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An Interview with Director Joe McClean

Indie science fiction film Life Tracker is a fascinating story of three friends in the near future documenting, through film, the effects of a company that is able to predict the outcome of one’s life through their DNA.  What starts off seeming insignificant, soon reveals itself to be much bigger than the world could have imagined.  I recently had a chance to chat with Joe McClean, writer and director of Life Tracker about the genesis of the film, many of the ideas contained within it, and about the current state of filmmaking.

Jason Howard:  From where did the idea for Life Tracker spawn?

Joe McClean:   Well, I wrote a screenplay about 10 years ago that was sort of about DNA, inspired by a book that I read by James Watson, who discovered DNA, or the double helix shape of it.  Although I was far too young to consider getting a movie made and it was far too big of a budget, I did have just enough naivete to send it off to James Watson himself and the guy responded.  I ended up getting to have lunch with him and talking movies with him.  For a couple years afterwards, he would send me Christmas cards and a little gift.  It was just sort of a weird thing for me where I was this young guy who wanted to make movies and, for some reason, the universe was allowing me to communicate with a guy who will absolutely be in the history books for as long as there are history books.  So, the idea has sort of been with me forever.  Although, this is much different from that screenplay, it's still based very much on stuff that I learned from talking to James Watson.  I wanted to do something science or genetic based, but how can I do it on a much smaller dollar scale.

JH:  There are a lot of films that take place in a version of the near future, but once the real world catches up with those films, we don't see a lot of their predictions coming to fruition.  How likely or unlikely do you think is the science in your film to one day be a reality?

JM:  When I wrote it in 2010, I knew I was setting the dates in such a way that I knew I would only have a couple of years of shelf life.  But, it’s because I think we’re that close and I feel like if I had set it any further in the future, the movie would be like someone in a movie from 2012 carrying around a suitcase-sized cellphone.  There are things happening right now that are just blowing my mind.  Actually, we just had the red carpet premiere last week and I got to see it again for the first time in a while.  There are scenes in it now that make it seem like the universe is actually making the movie more relevant.

There’s a whole scene in there about privacy and how much we should let the world see.  I didn’t know anything about this NSA crap happening when we made it.  There’s a scene about two candidates running for Governor of California.  Now, there are some European politician that, just last week, have announced that they want to see a genetic printout of their competitor, because why would you want to invest your vote in someone who may not be healthy enough to see us through something?  It has to be that close for me, because I feel like we’re there.  Obviously, Life Tracker is science fiction.  What I proposed doesn’t work.   The whole idea is just to get people thinking.  We’re going to be presented with choices very soon that are going to seem very innocuous, but you really won’t understand what you’re getting into until it’s too late.  I think some of the best science fiction does that.

I remember in high school, I read this short story by Ray Bradbury called There Will Come Soft Rains.  It’s about this house that’s full of electronic gizmos that all turn on at a specific time to do their job.  At 9:15, the vacuum comes out and does the floor, at a certain time the coffee machine comes on, the clothes get ironed automatically…  As the short story ends, you find out the world has ended for hundreds of years and the house has overgrown with plants.  But, the machines are still doing their daily chores.  Obviously, that’s science fiction, too.  But, it’s there to make you realize that there’s a lot of stuff happening.  Maybe we should just open our eyes.

JH:  Speaking along those lines, in the genre of science fiction, when it comes to the small details, how much pressure do you feel to work within science fact for the nitpickers who might want to pick apart what could and couldn’t happen?

JM:  A lot of people, when you’re working on the fringe of science fiction, almost science fact, just don’t know.  I’ve gotten a lot of flack for stuff for certain aspects that they think just aren’t true or that will never happen and I know where certain things in my script are that truly have not happened.  But, people are nitpicking things that I already know have happened.  At this point, it’s lack of education.  I think we’d all be surprised if we knew what, say, the United States military was doing in their research and development office.  When filmmakers go far beyond the scope of reality, like doing something like Elysium – nobody questions that, because it’s so far into the future, this giant spaceship full of oxygen enriched people orbiting the earth that nobody ever says, “I need to look for reality in this.”  They just suspend their disbelief.  But, when you’re doing something this close to reality; something in 2013, 2014, 2015, you have a responsibility to at least make it close enough that people can understand where the characters are coming from.

JH:  In Life Tracker, you played with the audience expectation of a typical film structure, even for a faux documentary.  Was that always a part of the original concept, or was that born out of exploring the idea further?

JM:  You’re never going to win them all, you know?  You’ll have people that will wish the movie was more about the three friends.  And, at the exact same time, the other half will wish that we had forgotten about the friends and told them more about the science.  Personally, I think, in a narrative, which this is, if you don’t have a story of real people’s lives that this is affecting, then it doesn’t mean anything.  But, at the same time, if it had been a real documentary, nobody goes to their Itunes library for documentaries and picks one because of special effects or which actors are in it.  If the subject intrigues you, you’re going to watch it.  That’s how this is.

