“Our strongest tool was our script.”
Review by: MiamiMovieCritic
Added: 7 years ago
Wormtooth Nation is a wildly ambitious science-fiction feature. It was inspired by William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and was completed as a student project at Maharishi University of Management in Iowa.
Set in an underground city where an armed rebellion is underway, the film is a complex and atmospheric new addition to the Steampunk subgenre of fantasy fiction, which usually features steam-powered technology and speculative narratives about the future.
Geoff Boothby and Cullen Thomas wrote the film, which was released as a 9-episode Web series. Boothby directed and Thomas served as cinematographer. The series is available on FilmNet, and a feature-length cut has been released on DVD.
Boothby spoke with FilmNet about Wormtooth Nation, shooting on a $4,000 budget in the Midwest, and working with cult legend David Lynch.
How did this creative partnership begin with you and Cullen?
We both grew up in Fairfield, Iowa, and went to the same school, so we've known each other for awhile. But we first worked together on a short film in college called We Are Theo in 2007. (You can watch it here.)
Talk about the writing process. Are you sitting in a room together, or do you work separately?
A combination of both, actually. For this film we sat together, and brainstormed, and created a detailed outline for the script over a number of months. Then I took the outline and wrote the first draft of the script. Which was hard. No matter how much you like writing, actually getting yourself to sit down and do it is one of the most difficult things in the world. But I forced myself to do it, and I wrote 90% of it in two days. Then I handed it over to Cully, he added the two flashback episodes, and also cleaned and revised the whole thing on his own for all subsequent drafts (with my feedback).
Ironically enough, we originally had only one flashback episode (#4), but we wanted to try to push the film length to 90 minutes so it would be considered a feature by all standards. So Cully wrote Episode 6: The Theory of Serias to flesh out the length a little, and it actually ended up being many people's favorite episode.
Once we had a fairly finished script, we sent it to a bunch of people for feedback - which was possibly the most useful part of the whole process, because it helps give you an idea of how people will react to the finished piece.
What films and other works of fiction inspired Wormtooth Nation? Were you fans of A Midsummer Night's Dream before this project?
I was inspired by Blade Runner, Delicatessen, and the Manga BLAME!, among others.
Cully was influenced by [Joss Whedon's television series] "Firefly" mainly, but also by abstract modern graffiti art and stencil art in coming up with images for the film.
I am heavily influenced by music, and for this project I was listening to the Akira soundtrack by Shoji Yamashiro a whole lot while writing and shooting.
One of the things that really inspired me early on was the idea of shooting completely in interiors. I thought, "Independent sci-fi is pretty bad. But if we create this world in mostly darkness, shot entirely inside, we will have so much control that I think we can make it good." And that idea really stuck with me.
Cully and I were both in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream when we were in high school - him as Snug the Joiner, me as Puck - and it's a personal favorite of ours, so making a Steampunk version was kind of an obvious choice.
The movie puts a lot of faith in the audience to pick up on character names and back stories. Was there a lot of discussion about how to keep viewers from getting lost?
Yes. This is the longest project I have done to date, 85 minutes - the next longest being We Are Theo at 20 minutes - so my instinct when writing has always been to simplify. (I'm used to short films). I had a hard time being comfortable with the complexity, but Cully (who has more long-form writing experience) assured me it would be fine. Also, we both prefer not to underestimate our audience, and to create a story that could be watched more than once and still present new things.
You shot on a shoestring budget in the middle of Iowa. How were you able to create the illusion of an underground city? Where were you shooting exactly?
Wormtooth Nation could have been filmed in any city or town in any state - with enough bargaining. Locations like the ones we found exist everywhere. But that doesn't mean it was easy - Cully was our locations manager, and I think it was the hardest job he did (and he did a good job). We filmed in friends' basements, boiler rooms, a machine refurbishing factory, a water processing plant, a water tower, and an old armory building (about 80% was filmed in the armory), among others.
But I think the lighting and soundscapes went a long way towards creating the underground feel as well.
In terms of doing it all on such a small budget - being a student film helps, people are willing to give you things for free if you are a student film - but the biggest thing is having a lot of friends and a story that will inspire them. Our strongest tool was our script. When people read it they wanted to be part of it and they didn't care if they were getting paid.
How did you assemble such a great cast in Fairfield, which has a population of less than 10,000?
Fairfield is somewhat of an oasis in the Midwest. There are a lot of families that have moved here from the coasts, and consequently there is a surprising amount of culture, including a very strong theater scene. I am an actor, so many of my friends are actors. Basically everyone in Wormtooth Nation is a friend of ours (which is the only way to do it when you aren't paying anyone and making them shoot in freezing cold basements all winter), but I still held auditions.
What's on the DVD? And who did the cover art? It’s fantastic.
The DVD has the feature version of Wormtooth, an Outtakes Reel, a Featurette on the premiere in Fairfield, and two commentaries on the film - one from Cully and I, and one from David J. Murphy (composer), Donald Revolinski (assistant producer) and Paul Morehead (production artist). Paul is the one who did the DVD art, as well as the rest of the art in the film - propaganda posters, logo, and night-sky scapes. He is an animator who went to high school with Cully and me.
The movie was first released as a Web series on theskyisfree.com. What excites you about online series?
I think that Web serials are one of the most exciting ways to go for filmmaking right now. There is a massive potential audience right at our fingertips. The only tricks are to get that audience to actually watch our work, and to monetize.
But one of the most exciting things about it for me is that we don't have to move to L.A. or New York to make films. We can live wherever we want and still have the ability to reach an audience, and make good work. It is really hard to do it in the big cities - it's expensive and there is a lot of competition. In smaller towns it's comparatively very easy - for very small-budget indies, that is.
Both you and Cullen work for David Lynch Foundation Television. What's it like working for the coolest man on the planet?
Haha, it's awesome. We work from Iowa, and get to speak with David a couple times a month. It is definitely an interesting experience pitching ideas to someone like him. You know right away if your idea is good or bad, and sometimes if he gives you an idea it takes days for you to realize how genius it is. He really works from a different level.
Since we are full time with DLF.TV, most of our video projects are through them, but I have a few ideas in the works and I know Cully does, too. For now we are working on them separately, and once things get going it's possible we will start working together on one of them. But, I can definitely tell you we are both interested in continuing to utilize Web series as a medium, so you can definitely expect more from each of us in that area.
Art by William Hessian