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Interview: Eli Sasich of HENRi

Bitter, Bitter Balcony, Movie Review,    

While reviewing some of the films for MIFFF (Maelstrom International Fantastic Film Festival) I couldn’t have been less prepared for “HENRi.” The title sounded interesting, but I didn’t realize the next 20 minutes would be filled with a very well executed short film about “a derelict spaceship that becomes self-aware, and builds itself a mechanical body in order to feel alive.”

I approached the writer/director of the film to get some insight into the process of making this film, what inspired it and the choice of using mostly puppets for the film. Thankfully, Eli Sasich agreed to the interview and the following is the results.

I’d like to give my thanks to Eli Sasich for taking the time out to answer some of our questions.

Tell us about where you started and your previous films?
I've wanted to make movies since I can remember, and I began where I think many filmmakers do - by grabbing the family camera and filming things. I had some early training in a youth media organization in my home town (Salt Lake City), and I took film classes in college, but I opted to go out and make my own films rather than adhere to the course restrictions. That served me well, as I learned by doing, which led to some success with my previous projects.

What is the “HENRi” about?
Kickstarter funded, and two years in the making, HENRi tells the story of a derelict spaceship that becomes self-aware, and builds itself a mechanical body in order to feel alive.

What inspired this story?
Essentially, I wanted to tell a very human story, with a robot main character -- that challenge excited me. When I wrote the film I was reading a ton of science fiction -- Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke -- they all definitely inspired me, along with the classic sci-fi films. I'm also fascinated by brain functions, specifically memory, and I started researching Alzheimer's, which is just a tragic disease. If you take away a person's memory, you essentially strip them of meaningful existence. Memory really is the key to consciousness. I think all of these things mixed together to form the basis of the story.

Was this ever considered to be a feature film? If not, why not?
HENRi was conceived as a short. I did flirt with a feature version, but I didn't get very far pursuing that option, partially out of budgetary concerns, but also because the story just seemed to fit the short format fairly well. There are three clear acts, and a definitive ending.

Why choose puppeteering over computer-generated graphics or other forms of animation?
The decision to utilize puppeteering and miniatures really came out of my love for in-camera effects. I'm obsessed with the sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s, and the effects in those films really hold up today because they are tangible - something was built, lit, and photographed. Also, we knew we had to create the entire spaceship set, so the idea of doing everything quarter-scale really saved us a bundle. It made the project possible, really. Of course, there were many unique challenges inherent in doing things this way, but ultimately, it was a fascinating way to work. The end product features a mixture of pretty much every effects technique, including CG animation. Changing up how we accomplished individual shots helped keep the illusion hidden. I really wanted the audience to forget the effects, and focus on the story.

How did you approach directing the puppeteered portions of the short vs. the live action portions?
When it comes down to it, directing miniatures and effects is really no different than directing live action. However, when I finally worked with the actors, I definitely found that I had missed that human connection.

What lead to the decisions on HENRi’s physical form?
I always had a strong sense of what I wanted HENRi to look like in robot form. The junkyard quality of his build called for something asymmetrical, so he has very different arms and legs, uneven eyes, and an overall scrappy look. I wanted his silhouette to be spindly and skeletal, but it was also important to keep his form recognizably human so that the audience could identify with him. It was a balance, but his design got locked-in pretty quickly.

What do the numbers on the wall, that HENRi inspects, represent?
This sequence was part of a slightly longer cut in which the marks on the wall were explained in more detail. Essentially, each mark represents a week onboard. The captain would wake up each morning of a new week and make a mark. When we cut the sequence, I opted to leave this little section in. People have had different opinions on what the marks mean, which is cool.

Would you adapt this into a feature film?
I would, but the story would obviously need to evolve to carry the extra running time. I would love to do something super experimental and have hardly any dialogue with a robot main character, but I'm not sure I would get the funding for such a film.

OK, you have to let us know what movies should end up at the bottom of Lake Erie?
I'm going to be annoying and say that I don't think any films should end up at the bottom of Lake Erie -- we can learn from our mistakes, and that includes shitty movies.

Also, who would win in a thumb war, Robocop or HENRi?
Robocop for sure. It's well-known that Peter Weller has never lost a thumb war.

You can see/read more about the film on the official movie site HERE.

There is an interview with one of the film's human actors, Margot Kidder, HERE.

Also make sure to come out to MIFFF (Maelstrom International Fantastic Film Festival) to watch this film on the big screen this October!

Source of the Bitter: JAS

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