Sunday, August 02, 2015

FANTASIA 2015: SYNCHRONICITYThe Evening Class Interview With Jacob Gentry and Chad McKnight

Director Jacob Gentry, composer Ben Lovett, and key actors Chad McKnight, Brianne Davis, AJ Bowen and Michael Ironside accompanied Synchronicity (2015) for its World Premiere at the 19th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 22, 2015, in Montréal's J.A. DeSève Theater (with an encore screening July 30). John DeFore nailed it for The Hollywood Reporter's bottom line: "An atmosphere-thick time traveler puzzler." At Birth.Movies.Death, Meredith Borders enthused: "Synchronicity has some superb inspirations—the intricately nested timelines of Primer, the dusty, DIY science fiction of Alien, the vintaged futuristic anywhere city of Blade Runner and Dark City—but it's also very much its own thing." My earlier review.

While still puzzling over the film the following morning at breakfast, I spotted its lead actor Chad McKnight, who wandered over to say hello, providing a welcome opportunity to congratulate him on his compelling performance as physicist Jim Beale. He was preparing himself for the film's day-long press junket by walking to formulate his thoughts. That was my cue to book the junket's last 15 minutes for further discussion with Chad and his director Jacob Gentry.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I'm an old Jungian from way back and understand the term "synchronicity" to be a psychological term. I'm intrigued by how you've applied it to a sci-fi context. Why did you feel synchronicity applied to your tempo-spatial narrative?

Jacob Gentry: What is the definition of "synchronicity"? Seemingly related things that are causally unrelated, right? That has everything to do with the theme of the movie. When I was landing the title, I read this definition, and I thought: "Oh, this is the movie I wrote." I wrote the movie first, and then realized there was this cool-sounding word that fit the movie and worked as a title. I'm a big believer in titles as a part of the writing process and building the idea of what a story is going to be through the use of a title. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a free movie in your head, just by the title, know what I mean? I loved the sibilance of the word "synchronicity", and it couldn't have fit thematically more. Did you feel the title fit the narrative theme?

Guillén: Synchronicity, for me, is (as you say) about seemingly unrelated things that are causally unrelated, but with the psyche's added impulse to read meaning into coincidence in such a way that it furthers individuation. Or as Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen once put it to me, synchronicity means the psyche is on the right track (what she termed the "tao of synchronicity").

Gentry: But if it's aware it's on the right track, it needs clues for that, right? It needs to see something and it has to do with—not only a dialectical argument—but a spiritual argument as well, right? So there's a connection there. Because these things are all theoretical, and because there's a disconnect between spirituality and science in a lot of ways, how do you explain these processes of basic human emotions like jealousy, longing and love?

Guillén: Much of that comes across through the wonderful atmosphere you've built into your film. My understanding is that you and Chad have worked together several times in the past? When you came up with the concept for this film, did you have him in mind?

Gentry: Oh yes, absolutely.

Guillén: So you wrote it with him in mind?

Gentry: Yeah, because first of all we've worked together before and I've always given him some kind of sexual hang-up in other characters he's played, so I thought it would be nice if he played a romantic lead. Because he's intelligent and handsome with a movie star quality, but he also has an intellectual quirk to go with those model good looks. I like that combination of weird and beautiful. Audiences have to buy him not only as a scientist but they also have to buy that this elegant woman would fall for him.

Guillén: I thought of it as a disheveled erotic. Chad's character, Jim Beale, had a disheveled look about him....

Chad McKnight: I love that.

Guillén: ...and Abby (Brianne Davis) was so precise. That tension between Beale's disheveled quality and her sensual precision created an erotic tension. That specific erotic also made him a little bit of a chump, which was a perfect articulation of the noir aesthetic. When you were building the character, Chad, did you have any noir icons in mind?

McKnight: That was my favorite genre for a long time and those actors are my favorite actors. They resonate personally with me. I've never been married and I'm constantly looking. The character of Jim Beale was that: looking for base booze and pussy. But falling for the same dame.

Guillén: And usually the wrong one. What I call the "chump factor."

McKnight: That's a huge thing. It's something I've told myself my whole life: "Don't be the chump. Never be taken advantage of."

Gentry: But that's what defines noir.

McKnight: I know. But what I'm saying is that in my own life I go into things and set them up so I don't end up playing the chump. I'm constantly considering how to keep the power so that I don't lose power to a woman. It's an interesting thing that drives me nuts.

Guillén: You and many other men. It's a challenge that has stretched out over the centuries.

McKnight: I'm on the shorter side in stature, so even when I walk the streets in L.A., I worry about being the chump in the group.