JH:  How much of the film, particularly in the documentary portions, is already laid out in the script and how much room did the actors have to play with the dialogue?

JM:  Nearly every word is scripted.  I’m certainly not one of those directors that requires that an actor says the word, “um” where it’s supposed to be said.  I do strongly believe in a collaboration.  As an actor, your sole job is to worry about a character.  And mine is to look at the overall process.  I’m going to go to the actor, who is an expert on that character, for questions and concerns about the character.  So, if they want to change this or that or we end up with an improv that goes somewhere fun, I’m totally open to it.  But, one of the things about this movie, or other movies that are just as complex, sometimes when you change things, it can affect the story without you knowing it.  A good example of that is, in Life Tracker, when the three main characters are reading their prints for the very first time, they all look into their futures and see that one is going to have one is going to have lung problems, one is going to be depressed, and the other is going to have substance abuse issues.  It’s never said in the rest of the movie that they deal with that, but if you think about it after watching it, the character that is going to have problems with his lungs may very well be because of the destruction of a building he was in.  Another character learns some very horrible things about his girlfriend and possible future and he starts drinking and smoking dope, which was predicted in the print.  And, with the female character, you find out why she’s depressed.  It’s all so tied together that you can’t really change the little things.

JH:  One interesting aspect that I appreciated, and one that I don’t often see in a film of this type, is that the filmmaker within the film starts off not so good at it, but gets better as he goes along.  As a filmmaker yourself, what kind of challenges come with that – particularly in having to look through the perspective of a not so good filmmaker?

JM:  It’s been a huge stumbling block, actually.  As far as commercial or festival success, I’m very happy that we finally got distribution, but we were rejected from, I think 30 or 35 film festivals.  And, I get it.  I’m not upset with anybody.  If you’ve got 12,000 films to look at and you’ve got the assistants of your 2nd intern watching movies, there’s literally not enough time in a year to watch every movie that’s submitted.  You gotta watch 10 minutes and then turn it off.  If you watch 10 minutes of Life Tracker, it’s 4x3, it’s standard definition, it’s shaky cam and there’s bad sound intentionally.  If you don’t make it past that, you could easily think the whole movie will be that way, but you’d be very wrong.  But, when you get to the end of the movie, you realize that it was all done intentionally.  You see the progression of Dillon from sort of a schlubby guy who can’t get his shit together and the quality of his ability and equipment, as he gets more confidence in his life and his abilities, everything gets better.  His equipment, abilities, shot, sound, interviews – it all gets better.  You really get to see a progression and I think it helps you fall in love with that character.

But, modern audiences aren’t always interested in that.  You hear all the time that you gotta hook them in the first ten minutes.  And, I agree with that.  It is a cliché, but I do agree.  And, I don’t know that I would do it exactly like this again, but I am very happy with the way it turned out.  We definitely do a couple of things to try to hook you early and make you wonder what’s going to happen in the future.  In the very beginning, you know for a fact that the camera that he’s filming with has a shattered lens and something is wrong with it technically.  But, we don’t ever tell you why until the very last three minutes of the movie.  So, I hope it is off-putting enough to make people want to stick around.

Maybe it’s time for a change.  Listen, I’m not above it all.  I love a good Batman or Superman movie.  Love them.  I love these gigantic science fiction movies.  Science fiction can get so big – the budgets can be half a billion dollars.  But, how many more movies can see where the final hour is the destruction of a major U.S. or Asian city?  We’ve seen all of those special effects already.  So much so that they’re not really that intriguing.  If you don’t hook somebody’s brain, then they’re gone – they’ve seen it all.  When we saw Independence Day in the late 90’s, it was the first time we saw the White House blow up and it was mind-blowing.  The first time we saw the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey in the 60’s, it was mind-blowing.  But, if you do those special effects now, it’s common practice, so nobody cares.  So, my thought is – let’s go back to the beginning and start hooking people with emotional stories that they can relate to.

JH:  Speaking to what you said about using multiple aspect ratios and shooting styles, did that create any kind of on-set problems?  Particularly for a script supervisor having to make sure everything matches up?

JM:  We tried to schedule it so that we only shot with one camera a day, and I think we used seven different cameras, including all the way down to an Iphone and a regular, consumer Toshiba camera.  There were times where I knew we’d have to get through it quick or we had to finish what we didn’t finish the day before, so we’d have multiple cameras and had to make sure we pulled out the right one.  The script itself didn’t really read like a normal screenplay.  It very specifically said what we were shooting with because I wrote it knowing that I would make it.

