Justin Thomson, Moscow Misfits, Filming at -50 Centigrade or 35,000 Ft in the Clouds

OWC RADiO Host, Cirina Catania, throws back some fun memories and catches up with the news from Justin Thomson, an experienced filmmaker/producer and co-founder, Moscow Misfits. Justin’s in demand worldwide for his boundless creativity and extensive knowledge of the world of movies and immersive entertainment. Whether it be on a Lufthansa flight 35,000 ft in the clouds, for the Waldorf Project at Wonder Fruit deep in the jungles of Thailand, or with his director co-conspirator, Rory McKeller, in the icy White River in Russia, Justin’s there to solve any problem however large or small. And he’ll do it with a smile.

Justin creates events that break boundaries and push people’s limits of what is possible, driving deeper human connection and expanding participants’ beliefs of what is possible. Justin says, “If you have ever seen the film, The Game starring Michael Douglas, you’ll get what we are about.” 

There is never a dull moment around the Misfits, thanks in great part to Justin’s belief in saying “Yes” to more in life.

More information: www.MoscowMisfits.com

Justin Thomson Donned Russian cold-weather gear rated to Minus 100 Centigrade for the shoot in Russia for Aquatilis

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For more about our host, filmmaker, tech maven and co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival, Cirina Catania, visit cirinacatania.com.

If you enjoy our podcast, please subscribe and tell all your friends about us! We love our listeners. And, if you have ideas for segments, write to OWCRadio@catania.us. Cirina is always up for new ideas!


Transcript

Welcome, everybody. I have Justin Thompson, who is a dear friend and has been since he was a little kid. I think I met you at your mom and dad’s house when you were on a trampoline, and you were carrying a video camera. I don’t know how old you were, and I think maybe you were eight or nine or 10. And you had a video camera in your hand, and you’re jumping on the trampoline, doing flips and recording the video to see what it was going to look like. And all these years later, I don’t think you’ve changed, have you?

No. I still like jumping on trampolines.

So, let’s just start and have you take a trip down memory lane and tell us what countries you’ve been in, in the last year or two, can you think? There’s probably about 20 of them.

There’s certainly quite a few off the top of my head, India, Italy, Portugal, the UK, Sweden, Germany, France, Bali, the United States, Thailand. I’m trying to think, but that’s what I can think off the top of my head.

So how many frequent flyer miles do you have?

It’s never enough. I just love collecting.

Well, Justin, I really love watching the work that you’re doing, and it’s pretty amazing. There’s a company you’ve been involved with for a while called Moscow Misfits. Do you want to tell us about that?

Yeah. So Moscow Misfits is a collective of friends. Despite the name, most of us got to know each other in London. Some of the partners in the group are from Russia or grew up in Moscow. And a couple of years ago, we all decided to embark on this crazy adventure to shoot an independent feature film in Russia. And we decided this film was going to be filmed in the Arctic Circle and northern Russia, near Murmansk. Originally, we went to the traditional production and film partners in Russia that one would go to, and they’re a handful. They’re all very expensive, and they’re all very set in their ways like you can only do this, you can’t do that. And we’re a very spirited and entrepreneurial group of individuals and decided to try and do it on our own, and go the hardcore route, and so we made this film. And then interestingly enough, after we had made the film, done principal photography, and we’re in post-production, we met with the Moscow Film Commission and some people, and we’re showing them the material that we’ve done. And they said, “Oh, great, who is your partner?” one of the big focuses, and we said, “No, we did it ourselves.” Everybody was astounded, and they’re like, “You guys did all of this yourselves?” and we said, “Yeah.” And what we then further realized is that the CIS, The Russian Federation, and other Russian speaking countries, they all have an incredible independent film community, but it’s very scattered, and there’s nothing that really brings them together. So then we decided we would start this festival, which was called FML 48. And it was the first 48-hour Film Festival ever created in Russia to foster the independent film community where there would normally be a barrier to entry because of these traditional staid film groups that like to retain their power.

Well, that doesn’t happen in our business. 

Yeah, it never happens. We wanted to create this festival that allowed the community to connect ultimately because during the awards, we had a two-day kind of symposium where really top film people from Russia and from outside of Russia came and spoke to filmmakers. And it was just to generally create an organic, authentic community so that everybody could connect from that, and that’s something that we want to bring more into the region. So that’s the long version of Moscow Misfits, and then, with that, we also decided, well, let’s not just stay in Russia, but we have access to really great filmmakers and content creators in general. Let’s bring them together and create a platform where we can then, allow their talents to come to fruition in partnership.

Okay, we’re gonna come back to the Russian film, quite a list shortly. But before we go there, I want you to specifically tell people about a couple of other projects. So here’s one that was 35,000 feet in the air, so what was that?

So one of the things that we find kind of crucial for the future of entertainment is immersive experiences. I think film will always be film and television will always be television, entertaining, and really wonderful to enjoy. But we spend so much of our time looking at a screen, whether it’s a computer monitor, especially now, or a handheld device, or whatever it is, or going to the movie theater or looking at the screens and something that I think humanity really craves is human interaction and connection and touching and feeling and maybe having comfort zones pushed. And so we feel that immersive entertainment is really the future and I think the industry in general, a lot of it’s very much the direction that it’s going. We’ve worked with a very talented artist named Sean Rogg, who created The Waldorf Project. And The Waldorf Project is probably one of the most cutting edge, immersive experiences out there. There are some very good ones like Sleep No More, or Punch Drunk or Secret Cinema, but they tend to be very surface entertainment, very well done, incredibly well-produced, but not pushing human interaction and connection. And a lot of projects are at the cutting edge of that. And a lot of people, when they go through the experience, there’s the traditional show, which is like a three to four-hour show. And it’s very intense, very emotionally, and physically intense and pushes people’s boundaries. But what we’re doing is a lot of empathy engineering and emotional hacking essentially. We’re creating empathy within these groups that go and experience the shows.

