The World of Lullskull Ltd.
& an interview with the filmmakers by J. Scott Bugher
Northstar Teaser, Lullskull Ltd. (forthcoming) 2014.
Lullskull Ltd. is:
Seth & Nate Anderson
Black, Lullskull Ltd. 2008
Gentlemen, thank you for taking time to discuss filmmaking with Split Lip. I first wanted to ask if you'd mind introducing yourselves, and perhaps let our audience know a bit about your backgrounds in the industry.
SA: I'm Seth, and along with my brother Nate, I've co-written and directed all of the films we've made thus far as Lullskull Ltd. I'm originally from Northern Michigan and trained briefly in music before going to Film school in Milwaukee. After graduating, I moved out to Los Angeles and shortly thereafter the three of us decided to make films while we pursued day jobs in the movie industry. After 8 years of chasing the dream together, we're getting close to making our first feature film and I couldn't be happier.
NA: Nathan Anderson here. I'm a graduate of the Minneapolis College Of Art and Design, with a BFA in Film Making. I've been working in the industry for about 8 years now in Los Angeles. I've worked in many areas of Pre and Post Production on several short films, music videos and feature films. I've also have a career as a freelance Illustrator with a focus on non-sports trading cards, Concept Design and Storyboarding.
JH: I'm Jason Hagen, producer with Lullskull Ltd. I grew up in Minnesota and Arizona, and graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, where I studied Film and met Nathan. After living with Nathan and Seth in Los Angeles following college, I fell into the non-fiction TV craze and worked my way up through Production and Post-production management departments, and currently supervise Post-production on various series while I make work with Nathan and Seth.
So, between the three of you then, how are roles divided during the creative process?
SA: Broadly, we all decide on what the next project will be and mutually nurture it through constant discussion. From there, I typically sit down and write, wait for revisions from the guys, and write again. Repeat process until we have a script. While I'm doing this, Nate is generating artwork, and Jason is working out the early production details. Now that the script is finished, Nate and I are mapping how we'll direct this movie together, while Jason hammers away at how we'll finance and bring this production to Michigan next year. That's sort of how it is, but we swap hats constantly according to who needs to do what at any given time.
NA: Breaking story is something I've always been a part of with Lullskull Ltd. So Seth and I usually find the core story together and while he moves toward the more polished screenplay, I will focus strongly on the visual style of the film and then logistics on how to bring the entire vision to the screen. Northstar will be co-directed by Seth and I, and for the most part we don't fight too much.
JH: I’ve been involved with our projects creatively since our short Black. I give story input, character and plot notes at the treatment and script stage, overall helping design a narrative we three can achieve visually down the road in Production. With the case of Northstar, Nathan and I helped expand Seth’s original short film script into a story appropriate and timely for a feature. Even before we locked script, I was setting up the business components of the film: sourcing investors, communicating with talent agents, and setting up the producer team to help secure resources. The creative process really runs through all phases of a film, especially this one because there is a whole universe surrounding the central story. So, we’re constantly contributing ideas on how to present this universe to those who will be our fan base for the life of the film and beyond.
Speaking of your creative process, how does a film make the move from concept to a finished piece of cinema?
SA: First, you have to find a story that will inspire you to devote years of your life towards realizing. Once you've got that fire going, you then have to kindle the damn thing every day, and that means writing consistently until you've got a script that feels like it's addressed everything you set out to do more or less. Right now we're in that phase between finished script and realizing it as a film, which means utilizing a different set of skills that are not entirely creative and sometimes resemble starting your own business. Since there are three of us, we all can take on different aspects of this process according to where our strengths are. From past experience I can say that the final film is usually very different from the initial concept, which is not to say that it bears no resemblance. Usually the spark of what you set out to do remains in the final product or else you would have gone off to do something else.
NA: Concepts are always great for a starting point, several things evolve hopefully at the same time to arrive a the finished work. There is truth to the statement that you make a film three times: The writing, the filming and the editing. I believe each step extremely important to the outcome of the film.
