I’m the first to declare my love of time travel as a movie device; from the big budget Back to Future films, to the DIY indie charm of Primer, right down to the intimate feel of AJ Bond’s apartment confined short Hirsute. Favourites aside though, it often seems that filmmakers feel a need to display clever paradox plot machinations in lieu of delivering characters whose stories move us. Fortunately in Dear Lucas director Winnie Cheung has crafted a time travel short in which the sci-fi elements invite us to confront our insecurities about an uncertain future and the love story, not the tech, drives the narrative. Cheung joins us to discuss how she built an emotionally-resonant recursive romance.
Most warnings from the future stories focus on the protagonist’s efforts to change what’s coming, but Dear Lucas takes a different tack. What led you and screenwriter Zack Marotta down that alternative narrative path?
Zack and I both liked the idea of playing around with a recursive plot, though we definitely did not want to fall into the usual tropes of time travel films (at least without having a good story to tell!) Ultimately the film asks a few basic questions. If you knew at the beginning of a relationship how much pain you and your lover would eventually suffer, would you go ahead with it? What would you do to avoid that pain? What if you could plan for all those things that get in the way? It’s a fascinating, emotionally-resonant question and something that we kept in mind during the writing process.
I was definitely inspired by Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos on PBS at the time. The idea that multiple versions of you, reacting to potentially infinite outcomes was really fun to daydream about. Exploring parallel time/space storylines opened up our short quite a bit. We weren’t restricted to finding ways to wrap up a neat narrative. It allowed us to focus more on the characters and how they would stay true to themselves under different circumstances.
I can image kitting out Professor Pete’s lab was an enticing production design challenge for Hillary Andujar. Where did you pull references from for the look and feel of the lab and the film as a whole?
YES! Visualizing the look of Professor Pete’s lab was super fun. I grew up watching Mr. Rogers and Bill Nye. When I shared the idea with my friends, they started throwing out other shows that I didn’t even know about. Shows like 3-2-1 Contact and Mr. Wizard. I grabbed a few stills from each of these shows and Hillary just ran with it. She has such a strong and unique style as a production designer. We ended up with a laboratory set that echoed the aesthetics of an old-school television show with a funky twist.
As for the rest of the film, we aimed for a dreamy timeless look, yet we still had to figure out ways to guide the audience in and out of different timelines. We decided to create distinct color palettes for each setup. The idea came from Eternal Sunshine another movie that jumped back and forth through time, we wanted people to know where we were in their love story and the story of their lives.
The house you rented doubled as a production base and shooting sets, how did that dual function location impact the efficiency of the shoot?
It was one of the best decisions that we made. After a harsh New York winter, everybody from cast and crew was ready to get out of the city. It was basically a huge slumber party. We slept 4-5 to a room – on sofas, on the floor, even on Elle’s prop hospital bed. There was a real camaraderie that came out of this experience since we were spending every moment together. From a logistics perspective. Shooting in only two locations (the lab scene was shot in Brooklyn) allowed us to achieve an ambitious production under a super compressed 5 day schedule. We cut down time and cost by avoiding as many company moves as possible. While we shot in one room, our incredible art department worked around the clock, prepping and breaking down sets in other rooms.
Given how they meet and the stakes Elle and Lucas need to convey a burgeoning chemistry to the audience very quickly. How did you go about casting Crystal Arnette and Douglas Rizzo Johnson, and then getting them to a place where an audience would feel their love was worth rooting for?
Leslie (Producer), Brady (Casting Director) and I vetted through hundreds of submissions. We auditioned over 70 different Elles and Lucas’ individually and paired our favorites up during callbacks. It was a very long process, but we ended up with actors that really embodied their roles and had that initial chemistry. We had table readings and rehearsals weeks leading up to the shoot. In the end, all the preparation really paid off. Even when we were falling behind schedule, with literally five minutes left to nail down the most dramatic moments, Crystal and Doug really came through under pressure. They knew their characters, and each other’s inside and out.
You and DoP Clint Byrne decided to shoot Dear Lucas on a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a mix of handheld and locked off. How did the two of you arrive at that aesthetic for the film?
We actually shot Dear Lucas in 2:1. Clint found out about this aspect ratio here. Essentially it is a trade off between cinemascope and HD and it allows us to still show our movie in most formats the way we intended it to be viewed. The only lock offs in the film are at the beginning and end. That was chosen to show the quiet, depletion of energy the characters have in the future, like their lives have been drained of life, it had to have more weight then the other scenes where they were falling in love and airy, rocky, and young. With handheld, we were looking for something like a Richard Linklater film. We wanted it to be voyeuristic at times to increase the intimacy. We framed our characters in nontraditional ways, like having them look off screen instead of across the scene, almost denying them each other in some scenes. The handheld shots were done with a shoulder rig for the RED Epic with Canon Cine Lenses, the dolly shots were all done with a dana dolly. Because we were handheld, Clint pulled his own focus, which buzzed at times but works for the aesthetic.
Dear Lucas was shot almost two years ago, why did you decide that now was the right time to release the film online?
For two reasons. First, we really wanted to give the festival run a go. Over the past year, we’ve had the pleasure of screening at a handful of film festivals including a couple of really neat sci-fi fests. At 17 minutes long, Dear Lucas is really intended to be enjoyed in a theatrical setting. It’s pretty hard to win the short attention span of your typical online viewer. But Dear Lucas has been really well received at screenings. We finally have the confidence to release it online. The second reason is that this film, like many indie short films, is completely self-financed. It was a matter of having enough funds to finish off the film properly. We were still in the final stages of mix and color this time last month.
What will we get to see from you next?
Since Dear Lucas, I’ve collaborated with the same production team to create Exit Interview. It’s a huge departure from our first film – much more experimental and less plot driven. Going forward, I’m excited to explore other genres. I’d love to produce an animated doc in the near future and possibly some experimental web content before the end of the year.