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Springboard: The One Mistake ‘Listening’ Filmmaker Khalil Sullins Wants Other Creators to Avoid

Springboard: The One Mistake 'Listening' Filmmaker Khalil Sullins Wants Other Creators to Avoid

READ MORE: Watch: Mind-Reading is Better (and More Dangerous) Than Sex in Exclusive ‘Listening’ Trailer

Indiewire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.

For his feature debut, filmmaker Khalil Sullins looked to the future — but not too far. With his “Listening,” Sullins imagines a world where technology has allowed people to communicate via telepathy, though the results are far from ideal. Although the idea behind “Listening” is pretty wild, it turns out that it’s not that far removed from where existing technology is currently heading. 

The film stars Thomas Stroppel, Artie Ahr and Amber Marie Bollinger as penniless grad students who, quite surprisingly, invent an advanced technology that facilitates telepathy. What they don’t know is that they’re not the only people working on such advances, and when their discovery is taken by a shady government agency, they’re forced to contend with their creation. Made on an indie-sized budget, the film has been a festival hit across the circuit, and one that presents a clear vision of the (not so distant) future. It’s a bold debut from Sullins, and it marks the introduction of an exciting new indie voice in the sci-fi sphere.

“Listening” will be available in theaters and On Demand on Friday, September 11. Read more from Sullins himself below:

The initial seed of an idea was “what if someone invented telepathy?” The movie is a hard sci-fi film, meaning all the science that you see in it either actually currently exists or is theoretically possible. When I was doing research online, I was surprised to see there are machines out there already that exist that can read thoughts on a very elementary level. A few months after we finished production, my brother sent me an article, and scientists have invented exactly what we theorized in the film, those nano-electrodes. We’re nowhere near telepathy like it’s shown in the film, but the science is sort of, kind of there.

A lot of what I found [in my research] was actually for humane and positive purposes. Like amputee victims, being able to control a robotic arm or a robotic leg with your brain. I found one experiment where they had a monkey’s brain connected to a robot, and he would feed himself bananas with this robotic arm. More of the scary stuff I read was sort of ancient history, things about MKUltra and Project Artichoke and these old CIA projects where they were experimenting on test subjects with LSD. 

I think good sci-fi allows you to explore the world around us and say something through allegory. For me, I wanted to explore our relationship with communication technology in general. It’s continually evolving, it’s really interesting to me. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, we’re given all these new tools to express our thoughts and feelings, but do they actually make us better communicators? Does the technology in and of itself help us communicate, or is it just amplifying what’s there?

I was originally planning to sell the script before I decided to make it myself. It wasn’t written as a micro-budget, all-takes-place-in-one-house or road trip type movie. We ended up with over 35 locations around the world, it’s LA, DC and Cambodia. That took a lot of prep work. 

I put together a director’s book, we called it. It was a few hundred pages of visual research, basically every single creative decision: Every single prop, every single costume, all the cinematography concepts, editing, music. Basically, every creative decision was made in advance, because once you’re on set and you’re trying to do much, you don’t have time to be thinking, why do I want this? or what direction do I want to go creatively? You need to know all that stuff already.

My next job as a director was to find extremely talented people and ask them to work for far less than they deserve to be paid. We were lucky to find a very talented team, and everyone fell in love with the project. I was well-insulated with people who knew what they were doing, who were experienced and hungry.  

This was my first film, so I knew I had to find people who knew what they were doing. It’s a tiny indie film, but we really tried not to go the route of getting your cousin to hold the boom mic. We tried to hire people, this is what they do every day, this is their day job and they were experts in their fields.

After the first week, our footage looked so amazing. Our whole crew was kind of dumb-founded, myself included. You don’t know what’s going to happen. The motto became “don’t screw it up.” It was palpable, that it felt like we were doing something special and we just need to keep it going. We needed to not drop the ball.

I was very much in my element making the film, but once the movie was done, I sort of was like, “well, now what?” That’s what they don’t teach you in film school: What you do after the movie is done. There’s so many mistakes you can make on the festival circuit and presenting to distributors and all that stuff. We tried to get advice from any friends we had that had gone through this before.

My advice to other filmmakers would be, don’t show the movie or present it to anyone until it’s completely done. We’ve had a fantastic festival run, we’ve played at over 30 festivals, but all of the top, major festivals, we sent rough cuts of the film, without music, no color-grading. When you see the film, those are really important aspects of the film. I think that was our one misstep. 

My parents were not protective, they let me watch a lot of stuff, before maybe I should have. My parents love movies, too. I watched “Star Wars” long before I should have, I think I was maybe four or five years old. Maybe it wasn’t too young, but it traumatized me in an a way. I had this recurring nightmare for months that my dad was Darth Vader and I was Luke and he would chop off my arm and then the Death Star would explode. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

READ MORE: Prepare for a Technological Breakthrough in Exclusive ‘Listening’ Poster

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