The writer and co-director of RUNAWAY, Harrison Heller, very graciously granted us an interview.
In our interview, Heller shares fascinating insights, such as how he came to love the genre, why the social commentary of the film is so important to him, and why he feels A.I. is such a popular theme in sci-fi right now.
T7M: Are you a fan of sci-fi, and if so, who or what inspired your love of the genre?
HH: I’ve been a sci-fi fan for as long as I can remember. My parents are fans themselves and introduced me to the genre at a very young age. We had many sci-fi classics at home on VHS including E.T., Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the original Star Wars movies. I watched them over and over again and quickly became obsessed. In 1996, I saw Independence Day in theaters and it blew my 7-year-old mind. It was around that time I started telling my parents I wanted to be a movie director. I had no idea what that meant, but I knew I wanted to create sci-fi worlds like Steven Spielberg, Roland Emmerich, and George Lucas. Over the years my parents continued to nurture my love of sci-fi and began introducing me to more complex films like Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Matrix. I was hooked for life.
T7M: For our readers who are not aware of what RUNAWAY is about, how would you describe it?
HH: RUNAWAY is a sci-fi western short-film set in a near future in which a slave class of androids (“synthetics”) have recently become self-aware and begun to demand rights. It centers on Maria, a runaway synthetic, who is attempting to reach the Free States while evading a ruthless pair of bounty hunters pursuing her.
T7M: The short stars Callie Bussell, who is also a co-founder of TK2 Films , the production studio behind RUNAWAY. TK2 Films is known for producing the popular fan feature Star Trek Horizon. How did your collaboration with them come about?
HH: I’ve known Tommy Kraft, director and co-founder of TK2 Films, for over 10 years. He has become one of my closest friends and yet we never met in person until we shot RUNAWAY last year. We initially met in an online forum when I was looking for someone to write original music for my Machinima projects—animated films made using video games. Our first major collaboration was in 2010 on a time travel Machinima called Stop, Rewind for which Tommy wrote a beautiful score. Since then, he has written the music for nearly every live-action and animated film that I’ve directed. Over the years I’ve watched Tommy develop into an incredible filmmaker, DP, and visual effects artist and we’ve often dreamed about making a live-action film together. However, our physical distance made that difficult since I’m in New York City and he’s in Michigan. Finally in June 2016, I decided to take an old idea I had and write it as a script for him to direct. Tommy loved it and suggested that we co-direct instead. He was in between projects so the timing was perfect. Around that time we brought Callie on board as Maria. She was always the first choice for the role. I had seen her in Star Trek: Horizon and many of Tommy’s other films and knew she would be perfect. I couldn’t have asked for better partners! We worked together so well on set and I hope to collaborate with them many more times in the future!
T7M: What was the inspiration behind RUNAWAY?
HH: RUNAWAY exists within a sci-fi universe I began developing in college in 2010. At the time I was working on a story called REPLICA that I intended to make as an animated film. It took place in a world where synthetics had been emancipated by the government after a peaceful civil rights movement, but had been relegated to second-class status in society. The animated film proved too complex to make, but I wrote a smaller live-action short that a friend directed in college. However, when I decided to revisit that world years later, I wanted to set the story earlier in the fictional timeline. Just as REPLICA had been inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, RUNAWAY would draw from another period in American history.
RUNAWAY was primarily inspired by the stories of runaway slaves and the Underground Railroad in the antebellum South. However, it was also influenced by my grandparents’ Holocaust experiences as Jews hiding from the Nazis in the woods of Poland. I wanted to explore the idea that history repeats itself, but with different groups cast as the oppressor and the oppressed over time. Extrapolated into the future, that meant the film’s conflict would be between humans and a synthetic slave class struggling for freedom. Thematically, another major influence on the film was, of course, Blade Runner, but aesthetically I wanted to do something that was the direct opposite.
T7M: RUNAWAY deals with “synthetics,” sophisticated androids who have become self-aware. Projects like Ex Machina, Westworld, and Humans have similar themes. Why do you feel sci-fi stories about artificial intelligence are so popular in the zeitgeist right now?
HH: We live in a world that is beginning to look a lot like science-fiction. Technologies that once seemed futuristic—the Internet, smartphones, virtual reality, military robots, and even neural prosthetics—have become part of our reality. As we, as a species, become more and more intertwined with our technology, stories about A.I. become more relevant than ever because they allow us to explore that increasingly intimate relationship between human and machine projected into the near future. Also robots, man. They’re cool.
T7M: RUNAWAY has a very cool and unique visual aesthetic. How would you describe it?
HH: Thank you! I’d describe the aesthetic as somewhere in between cyberpunk and steampunk with a heavy western retro-future influence. It’s as if Blade Runner collided with antebellum America. The film is set in the 2060s, but a certain design sense from the 1860s has come back into style and influenced fashion. I really liked the idea of creating a contrast between a world of advanced technology and a visual aesthetic that borrows heavily from the past. I didn’t want to set the film in the type of dark, urban, cyberpunk dystopia that has become commonplace post-Blade Runner. So, I did the direct opposite and set the film in a bright forest in daylight. All of this, of course, was to help draw out the thematic connection between the runaway synthetics and their African-American counterparts in the 1860s.
T7M: Not only did you write RUNAWAY, you also co-directed. What was the most challenging part of that transition for you?
HH: As a writer you can become very attached to your screenplay, but the realities of filmmaking can sometimes force you to make compromises. That can be painful and challenging, but you have to be willing to do what is best for the film. We had a whirlwind shooting schedule of only 2 days (and a few pick up shots on day 3) so certain things had to be cut. Although the majority of the screenplay emerged unscathed, the opening action scene was too elaborate and had to be significantly reworked. The sun was setting and it quickly became clear that we would not have enough time to film the scene as written. On the fly, with time running out, Tommy and I managed to rewrite the scene and distill it down to a few major action beats. It was a bit scary to go off-script, but it ultimately worked out for the best.
T7M: What was your proudest moment during production?
HH: There were many, but one that comes to mind was when we were filming the climactic confrontation between Renzler, Barrett, and Maria at the end of the film. It’s the only scene these three characters share in the movie and it was the first time I felt them leap off the page and truly come alive. It was an incredible moment and every single person brought their A game---from the actors, to our camera crew, makeup, sound, and lighting team. The energy on set was electric.
T7M: Did you always intend for RUNAWAY to be produced as a short film? Would you be open to the story being adapted into other media?
HH: Yes, RUNAWAY was always intended to be a short-film, but it is part of a larger sci-fi universe. There are many more stories to be told in this world and I would absolutely be open to it being expanded or adapted into other media whether that be a web-series, feature film, or graphic novel. I definitely plan to revisit this universe again in some form.
T7M: The film provides scathing commentary regarding our current political and social climate. What is the one thing you most want viewers to take away from it?
HH: The biggest take away I think is not to fear or hate those who are different from you—whether that’s race, religion, sexual orientation or something else. It can be tempting when times are tough to embrace fear, circle the wagons, and demonize an “other”, but you must resist that impulse. Reach out to them, get to know them, and you’ll see we’re really not that different after all.
T7M: Where may our readers find out more about you and your work?
HH: To watch my Machinima and previous live-action work, you can visit amorphousblob.org or my YouTube page https://www.youtube.com/user/NefariousGuy.
You can also visit my newer production group, H2O Cineworks, on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/user/H2OCineworks).