About 10 years ago, filmmaker Jacob Gentry helped usher in what has become Georgia’s now-booming film industry as part of the collectively made (as in, three writer-directors pieced it together), “exquisite corpse” horror feature THE SIGNAL, which debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. I remember catching it a couple of months later at what I believe was my first-ever SXSW Film Festival midnight movie, and I was floored by how strong the film was and how tight knit these band of Atlanta-based movie maker clearly were.
In the years after THE SIGNAL, Gentry went on to make a trilogy of films under the MY SUPER PSYCHO SWEET 16 banner, a concept that combined reality television with a nasty slasher story. But now, Gentry is back working for himself with some of his pals from his days in Atlanta, including actors AJ Bowen, Chad McKnight, and Scott Poythress, on his latest feature, SYNCHRONICITY, a nicely realized time-travel noir experience that has a great ’80s aesthetic blended with modern sensibilities about science fiction and bending timelines back on themselves. Oh, and did I mention Michael Ironside plays the baddie? I caught the film at its world premiere last summer at the Fantasia Festival in Montreal, and it was easily my favorite film that I caught at the event.
Although we don’t get to talking about it in this interview conducted last week, Gentry and Bowen have also written and filmed a new feature, called NIGHT SKY, which I’m sure will be making the festival rounds later this year. In the meantime, please enjoy my talk with Jacob Gentry, and check out the film in theaters, on demand, on Amazon Video, and on iTunes beginning January 22.
Jacob Gentry: Hey man.
Capone: Hi, Jacob. How are you?
JG: Good, man. How are you doing?
Capone: Good, good. It was good to meet you in Montreal, which seems like an appropriate place to meet someone.
JG: Yeah, I know. It was cool though.
Capone: It’s still my favorite film of this year from that festival.
JG: Oh, really? Wow.
Capone: Absolutely. I was only there for like five days, but of the handful that I saw, definitely. All I could ask you is “When’s it coming out? When can I tell people to go see it?” So here we are.
JG: Yeah, it’s a dream that we got to work with Magnolia on this. It’s also like working with old friends. They made our careers with THE SIGNAL.
Capone: Speaking of which, I have such a vivid memory of seeing THE SIGNAL as a SXSW midnight movie.
JG: Yeah, because it premiered at Sundance at midnight, but it played at SX.
Capone: It might have been the first year I ever went, so it was probably one of the first midnight movies I ever saw at SXSW. I remember coming out of that screening after the Q&A thinking, there’s something crazy going on in Atlanta that seems really exciting right now. There’s this exploding film scene, which was somewhat true. Tell me about that period in Atlanta versus where it is now, because you’re still working with some of the people that you were working with them, and this was before the tax incentives and all of the things that are driving people to make movies there today.
JG: It started in the University of Georgia in Athens. That’s where I was doing theater with AJ Bowen and Scott Poythress and some of the other actors. The producer of SYNCHRONICITY and THE SIGNAL, my producing partner Alex Motlagh, and the director David Bruckner were both in the journalism department. So I had all the actors, and they had all the equipment, and we basically would steal the actors from the theater department and the equipment from the journalism department. That was right at the digital revolution—three-chip cameras and Final Cut Pro became more democratized.
Then once we got done at [University of] Georgia, we took the whole thing to Atlanta and met a bunch of other filmmakers, and it just popped up like a band scene. David Bruckner and I had this loft where we would show movies there, we would make movies there, we would act in each other’s movies, and shoot each other’s stuff, and we’d show them at coffee shops and bars. I’m by no means taking credit for the explosion, which is definitely happening there, because I think that has a lot to do with the tax incentive, but I think the seeds of the tax incentive came from the world that we were in, where it was like a scene, much like the way Austin is and has been because of the tax incentive.
The funniest part about that was, I grew up watching all of my favorite movies, then when I moved to Los Angeles nine years ago, I was seeing all the places that I recognized from the movies that I grew up on. I was like, “Oh my god. That’s where Marty McFly went.” Cut to now, I go to the theater to watch a movie in Los Angeles, and it’s all the places I grew up in Atlanta, because they shoot every major movie there. It’s like this nice inverse, you know? 20 years later.
Capone: With SYNCHRONICITY, I want to dive into this time travel thing. I always imagined writing a time travel movie as more of drawing a map than actually writing it. That you actually have to have the dry-erase board in the room, mapping out everything to make sure that nothing is colliding, timelines make sense, characters aren’t bumping into each other when they’re not supposed to. Was that the process here?
JG: Yeah, absolutely. I did a lot of schematics. Schematics were a heavy part of this—charts and graphs. Because not only do you have to chart the logistical issues in terms of the set ups and pay offs and the different things that you see in one timeframe, and then you see them from a different perspective. And time travel is very limiting because it puts a lot of constraints on you in terms of imagination, because you’re writing a scene and you want it to go a certain direction, but you may not be able to, because if you change what happens, it affects another part of the movie, which is true in a lot of storytelling.
One of the things I wanted to do was make sure to not just chart the logical map of it, but also the emotional map. So I had to have two different concurrent charts, one was what was going on with the science and the mathematics and the construction of the story, but then it also had to have an emotional reaction—the way the characters are feeling moment to moment and how that progresses in the story and where that takes the audience.
So it was really challenging, and it took a lot of drawing it out, and then a lot of it came from post-production. I edited this movie for a long time, because we just did it on our own, and it was so low budget that it wasn’t like anyone was waiting on it. It was almost like a secret project so I really fell in love with the process of editing and going over that, and really found a lot of new ways of doing things, exploring those things and seeing what I could add and going “How do I make this clearer? How do I obfuscate this almost to the point of frustration, but then allow you to see what’s really going on?”
Capone: I’m guessing tracking the emotional arcs really helped the actors, too. I’m sure they’re in danger of losing track too.
JG: Yeah, a lot of it has to do with making sure it’s in the script, because me as the writer and me as the director are almost two different people, and the director a lot of times has to trust the writer, because in a movie like this, which is so low budget, we don’t have a lot of time, and we had such a short pre-production period, I didn’t even have enough time to really fully explain the movie to everyone else on the set. So there were a lot of days where I was literally the only person on the set who knew what was going on, and they just trusted in the moment they were creating. Basically, I was hoping that I did my work as the writer, but I did a lot of vetting in the script.
I worked with a renowned cosmologist named Sean Carroll through the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which partnered me up with him. Basically he vetted the script, and I just wanted to make sure that someone who knew anything about physics who heard the dialogue—I just didn’t want their ears to bleed. There’s nothing more irritating than hearing someone get it wrong. I was terrified as to what he was going to say, but much to my surprise, he said there were very few things he told me to change, and I was like “Wow! Phew!”
The emotional map is the one that’s most important, though. I think that’s another thing I learned in the post-production process, because I was so obsessive with the time and everything matching up perfectly, and it does matter, but at the end of the day, I realized that the emotional catharsis of this movie is way more important, and that I didn’t have to be as obsessive about all that other stuff, even though I think it all checks out, I still didn’t have to worry as much about that. The most important thing to worry about is whether or not we connect with the characters and what they’re going through.
Capone: Was this always conceived as a noir detective story as well as a science fiction story, or did that come a little bit later in the process?
JG: Yeah, I think it evolved into that. When I first started working on this story I was working with this guy named Alex Orr, who is this amazing filmmaker, and we were trying to write almost like a narrative documentary, or a verite movie that was set at CERN. Because right around the time we started working on this, that was when they really started to open their doors their at the LHC and started running some of their particle collision tests. I was just fascinated by these people as cosmic detectives. So that was the initial thing of “What if we did that?”
And then as I kept working on the script and kept developing it and started to realize the time travel element and the cosmic detective thing and the mystery element, I was also really obsessed at that time with film noir of the ’40s, like post-war movies. I was like “How can I combine my two principal preoccupations, my hobbies at the time, I was reading about this stuff. I was like “Well, I guess if they’re cosmic detectives we can have a detective story.” I really love the movies where someone who’s not a detective takes on that persona. And then I found that those tropes would be really cool to upend. So to take all of the tropes—the heavy played by Michael Ironside, or the femme fatale played by Brianne Davis, and then get a different perspective on what those were.
When I was writing the script and developing this movie, most of the independent sci-fi— movies like OTHER EARTH, that verite, where they’re almost dramas that have the science fiction element, and they’re shot very lo-fi. Then on the other end, you have these $100 million, huge, very high tech, current, that when you’re watching it you’re like, “This is going to look really silly in 20 years.” You know what I mean? So I was like “How can I bring to an independent some of this world building of a bigger movie and still keep the kind of relatable emotional human truth of something a little more intimate. It just evolved from there. I know that’s a long-winded way of answering your question [laughs].
Capone: I remember we talked about this after the screening in Montreal, that you chose this early ’80s noir feel, because that’s when noir made a big comeback. I remember when I was younger discovering noir in the early ’80s in everything from BODY HEAT to BLADE RUNNER. And you’ve sort of chosen that as your ascetic. I remember you saying this in the Q&A that you wanted this to look like a film that was made in the 1980s that was supposed to be set in 2015. That’s exactly what you’ve done. Tell me about you connection to 80s noir.
JG: Absolutely. A lot of that is also just an aesthetic that I enjoy. Some people like jazz music, some people like classical music, I like the cyberpunk ’80s aesthetic, even outside of the science fiction part of it, with the British wave of directors, like Tony and Ridley Scott and Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne. They made these thrillers that had this dark romance. Or even something like you’re talking about like BODY HEAT. There’s just a feel to those movies that evokes a similar thing as something like BLADE RUNNER or OUTLAND or anything Peter Hyams shoots, even 2010. You could even say in all the ripoffs of BLADE RUNNER, like TRANCERS, the Charles Band movie, Or HIGHLANDER II. I don’t like this movie, but I love hanging out at the beginning of it. I love the world they created that Russell Mulcahy created for that.
Because this movie was about time, I didn’t want it to ever feel dated. I wanted to find some way that I could make it seem futuristic without five years from now looking at it like, “I can’t connect with the reality of this.” I thought I had this great excuse in the fact that the movie plays with the idea of parallel universes and time travel, and I also wanted to really make it stylized, because I really wanted to have what Philip K. Dick called the central dislocation, which is what makes science fiction interesting, you can talk about these really relatable human things, but you can use the metaphor of whatever the science fiction conceit is to discuss those things.
And then, I like science fiction movies where you feel like you want to hang out inside of them and you want to go into that world. It’s not that you want that to be your world, because you wouldn’t want to live there. The same goes for film noir. I wouldn’t want to live in Vienna in THE THIRD MAN, but I love just hanging out with that movie. So I just wanted to make it a fairytale, and I like the idea of the dark dystopic science fiction movies that surprises you by the fact that it’s actually got a lot of satyrical humor and characters that are a little more relatable than something that’s just relentlessly dark. I enjoy those kinds of stories, but it’s like turning tropes and genres on their head a little bit.
Capone: Jake, it was great talking to you. Thank you so much, and good luck with this. And the next one, which apparently is done.
JG: [laughs] Yeah, it’s almost there, it’s cool. We like to make stuff.