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Interview With Burnt Grass Short Creator Ray Wong

Of late, we’ve had a nice run of some fairly impressive short films that come from some pretty impressive pedigrees and some jaw dropping special effects. I’m thinking of Sundays, the Controller, maybe Leviathan… and an assortment of others.  But ultimately its all about the idea. Idea is king when it comes to any movie that will hold water enough to even keep the attention of the audience even for 15 minutes… let alone enough of an idea to carry the audience through the jump to a fullscreen outing, which most directors of shorts eventually aspire to.

This morning I have the pleasure of introducing you to just such a short movie in which idea is king. Ray Wong brings us Burnt Grass wherein the characters of the film discover a smoking crater in their lawn that has some magical properties that duplicates organic matter. The rest of the film explores the repercussions of this discovery. What would happen if you could clone living matter? You can’t clone cash… so that isn’t an option. You can’t see into the future and play the stock market, so that isn’t an option. Do you become a farmer? And churn out heffer after heffer to sell at market? Do you regenerate a dead loved one, if that was even possible? What would happen if you had this kind of power? Ray Wong does a great job exploring this possibility and its a fascinating vantage into this idea.

Why don’t we take a look at the short film Burnt Grass and then chat with Ray afterwards about his fantastic film.

Come on, that was goodness. Admit it. You loved it.

Reminds me of The One I Love, or maybe even Timecrimes? But the idea and the feeling of the film is much more brooding and maleficent than either of those movies. Maybe it’s more like Everything, Everything and Everything, the short movie starring Shane Carruth? But while ‘Everything’ mainly deals with the arbitrary infinite creation of doorknobs… Ray takes another large step further.  But both are metaphors or allegories for power and attempting to find what you are looking for and being content… or, abusing that power and dealing with the consequences.

Considering all of these potential drivers who did you see as inspirational for the development of this particular idea? I personally can see a number of movie forefathers that might be relevant. Duplass, I mentioned. But what about Nacho Vigalondo? Maybe Carruth, or Nolan?

“I love Nolan. Whatever he does and will always be a fan. I’ve had Carruth’s Upstream Color queued up for sometime on Netflix. But most of my influences for this project, especially while my writing partner and I were developing the feature length version, happened to be the Coen Brothers and Charlie Kauffman. I actually describe the story as Adaptation meets The Fly.”

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Ahh, The Fly… I can totally see that, though I haven’t seen that movie in years and years now. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is possibly one of the greatest movies ever. It was time travel, mind trip, Jacob’s Ladder, Primer, chaos… and yet it all came down to the relationship of a man and a woman. Which is what we see here. It all boils down to the relationship of a single man and woman.

As we just talked about, even though the film was very low budget, the ideas here were very big. I was very very curious as to whether or not Ray felt constrained by the budget, or if he voluntarily limited himself by the lack of budget? So I asked him specifically that, “You didn’t set it in outer space. You didn’t have a tesseract… but was there a tesseract in the script initially (if you know what I mean.)?”

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Ray was kind enough to indulge my bizarre ruminations, “If only we could all afford to include tesseracts in our stories. The script was written with an intimate feel in mind, but not necessarily as a budgetary constraint. I just wanted to tell a human story but spin it with a slightly off kilter, sci-fi slant. It began as a writing exercise, but there’s always the thought in the back of my mind that ‘I need to make this feasible as well.’ Having said that, there was still a bunch cut out. Not sci-fi stuff, but just scenes that would have required extra days, locations and actors. Character stuff that I wish was still in there.”

Which makes perfect sense. Half of the ideas that pop into my mind, that I really think would be fascinating as movies require tesseract type budgets… multi-multi million dollar budgets, and are completely unfeasible. So weighing one’s ideas and balancing that budget makes sense. But I can totally see how added characters interacting with the double would add fascinating complications that would be interesting to investigate. At the end of the day it is obvious that there is plenty of leg room in this idea to expand Burnt Grass into a feature film – even if it was only a low budget feature, it would be worth seeing for sure. I would think that as one marches a short towards a full feature length movie the festivals would be an enormous leap forward. What take aways did you get from the festival circuit? Would you do it again? I’ve always been intrigued by the festivals and what they provide young film makers.

“Festivals are great experiences, and a great way to feel validation for all the hard work you put into something. It’s nice to just get your film in front of a live audience. It takes on its own life at that moment. But it’s about evaluating cost and reward, especially for a short film. Of course you never know what kinds of people are going to be at a festival, and what might come of it. But it might be worth it to play it smart. Be honest about what you might actually get out of it and what kind of experience you want before you committing to a plane ticket and hotel costs. I think for short films, a lot of the festival experience is about celebrating with your peers who have gone through the same struggles. Our festival experience was awesome, but opening the film up to an online audience has been incredible as well. Definitely more people get to see it that way.”

