Exclusive Interview with Tim Smit on His Directorial Debut, ‘Kill Switch’

Tim Smit photo

Acclaimed writer, director and visual effects artist Tim Smit makes his feature film directorial debut with “Kill Switch.” Based on his short film “What’s in The Box?” which gathered a large audience on YouTube, it stars Dan Stevens as physicist and NASA pilot Will Porter who is recruited by Alterplex, a power company which has built an enormous tower designed to harness unlimited quantum energy. The company’s vice-president, Abby (Bérénice Marlohe), informs Will a mirror universe has been created solely to drain energy from, and he is sent into it with a device called a “Redivider” which will balance the power between the two universes. But as you can imagine, nothing goes quite as planned as the mirror universe proves to more than anyone thought it could be as Will finds himself on the run from drones, soldiers, and people he is no longer sure he can trust.

“Kill Switch” takes place in a future version of our world, and it is largely a POV movie as we see much of the action from Will’s eyes as he struggles to say alive in an especially hostile universe. I talked with Smit about the movie’s origins, how the story evolved from a short into a feature film, and of how he was able to create a visual effects heavy movie in just 18 days and on a small budget.

Kill Switch poster

Ben Kenber: I really like the way this movie is set up because you are thrown into this story to where you cannot help but be gripped by everything going on. You’re not sure what is happening and, like Dan Steven’s character, you are desperate to find out. When conceiving “Kill Switch,” did you know how the story was going to end, or did you just start off with the idea and went from there?

Tim Smit: We knew that, when I did the short a couple of years ago, the box was going to be used as sort of a kill switch for destroying a parallel universe meant for energy harvesting. But we never really knew the full arc of the story before we hired the writers to get involved, so it took a while to get to the point we ended up with. It was interesting and a very steep learning curve for me to work on this as a conceptual arc as a writer and also as a director, and of course the visual effects too. It wasn’t fairly clear, but we got there as we developed the kill switch idea.

BK: The screenwriters you hired for this project, Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin, what would you say they brought to this story which wasn’t in your short film?

TS: What they did is they fleshed out the characters much more than we already had in the original short. But they also wrote the dialogue and they did the screenwriting of the story. It was a difficult movie to write because of the whole POV aspect. It’s difficult to tell a story through POV. Also, we did have, for that reason, to introduce the whole flashback storyline to help us with that, and to help provide a rest for the audience so that they do not get POV tired. So, they focused on that the feeding of information so the audience knew enough to keep going with the movie, and they were more associated with that than the base idea.

BK: I did watch the short “What’s in The Box?” which led to the “Kill Switch” feature film, and the whole idea of the parallel universe is something which has been explored in science fiction constantly such as the “Dark Mirror” episode of the original “Star Trek” series. What inspirations did you draw from when putting together the short and the feature film?

TS: So, the main inspiration behind it was a couple of things actually. Visually it was inspired by a couple of video games because this was always meant to be sort of an homage to video gaming, and we used various inspirations like “Half-Life,” “Halo” and games like that. From a physics standpoint, the idea for the parallel world came from the concept of Schrödinger’s cat, a thought concept where you got a box and in it is a cat with a poison. If you keep the box closed, you don’t know if the cat survived because the poison still has a chance to kill the cat. You only know the cat is dead when you open the box. So, this is kind of like the idea for the initial mystery where you’ve got this black box and you don’t know yet what it is and you don’t know what it does, but it triggers you to go along and see what it ends up doing. So, the whole idea of Schrödinger’s cat was the main inspiration behind the short and the box as a MacGuffin.

Kill Switch POV still

BK: The POV shots reminded me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” which also had them. When you put those shots together, did you have a set of rules you wanted your collaborators to follow during shooting?

TS: Yeah, we did a couple of things, some of them worked better than others, which we wanted to explore. One of them was, most of the time, we wanted to see the other actors. As a rule of thumb, we wanted Will Porter to be running behind the other characters so you can actually see what’s happening. So that was something we took into consideration while we filmed this because you are kind of used to the main character taking the lead, but in this case, he’s following them because otherwise it would be difficult to see them. It’s a very simple thing you have to keep in mind, and that was one of the rules we followed.

Kill Switch Dan Stevens

BK: Did Dan Stevens have to do any camerawork himself for the POV scenes?

TS: No. Obviously I would’ve loved to have used him, but we just didn’t have the budget for him for all the days. So, we just hired him on some of the days where he would be the voice, and of course on the days where we would shoot conventional scenes. Our DOP was basically the character, and then Dan came in later and did the ADR for the character.

BK: The special effects are actually pretty good for a low-budget movie like this. We see objects like train cars falling out of the sky. Did you set any rules for yourself as to what kind of objects and vehicles could fall into the echo universe?

