The first step in what Director Steve Squall envisages as a serial odyssey Mujō throws us into the life of Meta, a young woman resigned to an existence of tedious isolation in a post-apocalyptic near future. That is until an unexpected discovery breaks her out of the cycle of recurring nightmares and her own self-destructive habits. A passion project with miles of narrative runway ahead of it, Squall joins us today to discuss the creation of this first instalment and his ambitious plans for the rest of the series.
This entry is but the first step in a pretty ambitious multi-part project, could you tell us how Chapter A progressed from concept to screen?
The entire process of creating Mujō took right around a year and a half. It’s actually the first 1/3 of the script I had initially written. I realized that the later portions of that original script were a little too ambitious considering the money and resources we were going to have access to for the initial episode. It also would have ended up being closer to an hour long if we stuck to that script and I knew I wanted to stay under 20 minutes.
The first thing we shot was the dream sequence. We knew that having a strong trailer/proof of concept would be a tremendous help during our crowdfunding campaign. So I managed to scrape together enough money to buy a beat up car that still ran, we gathered and dressed the rest of our props and wardrobe, and we found ourselves an abandoned lot to shoot in.
Once we had our trailer, we ran an IndieGoGo campaign that raised about $3,000. That, along with what I could afford to put out of my own pocket, gave us a final budget of $5,000 (including the budget for the trailer).
Then I spent the next few months gathering props, looking for a location that could be Meta’s house, and meeting with the incredible people that made up the cast and crew. This mostly included drinking beer with Justin Gustavison (Director of Photography) and discussing the look we wanted/influences, and directing Marshall Shartzer (Production Designer) in producing the props that would flesh out Meta’s world.
The bulk of the shoot took place at an old farmhouse over the course of two days. We had a cast and crew of 10 people and access to a fully loaded grip truck thanks to our Gaffer, Mattie Ware. It was unseasonably hot during production and the farmhouse did not have air conditioning so I rented a nice trailer for people to cool off in and enjoy our humble but very delicious array of craft services.
We knew we wanted it to be dark, ominous, and feel real.
Outside of the two days at the farmhouse, we had a half day of shooting the trailer, a half day spent doing pickup shots where it was just Justin, Olivia, and myself, and a day of shooting at a place called Plum Creek from which we used one shot in the final edit. You win some, you lose some.
Our primary camera was a Sony FS7 with Canon lenses that Justin owns. We also had a Sony A7 S 2 mounted on a DJI Ronin S gimbal that we used for a couple shots. We used a mix of natural and artificial light in the form of Itellytech Light Cannon Pros and Hudson Spider Redbacks with modifiers. The entire episode was edited, colored and sound designed in DaVinci Resolve.
It would be remiss not to mention the incredible performance by Olivia Duff, so much of the film hangs on her. How did you come together and what made you realise she was the Meta you were looking for?
I met Olivia because I was shooting promo images for a local theater group that she was a part of. I think the first time I saw her was while photographing a dress rehearsal of Carrie the Musical in which she played the titular role. Not only did she have almost exactly the physical appearance that I had pictured when writing the script, but when the time came for her to burn the gymnasium down with her supernatural powers while covered in blood, I was shaken.
So I sent her the script and asked her to meet me in person to discuss it. When she arrived, she had with her a notebook full of questions about Meta. Motivations, backstory, etc.. Some of them were questions I couldn’t answer or hadn’t even considered yet. So I went home and wrote a very detailed backstory for Meta and came back to Olivia with answers to all of her questions and more.
Olivia in effect pushed me to deepen Meta’s character in ways that reverberate profoundly throughout the rest of the series. That’s when I knew I had the right person!
The rhythmic repetition used in Mujō’s sound design is such a key part of establishing the film’s mood. How was that built?
I knew from the outset that sound was going to be very important in communicating with the audience because of the lack of dialogue. The sound design ended up being a mixture of sounds that we recorded on set and stock foley sounds that we gathered. Ozzy’s voice recording was actually captured during a late night drinking session with my wife by just holding my iPhone up to her and letting her do the lines a bunch of different ways.
I started thinking about all the other sounds in her world that we could use to slowly build a musical track.
The idea for the montage was one of those out-of-nowhere moments. We were working on a fairly run of the mill montage set to music to show her daily routine when the sound of the ticking timer just struck me. I started thinking about all the other sounds in her world that we could use to slowly build a musical track that would elevate in tension as the clock ticked down. So I met with Justin Gustavison who was the DP, Editor and Sound Designer on Mujō and laid out the vision for a new montage. He ran with the idea and his first ‘rough draft’ of it was almost what you see and hear in the final version.
