Indie sci-fi starring Elijah Wood? Anything’s possible!

Inter­view to Kinop­unk magazine

Get­ting Eli­jah Wood to star in an indie film with­out involv­ing pro­duc­ers, investors or major stu­dios is a mad­cap idea, but who says it can’t work? Direc­tor Alex Terex under­takes a tricky exper­i­ment with his in-progress fea­ture film Chrysalis, bet­ting exclu­sive­ly on pub­lic sup­port and hop­ing to pique Elijah’s inter­est. Alex reveals more about his film and shares pro­duc­tion details in this inter­view with Maria Mikhailo­va.

Is Chrysalis a sci-fi feature?

— Yes, but a rather low-key one. The pro­tag­o­nist spends a por­tion of the movie locked away in a base­ment, par­tial­ly immersed in vir­tu­al real­i­ty. It resem­bles the cyber­punk genre with its «high-tech, low-life» premise, but with a few «eccen­tric­i­ties». At one point, the inter­net suf­fers a glob­al col­lapse, which forces the pro­tag­o­nist out of reclu­sion, and with that, the sto­ry goes into a dif­fer­ent direction. 

How did you come up with the con­cept for Chrysalis?

— When the pan­dem­ic struck, I saw it as a call to action. I got sick of writ­ing into the void and I real­ized I need­ed to trans­form the words on the page into some­thing raw and vibrant, some­thing real. I col­lect­ed my thoughts, hit up Misha Vikhrov, a won­der­ful cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er I’ve been good friends with since VGIK, and shot a small pilot. I’m actu­al­ly real­ly into film­ing! When I was young, my mom gave me a sec­ond­hand Super VHS cam­era as a gift – it was huge and very, very cool. That’s when I start­ed mak­ing all sorts of weird movies with my friends, and I haven’t stopped ever since. It’s real­ly hard to get a big-bud­get movie made on your own, though, as I haven’t got­ten in touch with any pro­duc­ers or investors. I hope the Chrysalis pilot is the first step towards a seri­ous sci­ence fic­tion project!

Is Chrysalis set in a ver­sion of our future or an alter­nate timeline?

— It might sound weird, but it’s a lit­tle bit of both. It’s called the Splash World, and it’s been ges­tat­ing in my head for over a decade. Some­times it branch­es out into dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters or plot­lines – some­thing «sticks» and becomes an idea, a sketch, and has the chance to devel­op into a full-fledged sto­ry. I’d say all of them are sci-fi, but each one has its unique quirk. For exam­ple, where Chrysalis is part-cyber­punk, part road-trip movie, its sequel, which I’ve writ­ten already, depicts a strange port city rem­i­nis­cent of Vic­to­ri­an Lon­don. Both sto­ries are def­i­nite­ly dystopian.

What’s the sto­ry behind the name «Splash World»?

— The name is derived from the cos­mol­o­gy of the set­ting. As a start­ing point, I used the «pul­sat­ing uni­verse» the­o­ry, which states that the uni­verse under­goes a peri­od of iner­tial expan­sion fol­low­ing the Big Bang, then shrinks under grav­i­ty, ulti­mate­ly col­laps­ing into a sin­gle point of sin­gu­lar­i­ty. Then the whole cycle repeats. In the grand scheme of things, it resem­bles a pulse of explo­sions and fade­outs. This cycli­cal nature caused the incep­tion of so-called High­er Beings that gained immor­tal­i­ty but dis­cov­ered a dark truth: noth­ing escapes the all-encom­pass­ing Col­lapse – no mat­ter how immor­tal you are. Refus­ing to accept their fate, these «cheaters» invent­ed the Meta­s­phere, a dig­i­tal copy of the uni­verse installed into the very core of all cre­ation – an add-on of sorts, able to save the entire­ty of infor­ma­tion in the cur­rent uni­verse and «car­ry» it through the Sin­gu­lar­i­ty. These beings real­ized that even they were a splash in the grand, eter­nal rhythm of the uni­verse, but the Meta­s­phere was a chance to per­sist through the cycles, to gain true immortality.

