For most people, making a film is less than glamorous, despite what the movies might say about it. Very few filmmakers have the glitz and glam lifestyle associated with the Hollywood stereotype, and there are hordes of real people making small-scale films and doing so with very little budget, right here in the Twin Cities. Many of these films are seldom seen and often succumb to a mostly unwatched death, so it’s an especially exciting tale when that familiar plot isn’t followed. One example: Matt Osterman’s Ghost From The Machine, a supernatural thriller produced with a minuscule budget and the hope that maybe some big distributors would pick it up and help promote it nationally or beyond, saw Universal Pictures buy the rights to the film in August with the intention of remaking it with a big budget and famous faces. We recently chatted with Osterman, writer and director of the original movie, about giving away his baby to Hollywood.
The A.V. Club: Why don’t you say a bit about your background as a filmmaker.
Matt Osterman: This movie was my first feature as a director. I’ve done a bunch of shorts in the past—short films are the next best thing you can film on your own. After working a random smattering of jobs, I produced a feature documentary for John Stewart from The Daily Show. We followed Vikings fans around for an entire year, and that ended up being aired on Spike TV. After that, I jumped directly into features.
AVC: Why did John Stewart want to make a film about the Vikings?
MO: The concept didn’t involve Vikings fans, he just really wanted to take a look at hardcore football fans, attempting to peel back the layers of the proverbial onion and see who these people are. You watch a game on Sunday, and you see somebody in the front row with their face painted, often times drunk, and they’re very fanatical. So, he was interested in just doing a study of who these people are, what they do. So, we hung out with a bunch of fans for a year. Minnesota worked out well because it’s such a tortured fan base, so there’s drama built-in already, and it’s just an interesting locale. It’s not New York or L.A. It’s a bit more pastoral.
AVC: You recently sold the rights to your film, Ghost From The Machine, to Universal. How did that come about?
MO: We made this film locally, and then we premièred at a festival in Montreal last summer. And from there, we did a nice, long international festival run. We sold distribution rights to a company out in New York, called Screen Media, and then we sold the international distribution rights to a company in L.A. So that’s traditional film distribution, where they put you on iTunes and in rental stores, On Demand, that kind of thing. So we got this standard distribution deal, which is pretty rare for a low-budget indie film like ours. That’s all we were hoping for, and we weren’t expecting this Universal thing to happen. But then Universal expressed interest in the rights to remake it. We get to keep our original film and continue to distribute it, but they see some value in the concept and they want to put more money into it and put some stars in it, and they think it has a lot of potential.
AVC: Where are they with these plans?
MO: It’s just beginning. It’s going to have to be re-written for a larger budget. And I won’t be that guy—and I wouldn’t want to be that guy; it’d be hard making one movie for 10 years. But they have to write this script before they can greenlight it.
AVC: Are you at all concerned about what their final product might be?
MO: Obviously, it’s my baby, and there’s cause for concern whenever you give your baby away, but these people are really smart. They have a good team assembled, and I have no doubt that they’re going to hit it out of the park. But I’m happy that the story is going to get out to a wider audience; that’s why we tell stories. And, ultimately, it means that more people are going to see the original film, too. Regardless of the quality of the remake, people will look to the original to see what inspired this new film, for better or worse.
AVC: The movie used to have a different title. At what point did it change?
MO: Yeah, it was called Phasma Ex Machina, which is Latin for Ghost From The Machine. When we got our domestic distribution, they really liked the title, but if you think about it, if it’s on a menu or a Red Box, if a person reads the title and doesn’t know anything else about it, they’re going to think it’s a foreign film. And they were right, so they asked if they could just go with the translation, which we did.
AVC: The movie was actually filmed a couple of years ago.
MO: Yeah, the end of 2008. This has actually been fairly decent turn-around for a movie like this. When a studio makes a movie, they are the distributor, so they don’t have to connect that dot. Most independent films have to connect that dot. Two or three year turn-around is nothing rare.
AVC: What are the chances of a small independent film like yours being picked up a by a huge studio?
MO: It’s crazy, crazy rare just to get distributed, and then to have a studio pick it up, that’s probably 10-times more rare.
AVC: How was the movie originally financed?
MO: Well, we made the movie for 25 grand. And if you know anything about movie budgets, well, that’s pretty low. We did a mix of private equity, just friends and family who were private investors, deferred payments, and then basically just calling in a lot of favors.
AVC: Did you know most of the actors before you started the project?
MO: I knew a handful of them before, or at least was familiar with many of them, but we still did the whole audition thing. This town has so much amazing acting talent.
AVC: Where did the idea for this movie come from?
MO: I’ve always been interested in the supernatural, and the question of what happens when you die is a universal one, and obviously that interests me. On top of that, I’ve always been interested in science. So, one day the lightbulb went off and I just thought about combining the supernatural with science. If the paranormal does exist, why would it exist outside of the walls of the known universe?
The research part of the writing process for this movie was a blast.
AVC: What went into that? Did you know a lot about electrical engineering before writing this?
MO: Yeah, it can get technical. When I really got into it, I could speak a good game, but now that we’re a few years out, some of that has gotten a little foggy. But at the time, I was confident that everything I was saying made sense. It doesn’t have to make sense to the audience, but they have to believe the character.
AVC: The characters in this movie are really strong. They seem like real people, and that adds to the suspense.
MO: A couple of things go into making that happen. One is casting the right people, people who can bring reality to it. They just seem natural on camera. And the second is just writing style. I keep the language conversational, and I rewrite until I nail it. But I also keep things lose on set, and the actors do some improvising. My words aren’t gospel. If something isn’t working, we’ll toss it. You have to let the actors own it.
AVC: Even though you’ve sold the rights to this film, the original is still being distributed, and recently you released a pretty funny late-night promotion for the movie.
MO: Yeah, even though the rights have been sold, we’re still promoting our film. And those late-night promos are a fun way of getting the word out. That one, as you can tell, has very little to do with the film.
AVC: Where specifically did you film? The whole thing looks very Minnesotan.
MO: We shot at Axe Man. A couple of the houses were in Edina. And we shot at Blake [High School], as well a couple of places across from Minneapolis. I’m originally one of those people who came from Wisconsin, but I came here when I was 18 to go to the U.
AVC: What’d you study?
MO: Scientific and technical communication. A lot of people in that field end up writing user manuals or technical documentation, but that was a little too dry for me. I didn’t know at the time that becoming a filmmaker would be possible. I use a lot of scientific and technical info in my films, so it ended up being a perfect education for me, considering the type of movies I’ve made.