TS: So, we focused initially on metallic objects just because that made it easier to create for us. The idea was that this parallel world is being arched for energy, but somehow the original world is fighting back as the universe is trying to balance itself out, and it does so by pulling over objects from the original universe into this echo universe. The rule of thumb was the first thing to be pulled over was small metal objects for various reasons, but you can figure out in physics that there are only four main forces, and one of them is electromagnetic. It is not inconceivable that something like metal will react first or that something else will react to metal first. It made easier for us to make these objects fall down. It’s harder to do entire buildings or something like water. It was a compromise, but I felt it worked from the basic physics ideas as well. We see this boat falling from the sky, it’s not metaphorical.

BK: The whole idea of an echo universe is interesting because the characters say there is not supposed to be any organic life in it, but we can see from the start there is.

TS: Yes, that’s what I like about the movie as well. It’s not as fleshed out as it should be, but the idea is that this company didn’t care. They were just interested in creating this echo universe, and they are telling us that it’ll be fine and there will be no organic life, but they don’t care. They just care about the energy, and of course they didn’t expect it to be that intense or of the rebellion that arrives. But I kind of like that idea of what are your priorities as a company. These huge oil companies are pretty much going across the line, and that’s what drew me to this story as well. That was something I could really personalize.

Kill Switch Berenice

BK: Dan Stevens has a very challenging role because he wasn’t on set too much, but he still had to get to the emotion of what is characters going through. Also, Bérénice Marlohe has a wonderfully intimate presence throughout the film. How did you come to cast both these actors?

TS: It was amazing to work with these two. The great thing about Bérénice and Dan is that they are both so interested in science fiction, and they are both really interested in broadening their own horizons and trying to do something new. It’s an experiment, this film. Let’s be honest, you don’t see a POV movie every day. It’s an attempt to do something new especially with a director that’s also doing all of the effects. It was an experiment on multiple levels, and they were committed and went for it, and that’s what I really appreciated about them. It was a very difficult movie especially for Bérénice because she was acting against I camera where there is no reaction, and most of the enemies are CG. It was very demanding for her to do, but she gave it her best and gave it everything she had. We had 18 days to do everything.

BK: 18 days? That’s very impressive especially for a science fiction movie.

TS: It was something I underestimated when I started working on this. I was experienced as a visual effects artist, but I wasn’t experienced as a character director. You would think shooting this movie, even though it was 18 days, would’ve given you a whole set of problems and obstacles to get over, which we had. But even after it was all done, that’s when the real challenge started. You would think that after having a number of years of the effects experience that it would be easier, but it was actually the other way around. It was very difficult for me to combine the directorial duties and the effects duties at one point. You can get so involved in the technical part that you get sort of a tunnel vision and you still have to be the director. There is the reason why the director is separate from the visual effects department because that makes the movie better.

Kill Switch vessel

BK: “Kill Switch” takes place in a future which seems not too distant from our own. We never get an exact date of the time the movie takes place in. Was that intentional on your part?

TS: Yeah, actually it was, but sometimes in the movie you do see the date on the newscasts, but it was never deliberately mentioned. I felt, in my mind, the movie was in the near future, but the concepts we are introducing we do not have access to in the near future. The problem with going further into the future is your design and your world view changes, and the budget doesn’t allow that. If you really want to know which year it was, it was actually 2043. So, it was further into the future, but not that far. It was a budget reason.

BK: You studied natural sciences as a student. Did those studies inform the science of this movie?

TS: Yeah, the studies did help. A lot of people wonder why I studied natural sciences if you wanted to be a filmmaker, but the way you were trained as a scientist really does help in making movies. There’s a certain amount of problem solving that you are used to which is really helpful as a director, and the visual effects that I did, they tend to be of a physical origin. With physics, you are trying to explain or describe the real world. With visual effects, you are kind of doing the opposite. You are using formulas to create a fake or, at least, a realistic looking fake world. To me, that is really fascinating and the physics background helped in doing that.

I want to thank Tim Smit for taking the time to talk with me. “Kill Switch” is now playing nationwide at the following theaters:

Laemmle Monica Film Center, Los Angeles

Cinema Village, New York

AMC Rio, Washington, D.C.

AMC Methuen, Boston

AMC Southfield, Detroit

AMC Arizona Center, Phoenix

AMC West Oaks, Orlando

AMC Ritz Center, Philadelphia

AMC Woodridge, Chicago

AMC Town Center, Kansas City

Poster, stills and trailer courtesy of Saban Films.

