Contrary to what you might believe, it’s not every day that we have creators and artists with cyberpunk clout under their belt asking our seedy little corner of the web for exposure. So, it was delightful to hear from Andrew McGee, British-born independent filmmaker, recently in regards to his film which had premiered on acclaimed sci-fi short film YouTube channel, DUST, only weeks prior.
Since this node of the Neon Dystopia overmind (shadowlink) was at the time engaging in a Discord short film frenzy and had seen “Venus” prior to McGee’s request, I was happy to acquiesce, and met him via augmented reality last week for an interview. Here are the soundbytes, transcribed for your reading pleasure.
ND: So, Andrew, how long have you been making films, and what inspired you to go into filmmaking?
AM: I suppose I’ve been making films for about ten years now. I started film in university, but it was all kind of theory-based, so a group of us did our own short filmmaking in our spare time, and that’s really where I got [into scriptwriting] and knowing that I wanted to direct… Professionally, I’m an editor, but I also consider myself an independent filmmaker, writing and directing my own shorts. “Venus” was [my] first big project with a substantial budget and Kickstarter behind it. What inspired me to get into filmmaking was sci-fi in a big way; watching Star Wars as a kid, and The Matrix, and especially Doctor Who. There was a behind-the-scenes show I found quite inspiring, just in how it all came together.
ND: Yeah, there are some pretty interesting episodes of Doctor Who that take place in the distant future and have a bit of a cyberpunky feel to them. Especially in the series with–I want to say Christopher Eccleston?
AM: Yeah, Eccleston.
ND: He had some interesting plots. I think there was an episode that took place on a distant asteroid or space station, and [the crew] gets in contact with a demon, or Space Satan or something.
AM: Yeah, I think that’s a David Tennant one… took place around a black hole.
ND: You have a better memory than I do. So why cyberpunk specifically [for “Venus”]?
AM: I just love the subgenre for many reasons. The aesthetic, first of all–the futuristic, urban dystopia… I was trying to play with the contrast [between the film’s settings]. I loved all the video games like Deus Ex, Mirror’s Edge, and more recently, Cyberpunk 2077. As well as the aesthetic, there are all the themes of transhumanism and AI, transgressing, and where we’re heading, and I think there’s so much rich storytelling potential in those ideas.
ND: Yeah, and “Venus” is interesting because it’s very microcosmic–it seems like a very short coming-of-age story, in which the main character, Iris, is ripped from her idyllic childhood world into this harsh, unforgiving, and very objectifying world that she finds herself in.
AM: I’m really glad you said coming-of-age, because that hasn’t been mentioned before, but that’s the phrase I used early on. The twist is it’s coming-of-age–her body is literally going through these drastic changes.
ND: I think anybody who’s into cyberpunk could relate to that sort of rude awakening from childhood into adulthood, into this unforgiving and nightmarish world we live in, especially for women.
AM: Definitely, and that was one of the starting points as well. I wanted to make a cyberpunk film, but trying to find a new angle on cyberpunk at this point is kind of difficult. As much as we love the tropes, they’ve remained pretty static ever since Blade Runner. My cowriter, Tara, and I were thinking, “Well we don’t really see these very patriarchal and sometimes objectifying worlds from a female perspective much.” The example I was thinking of was in Blade Runner 2049–if it was Joi whose character we’d seen later in the film instead of [K’s], what kind of questions would that raise?
ND: That’s something we need to start focusing on in cyberpunk–distancing ourselves from the patriarchal perspective, because that’s punk. I appreciate that you tried and succeeded in creating a concise narrative with [a woman’s perspective in mind].
AM: That was another thing, following cyberpunk art on Instagram. A lot of it is sexualized robots. You can still present that sort of world, but it’s all about perspective. I was always careful in [shooting the film] that characters through Iris’ perspective were never objectifying.
ND: Especially in the wake of Cyberpunk 2077, which didn’t really do the genre justice, at least in a modern context. What do you think the future of the genre should be, then? Do you think we should see more queer or minority voices? Speaking as two cis white males.
