ATOMS ORBIT AN INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT HELLON

A man hides from society as his inner mental turmoil suffocates his ability to function. Scott has won many awards like Best Feature from Eurovision Palermo Film Festival 2020, Best Narrative Feature & Best Mystery Film from L’Age d’Or International Art House Film Festival, Best Drama 2020 from Madrid Art Film Festival for his outstanding works.

CULT CRITIC: Hello Scott, hope you are doing good. Tell us something about your childhood days. Like, from where you had done your schooling?

SCOTT: Childhood/Teen Stories

After about the first 6 years of my life in Phoenix, Arizona, my family moved about 100 miles south to Tucson, Arizona.  Of course I have hardly any memories of those years in Phoenix.  By early schooling, I was writing short stories, showing a clear drive to be a storyteller in life.  I’ll jump passed making silly VHS movies with my friends and my toys, and discuss the beginnings of short filmmaking.
During the Summer between my Junior & Senior year in high school, I spent 5 weeks at Boston University in Massachusetts as part of a Summer Film/TV/Radio course I enrolled in.  I made my first two short films there, writing, directing, producing and editing as a five person team, we were all 16 or 17-years-old.  For the third class, I designed and station managed an hour of live radio broadcast at the Boston University radio station, including morning banter by a DJ duo and with minute-long radio commercials everyone conceived and recorded, mine being for a made up bottled beverage named Hellon’s Iced Coffees.
The following Summer, after high school and just before starting college, I spent a similar college course at The University of Southern California Film School in Los Angeles.
This one was exclusively for filmmaking, and my two personal projects were shot on high definition video.  There I finally got to write, produce and direct my first and second short films as an individual, the first time I could tell a story without being out-voted in a group on what the story should be, what we all more-or-less agreed upon, which is what the Boston short films were like.  The third USC short was a group project shot on 16mm film and we actually filmed it at the Universal Studios backlot, a perk of the class.  Even visitors on the famous tram tour watched us throughout the day.  In addition to duties writing, directing, producing that project as a group, I also co-starred and co-edited it, it’s titled “Suburban Rivalry”.
A few weeks after completing that USC Summer film course, I officially started at Marymount Junior College, a private college in Ranchos Palos Verdes, California.  I lived in apartment “dorms” in nearby San Pedro, and being a few minutes drive from several prominent locations used in the “The Usual Suspects” helped keep me fueled for my future filmmaking goals.  While there, I was able to write, produce, direct and edit five more short films in my first two semesters.  I received my 2 year Associates Degree in Communications at Marymount.  That school has since closed up, relatively recently I think.
 
After my degree, I returned to Tucson.  Although I was constantly itching to make more movies as soon as possible, equipment and film stock was too expensive to really do it well, or at all.  As a result, I entered a several-year hiatus from filmmaking, though I constantly wrote and studied various topics of interest. That hiatus ended in 2004, when I finally completed a feature film which I wrote, directed, and produced titled “Decision To Ask Why”.
 
CULT CRITIC: How come you came into the world of filmmaking?

SCOTT: As far back as my memories go, I always wanted to make films.  As a child, the fascinations were with monster movies, especially King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954) and all it’s sequels, vampires, Freddy Krueger, as well as ninjas, spaceships, etc, etc.  Fantasy special effects stuff that I think all kids around the world like at some point in childhood.  But as I grew into adulthood, and saw hundreds and hundreds more films throughout my teenage years, I came to realize–as we all do–what my thoughts and passions gravitated to, thematically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and beyond.  So seeing movies like “Ordinary People” and “Presumed Innocent” for the first time, truly changed me.  Or, more correctly, guided me to what I wanted to write, what I wanted to “say” to the world.  So eventually as I rounded 19-years-old, my mind became inundated with creative ideas on a daily basis.  Literally dozens a day.  And so for the vast amount of years following, I carried a notepad or a voice recorder with me almost everywhere, so that I could keep up and try not to forget the inspirations during those times when it was “raining ideas”.  They came so fast and fully-developed that I usually could hardly write fast enough to keep up with them.

At 22, I realized that although I had hundreds of pages of very diverse ideas, they were mostly only handwritten in something like a hundred notepads, and sometimes on truly random scraps of paper like a receipt that was close by.  So I set out to transcribe everything I had saved into a computer; typing out the handwritten notes which had accumulated in boxes all throughout my college years.  I typed everything (that I could read) into a file, and sure enough, it surpassed 1,000 pages of raw materials of plots, character traits, dialogue scenes, themes, and much more.

So, although film chose me early on as a young kid, the wealth of ideas I had collected for those 3-4 years convinced me that I had a lifetime of movie plots to create.  Ever since, I have been pursuing filmmaking daily, and when one cannot get equipment or schedules or financing to gel, one can always pull out the pen and paper to work on the writing process of filmmaking.

