Interview: Director Ernie Gilbert on His Sci-Fi Short Film “Nine Minutes”
Ernie Gilbert opens up about his journey from acclaimed Hollywood editor to director — and his new sci-fi short film “Nine Minutes.”
PremiumBeat got a chance to talk with Ernie Gilbert about his progression from editing to narrative directing. Ernie has edited music videos for some of the biggest artists in the world, including the Grammy award-winning “This is America” by Childish Gambino. Ernie’s latest project, “Nine Minutes,” is a sci-fi short film starring Constance Wu.
PremiumBeat: With many high-profile editing credits, what made you decide that now is the right time to jump into directing your first short film?
Ernie Gilbert: I got my start both directing and editing music videos. Smaller budgets, independent artists. And through that, editing just opened up to me. I made connections. I had good opportunities, good projects. Directing has always been the end goal. Editing has been a way to learn and to grow and to make relationships, and be a part of things that I could not book as a director, but could book as an editor. And this was just the natural progression of directing a lot of music videos and some commercials, and then wanting to dig into something with a little more emotional depth. Something with dialogue, something with characters. So, just a natural progression from directing music videos and documentaries, then editing a bunch of projects and wanting to dip my feet into narrative directing.
PB: Since you have directed several music videos, how much different was the directing process for a short film versus a music video?
EG: You know, with music videos, you’re a work for hire. You’re creating something for someone else. This was very much a project that I developed from the script stage. I self-financed. And so, it was for me losing the safety net a little bit. We didn’t have a song and an artist and somebody else to share that load. At the end of the day, creatively, I had to make choices that I felt were best for the project and the buck stopped with me. Also, there’s the difference in the medium. A music video is generally three to five minutes because that’s what most songs are. You’re not dealing a lot with dialogue in a music video. A lot of it is style over substance.
Because you’re selling a band, or you’re selling an artist, you’re selling their song. With “Nine Minutes,” it was What is going to be the most emotionally impactful version of this story? And thinking about an audience. Are they watching it at a film festival or are they watching it at home? How are we going to reach people and tell the story that we wanted to tell.
And then dealing with self-financing. I wasn’t working with a huge budget, and so trying to figure out how do we create a story that’s shootable in a couple of days, that’s filmable with minimal actors. It’s just problem-solving and trying to figure out how to overcome those challenges. I think music videos will always have a special place for me, and I will continue to make them just because they are so fast, and so grounded in music, and a fun place to experiment and try new things. But the goal is to do more narratives so that I can create characters and worlds for people to dig into.
PB: Where did the idea for “Nine Minutes” come from? You mentioned that you were involved with the writing of the story, what drew you to direct it as your first short film?
EG: I like to give myself parameters. I find that within the constructs of some walls I can dig into and get creative. I struggle when it’s unlimited potential or unlimited options. And so, I was trying to think of a situation where we could have one actor and a beautiful landscape. And from that, it evolved into an exploration and the sacrifices we make to pursue our careers, and those we leave behind. I moved to LA in 2012, from North Carolina, to follow the dream of being a filmmaker and getting to tell stories and create things.
I thought: What would it be like to explore an astronaut who is basically told, “Hey, you’re going to run out of oxygen in nine minutes?” What does that look like? And what does that person think about? What do you care about when all you have is nine minutes left? And so, it became this exploration of these two parts of our main character, Lilian, played by Constance Wu. The two sides of her. The one side is these memories that she has of romance, and of life, and things that she’s left behind to pursue this astronaut life. And then, on the other side, is this research that she has spent weeks and months laboring over on this foreign planet. And what does she save? And what is valuable to her? And what is her legacy?
Just examining all those thoughts. But then putting it into this grand scale of a sci-fi short. We went to the Trona Pinnacles outside Ridgecrest, California, and filmed on location in sweltering heat. These pinnacles rise up from the desert floor hundreds of feet and give you this otherworldly location. So, it is taking this grand location and bringing it down to the human element of I’ve got no time left. What do I do? Some people might shrivel up. But our character, she wants to see her mission complete.
PB: How many days did you spend on location at the Trona Pinnacles? What challenges did the heat pose?
