Interview: 'Alterscape' Director Serge Levin on His Film's Multiple Layers and 1980s Vibes
If you could scientifically fine-tune your emotions, would you want to? Would you be worried about any possible side-effects?
These are just some of the questions explored by filmmaker Serge Levin in his mind-bending new sci-fi movie Alterscape, premiering at the 2018 Philip K. Dick Film Festival this weekend. Telling the tale of a suicidal and depressed young man (played by Charles Baker of Breaking Bad) who agrees to take part in a series of experiments to change his emotions, he has an unexpected reaction to the tests which sends him on a journey that "transcends both physical and perceived reality" as things go psychedelically wrong.
Outer Places reached out to Levin for an exclusive interview:
Outer Places: Could you talk a little about yourself, and what drew you to a project like Alterscape?
Serge Levin: Growing up in the suburbs of Northern California in the early 90s, I constantly pondered about the future. Close proximity to Silicon Valley, with all the internet and tech start-ups, fueled my curiosity and imagination. It was an interesting time to be exposed to what was to become, in my view, a catalyst period for the trajectory of human social evolution. The assent of internet, upsurge in the computational power of microchips, and the connectivity of global economies - were some of the most fundamental game changing trends that propelled us into the 21st century.
Suffice to say I've been lucky to live through this historic transition in the epicenter of the high-tech revolution. Although I was fascinated by what the future may bring, most of my inspiration came from the portrayal of thought provoking stories in the 80s. Hence, I consider myself a die-hard 80s-phile. Everything, from music, fashion, to nerdy commercials – that decade holds a special place in my heart. Not only was it one of the most blossoming economic periods post the Vietnam War, but also for the entertainment industry and filmmaking in particular.
Most films in the eighties had original content, handcrafted visuals, and a completely different approach to telling stories. The pacing was more gradual and the experience felt more impactful. My nostalgia for that decade inspires me to this day in all of my creative endeavors. Alterscape carries that vibe, although I did have to cut close to 30% of the original assembly due to today's consumer demands for more fast-paced progression. However, we shall be releasing a longer director's cut in the near future.
My objective with Alterscape was to visually convey the mysterious depths of human emotions; how they influence our perception; their link to memories, and to what extent they can be altered, manipulated or suppressed. Alterscape is a multi-layered science fiction narrative that deliberately projects a perpetual unyielding quest to align its interconnected subplots. I love books and films that have a unique impact on every reader or viewer. As Michael Ironside's character "Dr. Julian Loro" says in the film: "Reality is just a reflection of our mind." I wanted Alterscape to be a mirror that would reflect unique perspectives and different messages.
OP: Were there any particular science fiction stories (or any other stories) that helped inspire the movie?
Levin: Alterscape envelops many stories in one, but on the surface it's driven by the technological capacity to morph the human psyche, physiology, and perception of reality. Apex being: numerous self-propagating side effects due to the complex nature of the human brain.
Many Philip K. Dick stories always inspired me due to their honest and raw exploration of individual's unique emotional journey. Like "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", a literary work that was later adapted to become one of the most prolific science-fiction movies of all time, Blade Runner.
There was also the Strugatsky brothers' novel Monday Begins on Saturday, and the films Scanners, Jacob's Ladder, and 1982's The Sender.
The story involves experiments designed to alter human emotions. Do you think that kind of technology could be in our future? And do you think this technology would be a good thing?
Levin: Research and trials to study and alter human emotions date back to the 18th century, with the more recent 20th century field of Affective Science (the study of emotions) becoming more mainstream. In the 1980's, the "affective domain" focused more on the rudiments of our value system and stress thresholds has emerged.
The technology incorporates auditory, visual, and chemical stimuli to achieve very specific results. The applications, as one can imagine, have been very wide. In general, any advancement in technology or science I consider a good thing. The application side of it all is up to us as a human race.
OP: Along with writing and directing the movie, you appear in it as well. How difficult was it to manage all these jobs at once, and do you have a preference for acting, writing, or directing?
Levin: Producing a feature film is always an enormous undertaking, especially when it involves so many variables, people, and expectations. Having a collaborative approach and a competent team facilitates a much smoother development process and ultimately a celebration of the creative process itself.
Alterscape, being my first feature film, was an extension of my creative soul and it was a completely organic aspiration to be involved in all three: writing, directing, and acting - with the bulk of the time and engagement allocated to the first two.
I'm passionate about all sides of the film production process. It's magic in the making and I'm grateful to be able to create and partake in the journey from start to finish.
OP: What are you working on next?
Levin: I'm currently finalizing the science fiction feature Superstrata that we shot in Los Angeles. Eric Strand, the editor on such projects as Donnie Darko, Deep Blue Sea, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is heading the post-production on it.
I'd prefer to keep the story under wraps for now, but just like Alterscape, there will be many layers and twists. We have a formidable cast including the Actor's Studio and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member Robert F. Lyons (Platoon Leader), Paz de la Huerta (Enter the Void, Boardwalk Empire), Jim Meskimen (Magnolia), and Alex Veadov (We Own The Night).
Superstrata is grounded in practical science, quantum mechanics to be exact. It is the first feature film to be cleared by Lockheed Martin, D-Wave Computing, and University of Southern California to film the actual D-Wave quantum system. Our science advisor, Daniel Lidar, is the director and co-founder of the Quantum Information Science & Technology (CQIST)/ Scientific Director of the USC-Lockheed Martin Quantum Computation Center. And I have several other projects in development including Herbert West: Reanimator, and War On War.
Alterscape, starring Michael Ironside, Charles Baker, Mack Kuhr, and Serge Levin, will be playing at the Philip K. Dick Film Festival this Friday, February 23 at the Village East Cinema in Manhattan, New York. Tickets are available here.