Click here to visit the movie’s website.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Norman movie poster

What I love about Richard Gere as an actor is his ability to play morally questionable characters with such a seductive charm to where I cannot help but root for him to succeed despite his morally dubious intentions. Whether he’s playing an infinitely corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” a fraudulent hedge fund manager in “Arbitrage” or a publicity-seeking lawyer in both “Primal Fear” and “Chicago,” Gere makes these characters hopelessly charismatic even as they sink deeper into a realm of lies, deception, and things much worse. Some actors are great at making you despise the villains they play, but Gere is brilliant at making you become enamored with the villainous characters he portrays as he makes breaking the law seem so seductive.

I was reminded of this while watching Gere in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” as he plays a man eager to achieve great success in his lifetime. While his character of Norman Oppenheimer is not as devious as Dennis Peck or Robert Miller, he’s a guy trying to sell everyone on his financial schemes which never seem to become a reality. When things finally start working out for him, they end up leading him down a road which could lead to either great success or tragic consequences.

Norman is a loner who lives in the shadows of New York City power and money, and he works hard, perhaps much too hard, at being everyone’s friend as he offers the elite something he can’t possibly provide on his own. His efforts, however, lead to little in the way of success, and his constant networking threatens to drive people away as people are easily annoyed just by the sound of his voice. Still, he comes across as a nice guy whom you wouldn’t be quick to shoo away because Gere convinces you Norman means well even as he manipulates those around him to his benefit.

But one day he comes across Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a charismatic Israeli politician who is alone in New York and at a very vulnerable point in his life. Norman seizes on this vulnerability and befriends Micha in a way few others would dare to, and he cements their budding friendship by buying Micha a pair of shoes. But these are not any ordinary pair of shoes which you would find at your local Payless Shoe Source. The price of this particular pair of shoes is the same as the average one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, and while Norman initially hesitates once he sees the price, he buys them anyway to gain Micha’s respect. This pays off big time three years later when Micha becomes Prime Minister of Israel as he quickly remembers what Norman did for him. From there, Norman bathes in the respect he has craved for such a long time, and he uses Micha’s name to achieve his biggest deal ever.

When we look into Gere’s eyes, we can see when Norman is lying and when he is being honest with those around him. While other actors would have played this character in a more stereotypical or annoying fashion, Gere makes him into a genuinely well-meaning person whom you find yourself rooting for even when he doesn’t have much to back up his promises with. We also come to see what motivates him: he has a desperate need to matter. He wants his existence to be a necessary part of other peoples’ lives, and this should give you an idea of just how lonely a soul he is.

Writer and director Joseph Cedar, who previously gave us the acclaimed movies “Beaufort” and “Footnote,” leaves parts of Norman’s life ambiguous to the viewer. Norman claims he has a wife and child, but we never see them. Do they actually exist? In the end, it doesn’t matter because Norman truly believes they do, and this belief empowers him to persist in achieving what would seem out of reach to everyone else. Even when he is manipulating others, he never comes across as less than genuine, and we can’t help but root for him.

Cedar made this movie as a re-imaging of an archetypal tale about the Court Jew. Those who, like me, were unfamiliar with this tale, it involves the Court Jew meeting a man of power at a point in his life where his resistance is low, and the Jew gives this man a gift or a favor which the man remembers once he rises in stature. To say more would give a good portion of “Norman” away, but learning of this tale makes one realize why the Jewish people are often closely associating with banking as the job of a banker was one of the very few career paths available to Jews in the past. So, the next time people out there say Jews are greedy with money, remind them we narrowed down their career goals for no good reason.

In addition to Gere, there are other terrific performances worth noting in “Norman.” Charlotte Gainsbourg, looking almost unrecognizable from her tour of duty with Lars Von Trier, co-stars as Alex, one of Norman’s many marks who somehow sees right through his ways to where she is empathetic to his struggles. Steve Buscemi also shows up as Rabbi Blumenthal whose synagogue Norman is trying to save from developers. It feels weird to see Buscemi in a role like this as he plays a decent man who wants the best for others as we are so used to seeing him play unsavory characters in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Con Air,” “Fargo,” and “The Sopranos.” Either that, or there are still movies of his I need to watch.

In a lot of ways, Norman Oppenheimer is a different kind of character from the ones Gere has played in the past, but it also isn’t. He has been great at portraying people who are not easily likable, but he makes us like them as he is infinitely clever at getting us over to his side. After all these years, Gere remains an excellent actor on top of a movie star, and we are past due in realizing this. He has never been just a pretty face, and “Norman” has him giving one of his best performances to date. I have no doubt there are many more great performances from him we have yet to see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The Guest

the-guest-movie-poster

I went into “The Guest” knowing almost nothing about it. I was expecting something very artistic and the kind of movie Hollywood studios wouldn’t have the guts to finance these days, but what I got instead was the kind of thriller similar to those from the 1980’s like “The Hitcher.” I kept wondering why the Sundance Next Festival would allow something so formulaic to play at this festival, but when the filmmakers came out after a screening to talk about “The Guest,” it then became clear it was actually meant to be an homage to those thrillers we all grew up on. As a result, I quickly saw the movie in a different light.

