Catching Up with Director/Writer Alex Thompson - GigSpotting.Net

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Catching Up with Director/Writer Alex Thompson

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Alexander Thompson.jpgIt Seems that it was just a few months ago I was reporting on Death of a Wizard that Alex Thompson had a hand in as a writer.  Maybe I should have talked with him sooner because he has been very busy.  

Death of a Wizard won the Gold REMI Award at the Houston International Film Festival.   Three other films that Alex worked on premiered recently.  Old Souls, a story about two immortal brothers who need to grow up and stop living in the past; Link, a unexpected bond between two WWII concentration camp escapees; and Death & The Robot, a stop motion animation film where two lonely souls share friendship and a legacy.

Every film I've seen that Alex has been involved in has great cinematography, attention to detail, and a solid story that touches the heart and mind.

"I feel that films need to fill three purposes - They need to entertain, they need to inspire, and they need to enlighten or inform. If you only have the former, you get a brainless turkey that will soon be forgotten. If you only have the latter, you have a philosophical propaganda film that jams its agenda down the audience's throat. You need it all, or you've wasted the audience's time and their hard earned money they spent on a ticket. If the films I make fulfill all three purposes, then I can rest easily, even if everything isn't 110% perfect. Whether or not I have succeeded on those fronts just yet is, of course, entirely up to the audience - We make movies for them, not for ourselves exclusively." - Alex Thompson -

Though still a student at UNC School of the Arts,  Alex is a very talented man who is not content to sit still.  I expect to see more great work to come in the future and am very pleased to have had the opportunity to ask him a few questions which can be seen below.

The last time we talked, the short, Death of a Wizard that you and Sasha Whitaker wrote the screenplay for was complete and ready to send to film festivals.  How is that progressing?

Things have been good on that front. We just found out we will be winning a REMI Award at the WorldFest Houston International Film Festival next month (still don't know exactly which award yet), and next week we will be screening at the Ivy Film Festival at Brown University. We are waiting to hear back from a few other fests right now as well. Fingers crossed!

Edward Varnie, the director of Death of a Wizard, pulled you in as a writer when he had the vision to make a movie about two black youths intent on bringing down a KKK Wizard.  What experience did you have at the time as a screenwriter and why do you think he chose you?

I'm not quite sure why he selected me. At the time I had just been announced as a finalist at the Charleston International Film Festival for Best Screenplay, for an unproduced sci-fi feature I wrote. I think that might have played into it. I was very eager to build my resumé and work in genres that were hitherto somewhat unfamiliar territory, and Wizard seemed like a logical step forward. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time!

I have heard from several people how Death of a Wizard, took them back in time due to the cinematography and the production design of the sets and wardrobe.  Was this a happy coincidence that the crew worked so well together?  Did it turn out like you envisioned?

The intent for Edward and his crew was to make each frame of the film to look as though it could be an approximation of 60's era photo-journalistic photography - snapshots in civil rights history, if you will. From an early point in the game the decision to shoot on film as opposed to the more readily-available digital formats, like RED and the Arri Alexa, was something Edward and Robbie, the DP, really pushed for. It was an added expense but it gave them the grains and the distinct visual texture inherent to celluloid that digital formats don't offer readily. Ditto for shooting in B&W! 

It's so funny that a recent endeavor like Wizard already feels like a lifetime ago, as there have been so many projects in the interim!

Tell us about Link

Link is my biggest directorial effort to date. The project was a huge labor of love - I co-wrote and directed the film, which is about two WWII concentration camp escapees chained together at the wrist who are on the run through the Polish countryside; their quest for freedom is thwarted when they accidentally step on a landmine. An unexpected bond soon emerges between the two of them as they await their fate. 

There are a few surreal elements that come into play that I don't want to spoil, and an ending that I hope will leave the audience speculating and thinking about what they would've done in our protagonist's situation.

It's a story that attracted me very strongly not only due to the simple ingenuity of the narrative, but moreover because of the underlying thematic structures at hand. At the onset of the story, our protagonists, Wendel and Harman, are at odds; despite a greater evil at hand they still manage to find petty differences with which to divide them. This comes to the fore once they step on the landmine, which essentially seals their fate. 

To me, the bigger picture was about two people at odds who are able to confront their humanity only once they have been forced to deal with the threat of imminent mortality. We're all going to die eventually, just as our characters are going to when they step off the landmine; It isn't so much about when we're going to die as opposed to how we treat one another between now and then - How we carry our dignity, our humanity, between point A and B; how we sink, or swim, under duress. That's the real story here, and that's what compelled me to direct the film.

