SXSW 2018 Film Interview: Human Rights Filmmaker Jason Outenreath

Making its world premiere at this year's SXSW was the feature-length documentary They Live Here, Now, conceived and directed by human rights filmmaker Jason Outenreath. Shot on location at Casa Marianella, an emergency homeless shelter in East Austin, it depicts the daily lives of recently arrived immigrants as they relate their frequently harrowing stories about their journeys to the United States.

With this film, Outenreath pushed the boundaries of the documentary format by blending actual portraits of immigrants who live at Casa Marianella with scripted characters who were drawn from real life. Here, he explains the reasons for this unorthodox approach.

Your feature-length documentaries, They Live Here, Now and

Country Kids, as well as a number of your short films, have focused on immigration.

Can you tell us about why this is frequently your subject?

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua for a couple of years. I studied in Mexico, and I also lived there afterward. I developed close relationships with the people there. When I came back to the U.S., I sought out groups that were immigration-oriented. As a filmmaker, I felt a social responsibility to respond to what was happening and how people were being treated. Immigrants deserve to be treated with the same dignity as any other human being.

How did you locate Casa Marianella?

I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. Someone in passing mentioned Casa Marianella to me and said, “You might be interested in this place.” I began visiting it on a fairly regular basis, not with a camera or anything, but I was just blown away by the community and the diversity of people coming there. When I was pitching my project to them, it involved talking to the entire house, just standing in front of immigrants from 20 or 30 countries.

It was something that left a really deep impression on me. As I realized the gravity of this place in Austin that deserved more attention for the services it was providing, it also needed to be celebrated for the immigrants and what they had gone through to get there.

How long did it take to secure the subjects and make the film?

It took about three and a half years. I make relationship-based films, and I'm very concerned with the connections I make. So I spent the first year, you might say, in preproduction, forging those relationships and learning about the house before I began filming at all. The editing process took about a year and a half to complete, and I edited it myself.

Filmmaker Jason Outenreath talks about his new film, “They Live Here, Now" at SXSW. Photo: Kurt Gardner.

 

Were there some people who were afraid to come on camera and tell their stories?

Yes, they were divided along two lines. There were a lot of people who didn't want to appear on camera or who were very afraid of what that would mean to their legal status or their families in their home countries. At the same time, there were also people who wanted to be heard. My job as a filmmaker was to work with the people who wanted to share their stories while also respecting their privacy.

I didn't set out to make a political film, but I have my political ideas, and they're embedded in it. I think it goes back to the respect that people deserve, regardless of where they're from or what their circumstances are.

In terms of adding the narrative story to the piece, what was the purpose?

There were two main goals I had with interweaving that story. As a documentary filmmaker, one of the questions that I ask is, “What constitutes social reality?” I'm always interested in pushing the boundaries and asking both myself and the audience, “What really is documentary?” I had artistic reasons for doing it, too, and it does enrich the story of Casa Marianella.

I had ethical reasons as well. I wanted to show aspects of the house that were essential to that experience, but I couldn't get conversations with lawyers and recent arrivals who just came to the house. Those are things you just can't film without putting someone's actual legal status at risk, so they were some of the reasons I decided to weave in the fictional narrative.

The storyline of the fictional character [Nayeli] would have been impossible to film without the reality of the house and the reality of the people she was interacting with. She was a composite character of a lot of people I'd met, working at the border and living in Mexico and Nicaragua. The actress [Regina Casillas] brought a lot to the role. I feel like I've met that character before.

She blends quite well into the film, too.

Right. Nobody was told that she was an actress. I wanted it to appear as if she was coming to Casa Marianella for the first time. She went through all the actual steps that someone would go through to be taken in. I had in mind the arc for her story, but a lot of the scenes were improvised. I just gave general direction, like, “You're going to cook rice,” and she would say, “I don't know how to do that,” and I would say, “Figure it out.”

What do you want to inspire in viewers who see the film?

I'd like people to identify with the immigrants in it who were brave enough to share their really personal stories. Hopefully, they'll take a stake in the next chapter of this story, since it's not really a culminating project so much as it is ongoing. I hope people will watch it and think, “I really need to do something about this. I need to be a part of the solution.”

