Thanks to some phone connection issues, Andrew Bowen is wishing we were a little further along in the future than we currently are when we speak about his short “The 716th,” though one suspects that would be the case even if our call were crystal clear.
“Wouldn’t that be cool if cell phones were just called power cables?” Bowen muses after our connection is caught in some all-too-earthy static. “How awesome would that be to say every day? Then you wouldn’t lose your headphones.”
It’s that type of thinking – emerging from an infinite imagination and an instinct to be infinitesimally nitpicky – that led to “The 716th,” which is likely to leave audiences without knowing what hit them when it makes its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. A rare special effects-laden, “Buck Rogers”-esque sci-fi adventure thrown into the midst of more serious-minded fare in a festival context, the film naturally stands out as it thrusts audiences into a rescue mission in which two brazen medics (Bowen and John Asher) chart the return of a pair of infantry soldiers (Lauren McFall and Taj Speights) stranded on an unfamiliar planet as they’re busy cruising around the outer reaches of the universe. Their methods may be questionable, but the medics get results, something that Bowen may have been able to identify with as a filmmaker after building a legit space shuttle in his garage over the course of a year-and-a-half and rather than show any exhaustion from the effort, it feels like this ship in “The 716th” could be propelled with the boundless energy he brings to the film, both in zesty one-liners he tosses back and forth with Asher and its dynamic action sequences.
It’s no wonder that Bowen is already plotting a follow-up, teaming with the multimedia studio the Rogue Initiative, to see how far “The 716th” could go, and with the initial launch this weekend of the short in New York, Bowen spoke about how he created something of such scale on a minuscule budget, pushing himself past previous disappointment and anticipated obstacles to make the film he wanted to make and setting the tone for adventures to come.
How did this come about?
I directed a film a long time ago, but it turned out my producer was evil and I couldn’t release the movie, and I shifted gears. But I realized I really wanted to start telling stories [again] and I’ve been working on a script not related to “The 716th” at all, but I started getting a feeling for the stories I wanted to tell, which was fun, sci-fi adventure type stuff. I started thinking maybe I should make a short film or something like that to really see where I had gotten to [creatively] and also learn the basic language of VFX because I knew that was going to be really important for the stories I wanted to tell.
A director friend posted something on Facebook about a JJ Abrams/Star Wars fan film type contest and he said, “Does anybody just want to come out and play?” And of course, I responded, like “Yeah, dude, I’ll totally run around with a blaster.” It was one of those quick Facebook posts that comes and goes, but about a week later, I was sitting there on a Friday night thinking to myself, “What if you did that?” Very quickly, the whole fan film thing just vanished and I started thinking about how could I make something sci-fi that wasn’t going to cost a fortune and what hadn’t really been done before. The vision of this rebellious combat medic in the future just hit me and it made me laugh, like a ‘M*A*S*H” in space. Eight hours later, I had written a 12-page script and 36 pages of storyboards and I just felt like I could pull it off, so I just went for it.
I feel like we all get great ideas and a lot of times, you just get caught up in the “how am I going to do this?” And I just went, “Nope, just do the work and the how will take care of itself.” I just started building stuff and pulling my friends in who I had known from over the years and they dug it. Everybody was just so into it, we just had a really great time.
Does the world or the specific story of this come first?
It’s interesting because one of the hardest things is world building, especially in original science fiction, and I didn’t want to get bogged down in exposition. So I did this experiment to see if I could throw audiences right into the middle of the action and keep on going, and only the characters knew the whole story. So I had a beginning point – and I knew where I was going – but this was [going to be] getting a glimpse of something bigger. I really developed outside of that so all the actors that were involved knew where they had come from and where they were going, but [by being abstract], it was really this experiment of are people going to still be engaged if I don’t really spell it all out. And you know what? It’s going to be something that I use for the rest of my life because I think that audiences today are really savvy and I think there’s really something to be said for trusting that they have the imagination and they’re going to go there if you can give them characters that they care about.
Did you know from the start that you and John Asher would be playing these two medics?
No, originally, another friend [of mine] was going to be the medic, but he was in England and timing and crossing seas just wasn’t going to be a possibility, but I love John. As a director, John tried to put me as an actor into a lot of his projects and he’s just a fantastic actor on his own – super funny – so once John popped up in my head, there wasn’t anybody else because I knew that with John there, you were going to get a shorthand with these characters that was really important. You needed to get across to this audience that they’ve been around for a while, even with them not being together that long, and there was also that shorthand on set that we just had with each other that we were able to just riff and have fun. He kept me laughing all day long and and I felt so lucky that he ended up playing a really great part of filling out this world.
