This week I interview writer/director Khalil Sullins, whose new movie Listening is opening on Sept. 11th in a variety of locations, including the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and the Arena Theater in Hollywood. Listening is a psychological thriller about penniless grad students who invent mind-reading technology that destroys their lives. David, Ryan, and Jordan hope the telepathy invention will solve all their problems, but the bleeding-edge technology opens a Pandora’s box of new dangers, as the team discovers that when they open their minds, there is nowhere to hide their thoughts. Secrets and betrayals surface, and the technology is stolen by a covert government agency with a hidden agenda. With no one left to trust, David is forced against his friends in a life-or-death battle over not only the privacy of the human mind, but the future of free will itself.
Q: This was your first feature. How did you pick this idea?
When I was in film school, I felt like most of the short films I was seeing looked great, but were failing on the script level, so I decided to spend most of my time writing. I wrote seven or eight feature scripts in school and the few years after I graduated before I felt like I had one worth investing three to five years of my life into with Listening. This approach made sense to me, and it’s only now on the festival circuit that I’ve learned it is a bit unique. I didn’t shoot any short films or commercials or anything like that. I just wrote and wrote and wrote.
The initial seed of an idea for Listening was: “What if someone invented telepathy?” I really wanted to get into what the actual implications of that would be on a personal level, on a family and friends level, and then a societal and global level. Our relationship with communication technology is constantly evolving, and that’s always interested me. Also, I liked the idea of using telepathy as a way to explore the dynamic between thought and action. We don’t do or say everything we think. We have a filter in our brain, and that’s a good thing. But, in a world where telepathy exists, you get people’s unfiltered thoughts, which isn’t too different from what the world of social media can feel like today, for better or worse. Technology tends to amplify whatever is there already, so we might need to be more mindful of the thoughts we cultivate on a sort of meta level. The great thing about sci-fi is that you can explore some possibly esoteric concepts, but in a fun entertaining way.
Q: Tell us about your writing process. How long did the script take? How many drafts?
Before I start writing a script, I’ll spend a couple weeks or more just writing as many ideas as I can come up with. After I have about fifty to a hundred movie concepts, the best ones start to surface. I love coming up with ideas, and that part of the process. Sometimes your first “great idea for a movie” is your best one, but often it’s not. That idea-generating creativity is like a muscle that you can exercise and make stronger with practice. But making a movie, or writing a script, isn’t about having just one great idea. It’s about having thousands and thousands of ideas. Every day of plotting, outlining, writing, and re-writing, you’re basically throwing as many cool ideas into a script as you can, and then that continues into production, and so on.
When you direct/produce, you can’t always be writing, but when I’m writing a new script, I write every day. I try to set up routine hours. The first step I take is usually a brain storming period. I just let myself go, typing out whatever ideas, themes, characters, scenes, concepts I can come up with in a sort of stream of consciousness style. I don’t delete anything, I just keep typing. Say something is bad, then I type that’s bad, and why, and keep going.
Then, I outline a story, set up act breaks and such, and slowly flesh it out more and more. I simultaneously build character biographies, and decide what the greatest arc for each character can be. I don’t want the characters you meet at the beginning of the story to be the same ones you see at the end. The plot I usually let grow from a theme I want to explore. I try to choose something that I don’t fully understand. I’ve found scripts that I have started with a crystal clear idea or statement I want to make about the world, those are the ones that I never finish. I think I have to feel like I’m biting off more than I can chew in order to keep myself interested over the three to nine months it usually takes to write a script. I want the writing process to be an exploration. I don’t want to bang people over the head with a theme. I want to learn something myself.
With Listening, I also spent a couple months doing nothing but research before I started writing. I wanted the telepathy technology to be as believable as possible, so I dove into all the current research I could find online, then tried to figure out what the next theoretical step or big breakthrough could be to get us to mind-reading. I ended up combining what I read about brain computer interfaces with what I was reading was possible with nanotechnology. Now, five years later, a lot of the stuff I “invented” for the script has actually been invented in the real world too. It’s a bit crazy.
By the time I get to actually typing out a script, I have every scene of the movie on a note card and pinned up to a bulletin board next to my computer. This allows me to focus mostly on dialogue while I’m actually writing the screenplay. Dialogue is so important, and I find it’s fun to be able to just let loose and let the characters speak without having to think about what scene is coming next or what the next act break is going to be. Thorough outlining allows me to have fun with dialogue.
I wrote around ten drafts of Listening, but that’s a bit arbitrary. When I’m re-writing, I’m just constantly trying to improve the script. At some point I decide to save a PDF or print it out to get some feedback from others. But re-writing can often be a continually evolving process more than a clear cut draft four, five, or six…
Q: This was an independent film with a low budget. How did budget considerations affect the writing process?
