I was offered a regular role in a well-known TV soap back in 2004/5 and turned it down… I do wonder what *that Matt* is up to.
Tori and Matt Butler-Hart, the wife-and-husband team behind Fizz & Ginger Films, seem to excel in exploring other, and indeed other-worldly, realms.
First it was the spooky siren tale The Isle, and now their lockdown-filmed sci-fi drama Infinitum: Subject Unknown takes us into parallel universes.
I interviewed Matt and Tori about their new film, from its scientific origins to the constrictions and freedoms of pandemic movie-making. Plus ghostly monks, parallel universe “Other Matt”, and getting Ian McKellen to appear as a scarily uncrazy scientist: check it out below.
How did the film come about? Was Infinitum a new idea that grew out of UK Lockdown 1 or was it an existing idea whose time had suddenly come?
We’d been working on the bigger world of Infinitum for years and there’s a feature script which has the creation of the actual experiment of creating these quantum physics “super agents” who can control reality and using the parallel worlds as testing grounds.
So when the first lockdown happened we decided we wanted to do an experiment we’d been thinking about for a while — to see how far we could push an iPhone and could we make it seem like it wasn’t shot on a phone (we’d imagined we’d have more than just the two of us being on set to do that, but when life gives you lemons…)
We knew that whatever we did we would be hugely restricted because we couldn’t have any crew with us, and we also couldn’t just film wherever we wanted, so we had to look around and see what we could actually get hold of and use that to influence what we would write.
Tori came up with the idea of making a companion piece, or introduction, into the world of Infinitum, and look at just one of the test subjects that gets trapped in the experiment. That way we had the science and basic idea already plotted out and then we could mould the ideas to the restrictions of what was happening in the real world.
But to be honest we only ever made this as an experiment for ourselves and didn’t think that anyone would actually see it, let alone it be released around the world. For me, Matt, I wanted to explore visual storytelling more as a director, and having a film with very little dialogue would let me do that.
Do you believe in parallel universes? Is there any particular decision you’ve made that you would like to revisit to see what happened to “other Matt or Tori” making a different choice?
Wow, big question! The more we read about the science behind them the more I think yes, absolutely they exist. (Although bear in mind we trained as actors, not actual scientists so who knows!)
As to decisions, well, when you’re making films every decision could go myriad ways so I think I’d send myself round the bend if I started asking if we should have more explanation in Subject Unknown (for example!)
As for life I often wonder what I (Matt), would be doing if I’d stuck to acting and not moved over to the dark side in 2013. I was offered a regular role in a well-known TV soap back in 2004/5 and turned it down to do various indie films that no-one has heard of so I do wonder what that Matt is up to.
You’ve worked with Game of Thrones’ Conleth Hill before on The Isle — how did you “get” Sir Ian McKellen?
I, Matt again, have known Ian for the best part of 20 years. When I’d just left drama school and was starting out as an actor we were neighbours and would bump into him on the street and was suitably in awe every time! Then I did various jobs for him, like being his assistant on The Da Vinci Code, which was an amazing learning opportunity and after that I started making short films myself whilst still acting.
Tori worked with him on a comedy TV pilot, The Academy, about a drama school run by Murray McKellen, Ian’s fictional brother, which sounds great! And he’s been a supporter of all our films in one way or another. So it was fairly easy to give him a ring, to be honest.
During the filming last year we realised that we needed a bit more explaining (but not too much!) of the experiment that Tori finds herself in, but as her character is in a world with no people had to find a way of bringing more of that in without involving her actually meeting anyone (and of course Ian and Conleth had to film their own scenes as we we still in lockdown at that point) — so whilst we were chatting to Ian we mentioned what we were up to and he agreed to be part of it.
Tori, how did the outdoors filming go? Did it feel weird or were you just delighted to have reasons to be outside in the sunshine?
Yes, it was very weird! But we’d wake up at 5am and be filming by 6am so not even the dog walkers and runners were around. All the London locations are within walking distance of where we live and we’d found them all whilst walking the dog.
We always work into scripts locations we can get access to anyway, rather than write a scene and find somewhere to film it. And we’d never spend very long on any of those scenes, so it was all very guerilla-style filmmaking, which we’d never really done before.
