Editor’s note: CultureMap has partnered with the Lone Star Film Festival to publish a series of filmmaker interviews conducted by LSFF organizers.
The science fiction film Project-M, about four astronauts spending 1,000 days aboard a space station, shows at the 2014 Lone Star Film Festival on Saturday, November 8, at AMC Palace 9. In advance of the screening, Canadian director and co-writer Eric Piccoli spoke with festival organizers about the film, including how he made sci-fi believable on a budget.
Lone Star Film Festival: What sparked the idea for Project-M?
Eric Piccoli: When I was writing another film, I stumbled upon a scientific experiment called Mars-500. Set in Russia, six engineers were confined in a space station replica for 500 days in order to see the possible “human factor” problems of an upcoming journey to Mars.
That was the little thing, the little spark that really got me inspired. I’m always interested in putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations. On top of that, my dad has always been really passionate about space travel, and he brought me when I was a kid to see the space shuttle lift off in Florida. So going into space with my dad was always a dream, and it came (sort of) true with Project-M as we built the sets together during several months.
LSFF: Project-M has such incredible production design. How were you able to create such a believable sci-fi film on a minimal budget?
EP: We had a crazy team (colleagues, friends, family) of true warriors that have been with us for months. From the beginning, we knew that this could be a one-shot deal; we won’t be shooting another space film very soon.
We felt that we needed to prove that we could do it — offer something that was believable, that was inspired by the classics we love, but that could also be original. Sci-fi drama is a genre that we love, and we wanted to create something that we would love to see.
We spent months designing and building things, and no one had experience with set building. We learned from scratch. I watched a lot of films, took notes of the what-to-do and the no-to-do. The rule was, if we didn’t believe that we were in a space station when we were walking in it, we wouldn’t be shooting. That’s it.
LSFF: Although the film is very beautiful visually, it’s also an extremely character-driven film. Can you talk about the casting process and the contribution of some of the key players?
EP: The guy playing Jonathan (Julien Deschamps Jolin) also wrote the script with me. We always try to write stories that are character-driven. I guess that’s the inspiration we got from watching a lot of series.
When we were creating the different characters, we already had in mind Jean-Nicolas Verreault to play Vincent, the commander. He’s a star in Quebec, and he became a friend of ours through the past films we’ve done. He does resemble the character he portrays in some ways, and we wanted to offer him a role that no one ever gave him before. He became really inspired by it, and he did a marvelous job.
For the two girls, Julie Perreault is also a big star where I am from. She’s known for being the typical “girl next door.” Everyone loves her. So casting her into a sci-fi drama was audacious and risky for her, as well. Usually, genre films in Quebec are not really good; they often look foolish, and the audience watches American films instead. I wanted this to change, and I convinced her.
I met her in a cafe, and we became friends very easy. She has a lot of experience with amazing directors. It just helped to get some scenes to another level. She’s really funny too! One day, at the end of a shoot, she bought sushi and champagne for everyone on the team to thank us for the amazing experience.
And for the last astronaut, Nadia Essadiqi was someone I wanted to work with on another film and it didn’t work. So when we were thinking about the casting, I said to myself, let’s give it a try and think outside the box. I love to put actors in roles that you couldn’t have thought of.
LSFF: The characters all have such great back stories, which were integrated quite intelligently into the script. What decisions did you make to help tell the individual stories of the characters?
EP: Since we didn’t have a lot of time, we had to focus on one detail, one memory for each of them. The one that would make them regret this mission and bring them into depression. It had to be different for the four of them. As we are not astronauts, I didn’t feel comfortable talking about technical stuff. I left it to the scientists.
What I could talk about was human emotions, feelings, struggles, fear, death, life, love, regrets, passion, etc. That way, even those who don’t like sci-fi could relate to the characters and the story. We need to feel and care for the characters in order to believe in the story they are thrown in.
LSFF: Do you have any larger ideas for the fates of those returning to Earth or is the ending intentionally left open for interpretation?
EP: I do have my own personal ending, but I like the fact that it’s left open for the viewer’s own imagination. The story ends when the themes are wrapped up: The four characters’ goals have evolved and changed (or not). That way, the viewers feel like they have learned something new. Some survive, some don’t.
If the mission succeeds or not at the end, it doesn’t really matter, in terms of characters; what’s important is that they understood the role they were playing and took a decision that would change the rest of their lives.