Sunday, March 01, 2015

SVFF 2015: ZERO POINTThe Evening Class Interview With Gregory Bayne and Christian Lybrook

Early on when I arrived in the Treasure Valley and set about to familiarize myself with Boise's local film production scene, I accepted an assignment to survey same for Fusion magazine. I approached Peg Owens at the Idaho Film Office to steer me towards the individuals who she felt best represented Idaho film production. Unfortunately, both Fusion and the Idaho Film Office have since bitten the dust, but the article still exists out there in the ether as a reminder of my first steps into the community.

One of the main names on Peg's list—confirmed by others as a "must" interview—was Gregory Bayne (A Person of Interest, Jens Pulver: Driven, Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man), considered one of Idaho's key filmmakers for having successfully mounted numerous crowdfunding campaigns, achieving cross-platform distribution deals, and authoring a popular advisory column on DIY filmmaking at Filmmaker magazine. (His most recent advice on learning how to tell stories through editing documentaries has been published at No Film School.) Along with profiling Bayne in my Fusion survey, I likewise talked to him about his ongoing Bloodsworth documentary for The Evening Class.

Christian Lybrook came to my attention through his short film Crawlspace (2011), which had been accepted into a shorts program at the inaugural Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF). The trailer he presented at a pre-SVFF Boisecutters meeting intrigued me enough to ask for a screener, and to follow-up with an Evening Class interview with his talent and—with his second short film The Seed (2013)a Fandor Keyframe interview with Lybrook himself.

For the past two years the two filmmakers have been collaborating on the pilot for their web series Zero Point (2015), which will boast its SVFF premiere at The Magic Lantern on Saturday, March 7, 3:50PM. Though George Prentice at The Boise Weekly all but snubbed Idaho filmmakers in his overview of SVFF, opting instead to highlight the festival's spectacular dimension, Jessica Murri balanced out reportage at The Weekly with a shout-out to Zero Point, as did Dana Oland for the Idaho Statesman. With Zero Point squaring up to be one of the most anticipated local projects at SVFF, I felt it was time to have the two over for pancakes and coffee to have an informal discussion on the series.  (Photos courtesy of Gregory Bayne.)

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Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on Zero Point being accepted into the Sun Valley Film Festival.

Gregory Bayne: Thank you.

Christian Lybrook: Thank you.

Guillén: These days I'm interested in narrative seriality, as are many other film writers. It's become a trending topic in film academic circles: why are audiences shifting to web content, serial narrative content on cable, and away from the theatrical experience of movies? Zero Point is a proposed web series and I'm hoping you can talk a bit about why you decided to move in that direction? And, once you decided to do so, how you developed the story and the project? Is it developed through a whole season at this point?

Bayne: It is. I've obviously done documentaries and feature films and there are two reasons why I preferred a web series for this project. First, there's the economics of it. On an independent level, it's no longer economically viable to make a feature film. It's really difficult. Even if you have a well-known cast, it's incredibly hard. If I'm going to do something that's so hard, I want to do something that has more depth of character, can be more interesting, and live longer.

Also, it's reading the writing on the wall and being in tune with how I view things. I like to watch television. I prefer television most of the time. I'll watch movies when I'm flying across country. So, it was while thinking a lot about what I watch, what I'm into, and wanting to do something in more depth, that I thought about this story in particular. I like apocalyptic stories; but, originally, this was a completely different story that got turned on its head. That's about the time Christian got involved.

The idea, the initial brush, for Zero Point was essentially to tell a story about the apocalypse, but not in the way it's usually told where the apocalypse happens and it all becomes about survival and suddenly everybody forgets about our 2000 years of technological evolution. It's too bizarre and I hate it. I watched the first episode of that NBC show Revolution and within the first five minutes the lights go out and then they cut to a few years later when people are farming in the suburbs. I thought, "What?! Did everyone on Earth that had any kind of technological idea suddenly die as well? I don't understand."

With Zero Point it was about how we could tell the story of an apocalypse, but tell it through character and not so much the events with their plot structure, as it were. How could we tell a story of human beings in the near future dealing with situations that could be real, like disease? And basically our being the architects of our own demise? That's essentially what Zero Point is. It's a story of how we ruin it for ourselves by not only dying off from the natural end of old age but suddenly dying off from the wrong end with our children dying.

