By Paul Risker.
Cinema, or more specifically science fiction, has a long established fascination with the future of human civilisation: the quest as well as the hypothesis of a potential future reality. Director Matthew Leutwyler and writer Shahin Chandrasoma’s passion project Uncanny (2015) continues the storyteller’s and as an extension science-fiction’s fascination with human’s attaining a Godlike ability to create artificial intelligence in our own likeness.
If science fiction is an inherently thoughtful genre, Uncanny at its heart is a consideration of interpersonal relationships and how our worlds are built around the people we know and interact with. But furthermore the dynamic of the introduction of a female into a male environment in Uncanny looks at interpersonal relationships and environments as a fragile ecosystem that are easily sent spiralling into a state of flux. As Leutwyler explained: “It is an interesting film because when it comes to personal relationships you’ve got this guy who is creating this being in his own likeness, and sadly kind of creates a being that becomes a better version of himself. So that must be pretty bizarre for a guy who doesn’t really fit into society very well to build something that fits better than he does based on an image of himself. And that was always an interesting thing to play with – a creator who is completely sequestered from the real world and the only thing, the only friend he has is this thing he’s creating.”
If David Kressen (Mark Webber) represents an ironic relationship then Leutwyler’s own broader relationship to cinema is one that could be seen to be equally ironic or contradictory in nature. “Uncanny was made for a zero budget, and I mean that,” the filmmaker stressed, before continuing: “It is not a low budget film. I just produced a low budget film for about a million dollars in Texas last month for a first time director, and that was low budget, for sure. This was a passion piece that we shot in twelve days with a very small crew in one space with three actors.” In one sense this low budget passion piece draws deep contrasts to the films that defined his generations youth. “I am of the generation who saw Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and all those kind of films that were the beginning of the blockbuster.” And with age as Leutwyler’s cinematic horizon was expanded less of a contrast and more of a similarity between Uncanny and the other half of his cinematic inspiration emerges. “I was a child at the time, but as I got older I started to become attracted to not only these types of movies, but the way John Sayles made his films.” He added: “I really appreciated the things that he was doing, and so they would be the two disparate inspirations; the two reasons I decided to make films.”
One of the most fascinating evolutionary processes remains the transition between spectator and practitioner or participant; specifically whether the filmmaking experience influences the way films are watched on the spectatorial level. Putting this question to Leutwyler, he offered: “Yeah, sometimes you still become really immersed in a film, but you still see the machinations of the behind-the-scenes process once you have been behind the scenes, once you have pulled back the curtain and worked on one.” But in spite of this literary reference to the wizardry, he continued: “I still get immersed in a great performance, and speaking of science-fiction I watched The Martian (2015) the other day. I kind of toggled back and forth between being in awe of the movie and then also the filmmaking itself. It was such an optimistic film and so I just kept thinking to myself: this is not very Ridley Scott like. So I guess I did come out of it a few times, and I thought about the actual filmmaker as opposed to just watching his film.”
Leutwyler during his time within the industry has built up a range of credits covering writing, directing, editing and producing. There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are at least three different versions of the script that evolves a step at a time that covers the initial script and which then evolves through the shoot and the edit. Leutwyler was in agreement he was quick to praise the Shahin’s original script, remarking: “Well sure and look, I thought the script that Shahin wrote for this movie was terrific. We met, discussed the concept of the movie and then he turned in a draft three or four weeks later. It was pretty much the draft that we shot. We had some minor modifications just based on the location, although everything stayed the way it was.” And Leutwyler’s recounting of the process of realising the script is a testament to creative compromise being an inherent feature of the filmmaking process. For as he explained in greater detail, he would shoot so everything stayed as it was in the script, but ended up resulting in a degree of compromise. “But the way I saw that movie when I read the script was very different visually to what we ended up shooting because Uncanny was made for a zero budget.” He continued: “So I had a different vision of what the location was going to be and I think Shahin did to. We wanted something that spoke more to the future, but we ended up with this location that spoke more to the past because of budget.”
The behind the scenes story of the making of Uncanny echoes that sentiment of the need for a little bit of luck or in Leutwyler’s case a little good fortune mixed with a willingness to bend to the budget constraints. “A friend donated this loft space downtown and instead of trying to make it look like something it wasn’t, the DP and I decided to embrace it for its 1930s visual. So right there I was already making a change in the way that I shot it to the way that I originally saw the script. And then to the editing phase it changes again, but not as dramatically as that, which was a big change to the way I think the script should have been realised, frankly.” In spite of the compromises to the original vision, Leutwyler stands by the film, asserting it “still totally works, but that is something that is not a choice I would have made if I’d had a choice [laughs].” And the compromises were a theme that confronted the filmmaker from the start of the shoot, on through to its final cut. “Then you get into the editing and you start to see things that were on the page that don’t play out in the same way as you thought they might” he explained. “And especially on a film with a twelve day shoot in which you may have had to rush through a couple of moments or scenes that end up not working as well you thought. So you end up tearing them down or cutting them out completely, and that happened in a couple of scenes on this. So you get three different versions: the script that you see one way and which you then shoot and have it another way, and then you get into the editing room and you start finding a different version.”
All compromise aside after having met the unfolding set of challenges that arise through the three steps that take a filmmaker from the start to the end of his journey, Leutwyler remains positive and upbeat about this experience. “In the end all budget aside this movie is definitely the essence of the script, which is the most important thing. I still feel the same way after watching the film as I did when I read the script. We captured some nuance and some detail that was not there, but it’s the script and we didn’t really change any of the dialogue because it doesn’t really work as an improv piece. It is very specific and it works well, so there was not a lot of deviating from it in order to change it in either the edit or the production stage.”
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.