So how are you doing that? Can you be specific about that?

I can’t get too specific because it’s a little bit of getting people into a specific mindset, and taking them out of their comfort zone is crucial. And then, there are many layers and subtle things that occur from the first connection that we have with the participant before they even come. So a lot of very subliminal messaging and things like that. But one of my great partners and friends, Vlad Gorbachev, said, “There’s this incredible artist, Sean, who’s doing these things. I think we should look at him,” and I say, “Wow.” We went and experienced it, and we thought it’s pretty cutting edge, it’s fantastic. Let’s try to bring this experience to a wider world. And so when we’ve been approached for certain subjects, like, Wonderfruit came to us and said, “What do you think we should do?” we said, Okay. There’s this amazing experience instead of trying to connect 50 people at a time, why don’t we try to connect 5000 people in the jungles of Thailand at their festival. And they were very kind, and they took the risk, and they said, “Okay, let’s bring the show.” We were the final performance of the entire festival. And we anticipated that maybe, 1500 to 2000 people would stay at the very end of the festival and come to experience it. But we had a lot of messaging that kind of went throughout the festival to get people into the correct mindset. And ultimately, we had about 5000 people, which is almost the entire audience of Wonderfruit, stay for the festival for the closing piece, and we shut down the entire festival. It was pretty impressive, the entire thing. And we’re just doing a film now which will be releasing a documentary on that entire process.

Justin, for people who don’t know, can you take a step back for a second and explain what Wonderfruit is? What is it, and who goes?

So Wonderfruit is a festival in Thailand. It’s a fantastic music art and culinary festival. They do it outside of Bangkok on this beautiful jungle property, and it’s probably the biggest festival of its kind in Asia. It’s a little bit like Burning Man, but I think not quite because it’s more sophisticated and it’s not quite as difficult an environment to be in.

I was gonna say there are a lot more plants and less dust.

Yeah, exactly. 

But a lot more water probably, very hot and humid. So how did you get involved with this? And then I want to come back to exactly what was happening. Take me to the beginning of Wonderfruit. How did you end up in Thailand, working on this huge immersive project?

So the creator of Wonderfruit was somebody who was kind of a friend of the group and knew the things that we were working on. We’re just shooting ideas back and forth, what could happen, and ultimately this came about.

That’s how things happen, isn’t it? And in what we do we move in tribes, it’s always with people that we know and trust, and who move along through life with us. With what’s happening now with all the quarantine around the world, I’m seeing those connections happening virtually, again, it’s kind of nice, but I remember all the physical connections. And so this is kind of bringing me back to the good old days a couple of months ago when we actually had contact with people. But anyway, so you knew the group, they knew your work, which has been unbelievable. You end up in Thailand, you think there’s only going to be maybe 1000-1500 people, and you’ve got 5000 people at the end of Wonderfruit. What are these people seeing? What are you doing that’s keeping them there?

Originally we had this communication at an app, and it was going to be communicated to all the participants that were at Wonderfruit. These were the things that were going to happen at this time and where you needed to be and all that, but unfortunately, the app crashed. And so we knew at that point that it wasn’t a reliable way to communicate and to get the message out that we were going to have this performance at the end and try to keep people there. So, we ended up doing a voiceover. Specifically, I ended up doing the voiceover, and it was perfect, because in the middle of Wonderfruit, there happened to be an art installation called the Silent Room, and it’s a giant 40-foot container that’s completely padded as if it’s a soundstage. And we said, “Can we use it for an hour, we are gonna do recording?” and they’re like, “Yeah.”

For your nervous breakdown, right? Because you’re producing this and the app is crashing?

Exactly, so then we recorded it, and then we came up with a visual text and along with the audible messaging on all the main stages, and they happen at different times. So, it would say in 36 hours the Waldorf Project will begin at the main stage, things like that. When the documentary comes out, you’ll see all of this in great detail, the mental breakdowns, actually, I have to say it was never really a breakdown.

You don’t do that. Justin, I’ve seen you. You have handled emergency situations on some of my projects. You do not panic, and you’re like one of these people. This is why you’re so valuable as a producer. You’re one of these people that looks around all hell’s breaking loose all around you, and it’s Murphy’s Law if something’s gonna go wrong, it’s gonna go wrong in the middle of the shoot or in the middle of the live performance or whatever you’re doing. I think I saw a picture of you at Wonderfruit, and you’re standing there with people all around you. And you’ve got this stern look on your face. I think that was from Wonderfruit, right? Was that from Wonderfruit? 

Yes.

And you’re in the middle of solving this problem. Anyway, that silent room was available. And then what happened?