We shot Link over a three day period in Mocksville, North Carolina - not a place you'd expect to readily emulate the Polish countryside circa 1944! However the location (and weather) worked out in our favor. It has a wet, miserable look that's perfect for the film. We shot the film on the RED MX so that we would have as much image control in post-production as possible, allowing us to play with different kind of bleach filters and image desaturation.

There were numerous challenges with this project - the whole film is in German, of course, which I didn't speak a word of prior to shooting; We worked closely with a dedicated team of translators to get the [sparse] dialogue not only accurate, but period appropriate as well. We had a rain sequence at night that cycled through several thousand gallons of water, and there are a lot of special make-up effects in the film. Volunteer fire fighters came in to help us out with our rain rig, and the finished results for those sequences are photographically amongst my favorite work in the piece. 

The film is in the final stages of post-production right now. Being objective about the finished film is tough for me. At the moment, the film is so fresh and new to me that all I can see is what I know I could have done way better! I suppose that's a natural part of the process and with time, I will learn to appreciate what did work about the piece, especially given the extremely narrow window of time under which it was made.

It was a tremendously educational film to make, and my team really taxed themselves to the very limits - ditto for my cast, Kevin Carillo and Phil Newsome. I'm incredibly proud of everyone in that regard - This was a very tough film to make with the extremely limited time and money that we had. Needless to say both were in very short order!

I look forward to the next few projects on the horizon, as they have more generous schedules and budgets allotted to them. Link will hopefully hit festivals later this year and the rest of the year has some very interesting projects on the horizon as well!

What are those projects you have coming up?

Right now I am entering post on another production as well, this one as a writer/co-producer for a stop-motion animated short entitled Death & The Robot. The film takes place on a world where there is no longer any life - just an endless sea of graves - and a personification of Death has grown terribly bored without any more life to take. When she (yes, Death is a "she" in the film's world) meets a hapless steam-powered Robot who has been secretly sustaining an underground greenhouse for centuries, an unlikely friendship emerges between them - but at a severe cost...

This is a very exciting project; a total 180 from Link and Death of a Wizard. It's a much lighter affair, though it deals with themes and motifs that are at its core very mature and adult-oriented. This was my first involvement in an animated film, and it was a thrillingly educational experience. In addition to the laborious stop-motion involved, there is also 2D traditional animation and CG compositing as well. There are a lot of moving proponents at work, and our budget was tiny - as in, $1,500 tiny! It is our hope that the finished film will look like it was executed at many times a greater expense than what we had to work with. Not having much money, however, meant that we had the luxury of time; as such, principal animation was stretched over many weeks in our tiny, makeshift studio in which production was carried out. 

You can find some behind-the-scenes pics, concept art, etc. here:

The film was directed by a very talented young animator named Austin Taylor, whose past few projects have won numerous accolades on the festival circuit, including "Best Animated Film" at the Beauford International Film Festival. We're hoping D&R will follow suit, but on a greater lever this time!

You can also view behind-the-scenes pics for Old Souls, another UNCSA thesis film I wrote this past year, here:

I recently co-wrote another UNCSA thesis film called Burning Fields for a producer named Mitch Rumfelt. I can't say too much about the project just yet, which will go into production later this year, but it's been a terrific project to work on - a kind of Little Miss Sunshine by way of Dukes of Hazard - it's going to be a very fun and ultimately moving film I think. Again, total 180 from my usual comfort zone, but I am very glad I worked on the project - It's been one of my favorite to write during my tenure at the School of the Arts.

There are two further projects I've written while here that might get made under the UNCSA umbrella, including a surreal comedy/love story and a thriller called Slingshot, about an autistic boy with some highly unusual talents who witnesses a murder and enacts justice of his own accord. 

Mind you, these are all films to be produced through the School of the Arts. Right now there is some very, VERY cool stuff going on outside of those walls. I'll get into that next...

How has UNCSA helped you in your career?  Has it opened any doors for you that you might have missed otherwise?  Helped you to meet similar minded people to work with now or in the future.  What is the greatest value you receive from their programs?

UNCSA has been pivotal in a variety of ways. I've been fortunate to learn from some phenomenal working professionals while here, and I've been lucky to grow alongside some truly wonderful collaborators with whom I will be working for many years to come. I think that's the strongest opportunity the school has allotted; the opportunity to find like-minded people and foster relationships with them while making high-quality short films, commercials, etc. Indeed many doors have been opened by the school, a few of which are very exciting but not quite in the place to discuss in a public forum!

Alex with RED.jpg
Photo courtesy: Harper Alexander

Who took the photo of you with the RED camera and what got you interested in writing/producing films?

