Writer/Director Joel Guelzo Pours 2 1/2 Years into Sci-Fi Feature 'Norman'
When you launch a Kickstarter campaign and track its position on Kickstarter's Discover page, you quickly realize you have Kickstarter neighbors. These are campaigns that launched around the same time as yours or happen to share the same popularity rating. Of course, I love checking out Kickstarter campaigns for films, and soon my Kickstarter neighbor Norman captivated me. After backing the project to help writer/director Joel Guelzo get funding to finish the film's VFX, I realized his DIY feature project would resonate with the NFS audience. So, I asked Joel a few questions. Check out our interview below to hear Joel tell us the background of his sci-fi labor of love, Norman.
Before we jump into the interview, here's Joel's Kickstarter pitch video, which starts with the trailer for Norman and then gives a great behind-the-scenes look at the project.
NFS: Give us the logline for NORMAN.
Joel Guelzo: A time traveler is trapped in the past with only his A.I. companion. He must build a way back to the future before the world collapses.
NFS: I'm intrigued. Tell us a little more about the story.
JG: Norman is a feature-length sci-fi film about a time traveler and his A.I. companion. Norman is a scientist who lives in the future, and is an only child. After his parents are killed in an accident, he realizes there isn’t anyone else he truly cares about that is alive. He has no close friends or family that he cares about, so from that day on, he pours his entire energy into his research.
The only thing Norman truly cares about is his work. He has never felt like he belongs in the world into which he was born, and his research into manipulating time has shaped his entire being. This film follows Norman’s adventure when he gets stuck in the past with only his A.I. companion to keep him company. Every day that goes by, the world becomes more and more unstable as Norman starts to change the future bit by bit. All he wants is to undo what he has done and to return to the future without causing any further damages.
NFS: Where did the story come from?
JG: This story has been brewing in my mind for almost eight years now. I originally conceived of the idea when I was at a friend's house, and after using the restroom, I noticed something funny with his sink. After shutting off the sink, I noticed it was still dripping very slowly. Suddenly, the pipes from the sink began to vibrate, and the walls of the bathroom began to shake. I quickly turned the sink off tightly and the vibrations stopped. This gave me an odd idea about a man who could stumble upon this weird happening, and as a result have a eureka moment that helps him create a fantastic device in which to travel through time. I toyed around with the idea of using harmonics and vibration patterns as the foundation of a time-travel story. I thought it was quirky enough to be interesting visually, and would be just a weird and new way to represent time travel.
A lot of the themes in the film focus on the idea that we as people are always searching around the corner for that next big thing, and that sometimes those big things never come around. Norman is led on a great journey because he feels he doesn’t belong, that there is something greater waiting for him, only to find out that the end he is looking for brings him back to beginning. Sometimes it's the journey that we should cherish rather than the final goal.
NFS: In your pitch video, you say you've been working on the film for two-and-a-half years. Is that how long the shoot has taken with starts and stops? When you started, did you think it would take this long?
JG: We started filming in March 2012, and we finished principal photography in November 2013. I started writing the official script in late summer of 2011, and production started in 2012. We didn’t shoot constantly for over a year-and-a-half because the budget was dictated by whatever means I had. The shooting dates were flexible because I couldn’t afford to take time off from my day job to work on Norman full-time.
We would film on the weekends usually, about two to three times a month. I was hoping to finish the filming within 2-3 months, but my main actor ended up getting a really good job in Florida and he moved there just as we were about to finish principal photography. This caused a filming delay of about six months.
During the delay, I prepped for the last 3-4 days of shooting, which involved building a custom science lab from scratch, coming up with dozens of weapons and costumes for a battle scene in my film, as well as securing locations, buying four giant work lights, getting a generator, painting, building props, etc. Having the delay was helpful though because it gave me extra time to fine tune the script. This extra time with the story sitting in my head gave me ideas on how to improve the story and to fix any plot holes I might have missed the first time through.
