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Building Worlds — with Science! (and a lot of legwork)

23 May 2012

Big post today, folks, but a fascinating one, and well worth reading. I’m thrilled to welcome Tennyson Stead to the 47 Echo blog — in addition to having an action-hero-worthy name (I can just see a frazzled police captain demanding his badge and gun), Tennyson is the HMFIC over at 8sidedfilms. You might remember that name — it’s the repertory film company making Quantum Theory, the movie I geeked right the hell out over last week.

What is a repertory film company, you ask? Well, read the interview. It’s all in there, as well as plenty of other great stuff — Tennyson’s a hell of an interesting guy, as you’re about to find out.

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Shawn: Before I get too far into picking your brain about writing and current projects, which I no doubt will… tell us your secret origin story. Where are you from? What got you started writing?

Tennyson: Creative control. Before Kindergarten, my grandmother would transcribe stories for me about spacemen and dinosaurs so I could make picture books. She was patient and gracious about it, to be sure, but her creative impulses were often at odds with my own. Teaching myself to write was my road to creative independence.

S: What made you pick the medium of screenplays over, say, narrative fiction?

T: In high school, theater and tabletop roleplaying got me hooked on collaborative storytelling. Working with actors has been a part of my creative development from a young age… and most of the drive behind my writing is about cultivating, challenging, and taking care of my performers.

I’ve always loved genre film, and creating amazing worlds is exciting for me largely because I get to populate them with people. Great genre movies are those films where the characters take actions that are at once remarkable and intimately involved, and where the conflicts they throw themselves into are dramatically real. Giving those tools to myself and my actors is what drives all my screenwriting.

S: Writing is enough work in and of itself. What made you decide to add directing and producing to the plate, as well?

T: You could make a very strong case for the notion that I only write because I haven’t read any screenplays that completely address my creative needs. Most screenwriters never study acting or the fundamentals of dramatic structure. More personally, the conflicts that drive my stories usually reflect the professional and personal development of my ensemble and myself. My writing keeps us on our toes, it keeps us growing, and it keeps things personal. As vain as this may sound, there’s just no writer I trust with that responsibility.

In many ways, I produce for the same reason. My day job was in film finance for almost ten years, and there’s nobody I trust to take care of my ensemble’s future more than myself. As money and resources expand, I’ll be glad to delegate many of those responsibilities – believe me! At the same time, the responsibility is ultimately mine.

S: Let’s talk Starmind Record for a moment. One of the cool things I noticed immediately was the found-footage, two-people-with-a-video-camera style that helps slowly build the tension as the story unfolds. What was the reasoning behind that decision?

T: Basically, the conflict of The Starmind Record revolves around two people trying to get world-changing information from someone who has no ability or interest in communicating it. Investigation is the core action of the story, so using the camera as an investigative tool tied the audience much more completely to the action.

Going in, we knew we weren’t going to have much money to work with… so I made the decision very early on to focus my efforts on a detective story, and to make the most of the documentary format. From there, The Starmind Record’s script was driven by my creative desire to satisfy and challenge the series leads and myself, as well as my insistence on making the stakes and consequences of the story we were telling as high as possible.

S: One thing I’m finding (and that I’m very positive on) is that the developments in startup creativity — films, books, comics — on the Web is really opening up the number of stories that are finding an audience, and making it (in ways) easier for creators to get their message out. What’s been your biggest challenge so far in finding an audience? Your biggest success?

T: Our biggest challenge is numbers. Anyone who has worked in theater or music has, at some point, tried to sell out a performance space. Inevitably, the first time you do this is an unmitigated disaster. Then, folks either spend the rest of their careers ignoring that problem, or we spend them struggling to overcome it. Right now, our ensemble’s focus is on building the audience necessary to Quantum Theory’s success in theaters, and the first step is enlisting the help of the online community in our IndieGoGo campaign.

Our biggest success by far is our creative growth. Every production we have launched has brought us to the point where we can make a movie like Quantum Theory and put it in theaters. Both in the audience and inside the industry, the excellence we demand from ourselves has begun to earn us a reputation.

S: 8 Sided Films is an “independent repertory company.” What does that mean?

T: For hundreds of years, theater has addressed the problem of empty seats by bringing together communities of performers and craftspeople to cultivate an audience together. In a repertory theater company, you’ll see the same actors in show after show, season after season. What’s more, the company usually produces shows with a common element. Many rep companies produce classic theater, for example. Most rep companies will eventually experiment with new content, company members will come and go… but you have an idea of what to expect when you buy your ticket.

That’s about half of what goes into making a rep company successful. The other half involves hanging out in the lobby after the show and having drinks with the audience. That’s what keeps the season ticket holders coming back. Repertory theater companies are part of the community, and they are protected by the community for the cultural and social value they provide.

Social media gives emerging companies like ours the chance to bring these same principles to film on a global scale, and they are principles most of our ensemble grew up working with. Our “virtual lobby” is at http://www.8sidedforum.com, and we invite everyone to personally engage the people involved in our productions. That’s the foundation of everything we do! That’s how you build a community.

S: Moving on to Quantum Theory — what gave you the idea for such an ambitious story?

T: Here again, it all started with the ensemble. When we wrapped The Starmind Record, I looked at all the actors and the audience members who had gathered ’round to take part, and I asked myself: “So… what’s next?”

