After reviewing The Unseen during the Fantasia International Film Festival 2016, we were lucky enough to interview writer/director, Geoff Redknap. Breathing life back into the classic character, The Invisible Man, Redknap hits a home-run in his full-length feature directorial debut.
DBP: Growing up, who did you look to as the writers, directors and producers that inspired you to tackle such a demanding job? How did you get into filmmaking?
GR: I attribute my start in all of this to one film – Jaws. I was seven years old when I saw that film and it made quite an impact. It turned watching films from an occasional activity to a life-long passion. It opened my eyes to film as art, not just entertainment. And, it made me love monsters and special makeup effects. So, the earliest inspirations were Spielberg, Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, George Miller, George Romero, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and many more. As a youth, I didn’t really look to the writers or producers as much as the directors. I mean, I notice the directors that were also writing their material and I noticed producers that were attached to directors like Kathleen Kennedy and Debra Hill. Now, I recognize and track the work of writers and producers.
I began special makeup effects as a hobby when I was 12 years old. Not long after that, I started making short films with my friends. This was when video cameras were available, but editing software wasn’t, so we would usually cut the films tape to tape and finish on VHS. It wasn’t until I was finishing up at university that I started to think special makeup effects could be a job, and that’s when The X-Files was happening in Vancouver, so I was in the right place at the right time. After a few years working and learning on professional film sets, I started thinking about making my own films again. It started with more serious short films where we would draw from the professional colleges we knew. The Auburn Hills Breakdown was our first big exposure to the film festival scene. As we continued to make short films, I started writing features. Even if you don’t realize it at the time, it takes time to learn the craft. I wouldn’t make my earliest screenplays even if I could. The Unseen was my ninth feature length script.
DBP: How did The Unseen come to life? Can you explain the process of creating this interesting concept– I see a “universe” you’ve created, and the stories in it can be endless.
GR: Looking back at a project, I often feel like the core concept came in a dream. I’m not sure if that is me dramatizing the events. I know with some projects that I have gone to sleep thinking about it and woken up with a premise. In the case of The Unseen, we were once again searching for an idea that was exciting, but could be done on a low budget. I remember that I started thinking about the films and genres I like and asked myself what we haven’t seen recently, or what we haven’t seen done well. Somehow The Invisible Man came to me, so then I started exploring what would make it fresh. The first element that I tossed out was the science experiment gone wrong, which focused it on a character with a problem. I’m very logic driven, so I decided that the harsh reality of someone with this problem would be that they would be forced into hiding. Growing up in northern British Columbia, it made sense to me that he would isolate himself in a small blue collar town where the work and the weather force you to bundle up. There he would do his best to disappear. And, I love this part of the world. It’s full of textures, characters and unique details. The other key development in the beginning was to make the invisibility a progressive condition, not an all-at-once event. This idea came from the mind of our producer, Katie Weekley, who very practically pointed out that we didn’t want to search for the perfect actor, ideally one with a recognizable face and then make him invisible for most of the film. At first, this idea was about being practical and it avoided making a film full of the same old “invisible man” gags, but more importantly it fueled the core idea of what haven’t we seen before.
DBP: How long did it take to film, then in post production? Can you describe what most days of filming was like?
GR: Based on my short film experiences, I knew I would trade off a lot of things for more time. A lot of indie features save money by shooting in 18 days, 14 days, or even 12 days. We managed to put together 23 days and 2 additional days almost a year after the main shoot. We did soft prep for about three months and opened our production office about a month out from principal photography. Our shoot days were generally pretty challenging. Another common approach to making indie films work is to set them in a limited number of locations. We did the opposite and had company moves almost every day. There was one five day stretch that had us at the main house, but other than that, it was at least two locations most days. We were very lucky with the timing of the shoot, because the industry was quiet and very experienced crews were available. Most of us have our industry day jobs, but The Unseen afforded most of our crew the opportunity to move up the chain. Our co-producer, Hans Dayal is a top Location Manager. Our Director of Photography, Stephen Maier is of the busiest camera operators in Western Canada. Our Makeup Head of Department, Sarah Graham and the entire makeup effects team (Toby Lindala, Werner Pretorius, Richard Darwin, Leanne Podavin) were all colleagues from my day job. Often, the top crews aren’t game for an indie feature. They’ve been doing this for quite a while and they have families and responsibilities, but something about the script connected with people and they came aboard. All of this experience and passion ended up on the screen and made the days on set very efficient.