NFS: The cinematography and existing VFX look strong. What exactly do you need for VFX for the A.I. tablet to achieve your vision?
JG: This film has three main characters. Norman, his companion A.I. tablet, A.N.I., and Jenny, an online grocery delivery service employee. Norman spends most of his time alone with this device he uses to help build a way back to the future. Without proper effects for A.N.I., this film simply won’t work. I need to be able to track and composite a computer UI, or a "face", onto the glass display I built for the character of A.N.I. There are roughly 75-90 shots that need to be completed to bring her to life. She will be accompanied by a voice with lines that are very sarcastic and humorous. I am really excited to bring A.N.I. to life. She was my favorite character to write because I am personally very sarcastic, and I thought that would be fun to put a little of myself into the character.
NFS: Tell us a little about your writing process.
JG: I listen to a lot of music as I write. I love melancholy musical pieces. I tend to gravitate towards bittersweet realistic stories. I have never been a happy-ending type of storyteller. I am okay with happy endings, but they better really earn that happy ending. I hate it when a film has a happy ending that hasn’t been fully earned.
I tend to lock myself up in a room for hours at a time, pop on headphones and just write and write and write. I try not to fix what I write as I go, because I just want to get ideas down on paper before I forget them. I allow myself to go back days later and re-read what I wrote. Many times, I delete whole sections and change entire ideas. Allowing myself to, for a lack of a better word, vomit my ideas out all at once, then sort through them later, is extremely helpful to me.
I think one of the most important things about making a film, or doing anything, is knowing what you are terrible at. This may sound dumb, but I think this is so key to knowing what your strengths are. If you accurately know what your weaknesses are, and admit to needing help in those areas, your project or idea will go a lot further than sweeping it under the table, and pretending you're good enough to get by.
For example, I know I am not great at writing dialogue, so what I do is write my general idea down of what I want to convey. Then I have lots of conversations with personal friends I trust who are very good at wording things. They look over what I wrote, give me suggestions and ideas, and I change things from there. Never be afraid to admit something you're bad at. You can’t be 100% amazing at everything. Be amazing at a few things, instead of mediocre at a lot of things. If I know I can pull off an action scene through camera angles, I work that to my advantage rather than thinking I can get 100% realistic CGI effects to do it for me. Know your strengths, and know when to change your ideas if you’re not strong enough in that particular area.
NFS: Your Kickstarter is already successful with several more days to go. What will the stretch goal of $12K let you accomplish? And when do you expect to complete the film?
JG: The Kickstarter campaign has blown my mind actually. It is very hard for me to ask for money in any way. Seeing how people have reacted to my film’s trailer has been truly humbling, and also exciting. This great feedback has really motivated me again to make my film the best I can. Working on a film for so long, with only the money I can personally put towards it is really, really hard. There is no one out there foaming at the mouth to see this, no deadlines, no pressure really. The only way to push through is to give yourself deadlines, to keep pushing yourself. I have to be my own producer and whip-cracker. It is truly hard to keep yourself motivated throughout such a long period of time when you're not sure if the end product will be worth it.
Any extra funding that is raised with the extra days I have left for my Kickstarter will go towards polishing the finished product, as well as allow me to film a few extra scenes. These scenes would be a bit more elaborate to show off the world that Norman inhabits, from the future to the past. Any new scene will truly add something to the film that I wished I could have filmed in the first place.
My projected finish date right now is end of 2014, but I'm allowing a little extra time if need be. I have another project I have been hired to direct this year. So depending on how that project goes, Norman might be slightly delayed. Hopefully all will go well, and Norman will be completed and available by the end of 2014. I want to release it when it's completely done and I love it personally.
Thanks to Joel for taking time during his busy Kickstarter campaign to answer a few of our questions. What do you think about Joel's DIY sci-fi project Norman? Share your thoughts and constructive feedback with us in the comments. Links: