After winning the Royal Reel Award at the 2013 Canadian International Film Festival for their psycho-horror film Truth, writer and directors Chris Shalom and J.S. Johnson have returned, this time with a film that has a slightly different flavor. Their newest Vancouver-shot feature, which is slated for a Youtube release on October 31, has them switching roles – this time with Shalom taking over as writer and director, and Johnson producing.
The result is something that feels like a throwback to 60s grindhouse thrillers and post-80s sci-fi paranoia, but injected with the same kind of smart clipped dialogue, troubled characters, and tight frames we’ve come to expect from the young film-making duo. Vancouver Weekly sat down with Shalom and Johnson to talk about the process behind Android Night Punch (ANP), which was filmed locally in Vancouver over a three-day guerrilla shoot.
Vancouver Weekly: As I understand it, this project was offered as a challenge? And Shalom, as both writer and director on this project… what were some of the benefits of being responsible for both?
Johnson: It all goes back to Von Trier’s film The Five Obstructions. He challenges Jørgen Leth, another filmmaker, to remake the same movie five times, each time with a different set of restrictions. I got really excited about that idea, like, art and restriction, so I wanted to do my own challenge.
Shalom: So I heard about this idea, and then about a day later I heard that I was being challenged to write and shoot a feature over a three-day weekend. And honestly, being both writer and director probably saved me, because I just banged out this script that had no descriptions, no action directions, nothing, knowing I’d be shooting right away. There are probably two ways to find out what your director’s vision is like – do a movie for a ton of money and with all the resources to get exactly what you want, or do a movie with no money and no time where you have to make every choice on the fly.
VW: Where did you come up with the idea for ANP? What were some of your inspirations/influences when writing the script?
Johnson: We spent a morning coming up with a bunch of ideas. There were dragon people, hackers having sex with their computers – everything.
Shalom: I ripped off a few things that I won’t mention here in writing the script, but I think a lot of the core inspiration came from Japanese film, the way they deal with androids – Ghost in the Shell was a big one, in a way – and then of course a lot of grindhouse aesthetic.
Johnson: The big idea aside from a Von Trier-style challenge was a Roger Corman-style shoot, like, big ideas and small budget. So we definitely both had a kinda fun, grindhouse style in mind.
VW: What were some of the challenges or difficulties you encountered filming in such a short amount of time?
Shalom: All of them. I mean, all the same stuff from the production of Truth, really, just squeezed into a timeframe that basically meant constant catastrophe. No sleep, no time to light, no way to make actors comfortable.
Johnson: Poor Simone was out all night; every night in a thin black dress while we are all bundled up, because it was freezing. Because androids don’t need winter jackets.
Shalom: You also find out how people deal with sleep deprivation.
Johnson: I was sick, and then allergic to the cats in one location, and nobody had time to sleep. My apartment was the base of operations and people just collapsed on the carpet for an hour or two whenever they could.
VW: There are a number of themes that seem to be running parallel to each other in this movie. There are a lot of sub-surface ethical questions that seem to weave in and out between the character’s interactions.
Johnson: I was definitely wanting to get in the bigger-picture stuff, the president and all that. We wanted a world that was in a time of…I guess moral upheaval around technology. So we went from a hacker having sex with his computer, which was one of our ideas, to this android that is sexually, uh, functional. And what are we going to say about that? What is the church going to say?
Shalom: And then I’m always interested in the questions of control and ownership when it comes to this android stuff. “Measure of a Man,” the Star Trek TNG episode, is still to me the most question-provoking hour of television ever. And obviously here it’s gendered, and that’s another layer. Like you have a male scientist who is able to create a sexually available artificial being – the end of womb envy, at least, and then what’s gonna happen to his relationship with his living, breathing, wife? What sorts of choices will people make when absolutely submissive beings are available as, as mates, even?
Johnson: One other thing, too, is that we’re both from really small places. So it was cool for me, at least, to do a film in the big city and have a character who is experiencing that city for the first time, and confronting a lot of scary things, too. I don’t know if people from small towns ever lose that little bit of fear, when you’re walking in a city and you have these big modern buildings and amazing old buildings towering over you.
VW: You used a lot of local talent, in terms of actors. Did you write the roles with anyone specifically in mind?
Johnson: Simone and Kieran we both knew would be with us. But we scrambled for the rest. David Lloyd, who plays Charlie, I just met him in a café one time, and then ran into him a couple months later on the train, so when Shalom started writing I said we should write a part for him. And then we called him, like, “Wanna act in a feature tomorrow?”
Shalom: Definitely some favours called in. And Jordan, who plays one of the Punks, he’s not even an actor, he’s a writer, and he came out and shaved half his head for us.
Johnson: Yeah, I think the thing we were really looking for with this project was people ready to get their hands dirty. Because we had actors doing makeup, beating each other up, building android hearts out of…well, real hearts…
VW: Has Johnson offered any other challenges? Any new projects on the horizon?
Shalom: No more challenges for now. It’s a big one this time. Splatter horror in the vein of Reanimator, super fun, super gross. We’re co-directing.
Johnson: We’re not gonna tell you the name, but I will say I finally get to have a hacker. And witches. And also Satan.