In terms of aesthetic, the whole film has a very grungy, lo-fi tech look.
Grungy was definitely at the top of my list of adjectives when describing the vision to the team. I wanted to make sure that everything we saw felt dirty and used and lived in. I spent a lot of time with our Production Designer, Marshall Shartzer III, finding and ageing props, and looking for the perfect locations. I also worked closely with Kristina Kubrick (Costume Designer) to find wardrobe options for Meta that felt like a mish-mash of things she had just scraped together from whatever she could find; nothing really fits right and it’s all dirty and torn.
From a filming and editing standpoint, Justin and I spent a ton of time talking about and collecting reference images to help establish the tone. We knew we wanted it to be dark, ominous, and feel real. Justin comes from a documentary background and I really wanted to take advantage of that by having him operate handheld as much as possible. That way we would have a very informal, off the cuff, intimate, and dynamic feel to the camera work. Our Gaffer, Mattie Ware, was able to achieve lighting scenarios that looked as natural as possible and would allow us to be able to shoot as close to 360 degrees on a given set as we could. This would allow Olivia a little more freedom to roam around and improvise if she felt the need, and for Justin and I to be able to move the camera quickly. It was a very loose, collaborative environment on set.
In post we did a lot with the color grading process to pull the audience in the direction we wanted them to go. The dream sequence is very warm, almost to an uncomfortable degree, to emphasize the hostility of the world she’s in. Her everyday life in the house is mostly drab muted tones (we called it the military palette) to go along with her humdrum reality. Then, in the scene with the hologram, we switched it up to night and went with a very blue palette to sort of play with the idea that this is the scene where everything changes for her. The yellow/orange hologram (the harbinger of change) stands out starkly in contrast to both the color of the scene and the level of technology we have seen up to this point.
The final shot of the chapter is a direct homage to the final shot in Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo and Sam are looking out over the endless distance they have to cover while Mordor can be seen in the distance. I had not read the books when I saw the first movie so that ending (or lack thereof) took me by complete surprise. I was expecting 3 movies that would all be self-contained stories. So when part one ended on a cliffhanger, I immediately went out, bought the books, and read them all. I was hoping to be able to somewhat recreate that feeling at the end of Chapter A.
Is that also why you chose to drop the audience into an already fleshed out world but with no prior concept of how it came to be?
It was very much my intention to drop you into a fully fleshed out world and let you learn about it as we go along. It makes a story so much more interesting when it engages the audience’s brain like that. I’ve always admired films that will simply show you something without overexplaining it and let you come to some of your own conclusions. It also makes for a great rewatching experience. It can add a whole new context when you watch the first chapter again after having learned a little more about the world or the character. Chapter A will hit very differently after you’ve seen the entire first act of the whole series, and differently again after acts 2 and 3.
As this is all predominantly shot in one place, how did you develop a visual style which conveyed the monotonous nature of Meta’s life whilst keeping the viewer engaged in her restricted world?
I think the challenge was to keep the audience engaged while watching a character who is just being bored. A lot of credit has to go to Olivia for that. I’m not really familiar with the finer technical points of the craft of acting, but I do know that there is something inherently interesting about watching Olivia move around a stage or a screen. Introducing the ticking box early on is another key element. One of the main reasons that we remain so interested in watching Meta be bored is because we know that a mystery will be revealed at the end of this count down while she doesn’t even know a countdown exists.
I wanted to make sure that everything we saw felt dirty and used and lived in.
Art direction was a huge part of the puzzle as well. It was important to me that we create a very visually interesting environment for the audience, but one that Meta is completely unimpressed by. That’s part of the ‘lived-in’ universe; the fact that she is completely uninterested in things that are foreign to the audience makes both the thing and the character infinitely more interesting. Then we had to light and film her being bored for an extended period of time and put it all together in a way that would keep your attention for 19 minutes. A lot of that credit goes to Justin for being singularly gifted at everything he does and being willing to go along with and execute my ideas in post. Even when we’re on the umpteenth version of a scene that still isn’t quite right because this or that shot needs to be juuuuuuuust a little longer.
Finally, what can we expect from the subsequent releases of Mujō?
More action, more questions, more self-destructive behavior, and dialogue! Chapter B is titled Land of the Heartless which refers to the territory she will be making her way through on her journey to the city. The region has definitely earned its name and we will see why! The script for Chapter B is written, we are in the process of doing storyboards, and we are working on raising the money to go into production. I also have a detailed blueprint for the entire series (26 Chapters) that I am using as my guide for writing the individual scripts.
We’ve only scratched the first layer of the tip of the iceberg here. LOTS more to come!