Interview: ‘Occupants’ (2016) Director Russell Emanuel Talks About His Latest Film
Russell Emanuel is an independent filmmaker who has been making shorts and full-length films since the mid-1990s. His most recent film, Occupants, is currently touring film festivals and is expected to be released this year. We recently had the opportunity to ask him some questions about the movie and his work. You can read our pre-release review of Occupants here.
Tell us about your new film.
Russell Emanuel: It’s a science fiction horror feature film starring Robert Picardo, about a young couple named Annie and Neil Curtis (played by Briana White and Michael Pugliese). Annie is a documentarian and she goes about doing a 30 days clean living documentary to see what would happen if you cleanse your body of chemicals. So they set up cameras all over their house and in the process inadvertently capture a parallel version of themselves on the footage. But it is a darker version, even though it’s still technically and genetically them. At first they can only obverse, which Dr. Alan Peterson (Picardo’s character) tells them to do, but over time they are able to interact, with horrifying results.
What drew you to the project?
RE: It’s a psychological piece, once that makes you think and wonder what would happen if you took a left turn instead of a right and it led you down a darker path in life. As my actress Briana said in a previous interview, for Annie the stars aligned, but for Parallel Annie, the stars were ever so slightly out of alignment. So the question you can ask yourself is this: what if you are a good person and you truly believe so, but your parallel self is a psychopath – does this mean you yourself are a psychopath deep down inside?
The film uses stationary cameras and webcams for the entire production. As a director, what were some of the challenges in presenting a compelling, natural narrative with this structure?
RE: The main challenge was the edit points. Since it’s all stationary camera shots, what can you use as a cutaway? An insert shot? A closeup? Well none of these things are possible with this “found footage stationary camera” technique we used. I pondered this dilemma for a long time after my producer Howard Nash optioned the script from writer Julia Camara back in February 2014. So a light bulb went off in my head during pre-production around July 2014 as I was discussing this problem with my Director of Photography/Editor Emile Haris – the cutaways would be the “glitches” to the parallel world – cut from the real world to the parallel world and back! And voila, that solved our problems!
The other issue was that it was only a two-person story (Annie and Neil Curtis) with a third person as a main supporting character (Dr. Peterson). If we didn’t get the right actors, the chemistry wouldn’t be there and they wouldn’t be able to hold up the story for 81 minutes. So we had to get the right actors to be able to portray these characters. Not only that, our actress Briana and actor Michael had to be compelling as not only their real versions, but their parallel selves. And that took more than dying her hair and shaving his beard, and changing their colorful outfits to dark monochromatic ones. It also took incredible acting skills and I was more than pleased with what they brought to the table, especially the dynamic with each other as both versions.
While the film has a strong science fiction premise, it’s more of a psychological horror story. Aside from some simple theories stated in the movie, you steer away from explanations and concentrate on the characters. That is a wise choice. Was there any time you and writer Julia Camara talked about going deeper with that aspect?
RE: Yes, we did. In fact, we are doing a comic book tie-in to the feature film as we speak which explores more of the “Occupants” world. The film itself is Case 831 and was put together by the Peterson Research Institute aka P.R.I. (headed by Dr. Peterson, aka Picardo’s character). In the script, it mentioned how Dr. Peterson showed Annie and Neil some video about people who experienced parallel worlds, but didn’t extrapolate further.
After principal photography, when we actually had to film that video as a pickup in April 2015, I had 35 people record testimonial videos about seeing parallel worlds, including my good friends Chris Winters as the “P.R.I Representative” and Scott Brown as Case 003. You can see some of these testimonial videos at the P.R.I. website we created at: http://pri-research.info/
The feature film itself is Case 831 (Annie and Neil’s story) and was based in Los Angeles, so I looked for another case I had created in Los Angeles and it was Case 285. This turned out to be the testimonial video my friend Timothy Lee Conley shot (his character is Lee Mitchell). So I extrapolated his story and created a 24-page comic book one-shot, which is being overseen by our associate producer Eric Kask and drawn by DC/Marvel Comics artist Dave Beaty. And it definitely goes more into the parallel universe phenomenon and why it is happening.
