PART 1: PRE-PRODUCTION
Coming up with the idea
Coming up with the idea
When I decided I wanted to shoot something, I already had some spec adverts and short films written. But once I took a closer look at them, I noticed they all needed a level of production I simply couldn’t afford: actors and sets and lighting and boom operators and dollies and steadycams. And if I was going to shoot any of them, I would want to do them correctly, with all the money and equipment that was required.
At that point, I vaguely knew there were two avenues I could go about making a movie: option A/ find a producer, and option B/ produce it myself. I spent a couple months exploring option A/: sending my screenplays left and right to production companies in Paris and asking my friends who were still working in films how to go about it. After a few weeks, I got no replies from any production company, and my friends told me that most young directors spent anywhere between 12 and 24 months making their first short film. I didn't want to wait that long to get going.
So I turned to option B. Do it myself. Which meant I had to come up with something new that could be shot with what was at my disposal. This established the first, determining question: what resources do I have that I can safely rely on? This is often how independent filmmakers, especially those working on next-to-no budget, will approach their project: work backwards from what you have to build your story, reverse-engineer the end from the means.
What did I have? A few thousand dollars. What didn’t I have? The two main things you need if you want to get any film off the ground: equipment and people. For a brief moment, I considered renting both, but when I discovered I could only afford a shoot that lasted about one afternoon, it was settled: I was going figure out how to do it all with what I had.
On the equipment front, with my savings, I could perhaps afford some equipment, but not much. So whatever happened, I had to write something that required minimal equipment and set-up. I didn’t want to have to install rigs and lights, with multiple actors and a plot that would make continuity an issue. I needed something easier to shoot, that allowed for guerilla-style filmmaking, on the fly in natural light.
On the people front, I had my own time and energy. I wasn't part of a filmmaking community where I could quickly assemble a team of competent friends to shoot a film. Most of my classmates from film school were by now spread around the world, many of them not even in films anymore, and the few contacts I still had weren’t close enough that I could call in a favor. So I knew that whatever I did, I would be mostly filming myself and relying on my closer friends who had never acted or held a camera before.
With these constraints in place, the most important question was: what story do I want to tell? As I developed several ideas, they all revolved around the same premise I had been growing obsessed with for several years already: what if you could meet yourself in another life, having made a different decision at some point? Each time, this narrative device was just a way of exploring many things I was personally preoccupied with: Why did I chose to do what I did rather than the alternatives? What if I had chosen this instead of that? Who and where would I be right now? Would I be happier or more successful? Would I envy or pity my other selves, would we become friends or hate each other? And then, further: Could I actually have done any different than I did? Was I entirely determined to do what I did, and if so, what does that say about my successes and failures, the times I think I was lucky or unlucky, my regrets, and so on? Where do we social, conscious beings fit into the natural world? How are we to make sense of who we are and what we do?
I somehow knew that this general theme of freedom was what my film would be about, although at that stage it was more of an overall direction than anything precise in terms of content. This is when I honed in on the main asset I had at my disposal: travel. I had friends and relatives in different places around the world and so, thanks to my freelancing job, I could easily travel to these various locations and shoot there. Not only would this be an easy way of adding production value to the film, I knew it could serve the theme: I could tell the story of a character who, through different life choices, ended up living in different locations.
But where? First of all, I live in Paris - so that was the first city on the list. London is close-by, I know the city well and my best friend from high-school, Thomas, still lived there, so I knew I could stay with him. Where else? Another high-school friend of mine, Paul, had just moved to Helsinki, Finland, for work. That could be a third location. Then my best friend from university, Marie, had been living and working in Jerusalem for a year and I was adamant that I would go and visit her before her contract was up. This would provide me with a fourth place to shoot. And finally, my father lived at the time in Las Vegas, so I knew I could go over there as well. It’s only later, when I developed the idea for the story, that I switched Las Vegas to Los Angeles.