I wanted to make a mystery that was not solved by violence. It's a scientific mystery that I believe can be just as involving. There's high tension and high stakes that can take place, and there might be brushes of that, but Zero Point is not about two cops or a cop trying to track down a killer. When the "killer" is something elusive and scientific that you have to figure out, it makes for a much more interesting story. I mean, if you look on the internet you'll find conspiracy theories about diseases transmitting from the animal world to the plant world to us. But a scientist debunked that theory, saying: "Here's the problem. In order for this thing to happen, these five things have to happen and they have to happen perfectly at this perfect time, meaning that it will never happen. I sent Christian the article and posed: "What if those five things happened?" That's Zero Point. What if those five things happened and it all actually came together and what if the disease did jump and it started killing off the youngest among us?

Guillén: So you have a narrative that will unfold over a series of episodes, which is, as I mentioned, a current trend in reception, though not necessarily a new one, as people have been interested in narrative seriality since the turn of the last century. Silent cinema explored narrative seriality, television took it on through its weekly melodramas, but it achieved a heightened sophistication with the advent of The Wire, then The Sopranos, and the rest has been history. And though it could be argued that there is sufficient action in dramas like The Wire and The Sopranos to engage audiences, what you're saying confirms that what might actually be engaging audiences with recent narrative serials is their sophisticated character development. Can you speak to why that is?

Bayne: Because it's more unpredictable. When you're writing, you intertwine plot and character of course, but the most surprising moments I've had watching television—and in some films, but mainly television—are character revelations. Not that they do something that reveals their character, as much as it fits within the guise of the character and still surprises you. When you're dealing with a 90-minute scenario, you have to tie everything up. From films in the '70s and onwards, we've programmed ourselves to tie up everything at the end of 90 minutes. The audience needs to leave satisfied. With a serial narrative there's a certain satisfaction that you want to deliver, but you can dole it out over time and people will forgive you if, let's say, this episode of The Walking Dead is more totally engaging than that episode. But that total engagement has been set up by the characters and living with the characters. It's fun and interesting to learn more and think about them.

I'd think about this when I watched movies: you have these bit players who leave the scene and I'd think, "What's going on with them when they're not on screen? What's that story?" That story could be way more interesting than what's in front of me. Christian and I constantly go back and forth on this as we're building the season arc and beyond for Zero Point. What are the stories behind the stories? Yes, it's an epic story, but let's always retain it in character and what are the little stories within those characters that we can blow up and explore and figure out why they're doing what they're doing, how they tick, and how that relates to other characters? That also allows us to spend time to take all these characters that seem so spread apart and disconnected and weave the story so that they actually are connected. That exploration would be too hard to do confined to just 90 minutes.

Guillén: When Star Wars came out in 1977, launching the era of the Spielbergian blockbuster, audiences were dazzled by the film's CGI virtuosity. It initiated a groundswell of spectatorial engagement with visual effects on the screen that superseded their imagination and—as exciting as that all was in the beginning—I suspect the long-term affect has been a weakening of the spectatorial imagination and an increased passivity among audiences. I'm hardly the first to complain that most movies in the multiplexes are catering to 14-year-old boys who want to see and feel explosions, perhaps as an honest impulse to kickstart lethargic imaginations?

These movies were never meant to be like those of my childhood—all those black-and-white science fiction flicks or sword and sandal adventures from the '50s and early '60s that—maybe had modest special effects budgets?—but moreorless relied on silver-painted cardboard and a few flashing lights and whistles to signify the future because that's all our imaginations took at the time. I learned early on that there is nothing the unconscious wants more than to be solicited to participate. So that's all by way of saying that I suspect these days imaginations are being activated by the psychological depths of character motivation and development. A good story is regaining its importance.

Lybrook: The other thing that happened was technology. You go back to Dickens and serialized content, it's not new, right? Greg and I pass back and forth Nerdist Writers Panel podcasts. They interview writers on writing and it's interesting. You listen to why studios or networks greenlight shows, why they don't, why they did, why they didn't. Ten years ago, you couldn't record a show. I mean, you could on your VCR; but, once DVR came out, it changed everything because then serialized content could be consumed back to back.

Guillén: A couple of years back, a colleague of mine Dina Iordanova published a volume with Stuart Cunningham entitled Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-line (2012) and I was struck by how as a viewer—especially since moving to Boise, Idaho—my viewing habits shifted away from in-theater exhibition to streaming platforms where I could devour narrative serials through binge viewing. Part of this was not only because I could, having upped my game with a large flatscreen and home entertainment system, several subscriptions to streaming channels, and—as you said, Christian, DVR recording capabilities—but because I found it easier to follow and absorb narrative continuities rather than waiting week-to-week per the old model. As someone who's getting older by the minute, binge viewing of serial format provides an option of retention that feels welcome. My enjoyment has increased in watching how stories develop and in being able to more accurately detect the curve of a character arc.