But even before this revelation, I had to admit “The Guest” is a thriller which packs a mighty punch and left me on the edge of my seat throughout. It grabs you by the throat and holds you tightly within its grasp, and a lot of that is due to the infinitely charismatic performance by Dan Stevens who portrays the guest of the movie’s title.

“The Guest” starts off with an introduction to the Peterson family who are still grieving over the loss of Caleb who was killed in Afghanistan. Then a man knocks at their door and politely introduces himself as David (Dan Stevens), a friend of Caleb’s from the military, and he is here to fulfill a promise to his fallen comrade. David tells Laura (Sheila Kelley) and her husband Spencer (Leland Orser) he has no wish to overstay his welcome, but they become insistent he stay at their house to where he quickly becomes the best houseguest anyone could ever hope to have as he helps out wherever and whenever he can. But just as in life, we can’t help but think no one can be this nice without being somewhat psychotic.

Some of “The Guest’s” best moments come when David looks out for the Peterson children, Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer). Luke is having some major problems at school as he is the target of bullies who beat him up at any given opportunity. Now I have seen this scenario played out in many movies, and it used to tug at my emotions in a very strong way. But watching it in “The Guest” gave me that primal beat up the bullies feeling I haven’t felt in the longest time. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see David is going to give these jerks a taste of their own medicine, and watching him do so is a perverse thrill.

Anna is less quick to warm up to David even after he goes out of his way to get a keg of beer for her high school friends. From the start she is suspicious of who he really is, and those suspicions are confirmed when a number of strange events start happening around town. Of course, her dad can’t see him doing anything bad and chides his daughter for even thinking such a thing. After all these years, teenagers are still forced to deal with their parents’ hypocrisy, and that’s even with actors like Leland Orser playing the father.

As you can see, “The Guest” travels down the road of familiar genre conventions and delivers them to the audience in a way which feels both potent and fresh. The violence in the movie is more brutal than in others I’ve seen recently, and there are several scenes which shocked me I haven’t been shocked in a while. No character is on safe ground here, and anyone is expendable in a way those actors in “The Expendables” movies ever are. At the same time, the movie has a sharp sense of humor which shows just how much fun its filmmakers were having with the material.

“The Guest” comes to us from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the same two who gave us “You’re Next.” I came out of this movie wondering if they had as much playing around with the slasher genre in “You’re Next” as they did with the thriller genre here. Having interviewed them both the following day for the website We Got This Covered, I can tell you they absolutely did as they talked about combining elements from “The Terminator” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” to make this movie a reality.

Furthermore, “The Guest” comes equipped with a terrific electronic score courtesy of Steve Moore which recalls the great 80’s electronic film scores like Mark Isham’s “The Hitcher” and the “Halloween” scores of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, particularly the one they did for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” Anyone who knows me best knows how much of a sucker I am for this kind of movie music, and I was digging’ Moore’s score right from the first note as it adds the ominous atmosphere we will be venturing through when David makes his entrance into town.

Seriously, this movie really does belong to Stevens who is best known for playing Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” the TV show everyone seems to be watching except me. He exudes endless charisma and makes you believe how lethal David can be when you look right into those beautifully steely eyes of his. I’m not kidding when I say he has a stare which can cut through you with a laser from a mile away. Stevens also infuses a number of his scenes with a twisted sense of humor, and this is especially the case when he coolly manipulates Luke’s principal to where he realizes suspending this young man from school might actually be hazardous to his health.

“The Guest” falters a little towards the end as the filmmakers get too enamored of the foolishness of their character’s decisions. It also has one of those horror movie endings which imply how evil can never die, and it feels a little soft compared to what we have seen in other films of its ilk. At the same time, it could mean that Wingard and Barrett will reteam for “The Guest 2,” and it would be fun to see how they would play around with the conventions of a sequel.

Seriously, “No Good Deed” could only dream of being as thrilling as this movie, and it starred Idris Elba for crying out loud. “The Guest” gleefully plays around with all the things we remember from the ultra-violent movies from our past, and I found myself enjoying it a lot even as things got increasingly nasty. Just when I thought I knew how this movie would play out, it quickly shifted gears and took me for a loop.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to buy this movie’s soundtrack.

* * * ½ out of * * * *