Following yesterday's theatrical and on-demand release of Listening, director Khalil Sullins joined ComicBook.com for a discussion about his movie.
The film, Sullins's debut feature, is a psychological thriller about penniless grad students who invent mind-reading technology that destroys their lives. David, Ryan, and Jordan hope the telepathy invention will solve all their problems, but the bleeding-edge technology opens a Pandora’s box of new dangers, as the team discovers that when they open their minds, there is nowhere to hide their thoughts. Secrets and betrayals surface, and the technology is stolen by a covert government agency with a hidden agenda. With no one left to trust, David is forced against his friends in a life-or-death battle over not only the privacy of the human mind, but the future of free will itself.
Fans who want to be entered in a drawing to win a screen-used headset from the film (seen below), drop a line to email@example.com with the subject line "LISTENING." On Friday, we'll select a winner and five runners up. The winner will get the headset, and the runners up will get an iTunes rental of the film. You have to be 18 to enter.
How key was casting Jordan to the films success? Because especially in the first act I really felt like she shook things up and she was kind of the unpredictable element that kept the film feeling really kinetic.
Jordan, casting her was really key and that was I think we were saying early on if we could pull it off that she would be sort of the key to the story and the most complex of all the characters. So yeah, it was tough finding Amber. We did casting ourselves and we auditioned literally thousands of actors for the lead roles but when Amber came in, and it's funny she will say the same thing, it was like we felt right away, wow, she has it.
We needed someone that has this femme fatale aspect to her, but was also smart and could deliver smart dialogue and pull it off and make you believe she could be a nanotube genius.
We also did a lot of chemistry reads where we had actors, our top choices for every role, read with each other. I think it was important to us not only having a person in each role but also the chemistry and they would bounce off of each other. Her and Artie and Thomas, the actors who play David and Ryan, they all read really well together.
Amber will say that too, we didn't find out to later, she said that was the first audition she's been to where she felt like as soon as you walk in the room and soon as she left she is like "This role is mine. I am Jordan, it's perfect for me," and we felt the same way. We are so happy to work with her.
This is the kind of movie that a lot of people are saying is not getting made right now. In terms of it's a smarter, but still kind of high concept, science fictiony, actiony, kind of driven story without a huge budget. When you've got a script like this that you've got confidence in, is it tempting to go and try to make it a bigger film, or do you like having the level of control that you can only have when you're not spending a ton of money?
Yeah, I really am trying to relish and appreciate, the past few years in being able to have total creative control and not be answering to a studio. Initially, when I wrote the script the idea was to sell it actually. I love screenwriting. Writing is my favorite part of the process, it's the most creative part of filmmaking for me, when you are really generating something from nothing. When I was writing it, I wasn't writing a micro-budget movie. I wasn't writing it thinking this is something I am going to make with myself and with my buddies all in one location, or something like that. I wasn't trying to write a hundred million dollar movie either. I didn't think studios would buy a hundred million dollar script from an unknown screen writer. I tried to come up with a sci-fi concept that wasn't CGI- or visual effects-heavy.
Then the script actually got great reaction from the industry, everyone requested to read it. There were like ninety companies that wanted to read it and that turned into some meetings with producers actually, but none of them quite had the same vision that I did. Some of them would say "you need to make it younger, hipper, sexier." I was like what does that mean? Well, write more sex scenes. Like, no, that was not what I was trying to do.
It was really important to me for the movie to be hard sci-fi, meaning everything you see actually currently exists or is theoretically possible. There were some producers who wanted to turn it a little more fantasy and make it a little more like Flatliners or something like that, and get into long fantasy sequences inside the brain. For me, if it would have gone that route it would have lost it's believable hard sci-fi tone. Eventually we just decided you know what we're going to do it ourselves, you know the concept is feasible on a budget that we can raise ourselves and we just went for it.
In the press materials from the studio, they kind of talk a little about this but I would love to get your kind of direct perspective on it. This kind of technology is kind of moving in such a way that when you started to developing this it was a lot further from being plausible reality then it is by the time you finished the film. Is it weird when you are kind working on a film like that and you are sitting here going, like, the technology that your characters are delivering to the world, is getting closer to delivery, on a week to week basis?
Yeah, it's really weird. Yeah, when I first started doing my research ... I don't have a science background. I was super interested in science, I am tech geek and all that. I did a couple months of research, just you know, starting on just Wikipedia, clicking, searching brain computer interfaces and clicking every word I didn't understand. From there started to read the actual source articles and then some science and medical journals and things I would find on wired science and just everything I could. Then started getting into nanotechnology and reading what was going on there. I had a couple of friends who were studying nanotechnology at a couple of universities in California and I would sort of pick their brains. Could this possibly work, and sort of came up with this idea combining nanotechnology and brain computer interfaces with these nano tube electrodes.
I thought this sort of makes sense for movie logic but there basically a million reasons why it wouldn't work in the real world. At the time I guess the closest thing that existed, the sort of inspiration that I got, there was an experiment where they created a transistor that was Microsoft's that could be embedded in a human cell and was powered by the ATP within that cell. So that was sort of like, if that exists that maybe you can inject them into the brain, too. It was a couple of months after we finished production, and my brother sent me this article from MIT Technology review and it's exactly what we sort of see arise, there it is. It actually exists and we are nowhere near today the way telepathy is portrayed in the film, but it is kind of crazy that this quote unquote big theoretical breakthrough we invented is happening, and is starting to manifest itself in the real world.
