Travis Milloy, writer of Pandorum, is about to release a new independent psychological thriller called Somnio. We were lucky enough to catch up with the busy director and talked Kickstarter, actors and the challenges of creating a film in Los Angeles on a seriously tight budget.
Words: Lauren Burgess, Subeditor: Alina Kay
Somnio is a labour of love. For those at the heart of the film, writer and director Travis Milloy and supportive wife and producer Laurie Sheldon, it became a dream that took years of hard work to realise. “Nothing that’s easy is any good” jokes Milloy. Now, eagerly awaiting the response from the South by Southwest (SxSW) film and music festival, the team behind Somnio are still full steam ahead, putting together a website, adding finishing touches to the special effects, and promoting the film as much as possible. At 46, Milloy has already been in the movie industry for decades, working in every area from editing and artwork to producing and recording. He’s most well known for writing and producing sci-fi horror Pandorum, a claustrophobic survival-story set on a lost spaceship.
Creating the script for Somnio began as a personal challenge to Milloy. Can you make a film about one man, in one room, and still take your audience on a journey? “I’ve always been fascinated with very self-contained stories,” says Milloy. “It pushes me as a writer to make something interesting, trapped in one spot. You have to come up with some really interesting character dynamics and beats to make that story work.” Milloy certainly did make it work.
Somnio is about a man named Frank. Some time in the near future, a totalitarian government has made surveillance and subservience the number one priority. In order to obtain maximum efficiency, the judicial system has become entirely automated. Those suspected of crimes are tasered, dropped into prison cells run by personable AI robots, and interrogated over and over with the use of the somnio machine. It essentially creates a nightmarish ‘groundhog day’ dream – forcing you to relive a day in search of evidence of your crime. As the weeks turn into months, Frank begins to suspect that the world outside has changed, leaving him alone in his windowless, empty prison.
The film explores many dark themes – the ideas of mass control and manipulation, a fear of the coldness of machines and artificial intelligence, and the way that people today are experiencing synthesized relationships through technology, potentially at the expense of real-life social skills. “We really have a relationship with the devices that we use. It seems like with the younger generation, talking face to face is a rarity. So I was really interested in what happens when that’s all the relationship is. There are two relationships in the film – and they’re both artificial. What happens when you take the ‘real life’ out of those relationships and can you survive that way? That’s what I was trying to explore in this movie.” Milloy says that he did a great deal of research into how people behave when left in extreme isolation. “A lot of people don’t realise how important it is. If you’re totally cut off, completely alone, and can’t have a relationship with someone or even something – it truly sucks the life out of you.”
The main relationship in the film is that of Frank and Howard. Howard is the name given to the AI that runs Frank’s world when inside the prison and is programmed to do just one thing: keep Frank alive. But being truly alive means so much more than just being fed and sheltered. Howard becomes his only friend, providing music, jokes and an array of questionably flavoured drinks. In the creation of this character, Milloy was influenced by the great AI’s of movies past, citing 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal as an inspiration. “If the audience feels emotion for shutting off a computer, then I’ve done my job. That was the whole goal for Howard.”
Because the film is so self-contained, the few characters in the film; Frank, Gabby and Howard, had to be portrayed by very talented actors. Frank especially, as so much of Somnio is what amounts to him talking to himself. For this role, there was no one but Christopher Soren Kelly that Milloy felt could make it work. “I knew I had to find someone captivating enough to hold the screen by themselves for huge portions of the film. I met Chris when I was casting another film (that a studio is now making with director Mike Figgis at the helm). I must have met 60 actors and he came in and read and just blew me away. There was something about him that was so unique. I instantly remembered him. And I couldn’t have made the film without him.” For Howard, the casting wasn’t quite so simple. After exploring dozens of options, Milloy eventually cast the man who had been voicing Howard on set, Jesse D. Arrow. “I never thought Jesse would be the voice of Howard. Laurie said to me, ‘What about Jesse?’ and I’d been so used to hearing it while editing that eventually it just felt right. We recorded the entire movie with him in just a couple of hours.”
The quest to bring Somnio to life began in 2013 with a Kickstarter campaign that attempted to raise $50,000 in a month, a modest movie budget by any standard. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful with just over 40% of the total funding reached. This did little to dissuade Milloy, however, and he still firmly believes in the power of the site. “It wasn’t necessarily about the money. I mean obviously, we were desperate for the funds, but more importantly, it was the networking and helping to get the project known that was more valuable.” Despite not reaching the initial goal, Milloy had opened the doors for people to reach out to him about the project. The interest generated through the campaign brought in the fans and investors that ultimately made the film possible. “It’s a great, free, way to publicise and market your project. I can’t say enough good things about Kickstarter.” Two years later, with the majority of the shooting finished, a new Kickstarter page was set up to raise money for the post-production costs. Thanks in large part to the publicity the film had already received, the $10,000 goal was reached.
But of course, the film couldn’t have happened without the primary investor, Michael Dwyer, a 60-year-old Briton from Brighton who runs an online college. Dwyer had contacted Milloy early on in the process to ask more about the film, and Milloy was initially sceptical that the investment would ever come to fruition. Mainly because, having only ever communicated online, he had no idea who Dwyer really was. “I actually thought he was a teenager. I thought he was like some 14-year-old kid from Arizona or something.” Milloy confesses. “We were having a hard time getting investors to commit. But, for good reason. I don’t think I’d believe somebody if they sold me this project. You’re gonna make this movie for this amount of money? It’s impossible. When I told Michael we were having difficulties he said ‘Well what if I invested?’”
Throughout the process, the two never spoke on the phone. Which did nothing to alleviate Milloy’s anxiety about the situation. “I thought I was being ‘punk’d’. But we drew up the contracts and I realised that this was no kid, this is somebody that’s serious about this and knows about investing. When the money was about to be transferred I still didn’t believe it. And then it actually went into the bank and I was like, wow, this is for real. And we started making the movie.”
The two finally met when Dwyer took his family on holiday to California in August 2014 and decided to visit the set. Dwyer described the set as “tiny [and] stiflingly hot.” Thermometers put the temperature at a painful 42C. “It felt every bit of that inside that tight warehouse space with no air conditioning. How they got through the filming I’ll never know.” Milloy felt the moment was “totally surreal” but expresses his enormous gratitude for Dwyer’s support. “He’s been an angel. He’s just been fully supportive, he understands what we’re trying to do and I couldn’t ask for anything better.” Dwyer has been able to watch the near-completed Somnio that was submitted to the festivals and thinks it’s a “fantastic film” which is all the more remarkable when considering the budget (whilst admitting that he is, of course, a little biased.) “I have an emotional investment as well as financial, and I want to see it do as well as possible and to get the credit I believe it deserves.”
Travis and Laurie will know by February 12th if Somnio has made it to SXSW. As for larger releases, the future remains uncertain, but it’s hoped that the film will be coming to a cinema near you by Summer 2016. So keep your eyes peeled for news about this dystopian psychological thriller, and look out for the (ideally gushingly positive) reviews. We’ll be bringing one to you as soon as we can. Stay tuned.