Lybrook: Technology only facilitated these changes; but, it's not the key. As Greg pointed out, the key is character. These characters are people we grow to love and miss when they're gone. I remember when The Killing got killed and it went away. I was like, "Oh my God, I've never going to see Linden and Holder again!" Then Netflix brought it back for a final season; a short run of six episodes. I remember watching the first episode of that final season and thinking, "Holder, you ol' rascal!" It was great to see them again, which is stupid to get so attached.

Guillén: No, it's not stupid. These stories inform our lives. I'm fond of a quote by the American poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser who wrote in her volume The Speed of Darkness (1968): "The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms." We fall in love with these characters because, at soul, we're compelled by other people. People are interested in other people. A good writer creates relatable characters who affect us as much as flesh-and-blood acquaintances, sometimes even more so. Again, we're talking about what engages and activates the imagination. Characters who engage us are not stupid.

Lybrook: They're not. But I say that jokingly in terms of what we invest ourselves in.

Guillén: Now, I'm not very informed on web series. Is a web series these days a filmmaker's entree into television work? Is that the goal? Can you monetize a web series? Why a web series?

Bayne: I'm not sure where the moniker "web series" was even born, but it specifies a series on the web that isn't from the studios. The House of Cards was a web series. The Amazon series Bosch is a web series. When we went to the Independent Film Week (as part of the IFP), everyone was talking about web series. Finally on Day One we said, "Don't say 'web series' anymore because nobody knows what to do with that. They categorize it in their head as a five-minute episode....

Lybrook: Usually comedic.

Bayne: There are varying degrees to how people commodify these series. You look at somebody like Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island and those guys essentially did web series, web skits, and had the "break" of Kiefer Sutherland thinking they were actually beating up an old person on the street. They were filming an outdoor skit where they were beating up an old woman. One of them was dressed up as the old woman. Kiefer Sutherland happened to see this, stopped it from happening, and then realized it was a joke. Then Andy Samberg and friends get a pilot on Fox that I don't think ever aired but then they became writers for Saturday Night Live. There's that level of it.

Or, as with High Maintenance on Vimeo, it was a series someone on the staff liked and they kept putting it in the "staff picks" and one of the people who created the series Katja Blichfeld is an Emmy Award-winning casting director of 30 Rock. Cinetic Media got involved and then they sold the series back to Vimeo who is now releasing it as their original series. So there's that sort of thing.

One of the earlier successes was a series called The Guild created and written by Felicia Day. She was an actress who had done a lot of sci-fi work, she was a gamer, and she made little six-to-eight minute episodes for a first season. Xbox Live and Microsoft picked up the next season. They funded the series and put it out through their Xbox Live Channel. So there are all these varying degrees of web series.

Guillén: Thank you for that survey. That's quite helpful. But what about you? What are you trying to do with your web series? Are you hoping to monetize Zero Point? Are you hoping to open it out to a more developed assignment?

Bayne: We're platform agnostic at this point, mainly meaning—if Amazon or AMC came to our door, we would be like, "Yes! Thank you!" That's not going to happen. If a bit torrent or Vimeo wanted to get involved, or if we wanted to do it independently, then what we really want is to tell a great serialized story that hasn't been told. It started as 10-minute episodes, but then it grew into: "What do we want to make? We want to make TV. So why don't we just start there as opposed to making little 10-minute episodes? Let's go all in. Let's make a TV-length pilot. Then we'll start beating down doors." We have a number of scenarios we're playing with. We can go in this direction or that. The overarching incentive is we want to film a whole season. Our mantra has been: "If we can get the pilot made and it's good, one way or the other we can make the season."

Guillén: So, at this point, only the pilot's been shot?

Bayne: We've only shot the pilot, yes.

Guillén: Tell me a little bit about your experience at Independent Film Week. Were you looking for backers?

Bayne: Independent Film Week used to be the Independent Feature Film Market in New York and it has since morphed into this broader networking program for narrative filmmakers, documentarians, and writers. This year as part of their writing program, which is mainly scripts in development, they brought in a new web storytellers program. Zero Point was one of seven projects chosen for this program. They set us up with one-on-one meetings with producers and production companies, not so much distributors since—in their first year of this new program—they weren't fully dialed in to episodic content. Organizations like Sundance, the IFP, and others are just starting to get involved with episodic. Our meetings were intended to seek out potential partnerships and we're continuing to talk to some of the folks we met.

