A good story, willing actors, ingenuity, technical know-how, and $1,500 can go a long way these days. Just ask Ben Chiu, an Avila Beach-based filmmaker who wrote, produced, shot, and directed MindScans, a feature-length film based on a story by noted science fiction author Steven L. Kent.
The film will open at Galaxy Theatres of Atascadero before Chiu takes the film to some of the 120 screens Galaxy Theatres owns in the Western United States.
“The plan is to screen at all of the Galaxy Theatres in the chain,” Chiu said. “We’ll be starting with Washington mid-May, come back to Northern and Central California, then out to Texas and Nevada, finishing up in Los Angeles.”
How he managed such a feat with equipment available to the average consumer is one for the annals of B-movie history. It’s also a story about one man’s dream to democratize filmmaking and operate outside the Hollywood grind.
“I’d read about a movie that a guy made for $1,500 and, at that point, it had grossed $21 million worldwide,” Chiu recalled. “The movie looked pretty amateurish, but those numbers were impressive. I knew I could produce something that would look and sound much better—even in standard definition—so that story inspired me to try and do the same, but for less money. We budgeted for $1,500, but we came in under $1,400—actually closer to $1,300.”
What sort of tricks of the trade did Chiu employ?
- PHOTOS COURTESY OF BEN CHIU AND MINDSCANS
- THE MAGIC OF FILMMAKING: All the sets were constructed in Ben Chiu’s garage at his Avila Beach home.
It also helped that Chiu knew Steven L. Kent, who was willing to let Chiu take his short story and expand it into a screenplay.
“We met on a press junket to West Palm Beach when I was still working as freelance journalist,” Chiu said. “Our host sent a stretch limo to drive us to the hotel from the airport, so we had time to chat during the ride and we just hit it off.”
The story itself is a morality tale set in the not-so-distant future.
“MindScans is based on a short story I wrote called The Last Days of White Magic,” Kent said. “Except for Ben’s movie, the story has not been published, though it will be released as a bonus material in the British publication of one of my sci-fi novels. My books are initially published by Ace Book—a division of the Penguin Press—but a British publisher named Titan has optioned the British rights.
“Anyway, I wrote The Last Days of White Magic because I had moral issues with which I wanted to play. I wanted an arena in which I grapple with life and the definition of what constitutes ‘life.’ I envisioned ALFs (artificial life forms) not so much as computer programs but as living, breathing, bleeding humans from a digital dimension. They absolutely felt pain, both emotional and physical. They had cells that aged and deteriorated. They lived an entirely human lifespan, except that all of it took place in a digital world. They could have children, and they would pass their genes on to their offspring. By any measure, in their dimension they were human. So, if they were alive and unique and feeling, and healthy, and productive, but they lived in a hard drive and RAM memory, would it be immoral to pull the plug on that computer?
- PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN CHIU AND MINDSCANS
- LOCAL ACTORS : D. Rosh Wright and Shanda Green star as an aunt and her investigative reporter niece, who finds her ethics challenged while investigating a company that runs a virtual world.
“That said, around the time that I wrote this story, an online program called Second Life was causing all sorts of problems,” he said. “People found that they liked their online lives better than their real lives, and sometimes their online partners better than their real partners, so I created a way for people to have a fully satisfying affair that could have taken place in the past, even before they met their spouses, through a virtually implanted shared memory. Think about it: A 60-year-old man could have an affair with an equally aged partner, but they would have met and copulated in the primes of their lives through a shared memory. They would have seen each other at their best.
“What would be the consequences?” he asked rhetorically. “What would be the emotional and moral consequences? What impact would a new and major memory suddenly materializing out of nowhere have on your psyche? Sure, you would remember purchasing the memory and driving to the MindScans office as vividly as you remember the tryst, but that’s just it: The tryst would be as real and as vivid as the drive or as your child’s first birthday.”