During the shoot, I often got asked: why did you chose these 5 cities? And I suppose my answer was a little underwhelming: I didn’t choose them, they chose themselves, out of convenience. Had I been able to actually choose any 5 cities in the world, it may very well be that I would have selected a better or more interesting combination of 5 cities to put together. But I had to do my best with what I had, and in a sense, this led to some interesting creative moments. Settling on these 5 cities meant I could spend a lot of time researching how best to exploit them. It was like I had been given the clay to play with and it was up to me to figure out how best to use it.
With the different locations in place, I sketched out an outline for the film: 5 alternate lives of the same character, each in a different city, having all branched out at some point from a common past. To tie them all together and justify the documentary style of shooting, the film itself would be construed as part of a research experiment, conducted by a psychologist in a 6th world – the original world – where the means to scope and travel parallel universes had been discovered. This would serve as the narrative device to bookend the plot, anchor the 5 lives and provide a narrator to carry us along the way.
The downside, though, of shooting in different countries with the same protagonist, was that I couldn’t afford to bring an actor with me everywhere I went, especially given the flexibility, time-wise, that this shoot was going to require. That’s originally why I came to play the character myself. This didn’t appeal to me at first, because I have never seen myself as an actor and I didn’t particularly want to expose myself to the charge of being a narcissist for casting myself as the lead in my own movie. However, it was a necessity, so I quickly chose to make the most of it. The reassuring thing was that I knew I wouldn’t be writing scenes that really required much acting per se – it would just involve trying to be as natural as possible in doing some regular aspect of life like working, or eating, or playing sports. On the flipside, the advantage at doing the role myself was that I could then blur reality and fiction by drawing on my own life to build the character.
So when came the time to actually write down exactly what lives I would be leading in these different cities, I first established what resources I could rely on in each and then sought to design a believable situation drawing on my own past. For instance, in London, Thomas worked at the Hawley Arms pub in Camden, and so I thought perhaps the pub could be a great location. When his manager agreed to the shoot, this led me to write the “London life” as one where I become a bartender – which, in itself, is completely believable. Back in 2010, I was a bartender in Islington.
Similarly, my friend Marie, in Jerusalem, was working for the French consulate, in charge of relations with NGOs and supervising French development projects in the region. I immediately realized the great potential for me to learn about her work and draw inspiration from whoever I would meet over there – that’s how I built the “Jerusalem life” as one where I work for a UN agency. Again, this is a believable outcome: I studied political science with Marie in University and later worked for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
One thing I was wary of, however, was that using different locations could quickly become just a cheap gimmick. And I didn’t want it to be this way. I wanted them to be reflections of the film’s theme, with visual connections between the cities which could encapsulate both the diversity and oneness of life through our environment. To do this, I thought of filming relevant architecture and artwork in the cities, as a way of showing how different locations can have similar characteristics, how the same premise can become played out differently in different contexts, how things can take on new significance if looked at under a new light. My one rule was that the connections I would film had to be things I could see from the street or that were outdoors in publicly accessible spaces. At that point, however, I wasn’t at all thinking about the legal aspects of these shots. I was just enticed by the prospect of adding these ingredients to the whole mixture that I just didn’t question whether or not I would be allowed to do so. I also felt completely unrestrained because at that point this project was still meant to be nothing more than a personal challenge and passion project, something that in the end would probably not have any other purpose than to be a reel, and so issues pertaining to image rights were not even on my mind. As I explain in a later chapter, the question of intellectual property rights attached to the architecture and artwork present in the film would turn out to be one of the biggest headaches this project would come to face.
