Indie Memphis 2023 Interview: Zach Clark on Seeing the World Through Someone Else’s Eyes in “The Becomers”

There is a lot of love in unfamiliar places in “The Becomers,” an alien invasion tale unlike no other when the only thing that can ever be expected of its writer/director Zach Clark is the unexpected. Set during the COVID-ridden days of 2020 when even those that knew one another might be wary of letting each other into their homes, Clark grants entry via extraterrestrials that pass from one host body to another, too abstract to have names but increasingly relatable in their desires as they gravitate towards one another irrespective of appearance in search of connection, their pull expressed in a world-weary voiceover by Russell Mael. In this world, they may be regarded as foreign and their behavior is indeed unusual, but when interactions on Earth are already strained, no human is any more the wiser to the strangers in their midst and caught up in their own increasingly surreal circumstances from political and pandemic paranoia, they can look unrecognizable from the people they might’ve been just a year or two before.

Leave it to Clark, the singular mind behind such films as “Little Sister” and “White Reindeer,” to turn an opportunity to make something small and contained into a sprawling survey of bizarre times in America, a film that makes no secret of its stripped-down budget but is as bold as the vibrant color palette it employs to keep the eye dazzled. While turquoise eyes and green vomit light up the screen, the filmmaker is able to pull back the facade of a civil society that can no longer keep its anxieties behind closed doors, yet with the majority of the world bunkered down, he peers into suburban enclaves where extremism in all forms has started to take root. A tragedy is recast as a comedy when “The Becomers” revels in the absurdity of the situation, pointing out hypocrisy between public poses and private preferences and logic that only makes sense when you’ve been living inside your brain for so long in isolation, and the film’s ability to bring together people in laughter at things one could once think they were alone in having their doubts about seems like the most generous gift the director could offer.

Naturally, “The Becomers” has become a success on the festival circuit since its premiere at Fantasia Fest this year and shortly before the film makes stops at Indie Memphis and the Leeds Film Fest, Clark graciously took the time to talk about making a film that reaches into your soul as readily as the aliens do on screen, taking advantage of what might be seen by others as an inopportune time to set up a production and giving himself the leeway to rework the film in the editing room even with limited resources to be the best it could possibly be.

It seems like on your part there was a conscious effort to scale up with each film, which makes this feel like a throwback into how scrappy a production this must’ve been. Were you happy to get down and dirty again?

After “Little Sister” did well enough, I [thought I should] just write movies that cost a lot more money than this movie, so I wrote a few scripts that cost multiple millions of dollars if they were made and went about trying to make those. And right before COVID, we got an actor attached to one of them and it seemed cool and exciting and then COVID hit and [we] couldn’t make a movie. It was February 2021 when Joe Swanberg called me and said, “I’m trying to put together super low budget genre movies in Chicago,” and he gave me budget number and a number of shoot days to aim for, and it had to be shot in Chicago with a Chicago crew with Chicago-based actors and it needed to be genre, and to fit in those parameters.

I will say that we spent more money than the amount of money he told me we should try to spend, but I came up with this idea in March and then we had finished shooting the movie in June, so it was about three months turnaround and it was just made incredibly quickly. And writing it at that time in the world, it just made sense to do something scrappy and fun. I had just watched all of original “Star Trek” for the first time that year, and [with the] anxieties of that year that I was coming out of — 2020 — and I totally fell in love with the neon candy-colored aesthetics and the very genuine hopefulness of the original “Star Trek” series. That’s where the movie is.

The baton-passing structure of the narrative was particularly fascinating to me because it mirrored my own thoughts during that time of how you have no idea what’s going on in people’s lives, but so much was for so many that it was spilling out and here you’re constantly opening those doors. Did you know the shape of this?

It felt like the seed of the idea had been in the back of my head for forever, just a movie about body snatching aliens. I love “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but [I was excited] to make a movie about body-snatching aliens where the idea is flipped. Instead of following a group of people and you’re not sure who’s going to be an alien next, [what] if you’re following the aliens and then the tension has to come from what trouble will the bodies that they inhabit get them into? That became the pathway through figuring out what the tension in this would be and the dramatic arc. And the Capitol had just been stormed a month before, so [there was] this idea that the aliens come and what they have seen from planet Earth is like, “Oh, let’s inhabit a nice white couple in the suburbs,” and those were the scariest people, [all those] who were getting deep into conspiracy theories and QAnon stuff.

