It’s little wonder why we consider the “future” to be such a scary place. Between sentient, cyborg death machines and apocalyptic-inducing nuclear war the general consensus—at least in Hollywood—is that our species is determined to kickstart its own extinction. Now, the one place we always thought would be safe (our mind) is under attack thanks to a new film written and directed by Khalil Sullins. Sullins’ movie, LISTENING, takes us into a not-so-distant future where a team of grad students develop mind-reading tech that “threatens the future of free-will itself.”
I was lucky enough to attend the Texas premiere of the movie put on by Other Worlds Austin—it’s really cool and creepy stuff. Joining us today, Sullins agreed to shed some light on his first feature film and the real world science behind machine-assisted telepathy.
For those who haven’t seen it, could you give us a brief description of the premise of your film?
KHALIL SULLINS: LISTENING is a sci-fi thriller about three broke grad students who invent mind-reading technology that they think is their big ticket, but proves to be a Pandora’s box of danger. When a covert government agency gets wind of their secret experiments, the friends are forced against each other in what turns into a life-or-death battle of the privacy of human thought, and the potential future of free-will itself.
How did you first get the idea for this film?
KS: I started writing the script in 2010. The initial seed of the idea was, “what if someone invented telepathy?” Then I did a bunch of research to try to figure out how you might actually go about doing that in the real world. The movie is “hard sci-fi,” meaning all the science and technology you see either actually exists, or is theoretically possible. Once I had that figured out, I wanted to get into the implications of what inventing telepathy would mean on an interpersonal level, but also on a societal, governmental, and global level.
I wanted to tell this story that started small, but by the end, the world hangs in the balance. Really, the whole movie is a metaphor for our relationship with communication technology in general, and how we’re constantly given new ways to project our thoughts and feelings out into the world digitally, but we aren’t necessarily becoming better communicators on a human level.
When the characters were transmitting their thoughts, there was this weird “thought transferal vision” where the viewpoint stilted back and forth…how did that work? And where did you get the idea for it?
KS: Yeah, we call it “Flicker 3D.” I saw it in a music video when we were in pre-production, but as far as I know, it’s never been done quite like this in a feature film before.
Stereoscopic still photography is fairly popular. You basically take two pictures from about eye-distance apart, and flicker back and forth between them, and your brain sort-of tricks itself into depth perception. It can look 3D. We basically did the same thing, but with motion-picture cameras. Not everyone experiences it as 3D, but it adds this sort of cubist aesthetic as well, where seeing the same subject from multiple angles echoes the idea of having multiple thoughts running through your head simultaneously. The effect, paired with music and sound design, basically allowed us to feel like we’re entering a mental space, without having to depict wild fantasy imagery that would have destroyed the “hard sci-fi” tone of the film.
With sci-fi films there seems to be this phenomena where outrageously advanced technology eventually becomes a reality—has this happened with you yet?
KS: Seriously, I wouldn’t mind teleporting to Hawaii on the weekends! But I think telepathy might happen long before that. The big breakthrough the characters have in LISTENING is combining brain-computer-interface technology with nanotechnology. They invent microscopic nanotube electrodes that can track billions of neurons in your brain. When I started writing in 2010, that hadn’t quite been done yet, as far as I knew, but now these nanotube electrodes actually exist in the real world, and scientists are trying to get them to work in the brains of animals and humans. It’s a bit wild.
You had some interesting color palette choices for the main characters’ different aspects of his life. Could you tell us the symbolism behind these colors?
KS: Yeah, color is a great tool in a sci-fi film, especially to help transport the audience to a different world. In LISTENING, we tell the story visually from the main character, David’s point of view. He’s a computer programmer, so we thought of him as someone who compartmentalizes his life. We created five “visual worlds,” each with a unique color scheme and method of camera movement. So, in his “garage world” where he’s in his element and inventing new stuff, everything is a lively green and the camera is handheld and kinetic (but it also looks like a bit like a horror film, because what they’re doing is crazy dangerous). That contrasts with his “home world,” where everything is a lifeless violet and the camera never moves, which reflects his broken marriage and relationship with his daughter. The “outside world” is a bright yellow with lots of lens flares that almost hurt your eyes, with voyeuristic camera movement. We wanted David to feel paranoid and uncomfortable there, like he’s out in the open, over-exposed. Basically, I wanted to use every tool at my disposal to tell this story, so I tried to find a way to tell the story with color, too, and have fun with it.
