Striking a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures for your low-budget sci-fi movie as a first-time filmmaker is close to impossible, but that’s exactly what writer-director Mark Elijah Rosenberg did with “Approaching the Unknown.” On June 3, Paramount made the film available on video-on-demand, while Vertical Entertainment released the movie theatrically the same day in 11 U.S. cities. But it took Rosenberg a couple of years and more than a few setbacks to get this far.
The film stars Mark Strong as Captain William Stanaforth, a scientist and astronaut on a one-way trip to Mars, where he’s determined to start a colony. Its only other lead character, played by Luke Wilson, is mission control head Louis Skinner.
Shot in 2014 and completed in early 2016, the project began not as a movie, but as a performance art installation Rosenberg intended to capture on video. “We were going to rent a bus, outfit it like a spaceship, put cameras on it, and have an actor live in it for about 30 days with a loosely structured script,” Rosenberg said. “There would be story points, but then a lot of improvisation and me communicating remotely to him, telling him some things to do.”
When Rosenberg’s script started attracting interest from potential investors who wanted to see a more conventional narrative, the project evolved from art installation to independent film, but one that had mainstream appeal. “The ideas I wanted to explore were about a person who thinks he’s in control and then has to learn that he’s not, that he doesn’t know everything, and then has to adjust his sensibility to survive,” Rosenberg said. “It lives in this place between art house film and low-budget action film.”
While Rosenberg was able to realize his vision for the film, Paramount ultimately had the final say when it came to editing the movie. “Losing some of the final creative control over the film was really difficult for me and disappointing, but those things are just the balance of the filmmaking life,” Rosenberg said.
The founder of Rooftop Films, the New York-based summer screening series now in its 20th year, Rosenberg leaned on his contacts in the indie film community and won grants for the project from the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, The San Francisco Film Society, and granting organizations Cinereach, Creative Capital, and the Jerome Foundation.
Some of the ways he kept the film’s budget to $1.3 million included casting only five actors, using practical models instead of computer-generated images, and setting 90 percent of the story in a 12″ by 20″ room that served as the movie’s spaceship. Rosenberg also convinced special effects legend Douglas Trumbull, who designed models for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blade Runner,” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” to let the team shoot at Trumbull’s studio in the rural Berkshires. “I definitely thought what that what we were doing was a little crazy and maybe overly ambitious,” Rosenberg said. “I didn’t think there was a blueprint for potential success.”
While the director may have been flying blind to some degree with regards to his strategy for selling the film, in the end, all it took was his completed screenplay and a rough cut of the movie to convince Paramount to buy the digital rights.
Because the studio doesn’t produce enough films to fulfill its international distribution deals, the company has to buy the rights to movies like any other distributor. With outer space movies like 2013’s “Gravity” and 2015’s “The Martian” costing around $100 million each, the opportunity to buy a similar film made for just $1.3 million was likely an attractive proposition.
Still, Rosenberg will be the first person to point out that he didn’t get rich off his first movie. Rather than being an investor in the project himself, the terms of his agreement with investors dictated that he would be paid a salary while working on the film. “Sure I’d like to have made more money, but the more important thing for me was definitely making the movie,” he said. “I didn’t feel like the compensation was unfair.”
Though “Approaching the Unknown’s” greatest selling point for distributors was likely the fact that it delivered a sci-fi film on a low budget, Rosenberg said the key to the story was less about outer space and more about having a solitary character in a very different experience than what humans are used to. “The fact that we were able to create that mood is more important to me than having it be a sci-fi movie or set in space, he said. “It could have been a submarine movie or about a trip to Antarctica.”
Rosenberg’s debut has been in theaters for less than a week, but he’s already finished another screenplay — a drama set on Earth — and is working on a low-budget romance and a comedy script. He describes the drama as a “magical realist” story about a man trying to put his life back together after 15 years in prison.
“We’re just starting to shop it around,” he said. “I hope to get back to making another movie soon.”