After watching the trailer for Sol, I was very excited. So few indie filmmakers tend to work in science fiction, as it tends to be a pretty expensive genre to work in. With few details available on the film, I reached out to Ben Carland, the film’s writer and director, to learn more about the film. We wound up having a conversation over Skype about this film and his experiences on it, as a first time director and screenwriter. I have not been able to see Sol yet, as the film still lacks a distributor, and it’s only wrapped within the past year, so I can’t say whether or not Ben Carland is going to be a Duncan Jones or the future director of Mega Dog vs. Catasaurus on SyFy. Wait, screw being the next Duncan Jones. He should make that movie I just made up. If he doesn’t I’m going to dress up my dog and my friend’s cat and film it myself.
What struck me the most about Ben was his passion for science fiction and his desire to do more with the genre than make soulless, 3D eye candy and toothless CG space battles, and that makes him someone to take note of. Check out my interview with him, and, luck willing, we’ll be able to share more news with you about Sol in the coming weeks.
I’ve seen the trailer, but for my readers who haven’t, tell me what Sol is about.
It’s a science fiction film that takes place in the distance future, and it’s about a group of young adults that gets stranded on an alien planet. The way that comes about is that, in this future world, there’s this prestigious competition that people from all different academies take place in called “Sol Invictus,” and the goal of this competition is that all these different schools send out teams to a planet that they don’t know where it is, so they don’t really know what they’re doing. The competition is a race to see who can be the first team to set up a camp and figure out, pinpoint which star in the sky is Earth’s sun, which is called Sol. So, all these kids are racing against each other to see who can be the first one to pinpoint it, but of course, things go really wrong with the competition, and all these kids get stranded there, and all these people that were contestants against one another have to band together as their only hope of surviving. I guess that’s it in a nutshell!
There’s some obvious Lord of the Flies references, with the stranded young people having to survive and creatures in the wild. What are some of your other influences as a writer and as a director?
Lord of the Flies is a really prevalent thing, not because I wanted to borrow from it or anything like that, but because it’s such a really interesting feeling of what happens to people when they’re marooned.
It’s such a primal thing.
Sort of like a fall of any kind of rules, how people carry on when there’s no social norm or no order, anything like that. I wanted to look into that, just how people deal with a feeling of desertion, where everything they had is gone, and they had to just rely on each other. In terms of pre-existing stuff, I didn’t really have a whole lot of influences from stuff that was pre-existing, because that was kind of one thing I really wanted to try with Sol, to make something that did feel new, something that we hadn’t seen before. Lord of the Flies would probably be the closest comparison, with the group of young adults. That always fascinates me a little bit more, to see kids in these challenging situations, because, you know, life is challenging enough when you’re a kid, so it’s sort of like anything times two, when you’re a kid in these situations.
This is your first film. How’s your experience as a first time director, as well as a first time screenwriter?
It was my first feature. I’d done a bunch of short films in college, stuff like that, through film school and then afterwards, but they were all smaller projects. I don’t know, it wasn’t really that different, in that regard. It was just kind of longer and cost more, and the prep took a lot more time, and everything. I really enjoyed writing it, actually, and I tried not to look at it as a writer/director at the same time, not writing in terms of, “Ok, now how am I going to shoot this?,” and second guessing myself. So I kinda just sat down and wrote it as what would be the coolest story that I would like to see, and then I’ll let this director guy worry about it later, bringing it to life. That probably made the writing experience more fun.
I also did the majority of the producing on it, too, and it was kind of a pickle, sitting there worrying about shot designing and location scouting while trying to put together hiring the crew and doing casting, and kinda all those things at once. That was probably the biggest challenge, just juggling so many things. And, at the time, because of where we filmed it, there’s a very small window of when the climate is really conducive to something like this. It was really the exact amount of time we were there. There’s like a month and a half between when it’s either way too hot or way too cold with hurricanes and all that. So we really were just under the gun with the schedule.
The film was largely shot in North Carolina. What sort of challenges came with taking this very terrestrial environment and turning it into an alien world?