So we were able to get the message out to people that did not know that it was happening, but we had various things happen with production. Like we didn’t have as many volunteers as we were told that we were going to have. We were supposed to have somewhere around I think 100 or 150 and some x 30 showed up. And then the organizers were really amazing and managed to bring in people, but only on the day of the performance. So we have to train them all in a super elaborate way because we have this grid system that was painted. I think it was three kilometers of white lines, all painted in a very specific grid. Then 50 people at a time would be placed into each triangle in the grid. And that’s really the only way that we’re going to make it work. So we decided to train the 30 that did come the days before, and they were essentially leaders. And they then guided the other volunteers that came and kind of showed them how to do everything and so it was delegating the process down. But one of the big problems that we had was that I knew that for the organizers, one of the crucial things is that there is no light anywhere on the entire festival and that the only light that existed was going to be at the main stage where the performance was going to happen. And the plan was that all of the vendors, and stage managers were all on a Whatsapp group. And they all knew that there was a message sent out that this was going to happen. However, I knew never to rely just on that. So I spent a couple of hours on a scooter just going to every single food vendor, every stage manager, everybody that I could think of that had any control over a light source and reminded them that this is going to happen at this time, and you will have to do it. And surprisingly, the majority of the people knew about it, and we’re on board, some didn’t. And then we had a very large group of our volunteers essentially create a ring of fire, and they came in, and they walked from the very end of the festival, and they herded festival-goers, stragglers and things like that towards the main stage. And then slowly lights were going off and different lights we’re shutting down. And I ran pretty much the entire festival grounds going to any vendor that didn’t turn off their light and say, “Now you have to turn your light off.” And the thing is, as the festival was getting darker any light source was, they’re like mobs to it. What vendors think this is great, I’m getting all this food, and all these people are coming and all this thing. And so I would tell them as like, unfortunately, the light has to go off and some most of them complied. Some of them I had to go back and literally unscrew the light bulbs so that their lights will go out. The other one was DJs who were, of course, having killer sets, and it’s the greatest time, and they’re going over their set time. Because there are more and more people coming to it, so they’re thinking even great. And the stage managers going to them and saying, “Hey, you have to turn off,” they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and then they keep going. Eventually, it got to a point where I said, “Cut it up now,” and the stage manager literally pulled the plug, and the music just totally shut off. And the DJs, the frustration in their eyes, but it was all agreed upon this was part of the process. So then slowly, everybody’s going towards the mainstage. I even got the police and medical department to shut off their lights.

Are you serious?

So the whole festival was in complete darkness. And as I come back to the stage, I see that everybody’s assuming, and they don’t know what’s going to happen. They assume that it’s a performance that’s going to happen on the main stage, so they’re all just remaining clumped at the front. And the volunteers are having difficulty getting them to disperse into the wider grid area. And in my earpiece over the microphone, I hear Sean, the artist, he’s screaming, he’s like, “We need to solve this, we need to solve this!” and he’s having a little bit of a panic attack. And this was the other part because so many people had congregated, and the grass was dry and kind of had died, the grid system had been trampled on. So they couldn’t find the mines where to build. And the first thing is, we have to start one triangle and then build out from it. And so the volunteers we had in a row at the front of the stage, they’re all looking at me, and then they come to me, we’re like, we can’t find the lines. And I said, “Okay, follow me.” And I knew where the lines approximately were supposed to be because I’ve been living this grid for the last few days. And so I forced my way through the crowd and just spread people apart. And that created the very first line and from that everybody could then start to build the lines out of that line. But still, everybody was kind of remaining clumped in the center. And so I just forced my way to the center of the area. I grabbed somebody’s hand, and I talked to them, and I said, “Grab the person next to you, grab their hand now and hold on to it and follow me and tell them to do the same.” And so it just went down this daisy chain, and I ended up just pulling back, and I’m pulling, and I’m assuming I’m going to take maybe 5-10 people and at one point, I look back, and there are about 100 people in this chain that I’m like, bringing out the far reaches of the grid system. And from that, we were able then to have the entire grid system, almost the way that we wanted it, and it was fantastic. It was really a very, very powerful moment. It was great. We had a whole film crew that filmed it as well. And some really incredible overhead drone shots of this great system developing It was very, very powerful. And it was very nice. The Waldorf Project is, as I said, it’s a cutting edge immersive experience. It pushes people’s physical and emotional boundaries. And some people don’t like it or don’t understand it, that’s perfectly okay, but the majority were people who came and said that it was incredible. Some people came and said, “I was crying. I don’t know why I was crying, but it was just such an incredible emotional experience.” And those are the moments, and those are the things why we do all of this to have those results.

Well, you are at that point with what you’re doing, you’re connecting the dots of the human psyche, from person to person to person. And when you connect people’s hearts together, that’s an incredible emotional experience. And some people even though they may say I didn’t get it years later, they’re gonna remember that, and it will come up when it’s the right time for them to remember that. I just think that’s awesome. And what you’re talking about here for people who are watching, this is a typical moment when a producer is in the middle of something, and everything starts to fall apart. And you have somebody who knows how to fix it. That’s really what you look for in a good producer. And I’ve seen you do that over and over and over again.

I had a great teacher, you.

I think it’s fun fixing the problems. It’s interesting because when everything goes really, really smoothly, it’s great. But the ones you remember, the most are the ones that were difficult and the ones where you had to fix something, like hurricanes in the Bahamas, when you have to literally circle the production trailers together on the movie Flipper and board the windows so that you can stay alive. Those are the things you remember years later, right? I remember the crew in Prague almost missing the flight home because you guys were out all night, and the limo was there to take us all to the airport. That was scary, but you know what those are great memories looking back on it those are really great memories.

Those are certainly the ones that I remember.

Remember that place we were in John Malcolm not knowing it was Gérard Depardieu recommended that really amazing old hotel that the whole crew got to stay, and that was a great shoot that was on Les Misérables.

