Chimera, Cinema, Exclusive, Interviews

Self-engineered man: director Maurice Haeems on Chimera

Chimera dramatises the ethical conundrums faced by independent scientist Quint (Henry Ian Cusick) as he races to save his children from the genetic condition to which his comatose wife has succumbed. It is currently gathering awards at festivals (including Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the Boston International Film Festival and Best Sci-Fi Feature at the Phoenix Film Festival). SciFiNow caught up with its first-time writer/director Maurice Haeems ahead of its UK première as the opening film of SCI-FI-LONDON 2018.

SciFiNow: You have previously worked in engineering, investment banking and as a computer software entrepreneur, which are hardly conventional pathways to filmmaking. How – and why – did you make the transition? And how much has your past informed your work as a filmmaker?

Maurice Haeems: Every 5 to 7 years I get bored with what I’m doing. I’ve always had this desire to be a writer and to be a filmmaker, and as I was approaching my late forties, I also had this sense that I was running out of time. So my 48th birthday gift to myself was an eight-week screenwriting class. I went to this class, and everyone else there was in their early twenties. At the end of eight weeks, I had a first draft. And when Christmas came around, my gift to myself was a four-week film-making class – just enough to get me completely hooked. I then did a rewriting class at UCLA. I went around, and I was able to raise some money for the film. Partly what helped me is that I was not a traditional filmmaker. It was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people said, “Look, you don’t have the experience to pull this off.” On the other hand, I did have a track record of succeeding in other careers, and getting projects executed on time, returning money to investors – not just returning their money but, you know, delivering a profit for them. So I had some credibility that I was able to call upon. Things fell into place, and so it was now or never. I’d always said this was my dream. I’d already had three careers now, so I figured, one more. Let’s roll the dice.

Which films were your influences?

I love science fiction. In Chimera, there’s a little toy the kids are playing with, which we made as ‘HAL’. As we trimmed the film down, every time a character mentioned the word HAL, it ended up on the cutting room floor, so in the final version of the film, the toy is unnamed – but it was an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, my all-time favourite film. The Matrix is another film that I have probably watched 40, 50 times, and I still enjoy it every time. So we had the red pill and the blue pill. Every time [Quint] evokes his wife, he takes the red pill, and every time he evokes his children, he takes the blue pill. And those colours worked out, because she stands for life and even though she’s comatose, she appears to him in this red dress with this red makeup, and all the surroundings turn red when she shows up – and the kids being frozen, we used a blue theme for them. Solaris and Stalker both influenced this film, I think, and Cronenberg’s The Fly.

Was Frankenstein, with its hubristic scientist and its harvested humans, a key text?

Maurice Haeems: The film wasn’t so much influenced by Frankenstein. If I want to take a book, it’s probably The Turn of the Screw. It hugely informed this film. All the names of characters are from there: Quint, and Jessie – she’s Jessel [in Henry James’ novella] – and Miles and Flora, etc. What I loved about that book is that it’s a story within a story within a story, where the Governess is an unreliable narrator, but enough of what she tells us allows us to piece together a story, which is subjective. I was blown away by the skill of the writer in putting together that kind of a story, where it’s open to interpretation, but which works on every level, because you and I can take away two different storylines from it, when it still works for both of us. Chimera was probably in retrospect a little too ambitious for me to have taken on as a first feature, but that was my ideal goal to live up to.

I understand also that parts of your story were inspired by personal events in your life. Could you tell me a little about those.

Yeah, there were three things. There is a genetic heart condition which just now has been diagnosed in my wife’s family. She lost two of her siblings to this condition – it was diagnosed only after that. About four or five years ago, when this was diagnosed, we were told that my kids – I have three kids – each one has a 50% chance of inheriting this genetic condition. I needed to have the sort of academic underpinning which I completely lacked, so I had to go back and open up some biology textbooks, and reread them. As I discovered more things about genetics I started looking at what can be done, and looking deeper, reading about research.

