Benjamin Tuček on his Trash on Mars: We Wanted to Do Something Extraordinary

05 July 2018

Czech Film

Benjamin Tuček on his Trash on Mars: We Wanted to Do Something Extraordinary

Czech Film

Benjamin Tuček on his Trash on Mars: We Wanted to Do Something Extraordinary

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In the context of Czech cinema, Trash on Mars is in many ways a unique film: the distributor presents it as a comedy, but it is not just “some comedy”. This sci-fi by Benjamin Tuček, shot at Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, simulates the conditions on the planet Mars. Czech crew of 13 filmmakers has been the first ever to shoot a film here. After more than three years from the first shot, the film picturing a potential vision of the mankind’s future will finally reach its audience at Karlovy Vary IFF, screened out of competition.

You won the stay at Mars Desert Research Station in February 2015, in a contest. What was your motivation to take part?
We wanted to do something extraordinary. The idea came from Zdeněk Janáček and architect Ondřej Doule. Ondřej, as a scientist, had participated at a research mission in Utah before. The atmosphere of the station was very unique and the idea to make a film there seemed quite obvious. We registered as a scientific mission, but to be able to participate, we had to specify our concrete task or a goal we wanted to reach at the Station. Our idea of making a film located on „Mars“ convinced the organisers and the strategy turned out to be victorious. After hundreds of geologists and psychologists, we were the first film crew registered in the contest and thus were greenlighted.

How did you feel about starting such a risky project? Seen within the Czech cinema background, it not only deals with a unique topic, but also has an unorthodox form, not to mention the film location and execution of the shooting.
I remember it very well. I had 14 days to re-consider things and I can recall the thoughts running through my head. I wondered whether it was at all possible to cope with such task without risking too much; whether it wouldn’t become a scandal or even some greater jam we’d get to. Finally, I concluded it was worth a try. Having sorted out this dilemma, I started to put together a crew of people who I knew were capable of doing it. Our special advisor and leader of the excursion, Ondřej Doule, the father of the whole adventure, made us quite nervous, maintaining that the conditions at the Station were very unfriendly. Taking off to Utah we all were ready for the worst but finally it turned out not to be so bad at all. Another unique thing was that the film was shot by only 13 people: six crew members and seven actors. Each crew member had of course several roles, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to make a film.

Could you explain how the idea to make a Czech sci-fi comedy was born and what was your source of inspiration?
I’d rather be careful with the term “sci-fi”. The viewer really shouldn’t expect a new Ikarie or let's say Star Wars. In a way, Trash on Mars is a science fiction, but it is not the kind of film full of special effects - on the contrary, it accentuates quite a shabby reality of the Station and deals more with human relationships than with the universe. One of my favourite sci-fi films is Moon. Although with quite a different budget, it is somehow allied to our film, mainly by its modest use of means – featuring a minimum number of actors: namely one.

What specific aspects the shooting at a Research Station brought and what were the greatest difficulties you had to face there?
We were the 154th crew since the Station was founded. It means that Mars Desert Research Station had been in operation for a long time, which also shows on its state. It looks quite worn. The conditions at the Station, fitted to scientific missions, are very strict, simulating a real stay on Mars: no one can leave the Station without wearing a space suit, the use of water is restricted, you get the special food – in fact you have to behave the same way as if you were really on Mars. We tried to apply the same regime also during the shooting, but very soon we understood that it’s quite impossible, as we used our cubicle also as a film studio. We had to function on a very limited space which required a lot of discipline and compromising.

Otherwise we didn’t have any major problems, except for some practical issues. The space suits turned out to be the biggest challenge: they are really air-tight, made of the same material as ironing boards. We found out soon that longer stay in a space suit could be almost life-threatening. It was very hot at the desert and we had to get up quite early in the morning to manage the shooting in those space suits before the temperature climbed up to 40°C. As our stay at the station was limited (we knew we had 20 days only and couldn’t afford to lose a single day), we were shooting 14 to 16 hours a day, going to bed at 1 a.m. and getting up at 4:30 a.m., which was quite exhausting. Together with Tereza Nvotová, who also wrote the screenplay, we were planning everything really carefully and if anything went wrong, it would have jeopardized the whole shooting. Simply said, it was a struggle for each hour.

