[Fantasia Fest 2020] Interview: Minor Premise writer/director Eric Schultz

In a slight pivot from his work producing films like James White and The Heart Machine, Eric Schultz has made his directorial debut with Minor Premise, a complex and greatly entertaining science fiction thriller which recently premiered at this year’s all-online edition of Fantasia Film Festival.

Attempting to surpass his father’s legacy, an Indian American neuroscientist becomes entangled in his own experiment, pitting ten fragments of his consciousness against each other.

Co-written with Justin Moretto and Thomas TorreyMinor Premise was one of the most intricate and interesting features on Fantasia’s line-up. Indie film distributor Utopia Distribution seems to agree – they’ve picked it up for digital distribution worldwide later this year.

Eric kindly took the time to speak with me about Minor Premise‘s approach to the field of neuroscience, its sci-fi cinema inspirations and his future projects.

Minor Premise deals with some very big concepts within neuroscience. I was curious as to whether that’s something you have any particular background in, or if that’s just more of a personal fascination that you decided to delve more into.

Eric: Not specifically – I don’t have a degree in neuroscience. But one of my co-writers, Justin Moretto, actually has a full-time job as a neuroscientist. He has a BA in Neuroscience, and then he got a Master’s, I believe, in biochemical engineering from Johns Hopkins. So he became the generator for a lot of the authenticity and intensity that you feel in the film with the neuroscience concepts. It kind of went into everything, from making sure that the the production design was very authentic – the gamma knife, all the instruments that he uses and how he would actually go about using those – Justin became a real resource for all those things. And, of course, for a lot of the jargon and the philosophy around it. I actually studied psychology in college as an undergrad, so I certainly dabbled in part of that in neuroscience courses. But I was never specialised in neuroscience – I was much more interested in psychology of the mind and self-actualization. Maslow’s theories about self-actualization and the hierarchy of needs, things like that. So there were a lot of things in the story that connected with my work, things I wanted to communicate and had been interested in.

I appreciated that the film isn’t purely hard scientific concepts – it does address the importance of humanity and feelings even in the realm of science. It leads you to think that science can’t completely ignore the human experience.

I’m a massive Twin Peaks fan, so it was nice to see Dana Ashbrook in this film. His niece Paton also stars in a significant role; how did you end up bringing both of them onto the project?

Eric: Well, Paton came in for an audition and was terrific. She had this sort of gravity and intellectual seriousness that that character needed. She’s also very fierce. I think I told her one time she was kind of like a throwback, you know, like a Gina Davis or Sigourney Weaver type star from the 80s and 90s. Which is like a lot of the references in this film, like The Fly, other Cronenberg films and other science-heavy sci-fi films from that era. But she came in as an audition. She’s a New York local and I was just really impressed with her. As for Dana, we did a late recasting of the Malcolm role, and Dana was generous enough to come in on a moment’s notice and quickly read for the part. It was very obvious from that that he was the right fit, and I was honored to have him play this role opposite his niece. So that was really, really cool! It’s cool to have an Ashbrook reunion on set.

You mentioned Cronenberg films like The Fly. How much of an influence was that older era of science fiction cinema? I ask because it doesn’t delve into full-on B-movie territory; how did you decide how much to let that inspiration bleed into your film?

Eric: Quite a lot – definitely Cronenberg. We don’t go full body horror in the movie, but the deterioration of Ethan’s physical state was definitely something that, as I was watching Cronenberg and how extreme that he takes it in a much more fantastical way, it was something that’s like “oh yeah, we should be thinking about incorporating that into the film”, and the stakes that that creates.

I mean, The Fly is a really good example, and it’s funny – I hope I don’t go off on a tangent on this – but that movie opens in such a cool way with Jeff Goldblum. It’s just like, “so, what am I working on?”. That’s literally how the movie opens; with that line. And it has a really sort of punchy, immediate rapport between his character and Gina Davis’s character.

I think the other thing that’s cool about sci-fi: a movie like Altered States, where the initial premise is not what the final premise becomes. Like in The Fly, he’s trying to figure out a teleportation device, and that ends up resulting in other things. You think the movie is going to be something about teleporting and teleportation technology, and it becomes about the mash-up of his genetics and the fly. Altered States is similar, where William Hurt’s going down this path of isolation chambers and exploring psychedelics – and all of a sudden he turns into this like, prehistoric caveman. Like, where the hell did that come from – that wasn’t set up in the first act!