AM: That’s something I’ve been trying to reckon with a bit, at least in the production team, so it’s not all straight white men behind the camera.
ND. That gets very male-gazey.
AM: Exactly, male gaze is the thing I’m trying to avoid. I think fiction as a whole, at the moment, is moving towards more diverse voices. Different nationalities, female perspectives, queer stories, which is great! Cyberpunk especially is punk at its core; it’s about inclusivity and rage against the standard.
ND: Defying societal norms.
AM: Exactly. A stance of rebellion.
ND: So, at the end of the film, Iris finds herself empowered–quite literally, because she’s got these blades that come out of her arms, which is pretty awesome. What inspired that ending, as opposed to something else?
AM: It’s been in development for so long, the real starting point is kind of lost in time. But the ending I think was a pretty bleak one, and I wanted to end on a moment of hope.
ND: The blades seem to be representative of Iris’ newfound resolve to cope with her world and live in it.
AM: Basically. She’s thrown into this body which is designed for sex and violence. It’s the male fantasy of cyberpunk embodied in that, and she’s discovering, to her horror, what this body is as she goes on. That ending is her, for the first time, taking control of her body, her autonomy, fighting back on her terms.
ND: Let’s get into the behind-the-scenes details, then. What was it like working with Dust?
AM: So, we had a year-long festival run, which was awesome. I was so happy with the reception. It was nominated and won some best sci-fi awards internationally at some pretty major festivals. That was cool. Quite a bit [of the festivals] ended up online because of COVID, which isn’t quite as good of an experience, but I did delay the release so we did get a fair few in-person festivals. It was so great to watch it in a room with a proper sound system and an audience, so we could see how they’d react, and chat with other filmmakers. At the end of that process, another filmmaker called Noah, who I chatted with before I even started filming, forwarded it to the Dust guys, who then got back to me and said, “Yeah, we’d love to put it on the channel.” I think until recently it’s been on its top picks playlist, which was super cool. They were involved to the point of distribution–nothing during production, but as a release platform. It’s really great that now, finally, short films have a platform to be seen by someone new. Even now, you might get a good festival run, but then you put it on your YouTube channel, and then what? You get ten views from people who share it on Facebook… I think people are getting more used to short-form content with things like Love, Death + Robots on Netflix and other anthologies.
ND: What was your budget like?
AM: I think it was about thirty thousand pounds, so I guess that’s like $35,000? Maybe a little more. We did two Kickstarters to raise the money, and I’ve got to say it’s the most budget I’ve had to work with, but every penny of that went in front of the camera. It was so stretched. Productions like this can become sinkholes of sunk costs.
ND: What were your biggest challenges, then, while filming?
AM: On the shoot, there was a lot. The lavender field was a great shoot. That was in the middle of summer, and it was lovely. That was just one day. Phoebe, who plays the virtual Iris, got the lucky end of the stick, filming there, because the rest of the four or five nights was on the south coast in November, and it was freezing and wet. So we had a rain machine on top of the actual rain in England… because normal rain doesn’t show up on cameras, so we had to compensate for that. They were tricky circumstances in the sense of keeping crew morale up, and actors getting drenched. I know that was definitely immersive for the world, but you’ve got camera equipment and lights. One of the lights broke because of the rain; the DP didn’t tell me until after the shooting. I was like, “Oh, really? I didn’t notice, you made it look good!” There are some things that you should lie about or keep from the director until it’s done.
ND: So normal rain doesn’t show up on camera?
AM: It has to do with the size of the raindrops. So when you have your own machine, the drops are a lot larger. You can still make out some of the real rain in some of the streetlights, but yeah, if you want it to show up, you need to create it yourself.
ND: Was there anything else you had to deal with?
AM: One of the big ones was the prosthetic makeup. It wasn’t quite up to par the first couple of shoot days, so I had to fix it in post-production on the computer. Lots of masking and redrawing, [Margaret’s] bald cap was completely smoothed over, her face lines were redrawn.
ND: I didn’t even notice!
