Geoff Redknap. Let that name sink in, make note of it. Although Geoff has been in the film and television industry for decades, you probably aren’t familiar with his name because he is one of those unsung heroes that never appears on screen… he just soaks the screen in blood. From “The X-Files” to “Falling Skies” to “Star Trek Beyond”, you’ve probably admired his work o na dozen or more projects.
And now, Geoff is taking the big leap… with “The Unseen”, debuting on July 17 at the Fantasia Film Festival, he has made his first feature-length film as a director. If I made a “best of the fest” list, it would be on the list, and we can only hope that he makes more movies in the future. (For more on “The Unseen”, see my review, and keep your eyes open for it to come your way if you can’t be in Montreal.)
After a bit of communication consternation, wherein I found out my phone can’t connect to Canadian numbers, Geoff was gracious to spend the better part of an hour talking about his past work, his new film ,and his thoughts on practical versus digital effects.
GS: Just to touch on your voluminous work in makeup and effects, I have to ask if you have any memories of working on “Nick Fury: Agent of Shield” (1998).
GR: Well, you know how the memory works, and you have more memories when you’re young? So, for better or worse, that film is engrained in my brain. Did you see that movie?
GS: Oh yeah. I think I even own a copy.
GR: (laughs) That was a tricky one, because we had just finished a really hard season of “The X-Files” and the shop I was working with decided to pick up a summer job while the show was on hiatus. We were a little burned out, and then this thing comes along. We were all like, are you kidding me? A David Hasselhoff MOW (movie-of-the-week) where he’s Nick Fury? We were a bit frazzled about that, but then it was cool. The Hoff came into the shop and got a life cast. I wasn’t there that day, but all my colleagues got photos with him and said he was really cool. Now, I believe this is the movie where there’s a robot version of him?
GS: Yeah, that’s right.
GR: I worked on the animatronics for the head. It had an eyeball that moved around or glowed, or both. There was also a torso that was separate from the head that we built. The most memorable thing, and I probably shouldn’t say this, is that the torso was cast from a bodybuilder. So the robot’s body was not a copy the real Hoff. It was a weird movie. We shot it in a power plant.
GS: With some of the film taking place in a lumber mill, were you writing with location in mind?
GR: I did have a location in mind. I was raised in a small BC town that had two sawmills, and I worked at one of them in the summer. I had a buddy who never left, who still worked at the sawmill. So when I was writing the script, I very much we would just go shoot it there. At first, we didn’t know what size of a movie we’d end up making. Maybe we’d be paying for locations, or maybe we’d be begging, borrowing and stealing them from friends. So the original plan was to use my friend to get access to the mill and film in there. The character of Bob is even based on him to a degree. So we were going to film the mill scenes there and the rest in Vancouver.
As fate would have it, as the project was moving forward from script to production, the saw mill closed down after 27 years of operation. My buddy ended up moving three hours away. He still worked at a mill, but it was farther away and now he was the new guy, so filming at his new place didn’t seem like an option. And filming at the old mill was undoable because of the liability. Basically, it would be considered condemned, so insurance would never allow it.
Our primary producer is Katie Weekley, but we had another producer she partnered up with named Hans Dayal, who is a locations manager. We told him we needed a small town with a sawmill. His first suggestion was that if we went too far north by the smaller towns, we’d have no infrastructure. What we needed, he said, was a town that wasn’t quite as small but felt like a smaller town. He proposed Kelowna, which is four and half hours out of Vancouver. It’s actually a city, but was more doable.
I also reached out to a friend who worked in the forest industry, I think he works for the government at the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources. I wanted to know if he knew about good mill to shoot at. His suggestion was to pick a family-run mill rather than one owned by a larger corporation. He thought they’d be a lot more approachable, and he recommended the Gorman Brothers lumber mill in Kelowna. He reached out to them for me and they were interested, so logistically everything came together fairly easily.
GS: Although we are able to infer certain things about the invisibility, in other areas the disease is light on explanation; was this a conscious decision?
GR: It was very much a conscious decision. I thought of it in the same way you’d think of a zombie outbreak movie. There might be a lot of speculation about how it started, but nobody really knows, and there’s no time to think about it because there are more pressing matters. I went with the idea that if this was happening to you, and you didn’t feel comfortable going to the doctor, you’d be left to make assumptions. And actually, Bob doesn’t even make the right assumptions, because he doesn’t realize that it’s genetic. He thinks it’s just him, so he takes himself out of the equation to protect his family. It’s left to the audience to deduce a genetic origin.
During the idea’s conception, I looked at it and thought about how we could tell a fresh story. My first thought was, we have to take it away from the lab and the idea of an experiment gone wrong. Let’s remove the scientist, or mad scientist, or what have you. Let’s just put it in another world: the world of a blue-collar retired hockey player. So some bizarre family, genetic condition is where it landed.
While writing, we always knew Bob had the condition. And I think we knew early on that his daughter would have it, too. But it wasn’t until a few drafts in with the writing process until we decided that Bob’s father would also have the disease.
GS: For casting, did you go through the traditional casting call process or did you have a few names in mind?