It's obvious you're going to continue to tell these stories.

Right. I wouldn't say solely immigration, but I can see myself continuing in the specific vein of human rights films. I feel a very strong need to use filmmaking to tell humanizing stories about people.

Where is They Live Here, Now going next?

That's in process at the moment. I'd personally love to see it shown in schools and educational institutions. It's so important to humanize the issue, especially with younger generations, since they are the people who will be making some of the decisions in the future.

The PBS documentary series Independent Lens would be a great place, too.

Absolutely. Other festivals as well.

What other projects do you have in development?

I'm working on my first fiction feature film, which I'll be shooting this summer. I'm also working on a web series about the indigenous cultures of Oaxaca, Mexico.

 

Featured photo: 'They Live Here, Now': Refugee Teo sits thoughtfully before lights out at the Austin based refugee house, Casa Marianella. Photo: Jason Outenreath.


SXSW 2018 Film Interview: Talking VR with Telexist's Sam Gezari

Among the more intriguing offerings at this year's SXSW was the Virtual Cinema space at the JW Marriott. There, attendees had the opportunity to experience the next wave of immersive cinema. I was invited to view Telexist's VR thriller Dinner Party and interview one of the company's founders, Sam Gezari. It made for quite a memorable morning.

Dinner Party is based on the true story of Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple who reported America's first-known alien abduction incident in 1961. Undergoing hypnosis to recover memories of their experience, they play back the recordings at a dinner party, and it all comes flooding back. The viewer is transported into the story in a completely immersive and striking fashion.

Gezari is an eager proponent of VR storytelling. Here, he talks about the creative process and where he sees the technique going in the future.

Left to right: Telexist founders Erik Donley and Sam Gezari. Photo by Kurt Gardner.

Talk about the origins of your company.

[Telexist co-founder Erik Donley] and I started out in traditional filmmaking. We began literally in my home studio and moved into a basement apartment. It kept growing from three to five to eight people. Now we're in a studio in mid-city Los Angeles that has enough space for us to continue to grow. We're all working on really specific projects. We have people who are only stitching, painting and rotoscoping, 3D modeling, world-building, and so on.

I think that the origin stories are really just driven by our need to find a way to do it. There was really nobody out there who was doing it on a small scale. There are a couple of companies out there doing this that are just massive, and here we are taking on this type of work. We wanted to get going, build the momentum and create the types of projects we wanted to. We had to go out and find these individuals who were excited about it and wanted to come on board and make that stuff happen.

And it's a specialty that you don't go to school to learn.

Exactly. About half of the people who work with us are trained in general VFX, specifically 3D modeling. Because the software is constantly changing, when we need a tool that doesn't exist yet, we end up working with the company that makes that software. It's user-driven creative toolmaking!

On Dinner Party, for instance, we encountered things that I think had never been done before — combining 3D particle work with 3D live capture, putting those two things together and making them seamless and integrated. At every other turn, there'd be an obstacle we'd face. There's no edit board out there, no solution, no documentation on how you can do this stuff. So a lot of it, even the really technical stuff, is incredibly creative. These artists are technicians — really creative technicians. it requires thinking outside the box.

They probably loved the challenges.

So much. They probably hated them as well. A two-month turnaround on a project like this is absolutely unheard of, and something we won't do again, just in terms of our own sanity. The project's something we're very proud of, however.

Unwittingly, we created a VFX house. Every frame of a film is VFX, and that's something that wasn't entirely clear in the beginning. We're using incredibly complex software, lots of really robust computers. You're taking a series of flat planes, distorting them and blending the edges to create a seamless image. We're bringing together a lot of different capture methods and changing the way post is done.

A lot of times you see VR projects in which people will change the creative to serve the technology, but creative is king. Telling the story in narrative VR is what we're focused on doing. Everything we do from a technical standpoint is to serve the creative and not the other way around. It's our mantra.