The photo of me with the Red was taken by Harper Alexander, my cinematographer. He shot Link and will photograph other projects of mine on the horizon, and he is by and far the strongest collaborator I've ever had. We intend to work together for many years to come. 

As for what got me into writing, that's a tough call. Above all else, I just love telling stories. I think there's absolutely nothing more engaging and exhilarating then crafting a compelling yarn. I was tremendously influenced by genre writers growing up (Bradbury, Matheson, Asimov, Lovecraft, Ballard, King et al) and used to rip through short story anthologies on what felt like a daily basis. Soon I started writing my own sci-fi and horror fiction, and since I loved visual storytelling so much by way of movies, it naturally made sense that I combine the two passions at a young age. So that's what I did. To be honest, I can't really imagine having ever wanting to do anything else with my life.

I don't really consider myself much of a "producer" yet; those are skill sets I would like to develop over the course of my career however. I would love to one day have the wherewithal to help discover young, emerging talent. Being a creative producer is very engaging work and definitely something I intend to partake in. One battle at a time though; first I need to establish myself as a director and screenwriter successfully (laughs)!

I have a lot of very different inspirations as far as films go; I love highly visual directors (Fritz Lang, Del Toro, Gilliam, Leone, Kubrick, [Ridley] Scott, Jeunet et al) but I also have a tremendous respect for those who really understand people and know how to elicit mesmerizing performances from their actors, Lumet and Cassavetes being favorites in that arena. William Friedkin, Peter Weir and a lot of the directors who emerged during the late 1960's and 70's are also a huge inspiration as well. I love a ton of Japanese directors (past and present), and the batch of really brilliant South American filmmakers cropping up over the past decade or so has been really inspiring. Really, there are so many great film and filmmakers out there. I love a lot of them for very different reasons.

That being said, any time I am working a project - be it one I intend to direct, a script for another director, or otherwise - It usually begins with a series of images (painting usually) and with music. Always with music. Things that help me get inside the world of the story. I think being inspired by a large amount of non-filmic art forms is essential to one's growth as a filmmaker - Nevermind the fact that it will make you a broader, more knowledgeable person as well.

You mentioned Harper Alexander as your cinematographer.  Why him?

Harper and I share similar aesthetic tastes and aspirations. He wants to become a professional working cinematographer upon graduating from film school, and I want to do the same in a directorial capacity. We both expect 110% from ourselves and each other, and Harper has a keen understanding of how to do things fast, cheap, and with limited resources. The next film we're doing together, Starlight, will be our thesis film at the School of the Arts. It's a sci-fi piece that's much more concentrated on tonality and evocative imagery to tell its story, whereas Link is a more straight-forward character piece. Since our next film will have more money, time, and resources, I'm glad we played it a little "safer" with Link.

In addition to prep on Starlight, right now I am also about to begin prep on Promise of a Son, the first short I will be directing for my company Kaleidoscape Filmworks

What do you know about film distribution?  Is that something you concern yourself with at the completion of a movie or is this someone else's job?

Since I am still working at a short film level right now, yes, the distribution phase is something I like to be heavily involved with. If I am so fortunate to work at a studio level or high-end independent in the future, obviously that will be another story.

Right now though, for example, I am working with my producers on Link to put together a marketing & distribution plan to ensure it gets seen as wide and broadly as humanly possible.

I think now, more than ever before, we're in a strange spot with film distribution in that there are doors opening that only the most forward-looking of individuals would have perceived possible a mere ten years ago. Video on Demand, Netflix, iTunes, etc. have opened floodgates for getting your movie seen.

What that also does is open the door to anyone with a flip-cam and a marginal amount of computer savvy to get their work seen. This is means that great filmmakers who might otherwise never have had a shot at getting material out there can shine and be discovered in the online arena; Unfortunately it also means that the market is saturated with material that should probably best remain hidden and would otherwise never have found distribution by companies dealing in 'hard' formats like DVD or BluRay due to poor production values, inept content, etc.

I know self-distribution (cutting out the distributor as a middleman in order to maintain total financial and creative control of how your media is acquired by the world) is something that's growing in popularity, but I've never dealt with it per se so I can't really comment one way or another.

It is easier today to produce a film and get it out to the public than ever before.  Is there a danger of too much content and not enough eyes available to see it?  In the end does this make it easier or harder to make a living creating movies or TV shows?  It certainly seems that more people are involved in the film and media business than ever before

That's a tricky one - I think what this growing trend means, simply, is that you need to A.) Know exactly who your audience is, and the best way to reach them in this emerging distribution climate, and B.) Your content needs to be good... Really, really good. If it isn't top notch then it will, as you said, get lost in the anonymity of content out in the world.