But in the beginning, when I was just thinking up the film, everything felt like pure exploration. To get started, I made a massive chart on my computer that listed the pictures and addresses of all the places that represented interesting parallels between the cities. I started by inputting those that I already knew from my own experience, mainly in Paris, London and some in Los Angeles, and once I had exhausted my own memories, I turned to the internet: I’d go on Google and search for words like “Public sculpture”, “Statue”, “Architecture in [city]”, etc. I’d look at the results in the pictures to see if anything looked similar. Finally, when Google Pictures wasn’t offering anything new, I’d go directly into Google Maps and Google Earth and virtually visit the five cities. Doing so, I came to learn a lot about the five cities, their history, their architecture, their art, and many amazing connections I hadn’t anticipated appeared. For instance, I had no clue at the beginning of the shoot that there were three very similar, giant red iron sculptures, called Stabiles, all by American sculptor Alexander Calder, in 3 of my 5 cities: in Los Angeles there is the Four arches, in front of the Bank of America Center; in Paris, there is L’arraignée rouge in the La Défense neighborhood; and in Jerusalem, there is Homage to Jerusalem, on Mount Hertzel. This is but one example of the many interesting connections that emerged from the initial random selection of cities.
Before shooting, I also needed to have some sense of what the film’s visual language and atmosphere would be like. On the one hand, the film’s look was always going to be a result of the limitations: handheld, natural light, improvisation, etc. But even before I bought any equipment, I had to know what I was aiming for in order to know what to buy. There were many films I admired and that were swirling in my mind as inspirations for the mood, ambition and visual vocabulary I wanted to employ. For instance, I’ve always been a fan of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. This is a film that is so unashamedly unique in its intent and style, with no separation between the visual language and the message. It was also the first time I had seen a “drive-lapse,” a type of shot where the camera is rigged to the front of a vehicle and just films the road ahead. For some reason, I fell in love with this kind of shot and always wanted them to last longer. I think they subconsciously put us in the same reflective state that we find ourselves in when we are driving or aimlessly staring out the window.
In the months that lead up to the beginning of this project, I also discovered Ron Fricke’s Baraka and Samsara (Ron Fricke was Reggio’s cinematographer) – these two beautiful films showed me how careful selection of locations and editing choices can create a new meaning out of things that, individually, have an entirely different significance. I also loved the effect that their patience had on our appreciation of what they were showing, how contemplating beautiful places that perhaps we were already familiar with but hadn’t taken the time to admire, offered a different perspective on the world, allowing us to form connections and learn new things from familiar sights. These films felt like an experience more than a movie and gave me confidence that it was possible to take this contemplative approach and yet still keep the audience engaged. In the same vein, Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey is one of those films that blew me away by the sheer confidence it had in subjecting its audience to a meditative, trippy voyage while handling profound themes.
But even more so, there were 2 films that directly inspired me to make psi. The first is Terrence Malick’s Tree of life. This film was actually a turning point for my appreciation of film as an art form. When it came out in 2011, I was working as an usher at the Odeon movie theatre in Leicester Square and therefore had free tickets to go and see any movie I wanted. One night, I took my girlfriend to see Tree of Life. At the time, for whatever reason - age, immaturity, the pressures of date night - we weren't ready for it and walked out 20 minutes in. A couple years later though, I came across Tree of Life again, and this time, I can’t explain why, I sunk right into it and drifted along for 140 minutes like I was being carried on a gentle river. Tree of life became the first film which actually made me think of my life far beyond the final credits. Its general feel stayed with me and to this day, I often catch myself experiencing a moment as though somehow it was in Malick’s world, with the same pace and movement. As I developed psi, particularly in the editing phase and when I was writing the narrator’s lines, I made several references to Tree of Life, because in a way, I like to think of psi as a sort of response to it – both are asking many of the same questions, but exploring very different paths to answer them.