You spoiled me a lot when I got to work with you as a youngster, and I learned a lot how to run production as a family so that it makes it a lot less stressful then as opposed to this is a job.

Yeah, good vibes and good food. Always have to have good food, a nice place to stay, good food and good vibes. And you can move mountains. Can you talk about the one that you did on the airline? Didn’t you do a performance piece on the airlines?

Yes. So, what we did was from the Wonderfruit Festival, which was a great success for Wonderfruit because they wanted to ultimately retain as many participants for the entire length of the festival as possible. And so having this kind of highlight experience was that they’ve never had so many people stay until the very end of the festival. We managed to hit the parameters that they wanted. And so, from that, then we were looking to do the show in Berlin, the full show. And while I was talking to find sponsors or patrons to put on the show in Berlin, I was talking to Lufthansa, and I was connected to a really amazing individual named Cissus Laos, And Cissus said, “I think this is maybe a little bit too cutting edge for Lufthansa. But I find it fascinating what you’re doing.” And so I asked, “So, Cissus, what are you doing?” And Cissus is one of the heads of the Lufthansa’s Flying Lab department, which is kind of their experimental arm where they kind of explore what’s the future of travel. And they do very interesting programming where they kind of do like TEDx Talks in the air or they have panelists and come talk about things on certain flights. And so Cissus was kind of describing the things that they’re doing that are pretty awesome. We use a lot of technology, like for Wonderfruit, we used VR because there was no way for the crew to be in Thailand beforehand to design the space. So we had created the entire staging area in virtual reality beforehand in London so that the dancers could practice their movements, and we could figure out timing. And when I explained that to Cissus, he was like, “Oh, that’s fantastic. Maybe you and Sean should come to talk about that on one of our flights,” and so I said, “Yeah, okay.” So then Sean and I got together, and we said, “Well, that sounds great, but it’s kind of boring. So let’s propose something else to them and see how far it goes.” And so we had a conference call with a bunch of the team from Lufthansa and kind of proposed that we can give a talk and it’ll have a certain impact, but maybe if we can do like a mini-performance, It’ll show people exactly what we’re talking about because it’s hard to explain. It’s really an emotional thing, and it has to happen in order to understand it. So Lufthansa said okay, and they flew us to Frankfurt, and they gave us an entire Airbus A340 on the tarmac, and they said, “Okay, Sean, and Justin, explain to us and tell us what you think you’d like to do?” And credits to Sean, Sean was like, “Okay, we’re going to go really hard. And we’re going to go for the most extreme thing that we can ever want, because they’re going to say no to a lot of it, and then we’ll find some middle ground.” And I was like, “Yeah, I agree. Let’s go for it,” then we go in, and the whole team from Lufthansa is there, and we explain the whole thing. And Sean’s going really hard about our ultimate desires and what we’d like to do with this aircraft. And at the end of it, they all just kind of look at each other, and then they go, “Yeah, I think we can do that,” and Sean and I looked at each other, we’re like, “Really?” they’re like, “Yeah, I think we could do that, there are a few things we need to see technically, but I think we might be able to do it.” And we’re like, wow, I mean, huge credit to Lufthansa, who really had a team of individuals that were able to see and grab a moment to really push the boundaries of human experience. So one of the things that we found out in our research was that you could have a $300 million aircraft or 350, whatever it costs, but the one thing that it doesn’t have is an AUX-in cable for audio. And so we were trying to figure out, do we use the PA system with the phone that listens to it and is super tiny? And in order to have the experience, you need a very strong bass for the music and all of this. And once again, Lufthansa stepped up and said, this is not going to work. So they built-in a custom sound system into the aircraft for the performance on the flight so that it could have the resonance and the bass that is needed in order to get people into the emotional state. The people on the flight knew that something was going to happen, but they didn’t know specifically what was going to happen. And it was in conjunction with a special flight that they were doing from Frankfurt to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest last year. And most of the other people who were on it who kind of gave talks or had things they had about five to 10 minutes. And our entire experience was almost an hour long. It was unbelievable the amount of effort and the resources that Lufthansa put into our project, we had dinner with the chief pilot for Lufthansa. Which was an amazing thing to have, because he has the final say for anything that comes down to safety. Because if it’s any other pilots, there’s still one pilot above him who could say yes, it’s safe or not safe to do something. But he was so intrigued by the project, and he was like, “I want to be a part of it.” And so we had all these top individuals Echelons, people at Lufthansa who came and were a part of this Lufthansa flight, it was really incredible. And we sat down, and we had dinner with them the night before, and he explained all the calculations that go into everything to deal with our performance because they had to calculate the amount of fuel because the issue with US airspace is you can’t have more than two people standing at a time technically for homeland security reasons. So our performance had more than that because there were the performers and then myself, everybody else was sitting down. And so he said, “Depending on if it goes a little bit longer, I have to calculate that I may have to fly longer within Canada, and then cut down once you guys are finished.”

Oh my god. 

And we had all these safety procedures because under no circumstances do I want to have to turn on the fasten seatbelt sign because that was the other thing, that is one of the things in our place, we took full control of the lighting system on the whole plane, we control every light, to understand that these are lights which have not been turned off in decades, the no-smoking light, the lavatory light, the seatbelt light having things like that being turned off and controlled was quite a feat. And so he says, “I don’t want to have to stop the performance under any circumstances, so I will allow it to get quite rough if we hit turbulence, and it will be really down to your performances and performers and you to decide, whether to call it off or not.” So we had to go through safety procedures if turbulence happened, where we would grab on, and we essentially have to crawl ourselves to one of the flight attendants who strapped in, and they would strap their arms and legs over us and hold us into place until the turbulence finished. It was a really pretty spectacular experience to work with Lufthansa and that team.

