“2307: Winter’s Dream” opens with a torrent of scenes, much like the snow that it posits has come to encase the planet earth 300 years from now, that arrive so suddenly it’s difficult not to believe you’ve entered another realm and yet it only takes hearing from the film’s writer/director Joey Curtis to bring you back to this one.
“We had like the catering budget of a $20 million movie [to make this],” laughs Curtis, just after “Winter’s Dream” took home a prize for best directing recently at the L.A. Indie Film Fest.
Still, Curtis has created a transporting sci-fi extravaganza with the film set in Phoenix, Arizona, where the blistering heat has given way to “remorseless cold,” as we’re told by Bishop (Paul Sidhu), a former soldier for the Spartan 7 platoon whose wife’s death and the subsequent disappearance of his young daughter have led him astray. When told his daughter may still be alive, he’s enticed to go on one more mission for Spartan 7, but he’s given pause by what he’s learned about his former brothers-in-arms — trained killers of the humanoids sent above ground on the ice-encapsulated earth to perform tasks that the humans can no longer survive to do themselves in their flesh — before agreeing to go after ASH-393 (Branden Coles), a free-thinking humanoid who is organizing a rebellion.
While Curtis and crew are comprehensive in creating an all-encompassing world so far from our own in the present, “2307: Winter’s Dream” has a distinctly human core, which may be the only way you’d be able to tell it came from the same person who co-wrote the Michelle Williams-Ryan Gosling end-of-love story “Blue Valentine.” Once attending film studies classes at the University of Colorado with Derek Cianfrance where they had professors such as avant-garde pioneers Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon, Curtis has a flair for both the surreal and all-too-human, which shines brightly in his latest feature. En route to the Orlando Film Festival, the filmmaker spoke about bringing such a grand scaled sci-fi epic to the big screen with limited resources, repurposing one of upstate New York’s strongest snowstorms in a generation for their wasteland, as well as the film’s many inspirations, ranging from his favorite films to his days of street racing.
I was introduced to my co-writer Paul Sidhu, who became our star of the film, Bishop, and it was like there was something in the force, I call it. I was a “Star Wars” kid growing up and then a “Blade Runner” kid, so it was always my desire to make something that would be an homage to every sci-fi film I ever loved. I was also a big spaghetti western kid — Sergio Leone’s my favorite director, and I grew up on Sunday morning matinees, [living] in the Mojave Desert [where] I really did grow up in this big vast landscape of tundra, so [there was this idea] to make an amalgamation of this cinematic experience, a combination sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, spaghetti western. When Paul and I started to talk, he had this big concept of the earth [being] frozen over 300 years from now, due to mankind’s negligence. The desert becomes this snowy, icy tundra and it created this opportunity to put characters in situations [where we’d ask] what would it be like to live in this environment? You can even barely survive as a human in these [current] weather conditions where the temperature is like -60, so how would mankind adapt? Our concept was that they would build something and become God, making these humanoids that do all the work that they can’t do now on the surface of the planet, but they have to live like rats underneath the earth.
The tension comes from between man’s creation and the creation itself — they made these humanoids and they’re stronger than humans, and of course, they try to create devices within the humanoids that make them have limitations, but just like any kind of living organism, it wants to live [independently] eventually. And that’s where the philosophical element of the story starts to happen [because once] these creatures have their own consciousness, we start to discover that even more there’s a spiritual potential in them.
When creating a post-apocalyptic world, is it interesting to decide what lives and dies in terms of objects and traditions?
The biggest thing that carries on with mankind is the human condition — when you suffer personal loss [as Bishop does], you’re going to really have a hard time with that and there’s elements where our hero struggles with drug addiction after he loses the love of his life. Through the struggle, you have this potential to wake up and hopefully have a spiritual experience. Paul and Robert Beaumont, our producer, and I would just go back and forth with what are our favorite elements of people and all of our favorite characters that we grew up with in movies and then put the personal touch on it.
For instance, with [Arielle Holmes’ character] Kicks, I wanted to create this character that was inspired by the concept that even in the future, people have fear that people from another part of the world or of a different skin color are going to come into the culture and start mixing blood and somehow they’ll lose their power or become weaker because of their bloodline. So [we introduced] “Mein Kampf,” this Nazi bible about pure blood, as justification of why [Kicks] has to kill these humanoids is because [of her fear that they’re] contaminating our blood and taking over humankind.
[We also] tried to capture the emotion of these characters [in our settings]. It’s a western motif to create the hearth in the home, so [in the film] when you’re indoors, it’s very warm and motherly, especially in the cave, [which is like] earth’s womb and the humanoids would go and find refuge [because] they go away from technology and they’re more in tune with nature. And then when you get out into the ice, it’s turbulent and there’s snow flying. It’s this uninhabitable earth that man has created, so you try, especially when you don’t have the budget, to incorporate everything you can think of to make the audience feel like that’s happening.
