“Bokeh”: An Interview with Andrew Sullivan
BOKEH is a new science fiction film filmed in Iceland. It follows the story of a young couple on holiday there, when suddenly every other human being vanishes. It stars Maika Monroe (THE BLING RING) and Matt O’Leary (THE LONE RANGER). The film has finished principal photography, and is currently raising funds through a Kickstarter page to fund the post-production editing. From the trailer on the site, the film looks breathtaking, and the story is quite compelling.
The Geekiary recently had the chance to speak with Andrew Sullivan, one of the the screenwriters and directors of BOKEH (Geoffrey Orthwein being the other).
Where did this idea come from? Was there something that provided inspiration for it? Another piece of cinema or a life event?
The idea for Bokeh came partly from constraints. We knew we would have a limited budget, limited time and limited resources, so many stories wouldn’t work given those obstacles. I pitched my writing and directing partner, Geoff Orthwein, a small story about two people who are deeply in love and wake up one day during a vacation in Iceland and discover that the rest of the world has vanished. We both felt the story could work given our constraints and that we could create a relevant and compelling fable. I pitched the initial idea on July 2, 2013 and we finished principal photography on June 29, 2014.
We are inspired by a lot of stories. One of our biggest influences is the original TWILIGHT ZONE. They were the ultimate wish fulfillment stories, they were small stories tied to big concepts. We also like a lot of the BBC shows out there now. The BBC shows have smaller budgets than American shows so their warehouses look like warehouses, they do more with less, they don’t rely on convenience or coincidence to tell stories, and they embrace their constraints and treat them as strengths. In general, we are inspired by those that have less than us, but do more. We try to avoid being jealous of those with more resources or connections, and we admire those who have little and yet find ways to make incredible art, to find ways to be evocative regardless of their means.
How does it differ from other apocalyptic-type films? Not just in story, but tone as well.
There are a lot of great apocalyptic, dystopian stories out there right now. End of the world stories only seem to grow in popularity, but most of them involve zombies, massive destruction and/or aliens. We wanted to tell a smaller story: what if the human population disappeared, but everything still worked? There is no destruction, no constant threat to survival, no running from an enemy… There are just two people in love with a world to themselves. What would they do in that scenario? What would you do in that scenario? You would have access to everything… every car, house… everything. You would have no rules, the world is your kingdom, but your kingdom is fraying at the seams. Food slowly begins to rot, electricity is spotty, water is no longer a convenience, this is what Riley and Jenai have to deal with over time. Many of us have argued with our spouse about eating the yogurts in order of expiration date, but what if there will never be yogurt again, the normal argument all of the sudden becomes amplified.
With regard to tone, Geoff and I see BOKEH as a quiet fable, something slightly surreal in a very real world environment. Everything is trying to be big right now, we want BOKEH to be as small as possible. In the end, BOKEH is the story of the last two people on earth trying to stay together when everything around them is beginning to fall apart.
For your cast, did you always have these actors in mind? Were they able to fulfill the film’s original vision, or did it change with their performances?
We didn’t have actors in mind during the writing process, we wanted to keep particular voices out of heads while we were finding our versions of Riley and Jenai. Our casting director, Emily Schweber, brought Maika Monroe and Matt O’Leary to us during the audition process, for which we will always be grateful.
Geoff and I can’t say enough about how great Maika and Matt are in this film. They both understood Jenai and Riley from the start and were able to bring a level of nuance and surprise to their performances. They carry this entire film. This is theirs and they appreciated and owned that responsibility. The vision is the same, but moments and beats of the film changed based on their feedback and our collaboration. Geoff and I admire Maika and Matt as actors, collaborators and now as our friends.
Why Iceland? You mention in the short Kickstarter video that it’s the third character, was this always the plan?
I had been to Iceland twice before and both experiences were incredible. I knew I would make a film there one day, but I didn’t know it would happen so soon. Once I knew that I wanted to tell a story about the last two people on earth, I knew I wanted them in Iceland. Taking our heroes to Iceland would mean that they are away from their home, from what they know. It would provide a visual backdrop for what Riley and Jenai are going through emotionally throughout the film. The glaciers, geysers, some of the largest waterfalls in Europe, black sand beaches, etc. exist in other parts of the world, but they don’t exist within a three hour drive of each other.