EG: We shot for two days. Our awesome director of photography, Sing Howe Yam (who has shot shows for Netflix, and music videos for Justin Timberlake and basically everybody), donated film stock to us. We ended up shooting the project on 35mm film with Panavision Anamorphic lenses and camera. The heat averaged to 116 degrees each day. It was just a challenge of constructing shade and making sure everybody had water. We were fighting the elements. A lot of learning lessons. We ended up shooting the final shot of the film, which is a 360-degree dolly that circles Constance as she gives her final monologue. It’s a six- or seven-minute shot, and we ended up shooting that, both days, at sunset, right as the sun had dipped below the horizon, for the look we wanted. But that was a situation where I was laying in the track in the middle of the circle dolly, so I wasn’t in a reflection. We’re shooting on film, so I didn’t have a wireless video monitor. So for those four or five days, while the film was getting processed and scanned, I didn’t know if we had the shot. I didn’t know if we had botched exposure or focus or anything. I was nervous. And then, when I got the scans back and I saw Constance’s performance, it all worked out. It was like a sigh of relief. But also exciting because we took a big, bold risk. We put it all in on that one thing and it worked out.
PB: I imagine that a sci-fi short film is going to require a lot more VFX and costume design than most short films. Can you talk about that process?
EG: We knew we were going to have VFX to begin with. We ended up having a lot more than I initially thought. And, it was important to me that the space suit look real. That the crash site have the scope and the scale of what it should be. We worked with a lot of really talented VFX vendors. Our costume designer Rachael Hranka and I had worked together on Comedy Bang Bang, which was an IFC show. She’s done a bunch of other projects for our producer Emily Good. And, she worked with a local rental spot here in L.A. that specializes in space suits and took one of their base space suits and made it our own. Then our production designer, William Lee Silas, built out parts of the ship that are featured — that Constance is interacting with — and dug them out into the sand and added debris. And we enhanced that with VFX to just give it a little bit more scale. I definitely feel like it was ambitious. And I’m proud of where we landed. I feel like we sold those things, but it was all about the character at the end of it. It’s her time on screen, talking and exploring and then coming to grips with the situation that she’s in.
PB: How involved were you with the casting process? And what made Constance Wu and Reggie Watts right for the project?
EG: We had a great casting director, Riley Hamilton. He worked with me on Comedy Bang Bang as well. He did a lot of the casting for that. And I knew very early on in the project that I wanted a female lead. I wanted to see a different person in that role. Constance came by way of mutual friends, and I’m a big fan of casting comedy people in dramatic roles. I feel like they’re a lot closer than people realize, and a lot of times people get pigeonholed into one or the other. Anytime you can get somebody to play off-type, it’s just exciting because it’s different.
I’d seen Constance work on Fresh Off the Boat, and a couple of shorts that she had been in. And I thought she would bring a really cool version of this character to life. So, we met a couple of times and talked through the character and explored what the story was, what the point of it was. She created a whole back story for the character and a lot of places to pull from with her acting training. She brought a really cool perspective to the role.
And then Reggie Watts was brought in. He’s such a talented voice . . . We wanted him for that role because he plays the voice of the computer in her suit, that artificial intelligence. We wanted a character that was both friendly and human sounding. But also a degree of robotic or disconnectedness, just a hair from emotional abilities. And I feel like he walked that line perfectly. He could give something a little funny or a little supportive, emotionally. But then, it was lacking the substance of an actual human. And I hope that really plays on the screen. You feel her. The idea, the backstory is that we’re in the future and we’ve sent out these solo expeditions to try to solve some of earth’s problems. And to keep the astronauts sane, they’re given an A.I. to talk to them, play music, and be supportive. He runs out of battery because of the damage to the suit and ends up shutting down. It’s a real loss for Constance because he’s been her voice of companionship on the mission.
PB: When is the premiere and where will “Nine Minutes” be available to watch?
EG: We’re hoping to premiere at a festival this fall. And then, we’re in talks with a couple of different streaming distribution options for December to have an exclusive premiere. That’ll be promoted and talked about, and then it’ll be available online for everybody to check out.
PB: Do you have any other projects in the works right now?
EG: I’ve got another short film coming up called “Easy Eight.” We’re in post-production on that. That should be finished soon, and that’ll hopefully premiere at a festival early next year. And then continuing to work on narrative directing. My goal is to do a feature in the next couple of years.
All images via Impact24 PR.
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