Gentry: But you're one of those guys who has manly, angular features. You have a masculinity like Dana Andrews, Humphrey Bogart, Sterling Hayden, or any of these actors who played chumps. They're usually street-smart guys who get in over their heads and become chumps, but the fun part of these performances is watching them get out of it.

Guillén: Much of Chad's masculinity comes across—not only through his unquestionable photogénie—but, also through the film's solid technical merits: Eric Maddison's lighting, for starters, and Jenn Moye's art direction. Purposeful shadowing enhances the masculine image, as do environments. I was intrigued with the film's use of Atlanta's architecture to suggest a near-future space, which reminded me of Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 (2003).

Gentry: Code 46 was a huge influence on my filmmaking in general because they did create a future world by places that exist now, just by going to Shanghai or other locations. That's exciting. You can actually create a future world without building anything if you just know where to look and find interesting architecture.

Guillén: Ben Lovett's music was likewise invaluable for securing your noir aesthetic. It reminded me of the Vangelis score for Blade Runner (1982).

Gentry: Sure.

Guillén: What was it like for both of you to work with genre icon Michael Ironside?

McKnight: I was intimidated at first. He had worked with all the other actors and when I showed up to work with him, he was sizing me up already, doing his thing, and I was, like, "Oh no." But once we had our first scene together, he softened and realized I wasn't some actor punk boy from L.A.

Gentry: I felt the same way. As an accomplished actor who has done as many movies as he has, he's become protected from people who don't know what they're doing; but—once he sees that people know what they're doing—he opens up. He's also the opposite of the characters he's most known for. He's a generous, super-sweet person.

McKnight: He was so generous in helping me with ideas, even with my lines, and helping me put the right pitch into them. Actors aren't supposed to direct other actors; but, whenever he'd offer a suggestion, I would say, "Yes, sir. Thank you for that." It was great.

Guillén: I was intrigued by his comment during the film's Q&A where he said that, as an actor, you're doing your thing on some minimal set and have to be within the zone of your own performance because you really don't know what the final image is going to look like. He seemed as pleasantly surprised as anybody by what the movie actually was and how good it looked.

Gentry: There's a big disparity between the size of the crew and what it seemed we were doing and what we ended up with, which had a lot to do with the cinematographer and set designer.

Guillén: I'm looking forward to watching the film again because it's a true puzzler. Chad and I touched upon this a little bit when we ran into each other over breakfast. How did you work with your cast—specifically your lead actor—to keep these multiple narrative timelines in alignment? I'm sure you didn't film in sequence?

Gentry: No. A lot of it was just both me and Chad trusting in the "me" that wrote the script because I did do a lot of work with research, and charts and maps, trying to work it all out beforehand. But then when we were doing it—it was hard enough just to make the movie on a daily basis—we had a lot of discussions. Chad did his own research. In those discussions we were able to talk about some of the bigger concepts. Neither one of us are scientists so we both had to—as writer-director and actor—believably create something for the audience.

McKnight: I did a lot of reading and research. I didn't want to come off as some actor pretending to be the scientist. I wanted to make sure my performance was believable. I mean, I knew I had to rely on the audience to suspend disbelief and do some of that work for me; but, in retrospect, I wish I'd worked further on some of the emotional mathematics of each character. When it came to that, I sometimes forgot. Actors can do all this preparatory work that they then throw out the window to stay in the moment. There were moments where I thought, "I don't have anything here. I can't remember anything. What did we talk about?" Keeping that math was difficult. It either came out naturally or didn't, or I had to keep talking to Jacob, or to Michael Ironside (who was good at that stuff), to help me get back on track, or it was fixed in editing. I had to keep asking myself: "Where am I? What world am I in now?"

Guillén: I presume you had someone handling script continuity on set?

Gentry: Ashley Patterson was our script continuity supervisor.

Guillén: Did she have a nervous breakdown?

Gentry: No, she's a genius and I would have been dead without her. She was so brilliant and probably deserves a directing credit for helping keep track of that.

Guillén: Talk to me about the dahlia. I'd recently watched George Marshall's The Blue Dahlia (1946) and so that visual detail as a noirish element popped right out at me in Synchronicity.

Gentry: Well, there's that. Also, the size of it. The dahlia is a unique flower. It's not super-common. It has the obvious film noir connotations—whether it's real-life crime in Los Angeles, Black Dahlia, what have you—but then there's also some strange things about it. It's one of the most beautiful flowers, it blooms so big, but it also smells terrible. There's some difference inbetween the appearance of it and the actual flower. What's one of the most unique things one could imagine in a future scenario?

Guillén: Did you intend for the dahlia to visually replicate the film's wormhole?

Gentry: Sure, yeah. Because the dahlia we use in the movie is actually a fake dahlia. Once you see that transposed with the actual wormhole artwork, it has a nice vibe to it.

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