It's no secret that the movie industry tends to stick with what it knows, and what it knows is that if someone does something successfully once, then you have to tie that thing to them like an anchor and make them do it over and over and over again. In the case of director Jacob Gentry, that thing happens to be horror movies. He was one of the three minds behind The Signal, a smart, creative, experimental horror movie that was the kind of Sundance success story few artists ever experience. It was made independently for about $50,000, and then it sold at its 2007 world premiere at Sundance to Magnolia Pictures for over $2 million, so naturally studios wanted Gentry (and everyone involved with The Signal) to keep making horror movies.
And he did so for a few years, directing a fun trilogy of slasher movies for MTV called My Super Psycho Sweet Sixteen. But recently Gentry has been making inroads toward science fiction. It started when he directed The Ghost Inside, an inspired short film for the band Broken Bells starring Christina Hendricks as an astronaut making some very tough sacrifices on her journey toward a promised paradise. And now Gentry is back with a beautiful two-part short film for Broken Bells' new album After the Disco, starring Anton Yelchin and Kate Mara as two people whose fates are intertwined across space and time.
We recently chatted with Gentry about his sci-fi work for Broken Bells, how the creative process behind them is very different than a typical music video, and how it's all been feeding into the next stage of his career-- a career we think everyone would be smart to keep an eye on.
Movies.com: Your short films for Broken Bells aren't traditional music videos, they're more like a cumulative representation of an entire album. What's the development process like for that?
Jacob Gentry: I feel like Brian Burton's music projects always sound like soundtracks to movies that don't exist. So working with James on Broken Bells is a perfect example of that. We're trying to make the movie that would accompany that soundtrack. It's almost a reverse engineering in that way. It's sort of sticking with this universe we created in our video for the first Broken Bells record, the one with Christina Hendricks, and the album artwork. So we sort of conceptualized it like you would a movie, but we had a score for it beforehand that could inspire the themes and the storytelling. And then on this one, Brian came to me with this story he had come up with that was reflective of some of the themes on the record and the lyrical content, so I took that and worked with him and James, the designer who does the album artwork, to create an overall world of the band. It's not limited to just the record.
I feel the same way on the movies I work on. The trailer and the poster and the score are all part of the story, the narrative of the piece. I think, as amazing directors like Stanley Kubrick have shown, things like the poster and other bits of iconography are just as important as a lot of the elements of the movie itself. When you think of Full Metal Jacket, you can't help but think of the image of that helmet on the white background. That's essentially what we're trying to do, but the order is different. We had all this wonderful music and then tried to create the movie that would fulfill that.
But, it wasn't like a music video where you're confined to certain parts and rhythms of the song, it was more about telling the story, shooting it like a movie, using music as the inspiration, and then going back into actually score it with the music.
Movies.com: Is that process what attracted you to this project?
Gentry: Yeah, they approached me cinematically, and I'm really driven when making my movies by music. I'm always making playlists and soundtracks before I even write or shoot them, and listen all throughout the process. So music is always part of the storytelling. So using the artwork to tell part of the story, and then the music itself – because there's no lyrics in the movie – so you have that whole other side of it. It's really great to work with them, there's a lot of freedom in trying to take a cinematic approach instead of trying to stick it all in one box.
Movies.com: You're mainly known for horror, but between your work with Broken Bells and your new film Synchronicity, are you making an active effort to push toward sci-fi?
Gentry: Science fiction is hands down my favorite genre. It's what I've always wanted to do. I've been working mainly on horror films because after The Signal that's just where the road took me. But it's been great to work with Broken Bells because it's allowing me to make a little bit of a turn into science fiction. And since they're short form, I can try different things. The thing with their music is it feels like it combines different eras of pop music, and movie music, into its own unique thing, and so I tried to do that same thing with the videos. So for the first video, The Ghost Inside, I tried to take the aesthetic of films like Outland and Alien and mix it with old Hollywood, 1940s sci-fi notions. And it helped being able to work with Christina Hendricks, who is primarily known for 1960s imagery but is also known for Firefly and science fiction. Back when we made that, my favorite things were Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica, so it was fun being able to combine those.
