Making The Emissary
Updated: Apr 13, 2019
The Emissary was such a massive effort for me that I thought it would be worth the time to put some of the journey down on paper. If you've arrived here without seeing the film, I encourage you to watch it first, here!
I also cut together some of the b-roll from the film shoot and my time building the set into this video. I was so emaciated when I recorded this interview! Or go directly to vimeo here.
Before I discovered filmmaking, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I loved space; to read about black holes, neutron stars, and Europa, Jupiter's strangest moon. Mostly, I dreamed of going there -- of floating above the Milky Way, able to take in its whole spiraled shape with my own eyes. But I do not regret that to study such things was not ultimately my career path. I realized that a filmmaker is much more likely to travel to these places than a physicist. For there is no other person who can more vividly appreciate how stuck we are here on Earth than the physicist.
Prior to The Emissary, I had never been able to marry my love of space with my love of filmmaking. I spent the better part of 2016 writing a feature script The Basilica, which is in many ways the predecessor to The Emissary. Upon finishing The Basilica, also a film set on a space ship, I knew the visuals would appear too ambitious and difficult to achieve on a limited budget, so I set about finding a cost effective way to prove that they would be doable in a striking and effective manner. Out of this, was born The Emissary. I did not want The Emissary to be a simple scene or two from The Basilica. Rather, The Emissary is a standalone film with a tone and message unique to its story and to my mental state at the time.
Nonetheless, The Emissary allowed me to test a scaled down version of the methods and techniques that I plan to employ on The Basilica.
So began 2017, which shall always be for me, the year of The Emissary. Making a film has a way of taking over your entire life, and never was this more the case for me than on this film. Indeed, it is only now, two years later that I am truly stepping out of the shadow of this project.
The first three months of 2017 consisted of planning, learning new software, and laying the groundwork for what would come. I first approached Viviana Chavez, an actress and a good friend who immediately responded to the material and who I knew would be able to bear the burden of the central character, Liv Laika. Vivi's husband, Travis is incidentally a cinematographer and regular co-worker of mine. I knew the experience of our countless projects and years of lighting together would be invaluable to capturing the interior of the space ship. I next met with Sam Laubscher another talented cinematographer friend, and we set about creating a unique palette for the Earth portions of the film. In the mean time Holly Patterson, production designer on my SCAD projects, and I designed the look and layout of the spaceship in Sketchup. All the while, Matt Finley and I discussed how we would render the complex space imagery outside the windows of Liv's ship.
At the end of March we filmed at Lake Lanier on 35mm film. This was my first time shooting film for my own project and there is little I can say about celluloid that would be new. I simply echo what has been said about it by its proponents. It is beautiful, almost magical, and brings an entirely different energy to the process of film making that makes for a heightened experience unlike anything else. The look of film suited the memory-like quality that I wanted for the earth sequence.
It occurred to me that memories do not unfold like dialogue scenes from a movie. We often remember little snippets of what a person says and these snippets are not married to close ups of the person speaking to us. We remember rather, the visual palette of where we were: the details, the wind, the weather, a smile. We remember how we felt.
In April began the real work of constructing Liv's spaceship, the set where most of the film unfolds. I knew the room in which we built the set would be key. Because of my greenness in set design, I knew I would need far longer than a professional crew to build the set. I also wanted to have the space available for an extended period so that we could take our time with production and have room for reshoots. On our thin budget, this ruled out any professional studio space. As it turned out, the best place to build the ship was right next to me, the garage of my parent's house. It was an environment that I had constant access to and for free. In indie filmmaking, I am constantly reminded of the Teddy Roosevelt quote, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Over the next four months, I made no less than forty nine trips to Home Depot. I learned how to build the set as we went along. The Sketchup model was the groundwork, but provided no basis for actual execution. I am a freelancer so any day that I was not on a job, I was building the set. Each day was new territory, a new challenge of measuring, cutting, painting, measuring again, cutting again, and so on, for months on end.
I was not entirely alone in constructing the ship. I was helped at key moments along the way by a great number of people. Justin Torrence helped me figuratively break ground on the first day of the set build with a crash course in carpentry. Phil Dunlop performed the nerve wracking drive across town with the massive cardboard sonotube that would become the Sleep Tube. My brother David spent his weeks' vacation putting in 12 hour days with me to construct the cockpit set. Jesse Scimeca built the entire corridor set for the ending scene, with minimal direction from myself. Matt Finley sacrificed many countless hours of sleep, compositing the visuals of the film for projection, on top of his full time job. Months later, and across the country, Brittany Ellis and Kyle Lammerding gave up their concert trip to complete the sound design in time for delivery of the finished film.