We have 130 years of filmmaking under our belt. All that visual language can be applied to this new medium. Plus there's the added advantage of the kind of user experience — the viewer integration. There's a symbiotic relationship between the viewer and what they're watching. A lot of the VR content we've seen thus far is still a traditional film, just forced into a VR headset. I think really utilizing what virtual reality has to offer means making the viewer part of the storytelling process.

Emerging technology — art, science — is actually the future of this medium. Creating empathy and making people feel things is what good storytelling does. This medium already does that because of the forced focus, surrounding you with images in the same way that we live our lives. It's already good at creating emotional content. We just need to have a smarter way to tell the stories and let the medium work for us.

In the process of developing this storytelling, do you have proprietary programs you've created?

Yes. That's a big part of it. There's a lot of open source software out there, a lot of tools available to us. We have developed some of this technology. It's in the background, hidden behind the story. It's not nefarious in any way. It allows us to have a better understanding of what people are seeing and how they're watching things. That's why VR has this amazing potential.

The ‘Dinner Party' set in the SXSW Virtual Cinema space. Photo by Kurt Gardner.

Dinner Party is part of a series, right?

It's part of a series called The Incident which is currently ten episodes, maybe more. They're all based on true stories of paranormal incidents. For that reason, they work really well. There's something special about Dinner Party. It's a really good story. It's something that, when it came across our desk, we really wanted to make. It's really cinematic. It has what you look for in a VR project, which is a good story and really strong visual potential. Too often, I think you only see one or the other.

Obviously this new technology requires new distribution methods. What do you have lined up for The Incident?

There's definitely a lot of interest and potential. Ideally, it would be a platform that would allow it to be seen as widely as possible. In this instance, this is a passive VR film. There is no interactivity; there is no user-influenced storytelling, but it's shot in such a way that mimics the films we admire and look to for inspiration. It's all one shot using Technocrane, so the camera glides through the world, and you're present during all these intimate moments without a need for a reason why you're there. Moving through this world and different points in time makes it feel very authentic.

Are there any other out-of-the-box projects you're working on?

Yes, a couple of projects, including one called Memory Palace, which was just announced in the trades a couple of weeks ago. It's a neo-noir crime thriller set in the near future. Our main protagonist is a recently-disbarred lawyer whose wife was mysteriously murdered. He is on a quest for revenge and to seek the truth behind who did it.

As the viewer, you're his sixth sense. He's got a kind of a truth-telling ability. He's a bit of a human polygraph. The way it's filmed is incredibly cinematic — live capture in a lot of cases combined with the techniques I mentioned. It's awfully interactive. You actually enter into his memory palace. Through the clues you've collected by watching the film, you access more storylines, see more indepth coverage, learn more about the characters and so on.

This particular project is designed not just for HMDs and interactive headsets but is actually designed to be viewed on any screen so you can have a cinematic experience wherever you watch this. If you have advanced headsets, you get more interactivity and motion-sensing capability. You can interact with it. AR elements have also been designed for mobile devices which allow geotech, so you can find clues out in the real world. We've even incorporated voice activated software, so if you have an Alexa or Google Home, that story actually continues on those devices. It's multiplatform, multidimensional storytelling.

Featured photo: Betty and Barney Hill, Dinner Party. Credit: Skybound Entertainment


SXSW 2018 Film Interview: Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho, Producers of 'Heavy Trip'

The producers of ‘Heavy Trip' talk about the making of first Finnish comedy to premiere at SXSW.

Touted as the first Finnish comedy ever to premiere at SXSW, Heavy Trip is the story of a group of best friends who are members of a band named Impaled Rektum, possibly the most obscure heavy metal group in Finland.

They've been perfecting their style in the basement for the past 12 years, but their ultimate dream is to escape their confines of their tiny village and land a real gig. When they stumble upon an original sound, they throw caution to the wind and hit the road to play the hottest metal music festival in Norway.

This delightfully offbeat comedy provides amusing jabs at familiar metal clichés, as well as a cast of characters that you can root for.

Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho, the film's producers and partners in the production company, Making Movies Oy, sat down with me on Saturday, Mar. 10 at SXSW to discuss the development of the film and the challenges of making the most expensive Finnish comedy ever produced.

What was the inspiration for Heavy Trip?

Kai Nordberg: It was the inspiration of the directors (Jukka Vidgren and Juuso Laatio), who came up with the idea for the film. We grew up in the ‘70s, the golden era of heavy rock coming up in Europe. So these two guys came up with a script that had all the rock clichés, but still treated it with respect. It was something we found inspiring. And it's great music!

Are any of the characters based on fact?

KN: Yes! The directors!

Kaarle Aho: Especially the [character] with the long hair (Turo) was loosely based on one of the directors. He was from a small village and he used to play heavy metal music. The real inspiration for him was having grown up in a small place where having long hair and listening to heavy metal music was a weird thing to do. It made him an outsider.

The way the characters in the film are ostracized, too. How popular is metal in Scandinavia?

KN: I wouldn't say all of Scandinavia. It's Finland and Norway. It's not popular in Sweden or Denmark. But it's still huge, especially in the countryside, outside the biggest cities. It's hard to say why, but it's a fact that Finland has the most metal bands per capita in the world. And Norway is number two.

KA: It must be something to do with the weather — or the aggressiveness of the music!

And it's the villages where it's popular.

KA: Yes, the villages. Hipsters live in the big cities.

How does it feel to have the first Finnish comedy premiere at SXSW?

KN: It's a huge honor and a huge achievement. We've been in business for 25 years, and...

KA: It's also the first comedy for our company.

Kaarle Aho and Kai Nordberg, producers of the Finnish heavy metal comedy ‘Heavy Trip' at SXSW (Photo: Kurt Gardner)

How do you think Americans will receive the film?

KN: I think it will go down very well. Much of the comedy is unintentional. It's based on the characters. We don't laugh at the characters — we laugh with them.

And I recognized the metal tropes. They're universal.

KN: Absolutely.

How were the actors cast?

KN: Basically, the directors had some ideas of who could be whom, and their main idea was not to take the most obvious guys — the famous ones — and bring in new faces.

KA: Did they all know how to play instruments beforehand?

KN: No, not at all. In the band, there are four characters and they each represent a genre. One is sub-heavy metal, one is thrash, one is death, one is shampoo metal. I was just at our domestic premiere, speaking with the costume designer. She said it was a very careful process to find costumes for every guy, for him to present a certain type of music within the genre.

There are some interesting special effects in the film. How were those handled?

KN: They were all done in Belgium, one of the co-producing countries of film.

KA: It was the last missing piece of the puzzle. We needed a co-producer to take care of the special effects.

KN: In terms of content, what special effects do you mean?

The characters jumping into the sea, the explosions; the huge concert venue.

KN: Basically, all of Norway, the mountains and the fjords, it's all built up. Most of it was shot in Helsinki. But it all comes down to the content. How can we put together a huge concert where they could perform? At some stage, we realized it was too complicated to do it outside.

KA: We wanted to go to a real festival and do it outside...

KN: We contacted festivals in Finland and Norway, but they have their own agendas. They can't just let us put an extra gig in the middle of their festival. So we said, “Okay. Let's have the concert in a cave, a huge cave." We started looking for that kind of location to see if it was possible, but it was not. There are a lot of shipyards in Helsinki, so finally we used a big shipyard building.

The effects do the job, and they do it well. They give the film a polish.

KN: That's true.

What was the most challenging thing about making Heavy Trip?

KN: It wasn't easy, I tell ya. It was such a great project. Still, at the end of the day, I would say it was the comedy side of it. Comedy is the most difficult genre in all arts. You can move the storyline, you can build up the characters, but is it going to be funny? This is the question. Is it going to work? Is this joke going to go over with the audience at all?

KA: Our domestic premiere in Finland was this past Tuesday. It was the first time we saw the film with a real audience. Still, ten minutes before the film, we didn't know if people were going to laugh. And you know, it's very embarrassing to make a film where no one's laughing.

KN: Luckily, they did laugh. They seemed to enjoy themselves.

Heavy Trip -Trailer (official) from Making Movies Oy on Vimeo.

Featured photo: Left to right: Max Ovaska, Samuli Jaskio and Johannes Holopainen in 'Heavy Trip' (Photo: Making Movies 2017)