Two of the latest trends in film have existed for centuries in the theater. Plays are all done in one take. And plays are 3D. But while the medium has been around since before anyone can remember, it hasn’t changed all that much. In the end, it’s actors on a stage telling you a story. Which is what makes theater an ideal training ground for film directors. Stripping something down to its essential components teaches you how it works.
That brings us to Jesse Atlas, black box theater director turned film director with a bent for emotionally driven science fiction. His films, he says, are always just an inch to the left or right of reality. It’s a space that’s not only visually intriguing, but also psychologically revealing. In his words: “I want the characters to be fully formed people who tell you a story through their emotional journey.” It’s a balance between delivering your message and knowing your message — one that Jesse attempts to strike in every project.
We recently talked with Jesse about theater, sci-fi, and his fantastic short film Record/Play.If you haven’t already, click the poster below to watch the film in its entirety:
For me, in visual storytelling, I always want to be grounded from an emotional standpoint. I want the characters to be fully formed people who tell you a story through their emotional journey.
Musicbed: What got you into theater?
Jesse Atlas: When I was growing up, there was no digital video. And most high schools didn’t have a film program. Film was a very inaccessible thing. Of course that’s all changed now, but back then, without those things, I gravitated toward the theater. I loved the idea of a creative endeavor that involved a lot of people. Where I am now is mostly because of the collaborative relationships I’ve had.
After college I was in the theater scene in New York — Off-Off-Off-Broadway where nobody had money or resources. But this was the mid ’90s, and people were still going to the theater. It was an exciting time. The theater scene was alive and well in New York back then. But it changed soon after that, which is why I shifted my focus to film.
Film was a much bigger canvas. And I didn’t have to spend so much time getting people to show up to a live event that was going to happen only once. People can come to a film on their own terms, whenever they want. And that suited me. I wanted to spend more time on stories and less time on being an event promoter.
I get the impression theater can be a more serious discipline than film.
Oh yeah. Theater is about working with actors. You have this black box space, and it’s completely empty. You don’t have much money for set design or props. You’re not doing any fancy tricks with your lighting. It’s all about your actors. Every turn in the story and every emotional turn need to be reflected in their performance. So you learn to get deep inside every character. You learn to get in touch with all the nuances of a person, and how you can tell a story through a person.
That was the biggest gift I got from theater. It’s given me an edge over a lot of my colleagues — not an edge; it’s not a competition. But it’s something that helped me find my unique voice. For me, in visual storytelling I always want to be grounded from an emotional standpoint. I want the characters to be fully formed people who tell you a story through their emotional journey. That’s been true in every film project I’ve worked on, whether it’s a narrative or documentary.
You’re always focusing on an emotional journey?
Yeah. Look, I work in genre. Some of it is sci-fi, some of it is psychological thriller, but it’s always very emotionally grounded. It’s never just about the concept. There has to be a heart and soul underneath. You give people a rich emotional canvas, and hopefully the film resonates a lot more than just a standard genre film. Record/Play is a great example of that. Of course the concept was a huge inspiration. Our first thought was, What’s a sci-fi concept that’s never been done before? But right after that we started asking ourselves, How do we turn that into something that really, really resonates on a deeply human level? I still get random emails from people telling me the film made them cry. It’s a testament to the project. You can’t dismiss it as a sci-fi genre film. It has a core to it.
How different is storytelling on film versus in a theater?
The thing about theater is that it’s such a different temporal experience. Theater starts at 8 p.m. and ends at 10 p.m. And the actor is completely present for the entire ride. Film is the opposite. It’s all chopped up. You’re all over the place. It’s harder for an actor to be grounded, to have that present awareness of the story. So that’s why I always carve out time to do deep-dive rehearsals, so that feeling of presence can get ingrained in the actors’ bodies before we get to the set. They know where they are, and they can access those deeper emotions.
The flip side of that is the audience. In theater, you’re always in sync with the characters. You’re going down this path with them, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You can’t cut away. I try to do the same thing with my films. It’s very important to me that the audience is in the same space as the character, and that we’re not tipping our hand or foreshadowing anything that takes the audience out of the character’s head. The character is present in the moment, and the audience is present in the moment. It’s the technique I used in Record/Play, and I think it worked out very well.
Why are you drawn to sci-fi?
There are two reasons, and they both stem from theater. First, I’ve always been attracted to surrealism and spectacle, whether it was the Bread and Puppet Theater, or Julie Taymor and the things she incorporated into her work. Those spectacles are what drew me to the visual side of filmmaking. And even though the spectacle in films like Record/Play is a bit understated, it still gives me more of a palette to work with. I’m interested in a world that’s an inch to the left or an inch to the right. Or even a mile to the left or a mile to the right. That’s a much more interesting place for me visually than the real world.
The second reason is, when you shift a world, your character also has to shift in relation to that world. And that’s a great entryway into somebody’s psyche.
What are some lessons you’ve learned that have stuck with you?
Two experiences come to mind. The first is when I was taking an acting/directing workshop with Joe Chaikin, a true master. He’d had a stroke, so his vocabulary was very limited. One time we were working on a Shakespeare scene, and I was playing Richard the Third. After I did the scene, Joe looked at me and — I don’t know if this is going to translate into writing — he said, “Jesse! King!” But it was the way he said, “King!” I immediately felt like, “Oh, right. I get it.” There was so much power in that one word of direction. It wasn’t surrounded by all this flowery language. He was accessing the part of my psyche that was more inclined to be a ruler. It was so simple and direct. I always remember that moment when I’m working with actors. I try to be incredibly direct.
The other thing that stuck with me comes from Joseph Campbell. He’s a well-known theorist on stories. In some of his work, he talks about the idea of “present moment awareness,” being completely consumed by what’s right in front of your face. He relates it to a guy who sees a woman about to go over a cliff. The guy becomes completely consumed with saving her. When they ask him about it later, he says, “I don’t know what happened. My body took over and I just saved the girl.” In that instant, everything else in the world disappeared. That’s the kind of experience I want people to have when they watch my films. To be so in step with the character and so present in the moment that everything else fades away and they’re just there.
Is the audience saving the girl or going off the cliff?
Saving the girl — no, both. They’re both.