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An Interview Chance Shirley, Director of Interplanetary

by Mike Haberfelner

October 2011

Films directed by Chance Shirley on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your film Interplanetary - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Monsters and mayhem, 40 million miles from Earth!

 

How would you describe the brand of humour of Interplanetary, how did you approach the comic aspects of your film while writing it, and how much of the comedy was the result of on-set improvisation?

 

Though there are a few bloody slapstick (splatstick?) bits in Interplanetary, most of the humor is character-based. I was going for something along the lines of This Is Spinal Tap or Office Space or Dr. Strangelove. So I tried to come up with well-defined characters, and I tried to find the humor in whatever situations I put them in.

Most of the dialog was very close to what was in the screenplay, though I'm sure some bits of improv creeped in occasionally.

 

At least for me, Interplanetary is highly reminiscent of all these Alien-inspired monster-on-a-space-station movies from the 1980's. A comment you can at all live with, and your genre favourites?

 

I can totally live with that comment! That's exactly what I was trying to do, make a 1980s-style low-budget monster-on-a-space-station movie.

My favorites of the genre are It: The Terror from Beyond Space (which was made in the 50s), Alien (of course), and John Carpenter's The Thing (no space station, but a scary alien in a remote location).

 

Other sources of inspiration when writing Interplanetary?

 

Other than the comedy and monster movies I already mentioned, I was thinking a lot about 2001: A Space Odyssey and the classic Star Trek and Space 1999 television shows when I wrote Interplanetary.

 

How would you describe your directorial approach to your subject matter?

 

The biggest challenge in directing Interplanetary was trying to make a big (or at least medium-sized) sci-fi movie with such a small budget. I probably spent more time painting set walls and building space helmets than actually directing.

Luckily, we had a great cast. All the actors showed up having done their homework, ready and able to direct themselves if I was distracted with something else.

All that said, my basic approach to comedy is to have the actors play it straight. Don't oversell anything, and definitely don't wink at the camera.

 

What I especially liked about your film were the retro-futuristic sets, props and costumes. How did the look of Interplanetary come into being?

 

Given the budget, retro-futuristic was about the best we could do!

Actually, that was the plan all along. I knew we'd have limited resources, so the classic Star Trek sets were probably the biggest influence on our Interplanetary sets. Our space suits were mostly influenced by old pulp magazine art, with a little Space 1999 thrown in there, too.

Other than our awesome space guns (designed and created by Michael Wade), most of the props were cobbled together from random junk, specifically a lot of old electronic surveying equipment.

 

A few words about your 100% analog special effects?

 

In homage to those old 1980s alien-on-a-space-station movies, we tried to make the movie (mostly) with 1980s technology. So we shot on film (Super 16mm) and generally avoided CG.

We did cheat a little. There are some digital composites in the movie. We did the editing on a computer (we didn't actually cut film with a razor blade), and we did the titles on a computer.

But even in modern movies, I think practical effects look better than CG. CG blood effects are especially annoying.

 

Where did you shoot your Martian exteriors, and how easy/difficult was it to find and shoot in Mars-like locations down here on earth?

 

Other than a couple of shots we picked up in a Nevada dry lake bed, we shot the "Martian" exteriors at a rock quarry near Birmingham, Alabama. Because of water and vegetation, only about 20% of the quarry is passable for a desert planet. But, as it is a very large rock quarry, 20% was more than enough. 

 

What can you tell us about your cast and crew?

 

They're good people and hard workers. We spent many long days on set and on location, both in pre-production and during the actual shoot. And on each of those days, I was impressed with the quality of everyone's work. And I was flattered that all of these talented people continued to show up for very little (or no) money to help me make the movie that I wanted to make. 

 

With Interplanetary being a science fiction movie, is this a genre especially dear to you, and why?

 

Science fiction is especially dear to me. I went crazy for Star Wars (I saw it at the cinema when I was around 7 years old). But I've been in love with the genre for as long as I can remember. Before Star Wars, I was into super-hero comic books and classic Star Trek television episodes.

 

Let's leave the present behind for the moment and move forward into your past: How did you get into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal education on the subject?

 

I found my way into filmmaking relatively late in life. When I was around 30 years old, my hometown (Birmingham, Alabama) got its first film festival (the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival). As a fan of movies, I attended the festival. I saw a couple of good short movies and realized that, if I made my own short, Sidewalk might screen it (pre-YouTube, there wasn't much of a market for short movies).

I worked on a few shorts with friends, learned a few things about filmmaking, then wrote my first feature screenplay. That screenplay became Hide and Creep, which was a fairly successful movie (it played on basic cable a few times and received some good reviews).

I don't have any formal filmmaking education. That's one of the things I love about filmmaking--you can learn so much about the craft by watching good movies and making your own movies.

 

A few words about your production company Crewless Productions, and your partner-in-crime Chuck Hartsell?

 

Not much to say about Crewless. As you might guess from the company's name, it's a very small operation. Chuck and I came up with the name when we made our first short, The Seven Year Switch. It's a play on "clueless" (because we didn't know what we were doing at the time) and a tip of the hat to director Robert Rodriguez (who wrote the book Rebel Without a Crew about his first indie film).