You are very prolific.  I've heard some artists say they have a need to create.  Like a compulsion.  Does this describe you?

Yes, absolutely. I love telling stories above all else. I've been very grateful to have explored sides of storytelling I'm not as familiar with over the past few years.

For example, when Edward Varnie commissioned me to come on as a writer for Death of a Wizard, writing a historical drama like that was not really on my radar at all. I had never done it, nor really thought to do it - I considered myself a horror/sci-fi guy, through and through. Working on that project made me explore a part of history I was familiar with only peripherally; I could talk your ear off about it today. So that element of working outside one's comfort zone has been very rewarding.

Ditto for Burning Fields, a short I wrote for producer Mitch Rumfelt (producer of Link) that will be going into production in October of this year. It's a really fun, heartfelt movie - Think Little Miss Sunshine meets Dukes of Hazard. It's a project I've been working on for well over a year for Rumfelt, and again, it's something outside my default comfort zone - A dramedy with a minor dose of southern edge/grittiness to it, but a lot of heart.

I'm really lucky to have had the opportunity to have written a pretty decent handful of films over the past few years that wouldn't have normally crossed my radar, though I feel I could have done much more as well. There have been a few missed opportunities here and there, as there always will be, though the best is still to come. That said, it will also be a breath of fresh air getting back to my routes in the next few years with more sci-fi, horror and dark fantasy-oriented projects via Kaleidoscape Filmworks.

You had a large crew for Link.  How much of it was students contributing their time and how much were paid professionals?

No one was paid on Link. Your jaw would drop if I told you how little money that film was made for! Where we lacked in funds we atoned in a sturdy, ambitious production staff. We had a lot of good eggs on that shoot - I think around 65 people on our biggest days, which  involved shooting a rain sequence. I do have to give a special mention to my lead actors, Phil Newsome and Kevin Carillo, as well. Those shoot days were very cold and they spent most of the time soaking wet and barefoot in the middle of a muddy field!

Death & The Robot is a stop motion animation film.  I can't imagine the time it took to get this right.  To tell a story without any dialogue and still be able to awaken the emotions.  How does one go about getting to see your work with films like Link and Death & The Robot?  

Death & The Robot has been one of the more rewarding projects I've had the privilege of being involved in thus far in my career. It was indeed a tremendously involved and meticulous process through and through, and I'm still amazed we pulled it off - as with Link, our budget was truly shoestring. 

As for where these films can be seen - These are pretty much just getting off of post-production as we speak, and will be embarking on the festival circuit in the very near future. We can't really post them online in a public forum just yet, lest we potentially risk disqualifying ourselves from certain venues.

Tell me about Kaleidoscape Filmworks.

Right now I am slated to direct a few shorts for the company, all of which I am incredibly excited about:

Going Home, the first film we are slated to make, is about an astronaut who awakens inside a mysterious white void after her ship crashes in space; Her nightmare is just beginning as she realizes she must make a terrifying decision in a very narrow window of time. It's an ambitious piece laden with strong philosophical themes and some really fantastic imagery. I wrote this one with a frequent collaborator named Alex Epply-Schmidt. 

(As a bit of a tangent, I should point out that Epply-Schmidt and I also recently penned a short thriller together titled Slingshot, which is about an autistic boy who witnesses a terrible crime and, unable to effectively communicate to the world what he has seen, must take matters into his own hand. This film will be going into production in the spring of 2014 here at the School of the Arts).

Next up for Kaleidoscape is Promise of a Son, a Southern Gothic piece with apocalyptic themes. It's a dark fairy tale of sorts, all centered around two young children set against the backdrop of the sweeping, mountainous countryside of the deep south. This one os based on short story by a Massachusetts-based author named David Hebden, and it's been very long-gestating. When I first read the short story a long time ago, I was really floored by it and knew it would make a terrific score. I wrote the film solo from Hebden's original short story.

There are a few others, including a non-linear, Lovecraftian monster movie set entirely in one room with a strongly sexual, Cronenbergian edge to it. I'm really excited about this one - It's currently being retitled, so I can't reveal too much just yet - but it's wonderfully claustrophobic and dark, but with a strong social commentary at its core that really drives it. It's the darkest film I will have made yet, and to be honestly that's an arena I am very fond of and comfortable in.

The goal collectively with these high-quality shorts is to put the Kaleidoscape team on the radar of studios and executives in the hope of forming a production deal and moving on to studio features within a reasonable window of time. 

After I wrap photography on my thesis film here at the School of the Arts (also a sci-fi project) in October, I will begin work on these projects for Kaleidoscape immediately. Ideally, we will be shooting the first of them by summer of 2014 at the latest.

