Interview: Keir Burrows talks indie sci-fi Anti Matter
Matthew Turner | On 08, Jul 2017
The world of micro-budget and indie sci-do has served up any number of gems over the years, from Primer and Another Earth to Coherence. This summer sees the arrival another: Anti Matter, which is released on DVD and VOD after its premiere at the Raindance Film Festival last year (where it was called Worm). We catch up with Keir Burrows, writer and director of the film, to talk imagination, ambition and overcoming financial hurdles. (Read our review of the film here.)
Where did the idea for the film come from?
It originally started off as two separate short film ideas. The first was just the beginning section, where they were inventing something that goes wrong – that was a short film idea I had way back, like six or seven years ago. God knows where the idea for that part came from. But then, the broader story, basically what happens at the end is what I started with, and then I went backwards from there.
What prompted the title change from Worm to Anti Matter?
That’s a good question – that was our US distributor, Uncorked, who were quite adamant that, especially in the US, so many of the ways that they get the film out there are in alphabetical order, and doubly for a film that doesn’t have any big name actors in it, it’s a harder sell. And so they urged us to find a title higher up in the alphabet. It was a pretty close thing to do, because the film had already finished, we’d already been at Raindance with it as Worm, and then, obviously, the distribution came on and we made the title change. But, that said, I’m quite happy with it, I think we’ve had a positive reaction to the title change. It also makes it sound more sci-fi and less horror, which is what it is, so you’re not expecting a horror flick.
It reminded us a lot of Shane Carruth’s Primer, not just in ambition, but in theme and budget as well. I’m assuming that was a key influence in all three areas?
Yes, absolutely, a huge influence, that film. In fact, it was after watching that that I started putting everything together to do something similar to Primer, but as a short film, and then it developed from a short film into a feature afterwards. But yes, Primer, Another Earth, Moon, those were all big influences when putting it together. But also with Primer, what you can do in science-fiction without much money, provided you’ve got an interesting idea, or something interesting to say, it’s quite nice, I like that.
Can you talk a bit more about the process of balancing that kind of ambition with a limited budget?
Yes, absolutely. So, my wife is the producer and that, from the start, was a huge help, that you had two people who are living together constantly working on the project, so that helped us get things going. We’d made five short films, before we started making the feature, and we’d had quite a lot of success with the short films – we’d been to TriBeCa a couple of times, and we’d developed a team, a crew and actors who trusted us – and almost all of the people that we’d worked with in the last few short films came on board with the feature.
And we set up the shoots for the feature by breaking them up into blocks, so we shot it as if we were making four or five short films over the course of nine months. So we’d get five days, get everybody together and shoot five pages of script for our particular location, and then nobody would do anything for two months or three months and then we’d edit that and then in the next two months, we’d find the next location and then set things up and then block off five or eight days and shoot it again, as if it were a little short film. You can make a short film quite well on a very small budget, on a five or 10 grand budget, because you’re not asking people to take huge chunks of time out of their lives and so on.
And then we just did so much in-house, so much of the post, the sound, grade, special effects we did ourselves, and being able to do it in-house meant, again, that we could take our time and get the quality right, and if we needed to go back and reshoot anything, we could very easily. That sort of thing. So that was how we managed to get it done.
What challenges have you faced in terms of getting a release for the film?
My wife, the producer, has done all the leg work for that. It was initially just contacting a lot of distribution companies. Raindance was useful, it kind of opened more doors. So we’ve got two distributors – we’ve got Kaleidoscope here in the UK and we’ve got Uncorked in the US, and Uncorked are also doing the international sales. And we decided to keep it as two separate companies because… actually, I don’t even know why we did that. Not having a named actor was difficult, definitely. If there was perhaps one single thing that I could go back and do differently about the whole film, it would be to try and get a recognisable face in as a supporting character. I think it just opens up a lot more doors, if you can get that. This is our first feature, we haven’t got a track record behind us, so just getting people to even watch it was an uphill battle, essentially. But we kept slogging with it and we’re obviously very happy with how it turned out, definitely.
Did you consider other options, such as pitching to Netflix or using Amazon Video Direct to upload to Amazon Prime Video yourselves?
We didn’t. We didn’t. Again, it was just the two of us, so to be honest, those sort of questions didn’t even come up. We found that we connected with both Uncorked and Kaleidoscope relatively quickly after we started looking, and so we never got to the point where we were saying, okay, this isn’t working, are there any other non-standard routes that we can approach to get to market? I think we always just felt a little hamstrung, 1. by the fact that we weren’t well connected within the industry, and 2. we didn’t have any recognisable talent, and so our pitching platform, so to speak, was quite limited.
