Movie Marker recently reviewed the independent science fiction drama Alienated. And we liked it, a lot. Now our very own Stu Greenfield interviews the writer/director Brian Ackley, where he discusses his inspiration and why the nuances of human nature are important to film.
For a film that is marketed as a Sci-Fi film, Alienated has a prominent basis in drama. What prompted you to focus on the area of human relationships in this context?
Human psychology and relationships interest me the most. I love getting to know great characters and watching how behavior exhibits feelings and personality. Building an intense relationship melodrama into an end-of-the-world Sci-fi framework just happened, and it worked out to be the perfect combination. Sci-fi is a very philosophical genre. Lots and lots of questions pop up about who we are as a species, what it means to have a consciousness and what our purpose is on Earth. Our relationship story fits so well into this genre because these are two people forced to view their relationship honestly, and ask similar philosophical questions: what are we doing here? Do we still have love for each other, and what is that love? The ultimate parallel within our story is that the world may be coming to an end—the physical world; and without love or respect in this relationship their world may be coming to an end.
There is a definite air of character exploration within this film, both individually and as a couple. Where do you draw your characters from and how do you develop the layers that are unwrapped as the film progresses?
Wow, those are very well stated questions, and great ones, too. I guess I first have to salute the many instructors that I had at Brooklyn College. They’ve got an incredible film program there. They drilled into me the significance of story, and sticking with your story. That’s part of my answer. My characters come from my stories, which comes from whatever conflict I want to explore. In this case, a wife doesn’t believe her husband. Why wouldn’t she, I thought? Why wouldn’t a woman believe that her husband saw a UFO? Well, maybe because he’s a conspiracy nut. That would turn me off! So that’s where I conceived of him being a fanatic; an overzealous, over thinking, truth seeking, highly rational, self-consuming being. It even fed into him being an artist—a creator of fantasy. My second answer also comes from my Brooklyn College days, when it was drilled in me to write what you know. When it comes to characters, I know myself and those around me. So that’s quite often who I write, or at least it’s where I start. This film was very easy for me to write because I made a conscious effort to be particularly open and honest about what I would share about myself. There’s a lot of me in both main characters. There’s a lot of a few people that I know or knew well at some time. After these characters are established somewhat, after I’m able to get to know them a little, I jump into their skin and I find their perspective. I find what motivates them. Then I continue writing from inside them, from their perspective. I think this story was easy to write because each of the characters’ goals were so clear.
The film is propelled forward by the two protagonists and how they interact. How important are the nuances of individual personas and human interactions are in storytelling?
I think nuances are very important for stories that want you to connect with their characters, or stories that need you to connect with the characters. Drama especially. Definitely character driven stories. The more nuances are displayed the more human a character appears, and the more unique, too. Ultimately, characters are more relatable with these nuances. A viewer can connect with a character much more easily by seeing these little human behaviors pop out. I used to call these kinds of nuances mini beats. In screenwriting, beats are major moment when something changes in a character, usually a power exchange between characters. Several happen within a scene. Mini beats, for me, happen within only some films, special films that take the time to share intimate nuances within larger moments. I noticed these tiny character moments with Joe Swanberg’s work, starting with Hannah Takes the Stairs. His films are all character. What happens is the camera stays on a character for so long that you see all these mini reactions to things—to everything, especially in close ups. These mini beats show up in mainstream films, too, sometimes, if you look carefully. There’s a scene in the first Lethal Weapon movie where Danny Glover’s character shoots an armed suspect in the leg by a pool. The suspect goes down, and as Glover and Gibson approach, Glover brags that he only wounded the suspect so that they can question him (unlike Gibson’s seeming approach of shoot to kill). But when they get to the suspect, he turns out to still be armed. Gibson is helping him up when he realizes this, and just as he does, he sends Glover a look that says, “I told you I should have handled this!” and proceeds to shoot him in the chest causing him to fall into the pool. This moment—this look—is not necessary for the scene to cover its part of the film’s story, but it does enhance the experience, because it underlines Gibson’s character: an intense, smart ass who loves proving his partner wrong. Indeed, the look he gives is consistent with the playful verbal abuse he gives Glover’s character throughout the film. Leaving this kind of nuance wouldn’t hurt the story, but including it compliments the film so well because it underlines the relationship between the characters. And this film is about that relationship. Sorry if I’m rambling on too long. This is a nuance that makes me human.
Alienated feels as if the characters and plot lines are well developed. As a producer of any material it is very easy to be critical of your own work. Are you your own worst critic? And do you find this helps you in terms of developing and editing plot lines and story arcs?
First, thank you for the compliment. We are proud of what we were able to do, and we’re always excited (and often surprised) when someone says something so kind. Thank you.
I’m not my worst critic. I can be very critical, but I measure everything against time. Time is what I value the most. I am not going to spend all of my time on a single thing. There’s too much in the world to see and do. I’m not going to obsess over a single project. I have too many movies in my head that I want to write and make. It doesn’t make sense for me to spend five years on one pet project. So as a producer, I distance myself emotionally from the material. It is what it is, and it will only work within a certain slated time, so let’s get it done and move on. As a writer, I put my heart into the work. I take the time that I need to take, which ends up not being too long because I’ve been writing for so long, but however long it does take, that’s not a problem. I have to get it right for my own sake. As a director, I think very logically. How can I be creative within whatever confines that exist, and there are always plenty. I don’t dwell on any vision that I have. I have goals and I push to meet them, but it’s always a collaborative process—a creative collaboration and a business collaboration. At least where I’m at now professionally, and where my company, One Way or Another Productions, is, I need to think about pleasing an audience as much as myself, if not more. I need to think about delivering the right film for my film company, not the film that will allow me whatever cathartic release or self-indulgent pleasure. Once we’re making money, I can make those films and I may have a different answer then about being my own worst critic.
Alienated is very dialogue heavy, indeed this is what tells the story for the most part as we watch these two people begin to unravel. Where do you get inspiration for the dialogue and how do you make it flow naturally?
I don’t know, really. A lot of inspiration came from films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Hurlyburly, two films that were adapted from plays. I knew I wanted to write the story out as a play, because I wanted to see the steady build up of tension, and the constant shift of power, and the natural flow that comes from real people interacting in real ways. I don’t know how I pulled it off, though, if I did. I write a lot. I’m often proud of what I come up with, but I’m always proud of the fact that I write a lot. This is the only reason that I’ve gotten good at it. In 6 years I’ve written 10 screenplays and 4 full-length plays. Most of them, at best, are so-so, but the last few have been getting better and better. If you do something long enough with the intention of getting better, you’re bound to improve. Alienated must flow pretty naturally because I’ve gotten good at writing my characters from the inside out.
There is a lot of buzz around Alienated and it is gaining critical acclaim, but what is next?
We’re so excited to be releasing Alienated in select theaters and on VOD through Gravitas Ventures in late March. We’re thrilled! We can’t wait to hear the reaction from more people. What’s next for our company is finishing production on a romantic comedy written and directed by my producing partner, Princeton Holt, called The Butterfly Chasers. It’s kinda funny how he and I take turns in the director’s chair. On a personal note, I’ve just finished adapting Alienated into a play, which I’m in the process of sending out to festivals and theaters. I don’t have any intention of producing or directing it. I’d just love to see what it could look like on stage.
Alienated will be released on VOD at the end of March. You can view the trailer here;