TIFF 2014: Interview with Entangled’s Tony Elliott

The eerie Entangled imagines living in two realities simultaneously.

Who hasn’t fantasized about living a different life, bifurcated, one where you could make a whole new set of choices and see where they lead? But still live your own life, because what’s the value in the difference if you can’t compare? Of course we want it all, to be able to say definitively “this grass really is greener.” Part of the Short Cuts Canada programme on at the Toronto International Film Festival, Tony Elliott’s short Entangled realizes that dilemma in a clever and tense slice of sci-fi thrillerdom. Entanglement is the typically strange quantum concept that two particles anywhere in the universe can become linked, regardless of distance, and what happens to one will also affect the other. The director cut his teeth as a screenwriter, most recently working on the hit series Orphan Black. In Entangled, Erin (Christine Horne) is forced to care for her catatonic lover Malcolm (Aaron Abrams) after a quantum experiment goes very wrong. Determined to find the cause, she runs the experiment again on herself. What she discovers is literally mind-bending, and forces her to question how far she will go for love. Catch my interview with Elliott and the trailer for Entangled after the jump:

What could possibly go wrong with a homemade particle cannon?

You’re a writer and story editor on Orphan Black. This is the second short you’ve written and directed yourself. Do you approach writing for a small film differently than you approach writing for television? Does budget affect your vision, or knowing you’ll be directing it yourself?

Short films and network television are different mediums with different viewer expectations and unique visual languages, so I certainly have to take that into account when I write, and when I direct. In short film you can take a lot more risks, but in serialized TV you’re really able to dig in to character. But despite their differences both film and TV are affected by budget. Your budget dictates the scope of your story and what you can achieve with your resources. But that’s not always a bad thing. I find limitations can be very helpful in creating, realizing and executing a story. Within reason, of course. As far as writing and directing, this notion isn’t new but it’s true: writing is stage one of telling the story, directing is the second stage, and editing and post-production are the third stage. Throughout the entire process you are constantly making narrative choices, which is why I love and value seeing a story all the way through from conception to the end. Collaborating with your team is vital, but having executive call on all elements is not only gratifying but also deeply educational in learning how to best realize a story. I become a stronger writer with each film I direct.

Orphan Black is primarily concerned with clones. Entangled takes a rather different look at twinning one’s self, via the principles of quantum entanglement. What got you started thinking about this?

The idea for ENTANGLED came about while I was extremely busy and feeling stressed, with many things happening at the same time. I was in the middle of breaking my episode for ORPHAN BLACK; I had to write a short film for an upcoming deadline but had no ideas that I was excited about; I was overdue for a pass on a feature script; and I had regular family responsibilities to deal with. I was stressed from feeling pulled in several different directions and I wished I could be doing more than one task at a time. And that was a eureka moment for me. I instantly knew I had an idea for a short. In exploring the concept of being in two places at the same time, I leaned toward a scientific explanation instead of supernatural (though being in two places at the same time is also a millenial-old idea in religious mysticism). I’ve always been fascinated with quantum entanglement and I recognized the emotional metaphor of two particles being inherently connected to and affected by one another. So the two concepts — the desire to be in two places at the same time and quantum entanglement — seemed like a natural entanglement in which to tell a story.

The idea of simultaneous consciousness is simply but very effectively captured with the split screen. Was that part of the film’s original visual conceit?

Absolutely. When I explore ideas I always try to find fresh, innovative and original angles — but of course that’s not easy. I’ve seen films that used split screen but I’ve never seen it done the way it is in ENTANGLED, with the same character experiencing both moments simultaneously. As I wrote and rewrote the script I had planned to use the split screen a few times, but I realized that its overuse might come off as gimmicky. And more importantly, I felt it might also distract viewers from experiencing the lead character’s emotional journal, which is what ultimately makes a captivating story. I deferred to character over device at, I think, the right moments.

Aaron Abrams and Christine Horne wrestle with the confusion of multiple existence.

You have a great cast, Joey Klein, Christine Horne, Aaron Abrams. Can you tell me a bit about them?

Christine, an acclaimed theatre actor, perfectly captured an emotional but nuanced performance. It’s challenging enough to be authentic (especially in sci-fi), but having to replicate exact emotions for the split screen takes talent, genius and courage — and that sums up Christine. As for Aaron, I was always a big fan of his. He’s acted in a lot of great films and TV shows. I offered him the role because I knew he’d bring an intensity and anguish to his character, which he did in spades. And Joey, who is also a fantastic filmmaker, really brought his character to life by portraying him with sincere tenderness and emotional heft.

Aaron Abrams’s character seems to have led two separate lives, but at great cost, becoming catatonic in his alpha existence. Does splitting yourself to expand your experience have an appeal?

Absolutely. Who wouldn’t want to have two lives in which to make different choices, do different things, fall in love with different people? But I’m also interested in how we, as humans, exploit technology for our wants and desires, and how it can corrupt us. Aaron’s character didn’t create the technology for personal gain, though he ultimately uses it for such. It’s not on a master-villain scale but rather for a very real, human desire. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking for Christine’s character and the awful choice she must make at the end of the film.

What’s your next project? Is Entangled something you’d consider developing into a larger story?

I’ve got two features on the go that I wrote and will be directing — one’s a crime thriller, HIDING LARRY, and the other is a futuristic sci-fi time loop story, ARQ. I’m also developing ENTANGLED into a feature. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting several prominent LA-based production companies who loved the short and believe it would make a great feature. In telling a longer version I’ll be able to dig deeper into the personal and emotional ramifications of existing in two places at the same time, but also tell a story that is much bigger in scope and spectacle. ENTANGLED is a sci-fi, after all.

Entangled is part of the Short Cuts Canada Programme 4, premiering today, Monday, September 8th, at 6:15pm at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. The programme screens again on Tuesday, September 9th at 9:15am at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. For more info, see here.


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