There are other endeavors I am pursuing as well in the meantime - Music video work that my go-to cinematographer (Harper Alexander) and I have in the pipeline for various clients in North Carolina, as well as multiple feature spec scripts that I am working on in the hopes to sell - some that I am developing with other writers and few that I am developing on my own. Most of these are rooted in the sci-fi, horror or fantasy genres, which I'm eager to get back to after working in other genres over the past few years here at the School of the Arts.

It is my hope to secure an agent in the near-future and begin pushing my spec scripts around whilst directing the Kaleidoscape projects and developing feature projects for "in-house" production at Kaleidoscape down the line, in addition to pursuing music video and commercial work on a directorial level. I would like to direct my first feature in my late 20's, as I want time to let that first feature project have time to really incubate properly. Commercial and music video work will be more than satisfying enough in the meantime, in addition to all the writing as well.

While I place a very high value on having a very meticulous game plan and sticking to it with a determined spirit, at the same time I have learned that one must always be open to unexpected opportunities coming your way. You never know who you will meet on your path, and what opportunities might unexpectedly avail themselves - One needs to assess each one very carefully, and have an open mind about them.

I figured I'd share another project with you as well, entitled Old Souls. I wrote this film this past year with one of my frequent collaborators, Sam Newsome, from an original story I had developed. The film is about two immortal brothers from the civil war era living in the Ozark Mountains. Their century-spanning friendship is jeopardized when a strange young girl happens upon them in the 1960's and threatens to separate them forever.

When do you graduate from UNCSA and what are your plans?  Will you go to Hollywood or make films wherever the wind blows you?  

I will graduate in 2014, so I have a little under a year left at UNCSA. My immediate post-graduate plans are a rather complicated matter at the moment, as those plans are contingent upon many factors that will fall into place over the next few months.

My partners in Kaleidoscape are busy with development on our in-house projects right I mentioned in the last email right now, and those will occupy a great deal of my time leading up to my graduation and beyond. These above all else are my most dear and important projects right now, and strong meal tickets for future work as far as I am concerned.

We will see what comes of the music video and tentative commercial work on the horizon as well, as that's an avenue I intend to pursue very hard as well.

A Lynching on Cheyenne Road, the feature-length version of Death of a Wizard, is a project director Edward Varnie and producer Alexa Reass are still actively pursuing funding for (I wrote the script for the feature and help whenever time allows in regards to getting the project out to the world). We received a solid offer from an investor last summer, but ultimately it was simply too low for that film's scope. Our win at the Houston Int'l Film Festival has helped revive interest in the film for sure. I am developing another project for Varnie right now, a dark thriller set in the Deep South following a devastating, fictitious modern-day war that ushers in a new Dark Ages of sorts. It's titled Comes an Autumn Red, but I can't say too much about that project just yet, as it's still in an early stage of development still. 

If Lynching is optioned, that will be a big career boost and I will ride that wave as far as I can. Ditto for Autumn Red and a few other scripts I am working on with some of my frequent collaborators - There are some really cool scripts in the works, but those aren't really in the place to share too many details about just yet. I would like to secure agency representation shortly after graduating, as that will be an important part of getting this spec material out to the world. 

We will also see how Link, Death & The Robot, Old Souls, Burning Fields and Slingshot do on the film festival fronts too, as that might play a part in future success. 

As for where I will be physically, that's very hard to say. Obviously all the Big Picture decisions are still made in Hollywood (and New York, albeit to a slightly lesser extent), and that's where all the agencies and studios are. While the film world is slowly - in some places quickly - permeating every corner of the globe, LA and NY are still development central and that's the ticket to their longevity as being "the hubs". Once active development, production and post-production - the full package, from concept to completion - begins to crop up in greater abundance outside of those places, it will truly no longer matter where one lives. That day is nearing, but it's not here just yet.

I've loved my time in North Carolina. I love the south in general. I've loved making movies in this region, and will continue to make more. I'd love to do a feature here one day soon. I want to write at a studio level, however, and eventually direct studio-level films, so we'll see. 

Either way, I will absolutely not move to Los Angeles until I have a serious reason to - Either I've sold a script at a substantial enough level, I've been offered writing work or representation with one of the big agencies, or if/when Kaleidoscape Filmworks establishes itself on the West Coast (as it inevitably will). So I'm not ruling anything out at this point - Like I said, I feel every opportunity needs to be given careful and thorough consideration before being acted upon or dismissed. 

As long as I am making a living as a director and screenwriter - sharing as many quality stories with the world as I can - I will go where opportunities exist. At least for the time being.

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