Q&A: Director Richard Raymond discusses short film ‘Souls of Totality’

By Josh Morris

Filmed during the Solar Eclipse of 2017, Souls of Totality is a short film about two lovers (played by Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen) who face the ultimate test of their dedication to each other because of of-and during that eclipse. The director, Richard Raymond, was kind enough to answer some questions about the film with Informer Media Group.

Informer Media Group: So, for the obvious first question: HOW? How did you pull this choreography off? Can you dive into the details a little bit?

Richard Raymond: The final eclipse sequence is designed to be as immersive as possible – It wasn’t about looking up and seeing the eclipse, anyone can go on YouTube and do that. I wanted a single, continuous shot that focused on Tatiana Maslany’s character – and allowed the audience to feel her desperation of not knowing whether the person she loves is alive or dead. We rehearsed the sequence for four days before the eclipse, using NASA data and GPS coordinates to precisely map out and time the performances to the exact beginning and end of totality. There was only one chance to capture this but science took out all the guesswork. We just had to follow the numbers and learn them like a piece of choreography! I knew it would be a high wire act with no safety net — there could be no plan B. But I had total faith in the cast and crew that together we could pull it off. Everyone put in the work and equal dedication to ensure we were ready. And when the time came everyone was focused and followed what we had rehearsed. I’m most proud of Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen, who gave such beautiful performances during such a pressure-filled moment … for them, it was like theatre!

Informer Media Group: The efforts of everyone involved certainly show. And this is a first in cinema history if I’m not mistaken…. What did it feel like, during and after?

Richard Raymond: None of us had experienced an eclipse before, we didn’t know what to expect. And when the time came, a remarkable and surreal atmosphere enveloped us all… the bright desert light quickly shifted from day to dusk to twilight. The air chilled and all went quiet. If something did go wrong, then I felt that the emotion of the story — the real core of the film, would carry it through. But it all worked out! I was literally punching the air during the take. And when I called “cut” the cast and crew were overcome by the alchemy of what we’d just all been a part of. This was a real family made film – among us were six married couples, four sets of siblings, and three complete family units, who’d all spent a week sleeping in tents, cooking, cleaning, & working 18 hour days together — that eclipse scene summed up what was such a profound and beautiful experience for everyone involved. Something that none of us would ever forget. My hope is that the audience shares in that feeling too.

Informer Media Group: They will; I know I felt it. There is a direct shot of the eclipse in the film: did the crew have to wear special eye protection gear to pull this off?

Richard Raymond: The crew was all under the blankets for most of the shot, but when the camera pans up with the characters to the sky they all ran out off camera and had a chance to see the eclipse. When the sun is in full totality you don’t need glasses, it’s only during the partial eclipse phase that you need those glasses.

Informer Media Group: The film is compelling outside of the live eclipse aspect; was there something that drew you to the project besides that element?

Richard Raymond: It was the opportunity to create something with Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen. They’re not just a pair of incredible actors but they’re also a real-life couple – there’s so much between them that is unspoken — and there’s a comfortability between them, that conveys so much to the audience without words, that you just don’t get on screen with other actors who are strangers before rehearsals. It’s a real joy to watch them just play and bring a scene to life. One of my concerns in making this was that doomsday cults would seem bizarre to any sane mind. So I wanted the scenes to play out in the vernacular, as though the characters were just ordinary people on an extraordinary last day. I wanted the audience on their side. In the spirit of that, they both shared a desire to approach the film in a very authentic and naturalistic manner, within long single takes that would give room for improvisation. I wanted this to feel authentic and unvarnished. For the audience to never question their convictions. Also, I would say the script was very strong – it wasn’t just about an eclipse. Yes, that was the initial idea but it is set against this desperate race to save the life of the one you love. As a director, I was really interested in capturing a never repeatable, can’t turn back event that forces a person to find the most real, honest part of them self to help determine how they will handle it. The story shows two people abandoning all expectations of love. Tom’s character abandons the expectation to follow the group into the promise-land and Tatiana’s character, abandons the expectation to continue the mission for the group. All things bigger than themselves, all expectations placed on them. But their love was stronger and they abandoned those expectations to be together. Love has a funny way of making you not care about the things that otherwise should be important. The world needs more stories about love at the moment.