CULT CRITIC: From whom you have got the inspiration to become an independent filmmaker?

SCOTT: Indie Filmmaking Inspirations

Of course, I did not expect or intend to be completely independent thus far as a filmmaker.  Like you do when you dream big, you think someone or some studio will give you a job to tell those stories that you have come up with.  With all the ideas I had, and the act of combining those ideas to match characters with motivations within plots, the stories were what they were.  Of course, some of those stories are epic and so just being true to those as-yet-unproduced large ideas require massive technical endeavors, so, those are still to come in my future.
As a 23-year-old about to write my first feature-length screenplay, I had made a short list of low-budget feature plots that I could do first, independent of Hollywood anything, so those are the ones I wrote first.  Along with the script notes, I usually wrote and kept pre-production planning side-by-side, so the scripts would also be filed with location addresses and whenever possible photos, things like that.  Since, by definition, a movie screenplay is an unfinished piece of storytelling, a blueprint that is the tip of the iceberg of the story you visually and sonically plan to tell, I had notes for myself with pacing suggestions and color scheme potentials and all the things that are usually not on the written page because of the restrictions of the needed-brevity of a screenplay.  With those 1000+ pages now separated and organized, I found over 35 unique feature-length stories, with countless unassigned random extra material to work with.
All that said, I knew I’d almost certainly start with low, low budget films as my directing debuts.  So my preparations and studying largely focused on independent-minded filmmaking heroes like Ingmar Bergman, Steven Soderbergh, Atom Egoyan, Alexander Payne, Darren Arronofsky, Todd Haynes, John Cassavetes, or even the truly low-budget-minded approach by a major filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick, who all started their directing careers with no and low budget films.  Even though Ingmar Bergman was government-financed, he was creatively all-indie to the core.  All of them unique risk takers, filmically speaking.  I was also extremely influenced by going to the Sundance Film Festival for 7 years in a row, as a moviegoer only, and of course every year there would be at least a dozen filmmakers and/or actors that I would watch from that point on.  These annual trips yielded amazing lifelong memories of first time viewing experiences like “Memento”, “Brick”, “The Blair Witch Project”, and seeing actors like Ryan Gosling for the first time. 

CULT CRITIC: What are your favorite films and which genre is your favorite?

SCOTT: Favorite Films & Favorite Genres

My list of favorite films could fill this entire interview, or even this entire magazine, because my philosophy is to not have an arbitrary number of favorites.  Afterall, I do not drop old favorites when new ones come along.  
I will give a representative list.
 
ABSOLUTE FAVORITES LISTED BY THEIR DIRECTORS:
Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People”; Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” & “The Godfather”; Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” & “The Shining”; Ingmar Bergman’s “Through A Glass Darkly”, “Hour of the Wolf” & “Cries & Whispers”; Alan Parker’s “Pink Floyd The Wall” & “Birdy”; Peter Weir’s “Fearless” (1993); Alan J. Pakula’s “Presumed Innocent” & “All the President’s Men”; David Fincher’s “Se7en” & “Zodiac” (2007); Martin Rosen’s “Watership Down” (1978); Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997); Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies & Videotape”; Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” & “Jaws”; Alexander Payne’s “Election” & “The Descendants” (2011); Mike Nichol’s “Carnal Knowledge” & “Closer”; Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) & “The Insider”; David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” (1986); John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982); Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder”; Todd Haynes’ “Safe” (1995) & “Dark Waters” (2019); Irvin Kershner’s “The Empire Strikes Back”; Nicholas Meyer’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”; Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man”; Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”; both Werner Herzog’s and F.W. Murnau’s versions of “Nosferatu”; Richard Donner’s “Lethal Weapon 1 & 2”; James Foley’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”; Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” (2016); Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash”; Orson Welles’ “The Trial”; Neil LaBute’s “Your Friends & Neighbors”; Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige”, “Memento” & “Insomnia”.
I’ll stop there.  There are more classics & foreign films, but that’s good for now.  By viewing my selected list, I think it’s pretty clear that many of my favorite films are when serious dramas somehow meld with surrealism.  Whether that mixture is found in the plots within horror, science fiction, or a simple dramatic story with abstract themes or deep philosophical ideas or told in a surrealist style.
 

CULT CRITIC: Tell us some memorable or funny incidents that happened during the shooting of “Atoms Orbit”?