So what was the content? What was the story? How many people were in it? And what did you do? 

A lot of it is putting people audibly into a different state of mind and then pushing their comfort zone. And then ultimately, finding that moment and that way to find connection not only between the individual next to you. But between the entire space, I’ve been mildly vague because part of the Waldorf Project is that it’s a little bit like Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is that there is no Fight Club. And most of the people who come and experience it, don’t share what happened to them, because they don’t want to spoil it for the other participants if one does experience it. But it is one of those things where people go through it, and most people are strangers. And a story came to us where some people had gone through the experience. They didn’t know each other, they had gone through the Waldorf Project together, and then a year or two years later, they randomly bumped into each other. And the moment they looked at each other, they just started crying, and then they hugged, and it’s one of these things. It’s like, if you and I went and did this Cirina, we might not know each other, but when we saw each other, we would look each other in the eye, and we would know that we had done that experience together, and it will forever connect us.

Wow, that’s wonderful. Aren’t you proud of all this?

I’m very proud. I mean, I love working with very talented individuals, I love being able to have an artist have their talent come to fruition. And there are so many people out there that have really a real gift, but they don’t necessarily know how to connect the dots and make it happen. And as a producer, it’s a great feeling when all the dots do come together, and you’re able to create something that has a meaningful impact on your audience.

Yeah, that’s wonderful. So I want to talk to you about Aquatilis. There are some pictures that you sent me that, well, I’ve kind of been watching what you were doing for a while, but these pictures are pretty amazing. The first one is, you’re in the middle of a snowfield, and you’re all in this white gear. You look like you’re in the north pole or something with all this gear. But before we even start, talk to me about Aquatilis and what it’s about. What’s the story? And who’s in it and how did it come about?

So this the story of Aquatilis is about the consciousness of the ocean, exploring humanity. And we call it a sci-fi docudrama. And the reason it’s a sci-fi docudrama, it’s a new genre, is there’s a really incredible underwater marine biologist, his name is Alexander Semenov, and he has been doing some really incredible research around the world. His primary focus is in northern Russia, and just a real talent. Vlad, who’s one of the partners of Moscow Misfits, knew of Alexander and thought that he was really somebody special. And so one day he was like, “Hey, there’s this guy. He’s doing some cool stuff, what can we do? Let’s figure something out.” Kind of the core family of Misfits, kind of shooting ideas, and thinking about what we could do. And then they said, “Well, you could do a documentary,” but it would be just the same as another documentary. It’s not that interesting doing a reality show, how do we make it something more interesting. And there was Andre Betts, who’s a super talented editor, he is one of the best in the world. He’s done pretty much every awesome Superbowl commercial that you could ever imagine. He had this fantastic idea, he goes, “Well, why don’t you take it from the perspective of the ocean? Take it from the perspective of the fish, and kind of observe humanity from that perspective?” And we’re like, “Yeah.”

What a great idea. 

And so we said, okay, well, let’s still use the real individuals because they’re interesting people in themselves and then just kind of layer this storyline, the science fiction storyline over. And so Vlad said, “Okay, I want you and Rory to go out there.” Rory McKellar, who is a fantastic director. And he and I have done a lot of projects together. And we’re like, Okay, let’s go to the Arctic Circle and see what we can do. And we had kind of a rough outline of a script. And so we went up there. And we were just kind of exploring to see if we could get what kind of content we could get. Now going up there is not as easy as one might think, because when it’s in Russia, but Russia is reasonable enough as long as you have a visa to go there, but where we wanted to film in the North it has three restrictions to it. One, it’s the research base for the Moscow State University. Two, it’s in the middle of a nature preserve. And then three, it’s where the Russians do their shallow-water testing for all their nuclear submarines.

Oh, no problem. Okay. All right, leave it up to you. There we go. Okay.

So there were a lot of challenges. It was like this couple of guys from the UK and US and who want to fly in with a bunch of drones and underwater gear. And luckily, Alexander is super highly regarded in Russia and has given talks with Vladimir Putin, and Putin is a fan of his. So I think the access that we were granted was a little bit easier than it would be for most due to that reason. And so anyway, we started filming this project and managed to get some really incredible footage. And we decided to film it over multiple stages because we needed seasonal changes. So we filmed in the fall the first time and then the second time we went, we filmed in the winter.

So you decided to film in the winter, and there’s this picture, what’s going on in this gear. Are you getting ready to film a scene? Is that the same scene you’re talking about?

One of the great things as a producer and the joys that I find, and I think maybe you find as well is that our office is often really Incredible and unique locations. 

Yes. 

And then we get to experience things that most people will never ever get to see. 

That’s right. 

And I have been quite fortunate over many years to have been to some of these really incredible offices and with these incredible office views, but never, ever have I experienced something as special and unique as when I was in northern Russia shooting this project. And the vistas and the things that I saw and got to experience were incredible like in this image. We’re preparing to shoot a scene where Alexander, the lead character, has to walk through the forest and across onto this ice field. And the underwater tank is quite heavy, so I was carrying it for him at this moment, that’s why I have it on my back. But the suits are incredibly unique suits. They are done by a company that normally does these suits for the Russian like Spetsnaz, which are basically like Navy SEALs. And we were able to get a hold of them. Again, thanks to Vlad, who has some very good connections in Russia. And these suits are rated to -100 Celsius. They’re unbelievable, at that rating, you’re quite cold very close to dying, but you’re still surviving. You can still be very comfortable to -50.

