WITH the finale scene filmed during the ‘Great American Eclipse’, Richard Raymond’s short film Souls Of Totality is a cinematic spectacle to behold.
Yet this is a piece of filmmaking that does not solely rely on its awe-inspiring 5-minute single-take climax. The story of a couple who begin to doubt their involvement in a cult on the day of a group suicide, Souls Of Totality is a soaring and emotionally absorbing celebration of love.
Ahead of the film’s must-see screenings at Raindance Film Festival (30 September and 7 October), Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with director Richard Raymond to learn more about the thought-process and efforts behind this incredible achievement.
Q: Souls of Totality is a masterfully executed film. What came first, the story of this conflicted couple in a cult or the idea to have the finale of a film during an actual solar eclipse?
A: THANK you very much. The film came about in a very organic way. Last summer there was a lot of excitement about what was dubbed the ‘Great American Eclipse’, the first total solar eclipse in 100 years visible in America from coast to coast. Millions of people from all over the world had booked out every flight and hotel available in or near the path of totality so we more or less lost hope that we’d get a chance to go and experience it.
But then our babysitter (Makenna Tague) mentioned she was from Oregon and that we could camp at her family house, where we would be right in the path of totality. We told our friends, Kate Trefry and Ben Bolea, (who are writers) and they jumped at the chance to travel with us. A week later we had a dinner with two actors, Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen — we mentioned the trip and they also wanted to come see the eclipse. I had an suddenly had an epiphany. Actors, writers and I’m a director…. we should make a film!
The problem was it was now only about 4 weeks to go until the eclipse — we had no script, no money and no equipment or crew, I’d never shot in America before — we were at the mercy of a impending deadline set by the universe. So the next day my wife, Nousha, and I flew up to Oregon to meet her father, Mike. 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 to making this film come to life. I took photos of the locations sent them to the writers and – bless their creative wisdom – two weeks before the eclipse they handed me Souls of Totality. So the journey to Souls of Totality was paved with this crazy last minute idea to make a film shot during a solar eclipse.
But as Ben and Kate’s script was born everything changed. Their incredible story, like a magnet, pulled together a group of passionate, like minded, like-hearted souls. In doing so the eclipse became a footnote to a story I had to tell.
Q: Where did you find the nerve to film this remarkable 5-minute single-take finale sequence?
A: I knew it would be a high wire act with no safety net — not only was it something that had never been done before in cinema (for good reason) but there could be no plan B.
But I had total faith in the cast and crew that we could pull it off. Everyone put in the work and dedication to ensure we were ready. We rehearsed for 4 days, an hour each day – blocked out the shot like a piece of choreography. And when the time came everyone was 100% focused and followed what we had rehearsed. I’m most proud of Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen, who gave such beautiful performances… for them it was like theatre, there wasn’t ever going to be a second take!
Q: So there was no backup plan at all if something went wrong?
A: HONESTLY, no. But if something did go wrong, then I just felt that the power of the script — and the emotion of the story — as the real core of the film, would carry it through. Also it’s the magical mistakes in film that make it magical!
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 will ever forget.
Q: Can you tell us about the level of planning that went into timing and executing this so perfectly?
A: THE final eclipse sequence was 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’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 4 days before the eclipse, using NASA data and GPS coordinates to precisely 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 guess work for us. We just had to follow the numbers!
Q: As you have mentioned, there was a lot of pressure your lead actors Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen. Can you talk about the job they did to bring pure human emotion to this moment?
A: TAT and Tom are 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. They both shared 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.
Q: The sequence gave me goosebumps similar to those I got watching the liftoff scene in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. What was your reaction when you first finally saw the finale scene?
A: I think both scenes are powerful in a similar way because they have that emotional quality to them. In Interstellar, the spectacle of the liftoff is enveloped by the heartbreak of a daughter loosing her father. In Souls of Totality, the eclipse is set against this desperate race to save the life of the one you love.
The story also 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.
Q: Moving away from the sequence, what interested you about telling a story about conflicted love in a cult?
A: Souls of Totality is about the sacrifices we make for love and the intensity of a looming moment that can change everything. 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 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 plain of existence. Most of the followers — 39 members — died of poisoning in a mass suicide in early 1997. They believed they had to commit suicide to leave this life and reach the spaceship. And I really connected to that notion posed at the end — what if a cults outlandish and crazy beliefs were actually real?
Q: As you brought up earlier, there are a number of married couples involved in the project – including yourself and Nousha. Is love at the heart of this project both in front and behind the camera?
A: ABSOLUTELY. It wasn’t just the writers and ourselves — multiples couples throughout the cast (Tom & Tat) and the crew — and even our investors! Multiple couples in love, working to seize a never repeatable moment and replying on their authentic partnerships to help see it though. I do really think this is felt in the movie — this certainly couldn’t have been pulled off by strangers in such a small amount of time.
Q: You started at Pinewood Studios when you were 15 years old and worked with directors such as Neil Jordan and Luc Besson. How did those experiences shape you as a filmmaker?
A: I got a few days work experience on the set of Shadowlands, directed by Lord Richard Attenborough. Spending a few days on his set, watching him work, was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. He was so kind and generous and loving to his actors and crew. He created such a safe and collaborative space, where anyone could approach him with a thought or an idea – that’s what influences me… not just the memory of a master at work but how he did it.
Q: I can’t wait to experience your film again on the big-screen at Raindance Film Festival. How excited are you for the screening?
A: REALLY excited! And pretty nervous. I’m from London so all my family are going to be in the audience. I grew up going to Raindance screenings and saving up every year to be able to afford a ticket to the BIFA’s. Watching all those filmmakers share their work and discuss how they made them was very inspiring. It’s just wonderful to be able to follow in their footsteps and become a small part of the history of such a great festival, in the best city in the world.
Q: What is next for you? Do you plan on trying to top this incredible achievement?
A: SOULS of Totality has opened up some amazing doors for me. I’m really excited for what’s going to come next. Watch this space!