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In that same vein, I found a quote from another interview that was posed to Ray, enquiring what he was working on next that I really was hopeful to hear more about. Here was his response, “We’ve been working on expanding this story into a feature and are in the process of getting it off the ground. There’s a lot of material to cover and explore and I think we have a great story in the works that will satisfy and surprise even people that have seen the short. Not only does it expand on the story, but it also goes in new and different directions. Fingers crossed it will see the light of day.”

What I really wanted to know – what I was really hoping for – was whether or not there has been any progress on this front? Because, you know, this would be a fantastic full feature film. Ray’s response was very encouraging, “The feature length script is finished. Now it’s just trying to get the right people to read it and get behind it.” Which is really really great to hear. Now the question is, why hasn’t Ray sent the script to me to read!? Come on Ray… you’re asleep at the switch here buddy!  hahaha.

Disregarding the oversight of your not sending me the script, can you share any areas in which you’d like to expand the script? I personally wondered why Sally didn’t drag Jack out from the closet and drop him on the hole.  I mean, WHAT WOULD HAPPEN? Maybe one dead guy and one live guy that would die again? Can you comment on other ideas that would expand the short to a larger idea?

“The feature is about greed, identity and what would you do if you had the chance to start over.  We see a relationship torn apart by what is essentially a magic lamp that falls into their laps. After Sally (who we’ve renamed Hannah because I thought it would be fun to make her name a palindrome) duplicates herself, we go from seeing the two of them share the same life, to seeing them diverge and become different individuals. So it’s the differing wills of these three people and a few bad decisions that creates a whole bunch of chaos.”

And with that, I have my wallet out, ready to donate to a kickstarter, or heck, I’d just give directly to Ray in order to help make this movie happen. And yet, at the same time, I almost think that too much money could ruin this movie. The magic here is the relationship torn apart by Sally’s (Hannah’s) greed, curiosity and pride.

At the end of the day, the crater in the hole is a time machine, without the time travel. In Primer the time machine(s) ultimately became cloning machines when the original individual failed to re-enter the box. And ultimately Primer dealt with the carnage the resulted from the fact that there were 8, 9 even 10 clones running around the movie simultaneously. It is this potential for abuse and the darker aspects of our psyche to take over when this kind of power is available. What would happen? What would you do? And the impact, the negative repercussions don’t come back to roost more clearly than the foreshadowing of the plant dying. This piece of the film was very extraordinary in that it gave us an instantaneous road map for everything that came after it. It said so much so fast. When did the idea of the plant the foretelling come from, how did you come to it?

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“Thanks! Using the plant in that manner was something that I had in mind from the beginning. There was always the idea of there being a shelf life. The debate for me was always which one, the original or the duplicate, and how much to indicate to the audience either way. In the end I thought it was best to leave it ambiguous. The plant was an elegant solution for both those ideas, because you don’t know which plant went into which container.

Wait. WHAT? Which plant went to which container? Oh.. my gosh. Hahah. That is brilliant. So the act of duplicating may have killed off the original? Haha. Everyone… STOP, I’m re-watching it now.

wait. just wait.

Yes, Totally. I see it now. We really don’t know which plant is which. I just assumed it was the duplicate that had a short shelf life. An instability in the duplication maybe?

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So thinking this through a bit… when Sally snaps awake… it could be SallyB that is coming to, and not SallyA. Which is very very significant in helping me understand my final question to Ray… about the final smile Sally had at the end. “Thanks so much for letting me take your time out. I really adored the film. It was so tightly packed and so perfectly executed. Very very good. Haunting and yet intriguing. I do wonder about the actress Alex’s small smile at the very end… what that meant. I am guessing that she was glad she was the one that survived. But She (or her twin) killed her husband/boyfriend. Is that all she cared about? Surviving?!?  hahaha.

Yes. I think Sally, at that exact moment was just happy that she was the one that survived. It’s relief really. I’m sure once she walked away and had a chance for everything to sink in, she’d have a different reaction.

And this is why the revelation about the ambiguity of the survivor is critical. If its SallyB (or HannahB, whichever) then the smile makes perfect sense. 100%. It would totally be relief. But if its SallyB, then she is a sadistic mind job serial killer… and the world is now unsafe to live in… because Sally is here and she is going to ruin everything!  hahah. No seriously, this insight into the unknown is really really important. And I’m kicking myself for not seeing the nebulousness immediately. I mean… that is what we do out here. Is make simple things complicated! hah. Anyway.

Thanks a ton Ray for taking the time out to chat with us. We are definitely wishing you all the best towards getting your script picked up. Let us know please if you choose to go the Kickstarter route so we can lend a hand!

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