The sections in the second half of the film, out in the countryside, were only filmed when the government said that filming could resume if producers could make it Covid safe — and as there were only two of us on set we couldn’t get much safer so we packed up the car and headed out to North Oxfordshire; and whilst we were there we barely saw anyone for weeks so we were very lucky in that respect, being able to wander around empty fields and forests.
Both of you: how was it having no one else around as a frame of reference? Are you secure enough in your own judgement or did you miss having other people around to nudge you in other directions?
Half of the fun of making a film is the collaboration you have on set, and for the creative side it’s hugely important to have that feedback to see if you’re heading in the right direction with an idea or not. We would send the footage to our editor, Will Honeyball, every day so we’d have his input and that was great to have, but not having other people on set was very weird to be honest. We’d both watch the footage back and just hope that the storytelling of each moment was coming across — there was a lot of trust that had to go both ways.
But not having lots of people around also meant that there wasn’t the usual time pressure you’d usually have on an indie film set — we could try out different ideas and if something didn’t work, we’d just try something else. If you’ve got 40 people behind you there’s much more pressure to get on with things and we’ve both always been less willing to just play around, so it was nice to see what effect that had on us both.
Saying that, we’d both definitely like more people on the next one!
You were already both experienced filmmakers, but the pandemic was new territory for all of us. Is there anything you wish you had known at the start of the Infinitum journey that you learnt the hard way?
That’s a tricky one really because the whole purpose was for us to learn more about the filmmaking craft, so although I wish I’d known more about lighting from a practical point of view for example, that was exactly why we were doing it.
We’ve always liked films that leave you with more questions than answers, but what we have learnt from this film is that not everyone is the same! A lot of the science side, and what’s actually happening to Jane, in the film, is very subtle and may need more than one watch to catch it all (and it was designed that way); but we’ve learnt that not everyone is into that sort of film, which is absolutely fair enough.
Then again, you have to make the film you want, you can’t make it according to what you think people will want because everyone will have a different opinion and perspective.
Maybe we’ve learnt that more balance is needed?
What is the film about? Is it about lockdown or just filmed during lockdown?
It was never intended to be about the lockdown at all, and it was only when people started to watch it and comment that they felt the same as Jane did, that we realised we’d obviously been influenced by what we were all going through as we wrote it.
But it would be nice if people look back on the film, when we’re finally out of this, and see it as a reminder of what we all experienced, and got through, without it explicitly being about the pandemic and isolation that we’ve all been living through.
When I interviewed you about The Isle I asked you both if you’d had any spooky experiences on set during the making of that film — did anything weird happen during the making of Infinitum?
Not as much as on the island for The Isle! Although saying that, in the abbey where we filmed the research centre, the basement is part of an old monastery and there are stories of a monk that walks the halls. We filmed a few scenes down there and we’d often think that someone else was down there with us (we assumed it was the security person doing their rounds) but we’d look and see no one… so I take that back, yes, ghosts aplenty… again!
What have you been watching in lockdown? (I’ve enjoyed a lot of End Times misery, I think it makes me feel better.)
When all this started we were very much the same: films about pandemics, post-apocalyptic worlds, meteors coming to destroy the earth, all that fun stuff. But then we had a few sci-fi months for some real escapism and then moved on to silly comedies to briefly forget about everything.
And that made us realise that there just aren’t a lot of comedy films being made these days, which is a real shame.
But maybe once we’re out of this people will want some frivolity and silliness, which is very much our cup of tea.
What’s next for Fizz And Ginger Films?
We had a couple of bigger budget films that we were gearing up for before the pandemic, but I think that the COVID restrictions will be in place for a while and that’ll make a difference in what we can do on indie budgets, so we’re focusing on smaller films for a while — just a few locations and a handful of actors.
We have another chapter in the Infinitum world that we’re writing, which WILL explain more about what’s going on, promise! And also a thriller set a little in the future, but again with limited characters and locations so we can make sure it’s doable in this current situation.
I think we’ll find the same happening for a lot of indie filmmakers, aiming for films that don’t involve too many people or moving pieces. It could be a really interesting time for indie film.
Infinitum: Subject Unknown is out on digital in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand now, and on DVD on 26 April 2021. It’s due to be released in the US in the summer.