29 April 2012
Interview with Eron Sheean
By Dan Collacott
Best known for co-writing the brilliant - claustrophobic apocalyptic film thriller ‘The Divide’, talented Australian filmmaker Eron Sheean is now set to make more waves after wrapping up his feature directorial debut, ‘Errors of the Human Body.’ The psychological genetics thriller was shot on location at Germany's prestigious genetics research facility - The Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. The film features an all star cast which includes Michael Eklund (who played Bobby in The Divide), Karoline Herfurth (Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer), and Tomas Lemarquis (Noi the Albino). See teaser at foot of article.
The Divide is about to hit these shores in selected cinemas from May 13th and is one of LF's favourite films of 2012. (You can also pre-order it on DVD and Blu-ray also). To find out more, read our full review here.
Eron also has an eclectic background in puppetry and animation and gained widespread recognition for short films such as William (the story of an ingenious magician) and Fish (the story of a boy who makes treasures out of trash) both have won him prestigious industry awards. We caught up with the enigmatic director/writer and chatted to him about his work on both projects, working with Xavier Gens and Michael Eklund as well as his influences and career to date.
What made you want to embark in a career in film (was there a film or singular moment that made you decide to take that direction)?
I grew up in the ‘hills’, just outside Melbourne, Australia in a strange mix of gated mansions and working class shacks. We didn’t have the gates. My Dad suggested I become a butcher like him, so I worked in a slaughterhouse and thought there must be more to life than beef? That experience helped give me a kick to follow my dreams, although I was always making little films since I can remember – puppet animations and strange escapades which often involved creating puppets or weird props or roping in my friends to chop off their heads in the local swamp – there was no one thing, I just loved making things and taking pictures – all the elements that went into making a film fascinated me, so I set out to try and learn as many as I could.
Can you tell us about your background in puppetry and animation?
Animation is a great way to learn about many of the processes – even working with actors – it’s also a way to create imaginative other worlds in your bedroom, giving you great control over these worlds.
Some of your shorts have a very surrealist and fantastical feel to them, do you compare your visual style to any other director or artist (Gondry etc.)
I’m not sure I have one distinct style – I feel I’m pretty adaptable depending on what the film requires. People tell me they can see ‘my stamp’ whatever that is. I do like, as you say, fantastical elements that emerge from a realistic milieu. I think it’s important, no matter how strange the world is, to try and keep it consistent. The best filmmakers for me create convincing worlds – that’s why directors should care about every detail.
Where did the concept for The Divide come from?
The concept comes from an original script called SHELTER by Karl Muller. I then worked with Xavier (Gens) on adapting the concept into a new screenplay. It was our antidote at the time to 2012 – that Disney version of the end of the world.
Are you a fan of apocalyptic horror?
There are so many of these films that I think the genre can tire out quickly – just look at zombie and vampire movies – now we are doing possession movies. The Divide is unique in that it really starts off as a B movie but evolves into a character driven chamber piece – it’s intentionally deceptive. It has this big hook at the start but once the film reaches the point where the characters are trapped it the basement it really changes gears. But yes I do like a good apocalyptic horror – it’s high stakes!
The film has some intense cinematography and beautiful shot imagery, how do you feel the final cut captured the feel of the script?
It’s always different - the transformation of script to screen – and in the case of The Divide it’s even more pronounced – a lot of ideas came up through improvisation and the luxury of shooting in continuity. Often we would shoot all day, then go to the hotel bar and start working on altering scenes for the next day, knowing that ideas had popped up during that day that could be built on. This is a wonderfully collaborative way to make a film, making the actors part of the writing process and greater commitment to their characters. As for the imagery, well that’s the cinematography of Laurent and choices of Xavier.
What was it like working with Xavier Gens and the other actors?