Our style of collaboration has evolved into something very goofy and intensely challenging, and I wanted to tell a story that brought that out of us in front of the audience. Quantum Theory is a GREAT show to introduce ourselves with. At the same time, I had to make sure it wasn’t going to be easy – and therefore boring. If I was going to ask my cast to play directly to their strengths, I needed to play to their weaknesses just as ardently.

I’d been thinking about doing some kind of science-fiction heist movie for a while, and heist movies are good for ensembles. There’s a lot of interplaying interests and personalities, with conflicts that bring the cast together and conflicts that keep them apart. At the same time, I knew I needed to keep the visual scope of the film conservative. It’s possible to make a grest movie on a microbudget, but not if you ignore the film’s limitations.

For those who don’t know, Quantum Theory is the story of a defense contractor who steals next-gen reality-bending quantum technology – and of the two geniuses who will stop at nothing to take their invention back.

My ambition was to tell a science-fiction story that relied on performance for its entertainment value. Judging by the reaction our script is getting, we’re there. At the same time, I’m certain there will be more rewrites. Tonally, the film is similar to a movie like Sneakers – but like I said, far goofier and far more intense. Between the very specific comic beats of the film and all the moving parts a heist movie naturally involves, the risks of the project are mostly on myself as a writer, and our work as an ensemble. Production-wise, we have our job cut out for us… but people have made great movies with the budget of Quantum Theory, and our film is no more visually expansive than it should be. If this is an ambitious story, that ambition will be realized in the performances.

Of course, relying on great writing and great performance for the spectacle of a film is hardly innovative. Studios used to sign actors and writers to exclusive contracts for this very reason. There was a time when the studios, in a sense, were repertory companies.

S: Oh, no. We seem to have hit the end of society, and done so rather suddenly. If I had to guess, I think it had something to do with the one too many film remakes — but just as you were answering question #7, the whole of civilization broke down. The world is now an anarchist wasteland that inexplicably looks like the desert bit of Australia, as seen in the documentary The Road Warrior. What’s your plan to survive this new, badly-dressed world of anarchy? What items do you take with you? Who do you team up with?

Pictured: Morning commute.

T: I’m gutting a 70’s Oldsmobile station wagon, hitching it to a six camel train, hitting the wastes and performing in refugee camps for water, food, and protection with any company members who will follow me. Gerard Marzilli and Danielle K. Jones have already agreed, and I’m betting we can get America once she sees the comic stores are well and truly closed. Shakespeare will be the backbone of our repertoire, and I’m insisting on Marlowe’s Faust. At the same time, I have no doubt we will be performing some original works once I get the lay of the land.

Note: Marlowe’s Faust is definitely a good choice. I much prefer it to Goethe’s Faustus, and have since I was literate enough to have an opinion. So Tennyson gets bonus points from me there. –S

S: Now that we’ve successfully navigated the end of the world (good job, that), tell me a little about the challenges facing you and your crew on Quantum Theory.

T: Apart from the aforementioned problem of getting folks to show up (and I thank you for your help in this regard!) there are some obvious challenges. For one, we’re making a feature film for $250,000! By most industrial standards, that’s insane… but in my mind, the biggest challenges will be managing the script’s hairpin emotional transitions, and balancing the punchy dialogue with everything that’s at stake for these characters. Performance-wise, this film is athletic to an intimidating degree. Our audience probably won’t know they are watching something that’s nearly impossible to do, but the energy of a performance like that is always fun to see! It’ll catch on.

S: What’s the best part of your multi-faceted job as writer/director/producer/editor? The worst?

T: By far, the worst part of this job is the risk of failing everyone who’s given so much to these projects. That’s what keeps me up at night. What gets me up the next morning is a trifecta of personal fulfillment. I love being the first person to see something nobody has ever seen before, and I see these things all the time in the worlds we create. I also see them in my collaborators and myself as we push past our perceived limitations. Beyond that, I get to take care of people I love… and I get to tell stories. Those are the things that make my life complete.

S: Anything you want to add?

T: Absolutely. First, come see the show! Join us on the 8 Sided Forum (http://www.8sidedforum.com) and meet the cast and crew – and please check out the IndieGoGo development fund for Quantum Theory (http://www.indiegogo.com/quantummovie). Please give what you can, and please spread the word!

Also, thank you very much for reaching out to us. Having the support of folks who love genre is literally everything to us, and I thank you. Our audience is the reason we do all this, and the best feeling in the world is when they come to us and ask for more. For that, we thank you.

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See? Told you he was a fascinating guy. Now you owe me one.

What’s that? You want to pay me back now? Well, sure. You might have noticed we slipped a couple of links to the IndieGoGo campaign in there… that wasn’t by accident. I really, really want to see this movie, and so do you. Trust me.

So here’s the deal — donate to the campaign at the $10 level, send me the screenshot with your personal information blanked out (my 47echo dot com email address works just fine), and I’ll hook you up with an ebook copy of the 47 Echo Short Story collection, Ground War. This one’s never been released, so this is the only way you’ll get your hands on it.

You want to donate more? Of course you do. I have other surprises in store, and they’re all pretty damned awesome. So start clicking, and start donating!

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