The Future is Uncanny
Director Matthew Leutwyler on AIs, charity, and surgery
By Richard Whittaker,
1:20PM, Wed. Oct. 14, 2015
When director Matthew Leutwyler watched Ex Machina, he got a sinking feeling in his chest. His micro-budget indie sci-fi drama Uncanny was covering so many of the same topics. However, Leutweyler said, "With what's going on in the AI world, there's a lot of discussions about where we're going."
The film, which receives its Texas premiere as part of Other Worlds Austin's year-round programming, is a sealed room three-hander. Joy (Lucy Griffith, True Blood, the upcoming Preacher series) is a robotics researcher who has quit to become a tech journalist, and has been assigned to the story of a lifetime: David Kressen (Mark Webber, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Green Room) has designed and built the world's first sentient and self-aware artificial intelligence. Not only that, but he has called him Adam, and placed the AI in a near-perfect mechanical simulation of a human body (David Clayton Rogers, NY-LON, Bloody Sunday).
If that dynamic of creator, creation, and observer sounds familiar, Leutwyler got a pang of recognition when he finally caught Alex Garland's movie. "[Screenwriter] Shahin Chandrasoma and I went to see it, and he was kicking me all the way through it going, 'Motherfucker.'" However, Leutwyler said, "The set-up is the same, but where we took it was very different."
Leutwyler established a reputation a decade ago as an indie director with horror Dead & Breakfast, but took a break from directing after 2011's Answers to Nothing to concentrate on a more supportive role. In fact, two of them. In films, he moved into producing, particularly working with first and second-time filmmakers that want a hands-on collaborator ("I want to produce things for people that I think are talented but want the support. I'm not a producer that just crunches the number.") The second was a complete change of pace: Leutwyler is president of We Are Limitless, a secular charity that helps orphans and street kids in Rwanda get into school, and stay there. Leutwyler described it as "like a gigantic extended family," providing for health care, food, and tuition, and giving students the emotional support they need. In return, the kids just have to keep up with their education, and become mentors for other kids in the program. He said, "It's everything that a parent would handle for a kid if they wanted to go to school."
However, he always kept the idea of directing again on the backburner. "I was looking to do something really confined," he said, and that backburner plan moved forward when a colleague introduced him to Chandrasoma at a party. He wasn't a writer, but he was a doctor-in-training, and for Leutwyler that was perfect. He said, "A lot of Hugo-award winning shorts are from NASA scientists or engineers, so I knew he could have a lot of good ideas. He pitched me literally 10 ideas. Each of them were $100 million stories, and I said, 'They're great, but I'm looking for something with three people, a small room,' and he said, 'I've got an idea for you.'"
What Chandrasoma brought was a sense of authenticity, since he is now a qualified robotic surgeon. In fact, he has operated on Leutwyler: During post-production, he developed a kidney stone, and three surgeons said they needed to take the whole kidney out. "Then Shahin came in, and he saved me from having a kidney removed."When it came to the script, Leutwyler said, "I love his take on technology, what it means to be human. Are we there yet, in terms of building an AI as we show it in our movie? No." However, when it comes to the mechanical realities of Adam, like lightweight artificial bones and sensors that can simulate touch, "for the most part, it's pretty authentic."
Other Worlds Austin presents the Texas premiere of Uncanny, 9pm, Oct. 14, at Flix Brewhouse, 2200 I-35 N., Round Rock. Writer/director Matthew Leutwyler will be in attendance. Tickets via www.otherworldsaustin.com.
Uncanny will be released on DVD and VOD through RLJ Media on Nov. 3.
To find out more about We Are Limitless, visit www.wearelimitless.org