JH: With regards to how Lullskull Ltd. works, how we move a concept is really by gut, what genre we’re really hungry to work in and see if we’re at a level to execute a specific story. Almost immediately, while Seth and Nathan are outlining the story or scripting, Nathan is also working up concept art, and from there it keeps feeding into the campaign of Seth's writing and my hunt for resources. Once the project is heavily into Pre- production, financing locks and we move into production, and then post-production. The flame needs to stay strong through all stages, because it keeps people excited, both fans and business connections. Distribution for a film really needs to be addressed at the forefront of the project because ultimately that is how the film will be seen.
As a novelist, I am drawn to screenwriting. I feel it's the most effective method of getting a story down on paper. When I draft my novels, I storyboard on index cards and outline my scenes in screenwriting software. What is the writing process like for you?
SA: For Northstar we started with a rough synopsis of story beats that I wrote out in longhand and typed up to pitch internally to Nate and Jason. This first pass sketch was very broad––not much more than a few sentences on the beginning, middle and possible end––but it was enough to spur discussion between the three of us. At the end of this long gestation/discussion process, we worked out a longer, final outline that broke the script down on a scene-by-scene basis. This second stage was by far the longest and would be where most of the imaginative heavy lifting was achieved from my point of view. From there, I was able to use the outline as a blueprint for the script, and since I'm a young writer, I guess I needed to fall back on scenes that were already well thought-out beforehand. It made the scripting process really pleasurable.
NA: I try to provide Seth with as much information and detailed wish lists story elements as I can. The method of scene-by-scene on note cards is something we did early on Northstar and it helps to find the pace for the film. Once the story takes shape it will move into several revisions until we feel it is complete. Seth can expand on this further.
I've seen and read about your 2008 film, Black. It sounds like your approach to cinematography is experimental, but the core of your work is the narrative. Let's hear about Black. I was curious about the floating motif that fits the, well, in a way, the Western model of storytelling––the duality of civilization versus the wilderness. I am especially fond of your character dreaming of himself running from a man in the forest while dressed in business attire. I suppose I'm asking: Do you keep any certain themes in mind that are hidden beneath the storyline?
SA: I think I'm inclined to make films with a certain degree of narrative cohesion, at least in the writing stage. However, our filmmaking instincts inevitably lead us to visual storytelling solutions that I simply can't write down and that we typically come to when we are actually shooting. Each project comes packed with it's own set of thematic suggestions, and while I try to play with those ideas if they come to me in the writing, I'm always amazed at how interesting things get when we're actually shooting in a real place with highly creative people. All of a sudden hidden elements that were sleeping there in the script become visible. It's a chemical thing, and if it's good, you add these new insights into to the living mix of whatever your film wants to be.
NA: To touch on the your first statement, I feel the setting and location you chose will inherently effect the overall piece. Black was set on a rugged blast of pacific coast in Bandon, Oregon. A place that was divided into land and water in some of the most dramatic ways possible. It spoke to the film's tone and it's characters ultimately. Each project of course presents different problems, but subtext and alternate meanings play a factor in our work.
After reading a bit about your forthcoming film, Northstar, it seems you all have a thing for the wilderness. The film has scenes shot in Iron Mountain, Michigan––areas like Piers Gorge and Pine Creek. How will the wilderness serve the story of Northstar?
SA: I've always wanted our films to have a very specific take on the landscapes our characters inhabit. Since deciding to shoot Northstar on home turf in Michigan, it's become doubly important for us to distill what that environment means to us. The Upper Peninsula, especially in the winter, is a very stark, primal place. On one hand, you can clearly tell a survival story there, and on the other, the inherent beauty of the landscape gives us a chance to play up some of the more mystical elements of the story. For me, Northstar is tied to Upper Michigan in the same way that Black became inextricably linked with coastal Oregon.
