The week before last we at CWR were given the opportunity to review a sci-fi thriller short film called NEON. In addition to that director Mark J. Blackman was also kind enough to answer a few of our questions about his work. He did change my correct spelling of “favorite” to the British-Canadian “favourite” (because he and all his lobsterback brethren are a bunch of heathens) but we’ll try not to hold that against him.
NEON definitely presents some surprises with the development of the story. What was the inspiration behind the plot?
The truth is, NEON was a story that just wouldn’t die, based on a very graphic, stark image of a man silhouetted in the rain who had fallen from grace and was the epitome of a lonely heart.
I was trying to work out what this man wanted and what had got him into such an emotionally dire predicament. I awoke in the middle of the night just knowing it was about love and shame: it was about keeping another out of love’s way for your own selfish desires – and then it all just clicked: the tone, the mood, the emotion, why it was raining, why he was bald and his place in the world around him.
I was developing another short to direct, a haunting medieval horror, but pitched this to my producer and exec. producer instead – we then spent a year developing the script and working out the best way to present a narrative that goes far beyond what shorts usually handle, as there’s an entire history and world-building element to NEON that is intrinsic to it working. Narratively, we knew we were taking a monumental risk in how we were presenting our story but we figured go big or go home. We went big.
We really enjoyed that NEON was able to present such a vibrant world on what I can only assume was a bit of a budget. In your experience as a creator, what are some of the challenges and rewards in making a short film like this?
NEON is the first film for a while that I’ve directed in such a meticulous manner. I usually like to direct and shoot more organically – a bit more ‘guerilla’ – and feel things out as we go along following rehearsals and workshopping – but NEON was not that sort of film at all.
With so much backstory and world-building to accomplish, every second counted. The way in which the script was written was VERY prescriptive and we even made an animatic of the entire film to check our timings throughout. Every moment was accounted for – every angle, reason for a shot… the timing of an actor’s blocking was rehearsed in my head a million times before the camera ever rolled.
Was it rewarding? It was and it wasn’t. I like to be surprised on set, I like to encourage improvisation and to find new details or moments that are unexpected delights as they can often make a scene. However, the ambitious nature of NEON meant we had less time to allow for such moments and, as such, it was quite the military operation schedule-wise. Having said that, it was the very ambition of what we were trying to achieve with the story and emotion, the cinematography and saga-esque nature to the film that made the process rewarding. Up until NEON I’d been making films with what I could, budget-wise, resource wise – films I could make with what I had access to. NEON was a film for which my producer and I said to ourselves: “What’s the film we want to make?” And we put our money into that.
Given that NEON was first screened at a horror festival, do you think the film fits into that specific category? There’s an element of body horror in particular that helps it lean in that direction…
I think NEON is more emotionally horrific. As much as it’s a romance, the revelations of the main character’s actions are a torture of the heart; an emotional manipulation of horrendous scale. So while it’s really a fantasy and still a ‘fantastic genre’, I feel NEON is a horror in this regard.
Aesthetically and with regards to its viscera? I’m not sure it does fit in the horror genre. It’s the most bloodless film I’d made for a while and if it was certificated, I think it’s in PG-13 territory. If I made it again, I’d push for a longer schedule to make the film bloodier, but that’s just the climate the film was made in and I don’t think it suffers as a result.
The body-horror element is definitely there, with a reveal halfway through the film that’s very ‘What the fuck?!’ – and the time-freeze moment which could have lingered longer to really revel in the masterful gore-art of our Special Effects Designer Dan Martin (a talent who never ceases to amaze me). But we didn’t want to lean too much towards the darkness of the image we were showing. There was in fact an extra element to that scene that we removed as we felt detracted from the most important take-out from this film: it’s a love story. And it really is.
However, the feature version of NEON we’re developing goes mental with the blood-letting. Truly mental.
If there’s one thing NEON has in abundance, it’s a distinct sense of style. Without giving away any spoilers, what were some of the reasons behind the choice of scenery, design, and effects?
In my head, NEON has only ever looked like this. It was never intended to be a twinkling, clean picture. It’s a real-world fantasy that I would always pitch as Nil By Mouth meets Blade Runner. While what happens within the world we built is pretty out-there, that world had to feel familiar. It’s a ‘kitchen-sink fantasy’, which tonally fits with the feature films we’re making: a ‘kitchen-sink Giallo’ and a full-bore suburban London action-thriller.
I’m incapable of telling single-location stories and adore moving through the landscape of a film. NEON has a LOT of locations – Cinematographer Stil Williams, Producer Roxy Holman and I recce’d extensively, looking for locations that would not only fit our brief and budget but that worked with one another for a dark, gritty cohesion that felt right. For me, the tone and feel of a film is as important as its narrative – something you can’t always explain but which an audience can react to if done well.
What would you say are some of your own personal favourite films when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy?
I’m a huge advocate of cyberpunk when it comes to sci-fi. I grew up reading William Gibson and still lament the how Johnny Mnemonic turned out as a film, and that Cunningham never got to realise his vision of Neuromancer. When it comes to films, the works of Shinya Tsukamoto have had a HUGE influence on me in terms of sci-fi. I grew up obsessed with Blade Runner and THX 1138 but it was the Tetsuo films that absolutely knocked me on my ass when I was young, and – for me – NEON has a strong cyberpunk vibe of this ilk. There’s even a wonderful happy-accident detail in NEON that references a Tsukamoto film, which I was able to add on the day due to an unexpected prop/location detail (eagle-eyed fans may spot it).
Fantasy-wise, that’s is a tricky one because I often say that fantasy is my least favourite ‘F’ word – anything with magic, wizards and warlocks usually has to be something very special to grab my attention. I like Conan, but anything with wands? I’m out. And that was actually one of the aims behind doing NEON: a ‘me’ version of fantasy, making a darker, grittier version of well-known and well-established ‘fantasy’ imagery and characters that is typically quite cheesy – albeit with religious connotations, the references to which are [I hope] quite subtle in the film.
What projects can we be looking forward to in the future? I understand there’s an all-female martial-arts piece in the works…
I’ve actually shot two more short film projects since; two slight dramas called Ferried and Animus that couldn’t be further from NEON if you tried, but the acting talent I worked with and the challenge to make something different was a wonderful opportunity to get out of my comfort zone.
The all-female apocalyptic actioner is a short film called The Verge about three women fighting their way to the roof of a building that is flooding behind them – we have a fantastic cast and are shooting in December.
The next big step is my first feature, the ‘kitchen-sink Giallo’ called THE SIREN, THE CAPTAIN, THE SEA, which is in full development with producers and a consulting co-writer. It’s a very intense character study and what I’m calling an’ ambient thriller’. It’s not dissimilar to NEON in its tone and how the stories unfold. Following this, we’re looking to get TEARDROP into pre-production, which is a big and bloody action-thriller feature, a really brutal love-story about the lengths we go to for love and a film that wears its heart on its sleeve – only that sleeve is drenched in blood and skull fragments.
After that, we have a lot of other feature and series concepts that are in varying levels of script development – if the stars align and lady luck gives me the reach around, NEON the feature film will happen. I promised I wouldn’t. but can’t resist its allure. Ultimately everything I write is a love story… only they’re always about that darker side of it.