GR: We hired a casting director, Judy Lee, and we told her we didn’t have a lot of time to go the traditional route of making offers to actors through their agency. So I gave her a short list of people who worked in the Vancouver area. She looked it over, thought it great, but suggested that we widen the net. And she asked, “If you could have anyone, where would you start?” At that time, I had just started watching “Rectify” on the Sundance channel. And I immediately, from the first episode, thought to myself, “Who is this Aden Young guy, and why don’t I know him?”
So I looked him up on IMDb, and he had actually been in some things I’d seen, but he’s kind of a chameleon, so I hadn’t solidified his name in my brain. He’s even in a classic Canadian film called “Black Robe”, and anyone who went to film school in Canada would have heard of it. But, I somehow didn’t see it. But I saw him in “Rectify”, and looked him up and he was Canadian. If you don’t know, when you make a film in Canada, it’s a lot friendlier to your finances if you have Canadian actors, because the government provides subsidies. Judy Lee knew his management and passed a script on to him. There was a bit of back and forth because Aden was in the process of moving to Australia, but eventually he got a look at the script and said yes. He had to be back to “Rectify” in February, so we accommodated him by finishing up in January.
For the rest of the cast, there are four or five roles that needed a few days for shooting, but maybe ten or twelve that were small enough that we could shoot all their scenes in one day. There were a lot of really strong actors who typically worked on bigger projects for more pay, but we were able to get them by convincing them that they only had to work one day. Also, any time we mentioned that they were going to appear opposite Aden Young, they signed up on the spot. Some even had their agents reach out to us before we were able to contact them. Camille Sullivan was one of those.
As far as Julia Sarah Stone, I had never worked with her directly. The casting director explained that young talent is a revolving door, and each year there was somebody new. Then she said, “But right now, the actress you’ll want is Julia.” Coincidentally, I was working on “Falling Skies” at the time, and I went in to work and noticed cast paperwork spread out. I saw Julia’s paperwork there, her time sheet, and I asked the AD, “Is this Julia Sarah Stone, the teenage actress? Is she on our show?” And she was on that day’s episode. I didn’t bother her, but I watched her shoot her scenes, and I saw what the casting director was talking about. Prior to that, I saw the third season of “The Killing” where she played Lyric, the main street kid caught up in the drama. So I was aware of who she was. She was interested in the role. Actually, I found out after casting her that she was really, really interesting the role, because she’s a big fan of genre stuff, supernatural stuff, so she was excited to play an invisible girl. She was phenomenal in the auditions.
GS: You worked on “The X-Files” for a long time, and the film has an “X-Files” feel to it. Was there a certain film or show you used to set the tone?
GR: I think it’s somewhere between a coincidence and intentional if “The Unseen” feels like “The X-Files”. Doing makeup on the early seasons of “The X-Files” was a big influence on my learning the craft of directing. It was the first place I watched directors work, particularly a man named Kim Manners, who directed 51 episodes of that series. He was one of their regular guys. Working with him was the first time I realized what directing is, so I shadowed him when he set up a shot, and saw how he talked to the cast and crew and how he carried himself. He was instrumental in laying the foundation for how I approach directing. So quite possibly, subconsciously, I was replicating the way we shot “The X-Files”. My professional career was basically a film school, because I take jobs based on who is directing or writing or starring, and I do my best to observe what’s going on when my head’s not in a bucket of blood. I’m very flattered you would compare the film to “The X-Files”. It’s high praise indeed.
I worked on the new episodes, some of them. And when they aired the new season, they re-aired some of the original episodes, including the pilot. I hadn’t seen that in five or ten years and was stunned by the production value. Some of the older television shows might hold up great story-wise, but may appear clunky in other ways. Not “The X-Files”. Compare the original run to “Game of Thrones”, and you’d expect to see the nuts and bolts when compared to the unlimited budget for “Game of Thrones”, but no. They hold up well.
GS: I’ll have to go back and re-watch those. It’s been a while.
GR: I worked on the show up through season five, and then they moved from Vancouver to LA. You’ve seen “Home”, right? That’s still a fan favorite.
GS: Oh yeah.
GR: That was one of the episodes directed by Kim Manners. When we were making that, there was a scene in the Peacock family kitchen. The mother had just given birth, and it didn’t survive, but they were fishing a fork out of a dirty sink to cut the umbilical cord. I recall that after the scene was shot, Kim turned to us and said, “I will probably never work again after this episode airs.” Obviously, he did work again and it’s a fan favorite.
GS: It was banned for a while. They wouldn’t air it.
GR: Yeah, yeah. The details we put into that episode… sometimes you go to work and the director or producer steps in and says, “No, no, we can’t do that. It can be suggested, but we can’t put blood on there and show it.” On the “Home” episode, there was no holding back. Everything was on the table.
GS: When the big reveal comes, you have what looks like a challenging blend of practical and digital effects. How crucial was it that the special effects looked good?
GR: We knew going in that it had to work or we’d lose the audience, lose all credibility. Especially because we were essentially making a straight-up, dramatic family story with a genre vein in it. If at that point it had a bad effect sequence, the film would fall apart and possibly not recover. So we were aware that it was important, and honestly I was terrified. But we had a lot of really good people covering their part of it, and I had to trust that my background in makeup effects would allow me to make the right decisions and pull it all together.
