The short film ‘App’ was featured in the Tribeca Short Film compilation, ‘Handle with Care,’ on Friday April 18th.
The film features a shy App engineer (Braden Lynch) who, in order to maintain his livelihood and his new information gathering prototype, needs to get an investment made overnight. His challenge: to seduce the one girl in the bar he’s the least incompatible with (Sara Sanderson).
I got to sit down with the Director of the short, Alex Berman, a graduate of Harvard University, and the producer Eduard de Lachouette, about this American Film Institute Thesis project.
Evan: The moment that App started off your lead, Braden Lynch, is in his apartment and everything’s about to be shut down and he’ll lose everything that he has, and then I realized that’s kind of the reality we’re heading towards. Were you thinking about that?
Alex: Yeah, I mean, one of the big inspirations for the film was that I have a very close relationship with my brother. He was the animator on the film. We went to Undergrad together working on films there, and he’s the more technical guy in the family. We were making this movie two years ago and I just remember the kind of panic attacks he would have when his digital locker was messed up, so that was a big inspiration for how this started out.
Evan: I was trying to think of a way to describe App to people, because they were thinking “Oh, that sounds like Spike Jonze’s movie ‘Her.’” Once I watched It I thought this could be a companion piece, but it’s point is completely different. How would you say that difference should be between them?
Alex: Yeah, while we were developing it, again, it was almost 2012, we hadn’t heard of ‘Her’ before. The way I describe it to people is that ‘Her’ is 50 years in the future, and we were interested in “What’s the day after tomorrow?” The funny thing is, somebody asked me the other day, “If you were making this film differently today, What would you do differently?” and I would say, because it all became more real, I’d make it a horror film instead of a comedy. Whereas ‘Her’ is very much idealizing what it’s going to be in the future, where we wanted to show how it can make things scary.
Evan: Sure, take more of a ‘War Games’ kind of angle.
Eduard: Which is interesting because, while in development, we were talking about facial recognition, and all these things, and you think “is this real? is this happening?” and now you literally go on Facebook and it actually picks your faces out.
Evan: And I’m glad you brought up the animation, I didn’t realize it was your brother that had done it, so he did the design of the app itself?
Alex: Yeah, he’s an app developer, so he was really helpful, because one of the things about making films at the American Film Institute, and I think about low budget filmmaking in general, is that one of the difficult things is that you’ve got a script and you have to be able to make this happen on a certain budget. The fact that he and I had worked on animations before, plus that it was one of the more visually ambitious films that AFI has attempted, that made it possible because we wanted the app itself to be a character. He made an app that would run on the actor’s phone, so we then had some animations going, so we would composite stuff in post afterwards,but that way he would have something to play against instead of just looking at a green screen the whole time.
Eduard: And he loved it, Braden, he was constantly playing with it!
Evan: You could tell watching it! It’s like he was in character with it. So I was curious about the cinematography, by Edward Salerno Jr., I was told you guys were offered a special camera by Sony?
Alex: Yes, Sony is one of the big sponsors of the American Film Institute, and for all of us it’s been a difficult transition from digital to film, there’s been a lot of ink spilled about that. And for us, as cinema geeks and nerds, the ability to shoot with this brand new camera that hadn’t ever been used before, we thought it was awesome! We shot in 4K Digital, we were the first student group to ever shoot with this camera, the F65 Footage, so the cinematography was not just artistically really good, but technically. It was a real learning experience for all of us.
Evan: And I could tell it made a difference, because in noticing the way he shot it, it brought out very human things about the actors. With a film so technologically oriented, it’s important in a story like this when you’re focused on how the technology is driving the world that the humanity of it all is still integral, it’s more important.
Alex: and for example, like the sex scene that we did, which is always challenging…
Evan: They’re pretty awkward.
