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REELSIDE: Raj Panikkar and Matthew Lochner on Sci-Fi


REELSIDE Episode 104: Sci-Fi

REELSIDE is a six-part documentary series that explores the creative process with Canadian filmmakers and actors. Follow them as they tell their stories every Thursday on TMN.

This episode of REELSIDE begins at the International Astronautical Congress, which just by title alone is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard of and in actuality is probably even cooler. Despite the fact that I’ve never been to space, nor am I a robotics engineer (shocking, right), everything I am seeing–the rovers, the robotic arms, the space stations–are familiar and comfortable to me.

You know, because I’ve seen them in movies and on television shows.

And that’s exactly what co-directors Raj Panikkar and Matthew Lochner are trying to explore in their Sci-Fi episode: the overlapping and incredibly co-dependent relationship between actual science and technology and the science fiction genre. Raj and Matthew have been involved with all of the episodes of REELSIDE in some capacity or another and when they were able to step in and co-direct their own episodes (this one and the upcoming Superheroes episode), instead of focusing on an individual like the past episodes have done, they went big. Like, space big.

Raj explains, “They are genres that really intrigue and drive what we do. When I was a kid the two things I wanted to do when I grew up were be a writer and/or a space scientist so sci-fi seems to feed both of those.” (Comparatively, I wanted to be a princess and a mermaid; still trying to figure out how to feed both of those.)

Along with the Congress, we’re treated to interviews with filmmakers Vincenzo Natali (Cube!!, Splice!!) and Graeme Manson (Orphan Black!!!!), TIFF Programmer Jesse Wente, actor Michael Hogan (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA!!!!), and astronaut Garrett Reisman (ACTUALLY IN SPACE!!!). Really, they all could’ve just stood there and that would’ve been cool enough but even better, we get a glimpse into their relationships with science fiction and how different technologies have inspired their work and how they feel sci-fi has inspired the world.

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A prop master is integral to a sci-fi story.

We’re also drawn through the episode with a bit of fiction: Natali takes us on a journey of the creation of a film with all of the different crew members involved in making it happen (from production designer to prop master) and the process is so damn interesting that I wish that could be a film of it’s own. (And also the fake film they are making, because sentient prosthetic hands, guys, beware the hands!) It fits in so perfectly with the episode that I was surprised to hear that it took Raj and Matthew a long time to come up with the concept. They told me that they had all of this interview footage from all of these amazing people but still needed something to propel the episode along. And then: “Why don’t we make him [Natali] make a film.”

Wait, wait, wait, it gets even better: Michael Hogan and Garrett Reisman have a chat over lunch about space and Battlestar Galactica and we get to watch it! Augh! It is so damn delightful. Seriously, most of watching this episode was me geeking out and if there was a way to coherently type the sound one makes when “geeking out,” I would. I guess it’s kind of a “eeeeeee…” (Bonus material: even if you don’t have TMN, you can watch extra footage on the TMN website for free, including an extended version of the most delightful lunch date ever.)

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I didn’t want this episode to end, not just because of the subject matter, but because it’s also one of the prettiest REELSIDE episodes yet. The careful framing and slow, deliberate tracking shots are incredibly stunning and very cinematic. Matt tells me that him and brilliant cinematographer James Heaslip “wanted to give it a feature-film feel” and I think it totally paid off.

Geekpr0n: It’s such an interesting dynamic because you’ll see a cool technology in a movie and then people are trying to create that in real life or things are happening in real life and movies are trying to catch up. They are kind of feeding each other, really. I totally feel like a lot of the technology we have is only because someone watched Star Trek from forever ago and thought, “I’m gonna make a little tiny phone that sits in my hand because I saw William Shatner holding one.” [GP Note: Siân has no idea if this ever actually happened as she hasn’t watched original Star Trek. Forgive her ignorance.]

Matthew Lochner: That’s totally what we found. When we were at the Congress–it was amazing and a lot of bow-ties, I’ve never seen so many bowties–but these people said the exact same thing. They were all fed by the Star Treks, the Star Wars. It’s amazing. One scientist mentioned Voyage to the Moon from the early 1900s. That was made almost 70 years before we ever landed on the moon. That film inspired someone to do it and that’s such a beautiful thing.

GP: I loved how everything was framed and shot and it reminded me of a line from the episode: “A sense of place is essential, especially when you’re telling a science fiction story and to some degree it’s a character in the story,” which I thought was totally bang on. Sci-fi is trying to create a new world and it has to be believable world and that’s the one thing people always criticize, “Oh it wasn’t a believable world.” It DOES almost have to become a character. Do you guys have any thoughts about that?

Raj Panikkar: That’s sort of the premise we’re exploring. It’s the one thing that sci-fi has to do that a lot of other genres, which are just set in our world, don’t have to do. You can be as crazy as you want to be but it has to have a consistent set of rules that a person can buy into and feel that they are living in that world for a couple hours or for the life of the series.