It was actually a lot easier than you think, and it was actually kind of where the story itself came from, when I was out on the Outer Banks , just camping out there, and I remember thinking, “Man, this place feels like a different world,” and it was like nothing I’d have ever seen before, and so, when I saw that it was such a great location, that was sort of how I started writing the story around that, to use that location. Thankfully, we were able to film near to the same location there.
The place that we filmed was so interesting. It was a place I had never really seen before. It was kind of epic-looking in scope, and everything like that. So the location really helped a lot, and the production design was really fun because even though, obviously, we didn’t have a lot of money, we picked the few elements that we thought would do the best job of selling this was the future and a different world and selling all those things that this wasn’t present day Earth, but obviously, we couldn’t do many of them, so we really picked our battles for what we wanted to do from a production design standpoint. We could just do a few things really well, rather than doing a whole bunch of things and spreading ourselves too thin.
In terms of budget, how much did you put the movie together for?
It was done for about $150,000, between that and $200,000. It was a challenge because so much of that went to filming on that location. It was out on an island in the Atlantic, so we had to put everybody up in houses and get everybody out there and get all our gear out there. That very quickly took away what little of the budget there was. It was a very big challenge trying to work within that budget, but we made it work!
I’m a big fan of low-flash, high-concept sci-fi. What made you choose science fiction as a means to tell your story?
That’s probably my favorite genre of films, and it’s the one I hope to be working in for a long time, and it’s the one our next film is gearing up to fit into. With that genre, there’s so much space to come up with something totally original, and there’s just so many options out there in terms of story and style. It’s got to be the most fun genre to work in.
Since you mentioned it, what are you guys working on right now as the next project?
I mentioned sci-fi, and we’ve got another sci-fi in the works that whereas Sol is in the future, in a faraway place, that takes you on a trip somewhere, this one, the next one we’re working on, is present day, in the real world, and it’s much more of a suspense, I don’t want to say horror film. It’s really a sci-fi film. It’s a suspenseful, dark sci-fi that takes place in modern day and should be a lot of fun. Where Sol was out in the bleak wilderness, this is in a very busy city, urban area, so it’s kind of the opposite of Sol in many ways, but at the same time, we still want to convey the same sort of darkness that we touched on a little bit in Sol.
The last time I wrote about Sol, it didn’t have a distributor. Is that still the case?
Correct. We’ve actually gotten a bunch of really cool inquiries that we’ve been keeping tabs with. Actually, we started getting most of our inquires while I was driving out to L.A., while I was in the Mojave [Desert], with no cell phone reception, dying of heat, while these people are asking to see screeners, and I’m trying to orchestrate all that, so that was a really fun experience. So we’re talking to a few places right now, and we should have some news pretty soon, maybe in the next week or two, of what we’re looking at for Sol for a release, so that’s really fun, being at least this close to the end of the line.
What sort of challenges do you have as an independent film company and as a first-time filmmaker in dealing with all the business crap, looking to get distribution and all that?
Many. [laughs] Pretty much, if it’s possible, then it does, in fact, become a challenge. Let me see…where to begin, really? I guess one of the plus sides to doing it is that it’s actually easier to get locations, sometimes it’s easier to get gear because places understand that you’re small and want to help out, but, gosh, it’s harder in pretty much every way beyond that. It’s harder to get insurance, it’s harder to just get your cast and crew out there, because you just can’t afford to do it.
Distribution was interesting because all of the inquiries that I sent out never even got a response to them, because nobody had even heard of the film or anything like that, but then once the trailer was up and we got a good response, then people started coming. I think the biggest challenge with independent filmmaking, especially on a small budget like this is nobody really cares too much, or I guess just assumes nothing’s really working out with the production, and that’s actually kind of true. Even on set, when money’s tight and everything like that, it’s like you’re always just one mishap or one just bad luck step away from the production just stopping and not working out. Even when we were on set, by the time we were there, we were kind of into hurricane season, and money was so tight, so just missing one day due to terrible weather just screwed us over so bad, so sometimes, we’d be out there in just the pouring rain filming because we simply couldn’t do pickups or anything like that. We had to get everything in there, or we just wouldn’t get the scene.