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Interview: Laboratory Conditions director Jocelyn Stamat

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Image: Jocelyn Stamat/Joe Russell

Jocelyn Stamat is the director of the excellent spiritual thriller Laboratory Conditions. The film takes the premise of the immortal soul and uses it to weave a story of fear, faith and medical ethics. With such an intriguing film, there was therefore plenty to ask Stamat when Nouse asked her about the film and her career.

Nouse: Where did the idea for the film come from?

JS: Back when screenwriter Terry Rossio was in college, he came across a newspaper article that said some rich guy would give a hundred thousand dollars reward to anyone who could prove the existence of a soul. Apparently a group of grad students in Arizona decided to take him up on the challenge and Terry thought, wow, there's a great concept for a film. So, the film is somewhat 'based on a true story'. Interestingly, he hadn't worked out the ending at the time, so the project brewed for two decades, while he went off and wrote the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise films.

Nouse: Your short could perhaps be described as a horror, thriller, sci-fi, or a thoughtful existential drama. Was it your intention to cross genre boundaries? Do you enjoy disrupting convention when you are making films?

JS: The crossing of genre boundaries emerged from a fear of losing audience interest. Audiences are smart, they've seen everything, and so most films, even shorts, can seem somewhat empty. We wanted to keep coming at you.

On this particular film we invoked our love of the Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, and One Step Beyond series, where significant social issues and existential questions are explored in a genre setting.

Jump scares are fine, we've got one or two. The real key to a horror film, if you want to know, is to feature utterly believable character reactions, start to finish. If the actors have conviction, and the audience believes that the character believes and takes action that is plausible, then your film will work.

Nouse: Who influenced you most in the making of the film? Were you more influenced by horror films, or other genres that explore questions of life and death? In terms of horror tropes, the film relies much more on atmosphere and depth than jump scares. Do you think this is how horror should be done? The film deals with the overlap between science and religion; do you think this is a debate that is still very relevant in our society?

JS: People seem more polarized than ever concerning science and religion, and that is one of the reasons we wanted to make this film. For some, their faith in science is absolute and doesn't allow for a spiritual interpretation, conversely, those with a strictly spiritual belief system allow it to be codified to the exclusion of science. There is even a third group that worships their version of science with a religious fervor that prevents them from accepting any new scientific evidence that contradicts the science they already believe. My hope is that those with a world-view that is science-based might consider human beings as valid measuring instruments, and include their feelings and sensations as valid data-points, though they might fall outside of traditional constraints of the scientific method. And those with a world- view that is faith-based might consider the techniques of science as a valid approach to help define and clarify their intuitions and spiritual sensations.

Nouse: Why did the idea of 'the soul' appeal to you so much?

JS: It's fascinating, especially with film, to explore a concept that is universally known, but where there is no consensus of definition. You know from the start that your story is likely to resonate.

Nouse: 'The soul' is a notoriously elusive concept; how did you approach the challenge of visualising this on screen?

JS: Our conceit was that we were never going to be able to design a definitive soul, but we could create something that was believable from the point of view of one of the characters.

Nouse: How important was the casting for this film and what were you looking for?

JS: For a genre story, it's absolutely necessary for the performers to be grounded and authentic. We really caught lighting in a bottle with our cast, their natural professional ease in front of the camera helped sell the more fantastic elements of our tale.

It was a little intimidating, given their calibre, but they were total pros, and really forced us to up our game. I was overwhelmed by their generosity, it was very kind of them each to work with a first-time filmmaker.

Nouse: Laboratory Conditions features great performances from some big names in Marisa Tomei and Minnie Driver, what was it like working with such established actors? Does it increase pressure for you as a filmmaker, or does their talent put you at ease? Do you enjoy working with actors? Do you view collaboration on performances as your primary role as a director? Or are you more preoccupied with visuals?

JS: Someone said once, there has never been a visual effect invented that is more powerful than the closeup. I'm much more interested in the nuances of performance than any other aspect of filmmaking.

Nouse:Laboratory Conditions had a separate writer and director. Some people believe that having one writer-director allows for more creative control; how did you find the process of two separate people crafting the film?

JS: Terry and I worked very closely, both with the writing and the directing, in order to create a seamless continuum between the two processes. We both brought our different strengths to each step. I contributed from my medical background to the script, while Terry's contributions beyond the script are too numerous to mention. Terry and I share a similar aesthetic, so for this project, the final product was made better by the layering of our talents.

Nouse: Short films are not that visible to the general public and sometimes not readily available. Do you think the film industry would benefit from a change in how we distribute and promote short films?

JS: Yes, it used to be the case that at least there was the occasional anthology collection, such as the Twilight Zone Movie. We hope to bring that back by packaging Laboratory Conditions with several other shorts and aim for a theatrical release.

Nouse: As somebody who has had success with a short film, how do you view their place within the industry? Some people see them just as stepping stones to making features, but some regard them as a crucial art form in their own right; where do you stand on this issue?

JS: We like to think of our film as a little gem, that the concept and story required it to be exactly this length, and no other.

Nouse: Have you always been a film lover? When did you decide filmmaking was something you wanted to pursue seriously?

JS: Everybody loves film! The only difference for filmmakers is they have the audacity to think they can do it themselves, and tell a story in that form. For myself, I was lucky to spend a good amount of time on the set of several of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. That was such a blast, I want to have that type of experience again.

Nouse: What will you be working on next? Can you tell us a bit about it?

JS: Terry, Joe and I are currently working on two features, unrelated to Laboratory Conditions. One is a romantic comedy called Dashboard Jesus and Hula Girl that celebrates the open road and country music. A bit of a departure to be sure, but tell me you don't want to go see that film, just from the title!

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