GP: And that’s hard.

RP: Yeah, it’s very difficult. And that’s why you have so many people working on the production side of it to bring that world to life. That’s what we’re trying to capture. As you build a story in that world at the same time you have the build the world too.

ML: A big part of it is it, absolutely, that there needs to be consistency and it needs to be believable, but I think gimmicks also play a big role in sci-fi. I love Aliens, personally more than Alien because there are so many different kinds of aliens and I think in our episode everyone had their own gimmick. Graeme [Manson] is in this black room, Dayna [the concept artist] has this beautiful light box…there are so many locations. And even though some of it is just still frames, it’s still fun because the background is always changing. Each scene is completely different.

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GP: The other thing I loved about this episode was talking about the future of our actual technology and how it’s going to make the sci-fi genre more interesting. Do you guys have a technology you’re maybe fascinated by or terrified of? For me it’s 3D printing. Pretty soon we’ll be able to print anything. ANY. THING.

RP: I’m really excited that it finally seems like we’re getting to a place where VR is getting to be real. Like, we’ve been talking about it for decades and now it’s finally here.

GP: That’s what they’re working on, last I heard. I’m not sure if they’ve released it yet…They want to make a platform so filmmakers can make movies just for Oculus Rift. Which is amazzzinngggggg.

RP: It thrills me and it scares me too. Creating stories and telling stories is hard enough and then to learn how to do it all again… it’s exciting and scary but I’m up for the challenge. I also feel like we’re about to enter some murky territory of figuring out where a living being starts and ends. For example, if you transplant a brain into another body, are you the other body or the brain? Because they’ve now discovered there are more neurons in your gastrointestinal system than there are in your brain and that “gut feeling” or butterflies or whatever, it’s a real thing. You have real, neurological, emotional activity that happens right through your gut. So you remove that brain to another body, which are you? Or let’s say Matthew is going to upload his brain to a digital format and there I am typing to him and I’m like, “So are you Matthew or not?” And he’s like, “Yeah, of course, it’s cool in here, man!”

GP: “Johnny Depp’s here with me, we transcended together.”

RP: [laughs] But, did he erase himself? Is he really there? I don’t know!

GP: Heavy stuff, man.

RP: And we delved into a lot of this kind of stuff in terms of the story we wanted to tell for the episode and we just barely started scratching the surface. This subject could be its own series.

ML: I’d love to do that too.

GP: If you guys went into space and you got to make your phone call to anyone, who would be on your list to call?

RP: It’s so funny, every time I watch that episode and we get to that part I always think about it but then I’m watching it for edits so I never get to fully answer it for myself. If I was in space and I got to talk to anybody… It sounds like I’m doing the “I’ll get an A+ for this answer” but it would be somebody like Bishop Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama. They are just so cool and they always have something really life-affirming to say.

GP: It would not be a wasted phone call, that’s for sure. Space call? Space call.

RP: Space call.

ML: Space call…or transmission! Mine would honestly be a random number. I would call a random number and say, “I’m calling you from space!”

RP: …And they would hang up on you.

ML: Absolutely!

GP: If you could do another REELSIDE, what would you do?

ML: Ohhhhh, that’s a good one.

RP: For me, if I were to do my own and wasn’t thinking about the sensibility that works for Matthew and I would be the other big genre that has affected my life, which is very tied into sci-fi, fantasy. I would love to do a REELSIDE of the Game of Thrones showrunners.

GP: I want to know a favourite Canadian, either movie or director–something I can share with the readers. Canada only, please!

RP: I do love Stories We Tell. That’s kind of an easy answer. There’s another filmmaker who I do know personally. He does sort of classic 70s/80s b-level horror films, but really good horror films. His name is Chris Trebilcock and he’s got a film called The Dark Stranger, which is just awesome. He’s finally starting to get recognized for what he does. I’d love to do a REELSIDE of just his stuff, that would be incredible.

GP: Who’s the superior Batman of all the movies Batmans? I like to judge people based on the answer to this question. [laughs]

RP: I grew up with Adam West, so he holds a special place in my heart. That weird, skin-tight suit over a body with no muscle–to me, that was the pinnacle of manhood right there. Who’s your favourite?

GP: Keaton. Always Keaton.

I also chatted with Raj and Matt about their Superheroes episode, but you’ll have to come back and read that one in a couple of weeks. It’ll be worth the wait, though: we talk about fan fiction, pro-wrestling, and Dairy Queen Christmas trees. Actually.


The Sci-Fi episode of REELSIDE airs this Thursday, June 25th, at 9:00 PM on TMN. Don’t be a goober and miss it now, ya hear? (For all you in Western Canada, REELSIDE will be coming to you soon!) And we’ll have more interviews with REELSIDE directors coming up because we know you guys want them.

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