I have to give credit to the crew on this. Sarah Graham oversaw all things makeup, as the head of our makeup department. She did all of Aden’s makeup effects looks, except for the most revealing stages. For those, Toby Lindala and Matt Aebig of Lindala Schminken Effects applied and they produced all the prosthetics. On the animatronic side, Werner Pretorius and Richard Darwin of Amazing Ape built the puppet. And finally, Bob Habros and Adele Jones Venables of Encore Vancouver were responsible for the digital work.
It was a huge combination of practical effects, digital effects and vis effects. Usually all of them happening at once. Aden is wearing makeup, obviously. Then there is a digital layer for the things that are impossible to do practically. And third, there is a life-size puppet in play. The benefit of that is that when something is physically there, you can control how it acts in the moment, see how to light it. The other side of it is the budget constraint. We could have decided that once we had the big reveal, it would all be digital and nothing else. That could work if you had a lot of money and time for every shot. We weren’t a Marvel movie, we weren’t making “Iron Man” and his suit.
GS: If you don’t mind my saying so, I think what you’ve done is better than some of Marvel’s effects. I think they tend to use their CG as a crutch.
GR: It’s tricky. I don’t want to be disparaging to anyone, but there are some people who feel that digital is the end-all, be-all. I’ve been on sets where the VFX department is convinced that they can do anything and everything, and it gets dangerous. On the flip side, I’ve been on sets where there’s both the digital and practical options in a film’s toolbag. There are really good departments that know when it should be one or the other, or are open to trying a practical effect before moving to digital. In “The Unseen”, we did a lot of that where we started with the puppet and Aden, but knew that digital was going to play into it. In a few cases, we used digital in post-production to dial something up. I knew I wanted to do as much practical as possible, because that’s what I grew up on, and I knew it could be done.
Digital effects are a wonderful tool if used correctly. Unfortunately, I think a lot of productions go in thinking they’re going to do everything digital and then realize they can’t afford to do the work at a level that makes the character believable. Once it doesn’t hold up, it’s a cartoon. This is just my two cents, but in the beginning of digital, people like James Cameron decided when digital was ready to do something. He was playing with it with the T-1000 in “Terminator 2”, but only so far as it was viable. He knew it had to also be practical. And the same with his water tentacle in “The Abyss”. He didn’t push it too far, but just enough to where he knew the technology could go. And then there’s “Jurassic Park”. They nailed it, blending digital and practical in a way that’s flawless.
On the other end, you have “The Mummy”, the one with Brendan Fraser. I don’t remember exactly when that came out, but I think it was an early adopter of the “all digital” school. And they commit to something that ultimately they can’t pull off. I loved “I Am Legend”, its setting and story. You can debate me on the ending, but I wasn’t familiar with the source material so it didn’t bother me. I love the performances, the relationships, the overall look of the film. But when they made that film, they tried a whole bunch of practical makeup effects, didn’t like it, and decided to ultimately go digital with the creatures. That’s the one thing that doesn’t completely hold up. Sometimes they go back and digitally enhance a movie. With “I Am Legend”, I wish they could go back and practically enhance it. If they went back and reshot all the creatures, that movie would be amazing.
GS: Any other comments on the filmmaking process?
GR: You make a film like “The Unseen”, it takes a year or more of working on the script to get to a place where you’re happy. We then had 21 days of shooting. And we followed that with a full year of post-production, which is a little bit long for an indie because post is usually based on your budget. I had some luxuries because the people I was working with were able to draw out the process. We took some breaks, which is good. We were able to do that on the editing. Work on it, walk away and go do a job. Come back six weeks later, and look at it with fresh eyes. And this project really taught me the value of fresh eyes. There was a point where the movie was 20 minutes longer than it is now. I was convince that was the final cut, but I came back with fresh eyes and cut another 20 minutes… and the film got tighter. It’s a strange feeling after that. You spend all this time, and then there’s a delay between post and festivals before you start hearing anything back. Long story short, holy crap! We are ready to release this movie out into the world. We’re shifting from a technical, agonizing phase into a time where we finally get to say, “Here’s the film, let’s talk about it.” It’s almost like a vacation after a hard job. Not that making movies should be seen as a “job”, but you agonize over every decision throughout the process… and now I get to sit back and take it all in. And so far, it’s been really nice.
And Aden deserves any praise he gets. He worked every day, full days. On an indie production, the days don’t tend to be as long as a bigger budget production. But our days were 12 hours, and Aden had makeup on top of that, so he had 15-hour days for 21 days straight. I’ve made some short films, I’ve attended festivals, I’ve learned a lot and met some cool people. But there’s something about attending your first festival with a feature… it’s going to be exciting.
GS: Other than a great premiere, is there anything else you’re looking forward to at Fantasia?
GR: You know, I looked over the list of other screenings and became excited about some of the films that are playing. Then I looked at the schedule, and pretty much none of them are playing during the week that I’m there. So now I’m back to the drawing board…
GS: You’ll discover something, I’m sure. Thank you so much for your generous time.
GR: Thank you.