So I would watch these movies, and it definitely gave me a little bit of permission to be like, “oh, this is kind of cool!”. You can start in one obsessive track with the character having a very distinct goal that they’re trying to approach, and through the circumstances of the experiment going wrong, it delves into a totally different direction. In Minor Premise, it really starts with the machine that his father creates that’s all about dealing with memory and extracting memory, and then the evolution of that is about controlling emotions and emotional states, and basically turning levers on and off with our personalities – and then the implications of that when it becomes fractured. So those were all sorts of things that I thought about with movies of that era, and then there were obviously a lot of other references.

More recent references like Pi and Primer were two of the biggest. Stylistically, Enemy is a huge reference in terms of the look and the tone of the film, as well as the structure and some of the editing. I’m luck enough to have worked with Matt Hannam, who was the editor of Enemy. He edited one of the first movies that I ever produced, called James White. Minor Premise was an absolute bear in the edit room, and he was gracious enough to watch an early cut of it and help us figure out some of the early structural problems about how we introduce this world to the audience and get them sucked into Ethan’s obsessive, self-imposed predicament.

As you said, there’s a lot of setting up of his state at the beginning of the film, and it becomes more complex as the various elements of his concsciousness fragment. I imagine that can’t have been the easiest thing to edit in a way that’s compelling in terms of mystery, without losing the viewer in the weeds.

Eric: Yeah, that was something that we were always conscious about. Whenever you’re making a film, you always have to be aware of what the pitfalls of it could be. And that was one of them: what is the level of confusion that we want the audience to feel? Where is that level of confusion exciting and intentional, and in line with the themes of the movie and the subjectivity of Ethan’s confusion towards his own experience? We’re wanting the audience to be in this claustrophobic headspace with him and figuring things out alongside him. But where does it get to the point where it becomes so confusing that the audience disengages? We never wanted to cross that line. That’s not to say that there aren’t certain people that might experience that, but certainly when you’re calibrating it for yourself and your own taste, it’s sort of embracing that as the DNA of the film and being aware of it in a way that calibrates it to where you think the audience is going to participate the most.

In terms of what you plan to work on next, I know things like that are a little uncertain right now. But are the themes in this film, particularly neuroscience, something you’re looking to further develop? Or do you plan to go down another path entirely?

Eric: We’ve got a couple of things in the works that we’re excited about. First, the gang wants to get back together again and do a sequel to Minor Premise. We want to pick up with some of the questions that you’re left with at the end of the film and try to tell the next chapter of the story. What I’m excited for is that it’s telling the story from Alli’s perspective, whereas the first film is very much subjectively Ethan’s. The second one is subjectively her film, and it explores what it’s like to have achieved what you thought you always wanted, in terms of family and career, and to still have questions and doubts and to still have paranoia about whether or not the life that you’re living is the truth or a lie. That, unsurprisingly, is titled Major Premise.

We’d love to make that, and we’re actually working on developing that with Utopia, our distribution partner. I also have a football thriller/drama that I want to do as a director. It’s something totally different in some ways, but in some ways also the same, like characters with the same sort of obsessive footprint as Ethan. I was a college football player myself, so it’s actually a story that’s even more personal to me, and sort of raw in that way. It’s kind of in the vein of films like Beau Travail by Claire Denis or Black Swan – dark rivalry films where characters become so obsessive that they go off the rails.

I’m also producing some other films. You know, before directing, I had worked with a lot of other filmmakers as a producer. So this has been a really great experience for me, not only to learn the craft of directing and become a better filmmaker, but it’s kind of informed how I want to be as a producer going forward, and to be able to empathise much more clearly with the directors that I work with. So there’s a couple of projects that I’m really excited about; one of which was going to be in production during the summer before everything took a turn. It’s a film called Stay Away that is a family drama that deals with the opioid crisis. A really, really great film from a first time director.

Fantastic. I’ll keep an eye out for that, hopefully down the track it can all come together.

Eric: Yeah, no, totally. All these things are up in the air in this current environment. But I think we’re all just trying to find opportunities to move forward, and you just have to adapt to the environment that you’re given. Not just as a filmmaker, but in whatever you’re doing.

Yeah, I mean, some of the greatest film genres and movies have come out of post-war culture and things like that. Things are difficult to do right now, and it’s not easy to even feel creative, but time has proven that it can be done. Hopefully we all come out through everything this year for the better!

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