The need to fully understand and conquer personal trauma, and achieve personal fulfillment, no matter how potentially treacherous the situation can become, is a powerful motivator for many people. That’s not only the chilling instigator for the mysterious and troubled lead characters in the new sci-fi-thriller, ‘Prodigy,’ but also for the drama’s determined filmmakers. Frequent collaborators Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal were driven to make their feature film writing, directorial and producing debuts with a chilling story that features complex characters who are led by perplexing motives.
The filmmakers’ intriguing effort was distributed on DVD and digital, including iTunes, where it premiered in the number two sci-fi-thriller spot during its opening week of release, as well as Amazon and Google Play, on March 13 by Gravitas Ventures. ‘Prodigy’s official distribution comes after the independent horror movie finished its award-wining festival run in December; it played at such festivals as the Sedona International Film Festival, the Cinequest Film Festival, the Riverside International Film Festival and the Santa Cruz Film Festival, where it was named Best Narrative Feature Film.
‘Prodigy’ follows a secret branch of the military calls upon psychologist James Fonda (Richard Neil) to take the case of a dangerous patient, nine-year-old Ellie (Savannah Liles). As their session begins, the young girl dissects Dr. Fonda’s unconventional methods, revealing her genius-level intellect. Only by challenging her to a battle of wits does Fonda begin to unravel the supernatural mystery surrounding Ellie-a deadly secret that threatens to destroy them both.
Haughey generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing, co-directing and executive producing ‘Prodigy’ during an exclusively phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how making the transition into penning the script for, helming and producing an independent feature, after previously working on several short films, was an intense process, but it was ultimately an enriching experience that he enjoyed. He also mentioned that he immediately knew during the casting process that Liles ad Neil were the perfect choices for their respective roles, which showed in their chemistry while they were filming on the set.
The conversation began with Haughey explaining what the inspiration was in creating the film, and what the writing process was like with Vidal. “Brian and I have known each other for over 10 years now. We met at school at USC, where we got to know each other and quickly took to working together on small student projects. That relationship then carried over into our professional lives, and we’ve been working in the industry ever since. We would take time out of our schedules to help each other with short projects, and writing scripts,” the scribe shared.
“We then finally realized that we were good at making something out of nothing, resource-wise, so we said, we can probably apply that to a feature. So we decided to hash out an idea that we could actually pull off, on the same level that we were making our short projects,” Haughey further disclosed.
“Brian had an old logline that he had won a contest with years ago, and he pulled that out. It didn’t become the exact plot of this movie, but it was the seed that this story grew out of. We talked about it for a few hours, and both really took to it,” the writer further shared. “So we decided that that’s what we should do, and the outline then came pretty easily. I think the first draft was written in the first month or two. From there, our process was about refining the story. So we took about a year to revise the script, before we were really ready to say, this is in the place that we feel comfortable filming it.”
Further speaking of making independent films, Haughey then delved into the process of serving as an executive producer on ‘Prodigy.’ With a laugh, he described the process as being “crazy. It was a wild experience for me. Since we have made so many short films, we were able to pull off wearing all the hats. I was able to do such things as the wardrobe, production design and the props on the shorts, because the volume is usually significantly less.”
But with the sci-fi feature, “It was an intense process for me, because I had taken on most of the producing work. So before we began shooting, I was managing everything. But once we began shooting, it became an incredibly intense experience,” the producer revealed. For instance, if there was a prop didn’t arrive on the set on time, he would have to take care of it. Also, “One day we were shooting a scene, and the toilets exploded. So I thought, I guess it’s on me to figure out how to fix it, and make sure that everyone had a bathroom to use,” he added with a laugh.
“It was intense and overwhelming, but it was funny, because by the end of the shoot, Brian and I were so tired from trying to keep everything straight,” Haughey confessed. “For two weeks straight, we were thinking, we’ve done all this work, but we’re not going to get the movie that we were hoping to out of this. We thought we must have missed things along the way, because there was so much to handle.” He added that it wasn’t until they edited a rough cut of the film that “we said, this isn’t so bad after all! This is pretty much what we wanted to pull off!”
The filmmaker also noted that ‘Prodigy’ “was a small movie with only a few characters and one location, for the most part. Even with those limitations, I would definitely illicit a little more help, if I was to do it again.”
Haughey then followed up on the experience of shooting the thriller primarily on one location. “The cool thing about the location was that we worked with the Riverside County Film Commission to find the space. They basically let you shoot for free. We shot in an abandoned animal shelter, which was good and bad. Since it was abandoned, there were a lot of things wrong with the building. But at the same time, they basically gave us the keys and said, ‘Have fun. Bring us the keys back when you’re done,'” the producer shared with a laugh.