I've had similar discussions with Darick Robertson and Warren Ellis about Transmetropolitan. That series seemed so futuristic about 15 years ago, but now things that were in their comic fifteen years ago are just...iPhones.
Like I just read Neuromancer, for the first time and which is a classic great sci-fi book and it's crazy like how much key, so many things he coined and invented in that book are. The word cyberspace comes from that book and another thing is it's becoming relevant again now because the two main characters in that book are AI. This is way back then before AI was a thing at all. I never thought I would be in that position to sort of, whatever it is, pre-guessing, I don't know what the right word is, but guessing what might happen. It looks like if we do get to a point for reading thoughts in the world this might be the method it happens.
How did you come to the opening credits? We have seen the 3-D model of the brain before and things in like Fight Club and X-Men, but you guys did a more kind or percussive, aggressive, kind of version of that. At the same time using the little MIDI kind of sounds to type out the text for the actors names rather then using it for like a location in-story, is something that is also uncommon.
I am so glad that you appreciated those. We put a lot of work into that. Opening into the jungle and this sort of wild landscape but then having the technological type, computer text typing on screen, creates the juxtaposition of ancient and futuristic that we wanted to create.
And yeah, there are other movies that have done these CGI inside the brain title sequences. I loved the movie Fight Club and I loved the X-Men movies; this movie is like taking Charles Xavier's telepathy superpower and making it real in some way. For our version of the title sequence, there is a visual motif throughout the film, what a neuron web looks like inside the brain and tying that together with wires and roots. Our sets are designed around it, the garage set has all these wires tangled all over the place and exposed light bulbs to sort of echo what a neuron web looks like.
The storage room that David emptied out when he is at the temple, that sort of echoes what a neuron web looks like and then also, the jungle, the reason we went to Cambodia, is they have these ancient temples that are just covered in roots and vines growing all over the place, we really wanted to tie that together visually with what a neuron web looks like inside the brain. For the CGI, as well, we sort of gently nudged the neuron web visual depiction into this brown kind of looking stuff.
Putting these guys through a moral, ethical ringer a little bit: Was that more gratifying as writer and as a director? They are not superheroes. These guys start out and it's like the one guy is kind of aloof and womanizing and seems like he is not committed as getting his shit together as he could be. Meanwhile his partner is ignoring his wife and kids the whole time.
The movie is an experiment is some ways. It really starts very small, and starts as this character drama or this character exploration and the stakes just build and build until by the end it's a full blown global thriller and you know life and death stakes. The future of free will hanging in the balance.
So, yeah for that to work we needed rich characters and characters that weren't just good versus evil. You bring up the superhero thing, there was actually, they mention really quickly that they has this Batman versus Superman argument. There was actually a lot more to that in the original script and that we filmed, but part got cut out. I did sort of in some ways, it does echo Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns in how he takes Batman and Superman and makes them a little more morally complex and puts them in the opposite positions that we are used to seeing them.
So yeah that was interesting to me and it was also inter sting to me how you know can watch a James Bond movie and James will shoot up and kill 50 or 100 people throughout the movie, but you are still rooting for him to succeed. You could look at him in some ways say "this guy is a mass murder." So, I try to take the characters and keep switching the positions of who might be morally right or who is making the stronger argument. So where you might root for David at the beginning by the very end I fell like it is Ryan who is making more stronger arguments, and David who is the psycho terrorist.
The use of color is interesting. Not only does it stick out in the film but also it does so when you look at the production stills, like look at the the website. You can get a sense of how the movie was shot in a way that you can't with a lot of movies because maybe they aren't quiet so flagrant with it. What was the part of the screen play that made you think this is how we want to shoot this, this is how we want to color this film?
we wanted to push the envelope with color. I wanted to try and tell the story with color. I wanted to try and tell the story with every tool at my disposal: production, design, costume, music, sound, everything. In sci-fi films, especially, pushing extreme color schemes is a part of the genre. It's a common story telling device in sci-fi to help transport the audience to a different world. For me the movie visually is told from David's point of view, so he is a computer programmer and someone that we thought compartmentalizes his life, so we created these five visual worlds.
Each one has a unique color scheme and method of camera movement. It did really is psychological spaces. Something that I haven't mention in other interviews yet is, is how they are psychological and they will change in some ways. Like the garage for instance is this green world with kinetic hand held camera movements and the outside is this bright yellow, overexposed, paranoid camera movements. When the police raid the garage, the garage suddenly becomes yellow, when they raid the house it goes from this violet, lifeless home world and goes to his bright, overexposed, yellow as well. It's sort of a psychological color logic, we though of it more then color symbolism. Its rules to how we play with color in the film, and the applied to everything, not just cinematography.
That goes down to costumes and props as well. For instance David is most at home in his garage world where it's all green and his costume is usually green as well, but when he ends up in this CIA world, he stands out there because he is the one guy wearing green in this red, white, and blue world. Ryan and Jordan where more red and blue colors so they stand out in the garage but then they fit in this CIA world. So we really tried to develop rules and some sort of logic on how we used color and how that applied cinematography, costume design, production design, props, everything really.