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The Making of EXILE: Q&A with Mark Freiburger

Androids and humans: can they ever mix? It’s a classic science fiction question for storytellers. And it’s a question that director/writer Mark Freiburger addresses in his indie sci-fi short film EXILE, featuring Jon Huertas. You might recognize Freiburger’s name — he won the 2013 “Doritos Crash the Super Bowl” contest with his “Daddy Fashionista” ad, made for $300. Recursor caught up with Freiburger to learn more about his love for science fiction and the making of his short film.

RECURSOR: What drew you to filmmaking? 

FREIBURGER: I was always a storyteller as a kid. I think it was inevitable that I would have become a writer or something, but I gravitated toward film because, to me, it always seemed to be the highest and most complex form of storytelling. Film is a combination of all the arts (human performance, music, visual, painting with light, etc.), and the idea of making a career out of the most complex form of storytelling was what drew me toward it. 

What are some films that influence your style?

I try not to think of that too much because when I make something, I try to just service the story as best as I can visually. But I think possibly Spielberg and Shyamalan influence me the most. I’ve had a few people tell me EXILE has a bit of an influence from both of those filmmakers. 

I’ve written a lot of sci-fi over the years, but EXILE is the first sci-fi genre story I’ve actually gone out and directed. If you look at all of my work as a whole, I think those closest to me tend to think I have sensibilities closer to Ron Howard or Chris Columbus. 

But I think as any filmmaker or artist will probably say, we’re influenced by everything in our lives — the people we meet, the places we live and visit, the stories we read, the films we watch. At the end of the day, your own style becomes sort of like a blender of everything you’ve ingested in your life, and then something comes out of you that has traces of other artists and filmmakers, but is still uniquely you. 

Tell us about EXILE. What inspired the story?

A few years ago, I wrote a script about sentient robots who were wrongfully imprisoned in an internment camp. The robots were the main characters of the story, treated as outcasts as they fought for their own civil rights. It was film about social justice wrapped up in a fun genre piece. The script got set up at a production company that has an overall deal with Sony Pictures. But the project never went anywhere. 

I wanted to tell a small version of that story, or some variation thereof. And I wanted to make a proof of concept piece to prove to folks that I could direct something in this genre and handle VFX. So I wrote a contained short that borrowed from the world of that script. 

How did Jon Huertas become connected with your project?

My producer, Andrew Carlberg, has worked with Jon many times over the years. So I asked Andrew for the introduction. Fortunately, Jon loved the script because he’s a huge sci-fi fan too. He not only decided to act in EXILE, but he came on to help produce too, and not just in name only. He helped with the physical production duties and even helped me out with some of the costs of the film when I went over my own budget.

How important is casting to an indie film?

Casting is extremely important, not just to an indie film but any film. It will make your life as a director so much easier if you cast the right people in the right role. All the years of hard work you put into getting a film made can be ruined with the wrong person in front of the camera. I’ve learned from those mistakes the hard way on previous projects. But on this, I wasn’t going to let producers or investors or lack of resource dictate who I could and couldn’t cast. I wanted Jon in the role because he was right for the role — and fortunately he responded. 

How did you adapt your filmmaking process to fit your budget?

Before making EXILE, I came from the micro-budget indie world space. I’ve made quite a few movies as producer for under $500K, so when you come from that space, you just learn how to maximize every dollar. I took those same principles and applied them to the production of EXILE.

You’re working on a feature film script based on EXILE. What is it like to move from a short piece into something full-length?

The feature version that I just completed writing is very different from the short. I had a more direct adaption of EXILE I wanted to make, but after multiple outlines and an attempt at the first draft, it just wasn’t working. So I started over fresh with the feature script. The only commonality at this point is that there are robots in the feature. EXILE the short I suppose you could still call a proof of concept on some level, but more than anything I wanted to show what I could do in this genre with little resources. 

Mark on set of EXILE

Do you have a preference between writing vs. directing?

The two skill sets are so different, but I love both. I have done a lot of ghostwriting over the years on other films to make a living as well, so there’s something nice about being in your sweatpants all day sitting in front of a computer and creating worlds. The introverted side of me loves that. However, the extroverted side of me would love nothing more than to go out there and collaborate with people and bring that story to life. 

Directing is exhausting and it’s very hard work, and your heart is constantly getting ripped out of its chest when you’re trying to make something that you truly believe in. But at the end of the day, I’ve never been able to do anything else that compares with the feeling I get when all that hard work starts to pay off and you see the story truly come to life on set and then later in the edit suite. It’s addicting.

What projects are you working on right now?

We’re taking out the new robot feature script soon, so we’ll see where that lands. I also co-wrote a script a while back that is finally getting some attention. It’s based on a little-known story from the Old Testament about ancient Israel’s one and only female leader who was also a military leader and judge. It’s sort of in the vein of EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS — a biblical epic with heavy VFX and action. The project had a false start in 2018-2019, but there are some new things happening with it now and hopefully I’ll have news to share about that one soon too.

Mark Freiburger’s leap into the commercial filmmaking space was with his $300 spec Doritos ad, which beat out 5,000 other filmmakers to win the “Doritos Crash the Super Bowl” contest. His ad became the #1 ranked :30 spot of the 2013 Super Bowl on the USA Today Ad Meter.He was later mentored by legendary director Michael Bay on TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, and directed his own award-winning indie feature DOG DAYS OF SUMMER. He also co-wrote the 20th Century Fox released film THE TRIAL. Learn more at his website.