SCOTT: Funny stories filming “Atoms Orbit”

Well, in all honesty, the entire thing is quite a funny story, looking back at how it all began, and how it turned out.  I’m using “funny” here in the context of irony, and unexpected surprises.  First of all, “Atoms Orbit” (and my other current film “Items of Interest”) only exist because of the massive failures of two movies I spent years producing for other writer-directors here in Arizona.  One was released in 2018 and bombed, the other also took years in post and went on to bomb more recently.  Both failed in their own unique way, but certainly they failed financially (at the date of this article).  So, in early 2018, because my preferred follow-up projects could not realistically be executed in the way I want them to be made (a decades-spanning period piece, and a special effects-laded philosophical-horror-mystery), I worked through my frustration, sadness and financial hardships by just doing what I could do, day by day, towards filmmaking.
“Items of Interest” came to be, initially, during a series of camera tests, as I was figuring out what was available to me and the specifics of what that equipment could be best utilized for.  This is where having 3-4 dozen feature film ideas can lead you in various directions, but in the end, create something completely new, which you never set out to specifically do.  This would be an example of why a term like “the magic of film” has remained relevant and truthful for the 135+ years of the history of this specific art form.  I filmed something pretty much everyday in 2018, starting in March, and as I went through footage of various things, new stories were formulating as I watched, essentially writing them in post-production.  Having visually written portions of them already, with the camera, I retroactively assign plot to the various shots and settings which had been created through the juxtaposition of images.  Our minds look to find a logical narrative, so I used that approach in post-production.  This is why both movies have radically different styles, settings, and rhythms.
It’s as if the “Movie Gods” were saying:  ‘Sorry for those really difficult movies you worked on last that were nightmarish productions that ended badly and left you with little to show for it, but here’s something you are doing that you didn’t even know you were doing’.
And now, both these new films of mine are winning various international awards spanning from acting and directing and producing, to Best Feature Films in a given category.  That is funny to me, in a cosmic way.  With what I am currently editing, I have essentially gathered footage for 8-10 feature films over the past 2 years, and they mostly only happened because that long and difficult science fiction film failed, and deserved to fail because of how it was released unfinished, against my wishes.  That experience left me like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”, launched off towards nothingness, alone, to find my next path.
However, even with these recent so-far-successes, it’s impossible to not have times where I wish I had pursued my personal projects instead of producing for those other writer-directors.  They wasted my time and money and goodwill, and truly that part of my life.  But these new things are happening now, and these new movies are what they are because of those failures.  I just do wish I’d done this kind of thing sooner, especially with three dozen movie ideas I still want to make.  That’s the journey of this life. . .so far.
All films are physically and mentally demanding and exhausting, I just learned to embrace the “lightning in a bottle” approach with these most recent personal directorial efforts.  Any difficulties on “Atoms Orbit” or “Items of Interest” were like the best birthday party ever compared to the seemingly-endless problems from the inept leadership on those genre films I produced for the better part of this past decade.
 
CULT CRITIC: In the whole story of “Atoms Orbit”, you are showing that the person is hiding himself from his surroundings, which ultimately affects him mentally. If in real life someone becomes so shy and introvert, what should she/he do to connect with the society?

SCOTT: Advice to People with Mental Problems, dealing with ailments like the character in “Atoms Orbit”

That is definitely an excellent question, and I have to say that I don’t have an immediate answer in mind for it.  However, I will just talk through it.  As you can tell, the vast majority of “Atoms Orbit” involves extremely long takes, far longer than the average two hour movie, I’m sure.  The movie was revealing itself to me as I was making it–any filmmaker will tell you that, and they would be right.  But as an actor-writer-director in this specific film, I was forced, or rather, forcing myself, to truly be in each moment as this person.  Not assigning meaning or blocking or even specific camera framing, but to be this guy, a clearly troubled character who has voluntarily kept himself isolated.  So to the point of your question:  as I was editing, and to some extent while I was shooting certain portions, I think I knew that this would resonate with viewers with substance abuse problems and/or mental or emotional struggles.  The visual style of the movie, from the first image to the last, was to convey an uneasy mental state.  To perhaps, hopefully, use visual representations of mental states without going completely surrealistic with the images, and while keeping the character almost always in the frame.
That is one of the reasons why deep, deep in post-production, I decided to not use any conventional moviemaking tricks.  No score, no fades or dissolves, or any optical editing tricks to enhance the experience.  It’s a life happening, in front of a camera lens, and usually the framing or the near-constant movement was strange enough without piling on conventional storytelling enhancement techniques.  The “story” is clearly just background.  The “story” of “Atoms Orbit”, to the extent that it even has one, is being there, sharing these unsettling mornings, afternoons and nights with this person, in mostly-real time.
I truly hope it allows reflection and even catharsis for people who may see their own behavior and circumstances and ill-advised desires.
Afterall, the life depicted in “Atoms Orbit” is hardly a life I think most people would wish to live, unless laziness and depression and schizophrenia is one’s goal.  All that said, I do think that this is destined to be a “drug taking” movie for some.  I certainly wanted the movie to feel that way.  Feeling like you are on some kinds of drugs, as the character clearly is.  Like how a sad song you hear can make you feel happy, I’d prefer that a “messed up” movie like this could bring peace and understanding to some, if nothing else than for one to think ‘Wow, at least I’m not as bad as that guy there’.