AM: And that’s the point. It looks how it should have on set. It’s a lesson learned: if your actors are going to be close by most of the time, make sure the makeup is already set to go.
ND: Well, if you’re dealing with rain, too, I’m sure that might have messed with things.
AM: It was like six months of fixing Margaret’s face in post, painstakingly. On the upside, the pandemic was good for a waste of time like that on the computer.
ND: So wait, you said there were two different actresses playing Iris in virtual reality and meatspace?
ND: Huh. I didn’t notice that either, I assumed they were the same actor, and the makeup was why she looked different.
AM: So we cast Phoebe first, who was the Iris in the virtual area, because that was in the summer, and we cast Margaret, who plays her out in the real world and looks a little older, plus the makeup. It’s cool because we didn’t cast them together, so it was a bit of a risk of trying to make sure they shared the same mannerisms, so it’s pretty cool to hear that you didn’t spot the difference!
ND: It’s a very clever detail because it looks like Iris’ “meatspace double” looks like this custom-made body that Iris’ mother may have stolen. So what was the most satisfying part of making this film?
AM: Seeing it all come together at the end. There was a point in the edit where I thought it would never happen. It just felt so far away to go. So finally, we did an online screening with everybody involved, and that was cool. I guess it was the first film I’ve made that I can happily rewatch without cringing and thinking, “Oh, I could have done this better.” There are lots of things I wish I’d done differently, but it doesn’t bother me in that way. Just to have that as a filmmaker, that level of satisfaction, was it.
ND: So you finished making the film–was it before or during COVID?
AM: Well, we filmed it at the very end of 2019. Actually, the one scene we did film during COVID was the hospital flashback, when we were all wearing masks anyway. Most of 2020 was editing it with VFX and that kind of thing. Then last year was the festival run.
ND: What did production look like?
AM: I was really lucky with the crew on something as ambitious as this. The core team were filmmaker friends–the first AD, the line producer, the producer, and the script advisor were a close circle. The DP, who was just a genius, brought his own team on. I’d say the team, excluding actors, was about twenty people. Fifteen to twenty, depending on what we were shooting. In terms of allocating, a fair bit went into production design, a bit on locations, although we were actually really lucky with the locations. The alley and the hideout area were in the exact same spot, so that made things a billion times easier. Everybody was in the same place for four days.
ND: The set design and use of color were top notch.
AM: Yeah, Jason did a great job. He built that whole booth and designed all the plastic sheeting; the booth just barely survived. By the final day, it was starting to leak with the torrential rain, so we were taping up the gaps.
ND: I’m sure the leakiness would have added to the realism, but wouldn’t have looked great on camera.
AM: Yeah. [laughs]
ND: So what’s your favorite cyberpunk media, then? I suppose I asked about your inspirations, but what really grabs you, what really sticks out in your mind the most out of cyberpunk media?
AM: Well, the classic I’d say is Blade Runner, but I’d probably say Blade Runner 2049 because I feel like [my experience with it was] the experience that audiences had back in the ‘80s. Growing up with that as a point of reference, it was the original. It’s a landmark, it was groundbreaking. But when watching the Villeneuve one, that just blew me away in the cinema. I thought, “Wow, this is how you do a sequel that adapts the original.”… I do love Ghost in the Shell–the original film, and some of the series. Deus Ex was probably one of the big ones that I really got into as a teen, playing it on Xbox.
ND: What’s the meaning of the graffiti at the end of the film that reads, “Iris lives”?
AM: Well, I’m of two minds. Do I say the answer or leave it to the imagination? I’ll tell you. In [another draft of the script], at one point, Nia (the mum) says, “We’ll get you fixed up when we reach the others.” There is a movement to gain this technology and legalize it, so Iris has become the symbol of potential rebirth and hope. I’ve written the feature film version that we’re trying to get made, and some of the details are a bit different, so now they merge a bit in my mind. In the context of the short film, that’s the idea, that she becomes a symbol of hope. And that scene at the end is both a reminder of her mother but also the feeling that she’s not alone; that there are others out there on her side, which gives her the strength to keep fighting.
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