Tell us about your cast. You have some fresh, young talent here but also veteran Robert Picardo, whom you’ve worked with before.
RE: Briana White who plays Annie Curtis and Michael Pugliese who plays Neil Curtis were incredible. We found Michael early on a few months before shooting and when we cast him, I knew he had the perfect look and acting skills. Plus, it allowed him to grow out his beard to become the real version of Neil you see in the film.
As for Annie Curtis, it was more of a challenge finding the right actress. A few days before filming in September 2014, we auditioned 27 actresses and I had Emile and Michael there (Emile to see how the actress looked on camera since he was the D.P., and Michael so he could interact with the various Annies to see if they looked and acted natural together) and it turns out Briana was one of the last to come in and wow were we glad she did! Suffice it to say, she got the part once call backs were done later that day.
As for Robert Picardo, this is the fourth time working with him and each time it gets easier. The first time was during my first feature film “P.J.” shot in 2006 and it was very nerve-wracking for me – not only did I direct him but other notable actors such as John Heard and Vincent Pastore. Once I passed my “trial by fire”, it got easier each successive time, “Chasing the Green” and “The Legends of Nethiah” being my second and third feature films, with such actors as Ryan Hurst and William Devane. So by “Occupants” I basically knew what to expect from Robert. He likes to rehearse with the actors while in makeup and wardrobe, so I had my first assistant director Clifford Breakfield schedule a few days before so that Briana and Michael came in 30 minutes before their call time. That way, they could interact with Robert and adjust certain lines of dialogue so it felt more natural to all three of them. By doing this, we were able to shoot Robert’s scenes in half a day and I was very happy with the result.
What are some of the larger challenges in bringing an independent film to screen? And what are some advantages of working independently?
RE: The biggest challenge of working independently is always going to be money. You have to think outside the box in order to get a quality product. For example, we outsourced our visual effects to a company in Bangalore, India and did our orchestra recording in Lisbon, Portugal. We also pulled in a lot of favors from various people we collaborated with over the years who were willing to lend us their equipment or their time or give us a discounted day rate. We were blessed with the people that were associated with this project.
However, those challenges I listed are also the advantages. By thinking outside the box, you are able to get really creative and for me that can be a lot of fun. For instance, my composer Vasilis Milesis found me via Facebook and we ended up collaborating via the internet for six months while he composed the 45 minutes’ worth of music for the film (completed in July 2015). It was only at the Florida Supercon Film Festival where “Occupants” screened in early July 2016, that I finally met him in person after 18 months of knowing him!
What’s next for you?
RE: Right now we are currently working on 3 projects. One is an action film currently being written. Another is a docudrama which is nearly ready to go through the crowdfunding route.
And a third one is a horror film we plan to shoot during Summer 2017 in Macedonia, Ohio called “The Dollhouse”. I did location scouting a few months before in May 2016 when I attended the Ratha Con in Athens, Ohio for “Occupants” and while there, I was able to meet the producer Julie D’Aloiso who took me around to the various locales and I immediately fell in love with Ohio (was my first time there).
In closing, our site is dedicated to great moments in film. Would you care to share some influential moments in movies you consider favorites?
RE: Some of my favorite moments: in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Leia says ‘I love you’ and Han replies ‘I know’. I also love the hoverboard chase sequence in “Back to the Future II”, it just worked for me and made me very depressed when I found out as a kid that the hoverboard wasn’t real! I also love the inventive opening title sequence in “North by Northwest” accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s incredible score.
Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us. Good luck with Occupants and we look forward to seeing more from you in the future.
RE: Thank you so much for interviewing me, I really enjoyed this!
We want to thank the very gracious Mr. Emanuel for his time and wish him the best in his continuing endeavors.