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From 50 Crew Members to Five: Director Eddie Alcazar on Divinity

Divinity by Eddie Alcazar, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

“Unfortunately, because aging is so common and natural, we tend to think of it as destiny or something we should accept,” says biologist and researcher David Sinclair. And while the scientist’s work on aging and epigenetics is tied to discoveries in biology from the mid-20th century onwards, within the arts the theme of immortality goes back centuries. Filmmaker Eddie Alcazar, who appeared on our 25 New Faces list in 2011, is the latest to tackle man’s search for eternal life, doing so at a time when interest in longevity and even avoidance of death is contemplated by tech community thinkers for real, whether that involves hacking the human body or simply uploading consciousness as part of an anticipated moment of Singularity. (As part of his research into his new feature, Divinity, Alcazar even managed to talk to Sinclair.)

In Divinity, out now from Utopia, Jaxxon Pierce (Stephen Dorff) has, at great cost to society, commercialized his late father’s (Scott Bakula) final invention, a serum that bestows perpetual youth. But at the start of the film he’s captured by two brothers (Moises Arias and Jason Gene) from outer space who inject him with massive doses of the drug, causing the kind of side effects you’d find in a ’50s B science-fiction picture. Shot in Kodak 16mm black-and-white reversal stock and incorporating riffs on James Bond films, Verhoeven-ish blasts of consumer satire and a stunning stop-motion animation fight sequence, Divinity is a trip, the kind of sui generis midnight film that simply isn’t made anymore. That it does exist is due to the support of Steven Soderbergh, who both executive produces and “presents” the film after providing its financing. Below Alcazar and I talk about working with Soderbergh, reversal stock and how he started making this film with a crew of 50 and ended up with five.

Filmmaker: You’ve jumped around stylistically in your films, and this one is very different in terms of its texture and feel. How is that difference is reflected in the process of the film’s making?

Alcazar: As far as the black and white, this is a progression, I feel, from my first [two] shorts, Fuckkkyouuu and The Vandal. We were trying to figure out, can we do this as a feature film, [shooting] with this uncommon stock? We took all of Kodak’s [existing] stock, then they had to make more for us because nobody shoots a full feature with it. It was fun going that far with it, [thinking], “Will people really be interested in a black-and-white feature that’s so different with its aesthetic?” I piled a lot of different things upon myself to see if we could get through it, make it really amazing and intriguing, and challenge ourselves at the same time.

Filmmaker: You shot on, basically, a black-and-white reversal stock?

Alcazar: Yeah, 16mm black-and-white reversal pulled one stop. We shot some 8mm in there a little bit too. Kodak stock is pretty interesting. After the Vision2 and Vision3 stocks, it’s just gotten so clean. [Kodak] 16mm today almost matches the Kodak Vision2 that they shot James Bond films with in the ’80s. But it’s all about just pulling people away from what they commonly see. You’re so used to seeing the digital format, and I wanted to see what’s the furthest you could go from what people see day to day. 

Filmmaker: What sort of post work was done on the image?

Alcazar: Most of the look was completely baked in. That’s the thing about this stock—you really can’t do anything with it. The key is getting the best cinematographer, and Danny [Hiele] really nailed it. You need a lot of light. We had rock climbers put 20Ks on that mountain.

Filmmaker: And you shot the film over a longer period of time?

Alcazar: A year over the course of seven different shoots. I shot a bit, edited for two or three months, then shot again, because I wasn’t really confined by a script. I had my storyboards, but I wanted to leave it open for new and fresh ideas. My biggest goal is try to figure out a way to make films that don’t deny any creative ideas. It just sucks when you’re like, “Damn, I should have done this.” So, I’m already anticipating that I’m going have these ideas, and how do we construct [the shoot] so I’m able to take advantage of these new ideas and be able to shoot them? My crew first was like 50 people, and every shoot after that, it just significantly got smaller and smaller until, I think, the last was really just five of us. The scene in Rip’s house with the other big dude and his servant, was just five of us in natural light. 

Filmmaker: And what about the climax’s big fight scene?

Alcazar: I always had this epic fight scene at the end, and I was like, “How am I going to do this? I’m out of money. Also, I don’t have the experience or the crew to do something like that at this scale.” So, I just looked back at my tool set, and was like, “Man, it might be crazy but I’m going to try doing this in stop motion.” Soderbergh was cool with it, and we just did it. I had to really plan it out, because I couldn’t do multiple takes in stop motion. We had two seconds a day of footage, and redoing a shot would kill a week. But this is where my Meta-Scope concept, that I did in The Vandal, helped, because we filled in those shots with live action stuff [shot on] virtual sets with LED walls. All the super wides were miniatures, then you go into stop motion on most of the medium action shots. Then in the closeups, when actors speak or show emotion, that’s all shot on 16mm with the LED walls in the background that we pulled from the miniatures. It’s pretty much the LED walls enlarging these small sets so you feel like you’re inside them.

