Bryan Tan

Bryan is an Atlanta based screenwriter and director. He discovered film making when, after winning a middle school science fair, he bought his first video camera with the prize money and promptly began throwing together short films with his brother and two close friends. Bryan attended the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he graduated in Fall, 2014 with a BFA in Film and Television. His senior project, the short film Anomie (2015), has been well received at a number of film festivals, and he continues to develop future projects and pursue a career as a director. Bryan has also worked in the Grip and Electric department on a number of short films and commercial projects. He also works as a cinematographer, most notably with fellow SCAD Alumni Justin Suttles on Hominid (2014), but occasionally for his own films, and on commercial projects.

Dust Films


Q & A

If the world you created in your film became a reality, is that a world you would want to live in? Is there a Sci-Fi world you’d buy a one-way ticket to?

The world of The Emissary is an isolated world, a sad, dark and lonely future. It is not a place that I would like to be, but perhaps some aspect of it is quite plausible. It occurred to me that our modern world feels so small because our communication is instantaneous. Across the entire globe we can interact more or less without any latency. We often project this interconnectivity onto our visions of the future, even space travel. But our modes of communication are limited by light speed, and thus, even with the solar system, a multi-planet society would be made increasingly aware of the massive voids of space and time that separate them. This boundary, unlike the boundaries of the earth, are impenetrable by the laws of physics. Even if information could be sent at hundreds of times the speed of light, communication between neighboring stars would take days rather than milliseconds. In this world, any pilgrims who travel out to settle the stars shall not be extending the Earth’s influence but leaving it. This is easy to contrast with the utopian vision set forth in Star Trek. It is a view of wondrous optimism, with a high view of humanity, rather out of sync with our current zeitgeist. In Star Trek, a place and a people are better for having met a human and not worse, and that is a nice thing to believe.

Name a Sci-Fi character you relate to on a spiritual level? Who is your Sci-Fi spirit animal/spirit alien?

I always find myself identifying with the wise-sage archetype characters. Whether it is Morpheus, Mr. Spock, or Yoda. It would be too generous to say that I am like them, but perhaps they represent best how I would like to be. These figures are not simply wise, but they have a certain ascetic retraction from the material world, and a sense for the overarching purpose, the deepest, and most essential truths beneath the complex problems which the protagonist faces. These are the sort of characters my father would quote and reference when I was a child, and I suppose in this manner, they have made a deep impression on me.

Friend or Foe: humanoid robots with advanced artificial intelligence? What if robots start making their own Sci-Fi films? Will you support them in their endeavors?

It seems to me that if sentient AI truly existed then it would be incumbent upon us to treat them with respect and dignity. However, I am skeptical we may ever have this problem. In my view it is extremely unlikely that we shall ever produce AI that is truly self-aware, sentient and capable of emotion, and therefore, morally culpable. What I do see as almost given is that we shall have advanced AI systems possessed with such striking resemblance to true intelligence that we shall not be able to discern the difference from the outside. Yet their intelligence will be an exhibition, it will be a display, a mere complex algorithm of response protocols based on millions of human-machine interactions. Over time these AIs will increasingly replicate how a person would respond, but the machine, unbeknownst to its interlocutor would never have any of these emotions itself, or even any awareness of its own existence. In a dystopian projection of this issue, it is not so hard to imagine such robots being pawned off to the public as truly intelligent and alive by glossy tech companies and by hapless true believers. This could then create a social tension between those who would move quickly to embrace these pseudo-AIs and those who would look upon these robots with more skepticism. In short, once computers are good enough at faking it, the vast majority of people will not worry about the more philosophical questions of whether or not it is alive and will simply go on interacting with it as if it were. Before we get to that point, we should ask ourselves, when Siri says that she is sorry she can’t find what you’re looking for, is your iPhone actually sorry?