Informer Media Group: Indeed. Well said. I did not foresee those *final* moments of the film (with the sheets) playing out the way they did; why was that the decided ending?

Richard Raymond: That’s all the creative genius of the writers, Ben Bolea and Kate Trefry. Their script throws the audience right into that last day with this established relationship. The story is slowly revealed piece by piece. And the build-up to that looming moment is full of intensity so when it’s over the audience feel in a very safe space – they feel as though the emotional journey has ended. Isn’t that the best moment to pull the rug out from under them?!

Informer Media Group: The ending seems somewhat validating to people who believe in … shall we say, “zany” things; why not a harsher critique on cults/groupthink?

Richard Raymond: Normally with cult films you have an outsider coming into a group and that’s where the harsh critique would into play. But we didn’t want to make just another cult film. It’s more interesting to look at it in a different way – from the established inside – a direction we’ve never seen before. The initial inspiration came from the real-life Heaven’s Gate cult, whose members believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was the harbinger of an interstellar UFO that would transport them safely to a higher plane of existence. Most of the followers — 39 members — died of poisoning in a mass suicide in early 1997. That’s horrific. But it’s also fascinating in a way. That these people believed they had to commit suicide to leave this life and reach the spaceship hidden in the path of a comet. What is it about America that makes people believe that is possible? I wanted to film to be part of that jigsaw but most of all the writers and myself wanted the audience to enter this story in a way they’d never experienced before.

Informer Media Group: I’ve watched Souls a few times now, and there is one thing I’m curious about: why does Tatiana Maslany’s character “Lady 18” get out of the car and run? I understand cinematically why it’s important, but what was the character’s (or the writers’) thought process there? Why not drive back?

Richard Raymond: It’s a fair question to ask! The truth is the massive bull is standing behind the car so she’s blocked from driving back to the gate — but also, emotionally, her heart is just telling her to run. In those moments you don’t really use your logical thoughts, you use your heart. And her heart told her to run. As fast as she could. The film is designed for the audience to follow her journey as if they’re inside her head. As her anxiety climbs we experience it subjectively, hearing the incessant drums in her mind fall into step with her heartbeat. So in the edit, I chose not to cut to the bull standing behind the car as I felt staying with Tat as she runs in the rear view mirror, would give the audience a greater feeling of her emotional intensity. I knew in making that choice a few people would ask me why she didn’t drive back, but it was all for the greater good!

Informer Media Group: Does the bull have some sort of special significance?

Richard Raymond: Not really. It’s an object blocking her path to leaving. It’s something that she feels the universe is telling her to stay and go back. It was originally meant to be pigs, but it was too hot that day for the pigs — at the last minute, the farmer offered us this big bull or a horse. I chose the bull! Much more cinematic for that moment. I love watching that sequence in a cinema with an audience when the bull appears there’s ALWAYS a few gasps in the crowd.

Informer Media Group: Can you tell me a little bit about the setting and the location you chose?

Richard Raymond: When I had the idea to make this film it was now only about four weeks to go until the eclipse — we had no script, no money, and no equipment or crew, I’d never shot in America before — and we were at the mercy of an impending deadline set by the universe. So my wife, Nousha, and I quickly flew up to Oregon into the projected path of totality. There we met local resident Mike Tague. He drove us around and introduced us to his friends who are farmers — that’s how we found the main location! The people of central Oregon are some of the most generous people I’ve ever been blessed to meet. Their support was essential in making this film come to life. I took photos of the locations sent them to the writers, Ben Bolea and Kate Trefry, and two weeks before the eclipse they handed me the script to “Souls of Totality.” The locations informed the script, which is the opposite way you normally make a film!

Informer Media Group: So, what’s next for you?

Richard Raymond: I’ve been working on a feature film called “One Thousand Paper Cranes” for a few years now – and I think it’s finally about to happen. The planets feel as if they are about to align. So fingers crossed. Also, Souls of Totality has opened some really exciting new doors for me. I’m excited about what could happen. So watch this space!

Informer Media Group: I will. I hope the planets align for you! Where can people go to find out more about you/your projects?

Richard Raymond: I’m on Twitter and Vimeo @richieraymond
For more information, click here

SOULS OF TOTALITY – Trailer from Richard Raymond on Vimeo.

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