That’s still freaking cold.

We were at -20, and like sweating inside of them because they were so warm, we would shoot 12 hour days and have no problem. In the middle of the arctic field just sitting in some snowbank, and there are no real seats around, we did have snowmobiles, if somebody else is sitting on the snowmobile, you just sit in the snow for an hour or two hours and be perfectly comfortable. You never get cold. It’s the most incredible bit of technology that I’ve ever experienced. And you get to be naked in it. It’s wonderful

Let’s talk about this one here. You’re working with Rory in this scene. And where are you there?

That’s at the Moscow State’s Biological Center and which normally you can only get to by boat. But when it’s frozen over, you take the Russian snowmobile, which is called a “Buran.” And we also took our own snowmobile that I drove in the camera van from Moscow, we drove all the way to St. Petersburg and picked up the snowmobile and then drove it to the north. Because with the burans, the problem is they’re very slow, and we wanted to have our own vehicle that could go and do location scouting very quickly, and just have some autonomy. And it turned out to be crucial because there was a moment when I had to take one of the actors and go back early so I had to basically leave. We left in the middle of the darkness and just a little bit of snow falling, and then we kind of cut through the wooded area where the station is, and then you get to the water’s edge. And then all I remember was total blackness, and the only thing you see is where your headlight is. And then the single track from the day before of where we had come to basically drive to this little fishing village where then there’s a car waiting to then drive you five hours to Murmansk to then fly you to where you need to go. So I went through the darkness, and I managed to find the way they were just following the tracks, and we got there. And then, on the way back, the sun was slowly rising, and I could just see the total white, crisp edge, and I just had this track in front of me. And I was just going flat out as fast as I could on the snowmobile and managed to set the world record for the Moscow State research facility because normally it takes about 45 minutes to an hour with the snowmobile to get there. I managed to do it in 23 minutes.

Oh my gosh. Okay. All right. Well, I’m not surprised, you and I like racing.

It was fascinating. When it is dark, you can’t see anything, and you’re just following the track, and I was kind of like, I think I know where I am, I kind of have an idea. A few days later, something similar happened, but I had to leave a little bit later, so it wasn’t quite in the darkness when I had to bring somebody back to the fishing village, and it had snowed at night. And so when I come out of the treeline to get onto the ice, there are no tracks, there’s nothing. And all I’m thinking to myself is like if this had been in the darkness, I would have had no clue where I was going, I would have been completely lost and not knowing where to go. But luckily, there was enough light that I knew where the landmarks were, and where to kind of point and just hold on for dear life until you got there. So it’s a very unforgiving environment. If you make one mistake, then it’s curtains. 

You’re nuts. You’re just nuts. Oh my goodness, how long did it take you to shoot all these scenes for Aquatilis?

We had three shooting times. The first one was more almost just a test to see what we can get, would it work. Because we’re working with non-actors, what kind of performances would be able to get out of them is very challenging and also because it’s all in Russian, it’s not in English, I don’t speak Russian other than a few phrases. And Rory doesn’t speak any Russian, so that was an added challenge. The first test was about 14 days, and all the second winter shoot was three weeks because we also had big location changes we shot in Moscow and in the north. And then we did a final shoot, our main shoot, which was about four weeks. And that was In the fall.

I’m sitting here thinking I remember shooting in Prague, and it was 20 below Fahrenheit, and the batteries were dying. What cameras were you using? And how did you manage the equipment in that? It’s really a hostile environment. I mean, it’s beautiful, but it’s for filming. That kind of extreme cold is really difficult. So how did you manage all of that?

But especially for batteries, you’re totally right. It’s an incredibly challenging environment. So we shot on a RED Dragon. We had these fantastic anamorphic lenses, which were old, old glass, Russian, beautiful. Funny enough, kind of on a side note, we shot with them originally. And then we said okay, just to do the test, shoot, and then when we went back, we’re like, well, let’s take some more modern glass. I think it’ll be much better. And we were shooting with them. And the first week we’re like, this does not look good as good. This is just flat, super flat. We have an amazing a production manager, she managed to get new lenses, and her mother picked them up in Moscow flew to Murmansk, drove five hours, I didn’t take a boat all the way to the shore for it’s another hour and a half of the boat through a storm and picked it up and we only lost 12 hours in the entire process, and we had totally new lenses and save the look of the film. It was a hard decision to make, but Rory and I were imperative because the easier choice would have been to say, “okay, we’ll just deal with it and fix it in post,” but the fact is, it’s going to be more expensive in the end to try to fix something like that in post wit’s the true texture and visual connection that you’re having with your audience member. I think, as a producer, you have to be able to take the tough decisions, as long as it’s helping  your story and helping the ultimate vision have a better voice.

