Daniel Thron lives in Los Angeles, making films, writing fiction, working in visual effects for film and streaming. He is also so obsessed with film that he co-hosts the podcast Martini Giant.
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 Spoiler is sadly not very far from our real world; the anxieties have been science-fictionalized, but the feelings are the same. That said, I’m happy we at least live in the zombie-free version of this universe. If I were to pick any sci-fi world to live in, though, it would have to be Tron, because it looks amazing and I’m pretty good at Frisbee.
Name a Sci-Fi character you relate to on a spiritual level? Who is your Sci-Fi spirit animal/spirit alien?
One of my favorite characters in recent sci fi is Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed, who goes from being bored and cynical to being honestly inspired by what’s going on. She makes it hilarious, but in everyday life, it’s actually a really hard choice. Her line of 'there's no sense in nonsense, especially when the heat’s hot,’ has become as much of a mantra for me as Dune’s ‘fear is the mind killer.’ As far as spirit animals go, would TARS from Interstellar count?
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?
I think about this alot, weirdly. I would totally support it, number one because it would be awesome, and two because it really makes me think about what art is. Like we have no way to tell if AI is really self-aware, no matter how much it might seem to be - so if I saw a movie that was so good it made me cry, but later find out it was made by an AI, how would I feel about it? Where does the value of that art reside? Plus at minimum they would come up with the most badass looking robots ever.
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?
Center: Kim Stanley Robinson Small forward: Octavia Butler Power forward: Denis Villeneuve Shooting guard: Mary Shelly Point guard: Greg Egan And yes I had to go to Wikipedia to research the elements of this joke.
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?
I guess I don't really believe in bad ideas, just bad movies. There are undercooked ideas, for sure, but even the best things usually come from kinda half-assed concepts that you work on until they become something better. Like I’ve been chewing on this vampire-movie concept for the longest time, where the main character would be played by a different-aged actor depending on how long it’s been since they’ve drank blood. It’s an okay idea - I’ve seen things like it before. However, I keep feeling like there’s something in there that hasn’t been done yet, something really emotional...and I just can’t put my finger on it yet. So if I made it right now, it would be a bad movie. It has to cook a little longer. I get through this by writing exploratory scenes and dialogue to figure out what it needs to be. Sometimes I run roleplaying games with friends to test ideas out, and talk to them about what works and what doesn’t. It takes time, but it’s worth it. It’s the difference between Species and Under the Skin. The first is the cheesy-movie version, the second is the great-work-of-art-version. No knock to Species, which is some awesome trashy fun. But if a little more work will get you Under the Skin, then you gotta go for it.
Do you consider yourself part of a sci-fi community? Or when your brain is in the future and your body’s in the present, is that isolating?
I absolutely feel like a part of a community via science fiction; sci fi isn’t so much a genre as a way to think about stuff; it’s not like Westerns where you have to have horses and hats or you aren’t making a western. Instead, it can literally be anything: Star Wars, Robot and Frank, Alien, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Life After Yang, Belle, Young Frankenstein, Sorry to Bother You, Phase IV, The Noah, Stalker, Her. Big, small, serious, funny, experimental - whatever you want. And because of that, you can get people to see things they never would have seen simply because the label says ‘science fiction.’ There are folks I know who never would have seen Children of Men except that it was sci fi. So setting things in a science fictional world offers a way to connect and share that few other genres allow for. When I was a kid, it wasn’t as popular, and it did feel isolating - but now it’s the opposite; everyone’s into it - it’s a part of nearly every conversation I have.
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 work in VFX, so I’m constantly working with much, much smarter people than me and interacting with some very high-tech stuff. But universally, the most creative people and the greatest artists among them only treat tech as a tool, like a paintbrush or a chisel. Because there is no actual contest between analog and digital: art is always analog even when done digitally. Because the analog part is you. You are the infinity of ideas, whatever tool you use.
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?
Producer/cinematographer Karl Denham and I worked really hard at building out the world of Spoiler, but early on we set a rule: never use something fake when something real already exists. And if it doesn’t exist, shoot it as if it already does. Don’t ‘show off’ the world if you want people to believe it; throw it away like they’ve already been there. This goes for screenwriting as well. Audiences are smart - they will catch up. So as much as possible, don’t explain. Good worldbuilding comes letting the audience make the connections - this way they feel a part of it. This is what makes movies like Blade Runner seem so rich.
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?
Alright, let’s see: The Empire Strikes Back was a formative movie for me - but after that one, the Star Wars franchise is hit or miss.* The original Star Trek series has some truly brilliant writing, though, and I go back to it all the time. I think I’ve read almost everything from PKD by now except maybe The Exegesis. His prose is pretty chunky, but the ideas are absolutely insane, and endlessly inspiring. I’ve only read Naked Lunch and Junkie from Burroughs, but they are terrific, and I’ve seen the Naked Lunch film by Cronenberg twenty damn times at least. As to practical or CGI - use the best right tool for the job. People complain about CG ruining films because they don’t know how much CG they see on a daily basis. When it’s bad it’s obvious, yes, but when it’s good it’s seamless. Most major effects studios today use a combination of CG and practical all the time - keep the audience guessing. Utopia/Dystopias: I think that most Utopias are dystopias in disguise, but I want to take this opportunity to point out two of my favorites that are actually about envisioning a better world: the novel Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson, part 3 of his amazing Three Californias trilogy, and the movie Lost Horizon from 1937 - incredibly beautiful and peaceful. Post/Pre-Apocalypse. This one is really interesting to me. I think apocalypses are a weird kind of fantasy to have. They are super fun, but they are as far from reality as I think sci-fi ever goes. Like I love Mad Max Fury Road - literally one of the best films I’ve ever seen - but I think it’s strange we believe that, if the world exploded, humans would spend the rest of history having fights over who has the coolest cars. Rather, I think our natural state is cooperation and creativity - that’s why we have the world we do. Personally, I’d like to see a post-apocalyptic world that was more like McCabe & Mrs. Miller - where people are really trying to form a community. And that movie is not some happy fantasy of collective sing-alongs, either; it’s bitter and hard-living, and has a pretty depressing ending. But at its core it believes that people mean to be good to one another, and that’s especially important when you are telling a sad story. --- *Never ask me about why I don’t like Return of the Jedi unless you are ready for an hour of raw nerd-ranting.