A fractured society…a government turned not just authoritarian but sadistic… This is the setting of TRANSMISSION, an indie sci-fi short filmthat tackles the stresses and struggles of the modern era in the manner of sci-fi classics like 1984and Fahrenheit 451. We spoke with TRANSMISSION’s writing-directing team, Varun Raman and Tom Hancock, about the process of creating the film and why they’re drawn to sci-fi as a genre.
RECURSOR: HOW DID YOU GET INTO FILMMAKING?
VARUN AND TOM: We had both written in our teenage years, and after meeting at a house party whilst at Manchester University, we decided to team up to learn together, be more productive and make connections faster.
After doing a student radio show together, our first narrative piece was a sci-fi radio play. We thought that’d be a good start due to the scale you can create just with sound design. With that in mind, we wrote the sound design quite heavily into the script and seemed to get criticized for it by radio script readers.
We gladly decided to ditch radio for film, a medium more embracing of total audience immersion. But we’re glad we didn’t succeed too early, as it can be misleading and stunting of any further progress in the long run.
WHAT APPEALS TO YOU ABOUT SCI-FI AS A GENRE?
Every film or story is fundamentally a manipulative, emotional argument. Every character’s nature and plot point are a factor in a long chain of reasoning. At the end, films are generally telling an audience that if all of these particular characters reacted to all of these particular events in these specific ways, this ending would represent some sort of universal truth. A lot of contemporary dramas are especially guilty of this.
However, sci-fi can be elevated above this methodology. Beyond the space operas, and the alien and tech-obsessed themes in most movie portrayals, sci-fi has the potential to be a far more philosophical and thought-provoking film genre than what it’s given credit for.
WHICH SCI-FI WRITERS, DIRECTORS, AND FILMS HAVE INFLUENCED YOU?
Tarkovsky, Kurt Vonnegut, Kubrick, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, David Cronenberg, The Twilight Zone and The X Files are big loves in our lives.
More specifically for TRANSMISSION, we were inspired by: Juraj Herz (The Cremator) and Nicolas Roeg for their editing styles; Terry Gilliam’s Brazil for the sadistic, dark humor; Elem Klimov’s Come And See for its unrelenting brutality; David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Lost Highway for the tone and sound design; 1984 for the politics; and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs for his masterful POVs.
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR SHORT INDIE SCI-FI FILM TRANSMISSION?
The rumblings of a fracturing Europe in 2015, the sad treatment of families running from war in the Middle East and the UK’s misguided conceit in believing it was better than the problems that were coming our way.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT SCI-FI THAT LENDS ITSELF TO DYSTOPIAN VISIONS LIKE WE SEE IN TRANSMISSION?
Sci-fi often warns us of our darker natures and what could be possible. And probability says that if it’s possible, it either has happened before, is happening right now, or will happen again. But it’s hard to remember that when we are constantly kept so distracted and lulled into a state of complacency.
There are many games being played with us all the time, messing us around, dividing us, keeping us confused. Sci-fi often tries to keep this simple by inventing something that can help the narrative cut right through to the important stuff.
WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE TO SHOWCASE TRANSMISSION IN FRONT OF FESTIVAL AUDIENCES?
It’s traveled really well internationally. The Canadians seem to really dig it. We managed to get to Fantasia in Montreal, and we’ll always hold them close to our hearts. The Canadians have a really wicked and sharp sense of humor and are very intuitive with narrative directions and subversions, so to get free tickets to watch movies with them was a real learning curve.
The French really dug it at L’Etrange. According to our DOP Thomas Shawcroft, we got constant applause through the credits, which was a huge honor. And Europe has generally embraced us, as well as much of the U.S.
Funnily enough, we haven’t played much in the UK. We’ve played at a few festivals over hereand met some very cool filmmakers. The UK does have a huge pool of unrecognized talent. We just hope it eventually gets noticed and developed properly.
WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE IN PRODUCING THE FILM? HOW DID YOU SOLVE THEM?
Finding the location was the hardest part. Because we had so many visual set-pieces and cinematic shots, we needed to find somewhere that was high enough, wide enough, long enough and had the ability to safely suspend Michael Shon (who plays the lead, Leonard) from the ceiling. A lot of people said we’d have to make a set build, which was way out of our budget. But in the end, we found the perfect location — the basement of Colston Hall in Bristol.
It also took a long time, and a lot of research (and driving) to find the exterior location. It had to have the feeling of dreamscape. Again, luckily, it was just a matter of patience and putting the hours in. Finally, we found Burrator Reservoir, in Dartmoor.
Everything’s about preparation really. We were lucky enough to work with a team that was not only stylistically suitable, but really up for the project in terms of commitment. And we made sure we storyboarded every frame to help everyone know exactly what we were looking for. This meant that every potential kink was spotted early on. Also, we broke up the shoot into the more complex interiors in the winter when it’s cheaper, and the exteriors in summer in the southwest, when the sun really came out for us.
Basically, we had time on our side, and we weren’t going to rush anything. We had been holding back for a while, making sure we picked the right project to put everything into and achieve the standards we were looking for.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW?
We’re mainly focused on developing long-form projects now — some for others to direct and some to direct ourselves. Last year, we finished a sci-fi pilot script and series bible for the Berlinale Crystal Bear-winning Blue Shadows Films(Butterfly Kisses, 2017).
Also, we’ve just finished a very British comedy feature script, QUEEN & COUNTRY. And we’ve just heavily re-drafted a subversive, female-led, coming-of-age comedy-drama. Our current mission is to add a lower budget horror to our slate, one for which we could feasibly raise the money to direct ourselves.
We’re trying to make sure we’ve got a saleable project that we believe in for every occasion. And apart from the big stuff, we’re also always looking to make shorts when the right idea comes by. But TRANSMISSION was all in, so we won’t be trying to ape it anytime soon but rather to do something different. We should be shooting something very short this summer.