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Exclusive interview: Director April Mullen talks eerily prescient AI sci-fi thriller ‘Simulant’

The director and producer talks to WGTC about the timely tale of AI gainin awareness.

via Mongrel Media

You’d think that a sci-fi thriller focusing on the ethical questions that arise when artificial intelligence lives life under the assumption that it’s completely and unequivocally human would have been plunged into development to capitalize on the current questions being asked about AI, but director and producer April Mullen’s Simulant has been in the works a lot longer than that.

The futuristic fable – which releases on digital, VOD, and in select theaters today – finds Robbie Amell heading up a star-studded cast that includes Fast & Furious veteran Jordana Brewster, Avatar‘s Sam Worthington, and Marvel Cinematic Universe breakout Simu Liu as Evan, a man who discovers he died in an accident and has been brought back to life as a sentient AI.

Even though Simulant only shot in the early part of last year, it’s right on the cusp of the conversation as humanity cowers in fear from the threat of our incoming AI overlords, something Mullen was fully aware of when she spoke to We Got This Covered about her latest feature.

In our chat, we cover the timeliness and prescience of Simulant, the wider debates and discussions it opens the door to, $200 million love stories between snails and seahorses and much more, which you can check out below.

via Mongrel Media

You’ve covered a lot of genre bases throughout your career, but sci-fi isn’t something you’ve dabbled too heavily in. Was that something you were actively seeking to remedy, or was it more a case of Simulant being the right project at the right time?

I do love sci fi. I love the world-building and the imaginary settings, and the questions it always asks the audience. To be honest, it just so happened that at the time I read the script eight years ago, it really resonated with me. I was sort of torn up about humanity and AI, and what’s going to happen – in which, you know, where am I going to stand – and I’m a big advocate for humanity.

And it just had a lot of universal themes that I felt really strongly about. So it wasn’t necessarily sci-fi that turned me on to the project, or the film or the script itself, it was more the characters and the universal themes that it presented. And I really felt like it was going to be current. I didn’t know it’s going to be oh so current, it’s much more current than I ever dreamed!

But here we are now, in a world where Chat GPT exists. When we were filming. It didn’t even exist, it wasn’t in the marketplace. So a lot has even happened in such a short timeframe. And that makes the film, the current issues a lot more relevant.

Even though you only shot early last year, the AI debate has exploded already between now and then. Obviously it’s one of the driving forces behind the film, but did you have any idea just how far the conversation would come between those two points, because it’s now one of the most talked-about aspects of the entire culture?

Exactly. Yeah, definitely. I mean, when I read the script, I felt like we were two decades away from something, anything close to this, and the fact that AI is now creative and able to make creative decisions and write poetry and create artwork is something I didn’t necessarily think would happen so quickly. Definitely not within, you know, the time we wrapped the film to the day we released. I didn’t ever dream we would move so quickly.

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Based on that, Simulant is looking as though it’s only going to get more prescient with each passing year, but did you have the notion of a long-lasting legacy and timeliness in the back of your head when shooting, or is it too presumptuous for a filmmaker to take that approach?

I mean, it’s definitely… I feel like it’s a theme that keeps reoccurring. So I feel like as society and people, we are always really expressing in feature films, what the current either fears or hopes of society is, and we are always exploring those things. And the fact that this theme keeps coming up, it’s definitely in the ethos that everybody’s sort of talking about it and wondering about it.

And I think there are so many different perspectives happening right now, where some of the greatest AI makers of our times are saying, “Actually, we should take a step back, we don’t know what happens in the black box.” There was a time where we could understand it, and now we don’t know where AI is going.

And we can’t really explain how it comes up with the end results that it does. And I feel like that is also something that needs to be heard. And something kind of shocking and probably fearful for a lot of people may be exciting for others, it’s definitely a changing world on a daily basis.

Simulant is many things, but it’s arguably a love story above all. That’s something that audiences may not be expecting, but it also doesn’t play out the way they’d expect it to, so do you relish that opportunity as filmmaker to take on something that sounds familiar on the surface like “sentient androids wrestle with human emotions”, but paint it in fresh strokes that are definitively yours?

What I always came back to when I was sort of designing the world and augmenting with the effects, was that I never wanted it to distract from the characters and what their journey was. And it’s much more of a personal, like you said, insulated kind of like love story between several different people, really. Casey and Esmé have their own love story, and Robbie and Jordana have their own love story.

And there’s also the tragedy that is Sam Worthington’s character of losing his son due to negligence on an AI’s part, so I think every character has a sense of longing. Every character is longing for love in a way, and whether it’s forgiveness or it’s broken, or it’s bringing back a loved one and trying to reconnect with a loved one that you’ve lost through grief.

