JOHN V. SOTO Through a mirror darkly

This week sees the locally shot science fiction film The Gateway arrive in limited release in selected cinemas. The Gateway explores the heady concept of parallel worlds, as scientist Jane Chandler (Jacqueline McKenzie) finds a way to step between them. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to director John V. Soto about his latest genre film, and making sci-fi on a budget.

How did you originally conceive the idea for The Gateway?

It was a joint effort. I co-wrote the script with a writer called Michael White. About two and a half years ago he saw my film Needle, he liked the film a lot, and reached out to me. Mike’s actually a novelist and has written about 40 books, and about 16 of them are science based books. So he’s very talented, and wanted to see if anything he had was suitable for a film. So we had a coffee, and all of the ideas were too big to do on a low budget. All of them would need 10 to 20 million or more. So I explained we couldn’t make that size film in Perth, or perhaps even Australia. So we pitched ideas back and forth till we came up with something together. The one genre we both love is sci-fi. Initially we came up with a time travel idea, but time travel has been done so many times (Looper, Primer, Back to the Future). So we were looking at other areas of science that could be cool and based in Perth. We came up with parallel worlds, researched into the multiverse, got to know Max Tegmark and his four levels of parallel worlds… and found this could be true! Even Stephen Hawkings and Neil deGrasse Tyson are proponents of it.

That was the inception, we decided to make a female hero, and the basic idea for a script is a hero with a problem, so we eventually hit on the idea of having her husband die in one world.

Of course it soon becomes a case of “be careful what you wish for”…

That is one of the themes, there’s a few in the film.

How was it for actors having to be different versions of their character in multiple realities?

That was hard. Every film I’ve made there is always something difficult that will throw the cast and crew. Because we have a tight budget, and as we shot the film in 20 days, we were shooting scenes with different versions of the same character in the same location. So normally it would be fine, but when you’re filming the same character but they’re different inside it’s difficult. One moment Myles Pollard is playing good Matt, then two hours later he’s playing Evil Matt, then he’s playing good Matt again. The difficult thing was to make sure his performances didn’t bleed unto each other, they had to be distinct from each other.

And he doesn’t even have the standard sci-fi tropes of a goatee or an eye-patch to fall back on…

(Laughs) We were very conscious of that. The only thing we did was in the parallel world we had him in uniform, as it is a more militaristic reality.

In The Gateway, and with many of your films, you’re writer, director, and producer. Do you write to direct, or direct to write?

I don’t consciously think of directing it when I write it, I’m just trying to get a good story. I’m co-writing a script now for a project I won’t be directing. The Gateway almost killed me, because I was not just writing and directing, I was producing as well. I won’t do that again. Doing all three is just too hard.

Do you have a specific cinematic philosophy?

I want to create a film that entertains, is interesting, and has some sort of twist. All my films have a cool twist on the genre. I also want to make the film accessable to all the people around the world. I don’t want to make a film just for Aussies, I want a broader film. And then you have a chance for the investors to do well.

There’s a recent listing of the 2018 sci-fi films released, and we’re listed on the same page as Avengers: Infinity War and A Wrinkle In Time. We’re like number 18.

So is genre films a personal preference or budgetary concerns?

Personal preference. I find myself attracted to clever films on a small budget. Like Monsters is breathtaking. Those are the sort of films I like. Gattaca, Children of Men…those sci-fi films that don’t have a ton of visual effects. Because those films that do have a ton of visual effects you feel like you’re watching a video game, you don’t care about the characters.

You’ve handled horror, crime thrillers and now sci-fi, is there one genre trope, or style you are itching to tackle in the future?

I think I’ve found my favorite genre. I was closed to the idea of sci-fi because I didn’t think we’d have the budget for it. But five years ago I saw Monsters and realized you could do it on a low budget.

You’ve always have a solid cast with you films, and been able to attract some great actors – Travis Fimmel for Needle, Anthony LaPaglia and Luke Hemsworth for The Reckoning, Jacqueline Mackenzie for The Gateway. How have you managed to rope that talent in?

A combination of luck and passion for the project. I think if you’re pitching an experienced actor, they want to know you are going to do 100%, and give everything you can. Actors sense that: Also the actors become more comfortable with you when you make more films.