Chris Piazza's Mind-Bending Sci-Fi Film 'Olfactory' Explores Hacking Memories (and Reality)

Wednesday, 21 June 2017 - 2:21PM
Wednesday, 21 June 2017 - 2:21PM
Chris Piazza's Mind-Bending Sci-Fi Film 'Olfactory' Explores Hacking Memories (and Reality)
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Image credit: Chris Piazza, Panopticon NYC
In an age when movies are re-shot, re-cut, and glued back together again with the vague hope that it all still makes sense, it's genuinely cool to see a sci-fi movie with a plot that turns your mind into a pretzel knot. In that regard, indie director Chris Piazza's Olfactory is the best kind of sci-fi short film: it walks the line between being comic and nightmarish, and what begins as a romantic drama quickly turns into a reality-bending psychological thriller that does what Philip K. Dick always did best: unsettle your perception of reality. You can watch the trailer for the movie below:

Olfactory - Official 30 second teaser from PanopticonNYC on Vimeo.

After seeing the film at the fifth annual Philip K. Dick Film Festival, we sat down with Chris to talk about the film, his inspirations, and the future.

Outer Places: Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you get into film, and what keeps you going?

Chris Piazza: As a kid I was really into Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I always responded most strongly to the episodes that dealt with multiple realities, time loops, and alternate timelines. Me and my buddy Ryan Schile started making our home movie version of Star Trek—we called it Captain Hero—when we were 9 or 10. Me, Ryan and later our friend Chris Grunkemeyer made home movies until we left for college. Then I went to film school, kept making movies, and I've been in the film business as a camera operator, DP and director for over 10 years. I just can't not make stuff—I'm sure most filmmakers feel the same way. 
OP: What are some sci-fi films that have inspired you and your work? Are there themes you see yourself coming back to again and again with your film projects?

Chris: The movie that really turned me onto serious sci-fi was 12 Monkeys. I saw that in the theater with my parents and it blew my tiny little mind. The themes in that film keep showing up in my work—the fluid nature of memory, the idea of paradox and looping time—and I still really admire that movie for how deeply and simply emotional it is. The combination of deep, trippy themes and powerful human emotion are the baseline of my favorite sci-fi films: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, T2: Judgement Day, Inception, etc. 

OP: In a nutshell, what is Olfactory about, and how did you come up with the story?

Chris: Olfactory is a short film about an app programmer who hacks his own brain to revisit his memories. The more he revisits and messes with his memories, the more he questions his current reality. 
The script is loosely based on a short story my buddy Lucas Kane wrote, and he in turn co-wrote the screenplay with me. The short story is much larger in scope and we were struggling to condense it into a short film. The trail went cold for a while, and then I watched "The One I Love," an indie sci-fi romance with only two actors, Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss. That gave me the idea to try to shrink Olfactory into an intensely personal, close-quarters sci-fi mindfuck. It really came together once we decided to limit the scope. 

OP: The centerpiece of the film is the double-tubed device that the protagonist uses to trigger his memory recall. Where did you come up with the design of the device?

Chris: I loved the idea of this powerful, destructive drug being available as a cheesy, over-the-counter medical device. We wanted the packaging and the promotional material for the device to evoke those medical ads on TV that promise sunshine, tire swings and games of tennis, but carry all sorts of really dangerous warnings. 
The device we designed for the film is a vaporizer that delivers a high dose of the drug through the nose to the brain. We were operating off the premise that smell is the most evocative of the senses. A specific scent can short circuit the brain and bring you right back to a particular place and time, and we wanted to take that idea to the extreme here. 

OP:When I watched the movie, I was reminded a bit of Total Recall and Jacob's Ladder. There's a lot of mind-bending moments, and even the timeline of the film starts to loop back in on itself. How did you keep the movie's plot straight when you were writing it?

Chris: Those are both great films, so thanks for that. 
One thing we really wanted to explore was the destructive and self-perpetuating nature of addiction. We also wanted to dive into the idea that memory is never fixed—it's fluid, manipulatable and unreliable. And if the main character's memory becomes unreliable, then by extension his current reality is also unreliable. By having our main character become addicted to revisiting and eventually manipulating his memory, the narrative dovetailed into a hallucinogenic figure 8. 
We had a lot of diagrams to keep it all straight. Seriously. 
OP: One of the key themes of the movie is the possibility of becoming a new person and live a new life by re-crafting one's memories using technology. With immersive virtual reality getting closer and closer to the mainstream, do you see escapism becoming a bigger issue in the future?

Chris: I think distraction is a bigger problem than escapism, because distraction is more insidious and more invisible. I think that is already a huge problem, and I think virtual reality will just complicate things further. One of the major emotional themes of the film is the main character's girlfriend pleading with him to "be in the moment" with her, and his utter inability to do it. The drug in the film pushes that instinct to the breaking point of madness, but I think it's relatable to anyone who has tried to talk to someone who is distracted by their iPhone. 
There's a curatorial aspect to our online lives now that makes the ordinary messiness of real life seem boring and quaint. We want everything now. We only want to see what we are already into and agree with. We only want to present our best selves online. We want to live a thousand lives all at once. I feel like virtual reality will exacerbate this and further alienate ourselves from each other. 

OP: What was the toughest part of creating the movie? What was the most enjoyable part for you? Any behind-the-scenes stories or trivia you want to share?

Chris: We had an incredibly ambitious shooting schedule—4 days for the main story and another day for filming all the YouTube tutorials [in the film]. I was blessed with amazing actors who completely understood the script—real memories, false memories, overwritten memories—and were able to keep themselves
oriented narratively and emotionally. Watching them bring this incredibly complicated story to life was the most rewarding part of the shoot. 
A couple of little behind-the-scenes nuggets:
My buddy Ryan, who I started making movies with when I was a kid, plays the voice of the narrator in the Olfactory infomercial. He has a radio show in Chicago called Our Fair City and he has an amazing voice. It was great to have him cameo in Olfactory
One story from the set—my amazing lead actor, Kieran Mulcare, has asthma and a deviated septum. So I was basically choking him every time he took a hit off the device. He was so committed to the role that he kept going with scenes even if he could hardly breathe. It really works for some of the film's more intense moments. 

OP: What do you have planned for the future?

Chris: Olfactory is making the festival rounds now. Next up is the Roswell Sci-Fi Festival at the end of June, followed by the Escape Velocity and Dragon Con Film Festivals in DC and Atlanta respectively, both over Labor Day weekend. If you want to keep tabs on future screenings of the film, you can follow our Facebook and Instagram pages @olfactoryshortFilm. 
I am directing another short film at the end of June called "Baby Won't You Please Come Home." It's about a former jazz singer with Alzheimer's who is at risk of losing her home. It's not sci-fi but it deals again with the fluid, unreliable nature of memory. The film has an insanely talented cast and many of the same crew from Olfactory. I can't wait to start sharing details once we move into post production. 

Olfactory has been accepted to New Filmmakers New York and will be screening at the Anthology Film Archive on 7/26 at 7pm. You can also check out Chris Piazza at his website here.
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