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Exclusive Interview – Alejandro Adams, director of sci-fi film Canary

Posted by LiveFor on February 5, 2009

I recently had an interview with Alejandro Adams, director and producer of a science fiction organ transplant film called Canary.

Alejandro Adams grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida and traveled extensively before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like many European directors, Alejandro inclined toward film criticism before he began making films of his own. Alejandro is a full-time father to two children, one of whom appears in Canary. His wife, Marya Murphy, also has a role in Canary and is the co-producer.

Canary was shot over the course of four intense weekends in late 2007. Intimate scenes were shot in single long takes and expansive scenes were shot with three or four cameras running simultaneously. A cargo van was purchased when the producers ruled out storage units and clinics as potential locations for organ harvesting scenes. A “mobile location” in theory, the van failed to start one morning, so the critical final scene was shot in barely-adequate light, with the overpowering ambient sound of a nearby highway. The production managed to wend its way through many such mishaps and potential disasters.

Now over to Alejandro.

How did you get into the film making business?

“Business” is a tricky word. Technically, my level of filmmaking should be referred to as a hobby, a passion, a social activity–something along those lines. I’m not trying to nitpick your semantic choice, I’m just trying to make a point that few independent filmmakers bother to make. For some, it’s a business as soon as they pick up a camera. I don’t see it that way. I’m fortunate enough to have had my first feature in a good festival where it generated good press, and now my second feature is getting some attention, but until I’m able to raise a budget and pay bills with this line of work, I’m just an amateur making glorified home movies. It’s a marvelous feeling, though, having these little projects taken seriously by the mainstream press. That’s something that wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. Critics–and to a lesser degree, audiences–are starting to see through technical limitations and appreciate heart, talent, storytelling–all those qualities that have nothing to do with what camera you’re using.

But to answer the spirit of your question, I met the right woman, Marya Murphy. She had some digital video gear and we started making short films and innocuous (i.e., socially unimportant) documentaries together. She produced and has a role in Canary.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your new film Canary? What’s it about and how was it made?

Canary is set in a slightly alternate universe where organ redistribution is commonplace. The main character is an “organ redistribution specialist” who stalks other characters in the film, sometimes repossessing their organs, sometimes watching them for a while and then wandering away. Underneath the obvious ideas are themes of alienation and interpersonal communication. In my own personal vision of the future, the horror isn’t a world dominated by corporations per se, the horror is terminal alienation, the absence of coherent interpersonal communication–in scene after scene, this film addresses those concerns. Canary is sci-fi not at the societal or political or global level but at the personal level. I think that’s a quality which both versions of Solaris have, too.

What would you do differently on your next film?

There are too many individual episodes in Canary. To be honest, I considered expanding it into a series because there are subplots with multiple characters, there are a dozen episodes featuring rich character dynamics. I had to cut half-hour sequences down to less than five minutes, in some cases sacrificing emotional impact. Episodic films are harder to get into because they ask us to make shallow investments in a variety of characters instead of deep investments in two or three characters. Some of Altman’s least successful films suffer from this kind of sprawl.

What films inspired Canary?

Celine and Julie Go Boating provided the art film DNA, and Brazil provided the dystopian satire DNA.

Do you think that shooting on a low budget with no studio involvement gives you more freedom?

Artistic freedom and personal freedom are different–I realize this question almost always refers implicitly to artistic freedom, but at a certain point the matter of personal freedom must be addressed. What is personal freedom? Having enough money to live comfortably, to provide for my family. Would I make crappy films if it meant my wife could stay home with the kids? Yes.

I won’t damn big-budget films or unions, but I’m happy to be making films at this level, and the rewards are wildly incommensurate to the amount of money involved. I find it hard to believe it would be more rewarding to work with more money or a handful of “name” actors.

If you could have whatever actors you wanted on your next film who would you pick?

I like actors who have done one or two great things and have been forgotten or never again utilized in the same capacity. John Heard in Cutter’s Way is a good example. I’m obsessed with that film and his performance in particular. It would be great to get that kind of raw, viciously intelligent performance from a minor Hollywood actor.

If you were going to be killed by any movie villain or monster who or what would it be? What would your last words be?

I’m fascinated by John Carpenter’s The Thing. One of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen is shambling, plainspoken Wilford Brimley turning into an evil alien but retaining his Wilford Brimley appearance. He’s scary because he’s not scary. It’s the opposite of what we expect to be scared by. If he killed me, my last words would be, “But you’re not even scary!”

What film do you first remember watching?

I have practically no memory of early childhood. I don’t think I was taken to movies before my mother remarried when I was nine. My best memories prior to that involve a British TV show called The Tomorrow People. It was very slow sci-fi, if I remember correctly–maybe sedate is a better word. It was unexciting, not at all sensationalistic. I wonder how I’d feel about it if I saw it today. And I wonder to what extent a formative experience with dry, slow-paced sci-fi might have informed Canary. I haven’t thought of that show as a possible influence until this very moment.

What directors do you aspire to be like?

The directors I admire most fall on their faces regularly. Steven Soderbergh and Lars von Trier are good examples. I would hold them both up as influences and inspirations, but I would also be quick to admit that their films aren’t necessarily the ones I want to watch repeatedly, and some of them are painfully bad. But they both take enormous risks and never allow themselves to get complacent or comfortable–both have revolutionized certain aspects of international filmmaking, and both have made fools of themselves with misguided projects.

What are your top 5 science fiction films of all time?

There are the fun ones and there are the smart ones. I go back and forth on Alien and Aliens, so I’ll count them as one film. Solaris and Solaris. The Quiet Earth. The Thing. Primer.

Your favourite piece of science fiction technology?

The blade in Krull. But that might be more fantasy than sci-fi. Alternate answer: the loader suit in Aliens.

Greatest line in any film?

“Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way.” Apocalypse Now, one of the best-written and best-delivered voice-overs.

Where and when can we see Canary?

Canary will premiere in San Jose, California, USA, on March 1, 2009. I hope for some kind of online availability before 2010 rolls around. It’s a tricky time to lash oneself to any particular distribution model, but it’s also necessary to get the films out to an audience as quickly as possible. I’m still trying to sort through the mess and make the best decision for exhibiting (if not technically “distributing”) my films.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a Russian-language sex trafficking thriller called Babnik. I’m currently editing and translating the dialogue. After this one is finished, I’m backing away from genre films and returning to character-driven drama for a while. But I’ll get back to sci-fi at some point. It’s such a willing and gracious receptacle for innovation and imagination.

Alejandro thanks for your time.

Canary Official Site.

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