In 1996, Bugs Bunny recruited Michael Jordan and Bill Murray to form the greatest basketball squad of all-time, the Tune Squad; you’re Bugs, who’s on your Sci-Fi Tune Squad?

Doc Brown, with his time machine because we could always go back to the first quarter. Dom Cobb with his dream machine, because we could make our opponents want to lose, and Keanu Reeves because, whoa!

You’ve gotta go through some bad ideas to get to the good ones. Tell us one of your bad ideas. How do you get past the bad ones to find your spark?

Perhaps bad ideas are merely good ideas out of their due season. It is only in retrospect that we grow able to recognize that an idea of our own is “bad.” What do we say about these things when we justify them to ourselves? “I got ahead of myself.” “I bit off more than I could chew.” It is quite rare that we would say “the whole thing was fundamentally ill-conceived from the outset.” That we can be charitable to ourselves in this way is merciful, but perhaps it is also true. No other person has access to our innermost visions for an idea and what it can be. Yet sometimes the reality of things does not allow for those visions to come into being. It is more important for an artist to be able to recognize how things went astray along the way than to merely acknowledge that some past endeavor ended in failure. When I think of my bad ideas, I think of the first screenplays I attempted to write, but when I recall the emotions of what initially inspired me about these ideas, I can find that original excitement once again. Yet it just so happened that I wasn’t yet at the right place to attempt stories of such scale. Each of my screenplays has been smaller than the last. There is a process of cutting away that which is unnecessary, that which is infeasible, until only the root remains. I think I have learned from my past mistakes by learning to recognize the patterns which lead me into error. I have learned to ask myself “how close is what you’ve written to what you actually wanted to write?”

Do you consider yourself part of a sci-fi community? Or when your brain is in the future and your body is in the present, is that isolating?

The theme of isolation is in all my work, I did not necessarily intend this, but I am shocked when I look back at my own work and see this pattern constantly unfolding. I think that feeling is profoundly personal to me. I have to fight the urge to withdraw completely from the world because I can recognize this tendency is not necessarily healthy for me. Within connection and community have existed all my best memories, but there is a tremulous feeling in our time that these things are increasingly hard to find. This makes the search for it all the more important. In some sense, The Emissary is about these issues.

Do you consider yourself more of an analog or digital person? What kind of balance do strike between the two? Is there a disconnect between the technology you make films about and the technology that you make films with?

I am an analog person. I hate touch screens. I constantly make typos when I text on my phone. I am typing now on a keyboard from 1998. I shoot medium format film photography as a hobby; I would always prefer to take the time necessary to make a pot of French press over the speed of a Keurig machine. Having said all that, I don’t aspire to be part of a “cult of the analog.” What I would prefer to say is that I like to be aware of what we give up when we sacrifice our analog processes for their digital equivalents. A common, and frankly quite tired and played out, debate within cinephiles is the question of film versus digital. What is interesting is that we see this question unfold across our whole society. Do you drive stick or automatic? Spotify, or a vinyl? Go to the theater or go to video on demand? Someday, we shall ask VR, versus IRL? What digital equivalents often promise is speed and efficiency, but there are often instances when intangible aesthetic joys are lost in that process. We are constantly deciding in our own lives whether those aesthetic joys are worth the trouble. We all must do this in our own way, and perhaps each specific instance of this might lead us down a different path. I for one, am all for self-driving cars. I find the driving experience fundamentally broken. It is clear to me that, even with some sensational stories of accidents that might occur with autonomous vehicles, statistically there is no doubt that it shall be far safer than our current system as this technology matures. Is there an aesthetic joy of driving for oneself on the open road? Certainly. Do I think the price of facing death every time I want to go to the grocery story is worth that? In this case no. But do I think grinding my own coffee beans for a French press is worth the wait, rather than hearing the irritating crackle of the Keurig? Certainly, it is. Even in The Emissary, this conversation is unfolding within the methods we used to make the film. The Earth sections, we shot on 35mm film. It was the first time I had ever done that, and it was an unspeakable joy. However, because we used an old camera that had been sitting on the shelf for years, the camera jammed within a few minutes of filming, during our precious sunrise moments. This was a reality of shooting film; it was a joy, but it was also at times difficult and nerve wracking. The majority of the film, set on the spaceship, was shot in digital. It is another reflection of what Liv is giving up in order to go on this mission that she feels is her purpose.

