Listing 1984, Dance, Dance, Dance, The Matrix, Primer and The Third Man are just some of the works that have influenced its creation, Justin Tagg’s stunning short film Mouse-X features a cyclical storyline surrounding theories of chance and identity, that’s bound to get even the most prestigious thinkers puzzling.
Mouse-X is a mystery/sci-fi story about Anderson, a man who wakes in a building with no idea where he is or how he got there, before slowly discovering that in each of the rooms around him are a thousand clones of himself, all of whom woke into the same mysterious scenario.
To escape he needs to outwit his ‘selves’ whilst overcoming the realisation that he is not the only Anderson…
Described on its official website as ‘a low budget but extremely professional production full of energy and ambition’, we spoke to Tagg about the development of his narrative, the production of his ambitious piece, reactions so far and what the future holds for the Mouse-X universe.
When we spoke for Short of the Week you explained that your narrative originated from ideas surrounding identity and chance. How much development and evolution was there from the initial draft of the story to what we see today?
There was a lot, definitely. The original story was set in the same place but much more heavily connected to pre-cognition… what if all your actions were known? It started with a man waking into a room with a book on his lap that seemed to predict his every move and whilst he tried to rally against it, even his evasive manoeuvres seemed to show up a few pages ahead. Was he a character in a story that as already written? Or was the book simply adapting to the story as he wrote it?
It sat that way for a while before I started to play with a big, big idea built around a hotel I saw when living in Italy for a year. It was called the REX Hotel. I loved the signage, the place brought so many stories to life for me and threw some images in my head I could not escape from. One of them was the idea of climbing to the top of the REX Hotel and looking over the rocky hills next to it to find another REX Hotel exactly the same. I had, believe it or not, seen this image in a dream once – clambering up a ladder to the top of a building I had been trapped inside, relieved finally to have made it out, breathing in the fresh cool air before seeing, from my new vantage point, an array of identical buildings and identical versions of myself all looking back, moving in perfect sync with my own limbs. Weird. I drew it, actually. These things together got me writing a few stories, one called Neverville (part of the Mouse-X trilogy actually) which brought this narrative to life, the cloned towns, the mystery trapping everybody inside only to discover the prison they were in was so much bigger than they ever thought, bigger than any escape they could have attempted. I brought these ideas together with the original Mouse story when writing. I just couldn’t help but feel I’d been writing the same story but from either end. When I combined them, they felt like one part of a whole.
I also read a lot at the time, looking into Quantum Physics, identity theory, mathematics, Edwin E. Abbot’s Flatland, Haruki Murakami and his metaphysical speculation littering each story, WE by Yevgeny Zamayatin and a few excellent Jeff Noon novels. I was bringing together a lot of ideas that were important to me, exploring them and with that I was exploring my own relationship with reality and myself.
Mouse-X related thoughts from Justin’s sketchbook
Watching the film, there are twists and turns around every corner, it seems to me that directing the action of the piece was almost like the choreography of a dance, how much planning had to happen in pre-production to ensure the shoot was a success?
A lot. I like to storyboard and I know that doesn’t suit everyone but for a story like this, with such focus on the geography of the set, it helped me to get clear on each individual shot and how we would break down the narrative into the clear and essential visual cues that would mean the audience stayed with the right clone! I started with plan drawings of the room and corridor to map out the journey so I understood it as an overview, which bled into our set dimensions. I felt that by knowing the story inside out from all aspects and all directions I was able to be more free, not less, because I always knew if we were making decisions that might compromise the complex geography and, equally, when we did need to change direction we could play with a lot of ideas and know quickly what would work or even improve the story.
My philosophy on set was that everybody could come to me with ideas or suggestions, from our awesome runners to our DP and if I felt it would add value to the narrative we would consider it.
It’s funny you mention the choreography of a dance because one shot, when Anderson is hiding behind the chair and we track from side to side to reveal what he cannot see, was originally going to be a series of shots we masked together later but on set we realised just how hard and time consuming it would be. The smarter choice would, of course, be to get it in one single shot. So, we downed tools, grabbed spare costume elements and choreographed one single take where several crew members, including myself, play different clones of Anderson. We had cues to let people know when to enter and leave and shot it in just five takes, saving a lot of time. It would not have been possible without a really clear understanding of the world the story took place in.
With such a complex narrative how much rehearsing did it take with your cast and crew?
Rehearsing was tricky as nobody lived local to me. In fact our wonderful actor, Julian, lives in Spain. It was important to recognise what we could achieve and that our main aim was not to limit our options on set but to reduce the time it took to find the right one.
So, for example, it was really hard to block a scene in rehearsal as our rehearsals were done over Skype. We left blocking until the two days before the shoot when we could get on set. What we could do was to explore the character, the situation, the feelings and how they connected with Julian’s own life. Were there images, memories, experience that we could use as building blocks to help stimulate a response and find a way to step into the shoes of Anderson? Remember for this character his experiences are not something we can directly relate to, we have to anchor them and try a variety of adjustments, see what feels true for those emotions. For example, seeing a clone of yourself could bring about a great deal of emotional responses – not necessarily fear, especially not at first as you process what’s going on.
The idea would be that in rehearsal we would not find the way he would perform the part, we’d find a framework and with that he’d build a character – a lot of this had to come from Julian. Then, on set, with this framework, I would be ready to guide him into a starting place, the right mind set. I’d also be there to push his buttons, bring him back into the story, to FEEL and to BE Anderson in the film (rather than pretend to be in an effort to please me). Therefore we would often try a slightly different approach on each take, it might be that the result would be shades of the same thing but they’d always feel fresh. I kept a notebook with ideas we had played with during our Skype rehearsals and, indeed, some I had held back. We also broke a few rules here and there, using physical cues to get Julian in the right state on set. For example, to help him quickly move into the right place in his head we were able to close the set with him inside, at his request, and play the theme from the film, The Flat Foot Floogie, over and over whilst the rest of the crew finished breakfast. Being in the room of the set really helped him.
