Writer-director-actor Ela Thier convinced B&H Photo to help make her genre-defying 'Tomorrow Ever After' a reality.
A historian from 600 years in the future time travels back to 2015 and struggles to return as she loses touch with the physicists who sent her there. Sounds like a straightforward sci-fi premise, right? Except that Tomorrow Ever After, the film wherein this story plays out, defies all the expectations of the genre.
By design, Tomorrow Ever After is more fairytale than fantasy. For one thing, it’s the present day that is considered the dark ages in the film. In writer-director-actor Ela Thier’s future, there is no money, no plastic waste, and love rules. Her character, Shaina, is horrified by how disconnected, violent, and apathetic the humans of 2015 appear to be.
"With an independent film that doesn't have names, you really have to build it like a bonfire."
The film contains virtually no special effects. That’s right—aside from a high-tech gadget that Shaina carries, we don’t see one spaceship, laserbeam, or explosion. True to its fairytale nature, director Thier found a wish-granting genie in the form of B&H Photo, which came on board to loan high-end gear to her low-budget shoot.
The resulting film has gotten such a positive response at festivals that it’s releasing in limited theaters this week, and Thier has already written a sequel that’s shooting this winter. No Film School spoke with Thier about how she got B&H on board, her unconventional stylistic choices, and what is the real secret to “talent.”
No Film School: You have a unique situation that I think many of our readers would be envious of, which is the relationship with B&H. How did you end up collaborating with them?
Ela Thier: That was actually a fluke. I teach filmmaking workshops independently. B&H has an event space, and I asked to teach a screenwriting class there. There was a line zigzagging through the store to get into my workshop. That's how I got their attention.
After that, I screened my short film there and struck up a relationship with David Brommer, who runs their event space. He loved my film and he loved my workshop and I was very reluctant to ask for something, but I clenched my fist and I said, "Hey, I'm making another movie. Do you think B&H could help?"
"I managed to make the film with a microbudget and have state-of-the-art gear."
This was for my first feature film Foreign Letters, which I shot in 2009. He was intrigued and he got on board. It was because of the help that I was able to pull it off. Then, I invited him to a table read of my second feature Tomorrow Ever After, and he was so excited. He wanted to do it all out and get us the best gear. That's how I managed to make the film with a microbudget and have state-of-the-art gear. The film was shot on a Canon EOS C500 with Canon EOS Cinema Zooms and primes. Really what makes the film beautiful, in addition to the camera, is those lenses, and my DP [Milton Kam].
NFS: It's like every filmmaker's dream.
Thier: Yeah. I started teaching screenwriting and directing because I had to make a living somehow. Like every other filmmaker, I don't [have] an income by making films, but teaching what I learned has yielded rewards way past making a living. B&H is just one example. All of my shows were funded and supported and crewed by my students.
NFS: You really flipped sci-fi on its head in this film, both in the film's premise and in the fact that it's not a VFX-heavy operation. Can you talk about wanting to do a science fiction-type piece without using the conventions of the genre?
Thier: Yeah. I heard from someone—I can't remember who it was—that said that the best science fiction writers are people who don't watch science fiction. I really don't know much about science fiction and I think that helped. I wasn't raised with the conventions and am probably not familiar with them. As the story came to me, I fell in love with it and it kind of wrote itself. It's really about the characters and the relationships and the story. To me, it's almost incidental that it has a sci-fi/fantasy element to it.
I'm a filmmaker, so I'm used to watching and thinking up stories that are really about human relationships. To me, the big chases and explosions and set pieces are the way people feel about each other. That's what every film I make is about.
“The best science fiction writers are people who don't watch science fiction.”
NFS: Is there a genre that did influence you stylistically?
Thier: I would say in terms of how I perceive this film, it’s more fairytale than a science fiction movie. That's how spoke about it with my DP. We were thinking of it as a contemporary fairytale.
NFS: What kind of other instructions did you give your DP about the look you were trying to achieve?
Thier: We used the word “fairytale” as a coat hanger that we put everything on. Everything grew out of that: the location, how we frame things, costumes. How we colored it and edited it. The music.
NFS: You did use a little bit of VFX in the futuristic computer device that your character carries. It looked so seamless, but obviously, you were on an independent budget. How did you pull that off?
Thier: I was fortunate enough that my first film Foreign Letters won an award at the Gold Coast Film Festival. That award came with a $10,000 in-kind service at Deluxe, which is part of Technicolor. I had to come up with visual effects that amounted to no more than $10,000. For that amount at Deluxe, you get like 30 seconds of visual effects. It certainly gave me a picture of what it would cost to really do an effects-heavy movie.
I was free to use that in-kind reward any way that I wanted with them. Either production or post-production. I knew that, with every other aspect of filmmaking, I could hustle favors and I could learn on the job, but when it comes to visual effects, that's not something I could do, so I decided to go for that. It was a really amazing experience to work with them. The skills of the people who work there are really inspiring and unusual for a large company. I never felt like a small film working with them. They will treat you the sameif you're making a movie with no money or you're a big studio film. I could cry talking about the respect that they treated us with.
NFS: That is really unusual and outstanding.
Thier: Yeah, sadly it is.
“I think talent is simply the confidence to be yourself.”
NFS: In your filmmaking workshops, what advice do you end up giving the most? What kind of questions do you hear over and over again?
Thier: I started out teaching screenwriting and then, by necessity, I began to produce and direct my own work. I began to teach producing and directing as well. One concept that keeps resurfacing is that I don't think talent is some special bug that some people are born with. I think talent is simply the confidence to be yourself. When a writer is really able to be themselves on the page, that’s what makes work sparkle. I think for actors, it’s the same concept. Talent is the ability to be yourself—and show yourself—when you're acting. The best actors don't act. I would venture to guess that, across the disciplines in the arts, talent is really about being able to be yourself.
Thier: Similarly, the best workshops are places where people are safe to figure out who they are and to be themselves. A lot of film schools are about criticism and judgment and competition, and how can you possibly try to be yourself under that kind of pressure? My workshops are really all about creating a safe place where people can express things and laugh when they make mistakes.
My job is not to figure out who's talented; my job is to invoke people's talent that already in there.
NFS: I'm sure our readers will find that very encouraging. Following up on that, in this particular film, you did it all! You were the writer, actor, director. Do you have any wise words for filmmakers who might want to do the same?
Thier: Either I'm a control freak or I just don't have the money to hire people. A lot of that came out of necessity, and I say this to a lot of filmmakers: building those skills became a blessing in disguise. I'd never thought I'd want to produce my own film. Every writer-director dreams of being discovered and somebody brings out a check and makes it all happen.
I'm so glad that I had to produce my own films because now, even if someone did come along and wave a magic wand, the fact that I know how to produce is going to mean that I have much better films. No one would produce [my movies] the way I would. Same with editing, and now, same with distribution.
In my first film, I thought I was lucky because I never had anything to do with distribution, and with this film, the fact that I'm self-distributing means that even if a distributor does come along, or I work with a distributor in the future, the life of the film will be very, very different because I know what it looks like to go to bat for a project.
You have to see filmmaking as a slow cooking process that takes time. Every step of the way is part of a long process, and the theatrical release is also part of a process. With an independent film that doesn't have names, you can't just light a big log; you really have to build it like a bonfire.