We caught up with him recently to talk about the challenges of shooting in an analogue world, and exactly how it was achieved.
This is a departure of sorts from your previous work. What inspired you to create the story?
It’s difficult to reconstruct. I know that the first spark was wondering what kind of story I might be able to tell in the language of old outmoded analogue video. And then I read a mention somewhere of an early computer chess tournament & thought there was probably a pretty fun movie to be made in that milieu. From there it stewed for a long time, way deep in my subconscious–it was my ultimate cockamamie fantasy project, the idea I would return to every time I got too frustrated trying to think of anything that might “satisfy” the marketplace. Unfortunately there seems to be a direct, inverse relationship between how much the market wants something and how much it turns me on.
The end product works incredibly well, but was there any initial concerns with shooting in black and white and on video? It could have been a tough experience to endure.
It was terrifying! None of us on the crew had ever worked with the cameras before, and none of our modern digital technology was built to accommodate this kind of video. There was one day in particular on set where we had reason to be concerned that perhaps everything we were shooting was actually completely out of focus–it turned out to be a quirky little display issue, but certainly the few hours of uncertainty rank among the most demoralised of my filmmaking career. Of course, I think it was all well worth it.
How did you source all the antiquated shooting equipment?
We got two cameras on eBay and I believe borrowed a third from a private collector. We could never be 100% certain that any given camera was going to survive the day.
Your period touches feel organic and nostalgic, but never gimmicky. Was it a challenge to ensure that it stayed that way?
Well, our art department (led by production designer Michael Bricker), costume designer Colin Wilkes, hair & make-up artist Charlie Brath did brilliant work. The actors did brilliant work to transport themselves to the era. We tried to do our due diligence research. From there, avoiding gimmickry isn’t so hard if you’re not aiming for gimmickry.
With the exception of a couple of cast members, the rest of your actors are unknown and most appear to be non-actors. How did you find them?
Here there & everywhere. Some were old friends that I was confident would fit the parts (though I always try to run some kind of screen test–you never know what will be revealed when you point a camera at someone). Others were folks I count myself extraordinarily fortunate to have found in the run-up to shooting: Patrick Riester, James Curry, Robin Schwartz–all were godsends. Others are still are hard-hustling professional actors here in Texas whose work I’ve admired in other people’s movies.
The more fantastical elements that creep in add a wonderful, weird layer to the film. Was it always your idea to have that element bubbling underneath?
That’s the place it came from in my head, I suppose. The whole subject matter never seemed anything but surreal to me.
Did the improvisational elements require a different approach in a film of this nature?
This was my first time working without a full, conventional screenplay, but the process ultimately was surprisingly similar. No matter whether you have all the words on the page or not, you still sit down in a room with the actors and the crew and some kind of vision (anywhere on a spectrum from fuzzy to crystal clear) and set to building something with your collaborators. The notion that a screenplay is a finished movie just waiting to be realised seems quite absurd to me. I’ve got to imagine that Shakespeare would be pleased that folks are still finding new ways to interpret his words 500 years on.
Computer Chess is released on November 22nd, and you can read our review here.