It must be interesting moving through those periods of time in making this as society was in terms of their relationship to COVID as well, being in lockdown and then out of it, but then having new waves of the virus. Did you feel like you’re actually tapping into anything by having people who were already perhaps acting strange towards one another?

To be quite honest, it’s a movie about that. The story is the story, but the heart of it is what that year was like for me and what it felt like, but also you rely so much on the real world when you make things of this scale. We shot “White Reindeer” in December largely because the world was [already] production designed for a Christmas movie. And on [“The Becomers”], it was just like, “Well, we’re going to be in enough real spaces where people are wearing masks – and everyone behind the camera is wearing a mask, so it felt very counterproductive to me to worry about having redo every shot because there’s a person who walked by in the background wearing a mask. And I do get why most movies that shot during the pandemic were not set during the pandemic, but it just seemed crazy to me that we would pretend that the people behind the camera are completely prepared for a pandemic, but no one in front of the camera. So it was very, very intentional and it just made sense. To me, it was just like, this is my movie about everything that happened to me in the past year of my life.

From what I understand, there was a little bit of time for the actors to meet each other, almost as they do in the film. What was it like figuring out the schedule for this?

That was just a fluke of scheduling more than anything else because again this was made so fast most things were done on instinct and instinct alone. When people started asking about that question, I was like, “Oh yeah, everyone’s first scene [in the movie together] is with the actor that plays the alien before as the alien” — except for Isabel Alamin], who plays the first alien. There was a nice little handoff, but I don’t even know if [we thought], “We have to do it this way.” It just worked out that I did try to get as many of the actors who played aliens to come hang out for half a day before we started shooting just so we could go over a general vibe. And then Molly Plunk, who’s in “Little Sister” is the only person in the cast that I wrote that role for going in, having worked with her before and knowing her talent and knowing what her presence on set is like, I think she was also a real beacon for the other actors that they could look to her a little bit for how to respond.

Anything happen that you might not have been expecting but made it into the movie and you like about it now?

The biggest accidental gift to the movie is that scene towards the beginning where she’s walking around the thrift store and there’s the [machine] you put coins in and the coin is [reshaped and] stamped. That was just at that location, and there was an entire other scene we shot at that location that we cut out of the movie, but we were walking around and we saw that [machine] and I was like, “Well, this has to be in the movie.” There’s a bunch of other nice, incidental location stuff because I’m not from Chicago, and a lot of the locations in the movie are just the first place that said yes to us. There’s a brief scene in a library early on, and all the tiles were gone from the ceilings, and it had a cool, sci-fi feel to it. Or the Home Depot parking lot had a really perfectly placed garden area. When I think back to things that I’m happy with existing in the thing, [those are where] I am the most like “Oh that really, that really worked out.” Mostly, we really didn’t have time to improvise.

From what I understand, you had reshoots, which is a luxury usually unimaginable for a film of this size. Is building that in from what you could know as an editor?

We shot that first wave in spring 2021 and then we came back in late spring, early summer 2022 and did five or six more days, and a lot of that was because we made the movie so fast the first time, there was just stuff we didn’t get right. There were practical effects that didn’t quite work on the day and we didn’t have the time to fix them. But some of it was [thinking] “Oh, if we had the opportunity to shoot a little scene here, or to get a little scene here, then this little section would work a little better.” So we re-shot maybe 25% of the movie when we came back a year later and it really turned it into a movie. I’ve done pickups on everything I’ve done. On “Little Sister,” we had the luxury of scheduling pickup days — there were just blank days scheduled into the shoot. But on every other movie, we would always come back and do two or three extra days and on this, we were doing things so fast and so cheap the first time through that we just had to do it.

You have a really wonderful score on this and I know you’ve had a longterm collaboration with Fritz Myers. At what point do you bring him into the process?