On set, there was never a case of just saying ‘Do that again but, better’ – That’s not useful. You have to recognise your crew and cast are talented and excited. They have something to offer. In many cases they can do things you cannot. So you need to help them to work at their highest level by providing the right environment, suitable adjustments/options and that does differ from one person to the next.
One thing I did with Julian during rehearsals was to come up with a scene that did not exist in the film, but outside of it. Rehearsals over Skype are really hard when you don’t have any dialogue driven scenes. Inventing a scene which came after the end of the film allowed us to explore the sheer confusion and harrowing loss of ownership of the self he experiences. Doing this was exciting because instead of seeing it as second best it meant Skype actually made the rehearsal better and we used it to put Julian in the right mindset, to ask of him the right questions. I left my camera off but he had to leave his on and I would ask a series of unusual questions as if I was somebody observing and testing him within the experiment of the film, what’s your favourite colour, what newspaper do you read, what kind of pain is the best, odd questions that promoted an instinctive response. Then, the next week, we would run it through again, only this time I would ask the same questions in a different order and answer his questions before he had a chance to spit the word out. I had them all written down in front of me, of course. He found it really helpful to set up this additional narrative, one which he could explore himself and all the uneasiness that came with it. It threw him off guard and he felt a true emotional response – something he could reflect on when moving towards the more intense scenes in the film. Like I said, it was about creating a framework so on set we had a series of options and opportunities mapped out and the core of a character to work with. It made it exciting each and every shot and it meant Julian was present, alive as Anderson and not trying to remember how to do what we’d rehearsed. We’d built shortcuts that did not compromise quality. Essential on a shoot as short as ours.
Julian and I went to some tough places for the shoot but I think it is worth saying that before we started anything we just talked, we got to know each other. You cannot just jump into the things I’ve described here. I told him early on I wanted us to push each other to be better at our jobs and to do it we had to be open and trust one another. We had to suggest ideas back and forth, it was not just about me telling him what to be, we had to find it together. We shared things about ourselves that meant we were able to trust each other. Julian worked incredibly hard, he was terrific and took the character to very difficult emotional and conceptual places – but we were always in it together. If you are going to ask your actors to go out of their comfort zone then you need to get to know them enough to know where you can go and where you can’t. There has to be respect, trust and a willingness to adapt. The way I worked with Julian might not work with everybody. You adapt.
How has the reaction to Mouse-X been so far?
It’s been great. Really great. I’ve been quite humbled really. The fact is that this film is not only my property, it’s the property of everybody who helped it along its journey and I’ve known that every day I’ve worked on it. From those that put money into our crowd funding to the individuals who worked incredibly hard so we could shoot the film in just four days, to our post-production team who worked very hard to help me deliver our final product. So when we get a strong review I feel like we’ve all earnt it. We had a terrific review from Matt Glasby, a film critic at Total Film and GQ who said it was one of the best short film he had ever seen. We’ve been given a break by a bunch of people who seemed to be excited by the film and admired the way we got the film made. Digital Filmmaker Magazine gave us a ten page feature last year and we were all delighted to be selected for the Rhode Island International Film Festival, Raindance, Hollyshorts and a bunch more. It’s been a fun few months since we completed and I am honestly grateful every time we get a little lift.
There is something wonderful about letting a film go. Maybe everybody will hate it and you can be sure some people won’t love it. You can’t know.
With Mouse-X we have been lucky and had a hugely positive response but I have been surprised by how much it seems to have made people think. I wanted it to, that was our goal. But I am still surprised. The comments have been a joy to read. Firstly we have been featured on some wonderful sites, like here on Directors Notes, on Short of the Week, Live for Film, Ain’t it Cool News, io9, First Showing and Staff Pick on Vimeo in just a week. All of that has pushed us to over 110,000 views (across Vimeo and YouTube) and counting. But the comments have been the most interesting thing; so thoughtful and intelligent. Aside from those which were very generous and felt the film was great/awesome – you then get the people who have something particular to say. Mostly these are individuals who have interpreted the film in one way or another and I love that.
Mouse-X is having a Philosophy talk built around it connected to the idea of free will, we’ve been approached by several Temporal Lobe Epilepsy sufferers who’ve told us that the film feels like it describes their condition in some way. We’ve had a lot of people who have appreciated and been moved by the metaphor for existence and futility in there, the notion of identity, too, has come up along with a great many, varied and interesting questions about the nature of reality. I don’t have the answers to some of those, this film is fiction, not fact. However, certain types of story are like thought experiments, designed to make complicated ideas simple and dramatic in order to provoke questions, to challenge long held ideas.
Interestingly, many people have compared it to other films, which is interesting because nobody seems to have referenced the places that really influence the work I’ve done. Several people have actually referenced films I haven’t (for my sins) seen, which only adds to my playlist of films I need to catch up on.
I suppose the part that excites me most is I feel like we have found an audience. I know this film rocked some peoples worlds. We have had an astounding level of positive response and that helps me to know we have a group of people we owe an even better film when we move on to the feature!
What are you working on next?
Somebody told me a while ago to be ready with options so I have a little booklet with ten pitches for films/TV projects. I’m putting my energies into a few places right now, a feature based on the premise of Mouse-X, a TV Pilot and another short film we have a full production budget for which should shoot in Summer 2015. What we also need to do is build a base of people who like the film. That’s our audience, basically. If people reading this think they’d like to see what happens next with it and, perhaps, a Mouse-X feature then it would be wonderful if they’d visit us on our Facebook page and our main site!