Simon Ellis • Director of As Dead as It Gets
“If you have a new idea on set and deviate from the script, the whole house of cards might come tumbling down”
- Cineuropa speaks to Simon Ellis, the director of As Dead as It Gets, one of the new interactive movies from Estonian start-up WhatIfI
The brainchild of Estonian entrepreneurs Jaanus Juss and Hardi Meybaum, WhatIfI is a newly launched iPhone app that allows users to take part in interactive storytelling — or “story hacking”, as WhatIfI describes it. The start-up has been able to attract $10 million in investment and the first two films from WhatIfI are now available to the public. Viewers can invite friends to watch an interactive movie together and, when the time comes to make a decision, to vote on the next possible outcome for the narrative.
One of these films is As Dead as It Gets, starring stalwart actors such as Michael Socha, Roger Sloman and Rupert Procter, and directed by British filmmaker Simon Ellis. Particularly well known on the short-film circuit, Ellis is behind such works as Soft (2006), which won the International Jury Prize at Sundance as well as earning BAFTA and EFA nominations.
Cineuropa: What inspired As Dead as It Gets?
Simon Ellis: The have-your-cake-and-eat-it contradiction in mainstream ghost mythology that spirits pass through walls but somehow not floors. The idea of correcting this, and the limitations it might pose for ghosts.
What are the challenges in creating something like this?
Building a world where fresh details would enrich the experience each time you explored a new corridor in its labyrinth, while ensuring that each individual thread can stand alone. You never know which route a viewer might take to begin with, so it isn't like you can prioritise dramatic reveals between one story route or another. You need to be extra mindful of how and where you deploy salient information.
With a traditional screenplay, there is the elasticity to open scenes up and make improvements or outright alterations as you are shooting. With a script of this nature, where there are two parallel trees and each tree contains numerous branches within it, there is much less room for flex. If you have a new idea on set and choose to deviate from the script, the whole house of cards might come tumbling down. I twice came a cropper during the shoot — once because of a change to accommodate a request from a performer, and again when I was convinced a change would finally fix a particular conundrum I'd been struggling to solve. The big risk is that in “solving” such problems, without some serious forensic work, you create new issues.
Another concern was that switching between different story threads could be difficult for cast and crew to get their heads around. The schedule was something of a nightmare for our first AD because he had to keep everything in chronological order as much as possible in order not to mess with the actors' heads (or mine), but as we know, this isn't always possible.
Shooting in a portrait ratio was a bit of a killer. I said during prep that, in some ways, it was like starting filmmaking all over again. All of the compositional instincts you craft throughout your career suddenly become redundant. Working out how to exploit such a frame was an ongoing challenge right to the end. When it worked it was very satisfying.
Did you have to change the way you work with your actors and how they approach the material?
Something I found difficult was having little to no time for rehearsing because we were just so up against it. When I once insisted on taking twenty minutes for this and went to a quiet place with the actors it was like suddenly realising that I wasn't just there to be a technical problem-solver. Sadly, it wasn't something we were able to continue doing. There wasn't even time for it in pre-production. Everything was running at rocket-speed from the moment we were commissioned, so having performers on board who I knew and trusted was important. I originally wrote the lead part for Michael back in 2009 when it was a different project, so it was important for me that he could come on board.
Do you think this way of storytelling will become popular over the coming years?
I have mixed feelings about "interactive" film and I think for a film to fully justify that word, certain rules need to apply, some of which I either didn't have time to implement or I learned along the way. If I ever went there again I would do certain things differently, but my heart remains in linear storytelling.
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