From these fertile ideas written out in a 10-page short story, Chiu managed to spin out a 114-minute film, and he did it all right here on the Central Coast, which has been the location for such big Hollywood films as My Blue Heaven, Arachnophobia, Commando, We Were Soldiers, and Murder By Numbers.
“The entire cast and crew live here on the Central Coast,” Chiu said. “This is a crucial element to keeping production costs low. The downside was the absence of adequately trained labor, and there’s only a very small group of appropriately skilled talent to draw from. I figured if I can teach people to fly, which I consider one of the most difficult things humans can do, training people in the various crafts required to make movies would of course still be challenging, but relatively much easier. All of the locations were in SLO County from Arroyo Grande all the way up to Paso and out to Creston. All of the sets were built in my garage because of the convenience and to keep costs down.”
Here’s where Chiu’s filmmaking philosophy comes in.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN CHIU AND MINDSCANS
- IS IT REAL OR VIRTUAL?: Robert Gandy (right) stars as a grieving father who had his dying son’s mind scanned into an ALF (artificial life form), which now exists in a lonely virtual world.
Chiu’s dream is to operate outside the Hollywood system but still compete with it.
“We’re building a mini-movie industry here on the Central Coast,” he said. “I wasn’t the only ex-Hollywood type living here and growing weary of living out of a suitcase in LA and SF to work on interesting stuff. While the work in those centers is unparalleled, the trade-off of not living with our families here in paradise was a losing one. It was because the last barrier (the gatekeepers of distribution) that would make it impossible for such an idea to work have been bypassed, we dared to live the dream.
“The bottom line for us is about turning a profit,” he continued. “As jaded as that may sound, you can have the best movie in the world, critical acclaim, respect of your peers, and whatnot, but if you never turn a profit, it becomes very difficult to make more. I’m not comfortable with the model of finding new money to invest in projects that don’t make business sense. Although things have been done like this in the industry, well, forever, we’re in the business of making and selling movies so we can produce a lot of cool stuff while living on the Central Coast. That said, it looks like we’ll turn a profit before our first screening, so we’re ahead of schedule.”
The next question, of course, is how Chiu took a 10-page story and expanded it into a full-length film.
“Adapting a novel or short story is a skill that is in many ways easier, and at the same harder, than coming up with a totally original story,” he said. “Printed words and movies are very different. The basic drill is to make the material as visual as possible—instead of telling, and creating back-story for every character. Because Steven’s story is basically a legal drama, I took the set pieces of his story and built a framework around them. Of course, the concepts in Steven’s material is so dense it had to be balanced between budgetary, talent, and acceptable movie length limitations, but writing screenplays is very similar to writing haikus—you have a known structure and you fill in the bits that make it interesting. The tricky part is knowing what’s interesting or how to make it the most interesting on screen, which can be produced within your budget. It’s that ‘everything is interrelated’ thing.”
- PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN CHIU AND MINDSCANS
- GOT ETHICS?: Larry Barnes (right) stars as MindScans founder Tom Sobol, whose morally ambiguous company finds itself the target of several lawsuits.
“[The cameras and software I use] fall into the category of professional tools, and anyone can buy tools,” Chiu said. “The line between pro and consumer products has blurred. The only real difference is cost, but that line is going away as well. What you are paying more for is robustness and features that most people will never use. But in the end, it’s not the tools that matter, really. It’s the craftsman using the tools. Most of the lighting we used in MindScans came from Home Depot in SLO and Wal-Mart in A.G. Think of it like this: I can stick you in the fastest car in the world, but you’re not going to beat Michael Schumacher in a race even if he’s driving a much slower car. The fastest car in the world will drive terribly if it’s not set up right, but a slow car set up properly driven by an expert will drive circles around you.”
OK, so maybe filmmaking hasn’t been completely democratized yet. Chiu graduated from New York University (NYU) with a degree in motion pictures and attended American Film Institute (AFI), not to mention various classes recommended by the execs in the Motion Picture Group at Paramount, “but I learned my craft working with, watching, and talking with masters,” he said. “These informal apprenticeships were still alive and well when I was there. In film school, you learn the terminology and concepts that are needed to communicate efficiently with the various crafts, but you really don’t learn how and why—and perhaps most importantly—how much you don’t know, until you’re out there doing it.”
