We recently caught up with indie filmmaker & entrepreneur Justin Tagg, the writer and director behind the brilliant sci fi short, Mouse-X. The intriguing and enigmatic tale of a man (played by Julian Nicholson) who wakes up in a house with no idea why he is there or how he got there, all he knows is there are thousands of clones, in thousands of rooms and these dopplegangers of himself are waking up to exactly the same situation…
Mouse-X was shot on Red Epic in a warehouse with a limited budget of just £5,200, but thanks to some innovative planning and resourcefulness they were able to produce something brilliant. The crew includes Verbal Vigilante, the musical masterminds behind the trailer music for The Dark Knight Rises and Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’, composing the soundtrack and a BAFTA award winning Director of Photography by the name of HÃƒ¡kon PÃƒ¡lsson.We talk to Justin about the inspiration behind the concept, the Cannes Film Festival experience and what it was like rubbing shoulders with Mark Ronson and Paris Hilton.
HTF: Hi Justin, the premise of your new film, Mouse-X is intriguing. Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the concept and how the idea developed into Mouse-X.
JT: So, Mouse-X is about a man trapped in a building with a thousand clones of himself. However, it has a much deeper back story. That does not necessarily come through in this film but it means (I hope) that the script never feels flimsy, it feels like it is grounded in a world which really exists, even if we don’t get to peep behind the curtain.
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of reality, our perception of the world around us and why we do the things we do. Every film I deal with tests some element of a characters humanity on a deep level and challenges the audience to think differently. So with Mouse-X I was dealing with the notion of our own identity and how unique we really are. Are we really individuals or does it appear that way because we’re the only person with our specific design and experience? What if we were copied. Is that person us? Even for an instant? Because if we can be copied perfectly then that takes a little of the magic away from being ‘me’. And if you cannot copy somebody perfectly, if some part of us is left behind then you have to ask where that part is stored. I don’t have answers to these questions but I liked asking and how they made me think about me and my reality.
HTF: Will Mouse-X be quite a scientific film? The film’s teaser trailer reminds me of the multiple worlds theory and SchrÃƒ¶dinger’s theory, are either of those close or is there some quantum theory elements to the films concept?
JT: That’s a great question and something I have wrestled with for a long time. I think to keep it really clear I’ll say, no. I want to avoid burying the narrative in science. There are two reasons for this;
a) I’m not a scientist and b) the science sets the scene but the story is about people
You’re right though, multiple worlds, the famous Double Slit experiment and Schrodinger are influences for me and creep through the shadows of this short and all the films I’m writing in the same story universe, quantum theory roams around in the background too. The reason for this is maybe not what you think, it’s because all of the things you described are, loosely, thought experiments, bold, storytelling devices that help mere mortals like me form questions and opinions based on very complex scientific ideas.
Having said that, I do read a lot of science texts, it’s interesting for me and I often spot ideas that spark an idea which may or may not stay as scientific as the source but was certainly inspired by it. Mouse-X is actually a lot more basic than that though. It’s set within the world largest experiment into human nature where clones, rather than lab mice, are the test subjects. I won’t go into more detail now though because I’m hoping you’ll be wanting to find out more from the finished film and maybe even further films within the same story universe.
HTF: We heard you have been recently looking for distribution at Cannes, how did that go? It must have been quite an experience being at Cannes.
JT: Cannes was great. I’m always cautious not to sound like ‘we’re so great for being there’ because the whole place was stuffed full of people. It’s not special that we went but I think it was the right choice. We went to suss the whole place out, get a little clearer and more experienced in selling our wares to people in the industry and, partly, picture what it might be like to be there competitively some day soon.
The weather was outstanding, considering Cannes is famous for having bad weather – certainly recently. That meant we could take advantage of the outdoor pavilions, free food and drink and meeting a lot of people all day every day. We spent time in the film market too, checking out how everybody was selling themselves and their films and keeping an eye on the competition too. Who else is shooting films like us? Who is doing great work? Are there some fantastic crew members that we could snap up for the next shoot, for example.
We were fortunate to hook up with some great people, some of whom invited us to join them at the Mark Ronson party, rubbing shoulders with Paris Hilton amongst others. That was a real score because I felt like we experienced a full spectrum, from scrabbling around for change to buy half a sandwich one moment then sipping £300 champagne the next. We made sure to go and see the in competition short films as well and I managed to get a ticket for the Premiere of Borgman so I spent an afternoon inside the main screening room.
