This year’s Sydney Film Festival marks the world premiere of “OtherLife”, director Ben C. Lucas’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut “Wasted on the Young”.
“OtherLife”, based on the popular novel, “Solitaire”, by Kelley Eskridge, follows brilliant software engineer Ren Amari (Jessica De Gouw) who, haunted by the accident that has left her brother in a coma, creates OtherLife: a substance that allows users to experience hours of new memories in seconds. However, Ren’s business partner, Sam Murphy (TJ Power), has other grand designs for the future of this technology.
On the eve of the premiere Mandy spoke with Ben about technological imprisonment, flipping the gender roles, the science fiction tropes he hates, and the Australian equivalent of Los Angeles.
Congratulations on the film! I am a Perth girl originally so it was great to see it on the big screen – it doesn’t happen often.
Ben: It was a big part of doing the movie. I had to – fight is not the word – but push to have it set in Perth. Not just shoot there but also for it be specifically from there, unashamedly, this is Perth and these are people from Perth. And then when we shot it we were like, let’s make the city look good, not just shoot in the suburbs. Or usually when people shoot in Western Australia it’s for the natural beauty. We were like, no, let’s try and shoot the city, give it a skyline.
I loved the whole start-up vibe, with the street art…
Ben: Yeah, it was kind of an optimistic view I guess. The mining boom’s gone, right, so now they’re spending their money on innovation and so Perth becomes like this new Silicon Valley.
I’ve always thought that Perth is really the Australian equivalent of Los Angeles – it’s on the West Coast, it’s sunny most of the time, there’s great locations…
Ben: …you have to drive to get anywhere [laughs]
Yes! That’s a very good point. And everyone’s tanned and gorgeous.
Ben: Yes that’s true. I’ve lived in both cities, and I’ve actually said it before, they’re really similar.
I’m glad you’re making it happen! I found the subject matter of this film really interesting. I’ve been reading quite a bit about virtual reality and where all that technology is going, and it’s pretty scary the way a lot of futurists are predicting we’ll see more technological advancement in the next 20 years than we’ve seen in the history of mankind – following the law of accelerating returns. Did you do a lot of research in preparation for this film?
Ben: I sure did! What was bizarre is that the idea of virtual incarceration, I thought it was really farfetched. Not that that’s a problem but I remember when I first read it I was like – this is pure fantasy. But I did a bit of hunting around and it only took me 20 minutes to find this group in Oxford, a think tank that had been employed by a global prison company, and tasked to find an innovative alternative to conventional prison. I wrote to the professor in charge of the study and she was really forthcoming, she gave me heaps of data on what they’ve been studying and she said that virtual imprisonment is one of the things they’ve been looking at. So their job isn’t to invent a better prison but to come up with what it could be and describe what technology needs to do to make it possible. So they were encouraged to think totally freely so they were like – if you wanted a prisoner to serve 500 years then we have to work out a way to extend their life to make that possible. Or is there a chemical way of imprisoning someone, to lock their brain in a comatose or hallucinogenic state. Or is there a special prison where they’re put in stasis and their mind is being entertained. All of these are currently being thought of.
That was the scariest thing about this film – it was very believable!
Ben: Yes. I had that conversation with them, I was like – this is amazing, we’ve got to keep talking – but it got shut down. I got an email from the office administration saying that I keep talking to them it would be considered official consultation and they were going to charge me $300,000. I was like, that’s the budget of our film, so no [laughs].
Well at least you got a little bit out of them! And not all technological advancement is bad but I think what the film really drove home is there’s a lot of responsibility around how these technological developments get used by the people who create it.
Ben: I’m an optimist. Films need drama, something has to go wrong, you can’t just make a film about how everything goes well and people are happy [laughs]. You need conflict. But at the same time I really detest when lazy science fiction just makes technology the villain. And one of my gripes is when bad science fiction presents this awesome technology, like what if we had robot surrogates, or what if we could travel to other planets, and then they go – ah, it’s terrible, we have to blow it up. They always have to blow something up at the end. So I really wanted to make sure that we didn’t make the technology the villain. The business of developing and releasing it was the villain. I think that’s more realistic. I do think commerce gets in the way of innovation. If a new medical technology comes out, it should be for everyone, but more often it gets bound up in copyright and it gets monopolised by big pharma. I was more inclined to make that the bad guy than the technology itself.
I appreciated that! We can’t really stop technology from advancing, it’s happening.
Ben: Nor should we!
And Jessica I thought was fantastic. Was she always someone you had in mind for this role?
Ben: Yes absolutely! I know the lazy answer for this is always like ‘hey she was our first choice!’. The honest answer is she was on our top three list from the beginning. She was always someone I really wanted. It still took us half a year to cast because you have to turn over a lot of stones and kiss a lot of frogs – to use two different metaphors, but in the end we came back to one of our first choices anyway. Initially she couldn’t do it because of availability because she’s very busy and important. She stopped shooting a show, she turned up two days before we started shooting, shot our film and was out the day after we finished. It was that time. And she’s a Perth girl as well so it was a bit of a homecoming for her.
And it’s always great to see these rich leading female characters.
Ben: Yes. I’m big into that. One of the criticisms during the development was that Danny, her boyfriend, was a bit undercooked and a bit of a handbag, and he needed to have more strength and more presence, but my whole point was – how many times have you seen a movie where the female character exists as a plot device for the male lead, and I was really excited to flip that. I wanted him to just be used for sex and to be a foil for her journey, I thought this is actually kind of fun [laughs].
So true, I wonder if they would have given that note if the genders were reversed…
Ben: No, never!
Fighting the good fight, we appreciate it! So what’s coming up for you next?
Ben: Right now I’m in the middle of shooting a couple of episodes for a six part series for Foxtel called “Fighting Season” which should be out before Anzac Day next year, which is really exciting, and I’m one of those people who has as many things in development as possible. I have three novels optioned at the moment which are in various stages of screenplay readiness. We should be going to cast pretty soon and hopefully one of those will shoot sometime next year. I think I’ve sort of identified what my zone is. It’s not necessarily science fiction, but sort of a cyber punk / anti corporation dystopian is something that I have hit a nerve with, so most of the projects that I’m developing are either political thrillers or corporate espionage thrillers, or science fiction – addressing that kind of stuff.
Fantastic, definitely need more of those! And will you film here in Australia?
Ben: I hope so. I like being here and I think there’s a bit of change in the tide for the sort of things we’re producing at the moment. We’ve got a little bit more imagination cooking in the content we’re releasing at the moment. I’d rather be part of that than drop everything and rush overseas.
Thanks so much for your time Ben.
Ben: Thank you!
“OtherLife” is playing 16 and 18 June at the Sydney Film Festival. Tickets available here.