JH: What I can say for the work we produce, we strive to push ourselves to explore new environments, which then become characters themselves in our stories. With our first short The Merciful Death of Jonas Blake, the western, desert environment acted as a period indicator and gave the film its texture. With Black the wilderness acted as a dream-plane where our hero Emile is forced to confront his fears and work through his problems internally, leaving the coastal setting to provide a photogenic, yet looming atmosphere to shroud the characters in their reality. I think by making the decision to shoot Northstar in the rugged Upper Peninsula we were thinking here we have this place that is geographically gorgeous, untouched, but highly deadly place to live when put in the context of the story, and that's very exciting. The wilderness was always in the design to give us the space to take the chance with working in a place we've never filmed, as opposed to setting the film in a hollowed out, large city which has been somewhat overdone the last decade. These landmark places we plan to shoot are also places where Nathan and Seth played as kids and later frequented as adults, thus informed who they are. The film, although it being a thriller/action story, is a very personal film for the brothers.
In Black, the score is that of minimalism at some points, reminding me of There Will be Blood, and then you've got soft piano ballads, reminding me of soft piano ballads. How important is non-diegetic audio in your work? You like that? Non-diegetic? Yeah, I've taken some classes in film. Ha!
SA: Before coming to filmmaking, I started out studying music and from a young age I was specifically interested in experimental electronic music. To that end, I've always wanted our films to sonically blur the line drawn between music and raw sound. We've come to a particular thematic idea for music in Northstar that will probably make it more driving than anything we've done before, and I think this is a byproduct of the fact that part of the story hinges on the use of sonic weapons. So anyway, I've always had a hard time dividing diegetic from non-diegetic sound in movies and I've concluded that aggressive soundtracks will be part of the Lullskull mission statement.
NA: Sound design and score are extremely important to focus audiences into what you are trying to express. Music and sound design will fuel and sometimes help inspire the creative process that goes into our work.
Who or what inspires you? I'm not just talking about your contemporaries in or the old masters of filmmaking, but also any other source of influence: Maybe nature photographers like Alfred Stieglitz or Ansel Adams? Maybe post-apocalyptic, dystopian books by Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood? Erector Sets? Go Bots?
SA: I'd say movies like Solaris/Stalker, Assault on Precinct 13 and THX 1138 have been big recent influences. For music, it's been John Carpenter's soundtracks, Harold Budd, and lately William Basinski's Disintegration Loop series. For books, A Canticle for Leibowitz is still the first book I point to when it comes to post-apocalyptic fiction, but I've also derived a thing or two from books that are centered around "personal" apocalypses, like say what the main characters are put through in a book like Beloved. You never know what will hit you where you live. Just the other day I was showing Nate a lamp design I liked for a prop we are working on. The more you look, the more you see.
NA: In general, other artists inspire me daily. I'm always on the look out for new visual artists and new filmmakers. I'm extremely excited by some new visual artists creating work for old movie poster properties. Companies like Mondo out of Austin, Texas provide this, also bringing classic genre artists back into the collective consciousness. Incredible films have been produced just last year by directors I've admired: Alfonzo Cuaron, Ben Wheatley and Shane Carruth, just to name a few. Usually when I start a project I leave myself open to inspirations along the way, cause you never know where it's going to come from.
JH: I was influenced pretty early on with SciFi books and comics as a kid. I started really paying attention to story after reading hand-me-down copies of Dean R. Koontz books, and then eventually discovered Robert R. McCammon, William Gibson, and Joe Haldeman. Those latter SciFi authors opened a gateway to an obsession with 80's retro, French graphic novels, Moebius, and Alejandro Jodorowsky.I love every frame Kubrick shot, adore the ruthlessness of Sam Fuller, cite Blade Runner as a huge influence and I'm very excited by current directors Ti West, Ben Wheatley, Vince Natali, and Jeremy Gardner to name a few who are pushing genre to new heights, and using ideas and characters as a driving force in their work. It feels like there is a new movement brewing in cinema today where the director's voice is rising to the surface again and needs to be recognized.
Sweet. Thanks for entertaining my curiosity and offering the Split Lip audience some insight on Lull Skull and your work. You all are quite talented, and it's looking like there's nothing more but additional success coming your way in the future. You've got Split Lip's utmost support and we wish you the very best.