You guys are in cramped quarters too since you’re inside of this shuttle, but it’s filmed so dynamically. How did you figure out how to shoot this?
Ray Huang, who’s my cinematographer is amazing. I worked with him on a short web series a few months back and I just was blown away by his skills. He’s a super nerd when it comes to the technical side of cinematography and very early on, we were very clear about what the dynamic was. I definitely wanted to shoot anamorphic and we discussed lenses, so we had a little grain to it because I wanted to make sure you didn’t lose the dirt in that world. I also wanted to put in some practical effects lighting-wise, so that it really helps to merge those two worlds.
[Constructing the inside of the shuttle] was literally me and John Maclay for three months building it on odd nights when we were free, but I had storyboarded it out so we were really clear about the shots we wanted and I designed it in a way that we could shoot 360. That’s hard to do, especially with no budget and no time, because you have to shoot everything in one direction for the whole piece, but it allows you to change lenses and be a little bit more fluid on ideas along the way. One of the discoveries early on was that I didn’t think it was going to be that dynamic until we got in there because we realized to get certain shots and angles, we were going to have to go a little lower. We had walls of the shuttle we could take out but still have the seats, because I really wanted to make people feel like they were in the shuttle, and by doing that, we were able to push these really great angles on it and it evolved from there.
Once we locked into this [shooting style] we were like we’ve got to stay in this pocket, and I wanted to push it a little bit tighter anyways because there’s just so much fun in having total strangers stacked on top of each other so they’re out of their comfort zone. Ray’s got an amazing [camera] team and we were both just really in sync about how we wanted it to look. We just got very lucky.
As far as the VFX, the outside of the shuttle also has a cool look. How did you design that?
Since we made this thing for pennies and [for] the original shuttle, we built a basic structure and then designed the worn look to it [on top of it]. Then we did that with the set too, so all of those different levels were meshed in, which I think really helps to make it identifiable. It was great because I really wanted to find something that was cool and fit the world, but was kind of junky and because there’s so many steps in the VFX process, it was really awesome to finally get to the point where Dustin [Adair, an animator on the project] started to animate the wings and it brought the believability that it could hover like that.
Ultimately, [we were asking ourselves] how do we pull this off when we don’t have the money, so the whole approach was practical – what do we have access to? “Star Wars” is an amazing example of that. They didn’t have an incredible budget. They took junk and piled it together and put switches and knobs on and played with it and it became something that was viable culturally, so we took that approach with this too. With the shuttle, we just took something inexpensive and just painted on top of it.
At what point did Rogue Initiative come in?
They came on after I finished it. I just wanted to make it and not really talk about it, but when we finished it, that’s when I went to Cathy [Twigg, Chief Production Officer of Rogue Initiative] because I’d known her for a number of years and as we shot it and got into post – and post took a long time because again my entire VFX team was two people and a hundred VFX shots – I started digging into that deeper world and I hit on this idea that these guys were part of a much bigger world. That’s when it expanded out and I went wow, this could be a really cool TV series. So I brought the short to Cathy when it was finally finished and she dug it, so she got onboard and has been a partner with me on this next phase of this.
A fittingly silly final question since you end the film with something I’ve never seen before on a short – a gag reel to accompany the credits. How did you think to include that?
I’ve always loved them and I’ve done comedy my whole life, so it’s always been part of my DNA. And we had some stuff, so I was like I’ve just got to do that because that was the goal of the whole thing anyway – to make something fun that people can sit down and have a good time with, and it’s nice to be able to pull back the curtain and see that we can be relatively stupid from time to time. [laughs] There’s weird and funny crap that happens and there were just too many of [those moments] for me to think I just cannot not do this at the end of it and I want to keep it as a running theme too, should we turn this into a bigger universe and new episodes. But it’s also indie filmmaking. It’s the hardest grind in the universe, so if you can find some way to keep yourselves up and happy and having a good time, it’s all worth it. You can ride out the storm.
“The 716th” will play at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the shorts program “Into the Void” on April 20th at 10 pm and April 24th at 8:30 pm at the Regal Battery Park and April 27th at 9:45 pm and 28th at 9:30 pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea.