Ultrasound is the feature film directorial debut of Rob Schroeder, whose previous directorial work includes music videos including The Postal Service‘s ‘Against All Odds’ and PBS’ Emmy-winning television series Variety Studio: Actors On Actors.
Blending speculative fiction and psychological thrills, Ultrasound was adapted by cartoonist and screenwriter Connor Stechschulte from his graphic novel series Generous Bosom. Starring Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Chelsea Lopez (Novitiate), Breeda Wool (Mr. Mercedes), Tunde Adebimpe (Perry Mason, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Rainey Qualley (Love in the Time of Coronoa), Ultrasound is a multi-narrative tale weaving together the fates of three strangers who may be connected in ways beyond their comprehension.
Driving home late at night during a heavy rainstorm, Glen experiences car trouble. Near where his car gets stuck, he spots a house, knocks on the door and is greeted by an oddly friendly middle-aged man, Arthur, and his younger wife, Cyndi. The strange couple pours him a drink, and then more drinks, followed by an unexpected offer that Glen can’t refuse. Elsewhere, a young woman, Katie, is feeling emotionally weighed down by a secret romantic arrangement that feels like a textbook case of gaslighting. And at the same time, in a nondescript research facility, medical professional Shannon begins questioning her role in a bizarre experiment, fearing that she’s doing more harm than good.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Rob about his approach to adapting Ultrasound from graphic novel to the big screen, how composer Zak Engels and sound designer Bob Barrito worked in tandem to create the film’s disorienting soundscape and the film’s visions of promising technology misdirected for nefarious means.
You worked closely with Conor Stechschulte to adapt his graphic novel Generous Bosom into a feature film as Ultrasound. What was your collective process for reshaping that original work into a screenplay and then a full feature film?
Rob: It’s an interesting process that we got into, and Connor can explain it really well, too. He’d written two books out of four when I reached out to him about adapting this to a film. I picked up these books at my local shop and got caught up in the story, but there was still a lot more to tell. I reached out to him, and he explained the whole story which he had outlined in his head. He came out to L.A. and we worked for about a week.
He wrote a screenplay for the entire story, and then set out to finishing the graphic novel with the next two books. So books three and four are sort of adapted from the screenplay that he wrote, if that makes sense. It was a little bit like Game of Thrones with books and screenplays, and became this big, weird process.
As far as the books, especially Book One and Book Two, they go down a lot of cul-de-sacs, and you spend more time with the characters and get to live with them a little bit. It’s a bigger story. The book is being published; it’s nearly four hundred pages. So it’s a big graphic novel. One of the guides going in was that I told Connor: “we’ve got to keep this thing at 110 pages or something…we can’t write a 200-page script and think that I’m ever going to get this made”. So it was a lot of pruning.
Ultrasound is an elaborate film, almost always one step ahead of the audience and teasing out some of the mystery but never tipping its entire hand until the final act. Was it difficult to accomplish that balance with the limitations of the film medium compared to the comparative freedoms Connor would have had with the graphic novel?
Rob: I felt that almost every scene is kind of a necessity. There were a couple of things that came out at the end that maybe the audience didn’t need, but I tried to keep the audience in consideration the whole time. I didn’t want to explain it away, I wanted the audience to figure it out on their own and try to shoot it in a way that allowed the audience to do the work. There’s a little bit of explanation going on.
Sometimes we would shoot a little extra just in case, but until you actually sit down with the edit, it’s very hard to know if the audience would be totally confused or not from the page – especially because once you know the story, you can’t un-know it.
As a filmmaker, once I knew the whole story and I knew what was happening, I knew how it was going to end and I knew what everyone was doing, the challenge was to hope that the audience would learn those things in good time.
The score by Zak Engels uses some very interesting techniques that really disorient the viewer, such as what sounds like the Shepherd Scale with its auditory illusion of rising and falling pitch. What were your main objectives with the soundscape of Ultrasound, outside of general emotional impact?
Rob: We did talk about that, the constantly increasing pitch. I wanted for the audio to be a narrative element, so that when you heard certain cues you knew that something was happening in the story. Zach worked very closely with Bobb Barito, who was our sound designer. I wanted their work, the score and the sound design, to blend together. I think they shared a lot of assets. So maybe Bob would make a sound that would be a tone coming out of a device, and he would give it to Zack to use in the score, or vice versa. I wanted for that all to blend, and for the audience to have to listen for clues. There are some triggers in there that advance the story a little bit.
Among other themes, the film tackles the idea of revolutionary technology with applications like mental health care being at risk of being hijacked for nefarious means, especially in capitalist ventures and military use. With developing technologies like Neuralink that Elon Musk is frequently promoting, are you quite concerned with the impact that could be ahead of us?
Rob: Yeah, I do. It’s something that Breeda Wool – who plays Shannon – and I talked a lot about. Shannon has very good intentions when she takes that job at the corporation, but the corporation isn’t necessarily doing good things. I think it’s an interesting time, because there are so many big corporations in this space that you’re talking about. A lot of good people are working there, trying to do good things – but realities are shifting.
ULTRASOUND is now available in theaters and On Demand, courtesy of Magnet Releasing.