For this one, we kind of went a different direction with the design. The first one was a bit more gritty and in the late '70s, early '80s era of science fiction. This one is a bit more psychedelic, late '60s early '70s, movies like Logan's Run, Barbarella and Zardoz -- that sort of thing. I wanted to take that as a design aesthetic and then tell a really sincere, authentic story inside of it. I think as far as the metaphorical aspects of it, it has a lot to do with dreams versus reality, and that dynamic stems from a lot of classic science fiction stories. I like science fiction that plays within the rules of our world, but has one element added – that's usually alien or robotic or time travel or something like that - whatever that element is, the best stuff usually uses it to hide that metaphor. And that's what we tried to do.
Movies.com: What else are you working on these days?
Gentry: A lot of science fiction or science fiction-horror stuff is in development, which hopefully you'll see. I just got done with this, so now I'm moving back to a few things that are in various stages. Nothing officially announced yet, but hopefully it'll be something where I'll be able to use what I learned from these short films and expand it into a feature film. Sorry to be so vague about it, we're just right in the middle of it.
Movies.com: After The Signal hit and put you guys on the map, did you move out to L.A.?
Gentry: Actually, it was right before it. I only had like three months of that sort of really poverty stricken, starving artist in L.A. kind of thing while we were finishing The Signal. I'd only been living here for a few months before we sold the film at Sundance in January, so it was very, very fortuitous timing as far as that was concerned. Before that I was just scrounging around trying to finish our little horror movie that, as far as we knew, was only ever going to be seen by a handful of people in Japan or something.
Movies.com: When you have a film blow up at Sundance, how immediately did it change things for you? How'd you navigate your career waters after that?
Gentry: I think a lot of it is just trying to find your footing as a filmmaker. I had an idea of what we wanted to do, but it wasn't like we suddenly were in a place where we could pick whatever we wanted to do. I ended up doing the Psycho Sweet Sixteen trilogy for MTV, so I sort of saw that like film school. They weren't big budgets, but they were significantly more than we had on The Signal and gave me experience working with bigger crews and dealing with a studio. I learned so much, and because those were basically like mixtape movies anyway – they were kind of like Girl Talk albums as movies – that I was able to try a bunch of things I'd want to do in movies later on. It gave me the chance for things like switching from a horror kill to a tender John Hughes moment I'd want to try my hand at, and so it was just a really great film school. I'm glad to have that experience because now I feel that, from a logistical level, I better know how to control a proper film set. So now it's just trying to find your voice.
Like I said, I've always wanted to do science fiction stuff. It's particularly true now, but if you do any kind of a genre movie that's even semisuccessful, or people like it, then that's kind of what they want you to do. You become the horror guy. And that's fine, because I love horror movies and I love making them, but all three of us had different paths we wanted to go down. It would have been different if we packaged ourselves as a threesome that were going to make people's movies, but we were all individual directors with our own ideas and scripts. So when we wanted to come off of The Signal, there was a time when no one was really sure what to do with each of us. We all have different projects in different stages. For myself, I've developed lots of things. I developed this karaoke samurai movie that was about to go, but then the economy collapsed and we lost our funding. So you never know how these things are going to go. That's the one thing I've learned: just go where your artistic notions are. Try to write and develop things you care about, and just hope they get made. It's about finding that rhythm, and finding your voice and what you want to do, and hope that you can find similarly minded people to help make it.
Broken Bells' "After the Disco" will be available January 14, 2014. Here's the two-part video for it:
And in case you missed it, here's The Ghost Inside starring Christine Hendricks.
And so you too can have dreams of the Jacob Gentry's karaoke samurai movie that almost was, here's the awesome pitch video for Honeysuckle Blues:
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