But this is how you and Rory work so well together because he primarily directs and you primarily produce, right? It’s really hard, and I know it’s been hard for me in the past, sometimes when I’m directing, and I have a producer that doesn’t understand the creative, and you hear about those classic arguments between the directors unit and the production unit. When you get into, “Well, that’s going to cost too much money,” or “No, we can’t wait 12 hours, we have to keep shooting.” The difference between what you and Rory have and a lot of other productions don’t have is a camaraderie and an understanding. Because you’re an incredibly creative person too, and Rory has also produced. So the two of you understand each other’s jobs. I think that’s just so important when you’re perfectionist, and perfectionism is also part of it. You’re willing to have somebody’s mother fly and drive, and then you’re willing to take the boat in the storm to pick up some lenses that are going to make the production look and feel better, that’s pretty cool. And that’s not as common as one might think because a lot of times, especially on Hollywood productions, depending on the production, of course, but a lot of times those decisions are based on money and aesthetics and creativity gets thrown to the side, and it’s really a shame. 

I understand that as well because one thing that we all have to remember is that it’s the film business and not the film charity. I felt as a producer, something that was really important is, I started in front of the camera when I was very young, I loved being on set, and I ultimately did every job I possibly could at some point. Thanks to you, I got to do camera and travel the world. I worked in casting, I worked in grip, in every department that I possibly could ever get exposed to wherever there was an opportunity to do so I did it. I also worked in finance for a time, because I think that’s just important to have that understanding and those connections. And all of it ultimately has, I hope, made me a better producer because I can understand when someone explains something to me from one of those departments. I have some first-hand experience or knowledge within it. So I know whether it’s either bs or if it’s really something that will make a difference, or if there’s some happy medium that one can find. And that is if you can have that balance. I’ve been on sets where people take a role where it’s just down to the money, and they have zero understanding of what it takes to tell the story. They just assume it’s something really simple, like a puzzle that you put together. It’s not, it’s an art form, it’s a brushstroke, and it’s a brushstroke from hundreds of people working together in sync. So I think it’s important to have that diverse background as much as possible. And I think that’s what’s super exciting about filmmakers now, is because everything has become the technology and the barrier, and the entry has become less you. You’re not only a director, but you’re also editing, you’re also filming it, you’re sometimes in front of the camera. The young filmmakers have a better understanding of everything. So the films in the future I think will just become more and more exciting because they’ll know how to push the boundaries. 

And they take risks. Absolutely. Let’s finish talking about the technical side—sound and camera and lighting and then post and managing media. So talk about that some more.

So shooting in those cold conditions was interesting. The cameras held up very well, and we knew to take extra batteries because your battery lifespan is 50% if that, right?

Did you keep them on your suits? How’d you keep them warm?

Yes. So the camera crews, they take batteries, and they put them under their arms inside, and they would just hold on to them inside their suits.

And then they are sweating, so you get moisture in there.

It’s explosive.

Eww.

But it worked. And it was very exciting. And then not only that, but we’re also filming underwater under the ice sheet. The technicalities that go into that where you have to cut a triangle into the thing and then have them go under. These guys, the underwater team Alexander and his team, were taking risks. One of the first rules is that you never go under the ice without having a rope attached to you so that you if you become disoriented, you know where to go in the back, but one of the things he said was, “It’ll be very difficult to get rid of it in post with the rope so I’ll just go without the rope,” and we’re like, “Only if you feel comfortable.” And these guys are super pro, these guys they live underwater year-round.

I’m sorry just the thought of it makes me claustrophobic. I can’t even imagine doing that. 

And normally a dive underwater at that temperature is about 45 minutes, and these guys were down there for an hour and a half. These are tough, strong, emotionally, and physically individuals in order to capture the footage that we needed. It was spectacular.

How are you communicating with them when they’re under there?

So we choreographed everything above water, and then Rory would sketch out the shots that we needed in the framings, and then we just leave it to their talents, and they would go down. It was incredible. And then we would look at the footage of Rory, and I’ve looked at the footage in the evening, and it was always great. It was always spectacular.

Did you have a visual on them when they were down there? I mean, I’m imagining if you’re wondering whether or not they’re dead down there, I mean, that’s scary.

We did make sure that the camera person always had a rope attached to them. And it was really just Alexander when he was swimming alone on the ice. So if there were any issues, then the camera person would tug, and I was on the other end holding it, and then the following divers would go down to try to get whoever was having an issue.

Talk to me about the drone shots. Did you have any problems with the drone?

We did.

That’s a load of questions because I know you did. Can you talk about that?

So we lost one drone, unfortunately, and I was at the controls of it. Now we don’t know if it’s for one of two reasons we believe that it may have been from because the batteries just died literally went from 50% to zero and there wasn’t enough time for the drone to get back. 

Yeah, that’s what happens in those extreme weather conditions. You don’t get a warning when the battery’s gonna die. It just all of a sudden says okay, I’m cold, I’m out of here goodbye, and it’s gone.

Exactly. Unfortunately, it dropped into the water just missing the shore, and it was a high current area, and so the guys were amazing, they went and spent two hours under there just going back and forth to see if they could find the drone because there was a particular shot that was really amazing. And then, when we looked at the playback because the DJI, you can actually see all the parameters when it’s still working on your handheld. Actually, there was quite a bit of battery still left, and it really dropped out. And so we’re not sure if maybe the drone was flying higher than it should have and may have been kindly removed from the sky because we were checked everywhere we went from Moscow to the north, every train station, somebody from FSP, which is the CIA and FBI rolled into one would come and make sure that we were there. 

And that you weren’t wandering around spying.

Exactly. So we’ll never know. It’s probably the battery, but it may not have been. So, unfortunately, we did lose one drone, that was the secondary, but our primary drone, we were able to get some really incredible footage. It was really crucial, and it’s difficult when you’re having a snow blizzard, and you’re having a very steady shot and getting orientation when everything’s just white around you.