How important do you see Video On Demand to the future of independent filmmaking?
That’s a good question. Brutally honestly, and this is a terrible answer to your question, I try not to spend too much time thinking about that side of things, if that makes sense? I’m just, at this point, so mentally involved in just trying to get scripts together, to get the writing side of things, and then get what I write in front of the right people. But that side of things, I probably should pay a lot more attention to. What’s very nice, or very attractive with the whole revolution in Video On Demand – which is happening at the same time as a revolution in production, where the cost of being able to produce a feature film has dropped massively – is that, theoretically, it becomes more meritocratic; quality can rise up with more ease. That’s the hope, anyway. Now, whether that just means that the gates get moved and Video On Demand becomes just another distribution network that is controlled by a few big single players again, I don’t know. It’s in its infancy.
What was the hardest thing to get right, throughout the whole production?
The script is a big thing. I write and direct and I’d always considered myself relatively good at writing, and then when it came to it and we were actually getting started shooting and when we were starting to edit things together, I realised that there were a lot of problems with my script. And so there was a lot of writing and fixing on the fly or writing in the edit and having to change scenes during the edit and add new lines, so probably, humility-wise, that was a huge thing to realise – put a lot more attention into getting the details of the script right, before picking up the camera.
Locations were effing difficult, were a nightmare when you’ve got no money, and we were quite ambitious with our locations – this wasn’t a one-room science fiction story. We had something like 30 locations on the film, which is everything that they say don’t do on a micro-budget film, so that was probably the thing that had us tearing our hair out the most, was trying to find locations that we could afford, that we could handle, that would let us shoot there.
We liked the film’s use of Oxford locations – you don’t see them that often in films, so it was nice to see a bit of a change of scenery.
Cheers. Yeah, we were purposefully trying to set it somewhere that was as non-sci-fi as possible, so that you could have the difference between them and their little basement room, tinkering with their electronics, and then you had all these big old, free production value, basically, buildings in the background.
Completely randomly, we were London-based when we shot the film, and then afterwards we moved to Oxford, my sister was living there, and we lived in Oxford for a year and a half after making the film, and now we’ve moved back to London. So we’re not Oxford based, but we have lived there and I did have family there.
You mentioned that you used actors that you’d already used in your short films. Was that the case for all three of the leads?
That was the case for two of the three, both the two ladies. Yaiza Figueroa, who’s a Puerto Rican actress, she was in two of my short films – Grace, which we had at TriBeCa and The Showreel, which we had at the BFI London Film Festival. So I’d worked with her closely twice before and had 100 per cent confidence in her ability. And, actually, in the original script of Anti Matter, when it was Worm, the script was originally written with the genders of the three main roles reversed, so it was a male lead and then a female and a male main supporting characters. And it was after we’d finished and shot The Showreel and had the success that we had with it that the producer said, why don’t you revisit the script and change it so that the lead could be Yaiza, and I thought about that for a moment and I was like, hell, yeah, why not? She’s great, she’s fantastic, she got a lot of credit for us on the short films as well. So we rewrote the script and I’m really, really glad that I did: she’s great in it.
She reminded us a lot of Noomi Rapace
Yes. Yes. She has a similar face structure, yes.
What’s your next project?
So, there are a couple. I’m not in a crazy hurry – we’ve got two small children, so we’re just taking it quite easy and glad to get Anti Matter out. I’ve got a feature film, a Cornwall-set horror called A Spriggan (a mythological Cornish monster that lives in the woods and does bad things), which starts off as a monster movie and becomes something else. I’ve been having some really good, quite high up conversations with producers to get that off the ground. And I’ve got a drama set in Oklahoma about a deputy sheriff dealing with loneliness and that’s a completely different non-genre film, again, that I’m developing, but I’m getting quite a lot of good conversations going. So yes, two projects, very different from each other. My plan after Anti Matter had always been to just sit and write and keep writing until one of the things that I’d written floated up to the surface. I’m very keen not to do it again at the same micro, micro budget level that we made Anti Matter at – it was very difficult, and very difficult for us, as a family, just the stress of it all, so I’m quite happy to just put my head down and keep working until we get something done at a more standard low level / medium budget production. So yeah, we’ll see.
Anti Matter is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.