A year or so later, the daughter of a very close friend of mine had liver disease. She was on the waiting list for a liver transplant, and she had the liver transplant, and she had a second liver transplant, but she eventually succumbed to her disease. I researched what was happening in the world of organ transplanting, organ harvesting. There are so many people around the world that have organs that fail, you know. What can hard science do for them? I started looking into that whole world.

The third thing that happened, seven years ago, was that my nephew – the little boy that you might have seen in the film, he’s in the dream sequence and then again at the end – he’s a leukaemia survivor, and as he was going through a five- or six-year treatment for leukaemia, we looked into stem cells, bone marrow, all of that. So I got a lot of science research under my belt because of these events in my life. I took this whole experience and I completely transformed it into this fake, novel-esque stylised reality – a reality that operates under a slightly different set of rules.

It is difficult, at various points in Chimera, to tell whether Quint’s children are actually present, or just voices in his head, like that of his comatose wife. Was their ambiguous status a way of expressing Quint’s distance from the reality of his children and their actual needs, as he pursues a chimerical image of them?

One of the things that I wanted to explore in the film was Quint’s relationship with his kids: how Quint evolves as a father through this, not just how he’s solving the medical puzzle. And so we’ve mixed fantasy, flashback and fact – they’re intermingled, and there are clues, if you watch closely enough –

Yes, the colour coding that you mentioned earlier.

Yes exactly, this colour coding. The kids, for example, quote Beckett. You won’t expect a 10- or 12-year old to know that, but we see [Quint’s] wife in another scene quote Beckett, so we know this is happening in his head, he is transferring some of his own thoughts and just playing it back through his memory of them. If someone’s paying attention, I think the clues are there, the Easter eggs are buried. For someone who’s taking a quick overview, the story still comes together because we do see him – even if it’s just in his mind – transforming and trying to mend the relationship with his kids and become a better father. But yes, every time he takes what he believes are steps to save them, he is in fact pushing them further away, and the chasm between him as a father and his kids keeps widening. What he wants more than anything is to hold onto his family, which has been destroyed.

Quint is working on big ideas, but on a very small scale. He’s running a kind of cottage lab, it’s his own private lab, and he’s using his family as part of his experimentation. And in an odd kind of way, that was also what you were doing when you worked on Chimera. You’re making a film independently, in a restricted setting, and indeed you have one of your own children – and your nephew as well – appearing in the film. How conscious were you of the notion that your own rôle in the laboratory of cinema parallels Quint’s rôle within the film’s story?

I did not think of it then, but now that you mention it, I see it. I’m taking my own child, who’s in the film. My three kids were my screenplay draft reading committee, if you will. My other son and daughter, who you don’t see in the film, they were on the set, they helped me with the editing process. I used them as my proxy for the audience, I’d say, “What do you think of this?” I experimented – in that sense – with them. Of course it’s not like what Quint does. Hopefully I did not put my kids in harm’s way…

I’m really not suggesting that – but was it interesting for you, as a father, to use the medium of fiction to explore a bad father? I don’t want to oversimplify the characterisation of Quint, but at some basic level, he is obviously a bad father.

What I wanted to explore was this belief that many parents have, that, “I know what’s best for my child.” And the way that eventually, [Quint] hears voices, or it might be the voice in his head, saying, “Shouldn’t you love them before you lose them forever?” I think that is what Quint struggles with, and what most parents struggle with. We’ve dramatised it, you know, exponentially – it’s an extreme high-stakes film – but oftentimes your kid might say, “I don’t want to do this,” and many parents have a tough time, including myself, sitting back and saying, “You do what you think is right.”

What’s next?

I’m struggling with that, quite honestly. I’ve written a script called The Archetype. It’s a completely different story from Chimera, but it explores similar themes and ideas of transhumanism and what’s next for us as a race. But I’m debating whether that typecasts me into this narrow space of hard sci-fi. I’ve been sent a couple of other scripts that I am looking at, that I might do before The Archetype, but I really love The Archetype, I’ve written it, I’m very enthusiastic about this kind of strand of science fiction. I want to do more. I’m not sure what I want to do next.

Chimera is the opening film for SCI-FI-LONDON 2018.

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