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.
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