Thomas Robert Lee is a local writer/filmmaker. Lee graduated from SAIT Polytechnic’s Film and Video Production Program in 2010, and is now working on Transcendence, his feature length debut. Transcendence is a poignant, introspective science-fiction drama. The film follows William Fischer, a man forced to re-evaluate himself after a debilitating accident on the night of his 30th birthday. Fischer delves into fringe science, obsession, and ultimately the question of what it means to be human.
Watch the Trailer: http://www.transcendencefilm.com/
Thomas Robert Lee’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/thomasrobertlee
Tell me a bit about your own journey into film. What interested you in becoming a filmmaker?
I’ve always been interested in film, always. Even as a kid, movies were my passion first and foremost; making shorts with friends from school both for school projects and just for fun. It wasn’t until I was in Grade 9 and started watching less mainstream fare that I realized movies could be more than just entertainment; that they could simultaneously entertain, challenge, and aim to be something artful, something more than studio entertainment like Rush Hour 2.
I continued to shoot short projects throughout high school and post-graduation. Then I went to SAIT Polytechnic and was able to continue making short films, albeit with access to professional equipment and the talent pool which consisted of my classmates. SAIT was fantastic and we had some really knowledgeable and challenging instructors which taught us the meat and potatoes of filmmaking, as a trade. That was the best thing about going to SAIT for film; it wasn’t just sitting in a room watching foreign classics; it was very hands-on, and we only actually had one class in which they would screen films for us. Plus we had the privilege of shooting film, something that’s quickly disappearing from film schools and the film industry alike.
Where did the inspiration for Transcendence come from? When did you first have the idea and what has the process of realizing it been like so far?
The inspiration for Transcendence came from a few places. First, an old friend of mine and roommate, Joel Cummings, was writing his English Honours thesis for University on the idea of transcendence in science-fiction literature. He told me about his paper and I thought it was great, especially since one of the novels he was discussing was a shared favorite of ours, Neuromancer by William Gibson.
Then I graduated from SAIT and actually wrote another science-fiction script, but it was way too expensive to shoot as a debut film. So I recycled some of the ideas from that project and began work on what would become Transcendence. I knew that we’d be shooting on a shoestring budget, especially since both my cinematographer (Hans Grossmann) and I were committed to shooting on 16mm, so I set out to write a sci-fi drama in which there wouldn’t be a single special effect in the entire film. I looked at movies like Solaris, Blade Runner and Gattaca, films which are great, true science-fiction yet not dependant solely on big SFX sequences. It’s the type of science-fiction movie that’s not about outer space, but inner space; an exploration of what it means to be human. With the sci-fi elements serving as a backdrop, we’re then forced to focus on the human elements and what’s going on internally with these characters.
I was raised in the church and spent the majority of my school years at a private Christian school, so I drew inspiration from that as well. I wanted the story to be about a man whose journey would be comparable to that of a man finding God, but in the movie I’ve replaced God with technology.
What other filmmakers have inspired you?
Honestly, there are so many. Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Roman Polanski, Steve McQueen (the writer/director Hunger and Shame, not the 60s badass)… the list goes on and on. Kubrick and Terrence Malick were probably my two biggest inspirations while writing Transcendence. David Cronenberg too; Videodrome was one movie I looked to more than once while writing the script. The work of Anton Corbijn has been an inspiration as well, more so in terms of the visual language Hans and I are going after. I’m also a huge fan of Alex Garland, the writer of the novel The Beach and the screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go; his ability to successfully mix genre stories with social commentary is something I aspire to.
There was a really interesting, really bizarre indie sci-fi feature to come out of Vancouver recently called Beyond The Black Rainbow, and the sheer audacity of its vision was inspiring too, more so in the way that it was just cool to see such a bold work coming out of Vancouver. While I haven’t met the director, Panos Cosmatos is clearly a very interesting guy and a truly singular talent here in western Canada.
There are so many really talented people working in film in Calgary right now, which is hugely inspiring for someone like me. Young guys and girls that are making their own work, writing their own projects, shooting locally. A fellow SAIT grad is shooting his debut feature later this month, a guy named Marcus Rideout. Caitlind R.C. Brown, a local artist and old friend, is a hugely talented individual and hearing about her constant involvement here in the arts scene is always really inspiring. I’m working on another film project at the moment too, a script for local filmmaker Doug Cook. It’s a speculative fiction story about technology and being connected.
