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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 04.30.14]

Caradog W. James's The Machine (review) is not only a really great bit of sci-fi, it comes from a director who is very intelligent, has a sense of humor and really understands the importance of storytelling which is quite likely why the movie is as successful as it is.

I recently had a chance to speak with James regarding the production including the year of research before he even began writing the script, his secret meeting with an MoD employee and how setting a man on fire isn't as easy as it sounds.

Congratulations on the movie. I really enjoyed it.

Fantastic. That's great to hear.

I was looking at the other movies you worked on previously to this one and you've worked on a lot of comedies but The Machine is certainly not a comedy. Has this story been brewing for a while?

Yes it has. The other movies…they're darker than their synopsis or description would lead you to believe but indeed this is a big departure for me. It's the first movie that I've done with any stunts and CGI or special effects or any of that kind of stuff so it was a steep learning curve. I'd certainly never set fire to anyone before so it was a lot of new stuff to learn as a filmmaker.

Had you been mulling this story for a while or did it come from something you read? What was the inspiration for it?

I spent nearly a year researching the project before I even started writing the script because I really wanted to make a hard sci-fi movie, something that was based on where we are today with this technology and where it's going; a movie based in facts rather than try to build a story around a fantasy concept or taking from other movies.

I really wanted all of the inspiration to come from real life so I read pretty much any book I could on robotics and artificial intelligence and I even managed to get an off-the-record meeting with a guy who works for the Ministry of Defence which is the British version of the CIA. This guy was explaining that they [the MoD] started off their AI project by first mapping a mouse's brain and they were now working on mapping a chimp brain and using those neuroconnections to see how information is passed through the chimp brain and using that as a model for their artificial intelligence. Their weaponized artificial intelligence.

That got me thinking that if you can make an exact copy of a chimp brain then next is a human brain and if you have an exact copy of a human brain that thinks and feels and plans and hopes and desires and all of those things, then what's the difference between the original and the digital copy? Where's the humanity? Is there such a thing as a soul? Can that be copied too? So that kind of started another bit of research where I started meeting professors of psychology and tried to decipher exactly what subconciousness is.

I also read an article in the "New Scientist" about how artificial intelligence is being taught to interact with the world in a similar way that severely disabled children are being taught to interact with the world because severely autistic children, for example, they can't filter information. It kind of overwhelms them because they can't decide what is important and what isn't important. I met families with disabled kids and they were so inspiring and the parent's love for those kids is so inspiring that this is really where Vincent's story and character came from. Once I found the heart of the movie then I set about writing for a year.

It was a long process of research and many drafts. I'm so excited by the science. I'm such a geeky guy that weeding out and filtering out all of the research and trying to hone it down to a story - that was the hardest part of all.

The thing really comes through in the movie is that there is all of this science and it all feels very real but the story is very intimate. It's the story of Vincent and his daughter and Ava and there are hints of the repercussions this will have on the outside world but that's not really the story that you're telling. Your story is very very personal. Was it hard to stay focused on the intimate story and not be distracted by the bigger picture?

It's a couple of things really. Meeting those families with those disabled children, actually spending time with them, seeing the routine of the kids and seeing how these systems and this technology is helping these kids...having met them really helped keep the story in focus. But really, just as an audience member, the types of films I hope to make are like those that inspired me as a kid, like E.T.. Films where there are amazing and fantastic things are happening around them but it's really about the people. You have to have characters that you believe in and care for. So that was one part of it.

The other part of it was that we had test screenings. We raised the money ourselves by going into rooms full of millionaires and pitching them the movie and getting the budget cheque by cheque over the course of a year which means we didn't really have any bosses. It was just myself and John [John Giwa-Amu, the producer] and we really wanted the movie to connect with an audience so through the editing process we did test screenings and those feedback cards were very useful in tailoring how much information and science the audience needs. They really want to follow the emotion of the actors more than being lectured on the science.

You mentioned earlier that this was a bit of a learning curve with the action and the special effects. At any point did you think that maybe you'd bitten off more than you could chew?

Only every day. It was really quite incredible. I mean, I wrote the script but I really didn't realize quite how complex everything was going to be. For example, that scene where the guy is set on fire in the script, that scene is a line. I had no idea because I'd never done it before that that line of description would take seven hours to film and of course on a four and a half week schedule, that's almost an entire day on one tiny line. So every day was a massive struggle in terms of just getting through the schedule and just trying to get it all done in such a tiny amount of time. It was very punishing but I don't regret it. I think it's better to be ambitious and to try and challenge yourself rather than make life easy for yourself.

I really love your cast particularly Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz. Could you talk a little about how they came on board and if it was difficult to cast the roles?

Well casting is a really important process because the wrong actor can be disastrous for a film so for the role of Ava we must have seen over 15 actresses. What was really fantastic about Caity's audition - sent the tape from the US – was that she understood that the machine was an emotional almost human character and it was that emotion that I was interested in. She got that where as all the other actresses had a coldness and the robot side of the character which I was less interested in.

