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STEVEN KERR Orbital velocity


Making a sci-fi film can be a daunting task on a small budget. Making a film set in the past can be daunting on a small budget. Now combine the two. That’s exactly what a group from the WA Screen Academy have attempted with Spiral, creating a short film about a marooned cosmonaut trapped after the 80s’ Cold War turns unexpectedly hot. With Spiral screening as part of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival (November 15 – 21), DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to director Steven Kerr about science fiction and alternate histories.

What was the initial inspiration for Spiral?

It goes back to a family holiday. I was taking my children up to Coral Bay in 2013 and we go past Carnavon, and it twigged about the deep space tracking base they have (which is now a museum). I got to thinking about what would happen if an already fairly remote place like that, was cut off from civilization? Trying to contact other survivors, and they contact someone up in space. Could they help them?

It also correlated with another incident in 1983, where a Soviet, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, detected an apparent launch of four missiles from North Dakota, which is where the US nuclear missile bases were located. Russia at this time was hideously paranoid, as the US and NATO had conducted one of the biggest military exercises ever, and they were prepared for war. Fortunately Petrov questioned why they would only send four missiles, instead of triggering a nuclear war.

I thought to myself was there anyone in space at the time. And there was Salyut 7 (which there has been a recent Russian film about). Well, I thought, I can’t build a space station, so was there a small one man vehicle? And there was – the Spiral.

Something I’ve been wanting to ask a director for a while now, what was it like filming in space?

(laugh)

If only. If only l could board the vomit comet (a modified plane used to simulate zero-g for training) with NASA, there are some films that have actually done that. It was really quiet difficult. We had to look at the orbital mechanics and what forces would apply in certain types of movement. Invariably you can’t simulate zero gravity on a uni students budget. Everything more or less follows though.

In all seriousness, it’s got to be difficult given the limited amount of shots you can achieve with the set of a one man cockpit.

That was really tough because at the end of the day you want to make it as visually interesting as possible. We were reliant on the set to do that. We were under time constraints and it was being built up to the last minute.

What was it like to try and achieve a post apocalyptic/ sci-fi/ historical piece on such a small budget?

An alternate history/ post apocalyptic/ sci fi on a low five figure budget. Done out in the industry it’d be five times that. Just a testament to the extraordinary indie film making we have here in Perth, that we can turn nothing into something. The modular construction (of the Spiral cockpit set) was the same thing Lucas used in Star Wars. The rear projection was what Lucas and Kubric used. We really went back to old school methods.

And of course you are helped with the period setting by that magnificent piece of retro costuming on Kian.

The funny thing is we had Shannon (Ryan) and Kian (Pitman) come in costume for the fundraiser, and I fell in love with it. Kian’s is just fabulous proto Kylie Minogue. The wardrobe’s perfect…I actually sourced her the Walkman. I really like attention to detail. We had 80s typewriters in Sloane’s office. We used the radar consoles from the old Perth traffic control tower at the aviation
heritage museum. We were always going to use as much authentic gear to make it as realistic as possible.

And as you said the Spiral is based on the Soviet vehicle which was….was it in prototype at the time?

Prototyped the 60s, restarted development in the early 80s. Our air force actually intercepted the recovery of one off the Cocos Islands during that period.

There are no accurate publicly available blueprints, our CGI artist, Tim Harris, had to use the drawings we had as inspiration and try and get it right.

What’s it about science fiction that draws your attention? And I ask that as a guy wearing a Y-wing t-shirt.

I love questions from skeptics and l love questions from true believers, purely because skeptics are often easier to answer sometimes. Sci fi has the ability to take our everyday concerns and elevate them to another level. In some ways it removes it from our immediate reality and in some ways gives us more perspective. It isn’t about people in spandex running around throwing Styrofoam rocks, sure it’s fun, but in the end the day we need to ask ourselves where we are going. That’s why sci fi has had such a long life…we can see ourselves writ large. Art’s a mirror to where we are and where we’re going.

What does it mean for your short film to be accepted into the Russian Resurrection Film Festival?

Gosh… It’s huge. To do these things on such limited time and budget. You can shoot a feature film on a mobile phone (Unsane, Tangerine), it’s just a question of working out what story you want to tell, what technology you’re going to use to tell it, and how you’re going to do it.

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