Was there something that brought an unexpected dimension in the film thanks to the shooting at the Mars Desert Research Station?
The unexpected dimension was brought in by Ondřej Doule. Originally he flew along with us as a supervisor, as he was the only scientist and at the same time the only man who had already been at the Station – which was a condition of the stay. I felt sorry to see him just hanging around, watching us shooting, so we finally casted him - as android Bot. We have a costume made for him and asked him to play the part. And to my surprise he managed very well.

Did the whole shooting take place at the Station?
In the month before the departure, we managed to write the first version of the script. We went on working on its final version already in Utah, during the shooting. We knew that some scenes wouldn’t be final and would need some additional shots. During the editing of the film in 2016, we were checking what is missing and which extra shots would need to be added. We had no chance to go back to the USA but were lucky to find a solution: our executive producer, Martin Kořínek, found out that there was a derailed train at the Masaryk train station in Prague. The completely destroyed train was transported to the Libeň depot for reparation. For a very small amount of money, we managed to rent it for two nights and with the help of stickers, banners and prints, we created something resembling a space ship. Fortunately, in the screenplay, we were from the beginning purposely avoiding the necessity to directly show the environment where we were filming– as we knew we would never be able to imitate it. In the end we succeeded at finishing the shooting in those two nights in Prague.

One of the main parts – if not the main one, the part of the narrator – belongs to the robot Bot. Is his main task to mirror the modern society or does he represent a „watchdog“ of the old world, untouched by people? Do you really think that one day Mars will be just a „plundered colony“, as you suggest in the film?
The robot symbolizes the start of something awaiting us: namely our co-existence with artificial intelligence. I don’t dare to anticipate in the film whether this will be good or bad, but there is no doubt that the mankind is already heading this way. The film doesn’t express any threat; it is the vision of what is in front of us. It is a parallel with the colonisation of the Wild West: not only is the film shot at the Wild West, but it is also the area where the colonisation took place at the expense of native inhabitants. We suppose there are no native inhabitants on Mars, but the mankind is after its natural resources.

The process of filming was interesting not only thanks to the environment but also the technique you used, namely the combination of the classical filming, shooting with GoPro camera and using some drone shots. What was the reason to combine various technical means and what finishing work did you have to do in the image and sound postproduction?
The decision was simple: we realized that in order to manage as much as possible in those 20 days, we would have to make the shots of the landscape in an alternative way. We simply couldn’t afford to waste time by waiting for the sunset. So every day we set our six GoPro cameras in the landscape and also fixed some on the space suits to simultaneously get subjective shots of the spacemen. The main reason for using drones was that it was worthy to try to capture such beautiful landscape from above. None of us really knew how to control the drones though, which was quite exciting, but also risky: a single mistake could mean the loss of both the drone and the camera, so it was really an adrenaline sport. There was no plan B.  

As far as the postproduction is concerned, I mentioned before that Trash on Mars was filmed by a small crew. However, all the more people were working on it after our return from the USA. The key moment for the film was that two renowned companies offered to co-produce it. Soundsquare took care of the sound postproduction and UPP took up the image postproduction. Without the help of these strong and experienced partners, the film would have never looked like it does today. At UPP, in order to reach exactly the result we aimed at, we had to unify various sources. We didn’t use sketching too much in the postproduction, concentrating more on cleaning the shots and adapting the colours to reach the stylisation, which we were looking for and finally succeeded to find. For example, in our version the film is not red-coloured as is the standard for the films about Mars.

In connection with the shooting conditions at the Station you were not able to use the regular funding schemes. How did you finance the project and what helped you most to accomplish it?
We were in a completely opposite situation to the regular course of things – where, before you start filming, you first have a film idea and screenplay ready and can apply for the support of development and later production of the film. The opportunity to fly to the USA came quite unexpectedly and hastily and we had to react accordingly. From the bigger part, the film is funded by private money. Without the first investment of Karel Janeček we wouldn’t have been even able to travel.  Consequently, together with Zdeněk Janáček we founded a film production company and during the following three years of postproduction we were financing the film ourselves. UPP and Soundsquare and their coproduction shares, based on a standard co-production contract, played a very important role for the film.  It was a great paradox to get the Czech Film Fund’s grant only at the end of the whole process. The Fund’s support came in the last minute and without that last million we would have never been able to finalize the film.

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