In '2021' and its sequel, 'TWIN CITIES', Clarence Wethern plays a frustrated programmer tasked with creating an AI that can pass the Turing Test. The film, shot with an often minimalist approach akin to that of HBO's Girls, sets its sci-fi elements up as a foundation on which a subtler, more personal story stands. According to filmmaker Dave Ash, the film seeks to ask questions about how the creation of a true artificial intelligence would impact our beliefs, and to examine them through the relationship and arcs of Wethern's character, John, and his love interest, Emily.
Vita.mn reached out to Ash, to learn more about the concept, the process and the impetus that drives an indie filmmaker.
Was placing a fairly non sci-fi story into a sci-fi setting a conscious decision from the start, or did that evolve as you developed the story?
The sci-fi setting that is the backdrop for this relationship is ultimately not the central focus of the film, but rather a means to an end - a way to explore how we create meaning in our lives out of the thin air of our unexplained consciousness.
You have a character that is not only struggling with the question of whether love and spirituality are real, as human beings have since we became self-aware, he is now able to actually understand how we can replicate the binary interchange in our brains that creates these feelings, only using silicone as a substrate rather than carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. Since we will soon be able to recreate the workings of the human brain on a quantum computer, how can there be anything noble or profound about the human experience?
The hope in making the film was that others who have had similar struggles as John and Emily would be able to relate to their feelings of isolation in an increasingly alienating modern society and, in so doing, feel less detached themselves from the greater whole we are all inexorably a part of.
In the trailer, we can see that the film goes back and forth between being highly polished and having a minimalist, almost Dogme 95 aesthetic. Why the contrast?
I felt there were certain emotionally raw scenes in the film that would most come to life using a dogme-influenced style, in which all of the usual filmic elements like scoring, movie lighting, static camera, and make up were removed. Essentially, you're just trying to strip away anything that reminds the audience they're watching a movie, so they can see and feel exactly what the characters are experiencing in that particular moment. These are the type of scenes where you often get the opposite - swelling strings for emotional moments or a thumping soundtrack when a couple begins to get busy - which invariably just takes me out of the immediacy of the moment. In real life there is no tinkling piano when you hug goodbye or thumping bass when you start to take your clothes off. My doing the latter at my house just causes people to disassemble and leave the room.
All that said, I also feel that these type of scenes utilizing a bare bones dogme aesthetic only pop if they stand out from the overall shooting style of the rest of the film. So, for the more expositional or transitional scenes I favor a more traditional style - utilizing interesting but steady frames as well as some scoring, usually in the form of heavy sound design or music.
Also, I'm unaware of anyone not teaching film school that enjoys sitting through a feature shot entirely in the dogme style. I've yet to watch a Dogme 95 film that doesn't ultimately feel like being trapped in your neighbors' living room and being force fed their two-hour wedding reception video that was shot on a flip camera by the buzzed-up brother-in-law.
Once you've made an independent film, how does it get into distribution?
Most filmmakers at my level will tell you that, as hard as it is to complete a feature film, it's somehow even harder to get it seen outside of your area. So, while it's never been easier to get your film "out there" via all of the new pay-per-view avenues, it's also never been easier to make a professional-looking film due the decreasing cost of high-quality cameras and post-production software.
Given this increasing market glut, getting your film to stand out is quite a challenge, leading to all of your worst film industry fears being realized - distributors are much more likely to invest in a genre-specific sorority sister slasher movie or has-been TV star rom-com vehicle than your understated character study set in flyover land. And I think I would look at it the same way if I were on their side.
However, for 2021 I've been lucky to recently sign with an established LA-based sales agent that really digs the film and is currently promoting it to some of your finer film festivals, while also bringing it to the usual pay-per-view channels later this year.
So, we'll see what happens but I have no illusions about having a massive tent-pole box office hit on my hands. At some point you have to internalize the idea that it's potentially possible that you will not make a lot of money as a filmmaker. In fact, the odds are better that you will be struck by lightening while driving to pick up a check for winning the Powerball made out to you and your new wife, Miss Universe.
