Coming out of the still ongoing SXSW film festival The Infinite Man was easily the biggest surprise. I expected very little and got a whole lot, including what’s probably the best comedy of the festival. I was intrigued to learn that this was director/writer Hugh Sullivan’s first feature length film and that it was run on a shoe string budget partially funded by grants. It works so well it just didn’t seem possible that he’d never made a feature before.
Sitting down with him and actress Hannah Marshall I was intrigued to find out just how he tackled a complex, time travel plot that blends both romance and comedy so perfectly. We discussed how to perfectly structure your film all while shooting on one set with no budget and limited time. Then we discussed traveling back in time to make this the best interview ever.
So the movie was awesome and really unique. So where did that idea come from?
Hugh Sullivan (HS): Yea, sure. It was a few different things from different places. There was this character that I had in mind who had certain idiosyncrasies and time travel seemed like a good metaphor for the various flaws in his character. We were also making the film as part of the South Australian Film Corporation’s Film Lab Initiative, a funding body in Australia, and they were fully funding low budget films so I knew we were working to a set budget and a low one. This seemed like the best use of what we had to create something that was engaging and more expansive then may otherwise be the case.
One of the best parts was that it was all shot in this one location (an abandoned motel in the middle of nowhere). Was that budgetary constraint or was that the plan all along?
HS: One of the challenges that I set myself in the writing was to keep it in one location and have that many characters and see what we could do. Once we found that location as well — that was a good moment.
Was it complicated filming the a story that overlaps on itself and goes all over the place in terms of time?
Hannah Marshall: It was complicated, but we had a rehearsal process before we started shooting. We spent most of our time working out exactly who was who and when so it was kind of difficult, but Hugh was so on top of it that he worked it out. It was complicated shooting it all, but it was mapped out quite clearly and we knew where we were going because we knew the end, obviously. The Lana character was especially tricky because its not until the end of the film that you work out what is actually going on so it was tricky to not give anything away really.
HS: It was an incredibly difficult film to schedule. We just didn’t know the best way. Our primary concern was just what would enable us to move as fast as possible and be as efficient as possible with our time. We started out thinking if we wanted to approach the filming as Dean’s journey to make it easier for Josh, but we just quickly threw that out the window because it wasn’t as efficient so he just had to pay the price. Everyone seemed to cope really well, and we just had a great crew and cast.
HM: It was definitely very fun and a unique sort of challenge.
Can you talk a bit about Australian film making?
HS: I think the big difference is the funding bodies there. We had this funding in place we even had a script so that’s a huge difference for someone who is making their first feature. It’s actually unusual for Australia too. Just he federal and state funding bodies is a big difference as there’s not so much of that here (U.S.).
Otherwise, having not done anything over here, I’m not too sure.
HM: The budget, because it was lower and we all pitched in, there were no like big pictures.
HS: We lived on set.
HM: Yea! And from an acting perspective it’s invaluable because you get to me involved in some capacity in making the film. Everyone sort of helped out. Definitely on a bigger budget scale in the states that doesn’t happen.
HS: We were shooting six day weeks and even on the seventh day I found myself sitting on the toilet wearing Lana’s shoes (as per a scene in the film)… I think we were shooting a pick up. (laughs)
It was an incredibly intense experience.
HM: There was an incredible sense of family. We all loved the script and loved the work so we all wanted to make it work. It was so bright and clever so everyone committed to making the best product and honor the script.
My favorite scene or scenes is when Lana comes back the first time and he is eventually telling her what to say. That scene plays out multiple times from different perspectives. Can you talk about shooting it multiple times and the difficulty of it?
HM: We shot that for maybe two days.
HS: I think everyone was wondering why are we shooting the same scene over and over? Are you insane? It actually wasn’t too challenging, but a matter of wanting to treat it slightly differently this time. Obviously the audience has more knowledge every time they return to that scene, and we wanted to give each scene a different energy.
HM: I found it a bit difficult, especially just not giving anything away. There’s a tendency to want to put some explanation in the performance, but you can’t. All the movements have to be the same and the you don’t want to do any intentions that are too revealing. The pitch and the tone of how to do that scene without revealing too much was tricky, but I feel like… well, I haven’t seen it yet, but on the day I felt it worked out really well.
HS: It was a challenge to make sure the film was engaging at every moment, especially when returning to the same moment. It was just a balancing act, I suppose.
I thought that scene in particular addressed the character perfectly as he unfolded.
HS: It’s funny, on paper that scene didn’t seem to work so well. It’s this three page dialog scene and people read this scene and it was hard to get. I guess it was the guess with the film that it was really meant to be a viewing experience and not read on the page.
Going to the page can you talk about keeping the screenplay so on point and compact?
HS: (pauses) You know, you just write and it’s what comes out, I guess. I just wanted to create something that was going to be really engaging.
Hold on… let me approach that differently. We can delete that? (laughs)
I’ve got a time machine. It’ll all work out fine.
HS: (laughs) You’ve just got these characters and you want to explore the ideas that come out of them as thoroughly as possible. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s just about fully exploiting the idea. You’ve got these flawed characters and you just try to have some fun with them.
HM: And maybe because the film itself is contained in this weekend its quite fun boundaries because it keeps it so tight being around this point in time. It really manipulates and plays within those limits.
Can you talk about performing with such a minimal cast. Castaway came to mind. It’s not quite a volleyball, but there’s no one in the movie except for you three actors.
HM: Yea, absolutely. Josh and I were working for like the first four weeks before Alex (the third actor) came on and it was like finally. Josh was doing so much on his own as well. It was challenging too because we were in every single scene together, the two of us. It was fun because it was so good to just work together and play. It didn’t really feel like it was just the two of us until Alex came on and then it was like, “Hey, there’s a new person,” a new aspect to the story. It got exciting to start seeing the shape of everything as we started to piece together all the different shots and where in time they fit. We were pretty isolated as a crew, but we were all so involved that it didn’t really feel like it was just us. It just happened to be that Josh and I were the ones in front of the camera.