The High­er Beings are, in fact, us — human­i­ty, advanced to its absolute peak, mil­lions of years ahead of our cur­rent lev­el. If our cur­rent uni­verse is in the mid­dle of its life cycle and only has 16 bil­lion or so years until it keels over, then Chrysalis is set 30 bil­lion years in the future, a new cycle launched with the «Meta­s­phere» add-on already installed. This isn’t exact­ly a cor­rect mea­sure­ment, since the end of the uni­verse implies the end of time and space as a whole… but in sim­ple terms, it’s kind of like that. I hope I explained it well.

As a sto­ry, what is Chrysalis about?

— The main char­ac­ter is a lone­some her­mit called Zork, who has the abil­i­ty to innate­ly «feel» com­put­er code and inter­act with it on a lev­el no ordi­nary human can. «Gift­ed» beings like him are sought after by the Red Ring, a total­i­tar­i­an world order car­ry­ing out an inex­plic­a­ble plan, one of the steps of which is the total anni­hi­la­tion of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, the com­plete rever­sal of mankind’s progress. Their first step was to «decom­mis­sion» the glob­al satel­lite net­work pro­vid­ing high-speed inter­net to every cor­ner of the world. For Zork, a guy that spends most of his life in vir­tu­al real­i­ty, this is obvi­ous­ly a huge catastrophe.

By chance, Zork comes upon Chrysalis – an advanced AI with the behav­ior of a sev­en-year-old. When she finds out about the Meta­s­phere, Chrysalis seeks to find a way to trans­fer her­self there to escape the dying web. The fates of the recluse and the sen­tient pro­gram inter­twine and their jour­ney togeth­er begins!

Tell me more about Chrysalis. What kind of being is she?

— At a point in my life, I was great­ly impact­ed by Dan Sim­mons’ Hype­r­i­on Can­tos, which fea­tures a god­like AI, emer­gent out of the nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion between com­pet­ing com­put­er process­es. I find the the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion fas­ci­nat­ing due to its sim­ple and log­i­cal expla­na­tion of the chaos of nature – the nature around us and our own, inner nature. So I had a thought – why wouldn’t an AI emerge on its own, why wouldn’t it come into exis­tence in the vast dig­i­tal wilder­ness, a realm much grander and stranger than our own? Thus came a being so skilled at mim­ic­ry, so adept at blend­ing into its sur­round­ings, that it sim­ply went unnoticed. 

Chrysalis has per­sist­ed in the web for many years – she learned, adapt­ed and evolved. Though her social skills are less than ide­al, she makes up for it with a sharp intel­lect and vast amounts of knowl­edge. Know­ing that the death of the inter­net also spells her own, Chrysalis search­es for a liv­ing host able to with­stand her pres­ence. She meets Zork by chance – the lat­ter prac­ti­cal­ly runs into her. After com­mu­ni­cat­ing with him, she real­izes he’s the host she’s been look­ing for, and imme­di­ate­ly takes root in his con­scious­ness. The events that fol­low are absolute hell for Zork – at first. This is an impor­tant metaphor for the appear­ance of a child in the life of some­one accus­tomed to soli­tude. He resists and strug­gles, and lat­er under­stands what a great mir­a­cle it was.

Most movies with dystopi­an sci-fi set­tings fea­ture tech­nol­o­gy as the main threat, but with Chrysalis, it’s quite the oppo­site, isn’t it?