This is only a fragment of the full picture of effort friends and family put in; day in, day out toil through the hottest summer days. I couldn't possibly name everyone who helped here. Even my parents helped along the way, my dad frowning at my carpentry and filling in the gaps with his caulk gun. My mother worked many of the finer details of the ship, like the labels of the cockpit switches and the sewing of the translucent garden screens. With any less effort, the film could not have existed.
I wanted as many of the film's special effects as possible to be captured in camera, without green screen, so this meant that the visual effects we created had to be completed before we began filming. The visual effects process is normally reserved for the months after the film is shot. This meant that we had double the pre-production workload compared to a normal film shoot.
So when it grew dark and the bugs came out, I would go inside, into the next room and hunch over the craft table where I worked on the miniature, a beast in its own right, but absolutely pivotal to the film's climactic moments.
The miniature is of a space station – actually a space elevator, which travels from orbit, down to the surface of an icy moon, where presumably, the people of Yaghan have taken up residence in a colony underneath the surface.
I wanted the space station to look unlike anything we have seen in a film. I wanted it to have the feeling of a massive oil platform at sea, with a strange, irregular shape, impossible to take in at a glance; a platform with no aesthetic concerns in mind, only brute function. In depictions of space elevators, we almost never see the rendering of the top. It occurred to me, the top of such an elevator would not be a simple door. It would be a great hub, like an airport, where ships could come and go. There would probably be staff and living space and a great number of amenities necessary to support the function of the station. By the time of the film, this station is abandoned. At this isolated moon of Yaghan, there is no need to go into orbit, no one to trade with, nowhere to go.
I first modeled the station in Sketchup, and then constructed it out of foam-core, styrofoam, and styrene modeling plastic. The stiff odor of the solvent which bonds the styrene forms together shall never leave me. I felt great dread every time I looked at the miniature, sitting unfinished on the desk. Of all the challenges of the film, I was the most skeptical that the miniature would be convincing.
Despite all this effort, we were not ready to film until September. The shoot itself is all blurred together for me, I remember it like one long day, but it was actually five. We wrapped the night before Hurricane Irma hit. I remember the scary drive across town to return the gear the following day, only hours before the storm arrived. We later shot several pick up days, and the final shoot day was not until late October, when we had our effects for the space station completed. It was not until this last day of shooting, when I held up the camera, looking through the cockpit of Liv's ship, where I could see the projected image of the station, that I thought, “Wow, we made that.”
Post production was completed in March, 2018, in time for our premier at the Atlanta Film Festival. After which, I continued to make subtle changes to the effects, the edit and the sound mix. I made my last and hopefully final changes as recently as March 2019.
Now after a year of film festivals, looking back on it all, I wonder about the take away. I wonder if the immense effort we put in comes through on the screen. Whole features have been made in the time it took for me to make one short film. I wonder if it was all worth it. The trouble with a project like this is that when you talk about it, you don't talk about the film and its story. Conversation just becomes about how difficult it was to make. “Wow, good job, that must have been really tough.” “Looked awesome, mate. Can't believe you did that in your garage!” Of course I appreciate these comments but I'd hate to say that all this was about was getting a pat on the back for a hard days work.
The Basilica looms large over the future. I am six drafts into the screenplay. I want to incorporate every lesson I learned from The Emissary. I now appreciate the challenges it shall present so palpably. But then, what about The Emissary? Was this stepping stone really justified as a film in its own right, or was it all just an elaborate screen test for The Basilica? And how long will it be before I can make The Basilica anyway?
When I have these thoughts I think back to an interaction I had following our screening at the Rome Film Festival. After The Emissary played, I was approached by a group of high school students from the audience. Their teacher bought them tickets to go to the film festival. (Props to that teacher!)
“Are you going to make a sequel?”
“Why do you think the people left the Earth?”
“What's on the other side of the door?”
“If I were rich, I'd give you a billion dollars to make whatever you want.”
Their bubbly questions and genuine interest must be among the most edifying things I have ever heard. For these kids, there was no question of the set or miniatures, or how we did it, or shooting with projection instead of green screen. For them, the world of the story existed and nothing else: a woman alone on a spaceship with only her memories and the fading hope of finding her ancestors.