Alex: Yeah, they are awkward, and they get particularly awkward when you have giant porn lights surrounding the person, right? But with this camera we shot in 4K, very low light, and he says “Well what’s the shot list for this?” And I just say, “just feel it. Just go in there, handheld, and get in tight, and get the details for us to cut together, don’t worry about the lights.” And Eddy really delivered on that part, like you say, to make it feel organic.
Evan: It did, and that part in particular felt very organic, it wasn’t explicit for the sake of doing so.
Alex: a very emotionally intense moment, yeah.
Evan: So I wanted to talk about your actors a little bit: did you guys have an idea of who you wanted to fit into what role as you were writing it? Was there casting going on where you felt the chemistry was there? Because when you look at Braden with Sara, or Braden with J.R. Cacia, everyone is kind of a foil to one another.
Eduard: Yeah, we got really lucky, we got to work with Karina Walters and Kevin Mockrin they were young casting directors who were working with bigger names on bigger independent features, and they were great. I think what helped it all was that Alex wrote very strong characters, and when Karina and Kevin read the script, we were still making changes in development because we didn’t have the luxury of time. Despite that I think they responded very well to the characters, a few meetings with them, and Alex got to go through the profiles, and the ideas…
Alex: …and for as challenging as it is to shoot in LA now, one of the big advantages is that Eduard worked at a professional production company while we were at AFI, which got him access to professional casting directors, and access to a pool of talent that we wouldn’t otherwise have anywhere else.
Evan: So I got a kind of a Philosophical question in terms of the angel from which you wrote it.
Alex: Oh my favorite questions.
Evan: So when you came up with the idea for the short, did you think about terms of a love for technology, or kind of a disdain for how it’s been integrated so much into our lives?
Alex: Well I think one of the most difficult things about doing a film like this is constantly trying to be on tail end of the cutting edge, but you know the movie comes out in two years, so you have to imagine, well, you don’t want to make “You’ve got mail” because it’ll feel dated. So at the time I was writing this, social discovery was becoming something big.
Evan: Yeah, because I think about how, in the near future, we’re pretty much going to become symbiotic with this stuff, like with Google Glass.
Alex: Yeah, and that was in a draft where we were thinking “Do we want to do augmented reality?” We settled on personal assistance because then the app can be a character. But augmented reality, and now a big thing is supposing what your needs are, like Google Now and stuff like that, thats the direction this stuff is going in. Eduard: And I think the development process what it really was about was, I wouldn’t really call App a sci-fi movie as such. Sci-fi focuses on the technology and you have all that stuff like the glasses, and I think what it came down to was to really think: how do we keep it relatable and close to everyone in the audience. To get people to feel that this is real, and it’s close, how the phone is. Sticking to the phone, in a way, is what I think was the way to do it rather than start having a thousand things popping off screen…
Alex: and satire helps a lot.
Evan: Definitely. So, about how App is concluded, how Braden decided to shut it down: Did you know that’s what he would do when you started writing it? Or did you kind of decide along the way that this was the decision he should make?
Alex: That’s actually a really good question because one thing we really believe in at AFI is that we cut our films and screen them, like test screenings beforehand. And very few people know this because you think of an author, you had it all in your head beforehand, and it’s just that the film is the way you imagined it, and that’s not true. What was interesting was that what we were getting from the audience was that they wanted to pick our brains a little bit. It ends the same way as before, but they wanted to know why he made that decision, to understand what changed in him. That was something we did in reshoots, the clear articulation that this data apocalypse we’re hurtling towards, it’s not about NSA spying, it’s not about high frequency trading, it’s about the fact we all have this fear of rejection, and eventually data is going to allow us to eliminate the mystery that makes love possible. So, I think in the future, we’re going to be presented with the trading of our ability to love in the way that is truly mysterious and uncertain, for just the certainty off “This is the person for me because there’s some number that says they are.” That was something that, really in the process of making the film, we found the articulation for that.
Alex will continue working on promotion for App, as well as other projects, which will be updated on http://www.alexanderberman.com/ and Facebook.com/Appthemovie