What follows is a conversation I recently had with filmmaker and film-school student Jason Huls that has been collaboratively edited into an interview. I worked with Jason several years ago (I actually worked on one of my first books with him) and appeared in a short video of his where all I had to do was not look like Conan O’Brien.
Find out more about Jason and his projects, including Citizen in the Temple, at his website: http://www.jasonhuls.com/.
ERIC ARIMA: What’s your background in filmmaking and how did you get interested?
JASON HULS: I went to Illinois State University and I actually started out as an English major with a Creative Writing minor. The only program ISU offered in the way of filmmaking was a Cinema Studies minor so I quickly transitioned over to that. It was more theory-based, a lot more reading and writing and studying the classics. There wasn’t a lot of production but luckily the instructor presiding over the program let me shape the courses and shoot some short films. So I was able to explore my interests through my minor and I think I spent a lot more time on those classes than I did my English classes. At the end of that program I picked up a second major and spent a year and half studying Anthropology and working on an ethnographic thesis. It wasn’t until I moved up to the Chicago area that I thought seriously about tackling a feature. I literally woke up one morning and realized I should write a script and that my friends and I already possessed the resources to see it through, so we shot a zombie movie called Late Afternoon of the Living Dead. That’s where it all started.
EA: You seem to be drawn to things that are produced?
JH: I like creating content…in multiple forms. I like making things. Early on it was writing. In my teens it was music and playing guitar. I think filmmaking, for me, is a natural combination of all the things that I like. Writing, photography, music. I feel like it was a natural direction.
EA: Tell me about your job at the university.
JH: I’m a video producer. I shoot and develop video content that supports a medical curriculum. I worked in college textbook publishing after college and when I was looking to transition into a new career field, Late Afternoon of the Living Dead was my reel. The university I’m at now used all the same camera and editing gear that I used on the movie so it was a big part of why I got the job.
EA: Is working in video production an advantage to a film school student?
JH: Sure. It helps keep you sharp. I’m used to working with deadlines, different departments and shifting priorities. That’s a great resume term, isn’t it?
EA: You’re also in film school. Tell me about the program.
JH: I’m in the MFA Digital Cinema program at DePaul University. I had been interested in film school for awhile. I toured DePaul and I liked the forward-thinking philosophy of the program so I went for it. A lot of people go for an MFA because they want to teach at the collegiate level. I just wanted the chance to spearhead a big production and come away with a calling card short. Also, honestly, I feel an MFA degree and a great project is a good way to show investors that you’re talented and that their money is safe with you.
EA: So in addition to your video producer day job, you’re also working on your MFA thesis film?
JH: Yeah. It’s a 25 page sci-fi film called Citizen in the Temple. Think 1984 meets Final Fantasy 7. There’s a lot of steampunk influence. It’s very heavy on production design and special effects, which were two challenges I looked forward to.
EA: Was there ever a time when you thought, “I’m just going to do it easy and make a buddy comedy”?
JH: [Laughs] Not so much. In my opinion, if you’re going to pursue a top-level degree, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you take the easy way out. My philosophy is that you should do the kind of thesis film that is representational of the kind of features you want to make. Then down the road when you’re pitching yourself as a filmmaker, you can say, “This is what I’m about. This is what I like,” and people will get it. Hopefully.
EA: A sci-fi movie seems like it would require more resources than other genres. Are resources available through the school?
JH: There is a lot of equipment and facilities available to students. I think location is one of the strongest elements of Citizen in the Temple. We got amazing, amazing places to use, like one-of-a-kind type of locations. The production design guys were phenomenal. They worked insane hours to make some of the sets we needed.
EA: What was your experience like with crowd-funding?
JH: I’ll say it was a success but I wouldn’t say it was a raging success. It did get me a good amount of the budget but most of the big donations still came from people I knew and were closely tied to me or the project. I did get a lot of smaller donations from people who were acquaintances and a few from people I didn’t know. I used IndieGoGo. It’s a good platform. It’s a good way to organize your information. If you use it the right way, it presents a clear message to people who might want to invest. But ultimately the challenge is still how to market the project, how to get the word out.
EA: Can you tell me a about the story of Citizen of the Temple?
JH: The story takes place on a desert wasteland planet. There is a city-state run by a Big-Brother-shadowy-oppressive government that controls every aspect of the citizens’ lives. It’s the story of a man who is involved in an underground resistance movement who ultimately has to choose between his love and his rebellion.
EA: In the production stills on your website, there’s a very distinct look especially in the lighting and some of the sets, which you’ve discussed. Can you say a little about the look of the film?
JH: I think it has a more fantasy/sci-fi appeal. I wanted a lot of stone, medieval structures with the sci-fi technology worked into it. Most of the movie has a bulky, steampunk, retro type look. High technology does exist, but the way we’ve got it positioned is that it’s only enjoyed by a thin slice of the elite. The rest of the people in the city-state are left to scavenge and work with whatever they can find. This way you end up with an interesting blend of technology levels.
EA: It looks great. For your casting process, do you go through an agency, or are these other students?
JH: We did an open casting call. I held it at DePaul on the Loop campus. The lead, Jacob Alexander, and I have worked together on several different projects. When I was writing the script I knew he was the guy. Everyone else is the result of a reference or the casting call.
EA: Coming from film school, how much of your crew have worked with before? Are any of them students fulfilling requirements?
JH: No one in the crew is using this for a class but I know a lot of them from school. It’s probably about 70% / 30%, people I’ve worked with versus new people. It was great. It was a really tight crew.
EA: What do you look for when you put a crew together?
JH: First I go to the people I know, who I trust and who I’ve worked with before. Beyond that I usually go with recommendations from people I trust. So I reach out to new people based on those recommendations. So far, so good!
EA: What are you shooting this on?
JH: The Canon 7D.
EA: Is that at a digital SLR?
JH: Yep. It was a good move, too. The image is gorgeous. It’s really good in low light. It lent itself well to the weird places we shot…a lot of tight, dark places. I think it was the right tool for the right job.
EA: How much of the shoot was set versus practical?
JH: That’s a good question. About 50% location, 50% set.
EA: How much of location shooting was in Aurora?
JH: A little over a quarter of the script.
EA: How long is this movie going to be?
JH: About 25 minutes.
EA: And what do you plan to do with a 25 minute movie?
JH: We’re going to shoot for some of the bigger festivals. The goal is to invent a whole world here. I want to develop a series of stories and Citizen is actually the second one. The first is a film called The Drone. It’s in the same universe as Citizen and it debuted at the Cannes Short Film Corner last year. I’m also looking at developing a role-playing game based on the ideas in both movies. I’d like to take the movies and the game to conventions like Gen Con and set up a booth to promote the whole line. Hopefully through that process we’ll get a big enough fan base to make a case for a feature. It should be a lot of fun. The gamer population is a direct sample of the audience we’re going for.