After four years of blood, sweat and tears, first-time writer/director Christopher Butler achieved his vision of producing a sci-fi horror epic against impossible odds. From first draft to final completion it was the most ambitious low budget feature film ever attempted. Now, as it finally reaches British audiences as an iTunes digital exclusive, David Hughes talks to Butler about The Scopia Effect.
Where does the title come from?
I’m all about inventivity (creativity plus invention) and I wanted a name and definition I could own. The definition is now “phenomena that cannot be explained by conventional science” I even put it on Wikipedia.
I tend to focus my ideas around the unknown, forces we cannot explain. That’s what I love about David Lynch. I thought the incomprehensible shouldn’t sound familiar, so I invented a word that sounded like something we don’t know. The word Scopia just kind of formed itself in my head after that.
What was the germ of the idea, and how did it develop?
I have always been fascinated by the idea of reincarnating from a scientific point of view. The idea that energy cannot be created or destroyed, just changes form. Everything has to go somewhere. One night I was having drinks with a friend and we got into a really deep conversation about reincarnation and the universe and I couldn’t stop thinking about it’s potential as a foundation for storytelling and film narrative. Then a few weeks later the realisation that every past life comes with a past death swept over me, and I had my hook.
Were/are you interested in the concept of past lives, or was it more of a means to tell Basia’s story?
Conceptually I’m really into the idea of past lives. I was excited about the idea of taking an everyday person’s timeline, then bombarding and disrupting it with other peoples horrific stories. The complexity of it really inspires me. As a filmmaker I’m always looking for new ways of telling a story, and this felt like a great area to play in.
Most filmmakers pick something fairly simple and small-scale for their first film. That approach clearly wasn’t for you. Did you always know it was going to be a pretty major undertaking?
The scale wasn’t the initial goal. I always say there’s no real relationship between a good concept and a big budget. A great idea can be small and simple or big and complex. I like both.
I keep the creative stages clear of restrictions. I would never let lack of budget or resources influence my writing. Once I’ve committed to a concept I’ll do whatever it takes to see it though. If I’m not making the film I love, I’d rather not make it. Don’t get me wrong, over three years of filming The Scopia Effect genuinely nearly killed me and there were times I wished I had just written a script about two guys in a room. But I knew it wouldn’t have fulfilled me. Ironically the script I’m writing now involves just three people and one location, but that’s just the story I want to tell next.
Tell me about some of the past time lines and how you went about depicting them?
You hear a lot of stories about people regressing back to being Cleopatra or a knight of the round table. I wanted each past life to have been a regular person of that time. Peasants, farmers and fishermen are statistically more likely and gave me the premise for pure ‘human’ stories. I started off researching the most common causes of death in each continent at different time periods. Then I’d immerse myself in each culture and from the nuggets I’d pull out I would start to formulate each story. There was a loose formula to write to as you’ll see the patterns that are woven into the film and themes that run through all of Basia’s lives. It was a really great way to write. I treated each past life as a story in it’s own right. We filmed each life as if it was it’s own separate film, focusing on its authenticity. I wanted each life to feel totally contained and unrelated to the others so they would create chaos when they came together. This way the end result wouldn’t just ‘behave’ like a film. Every shot, angle, texture was painfully poured over to make sure the little money we had went as far as possible.
Tell me the story of how you quit advertising to work on the film?
My first job was actually a window cleaner back in Liverpool, that’s when I’d have most of my best ideas. Then I head to London with dreams of doing commercials. Breaking into advertising as a creative was tough but the job itself was a lot of fun for about 8 years. But then advertising changed and instead of writing headlines or scripts we were writing tweets. It just wasn’t story telling anymore. So I quit to focus on writing and moving image. My creative partner, creative director and pretty much everyone I knew thought I had cracked up. In the same day I gave notice on my flat and packed up my whole life. I moved in with my mum and I focused on writing and storyboarding. I’d couch surf with friends in London when I had meetings to talk people into working for the film and that pretty much became my way of life for the next three years.
Tell me about your background in advertising and how what you learned in that field that helped you move into feature film making?
Advertising was a really good place to cut my teeth because it’s so diverse. I got to work with top photographers, illustrators, designers and film directors as every job is very different. So you’re basically learning how to have ideas and execute them best you can, which I think is the skill at the heart of any creative industry.
The film has echoes of Malick, Lynch, Tarkovsky and a batsqueak of Pi, Under the Skin and Upstream Color, and yet it’s entirely its own thing. Which filmmakers do you admire, or feel have influenced you?
Wow, there’s a lot but my main shortlist would have to be Lynch, Kubrick, Herzog and Korine. They all showed me new ways of telling stories and that’s what really stays with an audience. A director shouldn’t just aspire to be a visualizer but a philosopher, thinker and above all a storyteller. I would be just as happy listening to Werner Herzog talking about life, as I would be watching one of his films. Harmony Korine taught me it’s all about the acting. Watching Julien Donkey-Boy made me decide I was going to be a filmmaker. I’m also heavily influenced by directors like Katsuhiro Otomo as I’m a big anime fan and a bit of a nerd if I’m honest. So I’m a combination of sophisticated cinema mixed with comic book violence.
When you set out to write the script, did you have any idea how you would finance it?
I didn’t have any connections to the film business. But I knew the power of an idea. So my angle was to have an idea I truly believed in and pursue, then hope people want to join me. I couldn’t face the thought of spending the next 5 years knocking on doors with my script. And I don’t subscribe to the idea of asking others permission to do something I’m passionate about. So I decided to start my own institution, treat it like a brand and attract followers. That was an almost four year campaign altogether of which the by-product was the feature film I wanted without any creative interference or restrictions.
What can you tell me about the financing process?
It’s impossible. It was an ‘any means possible’ approach. You have to think of yourself as an unstoppable force and fully commit to making your film no matter what. No one wants to give you money for a new director with an ambitious and experimental script. We would raise a tiny heap of cash, campaign for help, favours and any involvement. When there’s no money you have to just forget about money. You have to be creative and come up with new forms of currency and every deal you strike is different. You can’t afford a studio, so you campaign to find a large space where you can build an Ancient Japanese interior. You can’t afford set build so you campaign to find materials and hard working people who will commit themselves based on your ability to inspire them about you vision and guarantee it’s a worthy cause. During the process our we’d form relationships with kit hire companies. Panalux would give us a 75% discount filming ta weekends. I once had my friend trying to build kino lights in his shed. I would find work where I could then every penny I made went into the film and I’d be left rifling through the bargain basket for my dinner. Our biggest investor was £5K. Me and the producer would book lighting, locations and kit hire for a filming block before we had any idea of how we were going to pay for it. When faced with a challenge like film funding the best thing is to back yourself into a corner, the you’ll fight to get out of it. It was very stressful but it kept us moving forward. The last chunk of dough to finish the film was raised on Kickstarter and that was just 5K to film ancient India and pick up shots.
The visual style is extraordinary, perhaps not surprising for someone who had worked on major accounts such as Adidas, etc.
Though high profile, you don’t get much freedom when creating work for big brands. But you learn a high standard and you do it so often on a daily basis you’re very well practised at visualising ideas and bringing them to life. But Indie film is a whole new learning curve. It’s like the opposite discipline. On a big brand you’ll have a huge budget for a small creative task. On a feature film you have no budget but a staggering creative challenge. The whole cost of The Scopia Effect which runs at 100 minutes was less than a fraction of a TV commercial that lasts for 30 seconds. So only a small part of the commercial mentality is transferable. Everything else you’re learning all over again, but I really liked that about it.
How did you come to cast Joanna Ignaczewska? Where/how did you find her?
We ran auditions below a bookshop in Covent Garden. I video taped the auditions and gave the talent false tasks as I would later study them between the performances, looking for natural characteristics. What I really liked about Joanna was that she was the opposite of a typical horror movie chick. I wanted someone who looked like porcelain, as if they could be easily broken and shattered when thrown around. I knew I wanted a likable orphan and when I looked at Joanna it felt believable. Joanna worked hard to convince me she would devote herself to the part. She really understands what it takes for an actors to go further, there’s no faking trauma.
The film was obviously a major undertaking from a set-ups/cinematography/editing/sound perspective – for an independent filmmaker, a tremendous challenge on multiple fronts. Tell me about some of the challenges bringing such a deliberate and idiosyncratic vision to life?
On a practically zero budget every detail is a struggle, it’s like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle in an earthquake. When doing something so multi-facetted on your own you’re spinning plates in your head. So what you lack in budget or resources you make up for in hard work. So much went into it but I’ll go through a few here:
I did all my own storyboards, created colour palettes and texture guides for each time period as well gathering poems, word clouds, images and paintings to set the tone for each reincarnation. These would all then go into creating briefs for the art department, cinematographers and even actors. My task was to create the right environment for my ideas to form as it never felt like a proper film set.
The timespan was difficult, getting the crew and cast back together over and over again for 3 years. There are some scenes where the close up was film three years after the wide shot and we had no continuity supervisor!
I developed the film like a brand so I had my own rules and themes for framing shots and lighting style to work to. Again focus on the details, it’s what makes all the difference. Decide what each scenes job is, the frame it to give that sense and light it to create that tone. Stick to this and you’ll always have a true, artistic result and avoid the budget look.
I brought in two cinematographers, one for the past lives and one for Basia’s life in the present day. I wanted a real contrast so the audience would suddenly think “hey, is this the same film?”
It was the same with the soundscape. I combined classical film score from Moritz Schmittat with the modern, electrical music tracks of Christopher Hayden and they weren’t allowed to hear each other’s work throughout so it wouldn’t influence them. I managed and guided their creative processes knowing where I wanted them come out and join together at the end of the process. That was really exciting.
Acting: No budget means no rehearsal space. I had to be smart when prepping the actors so I’d have meetings with them when I could and we’d talk through everything about the characters, getting to know them before shoot day, even if the character was on the screen for a few seconds, it stands out when it’s not right.
On set: Each day was physically exhausting without much of a crew for rigging and lighting. We’d work 16 hour days and once got 40 shots in camera in one day.
Filming outdoors without a permit was horrible because you don’t want to rush your actors or disturb the performance when someone walks through the shot pushing a pram.
Just getting people to talk to you on the phone is a battle when you have no track record and aren’t affiliated with a known organisation. Being utterly independent can feel like being utterly alone. But you push until you can push no more. Then you push harder.
Joanna was obviously an integral part of the process. But how important was it to get the write talent behind the camera, e.g. editor, cinematographer(s), sound designer, composer, etc. And what can you tell me about the collaborators in those roles.
For me the right talent is everything. The actors performance is everything and you need the right people to help you capture it and make it into a film. I think I was lucky, I seemed to attract the right people and they became totally dedicated. My relationship with my DOPs is similar to the actors. Everyone has to get into character for their role both sides of the camera. I try and create the atmosphere on set that I’m going for in the theatre. I don’t talk in F stops and T stops. I describe the tone, feel and emotion I’m looking for in a scene and the DOP knows me well enough to translate that into lighting, then we work together on getting the look just right. Once you’re on the same frequency it’s a great way to work and create.
With a film this ambitious, the post-production must have been almost as arduous as the shoot itself. What can you tell me about that?
About 2 years into production I was contacted by Dean Gonzalez, a well seasoned editor living in L.A at the time. He’d come across a teaser trailer I’d put together to help raise interest and reached out to me saying he had always wanted to cut a film like this. Over the next year we became sort of digital pen pals. Our taste in film was totally aligned and he really got what I was trying to do. I couldn’t have found a more perfect editor for this film. Dean moved to Chicago to begin editing and the word started to spread. Gil Baron and Ryan Urban at Method Studios Chicago came on board for VFX. These guys worked on films like The Matrix, The Ring, Tree of Life and more. Company 3 Chicago stepped up to handle our colour grading needs. Noisefloor Chicago took on the mammoth task of sound design and a 5.1 surround audio mix. Chris Hayden of Florence and the Machine came forward to create original tracks for the film. We formed real alliance in Chicago all truly dedicated to helping me get this film out there. What’s so nice about have no money is that everyone is there purely on their belief in you and your film. After limping across the finish line of a no-budget Indie film production, I was on a plane to Chicago with my 4 terabytes of footage to start the next long, arduous journey of post-production, but this time with all the proper professional facilities any director could ever want. I’ll definitely be working with the same team for the next one.
For an independent filmmaker today, the work doesn’t end with the picture lock. Have you been involved in the distribution/publicity/marketing?
Regarding distribution I leave all negotiating to the producer, that’s still a field I need to properly learn. As for the publicity and marketing I’m getting my ad agency hat on and getting creative making content and artwork. I did the new poster artwork myself, it’s a lot of extra work on your plate but it was nice to have control over the quality. Again we were lucky enough to attract some social media experts like Krowd London and Victoria Naumova who liked the look of the film and wanted to help us spread the word. I’m now making a music video for one of Chris Hayden’s tracks in the film called Don’t Leave Me Here, just another way of getting our work out there.
How important was it for you to oversee the marketing of the film?
Very, it’s a difficult film to categorize and it took a while to find a genre it’s comfortable in. Initially we went pure horror but it just felt wrong. I wanted to position the film as Sci-Fi in the same way Donnie Darko and Primer deal with time travel. So I put a lot of work into the poster artwork to reflect this and also honestly represent the film. Same for the new apple trailer, I’m really happy with the materials and think they convey the film well now.
Are you effectively distributing it yourselves?
Effectively yes. We decided to commit ourselves to digital platforms for the UK release so we’re working with The Movie Partnership who handle our digital rights.
We didn’t want to spend another year knocking on doors of distributors. If this was an east end gangster film or a zombies flick it would have a very different path to it’s audience. But I want this film to become cult. I want people to ‘discover’ this film rather than see it wiz past on t he side of a bus. ‘Get it out there’ became the motto this year. Now it’s out there to be discovered and slowly start a life of it’s own online.
Who or what is Capital Films and what part did they play in the film’s production or distribution?
Capital Films is a small production company set up by Steven Farah. I met Steven about a year ago, we got on well and he really liked what I was doing with The Scopia Effect. We welcomed him on board as an executive producer and he brought in his contacts and acts as a consultant as well as giving me help and advice whenever I need it. I’ll definitely be working with him on projects in the future. It’s all about forming good relationships with people you want to be working with.
How much of a splash has the film made so far?
All though it’s been a long journey for us, the paint is still wet on The Scopia Effect. We screened at the British Horror Film Festival end of 2014 and picked up best cinematography as well as being nominated for Best Film, Best Director and Best Lead Actress which was nice. The film’s been very much under warps until now, but the few audiences that have been allowed to see the film have been blown away. It’s great watching an audience while they watch your film.
I’m already getting contacted by some top level producers as a result of seeing the film so it’s definitely having a real effect. But now I’m really looking forward to the general public seeing it, it’s not a film until it has an audience.
David Hughes (@DavidHughesTwit)
THE SCOPIA EFFECT is available now in the UK on iTunes. Read our review here.