Filmmaker: Tell me about your particular take on immortality, which is such an age-old theme across film and literature. But now you have the Peter Thiels of the world exploring it for real. 

Alcazar: That was the driving force in making this: I had to do something I was intrigued about, and that could keep me intrigued for a year or two. I was already reading a lot of this stuff. David Sinclair is a big proponent of this—he’s one of the top researchers into longevity. He feels that death is a disease that could be cured. I was able to get ahold of him, and he gave me his thoughts. But, what I was kind of tugging on him was, what if you find something that is going to make you live forever, and you overdose on it? What happens when people abuse the thing that’s supposed to be good for you? What are the side effects? What kind of people are we going to be if we live for 200 or 300 years? I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but hopefully I could explore them in this film and create a discussion.

Filmmaker: Did the film lead you to any answers?

Alcazar: No, not really. I have no answers. I don’t think I’d want to live forever, but I don’t want to have a painful death. And I feel if you live forever, the value of your experiences diminishes, and that’s something I communicate in the film. We’re very much connected to social media right now, [receiving] instant dopamine, and what if we took that to the 100th level? I think I try to show a little bit in the film through the commercials how the decay of society happens because people become a bit desensitized.

Filmmaker: I knew that Steven Soderbergh was an executive producer of the film, but I didn’t realize until I read the press notes that he actually paid for the film, which is extraordinary.

Alcazar: He spoiled me. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to live up to being such an amazing financier. He was completely hands-off other than when I asked him for his editing notes and creative thoughts. But I was surprised in the beginning, because I asked him, “Do I need a script?” And he just said, “Do your thing.” Every time I threw at him stuff that I felt he was definitely going to shut down, he let me do it. I think it goes back to trusting filmmakers, which I feel we’ve lost a lot over the years. I think [filmmaking] has become pretty corporate and formulaic, and he’s completely opposite to that.

Filmmaker: In interacting with Steven as a financier, was there any kind of traditional financier structure? Did you have production executives who reviewed budgets, or was it almost a handshake deal?

Alcazar: It was pretty much a handshake. I mean, we had producers and typical lawyer stuff, but it wasn’t ever an issue. Everything was pretty amazing. 

Fimmaker: How did you initially connect with Steven?

Alcazar: I was completing one of my films, Perfect, and had a rough cut I was sending out to people. One of the actors he’s worked with—Chris Santos, the lead in The Girlfriend Experience with Sasha Gray—is a close friend. I asked him, “Could we just send [the cut] to him to see if he would give notes?” He liked it so much that we ended up meeting, he helped me edit it a bit and put his name on it. 

Filmmaker: The film took me back to the days when someone would hand me a bootleg VHS and say, “You have to watch this.”

Alcazar: At its premiere at the Egyptian [Theater at Sundance], we handed out VHSs. That was obviously a nostalgic thing, but it incorporates the aesthetic, which is that all that stuff is real in the film, even the title sequence, which we ran through CRTs to give it an authentic [look]. I don’t know how many people will appreciate those details, but coming from a visual effects background, I’m pretty aware of what’s just processed afterwards. 

Filmmaker: Speaking of your background, I know you came out of working in video games, and now there is talk about the convergence of filmmaking and video games. Harmony Korine is talking about making films that are also video games, or like games. I’m curious about your perspective here.

Alcazar: I worked early on at Electronic Arts—all that Medal of Honor stuff—and even back then they were trying to make that convergence happen. My last film, The Vandal, was funded by Epic Games. And now the Unreal engine is such a huge money-making thing, and they’re advancing it by incorporating AI. Previs is a huge thing—I think every filmmaker should previs in Unreal. It’s going to save a lot of time. If you’re talking about Unreal achieving a movie-like quality, that complete merge is coming. That’s close to inevitable.

Filmmaker: Are you using generative AI in any way in your work?

Alcazar: There’s a little bit of it in Divinity, just playing with some abstractions and stuff. I explored it a lot more but didn’t really use it that much, because that stuff gets outdated really quickly. When the movie comes out, it was going to be old, and who wants to see old stuff?

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