Originally, I was writing Listening with the idea that I’d try to sell it. I didn’t think anyone was going to buy a hundred-million-dollar movie from a first-time screenwriter, so I decided to write a sci-fi script that didn’t need many visual effects. I sent out the script, and was overwhelmed with the response. Eighty or ninety companies, agents, and producers asked to read it after I sent out query letters. That turned into a few meetings, but the producers I met didn’t quite have the same vision as I did. They either didn’t get the “hard sci-fi” tone, or wanted it to be “younger and sexier,” which basically meant adding more sex scenes. No one was offering money for a re-write or anything like that, so, after much consideration, I decided to make it myself. That was a feasible option because it wasn’t conceived as a big-budget script, but it’s also why it doesn’t play like a lot of micro-budget indie films with just a couple of locations and a small cast. We had a big cast, and over thirty-five locations in LA, Washington DC, and Cambodia.
Q: You both wrote and directed. What did you learn about writing from the process of directing?
One of the big things I learned was the difference between a good read and a good film. I was surprised by how much dialogue we sort of needed on the page to understand the story, but that became superfluous when we made the film. It can be bad writing to describe looks and feelings, but you get a good actor, suddenly you don’t need five lines of dialogue because we get it all from a look in their eyes. This also applied to the technology you see in Listening. Once you actually physically see the props and what they’re doing, you don’t need a lot of the dialogue that explains it.
I learned so much about writing in the editing room with the great Howard Heard. One big lesson was about sequencing. One of your biggest tools in film is the cut between scenes. Every time you cut from one scene to another, the audience infers what happened between those two scenes. You can use a good cut to make the storytelling much more efficient. Maybe the best example, and probably the most famous cut of all time, is in Kubrick’s 2001, when he cuts from the the ape’s bone tossed in the air (man’s first tool) to a ship floating in outer space. On the other hand, if the scene sequencing doesn’t have a logical flow, that can pull the audience out of the movie for a bit.
Another related lesson was the difference between mystery and confusion. I think this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for new filmmakers, and I stumbled on it big time. Originally in the script, the scenes in the jungle and temple in Cambodia were scattered throughout the film. I thought the audience would be captured by these foreign exotic scenes, and wonder how these scenes will fit into the rest of the story, and that the suspense/mystery would build in a good way. Instead, the reaction after cutting away from our main story for the fifth or sixth time was just more and more confusion. If you have a good story, let the audience in on what it is. Withholding story logic isn’t mystery.
Q: How much did the story change from the script in production? How about post-production?
There was a big change during casting. Ryan was originally “Raj.” I didn’t want a white-washed cast, but we just couldn’t find the right Indian actor. Eventually we just opened it up to all races, found Artie Ahr, who is great, and then I re-wrote the part a little for him. In production it didn’t change that much. There were just a couple re-writes to accommodate locations.
There were, however, some significant changes in post production. We did a few living-room screenings with trusted filmmaker friends, and their input helped a lot. The film has an A-story in David and Ryan’s relationship as their telepathy technology evolves. There are B and C stories with their friend Jordan, and David’s wife and daughter. But, in the script there were also D, E, and F stories. I think I was scared that this might be the only film I’d ever make, so I wanted to get every idea I possibly could into it. Also, I wanted every character to have a lot of depth. But, once we got into the editing room, we found that we really need to keep the pace up and every time we would cut away from the A story, the tension dropped dramatically. For instance, there was a complicated dynamic between Jordan and Melanie that is hinted at, but is largely gone from the final cut. There was also a bit more to Ryan and Jordan’s love story, and Ryan with his grandma, that unfortunately just killed the forward momentum of the story.
The ending also changed, again because I was trying to turn a C or D subplot into the A storyline somehow. The script had some scattered narration, and at the end of the film we revealed David in prison, telling this whole story to his teenage daughter ten years later. The audience sees he was really doing everything for her. It was a nice scene, and explained a couple loose ends. But really, once that A storyline between David and Ryan ends, so does the film. It’s a much better, punch-in-the-gut style ending.
Q: What was the most difficult part of making this film?
Personally, my biggest challenge was staying alive at one point. For logistical scheduling purposes, we shot the Cambodia scenes five months after the main shoot. When I got back, I got deathly ill. I lost 25 pounds and was basically bed-ridden for six weeks. I had all the symptoms of dengue fever, but it was more likely malaria. The doctors never quite figured it out. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise though, because our plan had been to rush the film to completion in order to make the Sundance deadline, but instead we spent more time editing, and film really evolved during that time.
Q: Looking back, what do you wish you’d known before you started this project?
I’m really grateful for all the great teachers and the education I got at Art Center. I was really in my element making this film right until the point of completion. It was everything that came after that point that we sort of had to teach ourselves. It’s during the year of work after you finish the film that it is easy to make mistakes. Probably the biggest misstep we took was submitting to most of the major film festivals with a rough cut, without any music or VFX. I’d generally wait for the film to be totally finished before presenting it to anyone in the future. We also probably started on social media too early. Most of the public doesn’t understand how long it takes to make and distribute a film. Once they hear about it, they want to watch it, not wait three more years. Thankfully, neither of those proved to be fatal mistakes, but there are just so many bad decisions you can make after you finish the film that film schools don’t really prepare you for, because the business side really doesn’t have much to do with filmmaking. The first thing we did after finishing the film was to ask the advice of everyone we knew who had sold films in the past, which was really invaluable.
Check out Listening in theaters and on-demand on Sept. 11th.
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