Xavier is the biggest pervert in the history of cinema – and I mean that in an affectionate way – I enjoyed the collaboration with him immensely – we were like two mad children let loose. We all had a lot of fun making it and for the most part we all got on very well and formed long lasting friendships. The film is very much his vision – to push it to the extremes that it goes. It’s in the script, but when you get it up on the floor and actors have to start doing dirty evil things to each other you do go back and check if that was really something you wrote… As for the cast, we really were blessed. The original cast had all fallen through when there were delays so we had to scramble to re-cast the whole film, and really we got very lucky. In fact I cast Michael Eklund who plays Bobby in my feature.
If you found out the nuclear bombs has just hit your nearest City and you had minutes left, what would you do?
Pack a picnic.
How far do you think a human would go to survive?
I think it depends on the human being – I don’t think it’s something you can generalize about. In The Divide each character has his or her way of coping, of melting down, of either drawing strength or being consumed by madness. Some people I expect would do anything to survive – some wouldn’t.
How long did the film take to film and where were the locations?
We shot for 5 weeks… on a set in a studio in Winnipeg. A British production designer named Tony Nobel designed the set. The basement is an important character in the film and we worked to keep it interesting. For a film that spends 90 percent of its time in one set, it’s amazing how cinematic the film is. It could easily have become a play in the hands of another director. Of course critics will say it’s too over the top – but if it were all in a proscenium arch they would complain it was too staged…
The opening and final sequences are visually breathtaking how were those conceived?
Do you mean the VFX or the ideas? There was a very different ending shot and it was scraped. Not sure if it will be a DVD extra. It’s one of those cases where it made sense on paper – and actually opened up the ending to a wider interpretation in regards to the invaders and the children, but ultimately it detracted from the power of the current ending.
Could there be any continuation of The Divide story, or even back story/prequel to the story in film, book or graphic novel form?
Does the world need it! There are elements about the attack and perpetrators that are ambiguous in the film – there was a more sci-fi bent to it but it got watered down as we went along. I know that it frustrates the audience that we don’t explain in detail what happened and what the deal is with the children – we had a more expanded idea that just couldn’t fit with everything else going on, but mostly we wanted to set up a dynamic beginning then shift the focus to the characters, the drama of the piece hopefully elevating it above mere genre.
Can you tell us about the premise and story to Errors of the Human Body and how the film came about?
I had a short film in Berlinale in 2006 and I met a mad scientist who was one of the directors of a preeminent genetics lab in Dresden. He was the brother of my cinematographer Anna Howard. I was always interested in science as subject matter so the institute invited me as an artist for 3 months to learn what they were doing – three months turned into 6 years – I was back and forth to the institute over this time trying to settle on an idea for a feature film that could be set in this real world location. There were so many interesting directions you could go and the more I learnt about their research the more I realized that trying to write the film was like trying to adapt an epic novel. The film is about a molecular biologist that moves to Dresden to set up a new lab after getting into some trouble at his old lab in Boston. There he’s reunited with an old flame and she reveals a revolutionary discovery she has made involving axolotls and the ability to regenerate damaged tissue. Then everything turns to weird! We put the film together with my company Instinctive film (shameless promotion) under the urging of one of the producers, Darryn Welch. He was really a driving force in pulling it together.
The subject matter is quite powerful, where there any events in real life or movies that inspired the film?
It’s hard to say too much about the film without giving it away… but it deals with some of the controversies of genetic research on an interpersonal level – a scientist in denial of his grief and guilt over the death of his baby from a disease he now obsessively tries to understand, not realizing the potential of this disease to be a miraculous healing agent for humanity, but at what cost? It is not my intention to use the film to make a moral statement about genetic intervention and determination, but to engage people to consider what it is to be human in a time where we have the power to influence our species like never before. For me Geoff represents this central dilemma. My primary interest is his story, the human story of a scientist, and although the narrative is fantastical and allegorical at times, the heart of the story is rooted in his journey, a man who tries to do the right thing but who avoids the confrontation with his deeper emotional issues and moral responsibilities. So as you can tell, it’s pretty light hearted.
Both The Divide and Errors... seem to analyse, examine and even distort the human condition, how does this inform your writing and were does this dark fascination stem from?