The second film is Another Earth, directed by Mike Cahill, starring Britt Marling and written by both. Obviously, I immediately connected with the concept of the film: there is a duplicate Earth orbiting our planet and scientists make contact, discovering that we all have a double there. Rhoda, a young girl who's guilt-ridden after causing a fatal car crash, yearns to go there and find her alternate self. Another Earth hit me on two levels: first, it was one of those films where as a writer, I felt like someone had peered into my brain, taken something I wanted to make and done it first. But I didn't feel jealouse because they had done something so captivating that I felt envigorated instead, to feel that other people were interested in the same subjects as me. The film deals with so many interesting issues that it felt like an enjoyable philosophy thought experiment, where the premise is in a sense irrelevant, it's the thought process afterwards that's enticing. And that was refreshing: it was an indie film where the science ficiton was smart, that still managed to be entertaining and emotionally grounded, and I kept thinking "this is what I want to do." But as I watched the film, my "spectator's eye" started being distracted by my "filmmakers eye": I started noticing that it all seemed pretty low-key, low-budget, it was mostly handheld, all shot locally, with unknown actors, with minor yet effective VFX. And slowly but surely, a second thought crept into my mind: "This looks doable." After the film ended, I researched its background and learnt that Cahill and Marling (who had met at University where she was not studying filmmaking, but economics) shot the film in Cahill's hometown of New Haven, producing it themselves, relying on the help of friends and family and using their own homes as locations. So while The Tree of Life gave me inspiration, Another Earth gave me belief. Both films were the spark and fuse that definately blew me off my previous track and on course to making psi.
All these films had one thing in common: they forced people to think and gave them the space to do so. But in every case, the food for thought came mainly from a combination of the imagery/music, the dialogue/narration and the plot/themes. This is perhaps where I wanted to take a slightly different route with psi: I thought it would be interesting for the important information to be delivered not through things that would be created by me (dialogue/narration) but from real-world experts on the subjects at hand. If I could get some philosophers and scientists to talk about human freedom, I could edit their words into a narrative framework. My hope was that by peppering real expert insights into an imaginary, high-concept setting, I could provide an engaging, emotional blanket in which to do some serious brain work.
However, when I first thought of this idea, I never dreamt I’d ever be able to reach top American and British thinkers, some of whom were famous beyond the academic world. I originally rested mainly on the confidence that I could count on my own philosophy professors in Paris, who knew me personally and had worked with me on various research projects. And yet, when I approached them, they declined with a briefness that signaled at best a form of shyness or modesty, and at worst a patronizing unwillingness to indulge one of their students in something non-academic (worse, something artistic). Compare that to the intellectuals from the English-speaking world, including "academic A-listers" like Dan Dennett, Max Tegmark and Barry Schwartz, who I solicited via e-mail and who replied either to agree to an interview or to request more information. Brian Greene, one of the faces of popular science in the USA, initially showed interest, and even Steven Pinker replied to me personally - albeit to decline for lack of time - but he still took the time to apologize for being swamped and wish me luck. This openness and willingness of the English/American to be involved really struck a chord with me and, sadly, cast the French academics in a rather distasteful light.
The one thing though that bacame a problem as things fell into place, is that by the end of my reaching out to experts, my cast completely lacked diversity both in gender and ethnicity. At the time of contacting them and preparing the film, it's not something I even noticed, simply because - and this is something I've since strived to change in my personal and working habits - I just wasn't thinking about diversity. Obviously, I never aimed to have a non-diverse cast. I had sent out e-mails to a bunch of professors and intellectuals, including women, but most didn't get back or declined. When I was contacting experts, I knew I was only going to have a short window of time and limited money to travel and meet with them. So essentially, the cast of experts I have is comprised of the first 9 who agreed to meet with me. And at the time, I was just overjoyed that they said yes. I was so focused on just pulling this all off that I didn't stop to think about shuffling them around to include women or minorities. And now, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had been more conscious of diversity. I talk more about this issue in a later chapter (see Part 4, Chapter 3: Universities).
In any case, securing the involvement of the 9 experts who responded positively was a watershed moment for me, because I realized for the first time that my project was more than a short film. If I successfully interviewed them all, I would surely have enough content to fill 90 minutes of film. I was far from imagining that they would eventually also fuel a 9-episode Series.
Often when people ask me about my film and how I came to make it, the expression I use to best capture how it went is that it “snowballed.” What was originally a small challenge turned into a feature film. It was no longer an exercise in order to get my first film produced. It was my first film.