Of course, Chiu’s film—in my opinion—doesn’t look as good as a big-budget film from a major studio, but it does look very professional, and its specials effects are surprisingly good. Whatever limitations it has in terms of budget certainly doesn’t affect the quality of the story or its entertainment value, though some viewers may be put off by the acting, some of which is somewhat stilted.
Does Chiu think this is the future of filmmaking? Is this a way for smaller films that would never get the green light by a major studio to be made?
“Well, ‘doesn’t look as good’ can mean many things,” Chiu countered. “If you’re referring to the hyper-realistic look like what we see in today’s blockbuster action films, then I agree; we don’t have that. But keep in mind that it’s not that we can’t do that; it was a creative choice. MindScans looks as it should for the story. Having that hyper look would be distracting to the story. As a cinematographer, you manipulate how things look to enhance the story. In MindScans, if everything looked hyper-real, there would be no contrast between the virtual world and the real word in the story.
“And to answer your other question,” he summed up, “the future is absolutely in lower cost/higher efficiency productions at all levels. Just as in any business, and especially because this market is so fragmented today, the only ways to maintain a profit in a smaller market is to raise prices or lower costs, and how much more can you raise prices when everyone is cutting each other’s throats? You only have one option left.”
For Chiu, what it comes down to is telling a story people want to see.
“I don’t think good stories will ever go out of style,” he said. “Humans have a basic need for good stories because they help us envision how we fit into the grand scheme of things by showing us different perspectives in a very easy-to-digest way. I consider myself very lucky to have been at Paramount Pictures when story was king. The criteria on which movies get green-lighted today can basically be boiled down to a checklist to a great extent, and ‘story’ is way at the bottom. While that may sound depressing, it is the opportunity for indies. There is an audience for every film. And if you’re looking for interesting stories and movies that take chances, you’ll have more luck with indie titles. Unless you’re looking for a remake of a TV show, remake of foreign movie, remake of another movie, or comic brought to life, I don’t think there’s any question that the indies are making the interesting stuff.”
What does Kent, author of the source material, think of Chiu’s final product?
“He took a 10-page short story and whipped it into a two-hour movie, no small feat,” Kent said. “Did he take license? Of course he did. He had no choice. He did a great job with it, too. This is not a major motion picture. This is the work of an artist, working on a tight budget, making sense of a very terse and scant piece of story writing. I think he did a phenomenal job. He took characters whom I barely sketched out and, working with local actors, he turned them into living, breathing people. He did not change the story. Pretty much everything in the short story is in the movie, but he expanded the story with many, many new elements. Ben’s low-budget concept isn’t new, but his utilization of technology now available to anyone seems to yield fairly decent results. I mean, no one will mistake the film for a big-budget blockbuster from a major studio, but it seems to compete fairly well with some straight-to-video films I’ve seen.”
And finally, would Kent have rather had a big-name director adapt his story?
“There’s no point lying about the obvious,” he said. “I would have loved it if Steven Spielberg or Ang Lee or the Coen Brothers called and said, ‘We just simply must turn this story into a film.’ I would have been thrilled if Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles rose from their graves specifically to make movies based on my works. Ben is a personal friend. When I showed him my story and he asked if he could make a movie out of it, I knew he was not flush with cash. I also knew he would pour his heart and soul into the project and that he would surround himself with people who would do the same. I’m very satisfied with the job he did. When it comes to special effects, his low-budget constraints show a bit. When it comes to creative camera work, tense scenes, good direction, and many other areas, I think Ben did as good a job as any director out there. Look, there is a reason they don’t let heavyweight boxers fight flyweights and bantams. That doesn’t mean that heavyweights are better than bantamweights; many of them simply have more weight to throw around.”
Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer and film critic. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.