In many ways the machine is almost the most open and emotional character in the whole film because Toby is the opposite [of the machine] and a very introverted and closed down and very ambiguous character whereas the machine is very innocent and open. Caity was fantastic with that. What I knew but didn't really realize how useful it would be was how physical she is. She's a brilliant gymnast and dancer and martial artist but her performance in the audition was so great that I forgot about all of that until we got on the set. I was very glad she had those skills because we would never have managed to stick to our schedule if she hadn't been able to do her own stunts. She did her own martial arts, she did her own naked back flip in the cavernous space outside the lab. She was remarkable.

Toby is an actor that I always thought deserved more complex roles than he was getting on screen. In the UK he's a very powerful stage actor and I kind of knew that his time would come where he'd be getting bigger roles. We sent him the script and we met and had a chat about it. Some actors would be worried that the machine would steal all of his scenes and Vincent is an ambiguous, not easy to like character certainly early on in the script, but he embraced that and I thought that was very brave of him. He's such a wonderful warm presence on set and a great collaborator so we were very lucky to get him.

Between The Machine and "Black Sails" I think he's about to explode in the US.

Yeah, me too. This is what I mean! It's strange that he's been overlooked for so long. I think there's definitely going to be a new chapter in his career.

And Denis Lawson! That was so exciting! How did he come on board.

Well Dennis is actually someone that I've been wanting to work with for a long time. We didn't think we could get him because it's such a low budget movie and a small role for him but he loved the script and we got him at the right time as he was in between films and he had enough time to do the movie.

He doesn't really like it when you talk about "Star Wars" and I didn't realize that so I went up to him and I said "I'm so glad that you liked the script and that you've come on board. You’re actually in my favourite film" and his face dropped because he was sure I was going to say Star Wars but actually I said "my favourite film Local Hero" and he and I were friends after that. And this is before I knew that he didn't like to talk about Star Wars, but genuinely Local Hero is one of my favourite movies of all time.

The movie doesn't look like it cost the small budget that you had. I'm really curious about the how the development of the look of the movie came together and if you had some ideas going in of what you wanted it to look like or if that was something you worked together with an effects team to finalize? Even something like the user interfaces are really impressive.

Thank you. I didn't go to film school so I learned filmmaking first through still photography and then I made short films. The thing about short films is that you never have any money. I made short films for 400 pounds and less and what I learned from making all of those short films is that it's all in the preparation so the more preparation that you can do, the more work you can do before you start hiring people and start filming since that's when the money really starts flying out the door, the better chance you have of putting all of that budget up on the screen.

I did look-books on how to light every character. I did a whole book for the head of costumes and production design. There's this very uniformed set of notes and pictures to begin with. I went through hundreds and hundreds of DVDs to find stills of references for stuff that I wanted. I think all the different heads of departments had a head start because there wasn't a lot of time wasted trying to discover what the film was going to look like or how things were going to be done. It was more of a case of how do we achieve these references and everyone was on the same page from the start. And also the fact that Caity and Toby and I had lots of rehearsal time which meant that when I was on set I could work with the cinematographer to really play with light and get the most out of the look of the scenes rather than spending hours trying to find the scene through rehearsals with the actors because we had already done that in the two weeks before the shoot. It was lots of preparation and really the stuff I like the most is designing a world and creating a visual and for the light to tell a kind of story and not simply illuminate a scene. For it to be emotional. That's really important to me.

wanted to talk a little about the movie that you're working on now called Don't Knock Twice. I don't know much about it other than its inspired by The Shining. Is there anything else you can say about it?

It's not strictly inspired by The Shining. It's more in the vein of The Shining or The Exorcist or even The Conjuring in the sense that it is a psychological, very frightening, horror movie but not necessarily a gory horror movie. It's a movie with a strong emotional core again and a very depressing and bleak lead character. It’s another female lead and like The Machine, a very interesting role for an actress.

We're currently in casting and looking for an American actress for the lead and we're having some very interesting conversations about that. I'm very excited about it and hopefully it's something that will start in September. But there have also been some interesting offers from Hollywood. We were out to LA a couple of weeks ago and we met with producers on a couple of projects so fingers crossed that something bigger budget will come our way as well.

Are you planning on shooting Don't Knock Twice in Whales as well?

I think it's probably going to be set in London.

Now I have to admit that I had to look up how to pronounce your name and in my research I discovered that there's quite a bit of history attached to your name dating back to the first century and a battle between the Romans and the Brittons. Do you have any interest in directing a movie set in that time period?

That period of time is very interesting and I it is definitely something that I would like to have a look at but I want to do it when I've got a proper budget to do it really well. It's not something I would want to do on a low budget. Just like Gladiator, I'd love to have enough money to tell the epic story that needs to be told.

Well I a feeling that is fairly close in your future.

Thank you. I hope so.

The Machine is currently available on VOD.

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numero (8 years ago) Reply

It's sold diddly sqwat DVDs in the UK


chocobee (8 years ago) Reply

great movie.


Koolz (8 years ago) Reply

What about DVD 1 in the US?
I want to buy it. Maybe I will have to wait.
I love Sci-fi!

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