Going into it knowing that you're not going to make a lot of money, how do you meet the financial needs and how do you sign a talented cast to the project?
At a high-level, it primarily takes a lot of patience and a fundamental disregard for the human need for sleep. More specifically, the most important element in actually completing a feature film (a good chunk of these are never finished) is starting with a script that is written within the parameters of your available budget. This means going easy on the marauding aliens, chainsaw fights, and madcap car chases ending with petroleum cargo driving off a cliff. These elements are used lightly in my first three feature films.
However, no matter the script, making a full-length film unfortunately costs money. Mostly I use my annual bonus, which for someone else's midlife crisis might go to a sports car or a mistress. I'm very happily married and not into cars, so I make films. I've also been lucky to have TWIN CITIES, the film we are currently shooting, partially funded by the "Snowbate" program through the Minnesota Film & TV Board. However, again, it ain't free and you have to love doing it or it's not worth it. For myself, it feels more emotionally rewarding than tooling around Lake Calhoun in a Porsche convertible.
As far as getting actors onboard with my projects, I feel lucky to be making films in this area as there is a confluence of outstanding actors from our thriving theater community, but not a ton of other feature film acting opportunities. So, there has been a lot of interest so far and we've been able to cast some ridiculously talented actors while still staying within our budget. The leads in 2021 and its sequel, TWIN CITIES, are Clarence Wethern and Bethany Ford Binkley. I would put them in the same class as any actors their age working in Hollywood for major studio films. In a true and just world they would have personal trailers, assistants, and handlers on the sets of $100 million features, not be angling for a slice of cold pizza in between takes on my cut-rate operations.
How much of their performances are scripted, and how much is them improving their ways through their respective characters?
Both Clarence and Bethany, as well as many of the supporting actors in my films, work best with thorough upfront direction on the intent and beats of a scene, but really thrive after you get some decent takes in the can and you then let them take the safety locks off and explore the possibilities of the scene based on their personal understanding of the character. Specifically, I like to get enough solid "on script" takes in that I know we can capture the thrust of the scene in post-production, and then allow at least a couple "actor takes" where I do not give any direction or look at the script and just let the actors interpret the scene in the moment, however they are feeling it. Very often these are the takes we use in the final cut, as they usually have the most organic, non-scripty feel, which is what we are always going for.
The choice between being seen as a credible indie artist and paying your bills on time is one a lot of us make. There's almost a skepticism out there about artists who have day jobs. Have you faced anything like that?
I wouldn't say skepticism necessarily, but at times there is more a note of befuddled curiosity when someone in the local film community finds out that I spend the majority of my waking hours pouring my creative energy into trying to make balance sheets balance or crafting value-added Powerpoint presentations on emerging market interest rate forward curves. So, rather than skepticism you get more of an expression or body language that reminds me of when my cat would sit next to the bathtub when I showered, turn his head slightly, and look up at me in wonderment.
On the flip side, when someone in the corporate finance community discovers that I spent the weekend on a movie set you can get less of a curious response than a deer in the headlights expression, and you can tell they never created a mental file folder into which they can drag and drop this kind of information.
However, the majority of the folks in the business community that find out I'm also a filmmaker are very supportive and seem to get it. As you note, a lot of us have something creative we do on the side that allows us to express ourselves. So, for me filmmaking is just my outlet for doing this. For someone else it may be scrapbooking family adventures, or perfecting a personal recipe for chicken chili, or creating a wall mural of their labradoodle made out of elbow macaroni. My father currently has ten 1950s fishing boat motors in his basement that he is restoring to mint condition. He doesn't fish and has never owned a fishing boat. But, it's what he needs to do. How he's expressing himself.
We're all the only one of us in the universe, so we all have an intrinsic need to stand up and say who we are in some way. And on a fundamental level it doesn't matter if your homemade Hanukkah cupcakes are little dry, or your refurbished antique boat motor is useless, or a pretentious critic at Film Threat thinks there's too much dialogue in your first film. The very act of creating emanates from the center of what it means to be alive.