CULT CRITIC: Had you faced any difficulties while doing the shooting of this film…if yes, then what? Please explain.

SCOTT: Production Difficulties

It was basically done in a few days, and went very smoothly.  Watching the film, it is hard to see how anything could go wrong.  And if anything seemed to, I just stayed in character and made it part of that segment.  Then I either chose to use that take, or not.  The hardest part was deciding what to keep and what to leave out.  That, in a gist, is the heart of filmmaking.

CULT CRITIC: You had won many awards for your amazing works. How does it feel?

SCOTT: Of course it feels fantastic, to know that someone on the other side of the globe is experiencing pieces of time that you have assembled in a certain way and it is interacting with their individuality to unleash thoughts and emotions.  If those viewers are in a position to assign an award to the work, which so far many have to “Atoms Orbit” and “Items of Interest”, well then that is just something more to feel good about.  I tried to make a couple of movies that I had never really seen before.  I think I achieved that, and again, it’s nice that so far a small international audience has responded favorably to the storytelling risks I took with these two features.

CULT CRITIC: Say something to the aspiring filmmakers about modern day filmmaking. What should they do to become a successful indie filmmaker?

SCOTT: ADVICE TO ASPIRING FILMMAKERS

I know that most of whatever I say will be somewhat generic, at least, that’s always how I’ve felt when I’ve heard successful filmmakers answer similar questions in the past.  I’ve always found it morally helpful just to hear how each filmmaker approaches their answers.
Afterall, films are extremely basic in the sense that you are dealing with primal visual and sonic things like shapes, colors, movements; loud sounds versus silences, slow and calm or even deliberately boring portions versus fast pacing.
So anyone who is interested in film should do whatever you think you can and should do, consistently.  Ideally daily.
When I was serving at a restaurant, I was still writing down notes for my movies in between meal orders.  That was what I could do, on that night, toward the goal of feature filmmaking.  The Summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I had a camera for a short film I wanted to make, but just about everything else was problem-plagued or too expensive.  So since I could not make that movie at that time, I read books on films and filmmaking; I watched every movie that came on TV with an actor I was curious about, or a director I wanted to learn about and see why they were indeed considered innovative for their time.  That’s the Summer I discovered Ingmar Bergman, and the favorite films of his that I mentioned earlier.  Just like an athlete will run miles, or practice shooting or kicking or swinging, months and months before season practice even starts.  Follow your personal inner tug, where is it taking you to?  Where are your resting thoughts leading you?  Catch yourself in the middle of deep thought, back track, and see what was the topic, how did you get to the subject matter you were thinking about.  Embrace any and all art.  After All, films are essentially every art form combined, if that is what you choose to pursue, know that it is difficult.  But keep in mind that absolutely everything is, in it’s own way.  So you should go for what you think about and desire most.
If you don’t naturally have a lot of writing ideas coming to you, then pay attention to what your strengths seem to be.  Make it a point to meet painters and sketchers and sculptors, keep contact notes and files, that may just end up being your art director on your first project, or maybe they will just provide you with a painting to put on a character’s wall, so you have permission from the artist to show it.  Small things like that can end up saving you valuable time and mental exertion when production pressures flood in, you’ll have that person and item taken care of, perhaps years before you even have a movie to work with them on.
I’m reminded of an interview with Stanley Kubrick, who was asked a pretty generic, but important question like “What’s the most important few things for a director to have?”, and in his top three he said “a pair of good sneakers”.  An undoubtedly comedic answer from an undoubtedly comedic man, and yet, he is right.  Do not lose track of the practical.  The best director with the most planning and money, is a lesser director if his feet hurt all the time.  It’s a physically and mentally exhausting vocation, but if you know it is for you, and that you feel worse when you are not pursuing that art, or any art, then by all means, give it every moment and burnt calorie that you can possibly muster.  The doing, the journey, will be the reward.  Then, maybe long after all of it has passed, you’ll get awarded, like I’ve been lucky to have these last few months, with “Items of Interest” and “Atom’s Orbit”.  Even if that is not the result, but you would still do it all over again (with maybe a few changes along the way), then you’ll know that it is definitely something worth dedicating your life to.  If you gravitate towards paint more, do that, because, among other things, finishing a painting is much easier and cheaper and faster.  Just continue to listen to that inner tug, and you’ll be alright.

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