Everyone gets to the age where they have a yearning for a big change. Usually this involves learning to play the guitar, renting an allotment, or developing an addiction to blackjack and hookers. But imagine you could actually swap with an alternate world version of you and change everything. That’s the premise of Identicals, a strange new science fiction film from director Simon Pummell. I got the chance to chat to Simon about the movie, his inspirations, and the future of science fiction cinema.
Personally I’ll stick to the blackjack and hook…..er I mean I’ll tend to my allotment, yeah that’s what I’ll do…
I have an unusual background in that I’m not really a classic documentary filmmaker. I started off as an animator making short films for Channel 4. The two documentaries I’ve made are relatively unconventional, one was Bodysong which was an archive film with music by Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead and the other was a film (Shock Body Soul 2011) that in some ways was structured as a drama with people breaking out of their roles and talking but is still a documentary. It’s a film about a 19th century psychiatric patient and his autobiography. He had all kinds of technological fantasies about the cosmos as a kind of writing down machine and we constructed his writings in CGI. In some ways that film had strong drama elements and strong visual effects elements and has a strong cyberpunk quality. So it felt like a gradual journey towards Identicals, a logical extension rather than a big strange jump from classic documentary.
You talk about cyberpunk which leads me to think of William Gibson. He was a fan of some of your work wasn’t he?
Yes he wrote an article about Bodysong which is really nice actually. I’m a huge fan of his work so that was really important for me that he wrote that.
Yes, definitely. I’m a huge Philip K. Dick fan and I was attempting to create a film that depicts how it feels to be alive now and I think the interesting thing with Dick is that he’s more and more relevant as you read the books, it’s incredible how prescient they are emotionally. What I like about his books is that they don’t tie everything up, they leave you with certain questions. I was really interested in trying to make a movie that replicated that, that kept that quality and was attentive to that strangeness of the world we live in.We live in these anonymous, strange spaces that are replicating around the world in airports, shopping malls, hotel lobbies. So he was a touchstone as that end of science fiction really interests me.
So, science fiction as social commentary?
I find that really fascinating and I think it’s often allows for certain kinds of quite radical emotional portraits. The interesting thing about having made a film about an outsider artist, which is what Daniel Paul Schreber was, i went back and read fifteen to twenty Dick novels and he was almost an outsider artist too. Science Fiction was a place he could operate while being totally unacceptable to mainstream 1950s culture. Science fiction allows new ideas and new feelings to be explored and that makes it an amazing genre.
Did you do any research into the many worlds theory, the actual science behind it?
Not really, I left that alone and didn’t touch that because in a way I was not going too much into multiple universes. I read some about it but decided in the end I just kept it simple.
So you don’t explain how they do it? They just do it (and by doing it I mean finding an alternate world version of you).
They just locate other people that are the same as us but that seems out of billions of people not too impossible. And social media gives us some hint of that, I was talking to someone yesterday about a craze of friending people on Facebook with the same name a you and that seems part of that awareness.
It didn’t take Slater long to realise this vasectomy doctor was inexperienced.
Well everyone’s Googled to see who else has their name. I think I got a violinist.
That really interests me that we’re doing these things, and they’re new things that we couldn’t do twenty years ago. We didn’t have that different picture of ourselves.
How do you go about making a sci-fi film on a small budget and make it look good and not like Doctor Who or something?
I think that coming from an animation background was important, being a world builder in that way. To understand how, without huge amounts of money, to construct a world that seems convincing. The relationship with the cinematographer and visual effects artists is important. I mean the whole thing is at quite an artisan level, the visual effects crew is half a dozen people or less so it’s really small. The digital tools have suddenly allowed artisan cinema so you don’t need hundreds of people on your visual effects crew. You need to pick your fights and think about what you need to make a world. We tried to be very selective and design the world’s quite carefully. Show what you need to show to make a world, but not more. In a way I think the film has quite a spare quality and in some ways quite minimalist but in a conscious way, I hope that it doesn’t feel thin.
There’s been a kind of resurgence of the small sci-fi film with a small cast and yet a big science fiction idea? For example something like Ex Machina.
I do think it’s going to become a bigger strand of cinema. It’s such a fertile area, it can be potentially have some of the joys of pop culture but it’s also a place where you can debate ideas and i think that’s always been at the heart of literary science fiction. You don’t have to throw everything at the canvas all the time and I think that literary tradition of science fiction, that sort of Ballardian science fiction, that new wave of English science fiction that was about ideas and about society, that’s much more alive than the blockbuster science fiction.
It’s almost like the sci-fi blockbusters are afraid of any actual ideas coming to the surface so they pad it all with Transformers and shit.
Exactly, I think the trouble with that is you lose the dynamic range, a lot of those films feel like they blow your eyeballs out of the back of your head in the first seven minutes and you’ve still got a hundred minutes to go. What I always loved about literary science fiction is that it’s often about a small number of people and a really strange idea and what happens when you let that strange idea loose. Then you’re really able to relate to that person and explore those feelings. What’s happened in the last ten years with digital technology means that cinema can suddenly do that. We talk about artisan film-making a lot in the team that made Identicals, and that’s a new thing in digital film-making.
So are you still a fan of animation?
I am, I still make installations and short animated projects. I had something in the Victoria and Albert museum which was the start of a new project about anatomical drawings. I still follow animation, it’s not as active in England now as it was, Channel 4 created this whole world that it took away by stopping funding for animation which was a real shame. That aspect of cinema is still really important to me. When you come through animation you start thinking about world building and pictures and strange ways of creating characters.
Thanks Simon, good luck with the film.
IDENTICALS is available on Digital/VoD 15th August and DVD 22nd August.
Thanks to Simon for chatting to me. Now it’s your turn, Google your name and find out who the alternate version of you is. You get 10 points if they’re famous, 5 if they’re a different gender, and a huge 20 points if it’s a serial killer. Let me know in the comments below!