Short, comedy drama Spaceman. has been hugely popular amongst Lift-Off audiences this year, screening with us for the third time in Los Angeles and nominated for Best Short Live Action Narrative at the Lift-Off Season Awards. Director Christopher Oliva spoke to us ahead of the L.A. screening to answer some of our questions.
Interview By Claire Richardson
Nominated for Best Short Live Action. Excited for the Los Angeles screening?
I’m pleasantly surprised to see that it’s continued to be successful within the Lift-Off festival circuit, which is great! I’m also hoping to attend the Season Awards… I’ve never been to London and so that’s an opportunity to take a visit!
Where did the initial inspiration for the character come through, did you once dream of being an astronaut?
That’s always the common question! “Did I want to be an astronaut?” When I grew up, and I think it’s really represented in the diner scene within the film, there was this purity in being an astronaut, and for myself, and starting with character, there was just this unique thing about this character in regards to this child-like passion and unlimited, sky-high dreaming (literally I guess.) So for me that became a fascination and being locked into those dreams, as I delved deeper into that character there seemed to be this fantastical imagination that I really found interesting.
I feel like, within the piece, it kind of became self-reflective for myself, at least in terms of really expressing how I feel there is a perception of myself as a filmmaker and artist. I feel like that becomes apparent when the entire cast and crew, at the end of the film, are staring back at the audience, and we kind of pull that curtain back. It becomes very self-aware.
Well if not an astronaut, have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
I studied English Literature for my undergraduate degree, so I came from this analytical and creative writing background. When I grew up my father used to show me a lot of the old films, from the 30s and the 40s, so I got to see a lot of golden age, Hollywood cinema throughout my life. I saw a lot of classic cinema, which started an appreciation for film, that I didn’t become fully aware of until college.
When I graduated from college I knew I had a deep interest in film, I mean I was going to the movies by myself! I loved the experience of the cinema and watching films on the big screen. After graduating I took an additional class at a local college in authorship, and a pre-production and development course. I fell in love with the creative side of things, and decided to go for the MFA and go to graduate school.
Talking about growing up watching all the classics, what is your favourite film?
It actually wouldn’t be one of the classics, though I feel there is a difference between favorite films and the best films. I don’t know if I would call it a guilty pleasure, but I would say my favourite film of all time, believe it or not, is the original Ghostbusters. I feel the first three quarters of that movie is just so well-written, and witty and funny. As I grew older, and I’ve watched it countless times, I just feel that it’s an incredibly smart script, and that’s why it’s lasted a lifetime.
It’s funny you mention that’s a favourite film because of the humour. I know a lot of people love your film for it’s light-heartedness and comedy. Do you tend to stick to that genre?
I don’t go into it with that perception, with the intention of genre, I’ll just write and something will come up. In film school in America they teach you structure, it needs to be three acts etc… but I strongly feel that when you write with that in the immediate sense, you lose the personal voice and work can be dry. I personally prefer to write it all out and then go back and see what works and what doesn’t. In terms of comedy, it pushes in that direction, but I don’t like to say I’m writing jokes, but I think maybe what I’m doing is writing characters and they happen to be of that stature.
So how long did Spaceman. take you to write?
The first draft took maybe a month to where I was happy, and then because it’s my thesis film, I had to go through bouncing it around with my advisors and that process took about 6 months. That’s submitting and waiting to get feedback (because advisors are very busy and have lots of other students) and butting heads, though ultimately what I then ended up doing was going back to the first draft and tweaking that. There wasn’t much changed from the original draft.
Casting for a character-driven piece so crucial.
I had three awesome producers – Caitlin Morris (formerly of Whitehouse Post), Nick Schmidt and Andrew Stegmeyer (of Thunderlab Digital Media). Nick doubled as a casting director. He bought in a lot of wonderful people and we had several days of casting. The character is obviously very unique and really needs to hit a particular note, so we found some people that we thought might be it, and seemed to be passionate about the project too, but we just didn’t feel that we were ultimately there. Another producer Andrew is involved in one of the longest running comedy troupes in at iO Chicago and is familiar with a lot of people there, and he had heard that one guy was particularly good. It was Scott Nelson, and I went to the show by myself, and it was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. You could just tell that there was something there. I reached out to him via email and asked if he wanted to audition for the role, he did, and he nailed it. After the audition it was just like “this is it.” I actually don’t feel the film would work without him to be honest with you.
Production Design. Great special effects and art design.
Our production designers was Katharin Mraz, she has her own production company called Lady K Productions. She did a fantastic job, she had her own crew and everything. One thing I will definitely retain in future endeavours was that department heads hired their own people, so they were familiar with them and were really able to gel. Her whole team were awesome. We decided from the beginning that there would be a colour palette of dying NASA colours—like the death of the program. So the design was faded blues and reds. But what was really great was the little things she sprinkled throughout.The scene where Rupert meets the girl at the audio visual office, and he’s sitting against the wall with the small kid… well she had this great idea of decorating the wall with children’s drawings of the entire crew. Subtle things like that were fantastic. She built the small, shuttle cockpit that you only get a brief glimpse of at the end, when he walks on set. In fact, she also played the 1st AD who screams at him at the end. She was amazing to work with, I’d love to work with all these people again.
What projects are you working on at the moment, I know you teach film too?
This week I started the semester. I teach in the film department at the College of DuPage, a community college. I just did some work on the camera side of things for a feature film that just wrapped. I was also hoping to sit down and write my next personal piece, which is a feature film. Now I have the opportunity to focus on that, so I’m excited. It’s not entirely formulated yet but I’m pretty stoked and hope to have something together on paper by the end of the year.
If you could give your students (or any aspiring filmmaker) one piece of advice, what would it be?
Plan out everything! And get yourself some great producers. Your days will go by really easy if you do that.
Spaceman screens as part of the Sci-Fi Showcase on Saturday 9th September at Los Angeles Lift-Off Film Festival.