Compared to the rest of the country, Miami is an alien land, filled with foreign languages, raucous and fascinating customs, and bizarre, exotic-looking creatures. (Especially during Ultra.)
For some South Floridians, though, the region's numerous Spanish-language radio stations, reluctance to yield to wailing ambulances, and high tolerance for toplessness are not enough to satisfy their lust for the exotic and strange. Some people, like locals Eric Swain and Troy Bernier, just need to make amateur sci-fi movies in their basements after they punch out of work.
There's a similar but slightly different situation arising in New York City, where it would seem that some people need to make movies about people who make amateur sci-fi movies in their basements after they punch out of work. A documentary about Swain and Bernier's quirky, low-budget pet project will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, bringing the pair's hobby into -- wait for it -- another dimension.
The story itself is like something cut straight out of a comic book. By day, Eric Swain and Troy Bernier serve as respectable career men. They're both hydrologists; Bernier is a faculty member at Florida Memorial University and a consultant, while Swain is a researcher at the Florida Water Science Center in Fort Lauderdale. Under their three-piece suits, though, they don infrared body armor, woven together with threads of a uranium compound that lends them super powers. Okay, that's not true. What they do have under their suits, though, are hearts that beat faster when the words "science fiction" are mentioned. So when they're not in the lab, they make movies, wielding swords, wrapping themselves in majestic turbans, and "dying" at the hands of invisible enemies in front of a green screen.
The guys met about 15 years ago through work, at a time when Swain was already in the middle of a super low-budget but fun other-worldly film project. Prior to their first meeting, Bernier, a New York transplant, had dabbled in nature documentary film making. He had a strong interest in sci-fi that reached back to his childhood. "For me it started with TV shows such as Star Trek, Space 1999... and Robotech. And I was very interested in physics and engineering as a kid. So it goes hand in hand," Bernier says.
Swain started making films at 13, beginning with a World War II-themed film for which he used model airplanes and tanks. "There were no people, no human beings in it, just the models fighting each other. I still have a copy of it. It's pretty funny, actually," he describes. He continued experimenting with film in high school and then dreamt up the sci-fi film Lord of Ashes as an adult in 1997. He was working on it when he first crossed paths with Bernier. It didn't take long for the guys to discover their mutual interest, and in no time, Bernier signed on to help with Swain's film.
"Troy was actually one of the generals in the film before he gets destroyed," says Swain.
The pair went on to create a film called A Brief Spell, a "magical" film with a surprise ending that ran in the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival in 2003, and then later Longevity, which won the festival's choice award in 2005. They used a blue cloth as their green screen stand-in, and shot a lot of other scenes outdoors. The directors starred in both films, and cast their professional acquaintances in most of the other roles.
"There weren't really auditions. It was mostly like, whoever showed up," laughs Swain.
If you're imagining a bunch of middle-aged science nerds and desk jockeys running around with golden headbands and swathed in chainmail, well, you're right. But though the acting talent is lacking, it's also a testament to the directors' skill and passion. There they were, taking home festival awards -- and it certainly wasn't due to any Oscar-worthy performances.
After their film festival success, the guys decided to rename their company Ginnungagap Filmwerks, the first word of which means "the space before creation" in Norse. (Yes, these guys are honest-to-goodness nerds.) For their latest project, Planeta Desconocido ("unknown planet" in Spanish), the making of which is the subject of the documentary Journey to Planet X, the team used Craigslist and other websites to seek out actors with more experience. They achieved a more polished end look with a green screen and more sophisticated equipment.
So why do these scientists, with all their ingrained scientific meticulousness, enjoy making films that fudge the scientific facts so much?
"Let's talk about the definition of science fiction," says Bernier. "What is the definition of science?"
"The study of the universe and everything in it," answers Swain.
"And what is fiction?" continues Bernier. "Something that is skewed. It's a story. So if we take science and fiction, science has to follow four separate and very important rules. And at the end, it means it has to work. People have to be able to do it. Fiction is a story about these ideas that may not be true today or tomorrow, but potentially could be true in the past or the future."
So it's the fun and imagination of science fiction that's captivated these guys. And they like to leave other things to the imagination as well. For example, they refused to disclose exactly how old they are. And they also wouldn't tell us exactly how much it cost them to make Planeta Desconcido, but they assured us it wasn't much, as Journey to Planet X will show.
"We think we're going to astonish people at how little money [we needed to make our movie,]" says Bernier. "You know, we used our brains, what resources we had. It's a production of what comes from sweat."
"We kept the cost down by making a lot of things ourselves," says Swain.
So will they ever quit their nine-to-fives and become full-time filmmakers? They can't really say for sure.
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"I hadn't planned on that," says Swain. "I think that's something you could only answer when the circumstances arrived where you said, 'Hey, I could make a living on this.' But I've always said I'm going to stick with my full-time job and see what becomes of what we're accomplishing in film making."
"It's a wait and see type of thing," said Bernier.