Have you had any struggles with this process?
There have been struggles throughout the entire process. It was a struggle writing the script; forcing myself to get my ass out of bed every morning, committing to a full day of writing prior to a full shift at work every night (when I’m not a struggling local filmmaker, I’m a full-time server at Diner Deluxe).
Right now our biggest struggle is securing the money we need to shoot. We’re seeking to finance the project through a combination of private investors, a public crowd-funding site, and government grants.
Where did you shoot the trailer? Are there any local locations you’re planning on/would like to use once the project begins filming?
The trailer is actually the opening of the film which has been re-cut to resemble a teaser trailer, which is why it’s so cryptic; the film is going to be bookended by two extended non-verbal sequences. We shot north of Cochrane, on three separate locations actually. My parents live out there, so they knew people around them and we were able to secure our locations that way. My dad was actually the stunt double on horseback for our lead actor, Cody Thompson, and we used my sister’s horse!
One thing that Hans and I have spoken at length about regarding the look of our film is making Calgary look as anonymous as possible; it’s a universal story, so we want to shoot the city in a way that looks like it could take place in any bustling metropolis. Obviously we have some really gorgeous locations here which scream Calgary, like the Centre Street Bridge which we will certainly be using in the film, but for the most part we want the city to look nondescript and almost a little foreboding. It’s my dream to have Calgarian audiences watch the film and not even realize that it was shot in their hometown.
What was the casting process like?
Casting was interesting; I honestly had no idea what to expect from anyone auditioning and truthfully, I was really nervous myself. We cast the part of Fischer first, as we’d be shooting the prologue way before the rest of the film. It was crazy, I had a strong gut reaction to Cody’s headshot. Visually, he was totally perfect for what I’d envisioned for the part, then he gave two strong auditions and the part was his.
It was a huge process gathering the rest of our cast, especially since we didn’t have a casting director and I was answering these emails myself, setting up the audition schedule, etc. Casting took place over the course of several weeks, with us finding our remaining three leads first, then focussing on supporting roles. I had intentionally written the script with as few characters as possible, but we still had to find actors for the smaller roles like waitresses, etc.
How did you get involved with Jung People for the soundtrack?
Corey Adams, my oldest friend and a crazy talented bassist, was briefly playing with a band called Atomis and I went to check out their show at The Marquee Room. Another band, Jung People, was opening for them and I’d never heard of them. They’re an instrumental two-piece, a post-rock band in the vein of something like Mogwai or Godspeed You Black Emperor, and I was totally blown away their set. As they were performing their last song, all I could think about was the final scene of my movie and how perfect their sound would be for what I was after emotionally.
Immediately after their set I introduced myself to Bryan Buss and Giordano Bassi and told them about the movie. They were both really interested and mentioned that they had always been wanting to write the score for a movie. We had a meeting at my place shortly after and I knew I’d found the right guys for the job. On top of being very talented, very technical musicians, they’re just awesome guys and it’s been a pleasure getting to know them both. They’re also big film buffs, which was a pleasant surprise.
What stage is the filming at right now, and what’s the next step?
Right now we’re just working on securing the remainder of our budget, so we’re not shooting anything at the moment. If we have our budget secured by January, we’ll be aiming to shoot late March/early April. After that, it’ll be a matter of cutting the movie together, completing our sound edit, Jung People writing and recording the score, then submitting to film festivals. Transcendence was always conceived as a festival piece, so we’ll submit to as many festivals as possible and see what happens from there.
What’s the biggest challenge of working on your first big project? What’s the part you’ve enjoyed the most?
The biggest challenge has been keeping positive and enthusiastic about the project even when everything seems to be working against you. For example, from day-one people have been telling me to forget about film and shoot the movie on HD, as it’s much cheaper and much easier, but that’s not an option for me. This movie was conceived as a feature to be shot on film (in black-and-white no less!), so why would I let someone try to convince me otherwise?
Shooting the prologue was really fantastic, and really rewarding. Honestly, this might sound cheesy as hell, but the friends I’ve made over the course of the project, getting to know likeminded artists in town that are enthusiastic about making a name for themselves, attempting something ambitious… that’s been the best part.