We also had some plusses, too.  Like, when we shot a beach scene, we used an Iphone to shoot it because it’s a character in the movie who is not a filmmaker.  So, it wouldn’t make sense for her to be at the beach with filmmaking equipment.  When we shot that scene and brought it into post, the video quality was better than almost every other camera we used.  So, we had to shrink it down to a tiny size so that people would know it was a cell phone.  Another thing was – we had our sound recorded through the boom mike out there, but since it was ridiculously windy, we ended up just using the sound from the Iphone.  It was better than what we got from a professional recorder.  Happy accidents, too.

JH:  One of your three leads in the film (Matt Dallas of Kyle XY) has his own built-in fan base that perhaps tracks a bit younger than the film’s target audience.  Is there a pressure to take into consideration an audience that might find your movie through their fandom of a particular actor rather than the subject matter?

JM:   I think you definitely have to take consideration for your audience.  But, unfortunately, my audience isn’t Matt Dallas’ audience.  I wouldn’t even necessarily say that’s something that is by design.  I mean, he was on a hit science fiction television show that just happened to be popular with younger audiences.  If I catered to that, it wouldn’t be the movie that I wanted to make and loved, but I also wouldn’t have done the story justice.  I don’t know that world.

JH:  Your filmmaking career began in short films – how has your approach changed as you’ve made the transition into doing a feature?

JM:  It actually goes back a little further than that.  I went to school as an actor.  I spent four or five years as a professional actor in New York.  As I moved along, I would watch my friends who were also actors, and I personally thought they were blowing me out of the water.  I could see my own talent as an actor and I could see their talent and thought I better cut my losses while I’m ahead.  I was already doing it professionally and getting my paycheck, but I didn’t think it would last forever.  But, I still loved the entertainment business, so I started writing.  It was cheap and it was free.  I was getting jobs writing other people’s screenplays, but I couldn’t get them made myself, so I had to start directing.  The only thing I could afford to direct was short film.  Every single film you do, short or feature, you have to think, somewhere in the back of your head, “this is the one that is gonna make me rich and famous so that I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to get the money to do the next one.”  Because, if you didn’t think that, you wouldn’t finish it.

I can look back at my early shorts, and they are terrible.  But, I can tell you exactly what I learned on each set that I’ve been on, including Life Tracker.  Life Tracker is easily the biggest thing I’ve done, but I know for a fact the things I will not do on the next one because of mistakes I’ve made.  I think there isn’t really a difference between shorts and features because I try to do them the same, but with longer schedules.  But, I come from an acting background.  One of the biggest of the big, George Lucas, is more of a technical guy.  You hear that he gives very little input to the actors and leaves them alone.  He works more with the tech people.  Whereas, I’m a little different – I tell the tech people what I want, what I’m going for and certainly have opinions, but my expertise as a director is trying to figure out the emotions and how to get there.  Not telling the actor what to do, but help them discover where they are going.

JH:  For instance, crowd funding a film?

JM:  I’m very vocal about this, and I don’t think people like to hear me say it, but I’m against crowd funding.  I don’t want to alienate any of my friends or anyone who is doing crowd funding.  If you can get it, then that’s fantastic.  My issue with it is that I think it’s probably the worst nightmare for aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, moms, and dads of artists.  Unless you’re famous and have a name behind you, you just don’t have the ability to get that movie out there.  There are a lot of big campaigns, and, I won’t mentions which ones – we all know which ones have made millions of dollars on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.  The money that you spend – you have to spend money for a publicist to push you out there for the world, and you also have all the gifts like t-shirts or scripts or photos or set visits or premieres – all of that has to be paid for and it all has to be shipped out.  And, Kickstarter, for example, takes 4 or 5% of whatever you collect, and then the credit card companies take 3 to 5%.  Now, if I was to make a short film and I need $20,000, Kickstarter tells you when you create your account not to forget to add in how much it’s going to take to mail out the gifts and don’t forget that you’ll owe them a percentage and the credit card companies.  So, I needed to get $20,000 from my friends and family to make my movie, but now I have to get $30,000 from them.  And, really, they’re just buying all their own crap that nobody really wants anyway.  Not from me, they don’t.  They might want it from Veronica Mars’ team.

I look at it this way, I got all my money for Life Tracker through private equity investors.  I had to ask everybody in the world that I knew to give me money.  They had to sign legal contracts, which cost money on their own, but every penny that they gave me went to making my movie.  It’s all spent on the actors and the crew and the talent and the equipment.  Every penny is seen on the screen and that makes me happy.  I don’t have to worry about mailing addresses and campaigns like that.  I feel like it’s a waste of money.  And, also, if I’m going to get all my money from my friends and family anyway, why would I want to give 10% of everything I get from them to Indiegogo or Kickstarter?  I just ask them for the money and I don’t have to give 10% to anybody.

