Henry Dunham generously took a moment to discuss his incredible sci-fi drama 'The Awareness' following its Cameo Launch review. Below he takes us through his motivations for taking a well-worn premise of an artificial intelligence plotting the downfall of humanity and grounding it in the life of a janitor. In doing so, he creates stakes that countless Hollywood movies easily could have eroded into insignificance with large-scale CGI set pieces. In short, Henry Dunham brings drama back to drama. Read on to see how.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background as a filmmaker and the origins of your idea for ‘The Awareness’?
My filmmaking background is pretty bizarre. I didn’t go to film school, I’m one of the self-taught bunch. ‘Awareness’ was the first thing I ever directed, so my experience up until this was just wanting to direct. I spent most of my time learning how to write first, and to tell a story before anything else, which I think is probably the most valuable thing. The origin of the idea came years ago when I watched 'Transcendent Man,’ and by the ending had a full-on anxiety attack, not because of the advancements in tech or the singularity, but about the people who were pursuing it. There's a part where this guy who's been commissioned to create the first artificial brain in China goes on about how once the brain went live, it would immediately have access to the internet and all the information in the world, and then subsequently would ask itself, 'why am I taking orders?' I'm paraphrasing here, but he follows with the question; 'so am I comfortable knowing what I'm working on, once it goes live, could potentially cause the deaths of 5 billion people?’ He pauses, then says 'yep.' So I came away from it with very little interest in the tech and much more interest in the kind of mind that could see these horrifying possibilities and still push forward. Which also might explain why in the story we don't spend much time explaining the technology, and instead spend time putting us in the shoes of 'what would it really feel like to be the first person to make this thing?' and then, 'what if you realized it was too much?’
Given how many movies there have already been about artificial intelligence-based threats to humanity, what made you go with ‘The Awareness’ as a short film project over any of the other ideas you may have been considering at the time?
Well, I wish it was a better reason, but pretty simply it’s because I had no other short film ideas at the time. My approach with anything is it has to be about the story first and foremost, and ‘Awareness’ was the only story at the time that had come to me in short form. Plus I saw the need to tell this story this particular way because these A.I. stories usually focus on the tech and its potential, when really the thing that interests me more is a person who can keep pursuing it even when they know the risks.
You use an almost ghostly method of illuminating the various scenes in the film. Almost every light source seems to come from a computer or mobile phone or something that the program will potentially take control of. Did you intend to use the light sources to effectively encompass the janitor in the influence of the program? What inspired the lighting and mood styles that you ended up using?
I wish I could say I was that smart in retrospect, but truth be told, no that wasn’t intentional, just lucky. My lighting style comes out of the need of the story, my cinematography obsession and driving my DP crazy with talking about other movies I love. Knowing we had a story about polarizing choices and living between the two, that was what really informed the lighting. We also talked more about the temperature of the lighting in how most tech stories have this cold, icy, sub-human feel, and thought about a sci-fi story being told in the warmer tones of the colour wheel could have a really nice contrast to it.
Even though this is a short film and its premise centres on the threat posed by the program, you don’t shy away from telling the janitor’s story and giving us a decent amount of background into his character. What were the biggest challenges you faced in playing out the plot but still giving the janitor the character history that was needed?
Well, I think people’s interpretations of premise is always different, and I argue this all the time and will probably continue to, uselessly, but to me the premise of Awareness isn’t about the threat posed by the tech, it’s about the question of people’s need to be significant in the world and its inherent danger. Audience’s are smart enough these days that as soon as you introduce the concept of a machine that can think in a premise, I’d be willing to say 95% of the audience then goes ‘okay, so when does it turn mean and threaten to destroy the world?’ So if you’ve already got the audience that far ahead of your story, that’s a problem. They’re texting until the computer starts blowing shit up. So for me, diving into the characters was the only way I could engage emotionally with a story like this. And if I had been left to my own devices it would've spent a lot more time on them.
When we meet the engineer he’s not the most likeable guy in the world and seems to take pleasure in reminding the janitor that he doesn’t matter. Was there a temptation to make the engineer a little more sympathetic?
No, not really. We’re introduced to The Engineer in a way that alludes to him being an antagonist, but we have to remember we meet him at a point where he’s just realized the risk posed by his life’s work is too great, that he needs to destroy it and will probably live out his life in anonymity. So, for a person whose main need in life is satisfaction for his ego, that’s a big blow. It wouldn’t have felt right if he was like ‘Hey, Janitor! How’s trash?’ and they became best friends.
Chip and Bret have a great chemistry in terms of establishing a balance of power that reverses itself at the end of the film. What were the methods you used to establish the dynamic of those characters and get the performances you needed?