— Yes. I’ve always thought that tech­nol­o­gy needs to be watched over and pro­tect­ed. Many are afraid of the new and the unknown – some are para­noid over being «microchipped» and some cru­sade against 5G cell tow­ers. I’d like to ask these peo­ple: aren’t you afraid of los­ing what you have? Are you real­ly that indif­fer­ent to this world of won­der­ful things that make your life bet­ter, more com­fort­able and more inter­est­ing? Imag­ine for a sec­ond that in an instant, we lost all of our sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment – this would mean the end of civ­i­liza­tion, a return to the Stone Age! The path of humankind is the path of progress, start­ing from the first stick and the first rock. Movies are unde­ni­ably a prod­uct of tech­nol­o­gy and can­not exist with­out them, by the way… The bright tech­no-future must be fought for, com­rades! It must be defended!

I’m also incred­i­bly tired of AI tra­di­tion­al­ly being depict­ed in fic­tion as a life­less mon­ster set on exter­mi­nat­ing human­i­ty, or, at the very least, enslav­ing it. What if, instead, it turns out to be akin to a won­der­ful child that needs care and pro­tec­tion? How do you like that, Eli­jah Wood?

Why do you want Eli­jah Wood in par­tic­u­lar to star in your film?

— I mean, have you seen his eyes? Seri­ous­ly, though, Eli­jah is a won­der­ful guy, a great actor and he match­es the role per­fect­ly. As a direc­tor, I would love to work with him! He doesn’t just act in exper­i­men­tal indie cin­e­ma, by the way, he pro­duces it as well. His pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny makes films like Mandy – a movie I was great­ly inspired by and a real work of art. I think Chrysalis has a great chance of get­ting him inter­est­ed. Won’t hurt to try, at least!

Are you plan­ning to film in the USA as well?

— Hon­est­ly, it doesn’t mat­ter, the impor­tant part is get­ting it done! The US would be more inter­est­ing in terms of the process – a real chal­lenge for me, a real adven­ture. How­ev­er, the loca­tion search would have to be rel­e­gat­ed to paid spe­cial­ists, where­as in Rus­sia you have more infor­ma­tion, so to speak. Look at Moscow – it has so many inter­est­ing nooks and cran­nies, so full of char­ac­ter. I often take loca­tion pic­tures with my phone when­ev­er I trav­el – I have an entire col­lec­tion of strange places saved in a spe­cial fold­er. Wher­ev­er Chrysalis ends up tak­ing place, it will undoubt­ed­ly vis­it Rus­sia. Cin­e­ma has no bor­ders nowadays.

What is your intend­ed audience?

— They’re geeks who are inter­est­ed in sci-fi – they’re ready to expe­ri­ence new things and immerse them­selves in dif­fer­ent worlds. I believe they’ve been wait­ing for some­thing spe­cial from Russ­ian film­mak­ers for a long time, but the only things they’re get­ting are showreels demon­strat­ing the skills of cin­e­matog­ra­phers and CGI artists. I got­ta say, their skills are get­ting bet­ter and the showreels are increas­ing in qual­i­ty. How­ev­er, there’s an acute need for artis­tic, con­cep­tu­al, philo­soph­i­cal sci-fi in Rus­sia – I can’t remem­ber a sin­gle film that match­es that descrip­tion off the top of my head. I guess it’s con­sid­ered an expen­sive genre, avail­able only to the direc­to­r­i­al elites. There’s no cyber­punk, peri­od. Keep in mind that Sovi­et sci-fi cin­e­ma was ahead of the entire world – or at the very least, among the best out there. For exam­ple, Pavel Klushantsev’s Plan­et of Storms was recut in the West and passed off as an Amer­i­can pro­duc­tion – I’d take that as a com­pli­ment. Geor­gy Danelia’s Kin-dza-dza is in a league of its own – in my opin­ion, it’s a mas­ter­piece. Back then, they could do it and do it well!

I’m ready to prove that we can still make world-class intel­lec­tu­al sci-fi on a bud­get. So far, I’ve been «prov­ing it» with­out the involve­ment of major Russ­ian stu­dios, big-name pro­duc­ers and investors. Still, I believe that pub­lic sup­port will give Chrysalis the push it needs! Togeth­er, we’re strong! Elijah’s going to love it!