It’s conflict, it’s the interesting stuff – morality and mortality - the age-old questions that play on our mind every second of the day. When I was younger I used to think everything had been done, touched on, dealt with in art, then I realized it needs constant re-defining and feeding. It’s the act of creating that’s as important as the consuming, maybe more so. We need to use art to hold up a mirror to ourselves in all our guises – light and dark – I’m just more interested in the dark – it stimulates, it challenges.
Do you think when civilisation eventually collapses that humans will be their own worst enemy rather than disease or environmental collapse?
Believe it or not, I’m an optimist, I actually find it remarkable that people get on as well as they do all things considered. People are of course capable of pulling both directions – self-destruction – or self-realization. In The Divide it’s the latter.
Without giving too much away is there a note of caution within the film (Errors), or do you believe science should always be explored without boundaries and restriction?
I think science is much maligned in the media, there are so many unrealistic expectation and scientists are forced to turn their research into populist science to secure their funding. Also, scientists have slid into specializing to the point that they loose sight of the big picture, how their piece fits into the puzzle, which is why there is a movement back toward a holistic approach – systems biology. At least that’s what I hear. Errors deals with this idea – in a broader context and a personal one – the main character Geoff Burton is so focused on the details of the disease that killed his child that he has lost touch with his humanity which has destroyed his marriage and in the long run – his sanity. He has tried to make his emotional problems a solvable scientific one – avoiding the necessary confrontation with his grief. The more he tries to avoid his internal struggle the more complex a world he creates – a world manifest from his paranoia unconsciously designed to distract himself – believing he is uncovering a conspiracy in his lab. This reaches a hallucinatory third act. The risk for me is, exploring science without boundaries separates our humanity from the practice – we actively shape our evolution through science, and we should – we just need to step back and consider what costs are we prepared to accept for the ‘greater good’.
What has been the biggest challenge when filming Errors?
The challenges were numerous – like all films – but for us it was trying to achieve a complex story with high production values on a minuscule budget with a crew of varied experience. We were working with animals, prosthetic make-up, freezing weather and numerous location moves – also Michael is in every scene so it was hard on him – he told me it was the first film he realised he had limits as an actor, and he’s an actor that pushes.
Michael Eklund gave a jaw dropping performance in The Divide, is this why you chose him for the lead on Errors?
I can’t say enough good things about Michael; he is a gift to a director, a most dedicated and brave actor. He plays a very different character in Errors – a rather conservative internal scientist where as the Divide he plays a reckless immature sociopath – however, both characters go through an extreme transformation. In The Divide he brought sympathy to Bobby even though the character becomes pretty despicable, that made me realise he could also do the same for Geoff Burton, who also does some pretty extreme things in the story of EOTHB. It was important for me that he brought an underlying sympathy and humanity to the role.
Plus, he’s just one of those actors that makes brushing his teeth interesting…
How did the brilliant Rik Mayall come to be involved?
Rik had worked with the producer on a previous film and thought he could make an interesting, unexpected Samuel – more politician than scientist. He also brings some humour to the role and a sense of fun and unpredictability.
How long did the film take to shoot and talk us through some of the locations and tricks of the trade?
Shot for 5 weeks – though it’s a bit of a blur. It was in the heart of winter in Dresden and it can get nasty. I had Michael crawling around on a factory floor in full body prosthetics at about minus 10 one night. We shot mostly in the Max Planck institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics – so we were very lucky to have access to this real world location and use real scientists as extras. The architecture of the building is also very cinematic and great floors for dollying! We were really fortunate the Institute helps us so much. Then we shot around various Dresden locations. Shot on the ARRI ALEXA which was a dream – we were able to work fast with minimal lighting and not compromise the look of the film. I then shot some inserts on the 7D – trick is to use OLD lenses.
What is the next project you are working on?
Working on a sci-fi project with my writing partner and another in Australia, which I’m very excited about, based on a book from the 80’s called Displaced Person.