Creating a visually stunning, thought-provoking sci-fi thriller can be a challenge for many filmmakers, particularly on a small budget and short shooting schedule. But writer-director Caradog James overcame these challenges with his latest film, The Machine, which had its world premiere last month at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The filmaker incorporated visionary special effects and stunts into a plot that philosophically questions what would happen if the technology meant to help humanity became the root of all its challenges and problems.
Set in the midst of a second Cold War, The Machine follows Britain’s Minister of Defense as he seeks a game-changing weapon. He enlists the help of brilliant programmer Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) to research and develop a cybernetic super soldier in a secret government lab, with the help of a newly hired scientist, Ava (Caity Lotz). But when a programming bug causes his prototype to malfunction, Vincent takes his efforts underground, away from the prying eyes of his superiors. Soon Vincent has perfected the ideal fusion of human and machine to make the ultimate creation, a dangerous being that may be the key to the endless war. But a surprising human sentiment growing within the machine puts everyone’s plans at risk.
James generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview during the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about filming The Machine. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how his interest and research in artificial intelligence and the sci-fi genre prompted him to make the sci-fi thriller, and how he felt Lotz and Stephens were the best choices for the two lead roles in the film, especially after they built a strong working relationship after only a week of rehearsals.
Check out the full interview below.
WGTC: You both wrote the screenplay for, and directed, The Machine. Were did you come up with the inspiration and idea for the story?
Caradog James: Well, the key thing when you’re a writer-director is that you know it’s going to take two or three years before it gets to the screen. So the script is something you really have to be passionate about. So what I tried to do is find something that I really cared about and was interested in.
I was reading a lot about artificial intelligence. It seemed to me that there hadn’t been a hard sci-fi movie done in a long while. They’re movies that really inspire me as a filmmaker. I thought, what is cutting edge, and where is that going? I think the genre has shaped society.
I got a meeting with a guy who worked for the Ministry of Defense off-the-record. He talked me through how he’s building artificial intelligence, and how he’s building cells, and how that’s teaching them how to build machines.
WGTC: Is science-fiction, and artificial intelligence in particular, something you’d be interested in exploring again in another movie?
Caradog James: I love sci-fi. I’m a huge genre fan, and it’s something I’d love to do again. I like what (director) Neill Blomkamp did with District 9, and what he’s doing with Elysium, which I haven’t seen yet, but it looks on the same line.
But using sci-fi to talk about how the world is today, and where it may lead us in the future, is really interesting. It’s a great way to talk about big ideas in a way that’s entertaining and exciting for audiences, and that’s what I want in movies-to have a good time, and be thrilled and entertained.
WGTC: How did you balance that entertainment factor with the research you did before you began shooting?
Caradog James: Well, a big part of that was through my collaboration with my producer, John (Giwa-Amu). I’d complete a draft and give it to John, and he’d read it. We then discussed the best way to get all these big ideas across in a way that’s entertaining, and not just spatting out information. So that was a big part of the process.
Then later on, we test screened the film for audiences. That was a great way to get rid of all the extraneous stuff in the film.
Sometimes when you’re looking for finances, you tend to over-write the script. You think the people who fund movies may not get it, so you put too much information in. Sometimes you keep the extra stuff in through filming. That’s the great part about test screenings; you get all this feedback from audiences about how to shape and craft the movie in a way that you get enough, but not too much.
WGTC: You’re releasing the movie through your production company with John, Red And Black Films. How did working with your company influence the way you made the film? Was it easier making the film through your own company?
Caradog James: Yes, it was fantastic. John’s such a creative producer. We’ve worked together for eight years, so there’s a lot of trust and support between us. That’s what any filmmaker needs, really-a really nurturing and supportive producer who’s always going to fight for the quality of the film.
I’m sure there are other independent producers who are great, too. But the advantage of having worked with John for so many years is explicit. It really helps in what we can produce, which is fantastic.
WGTC: Speaking of independent producers, how did making The Machine on an independent, small budget influence the way you shot it?
Caradog James: Well, I have seen movies that have cost $250 million, and I’ve been incredibly bored. There could be amazing special effects that are brilliant, but everything else is kind of dead on screen.
I think the advantage we have as independent filmmakers is that we can just concentrate on stories and characters. I think those are things that move and hold the audience. You come to care about the characters, and invest in their journeys, and want to see whether they fail or succeed.