Guillén: So let's talk about the pilot, which will be premiering at SVFF. Thank you, first of all, for letting me have a sneak peek of the rough cut. I don't want to talk too much about the plot because I don't want to give anything away for those lucky enough to catch it at SVFF; but, I much enjoyed a visual stylism that I noticed again and again in your camerawork, which was of a scene commencing with a fuzzed out image being brought into focus. For me, this aligned perfectly with the narrative's thematic tone of a mystery being gradually revealed. How conscious was that? Is there a term for that in-camera technique?

Bayne: [Laughs.] It's probably just a "Greg treatment."

Guillén: You use that a lot?

Bayne: I do. Style develops over time, which you can see if you watch my movies. Mine's a weird balance because my style is striving to have no style. Part of that, honestly, is the result of the technicality of me shooting where I have a camera and I'm pulling focus. I don't have a trained focus puller so I'm doing it myself while I'm composing and doing everything else at once. It would be easy enough for me to edit all of that out, but I like it. It gives some life to the image. It also makes you aware of the camera, but not in an overly intrusive way. It also pulls your eye into the scene, literally focusing you in. So, yes, there is a bit of purpose behind it.

Lybrook: One of the things Greg and I talked a lot about, whether it was in the shooting—and Greg deserves all the credit for that—or the music, was a sense of intimacy with Embry and our characters. The style allows you to feel a little closer, because the camera work is raw.

Bayne: If you noticed, there's not any fancy 100-foot dolly shots in Point Zero. The camera work is simple. I much prefer hand-held. I don't want you to be distracted by that, but I like the frame to feel alive and immediate.

Guillén: Again, I feel it served what I saw because your female lead Embry was returning to the site of the incident, investigating, and exploring the vicinity, and the hand-held camera took you right alongside her. At one point the thought crossed my mind, "What kind of forensic experts did they have canvasing the scene of the accident who overlooked all this evidence?" But I enjoyed how you framed the action so we could discover clues along with Embry.

Let's talk about your lead actress Lisa King Hawkes who portrays your protagonist Dr. Alex Embry and who, interestingly enough, reminded me of Mireille Enos from The Killing. I think it's her red hair and the baseball cap. I was completely caught up in her fine performance. Can you tell me about her and how you found her?

Bayne: I was shooting a commercial for the Idaho wine industry with my friend Travis Swartz. I hadn't met Lisa yet. Originally, the role had been written for a male and Christian and I were debating about switching the gender. I have nothing but a roster of testosterone-driven movies and have been making male experience films for so long that I didn't want to do it anymore.  So we had been talking back and forth and were close to convinced to change the lead to a female. We thought it would open up the story in a better way. I was doing this commercial for the Idaho wine industry, which was in essence a comic spot; but, the way Travis writes, if you're doing the comedy right, you're not trying to be funny. The actors deliver it straight. Lisa was playing a river rafting guide who complains about how Idaho is only known for its wine. The bit was that we have potatoes, we have great rivers, we have all these wonderful attributes, but all anyone ever talks about is Idaho wine. Anyways, she's doing this spot as a river rafting guide and I was totally blown away. She had an amazing look, looked fantastic on camera....

Lybrook: Can I pick up the story? So I'm at work and I get this text from Greg and it's got a picture of his LCD screen on his camera and it's a picture of Lisa. I was like, "Why is he sending me pictures of random women?" Of course there was the message that said: "I think I've found our Embry." I was like, "Whatever, Greg, sure." But then he showed me some of her work and we had her come in and read.

Bayne: I started talking to her that day. I was so giddy. She seemed interested. We had her audition and cast her first and built the cast around her for the opening episode. Most of the actual season one cast is in the pilot, which was a strategic play on our part. We knew that was where we wanted to start the story but we hadn't tied ourselves into cast. Lisa's wonderful, absolutely remarkable. She's been here in Idaho for quite a while. She's a producer at Drake Cooper. We rehearsed and rehearsed. With everyone you work with, like me and Christian, you develop a shorthand. It felt nice that Lisa and I just got that right away. She really understood the character and where we were going with the story and she just devoted fully to the project and nailed it.

Guillén: I respect your decision to shift to a female lead character. With regard to narrative seriality, some of the best roles for women are being written on TV. The Killing, as we've mentioned. Top of the Lake. The Fall. Gillian Anderson's performance on The Fall is completely blowing me away. It's, perhaps, the most embodied, unfiltered female character driven by emotional damage that I've ever seen. What The Fall is saying about gender construction, gender presumption, borders on the subversive.