“So when we got into the building, we constructed most of the set within a bigger room. The wall in the middle of the room in the movie wasn’t there, so we had to build a fake wall, put the mirror up and paint the walls,” Haughey divulged.
“Again, since it was abandoned, no one was really looking at what was going on there, so we were able to put these rods up through the ceiling. So whenever we needed to do special effects, we could just string things up that way. It made our practical effects come out really well-they were much better than what I was expecting,” the filmmaker admitted. “I was a little worried about them going in, but once we got them up and did some tests, we felt really good about what we were able to pull off. So overall, it was really good, but there were some downsides to the building being abandoned, old and dirty. But it was worth it,” he assured with a laugh.
Almost every effect in the movie was created practically on the set, Haughey also revealed. “It was amazing that we were able to pull that off. I didn’t have much experience with practical effects work. But luckily Brian is an editor by trade, and is really experienced with effects, as well. So he knew what we could do if we pulled things off practically. He was the one who ended up hanging all the wires. But I also really enjoyed doing that stuff, as well. That was were the ingenuity of filmmmaking really came into effect.” The producer added that the effects were “well planned out and thought through going in, which I thought paid off. We’ve received pretty much universal praise for the effects; people think the effects look great on screen.”
Haughey added that “The interesting thing was that we hadn’t worked together as co-directors on set before. Our projects had usually been one of ours or the other. So I think that was where I was more concerned, and thought, how is this going to work? But luckily, we worked together really well, because we have styles that really complement each other well. So the collaboration process on the production was really strong.”
The helmer also spoke about the process of casting the actors for the sci-fi film. “We were doing the casting in September and October in 2015. We knew, first and foremost, that we needed to find a kid. One of our lead (characters) is a child, so we knew that we had to find a kid who could pull (the role) off. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be much of a movie at all.”
Haughey admitted that the character of Ellie “was originally written for a boy. So we did a few weeks’ worth of auditions with boys, but we really weren’t getting what we wanted. We started feeling uneasy, because they weren’t getting to where we need them to be, in order to pull this (story) off. So we got to the conversation where we said, we might have to alter the script if we can’t find a boy who’s not good enough for this (role).”
The filmmaker added that in the same conversation, “we opened ourselves up to the idea of exteding the casting call to girls, too. They may end up being better. It turns out that they were way better,” he revealed with a laugh.
“The first day we opened the casting up to the girls, the girl who ended up being cast, Savannah Liles, submitted an audition tape. She was so good on that tape she sent us. About 15 of the girls we saw were better than the boys, which was difficult for us to stomach as boys! But it made the decision to change that role from being a boy to a girl very easy for us. So we brought Savannah in for a reading, and we cast her,” Haughey shared.
After Liles was chosen to play Ellie, “we turned to cast the other lead of Fonda, who’s played by Richard Neil. He was great from the beginning. We did several days of auditions for this role, as well. He’s the one guy who we brought in who, while reading this really emotional scene, read it perfectly the first time. So Brian and I looked at each other and agreed that Richard was perfect for the role,” the director disclosed. “He probably thought we were trying to get rid of him, because we only had him come in for one (solo) reading! We then brought him in to read with Savannah. Once we saw those two together, we knew we had the leads set.”
Once Liles, Neil and the rest of the actors were cast, “we did a week of rehearsals. Several of those days were dedicated to Savannah and Richard becoming comfortable with each other,” Haughey stated. “We didn’t want to have too much rehearsal time, though, because we didn’t want to have them to get too comfortable with each other. We wanted there to be some freshness between them on the set.”
The filmmaker added that he and Vidal also did table reads and worked specifically with Liles, to make sure she understood the bigger words she had to say throughout the thriller. “Savannah really put the time in, and her team helped her prepare. On the first day on the set, she blew everyone away with how in control she was of the vocabulary of her character.”
Haughey also further delved into the process of editing ‘Prodigy’ with Vidal after they finished principal photography on the drama. The helmer described the process as being “good. I really trust (Vidal’s) instincts as an editor, so I basically let him put together the first cut of the movie. From there, it was a very collaborative process. We would both go through the entire thing, and make notes about what to put here and there,” the co-editor explained. “We’ve had a lot of experience with editing going in, so we were well-prepared to work on that in post (production).”
Haughey then delved into his thoughts on ‘Prodigy’s DVD and digital release. “It’s an interesting mix of pluses and minuses. This distribution (model) is great, because the movie is available to so many people. So the film is open to a whole new audience that may not have been able to see it if they still had to find it at a video store,” the director explained.
“But at the same time, this type of release has led to an over saturation of the market. There are so many titles out there now that it’s difficult for films to get awareness,” Haughey admitted. “But I’m happy to be talking to (Shockya)! I feel like our movie has horror and thriller elements that resonate with your audience. It’s nice to be able to speak straight to an audience that this type of movie is made for.”