So that’s what we really focused on, telling a successful, cool, exciting story, but also populating it with stories you can get behind. I think doing that allowed us to get the team that did the effects on Avator, and did some of the best stuff in The Dark Knight. They read the script and loved it and wanted to get involved. So we didn’t need a million dollars for the special effects.
Continue reading on the next page…
WGTC: Would you be interested in working on a bigger budget, studio film in the future, or are you interested in staying with the independent movies?
Caradog James: No, give me as much money as you can!
WGTC: Caity Lotz plays two roles in the film, first as Ava and later as the title character. What was the casting process like for her?
Caradog James: We met lots of actresses. It was such a great opportunity for an actress to get to play Ava and the machine. In a sci-fi movie, it’s such a strong, iconic character.
We saw a lot of actresses, but frankly, Caity was so much better than all of the other ones, that we knew instantly that she was the one for the role. We were so thrilled that she came on board. I can’t imagine anyone else doing as good of a job as she did.
WGTC: Did you work with Caity at all before you began filming the movie, to help her develop her two characters?
Caradog James: Yes. Both Caity and Toby came over for about eight rehearsal days. Caity and Toby got together to build some chemistry, and the three of us all worked together. One of the key things to a good performance is trust, and that’s hard to build once you get the high pressure on set as you begin shooting.
So they spent the eight days to start to get to know each other, and build that sense of being a team. Actors have to be able to take risks to give great performances, and trust is an important part of that aspect.
WGTC: Caity did all of her own stunts while you were filming. Do you feel that having her do all the stunts helped her in her performance overall?
Caradog James: Without a doubt, yes. If we had to cut to a stunt double, the film wouldn’t have had the same film. When Caity did the stunts, it was incredible. You believe she’s a machine, because she’s doing extraordinary things. I think the audience won’t be able to grasp that Caity’s doing these extraordinary things; it’s not CGI.
WGTC: What was the process of creating those stunts on set? Did you have to rehearse them with Caity?
Caradog James: Of course we had to rehearse. But it was such a tight schedule, so she was often rehearsing three or four stunt sequences at the same time. As we were changing the camera, she’d be rehearsing the next one. I think it’s because she has muscle memory from being a dancer that allowed her to pick stuff up. Without that experience, there would have been more trouble, and a lot less spectacular than they are.
WGTC: You mentioned Toby Stephens, who plays Vincet in the film, earlier. What was the casting process for him like?
Caradog James: Again, we had a lot of successful actors we met, but Toby was just awesome. He had all of the qualities we were looking for. I think he showed a different side that not a lot of people knew about. A lot of people know him as a villainous character, and he brought a lot of vulnerability to this role.
WGTC: Would you be interested in working with both Toby and Caity again in the future?
Caradog James: I’d be lucky if I only got to work with them because they’re so special and fun to work with. They’re so good, and I couldn’t have wished for better actors.
WGTC: In the story, you have China warring with Britain in a new Cold War over science. What was the process like of choosing what country would serve as the antagonist in the story?
Caradog James: That just came from the research. That’s where the world’s going, in terms of economics-China holds so much of the debts of the States and the U.K. It seemed as though they would be the next super power we brush up against, in terms of trying to protect our economy. They seemed like an interesting place to talk about, and that’s where the problems may occur to us in the future, in another Cold War.
WGTC: Did you do any particular research on The Cold War from the last century as you were preparing to make the film?
Caradog James: Yeah, I did a lot of research, particularly about what would happen if this happened now. Taiwan is a place China has its eye on. There’s always been a dispute over who owns it. If there was another Cold War, Tawain would be a part of it, as there’s so much trade and money there, which leading the West and China to turn to it.
WGTC: What do you hope audiences will take away from the movie?
Carado James: Well, there’s nothing in this film that I don’t think can’t happen in the future. I think it’s amazing the rate at which technology is advancing. Who knows when it will happen, but it’s in our nature to strive to create life, and this type of machine isn’t that far away. All of the questions the movie brings up is fascinating. The topic of what it means to be human and be alive needs to come up, but we tried to have with it in this movie.
WGTC: What was your reaction when you found out the moview as going to be playing at the Tribeca Film Festival?
Caradog James: I was absolutely thrilled. Coming to New York is in every filmmaker’s imagination. It’s a truly cinematic city, and there are so many great filmmakers here, like (Martin) Scorsese, who’s one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. So it’s an absolute dream to be premiering our film in this festival, and we’re so lucky.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Caradog James for taking the time to speak with us. The Machine is still awaiting distribution, so be sure to check back here for more updates.Previous