When you’re creating the props and sets that make a new world, where do you look for inspiration? How do you create objects that are relatable but unfamiliar?

Occasionally I’ve had someone complain about The Emissary “the ship looks so old, what is going on, isn’t this the future?” To which my thought it “I know, right? There’s no touch screens!” I think our culture has digested deep into its vision of the future this idea of sleekness, and minimalism within design. I don’t see any reason why we should accept this even if it is the current trend. I think we should be aware of what we are giving up as our society becomes more digital. I have always been skeptical of new products. Newer things that are “sleeker and more future-y” than the older things. I am asking myself, what features that I loved, did they get rid of? I never wanted Liv’s ship to be what I would call an “Apple Spaceship.” I drew a great deal of inspiration from the actual spacefaring vessels of the 20th Century, maybe the greatest analog machines ever created. There are a lot of switches, dials and knobs, in the set of The Emissary. I am a very fidgety, and tactile person, I am always fiddling with paper clips, clothes pins and whatever simple mechanisms I can manipulate with my fingers. We are seeing in modern cars, this desire to replace all the switches and knobs with a big touch screen. This to me is an abomination, it makes for a more distracting user experience, and one that is primarily visual rather than kinesthetic, not a desirable arrangement for driving or for complex tasks. I again ask, “what are we giving up? Listening to music on the road, it was much easier for me to find music on the scroll wheel of an iPod than it is now to scrub through Spotify menus. This is not progress, but regression. There are reasons from an engineering standpoint to favor the touch screen. Less parts. Less unique items that need to be fabricated. Less things that can go wrong. But this represents the wrong priority, which is convenience for the manufacturer rather than optimal user experience. This is a sacrifice I am reticent to make even if it comes in a sleeker package.

Lightning round: Star Wars or Star Trek? Philip K. Dick or William S. Burroughs? Practical or CGI? Dystopia or Utopia? Post Apocalypse or Pre Apocalypse?

Star Trek is a utopian vision of the future. Star Wars is merely fantasy, not science fiction. I don’t mean this as a dig against Star Wars, only that calling it science fiction seems to me like a category error. Star Trek begins with the captain’s log. Whereas Star Wars begins with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It is not so different than saying “once upon a time.” Between the two, I could not say which I prefer. The world building of Star Trek and its characters are compelling to me, but no individual Star Trek film reaches the heights of the best of the Star Wars films. Ursula K Le Guin is a favorite science fiction writer of mine, whose work I feel never gets as much discussion as it deserves. I think I identify with her emphasis on possible human societies rather than simply musing about possible future technologies. She has a great sense for human frailty and fallibility. If you couldn’t guess by now, I would always prefer practical effects over CG! But that does not mean that there isn’t great visual effects work being done, or that computers are not great tools for augmenting what can be achieved in-camera. It seems harder to achieve a utopian work than it does a dystopia. I don’t know what I would prefer. Science Fiction does lend itself to the cautionary tale, but I am not sure if I like what it says about our society if we can never believe in a positive, and hopeful vision of the future. We have many post-apocalyptic stories now, but perhaps we need more pre-apocalyptic ones. I think this could be understood as stories that end in great catastrophe, rather than stories that begin with world-ending calamity as a given. Making pre apocalyptic stories would force us to reflect on what sort of forces and problems could lead to the end of our world, and on the details and complexities of how that would happen. Perhaps this would be more helpful for us to recognize these patterns in our own times, such that we might be better suited to prevent an untimely ending of our world.