Off Course: An Interview with Filmmaker Adam Stern

Cerys Wilson Talks with Music Composer, Writer, and Director Adam Stern on His New Sci-Fi Space Travel Short FTL

When Adam Stern was 15 years old, he won the prestigious Canadian Music Competition. Later, as an undergraduate at Berklee College of Music, Stern studied jazz piano and composition. His path seemed set; his bright future as a musician was all but a given. Then he discovered visual effects.

Stern now heads the award-winning, Vancouver-based VFX studio Artifex, creating visual effects for more than sixty film and television projects, including FOX’s Almost Human, which landed the studio an Emmy nomination.

In recent years, Stern has circled back to his first love—music. He composed the score for his latest short film FTL, which he also wrote, directed, and produced. The story follows husband, father, and NASA astronaut Ethan Kane on his final mission to test drive the first faster-than-light spacecraft, The Longshot.

The Independent’s Cerys Wilson caught up with Stern during FTL’s busy festival run to talk space travel, staying grounded in science fiction, and the challenge of shooting in Vancouver these days.

CW:  What was your goal with FTL?  What drew you to this project?

Ty Olsson (as Ethan Kane) taking The Longshot on its maiden voyage

AS: I love science fiction, always have. Star Trek was a huge thing for me: All the wonder attached to space flight and exploration; what’s out there in the universe—I absolutely loved it. So, on a basic level, I really wanted to play with those ideas, which are things that I like to see in the theater. I was also looking for an opportunity for myself and the Artifex team to showcase visually the capabilities we have. Lastly, I wanted to make something that could be extended into a larger story, which FTL certainly comes from.

CW: How did you get FTL off the ground? Can you discuss the pre-production phase?

AS:  Well, owning a visual effects facility is certainly a very helpful toolset! I’m also fortunate to know a number of people within the film community in Vancouver—one being Todd Giroux, a great post-producer, whom I’ve worked with on a number of projects, and also Sarah Irvine-Erickson, a tremendous director and producer. I approached them both with the script, which I’d completed sometime earlier, and they were game, so we went ahead with it. With casting, again, we were fortunate to be able to approach people we’d worked with on various shows in the area. We spent three months in pre-production figuring out what we could do in just a two or three-day shoot, knowing that we were then going to spend three-to-four months in post-production. All in all, FTL was written in early spring 2016 and then we wrapped everything, including post-production, by the beginning of that December.

CW: There are some amazing special effects in FTL that are also quite beautiful. Can you elaborate on the aesthetic style of the film? What were you trying to achieve?

FTL Poster

AS: Right before we shot FTL, there were some fascinating videos online showing what an official NASA warp spacecraft could look like. I wanted to make sure that we extrapolated current NASA technology, with a design that had the look, the pedigree, of the shuttles and heat shields and tiles, etc., but with newer technologies and materials. We tried to keep things grounded—in the way Mission Control looked, in the way the spacecraft looked—to create a sense of realism.  And, of course, there were also a few films spinning around my head: Star Trek, obviously, Kubrick’s 2001 Interstellar was another.

CW: Has anyone from NASA seen the film to date? Did you have anyone consulting?

AS: We didn’t have anyone consulting, but we’ve had some people from JPL [NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory] check out the film. At the SCI-ON! festival in Reno, Nevada this year, where FTL won Best Science Fiction Film, Rod Roddenberry [whose father, Gene, created Star Trek] was in the audience and I was told he loved the film, which was neat.

 CW: What were some specific challenges you faced in creating FTL?

AS: We basically knew what we were in for with the visual effects, which is not to say they weren’t challenging at times. What was daunting was the time we knew it would take to create them. The real challenges came when putting the physical production aspects together. Given how wildly busy it is in Vancouver, with 40 or 50 shows happening at any given time, we had to be sure that we could keep a crew and cast ready. So, we’d find a crew and then people would have to bow out. It was kind of crazy.

CW: There’s a nice balance between the human relationships in FTL and the special effects. How important is this balance for you as a filmmaker of science fiction?

Aliyah O’Brien as Abby Kane, Ethan’s wife

AS: I really endeavored to give FTL heart. With my first film [The Adept, 2015] and now with FTL, I’ve strived to put the characters and their relationships at the core of the story. It’s important to me that the science fiction I make is driven by the characters, as opposed to them getting lost in a fantastical world that obscures or overwhelms them.

CW: You originally trained as a pianist and composer. Can you talk about FTL’s score – its inspiration and production?

AS: One of the reasons I want to make films is that I want the opportunity to score them. I studied jazz in music school and, after, played and recorded for years before taking a long hiatus. And then, more recently, I’ve dug back into it, studying orchestration so that I might give myself more tools, as a filmmaker, that is. From a production perspective, it’s just me. I sat in my small home studio and put the score together, which was then mixed by our sound team. I was trying to thematically create something that would follow the progression of the film’s arc: There’s a heroic entry at the beginning, which gradually becomes more electronic as it goes on, before ending on the orchestral side. I was listening to a lot of Thomas Newman, certainly. I love James Newton Howard’s work. And then I like some Hans Zimmer too, especially the work he’s done for Christopher Nolan.

CW: Can you talk about the festival run for FTL?

Adam Stern on the set of FTL

AS: We started at Sci-Fi-London and have since played some smaller, sci-fi genre festivals. Most recently, we were at Hollyshorts and LA Shorts, both in Los Angeles. This fall we’re showing at the Dragon Con Independent Short Film Festival in Atlanta, GA, the Sci-Fi Film Festival in Sydney, Australia, FilmQuest in Provo, UT, and the Starburst International Film Festival in Manchester, UK. And then there are a number of other festivals we’re hoping to announce shortly.

 CW: What are your plans moving forward, for this film or for another project?

AS: There’s a feature version of FTL which we’re looking at right now, in terms of feasibility. When I wrote the short, I had an idea for what the rest of the story would be. The short is almost the equivalent of Act I of the feature, which goes on to explore the identity of Ethan Kane on his return to Earth. I’m also developing a feature version of my previous short, The Adept, which we shot with just two cast in a room. I’ve been working with the lead, Adam Reid, to see where we might take the story from there.

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