All in all, worth it. Every second. If any aspiring indie filmmakers are reading this though all I can say is this. It’s not cheap, though you can be creative and you might think it’s not worth going unless you have something to pitch. However, for me, I love this so much, I want to make an impact with my films and I didn’t want to wait to get involved. It’s a little like the phrase ‘dress for the job you want, not for the job you’ve got’. So long as you can back it up by actually making something then don’t let people tell you to wait, go, get involved, visit festivals, meet filmmakers, see the world you want to be a part of.
HTF: You established some good partnerships with companies such as Western Digital. How did you go about doing this and how did this help financially?
JT: When it comes to getting finance, a mix of crowd funding, private investment and in-kind support has been an essential mix to get Mouse-X off the ground. And you can’t be shy about it either, I heard so many no’s along the way from companies who were interested but didn’t feel it was right for them. Indie filmmaking is as much entrepreneurship as it is artistic and the key, for me, to making things happen is to look at what I need to get done and just say ‘what ten ways can I think of to make this happen’ and go for it, I only compromise when I get a no.
Do you know what though, it’s also survival. We hadn’t got any money left in our kit allocation when it came to buying Hard Drives for the shoot. We could have borrowed some but we wanted to have high quality, professional kit of our own. I’m not one to give up on anything so we just picked up the phone and made some calls. There are always way more options than you think and if you can’t find any, go to sleep, try again the next day because stressing yourself out will only cloud the reality of the situation. I guess the deal with WD was that we caught them at the right moment. We approached Western Digital first, because we love their kit. But it took a while before they said yes and it took us both having a conversation to work out how it could actually be good for them too.
HTF: We just read the script on your Behance and it looks brilliant, is that the final draft?
JT: Yeah, basically. That is technically an early draft but nothing fundamental changed until the shoot from that point onwards. Thanks for saying that by the way, it is a great thing when a concept hooks somebody so it’s brilliant for me that you enjoyed it!
HTF: It dosent’ just look like a composition of clichÃƒ©s like a lot of sci fi films seem to do, this looks like something that will be thought provoking and people will still be discussing what it means long after the credits roll. Is this a film where the audience will be left asking questions and creating theories of their own for what they think it all means?
JT: I guess clichÃƒ©s can often pop up out of limited thinking. I teach and I often find that students coming up with new ideas converge and manage to come up with all the same clichÃƒ©s as one another at first. But then they push the idea, they research, they test it, they re-write it and what happens is that the best, most authentic version of the idea emerges.
I always knew what I wanted to do with Mouse-X but I hit the same problems as anybody when I begun. How do you weave a philosophical challenge and a mind-bending plot into a simple and engaging narrative? I’m close to it so it will be the audience that tells me if I managed it but that will always be my intention with every film I make. Have something to say, work to produce an authentic, bold and deep story world but tell the story in a way which makes people want to come and watch the movie once, if not twice! And yes, if people aren’t left with a few questions then I’ve made a mistake somewhere. The story doesn’t end when the credits roll, you should carry it with you.
It’s that moment when you leave the cinema – for me I can tell if I loved a film by one factor. Am I quiet? If I am quiet, thinking, living it inside, then it got me somehow. If I am ready to talk and chat about it instantly I probably lost interest near the end or earlier. Everybody is different but that’s how it works for me.
HTF: What’s next?
JT: Well firstly we need to finish Mouse-X. We’ve just signed up a fantastic VFX guy called Craig Stiff who was the digital maestro behind ABE in the short film of the same name that has just been picked up by MGM to be turned into a feature. We expect to be done in the next couple of months and have a screening for our crowd funding backers in December before using 2014 for an energetic festival run.
And right now I’m also writing pitches for a further six films, some based in the same story universe as Mouse-X so, hopefully, we’ll get some interest from those and be able to start working on the next film whilst Mouse-X is travelling the world!
HTF: Thanks for talking with us Justin, we hope everything goes well and look foward to seeing finished film.
Mouse-X looks like an Indy sci fi masterpiece and is definitely a film to watch out for. To keep up to date with Mouse-X check out the following links.
All photos by Jon Paul Washington and Joanne Tagg.