Fritz has done all my movies except the first one and he’s also one of my best friends in the entire world, so he was one of the first people to read the script and he was a very big fan from the beginning. We did this in “Little Sister” as well [where] he just wrote some themes, so I’d have an idea of what the music was going to sound like when we were making it, and he was like, “I want to do the alien voices too.” So I was like, “Okay, great, cool, cool, of course.” [laughs] It’s always nice when a talented person volunteers for doing something that you didn’t know what the solution was going to be. [laughs] So he designed all the alien vocals [too] and we were playing that for actors on set. His work on this is phenomenal.

Was Russell Mael in mind for the narration from early on?

Yes, I spoke to Russell briefly before we went into production the first time and he was very nice and very open to it. He had seen “Little Sister” and liked it, and I always thought that he would be a cool, interesting choice. Sparks is one of my favorite bands of all time, and have been since high school and it was also interesting because he is somebody who is famous for his voice, but his singing voice, not his speaking voice, so I sent him an e-mail when the movie was done and said, “Hey, remember when we spoke two years ago about this thing, are you still interested?” And he said, “No, send me a cut of the movie and I’ll tell you yes or no.” And I sent him a cut of the movie and he said, “This is a cool movie,” and it really was that simple and straightforward.

And as we were editing the movie, all the voiceover was done by me, just into my phone because I rewrite everything, and there was a lot of [asking myself] what the voiceover should say, and how much it should say, and [of course] I’m not going to ask Russell to do a million takes, so I had heard my own voice say those words so many times — [and this always happens] a little bit when you’re making a movie, with temp score or with anything [where] you edit a movie and you put something in place that’s just going to be replaced by some other thing later — that when you get the new, better thing in, you’ll probably only hear that five or six times before the movie’s done, so it was surreal and a huge relief [once we got Russell’s voice in the film]. It gives it hopefully a little weight.

It certainly does. What’s it like getting it out into the world, especially with what sounds like such a quick turnaround?

This is the least quick turnaround of any movie I’ve ever made in terms of when we started shooting it to when it premiered this summer at Fantasia. “Little Sister” was, from the day we finished shooting to premiering at South by Southwest, six months. And this was almost two years from when we shot it to when we premiered it, so I found that my experience of this was way more in the finishing of it more than anything else. [With] “Little Sister,” I’d been trying to find the money for that script for a couple years and then we found the money, but we needed to push the dates back at one point and the whole movie was written to be shot in our producer Melodie [Sisk’s] parents’ house in Asheville, so we spent a ton of time just prepping how that shoot was going to go, what the house was going to look like and this movie was the opposite. It was like, “Write it, shoot it, here are your locations, here are your actors. Now it’s done.” So the journey was much more in the intricacies of the edit and this scene versus this scene and shooting the pickups and [as] it’s playing out in the world, I still have this instinct to tinker with it. Weirdly letting it go has been a little harder than the other ones.

It’s funny because whenever I talk to filmmakers, it’s either one way or the other – like I never want to see this again after seeing it 600 times editing it or you’ve got to pry it from me.

Yeah, I usually say that the world premiere of a movie is when I celebrate watching it for the last time. But this seems to play well with an audience, which is cool and the festival circuit is just starting to pick up for this one. What this movie is really crystallized for me is I can only make a genre movie [where it’s like] “Okay, here are things that you would expect to see in a genre movie, but they’re not deployed in a way that feeds into the beats you’re expecting,” and for some reason that’s been tricky with this one. Traditionally, you give people permission to laugh like, “Here’s an obvious joke” very early in the movie. I don’t think this movie necessarily says at any one point, “Hey, it’s a comedy,” or “Hey, it’s a this,” or “Hey, it’s a that,”and therefore, you should read the rest of the movie this way. This movie has a sustained weirdness that is the joke of the movie and I think a group of people can decide. Like if you hear other people laugh early on, you’re like,”Oh, it’s okay to laugh at this.” But it does play well in front of a crowd, so I’m excited to get it in front of more crowds.

“The Becomers” will screen at Indie Memphis on October 29th at 7 pm at Studio on the Square and Leeds Film Fest at Vue Screen 11 on November 4th at 6:15 pm and November 5th at 5:15 pm and November 12th at 3 pm at Everyman Leeds.

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