used to be, because if you want a good cast and crew, everyone is working all the time.
With FTL, we had a great cast and crew, but it took months. And days before shooting, the lead said, “I have this movie that I wanted to do and they invited me to do it, and I might have to go.” It was just a constant scramble. Being an indie filmmaker in Vancouver is hard; being in film in Vancouver is busy. It’s trying to find that balance.
We can’t resist asking: What do you think of Recursor.TV?
You have some great stuff on here; you’re curating some really interesting films. It’s great that you guys are out there. There are a few interesting outlets trying to promote indie sci-fi, which is my favorite thing in the world. Keep doing it!
Adam Stern has worked in film and television for over twenty years. He founded Artifex Studios in 1997; Artifex now houses close to forty artists and staff, and has created visual effects for over sixty feature film and television projects, including an Emmy nomination for its work on FOX’s ALMOST HUMAN.
THE ADEPT,Adam’s first film as writer/director, screened at festivals around the world and received several awards and nominations, including nominations for Best Sci-Fi Short at FilmQuest and Honourable Mention at the Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival. His second short film, FTL, is the recipient of multiple awards including Best Drama at the Toronto Shorts International Film Festival, Best Sci-Fi Film at the 2017 Roswell Sci-Fi Film festival, Best Sci-Fi Film at the 2017 Sci-On! Film Festival, and Best Sci-Fi Film at the 2017 Top Shorts Online Film Festival, as well as multiple nominations.