They all are very, very human and tangible themes that I think every person deals with on a daily basis, unfortunately, because life is so fragile, and so unpredictable, and we can’t really grasp the person’s soul and keep them here past their time if their body decides it’s time to go. And so I think all of those things are so unique. And I love that, in our world, we really concentrate on the human aspects of the the four characters’ journeys, and what they’re going through.

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It’s a character-driven story at the end of the day, but there’s not really any such thing as a clear divide between good and bad, heroes and villains. Was retaining that ambiguity important to you, because it’s easy to imagine that a lot of viewers are going to interpret Simulant in different ways depending on who they identify and sympathize with?

100 percent. I mean, even when I read the script, I was torn between all of them. One second you’re rooting for Casey, the next second you’re rooting for Sam Worthington’s character, and you’re rooting for the Simulant, because they have such pure emotions that feel and resemble love. And it feels so pure, because they’re so new, and they’re just aiming to please.

So you’re really torn up on who you’re rooting for. And of course, I feel like the end – in a weird way – it says something about what happens without ever hammering at home. And it throws you for a loop and surprises you at the end; the people or the Simulants that you were rooting for definitely catch you off-guard.

And when I first read the script, the ending was so surprising and dramatic I was like, “I have to make this movie.” Because it left me thinking for like a month afterwards, I kept going back and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I was really rooting for Evan, I love him as a Simulant. I care so much about Casey.” I cared so much about them, and for someone who’s so starkly an advocate for humanity, there were so many prejudices that came into play.

And I always question if my own love is love. Like, who am I to say if you’re feeling a great sense of love and and friendship with an AI? Who am I to say that it’s not real, or it is real? I just really wanted to keep it open-ended and allow people space to have and feel whatever they do for those characters. So I hope everybody’s sort of rooting for whoever they want to.

And I think it’s just causes a lot of discussion at the end of the film, with your friends and family, like, “Would you want to bring back a loved one? Would you want to create a simulate for yourself?” You know, there’s a lot of big, big questions to be asked. And I just think that’s really interesting.

If you woke up tomorrow and discovered you were a Simulant, what would your first reaction be, after the obvious freakout was out of the way?

I guess it would be a real moment of confusion! You know what I love about that moment of the mirror, when Jordana reveals to Robbie Amell that he’s a Simulant? He’s just like, so speechless, because you’re dealing with your own mortality, and you’re dealing with your own death.

So you have to come first to terms with the fact that you’re no longer alive. And what does that really mean? If you’re still here, but you feel, and you have the memories, and you have the connections with the same people? Because they’re standing right before you, but it’s not really you?

Or is it? I mean, it just would be, I think I would never sleep again If I was a Simulant! The first thing I would do is see if I could reverse time and go to the 17 year-old version of me, and then go to the 90 year-old version, and then see if I could play with age, because that would be unique to sort of see what would happen. But as a Simulant, I don’t know, I’d probably be just trying to make more movies!

robbie amell simulant
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If you could make any project of your choosing, what would it be and why would it be that?

Whoo, that is an incredible question. And I feel like that would change on a daily basis, because I always feel like as a director, my motivation and my connection to material really drastically moves with me. So whatever is happening in my life sort of is what motivates me. You know, I’m doing this erotic drama, because at the time I’m falling madly in love, and then I’m doing something a lot darker like Wander because I’m starting going to deep dive into conspiracy theories. So I feel like it would change.

Currently, I have this hunger for like almost a coming-of-age, wild and free The Beach. But then I also have always loved the idea of just going out and doing a National Geographic episode where I’m with nature and animals and telling a really unique story. Maybe a love story between a seahorse, let’s say, and I don’t know, a snail. And something really, really, really, that only involves nature and see what that’s like, and just kind of not have a script and a deadline and a budget.

And, you know, there’s so many things that come into play when you’re making a feature that are dictated by the end result, which is sales and distribution, and getting bums in seats, and making sure people go to the theater. But if you could just create something with nature, and not worry about the numbers, it might be really refreshing. I’m one of those people that really pull from what’s around me in the world, and I’m just absolutely madly in love with even the way the fur blows on a tiger. Yeah.

So maybe I would just get caught up in that, and not have to worry so much about the budget and making everybody happy, and trying to get people out to the theaters, because it’s a tough time for independent cinema. So if I had nothing to worry about… I also have this really badass project that I have with Scott Free right now that I want to make so so so so badly, but there’s a lot of moving pieces and it’s really big. So if I get to make that, that’s my next dream reality project.

Either way, I look forward to the announcement of the three and a half hour, $200 million love story between a seahorse and a snail.

I love it! Underwater cameras, here we go. James Cameron; I’m going to show some more 3D.

Simulant releases on digital, VOD, and select theaters today, June 2, and you can check out our exclusive interview with star Robbie Amell here.

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Scott Campbell

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