In addition to the locations, Iceland has more than 20 hours of daylight per day during the summer months. We were shooting a film where Riley and Jenai needed to walk around an empty Reykjavik. This meant we needed to be able to shoot at 3am so that the streets and paths were empty and our audience would believe it to be 10am. We shot around Reykjavik for a week during the night to give a sense of an empty world.
Finally there is the sense of the visual muscle memory of Iceland for the audience. People see Iceland in many blockbusters these days, they just don’t know it. They see the volcanic ash, the browns of the geothermal parks or the gushing waterfalls. Iceland is usually shot as a different time or a different world. Audiences see Iceland as something other than Iceland in GAME OF THRONES, BATMAN BEGINS, PROMETHEUS, THOR, NOAH, OBLIVION to name a few. We wanted to shoot Iceland as Iceland, something that is rarely done. We wanted to bring locations to the audience that they saw in some other context or new locations that they’ve never seen on film before.
How long did it take to film? Were there any difficult moments during principal photography?
We shot 26 days over a 30 day period. Independent films usually have condensed schedules due to budget constraints. Where we challenged the time table was that we shot at around 60 locations during the 30 days. We wanted to shoot the smallest film with the largest canvas.
As for difficult moments, almost every day was difficult, but that doesn’t mean that the days weren’t rewarding or that we weren’t able to get the footage in the can. It just means that almost nothing was easy. Weather changes on a regular basis in Iceland, and by regular, we mean it sometimes changed every 10 minutes, so weather continuity (which is a challenge for most films) was an hourly challenge for us. We shot in rain, in hale, during large wind gusts and during extremely blown out sunny days.
The locations themselves were often challenging or at least many of them were badges of honor that we felt we earned. We walked for 40 minutes on a glacier with camera equipment to get to a location we wanted, hiked half a mile through a river ravine, and dragged our gear in the rain through sheep crap, yes sheep crap. In general, getting gear to some of our remote locations was a feat.
One of our biggest difficulties was proving Iceland was empty, even when it wasn’t. Regardless of whether we shot during the middle of the night or away from civilization, there were always people, cars and mostly sounds of life that we had to contend with. We were able to shoot at almost every place in Iceland that we wanted to, but we weren’t able to shut down parts of Reykjavik or other public locations. Just imagine the pain that Shawn Doyle, our czar of all things sound, experienced when the sound of a car four blocks away would affect the quality of the dialogue.
To which film festivals are you submitting BOKEH? What kind of recognition would you like for the film?
We are evaluating the festival submission calendar while juggling the postproduction process. We plan on submitting the film to SUNDANCE first and will go from there. As for recognition, our goal the entire time was to make a small independent film with an original point of view that offers a relevant and compelling story to the audience. Geoff and I would like to share this film with as many people as we can and we would like as much recognition that can go to our crew as possible. Our hope is that many members of the team get recognized for their contributions and are offered future work because of it.
Do you have any contingency plans if you don’t make your post-production Kickstarter goal?
No and yes. You should go into a Kickstarter campaign understanding the work involved in making a campaign successful, study the prior examples and case studies out there (of which there are many), and be willing to put continuous time and effort into the campaign. We aren’t planning and working towards failure, we are focused on succeeding, so our first contingency strategy is make sure the campaign is a success. Kat Gatti, who was our scripty (script supervisor), is our Kickstarter Producer and she has all of us heads-down working on various parts of the campaign. We are less than two days into the campaign and just passed the 60% marker. That doesn’t mean we are guaranteed success, but that didn’t happen by accident, it happened because of discipline and hard work.
If for some reason the campaign doesn’t succeed, we will find a way. We are talking to potential investors in addition to running the campaign. We owe it to the cast, crew and everyone involved to put our all into making sure Bokeh is the film we envisioned.
What’s next after BOKEH?
Since we are at the start of postproduction and have a long way to go until we hear from festivals and/or talk to potential distributors, BOKEH is our entire focus now. That being said, BOKEH is our first film, we will make others.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Geoff and I would like to thank everyone who has contributed time and/or dollars to Bokeh. We couldn’t have made this movie, and wouldn’t have wanted to make this money, without the help of many other family, friends, crew and strangers that have made this more than just our idea of what could be.
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