Lybrook: It's interesting because we've put the rough cut of the pilot out there among a trusted circle of peers and compatriots and every once in a while we hear, "Well, it's really good, I really like it, but Embry's not very likeable." That feels like a comment that would have been made 10-20 years ago. Greg had a good point: if this was a male lead, nobody would care if he was likeable or not. The audience would just go with it. That's telling.

Bayne: It's frustrating. Look at Breaking Bad. I can enjoy Walter White, but he's such an ass! Some of the things he does!

Guillén: I've long been interested in how co-directorships are negotiated. Who does what? Who's zooming who in this project?

Lybrook: I learn from others. It's a topic we spent a lot of time talking about. Cultivating our relationship and being sure to have all these conversations in advance because we both have a deep commitment to this project and we don't want something stupid to get in the way of it. When we're on set, Greg gets final word. But Greg knows that when we're there and he gets the look from me that I have something I want to pitch to him, he can either take it or drop it.

What I appreciate is that this is Greg's original concept. He happened to be talking to me about it and I said, "That's really cool. If you want any help, let me know." I was thinking I could help him write it or whatever. We didn't go into our collaboration with labels really. We just wanted to talk about the story and characters and invent this world. Greg came to me and said, "You're co-creator on this." It blew me away, honestly. He didn't have to do that. But what that means to me is that I'm a co-creator and need to share in discussion and decisions. He said I was absolutely right. Even on the smallest things, he'll check in with me or I'll check in with him.

Guillén: You wrote the script together?

Lybrook: Yes.

Bayne: Essentially, the delineation is that anything that has to do with story is a co-creation. We're defining the season together and writing the scripts together. On set, I'm directing. I'm the one talking to the actors. But if there's anything in the casting or rehearsals or even on set, Christian obviously has my ear and anything he says is not going to be dismissed. He is the co-author of this project. And though I shot it and I cut it, even in the editing he and I go back and forth. I'll cut something together, then we'll discuss it, and he'll say this or that, and I'll say, "Oh, you're right. Okay, let's cut that."

Lybrook: It works out pretty darn well because it's nice to have a second brain. Especially when things are so lean and we don't have the full crew we would like to have, it's really nice to have someone there to go, "Hey, did we want to do this?" It's helpful to have two brains that are both empowered to be loyal to the overall vision.

Bayne: Both of us have aesthetic viewpoints. I have a very strong aesthetic viewpoint and I discussed with Christian what that is and it was agreed upon. I'm given free rein.

Guillén: So you say you're dealing with the actors, are you also dealing with the camera work?

Bayne: Yes.

Guillén: Are you both dealing with the camera?

Lybrook: No.

Guillén: Well, what do you do?!

Lybrook: I just stand around. [Laughs.]

Bayne: We're both producing this so when we get on set the delineation is that I'm directing and he's producing. He's making sure everything's running and that we're getting everything we need, everything I said I would get, and going forth from there. I'm hoping that as we go forward I won't have to operate all the time. I love operating, but it'd be nice to switch off.

Guillén: Down the line, would you switch off directing?

Bayne: Yeah, we've actually talked about that. Eventually, probably, I will.

Lybrook: It's hard to do everything. There are very few people who write, shoot, direct, and edit; who do everything in theory. I really don't know anybody who does it.

Bayne: And I don't want to continue to do it all, so..... Let's say things went gangbusters and Zero Point did go to a network. The dream, obviously, is that we're the showrunners.

Guillén: Showrunners are the new auteurs, it seems. To finish up here and to loop back to your presence at Sun Valley, how are you feeling about that? Are you excited? What do you hope to get out of that experience? What kind of feedback might you expect?

Bayne: I'm very excited. I've never been. This is my first project where I've felt it's really getting out there. We submitted to Independent Film Week and we got in. We submitted to the Sun Valley Film Festival and we got in. It's nice to have a little wind straight out of the gate with it. When I think of film festivals, I just want to have a great screening, a good audience, hopefully good feedback. It will be interesting to get that audience reaction.

Lybrook: Especially because audiences at festivals aren't used to seeing serialized content.

Guillén: That's something unique that Sun Valley has done since its inception, is to honor web content. I hope you have a wonderful experience with your Sun Valley premiere and look forward to being a participant in your audience.

03/08/15 UPDATE: At the 2015 Sun Valley Film Festival, Zero Point: The Series took home the Gem State Award, recognizing Idaho filmmakers whose work best reflects the beauty and diversity of the Gem State, and Christian Lybrook's short screenplay for Bruneau won the first ever One Potato Award.