When you’re working with a limited budget, what’s it like to undertake something this big in scope?
It was a long journey — about three years and nine months from writing the script, going into production and then finishing post-production, so it was like a major motion picture, but we had a hundredth of the budget. When you make a film that’s low budget, you have to use time as your biggest asset and that means slowing down and taking your time with every different move you make. It took us about nine months to make the costumes and the props. We had a special propmaker Ben Chester make all these really cool props. I really wanted this retro sci-fi feel for everything, so we met [Ben] in Connecticut and like us, he’s a total freaking nerd, so this was like his ultimate movie that he could ever [work on] and he just gave his all to it, like everybody else on the team.
One of the really lucky things that also happened was with the snow [since] it’s starting to become more and more difficult to find where it’s in range to go shoot it — unless you’ve got the budget to go to Antarctica, which we didn’t. So we had to pray for snow because we shot phase one photography — all the interiors here in Los Angeles — and then we had to go shoot phase two. We didn’t have all the money in the bank, so we used all that footage [from Los Angeles] to cut a teaser and pitch it to all these different investors. They fell in love with it, so it wasn’t that hard to find more money, but once we did, we had to find the snow. Robert, our producer, grew up in Rochester, New York, so he [thought], “Wait a second, where I grew up [near Buffalo] could work for this because Lake Erie’s out there and sometimes it freezes over and it looks like a wasteland.” He just started calling his friends and it just happened in 2014, they had the worst winter they had in like a decade — even Niagara Falls froze over. Once he found that out, he flew out there the next day and it was perfect. Everything was frozen. So in two weeks, we flew the entire crew and cast out [to Buffalo] and we had our buddy Greg Leone drive a truck with all of our props and costumes across the country from Los Angeles to New York in the middle of the winter. It was an epic journey for everyone involved.
The whole thing was nuts. I’ve got to give props to Paul, our lead — and to Branden [Coles], who played ASH-393 and to Derick Neikirk, who played the other ASH humanoid, the two big guys who are running in the snow at the beginning of the film without any clothes on. All they had on was underwear and you’ve got to understand on that lake, it’s about zero degrees, but with the windchill factor, it’s who knows [how cold], so it’s dangerous and those guys were so tough. These are California guys and they got out there, took their clothes off and ran around in the snow. It was something. And we had this one little warming tent that we’d throw them in afterwards so they’d get warmed up. But what’s even more fascinating is we had guys come out from Buffalo [as extras] and they’d spend an entire day with us, playing the humanoids that you see in the film. They get killed [in the film] and they’re laying in the snow with no shirt on for 15 minutes and they wouldn’t even get cold. They were so tough.
There’s an exhilaration in the film’s chase scenes, partially because the stakes are so high with the fact some of the people are barely clothed on the ice, but also, I wondered since you were once a street racer, whether that experience contributed to the way you want those scenes to feel?
It’s so cool you noticed that and it really is true. I grew up racing motocross nationally and I went into street racing when I turned 16. It really was like a new generation of “American Graffiti,” where we were racing around in these import cars, and we made a film called “Quattro Noza” that won [a cinematography award at] Sundance in 2003 that’s all about that. It had everything that I could do that romanticized what street racing was about. We would put camera mounts on 15 cars and go out onto LA freeways illegally and just race around all night, like how we did when we were kids, but we were filming it now. I learned a ton of techniques, like going through the Z axis, which also comes from George Lucas, but I always [think now how can I] incorporate them into cinema – how do I place the camera and film a character in such a way that it’ll create a visceral experience for the audience? I can’t wait to have a bigger budget because my storyboards [for “2307: Winter’s Dream”] were way crazy. They were unfilmmable, [because] you need a lot of gear to shoot a lot of them, but I feel still we captured that.
All the interior stuff I wanted it to be more stable and steady and calm aesthetically where it was either on a dolly or it was on sticks. Then outside in the snow, I wanted it to be more visceral and have a lot more tension, so we filmed all of that handheld. I did a lot of that camerawork because I have a lot of experience doing handheld and these crazy moves, but you’re right, I think it really does come from a lot from this living by the seat of your pants style of filmmaking that I wanted to incorporate into “Winter’s Dream.”
The film recently won best direction at the L.A. Indie Film Festival and just premiered in Buffalo. What’s it been like to start seeing the film with audiences?
It’s really been fortunate that we’ve actually gotten a chance to win a few awards [because] it’s get people to know about the film a little more and I’m really excited for fantasy/sci-fi geeks to see this film because I really made it for us. A lot of festivals are devoted to dramas, like “Blue Valentine,” but this film is meant for genre lovers, and we haven’t been invited just yet to a fantasy fest that’s just focused on genre, but I’m really excited for those people to see it and hopefully, it will inspire more people to make more genre films that take themselves seriously and have a social consciousness. When you watch movies, you want to talk about the movie afterwards and just daydream and talk about how it relates to your life. That’s what I love about movies and I hope that audience finds it.