Well that all comes in the writing process with making sure each character provides the most conflict and drama to both each other and to themselves. Your job as a writer is to put someone in their worst possible scenario, and so the more pain they’re in the better. I guess I’d say there aren’t any specific methods other than, ‘Okay, this is a janitor who’s ashamed of himself, what’s more painful? Make him physically dominant, but too ashamed to use it. Make him imposing but unaware, make him not want to be noticed as a janitor, but want to be noticed as more than just a janitor to one person who matters to him.’ As far as Chip and Bret, there was definitely an intentional choice of casting Chip, being a far more physically imposing figure, and Bret being a far more mentally imposing one playing off each other, but truly that’s just two great actors feeling each other out and seeing what each needs, then accommodating.
Sarah Himadeh does a wonderful job as the voice of the program. She seems to evoke so much dread with what has to be an emotionless voice. Was there a particular example you wanted her to base her performance on?
I definitely talked with Sarah about, and this was great on her part, motherhood. A lot of times people try and say these things, this technology, when it ‘wakes up’ it would be like a baby due to its new found consciousness, which may be true, but ‘Awareness’ opens on this thing knowing everything. So we talked a lot about a kind of munchausen by proxy type character, a person who gains joy in being a caretaker and almost apologizing for the pain, but knowing in the background it’s her purpose and we need her. We also talked a lot about the kind of energy a sadistic nurse would bring to a patient who wanted to know more about what was wrong with them, that kind of superior position was really frightening and effective.
Sound also plays a big part in the atmosphere of this movie. The janitor seems to exist in isolation from the rest of the world, which becomes a dangerous thing when the machine begins to talk to him. How did you intend for the sound to help in creating that sense of foreboding?
I think quiet is one of the most underused tools for tension, and with this, if the sound you’re hearing doesn’t assist in putting you in the subjective position of the main character, then why are we hearing it? Plus a lot of times music queues serve as this noticeable reminder of ‘Hey, you’re supposed to feel (x) right now’ and sometimes the audience is sitting there thinking ‘Yeah we know. We were feeling it until you showed up.’ If it isn’t helping the story, get rid of it.
There was also a very brave choice to use no music. What prompted that?
Similarly to the sound design, I just knew even from the point of starting the writing, that there would be no music. So many times I’ve watched parts in movies and thought ‘this would be so much more powerful if there were no music right now.’
One of the most common challenges for independent filmmaking, especially with shorts is access to resources. Is this a challenge you found yourself up against and how did you go about tackling this?
Absolutely, and all I can say is what someone said to me is ‘Good, Fast, and Cheap. You can only have two.’ And I tried to choose good and cheap, which we ended up achieving, but took a much longer time to get due to the fact that we had no money. Like seven months to write and over a fucking year in post production, much longer. As far as how to tackle that, just being persistent and nice to people. No one wants to deal with an asshole.
What have some of the biggest challenges been that you have faced in filmmaking so far and what has been the biggest help?
The biggest challenge has been realizing the whole ‘the cavalry isn't coming’ mentality is priceless. Just keep trying to do great work and then move on.
What shape do you see independent film taking as time goes on, with more intellectual fare moving towards TV and VOD services and cinema increasingly becoming solely the domain of the big budget blockbuster?
I have exactly zero right to talk about this because of my lack of credits or experience, but I will! I just think TV is where the great work is right now. But that will change. It always does. As for how it will change, I honestly have no idea. I think the one thing you can look at in retrospect is, there was theater, then radio, then movies, then tv, and the one thing all these have in common is being a proscenium for stories. It’s all about story. So I have no idea what the next venue will be for them, I just know it will be for stories.
With the landscape of film currently being what it is, with regards to the increasing methods that entertainment is consumed and the type of entertainment that gets the most visible platforms, what advice would you give to other filmmakers in terms of what to expect and what to aim for?
The best advice I ever heard is from Fincher which is that now that the technology has been democratized and you can go rent a Red Epic for 1200 bucks for a weekend, essentially having access to the exact same equipment the pros have for a very reasonable price, the fact that something ‘looks like a movie’ is no longer enough. It’s the quality of the idea that rises to the top now, so my advice would be just tell a great story. The audience doesn’t give a shit about the tracking shot or the crane up or the 10K sensor, they care about being emotionally invested in a story and feeling something.
The Awareness was a very powerful example of your work and the standard of storytelling and filmmaking that you and your team are capable of. Are we going to see more short films or maybe a feature film coming soon?
You’ll probably get a lot more small stuff from me before any big stuff, that’s just the way it works. But hopefully all will be of equal value.
We certainly look forward to seeing more 'small stuff' from Henry and if 'The Awareness' is anything to go by, you can be sure that whatever it is will be the kind of movie that grips you from the start and won't let go. Catch the full movie below. CL