What are some sci-fi films that helped inspire this film, or just your work in general?
KS: I’m a big David Fincher fan. We looked at other filmmakers’ first films…Primer, of course. That movie is fantastic. Darren Aronofsky’s Pi is great…Nolan’s Following…George Lucas’ THX 1138…
Gattaca is a great film too, a bit ahead of its time, I think. It also played with color in a cool way. I also love the Coen brothers [and] movies like The Matrix, Inception, The Social Network…I’m a big comic book nerd too, so I liked the idea of taking the telepathy super power, and trying to make it real and believable in our world today, ala Nolan’s take on Batman. There are also a couple subtle nods in LISTENING to some of my favorite movies growing up [like] The Empire Strikes Back and The Big Lebowksi.
What was the trickiest scene to film, and why?
KS: The dog scene. That was our toughest day shooting in a lot of ways. The set wasn’t quite done, and we didn’t have enough lights on hand to light it properly, so that put us a bit behind schedule. The dog belonged to one of our friends, and she was nine months pregnant at the time, and trying to get the dog to look or stay where we wanted it to. I felt so bad. But we got through it, and our editor, Howard Heard, actually did a fantastic job finding just the right pieces, so the dog actually looks great in the final film.
Where did you guys go for the scenes with the monks?
KS: We filmed all of that in Cambodia. We loved it there, and met some really great people. But it’s definitely challenging shooting anywhere that doesn’t have all the infrastructure of Hollywood. Cambodia’s popularity is growing fast, and there were actually one or two other features shooting there at the same time as us, so the little equipment available locally was basically all gone, and we had to fly everything in. Our look for all the “jungle world” scenes was slow, meditative tilts and pans, so we brought a kit with three or four tripods and a nice tripod head.
Any good stories from the set while you were there?
KS: We were shooting the tiger scene on the first day there, and our assistant camera man builds the camera, and realizes the base plate, which connects the camera to the tripod, is missing. It’s a tiny, three-inch flat piece of metal, but not having it basically rendered all of our equipment useless. We got through that first day by literally tying the camera to the tripod with twine, but we couldn’t make it through the whole shoot like that. We called everywhere in Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, and even the Asian manufacturer directly, but no one had the base plate in stock.
Our options were to rent a whole new kit from Thailand, which would have meant them sending an additional crew member to babysit the equipment, or fly someone out from LA immediately. Both options would have cost us thousands of dollars that we didn’t have. So, instead, our producer, AC, and the manager of our hotel, who was amazing, found a little shack of a machine shop, and explained to the owner what we needed. They went and bought him some sheet metal, and he precision machined the part from scratch. We were saved in the nick of time, and it only cost us eleven bucks!
Who are your top three actors you’d love to get a chance to work with?
KS: Wow. That’s a tough question. There are so many amazing actors out there. There aren’t enough great roles for women, in my opinion, and my next script has a female lead. It’d be incredible to work with someone like Penelope Cruz, Zoe Saldana, or Salma Hayek, or so many others. There are way more talented actresses out there right now than there are roles worthy of them.
I can’t wait to see what else you have in store for us. Can you share any of the ideas percolating in that brain of yours for future projects?
KS: I’m developing a couple scripts, but the one on the front-burner right now is a detective thriller about a cop who is battling breast cancer as she hunts down an escaped killer. It’s similar to LISTENING in that I’m trying to tackle some bigger thematic questions through genre storytelling. This one is about racism and corruption in the south.
Before we let you go…what’s the strangest thing you remember doing as a kid?
KS: *laughs* There are probably too many to list. I grew up with sort of hippie parents. I was vegan, had a rat tail hair cut, and was naked a lot. I guess as a baby I used to love watermelon, but I would rub it all over my body before eating it. And I mean all over.