My wife Stacey (she was my girlfriend at the time) came on board when we made Hide and Creep--she handles the legal and accounting side of producing while Chuck and I deal with the creative aspects of producing.

As for Chuck, I wish we had more time to make movies together--we both have day jobs and other responsibilities that cut into filmmaking time. But it's always fun when we work together. And I think we do good work when we get together. We have complimentary skills and seem to bring out the best in each other.

 

At the beginning of your career, you have made quite a few shorts. Why don't you talk about those for a bit?

 

Chuck and I made four shorts before Hide and Creep

The Seven Year Switch is a comedy about a guy who is trying to build a time machine. I wrote the script and co-directed it with Chuck. We shot it on video and converted it to black and white--it was our version of an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.

Tit for Tat is a little one-minute short based on an idea of Chuck's. It's basically a camera test (we were trying out a 16mm Arri camera) that we edited into a little movie.

Reciprocity is a comedy about a family rivalry that gets out of hand. Chuck wrote and directed it, and I produced it. Reciprocity is the first proper movie we ever shot on 16mm film.

Birthday Call is probably our most popular short and was part of the inspiration for Hide and Creep. We shot and edited Birthday Call in just a few hours, as it was conceived as a gift for a friend's birthday, and we had to rush to get it done so we could send it to him on his actual birthday. Directed by Chuck and me, and I wrote the screenplay (well, what there is of a screenplay).

In the spirit of Birthday Call, Chuck and I (and several of our friends) recently made a short called Bait as part of a local 48-hour film festival (where all the movies shown were conceived, shot, and edited in 48 hours). It came out pretty good, I think. Hopefully, we'll get it posted online sometime soon.

 


What can you tell us about your first feature film Hide and Creep?

 

It was a great learning experience. And I'm proud of the finished movie. It really came out any better than it had any right to, considering that we barely knew what we were doing when we started it.

Hide and Creep was also quite successful in its way. We made enough money to pay all of the expenses involved in making the movie and to pay off most of the deferred fees. And the movie played on the SyFy (then Sci Fi) channel several times, which was a huge deal for us as first-time feature filmmakers.

 

Any other films of yours you'd like to talk about, any future projects?

 

I have a few ideas for movies brewing at the time, but nothing concrete yet. I'm proud of Interplanetary, but it was a tough movie to finish and took a lot out of me. I can't see myself directing another movie before 2013.

I will be doing cinematography on a movie next year for my friend Shane "Trap" Traffanstedt (he played the monster in Interplanetary) called High Falls.

And I play drums in a few bands, including Delicate Cutters. The Cutters released an album earlier this year (called Some Creatures), and we're already working on another album that we're going to try to release around March 2012.

 

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director. John Carpenter might be my second favorite. I also like Orson Welles, Hitchcock, and Spielberg. Tarantino never fails to entertain me. Neither do the Coen Brothers. Brad Bird has made three amazing animated films. Wes Anderson is great. I like David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh a lot--both of those guys make entertaining movies and aren't afraid to experiment with new ideas and/or new technology. And Guillermo Del Toro is some kind of mad genius.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

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Dr. Strangelove is at the top of my list--so funny, so bleak. John Carpenter's The Thing is also funny and bleak. But more of the latter. Those two movies probably affect my filmmaking decisions more than any others. A few other favorites: Touch of Evil, North by Northwest, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Jaws, The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fight Club, Out of Sight, State and Main, Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic, The Incredibles, Pan's Labyrinth, and Inglourious Basterds.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

Well, since you asked, I did see three really terrible movies relatively recently…

The Spirit is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. It fails on nearly every conceivable level. And it fails fast. I had to turn it off after twenty minutes or so.

I couldn't finish The Green Hornet, either. It is a movie with no reason to exist. Michel Gondry should know better. So bad.

The only reason I finished Transformers: Dark of the Moon is that I'd paid to see it in IMAX 3-D. The picture and sound quality were top-notch, really impressive. Everything else was awful. Unlikeable characters involved in a nonsensical plot. And it seems like the movie is seven hours long.

 

Your website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

My websites are rarely up-to-date, but my Tacos and Beer blog (http://chanceshirley.wordpress.com) is sometimes up-to-date. I'm not a Facebook fan, but I love Twitter and can be followed @crewless.

If anyone wants to check out my band Delicate Cutters, our website is http://www.delicatecutters.com

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

Interplanetary and Hide and Creep are both available at amazon.com. And they're both cheap! And both make good holiday presents for horror and/or sci-fi fans!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

You're very welcome!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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Robots and rats,
demons and potholes,
cuddly toys and
shopping mall Santas,
love and death and everything in between,
Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

is all of that.

 

Tales to Chill
Your Bones to
-
a collection of short stories and mini-plays
ranging from the horrific to the darkly humourous,
from the post-apocalyptic
to the weirdly romantic,
tales that will give you a chill and maybe a chuckle, all thought up by
the twisted mind of
screenwriter and film reviewer
Michael Haberfelner.

 

Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

the new anthology by
Michael Haberfelner

 

Out now from
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On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
to make up ...
... and for the life of it,
you can't decide
WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
starring
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD