By MICHAEL GINGOLD
This season, celebrated Mexican director Isaac Ezban (THE INCIDENT, THE SIMILARS) has two movies in release. His English-language debut PARALLEL, released Friday to select theaters and VOD, is a gripping and intriguing study of four friends (Aml Ameen, Georgia King, Martin Wallström and Mark O’Brien) who discover a portal to alternate worlds within the house they share. As the Scott Blaszak-scripted film, which Ezban first discussed here, goes on, the quartet’s attempts to manipulate their discovery to their own ends goes seriously and sometimes frighteningly awry.
For the anthology feature DEATHCEMBER, currently in VOD and digital release by Shout! Studios and Scream Factory, Ezban contributed “Villancicos” (“Christmas Carols”), one of the most audacious of the 24 Yuletide-themed segments. It’s about a family discovering that carolers’ singing can keep their ailing child alive…leading to a commitment that lasts decades. Like all of Ezban’s work, it combines an original idea with imaginative filmmaking for memorable results, and demonstrates that Ezban is just as skilled in the short form as he is with features.
How did you find PARALLEL’s four leads? What was the process of casting them?
We worked with Denise Chamian, a terrific casting director, and that was actually very interesting, because as I said before, this was for me a completely character-driven movie, and therefore it was important to find great actors who could get under the skin of their roles. At the same time, we wanted to find four actors who would come with the same level of experience. We weren’t looking for complete newcomers, but also, we didn’t want anyone to be a big star. We were seeking people who had done many things in TV and film, but were also up-and-coming in their careers. I remember having conversations with the producers, saying we wanted to find the cast of THE SOCIAL NETWORK at the time they made THE SOCIAL NETWORK. If you think about it, that was before Rooney Mara became Rooney Mara, or Jesse Eisenberg became Lex Luthor or Andrew Garfield became Spider-Man. So now you watch THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and you’re like, “Oh my God, how could they get all those actors together?” That’s how we hope people are able to think about PARALLEL over the next few years or so.
I was very lucky to find these four leads, and I think they are all going to huge places. It was a pleasure working with them; we shot in Vancouver and all stayed in the same building, and we would hang out every Friday night and on weekends. It’s very cool that the producers had this vision of bringing in a filmmaker from Mexico, a DP [Karim Hussain] from Toronto, an actor from Sweden, an actor from the UK, an actress from Edinburgh who lives in LA and an actor from Canada who also lives in LA, and put them all together to make this movie. We became such great friends, and it became like summer camp, you know? I still keep in touch with them, and of all the movies I’ve made, this is the one where I feel I became closest with my cast. Some of them are also becoming filmmakers; Mark O’Brien, for example, just made his feature debut as a director [THE RIGHTEOUS], which will be coming out next year, and Aml and Georgia are also, I think, going to direct their own movies; Georgia is writing her script. I was impressed by every single moment from them, by the great performances they delivered, and even more impressed by all the work they’ve been doing subsequent to PARALLEL. So I’m sure our original goal of putting together a cast where a few years later, people will say, “What? How could PARALLEL have all this amazing talent?” is going to happen, for sure.
(SPOILER ALERT) I was very amused by the alternate version of FRANKENSTEIN starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone that the characters find on DVD.
Yeah, I really wanted to play with those Easter eggs, with the Berenstain Bears and the FRANKENSTEIN with Gosling and Stone and all that. We had many great ideas for those, and of course it was always hard to work around the rights for all that, but it definitely makes the movie more fun to have them. LA LA LAND with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone was coming out while we were shooting, so we were like, “Why don’t we have a version of FRANKENSTEIN with them?” [Laughs]
What also intrigued me was the idea of having some comedy present in the movie. The first half has more light touches, so you don’t expect how bad things are going to get in the second half. And that’s why I really liked what this friend of mine said [see Part One], that any good sci-fi movie becomes a horror movie in the last act. Those little moments like the one with the FRANKENSTEIN movie show you the brotherhood and camaraderie that these four friends have, and therefore it’s more painful to watch what happens later, and you don’t expect that it’s going to get so serious.
Can you tell us about the making of your DEATHCEMBER segment?
Well, I was part of another anthology in the past, MÉXICO BÁRBARO, and it’s interesting that these anthologies always come to me just at the right moment. It’s all about timing. When I did MÉXICO BÁRBARO, I was just coming off doing THE INCIDENT, which I always say is the most subtle of all of my films, and then came MÉXICO BÁRBARO, and I just wanted to go completely crazy with that, like a grindhouse B-movie, which is another one of my obsessions. And the same thing kind of happened with PARALLEL and DEATHCEMBER. I was approached by the DEATHCEMBER producers from Germany just after PARALLEL was an official selection at Sitges; they reached out to me there. And I love the idea of anthologies, because when there are all these filmmakers involved, it’s always an uneven result in a good way; that’s a compliment, because you have so many visions combined. In DEATHCEMBER, there are 24 stories by filmmakers from all over the world, and it was a happy honor to be not just the only Mexican, but also the only Latin American.
They gave me complete creative freedom to do whatever I wanted, as long as it was related to Christmas and the holidays. And you know, I’m Jewish, so I don’t know much about Christmas other than what I’ve seen in films, etc. But I always say that making a short movie is something that you as a filmmaker should use to experiment. You can’t really do that with a full-length movie–it’s too risky–but in a short film you can. And I really liked the idea of telling a story with no dialogue at all, and also playing with time. Time is one of my obsessions, of course; if you’ve seen my work, like THE INCIDENT, you know I’m completely obsessed with the idea of the passage of time. So I just found it interesting to play with the passage of time not only in the evident, obvious way, as 70 years go by, but also more in a cinematic way. If you think about it, cinema is time, and whoever controls time controls the world.
So I had the idea of starting with one long take that is two and a half minutes long, where you watch it in real time, and then we go through 70 years in two and a half minutes in quick cuts of 11 seconds each. It was a very ambitious idea, very obsessively constructed. We had a budget to do it, but it was a very limited one. Almost 100 people worked on that segment, and none of them charged any salary because they just wanted to do it, they wanted to work with me, they liked the idea and wanted to be there. We also had around 60 actors of all ages, and they all did it just because they liked the idea and wanted to try this experiment. When we did the casting, my producer posted that we were looking for male and female actors from 5 years old to 75 years old. And people were like, “What? You’ve literally opened it up to everyone!” And we literally got everyone; we had, like, 1,000 people who wanted to be in it, and we held auditions and got some fantastic actors of all ages.
I know it’s a short film, only five minutes long, but I have to say it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever directed or shot. I’m really happy with the way it ended up; it’s very close to my original vision, and it was just a lot of fun and crazy to do. I’m really thankful for all these people who trusted my vision and wanted to be a part of it. And I’m pleased by the quality of the anthology; it has some very interesting segments, and some of them are just crazy and insane, so I’m happy that people are able to check it out now.