On this film, I learned the importance of taking your time in post. At least, as much time as you can squeeze out of your budget. I worked with Editor Thom Kyle on this film. We spent several weeks after we wrapped on the first cut. Then we took some time away from it. I went back to my day job and let the cut sit. When I came back, I had fresh eyes. I can’t overstress the importance of taking breaks like that. We took three breaks between cuts of the film and every time I came back, I saw things differently and every time the film got exponentially better. On the last pass, I was sure we were almost there, but when we finished, we’d tightened the film by another twenty minutes. Our post ran for about a year. Another thing we did to help the post path work was to focus on the VFX sequences early and soft lock them so that the VFX work could be done when it was most convenient for Encore Vancouver. If it was done in a rush at the end, it would have cost a lot more.
DBP: The Unseen was most recent official selection & world premier at Fantasia —What was your reaction to that honor? What was the audience’s reaction to the film at Fantasia?
GR: Over the years, we had submitted every genre short film we did to Fantasia and never got in. We knew that Fantasia was a crown jewel in the genre film circuit, so when we got the call, we couldn’t have been happier. Montreal is a great city and I can now echo what I’ve always heard that Fantasia is amazing. And to be a filmmaker in attendance with my first feature, it doesn’t get much better than that.
I had heard that the audiences at Fantasia were great, but I’d also heard that they respond to each film differently. So, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d later go to screening of films where the audience would be very vocal at key points. The first screening of The Unseen was sold out. As it played, the audience was very focused. I wasn’t sure what to make of it until the credits came up. Based on the applause and attendance at the Q&A, I felt confident they had enjoyed it. We had people come down just to thank us and shake our hands. And the questions were very enthusiastic and full of praise. I had the unique experience of overhearing someone behind me at another screening telling his friend about this invisible man film he’d heard good things about.
The audiences were great and the reviews that followed were amazing. You never know if people will like your film or if they will even get it. I knew we’d built something different. It was part drama and part genre, and more so the former. I knew it was a slow burn and in the genre world it’s definitely restrained. We couldn’t be happier with the response to the film.
DBP: Finances aside, any particular challenges happen that you had to overcome and resolve, whether it was effects issues or plot issues or interpersonal issues?
GR: The entire process of making The Unseen was a relentless series of challenges, but in a good way. Filmmaking is definitely one of those careers that can be described as “if it was easy, everyone would do it,” and every filmmaking challenge or obstacle you overcome makes you more ready for the next. On The Unseen, we started with the epic challenge of needing life casts of our lead actor Aden Young to start the makeup effects build, but he was in Australia. I cold emailed Odd Studios, a shop in Sydney, and asked them to help a fellow makeup effects artist. They did and in short order we had body molds of our actor in a crate bound for Vancouver. We had a key actor drop out due to a prior commitment that resurfaced. We had last minute location and schedule changes. The list is endless, but we persevered.
DBP: I know you learn new things when you make films, no matter what department– whether acting, editing, cinematography, effects, visuals, music, directing. Ultimately, what did you learn from making The Unseen?
GR: You would think that after twenty years in the industry, you would know a lot, and maybe I do, but filmmaking is such a complex, ever-expanding realm that you are always learning. On The Unseen, I learned a great deal. We had twenty-one key character roles on this film and I can tell you every one of those actors has a different way practicing their craft. As the director, I had to figure out how to work with each and every one of them. That side of directing is the most challenging and yet it is my favourite. I’ve worked with great directors and watched them turn a struggling performance or even a good performance into a great one and usually this is done with the simplest piece of direction. I’m often looking for that piece and every once in a while you actually find it and, in that moment, you know it. I truly can’t praise my cast enough. Julia Sarah Stone, Camille Sullivan, Ben Cotton and all the amazing, “top of their game” actors who came out for one day or one scene; they all taught me so much. And at the head of the table we had Aden Young. The man is an acting tour de force. Every day directing him was a master class for me.
DBP: What’s next for Geoff Redknap?
GR: We have a feature called Hangfire that we were putting together before The Unseen got up and running, and that script is suddenly getting a lot of attention. It’s a supernatural thriller that I was very first inspired to write after watching the Coens Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, which remains one of my favorite films ever made. Hangfire is a larger film than The Unseen and we’re hoping that it will be my second feature as writer/director.