To 'Mars,' With Love
Reinventing the romantic comedy, to infinity and beyond
When it came time to name his production company, Swerve Pictures, Austin filmmaker Geoff Marslett turned to his favorite philosopher, Titus Lucretius Carus. "Swerve" has a contemporary ring, as does Marslett himself. His long amber locks appear to undulate – or swerve – like prairie grass above a youthful face that belies his 36 years. And yet, that favorite philosopher was philosophizing way back in 55BC, describing a swerve as the necessary and often welcome result of "will-power snatched from the fates," when events predetermined by cause and effect swerve off course "at the bidding of our own hearts." In other words, just because things are expected to go a certain way doesn't mean they should, ad infinitum. Sometimes, it's best to follow the lead of that wild hair and make a new path.
Perhaps it was the bidding of Marslett's heart that made the former math and philosophy student return to his first love: filmmaking. After a couple of false starts at film schools at the University of Southern California and then Columbia, he went through the Great Books program at St. John's College and eventually landed at the University of Texas and received his master's in fine arts from the Radio-Television-Film Department, where he now teaches. Still, that undergraduate coursework was no waste: Marslett's parallel interests in science, painting, languages, and writing have all contributed to the creation of his aesthetic, as have the films and filmmakers he counts among his influences: Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, David Byrne's True Stories ("an underrated masterpiece"), and the films of Sergio Leone, to name a few. So although his path to filmmaking is what even he would call circuitous, in another way it was the most necessary and reasonable path that enabled him to make a film that explores the classic themes of love, romance, and exploration alongside the modern desire to experience the depths of the cosmos. All of these superficially unrelated things are woven together with surprising effortlessness in Marslett's newest animated feature, Mars.
An award-winning lecturer at UT (he received an Outstanding Teaching Award from the UT System board of regents in 2009), Marslett has been teaching animation and related subjects for the last 10 years while making his own short animated films and helping on other projects. His personal portfolio includes his critically acclaimed "Monkey vs. Robot," music videos ("Trip to Roswell"), and a dozen other projects. In his most recent short, "Bubblecraft," he experimented with and perfected his animation style, which he brought to fruition in Mars, a process he describes as "a hybrid of rotoscoping, CG, and hand-drawn work," along with other visual manipulation software.
"I wanted the visuals to feel real, but not quite real," he said of the animation program he developed with Tray Duncan in consultation with Marslett's father, a computer programmer.
"I liked the look of [Robert Rodriguez's] Sin City, where people were not quite real, but even they were more real than I wanted." The final look of Mars most resembles a graphic novel, but without the cartoonish quality.
"The program is buggy, and I wouldn't try and sell it to anyone," he said. "But who knows? Maybe at some point we can perfect it and put it out there."
Becoming a software mogul is not exactly on the top of Marslett's to-do list: He's putting all his time and attention into promoting Mars. The filmmaker has a leg up in that regard, having been named one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine in 2009. But it will be the appeal of his film, first on the film festival circuit and then hopefully in distribution to a larger audience, that will be the final arbiter. And who doesn't like a good, old-fashioned romantic comedy set on Mars?
Hanging out at Marslett's home in East Austin last week, surrounded by storyboards from the film, I ask him, "Why Mars?"
"I wanted this to be my take on romance, and because it was animated, there's no reason it has to be set here [on Earth]," Marslett said. The film stars Mark Duplass, Zoe Simpson, and Austinite Paul Gordon (who also directed The Happy Poet, also premiering at South by Southwest) as three astronauts sent to the red planet under the vague auspices of NASA (a fuller explanation would reveal spoilers). Their mission is to verify if there are other life-forms on Mars and, more importantly, pick up where the failed Beagle 2 mission left off in 2003 (the British spacecraft was presumed lost when it landed on Mars and its transmissions ceased almost immediately). As the trio is launched into space, another computer robot from the European Space Agency is also en route to Mars. Tempers and egos are flying high as each camp – including the President of the United States (played with aplomb by Kinky Friedman) – stakes its reputation on a successful Mars mission, up to and including making contact with whatever might be living there.
"The places you go change you," Marslett said, talking about the impetus behind the film. But he's not just talking about traveling to galaxies far, far away. His droll film is also looking at romance as a kind of exploration – the missteps, the unrecognized cues, the stolen moments, the second chances, and the stunning realizations – that all, somehow, and often against all odds, lead to a lasting and meaningful connection.
Even though Mars is a romantic comedy, Marslett was very conscientious with "making the science as accurate as possible," he said. "We kind of trick people into seeing the physics of what's happening." This is true both on and off the screen. While the animated images are not "real," every turn of a gear, every robotic movement, even the weightlessness of space are well-executed onscreen (all acting was done in front of a green screen and with no props, in Austin). Behind the scenes in post-production, Marslett's math background came in handy when figuring out, for example, how to animate flying sand (as when the ESA robot lands on Mars). "We had to figure out how to do that, how many frames we needed, how to calculate the arc of the sand ...." All of it required precise and tricky calculation.
With early buzz building around both film and filmmaker, Marslett is cautiously optimistic about the success of Mars, noting that "a lot of festival programs veer to the dark and edgy. This film really takes an optimist look at romance," he said, wondering aloud if festival audiences will warm to his approach. "It's interesting to me that the strongest response has been from [the twentysomethings] and the 40-plus viewers, who find it refreshing," he said. When asked why he thinks that is – especially given that who he perceives to be the least enthusiastic viewers of his film seem to be from his own age bracket, he mused: "Maybe it's because those people came of age during the reign of terror of George Bush. The year I was born, it was the lowest birth rate in years, and I know I am part of the generation that is making less than our parents." Marslett manages to offer this speculation with a smile. "Older viewers especially have been through several ups and downs, while the 20-year-olds have come of age with Obama."
Marslett isn't spending too much time trying to handicap the success of his new film. But as a birth member of the so-called "dark and edgy" generation, Marslett is breaking free from that collective consciousness and forging his own path in spite of the trends. Cutting against the grain – or swerving to "respond to the prompting of the heart," as Lucretius so eloquently put it – may be just the thing to rocket Marslett into the next 10 years of his filmmaking life.
Emerging Visions, World Premiere
Saturday, March 13, 4:30pm, Ritz 1
Thursday, March 18, 6:30pm, Lamar 2
Friday, March 19, 6:30pm, Lamar 3