It’s impossible. You have a complete whiteout, and you lose all sense of where you are. You have no idea what’s up what’s down what’s left, right. Yeah, it’s pretty scary stuff.

It’s like being in a bad relationship.

Yeah. Neither of us has ever had anything like that. Nobody ever has bad relationships. Well, I like the idea that your key character Alex plays a marine biologist who is entered into by this psyche from the ocean and starts seeing things from the POV of the ocean. It’s really something completely different. What stage is the film in now?

We’re in post-production now. And when you’re an independent film, it’s not the easiest process. It’s a little bit slower when you don’t have all the resources we would love to have.

How are you handling this quarantine too? So here’s the editing happening?

So, editing has happened at my place or also in Kiev, because Vlad, who’s the main visionary of this project he’s in Kiev. And then Rory is in the UK, and so we’re all kind of spread out, but the wonderful thing about this quarantine is that it’s not really that different to how I would be working anyway because all the projects that I’m working on are in post anyway so I’d be sitting in front of a computer I just happen to be doing it at home as opposed to somewhere else.

So what are you editing on? What NLE are you using? And what kind of equipment do you have around you?

So for Aquatilis all the posts, the editing is being done in Avid. Just because it’s really for feature film, it is the standard. For all the other projects that I do, anything that all the fashion film stuff that I shoot with Daniella Midenge, or whatever, is always Premiere anything that I edit personally, is going to be in Premiere. But if you are doing anything of a real feature film status, kind of across the board, anyone in Hollywood that you deal with, it’s much preferred if it’s in Avid. We were very fortunate Dolby came to us, and they want to do Dolby Atmos for the project, and they think it’s really an exciting thing. So we kind of have been in talks, and they said, “Are you in Premiere?” and we’re like, “No, we’re in Avid,” and they said “Great, this is so much easier for us.”

Oh really? Okay. So you’ve got all these media you’re shooting, you shot on the RED using the analog lenses, right? That have been adapted to digital because they have to be specially adapted for that. I really want to see a picture of that stuff. Actually, I want to try to shoot with it. That would be awesome. And then you’re cutting on Avid, what are you using in terms of storage for media and hard drives and all that kind of stuff?

We use different manufacturers. I personally use OWC drives, and I have a lot of them. And they’re great. They’re just super resilient, and they last forever. And if there’s ever any support issue, which I haven’t had, but others have told me that they have an incredible response from the OWC team, which is really rare, I don’t think that you get that from a lot of manufacturers. 

No, you get one of those recorded messages, and you have to dial one, two, and three, five times before you finally get to another recording that tells you the office is closed. And this has happened at OWC.

You know what I actually love? I have this, one of the older ones, but I love having the sunset, because everybody, whenever I’m shooting something, they’re used to seeing certain hard drives there, and then they see these, and they’re like, “What is that? I want to know. That looks like a spaceship,” and so I tell them what it is, and they’re like, “Well, this is incredible.” And so it really it’s funny because a lot of clients for fashion stuff, they don’t really know the technology. Everybody in the film industry knows OWC or has worked with them or is looking to work with them. But the clients don’t necessarily know it, and so they’re like, “Oh, who is this?” they love it. And it’s interesting how design is really important, not only having a quality, you can have a great engine in a car, but if you don’t have a nice design on the outside, nobody’s gonna care about it, right? And OWC has done this really great job of having this super engine with a super sexy design on the outside. And it’s a great combination of the two.

Well, I’m glad you’re using OWC drives because they sponsor this show. So it’s really nice that we’re compatible. This is also a great moment, actually. You reminded me, I really do need to say thank you to OWC for sponsoring this and for giving me the chance to talk to people like you. And before we go, let’s touch for just a minute on what you’re doing with Daniella and the fashion stuff too, because that’s completely the other side of the spectrum from winters in the middle of the snow and ice at -50 in Russia to all of a sudden now Harper’s Bazaar and fashion and all the beautiful people what’s going on with that?

I’m very fortunate to work with an incredible photographer Daniella Midenge, and she’s also an amazing director, and she’s one of the top fashion photographers. And now we’ve known each other for a number of years, and she’s doing more and more films. We love working together, we understand each other very, very well. And so I love working on them because they’re usually fairly quick turnarounds, they’re very easy. It’s like, beautiful location, beautiful subjects, beautiful lighting, beautiful music. It’s not rocket science. And especially when you’re doing posts, it’s really nice to look at something beautiful for hours and hours.

I love it. Justin, this is awesome. I’m glad to see you’re doing so many wonderful things. Where do people go to find out more about you and these various projects?

Well, the best place would be to go to moscowmisfits.com. There’s a website with lots of website things on it like photos and text, you could scroll, you can open tabs, that’s probably the best place to go, or you can go to my Instagram, which is really humbly called bejustincredible. You can follow the adventure. I always like to post my various shenanigans. 

Yeah, you’re always up to something crazy. I love it. Well, congratulations on everything you’re doing. Thanks for taking the time to come and visit on the show and we’re gonna be watching. I can hardly wait for Aquatilis to be finished. Tell all of my friends at the Moscow Misfits hello. Thanks to OWC, thanks to Justin Thomson, amazing producer, director, shenanigans all over the world for spending time with us today, and we’ll see you very soon. And everybody, remember when I always tell you get up off your chair and go do something wonderful today. Thanks for watching.


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