I think a lot of people think that if they put their campaigns up on one of those sites, it gives them some sort of legitimacy.  But, actually, I think it just helps them not to be scared.  It is terrifying to ask for money.  I spent a whole year raising money for Life Tracker and it was just awful.  There were literally nights in tears wondering how I will do this.  How I will continue begging for money for this movie.  But, you gotta do it.  If there’s no easy way out, Kickstarter is not the easy way out.  And, here’s another thing – after you successfully do one, can you go back to that same audience to get the second one?  Or, do they say “no, we helped you on the first one, now why don’t you get off your ass and do this one yourself?”  I don’t think it’s a sustainable model over the course of a career.

And, the more famous a person is, why are they asking their fans to help them make movies?  They’ve got names and connections themselves.  Some of these people are turning down production and distribution offers, some of the bigger names, because they aren’t getting what they want.  And, then, they go to the fans to get the money.

JH:  I often wonder how much of it is legitimate and how much of it is a front to appear more independent?  The reality is, despite the funding source, the studio is still going to make the decision when it comes to distribution.

JM:  Half of these movies don’t have distribution in place at all.  You have to wait until the movie is made to even submit for distribution in a lot of the cases.  I get a lot of Kickstarter and Indiegogo requests.  A lot of them.  I never see, on one of those websites, “click here to download our script” so that you can make an informed decision as to whether the project is any good.  They just say, “believe in me and because you like somebody that might be on my team.”  But, it could be shit.  Especially if these people have already gone to the studios.  You can say what you want about the studios – I have a love/hate relationship with them, too, but at least they do it for a living.  They know what’s good and what makes money.  What makes an art film and what can be done with it.  Your mom and your dad don’t.

JH:  Along those lines of distribution, the model for that has changed quite a bit with On Demand, Itunes, YouTube, etc…  How do you think that effects the industry.  Do you think it’s changing the ultimate goals of trying to get onto 3,500 screens opening weekend?

JM:  I certainly hope so.  I think once all theaters, and we’re talking way into the future, go digital and you don’t have to spend the money on an actual film print or shipping of thousands of giant film canisters all over the world, that’s going to take distribution costs way down.  So, maybe more films will get into the theaters.  But, I think right now the whole industry is in a mad scramble to figure out what to do before their cash cow is gone.  Look at what happened to the music industry when people started downloading music off of the internet.  Unless you are a touring musician now, making money at your concerts, you’re struggling.

There’s no more room for a movie in the middle.  If you’re making a movie for $10 – 20 million dollars, who wants to invest in that?  You might get your money back, sure, but if you invest in a $300 million dollar movie, you’re going to have action figures and Happy Meals and Ipad apps and all that kind of stuff to also help get your money back.  If you invest in a tiny movie like Life Tracker, then it’s like playing the lottery.  You put in a small amount of money and, if it picks up and gets good distribution, you’re going to be making maybe not the same total number of dollars, but it’s certainly many more times, percentage wise.

JH:  Based on something that I read about you, I have to ask – who’s your Doctor?  Are you a classic man or more Davies/Moffat?  (Jason’s note:  in reference to Doctor Who)

JM:  I’ll be honest with you, I love them all.  But, I think they are so different, the old and the new, so you have to pick one, at least, from each.  I love Patrick Troughton from the old series and I’m a Matt Smith guy from the new series.  It was a hard-fought battle because, just like the rest of the world, I was so in love with David Tennant, that it took me many, many, many episodes to even admit that I was considering that Matt Smith was winning out.  But, I love it.

Here’s the reason why I love Doctor Who all together.  It’s the idea that’s bigger than anything else.  That’s why it’s been alive for 50 years.  It’s a simple thing.  It’s a man who can go anywhere in space and time and he can deal with being the alien; the outsider who just wants to help.  You can go anywhere, you can talk about any political thing, you can talk about any worldly topics that you want to intelligently within that framework.

JH:  Lastly, when and where can our readers see Life Tracker?

JM:  You can pretty much see it anywhere, digitally in the United States.  It is on Itunes, Amazon, YouTube Movies, Google Play – anywhere you watch movies, it’s there.  And, as far as Video On Demand, every single major character has picked us up.  So, we’re in 100 million homes, whether you’ve got Cox, Xfinity, Charter, Time Warner, Comcast, Vios, Uverse – every cable company is carrying it on demand.  Please, go check it out and please, go support indie film.

For more information on Life Tracker, you can go to https://www.facebook.com/LifeTrackerMovie

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