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Vanessa McMahon


Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)

 


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Interview with Director Noah Wagner for 'Watch Room' (2019)

Interview with Director Noah Wagner for 'Watch Room' (2019) Director Noah Wagner

NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts graduate NOAH WAGNER is an award-winning director, writer and filmmaker who has appeared on HBO, NBC, BBC, VIMEO STAFF PICKS and THE NEW YORKER. His films have screened at festivals worldwide, including the Oscar-Qualifying Cleveland Int’l FF, Nantucket FF, and Sonoma Int’l FF, where his latest short – AI thriller, 'Watch Room' (2019) - won the Jury Award for Best Dramatic Short.

Starring Mamoudou Athie (The Front RunnerPatti Cake, Unicorn Store), Natalie Paul (Netflix's YOU, USA's The Sinner, HBO's The Deuce) and Alice Kremelberg (Netflix's Orange Is The New Black) and written by Michael Koehler (The Sheol Express, They Came at Night), ‘Watch Room’ follows three maverick computer scientists who are working to develop artificial intelligence within the safety of a virtual environment… until the AI learns it’s at risk of being shutdown and turns the table on its creators.

In an interview with director Noah Wagner and writer Michael Koehler for their short film ‘Watch Room’, here is what they had to say:

 

This film reminded me of the subject of 2001: Space Odyssey. Do you think this is the modern Frankenstein complex (our creations controlling us) and that we need to be afraid of our creations turning on us?

NOAH: I’m glad to hear that – 2001 was certainly a touchstone! I think the way AI has typically been portrayed on-screen has become synonymous with artificially-conscious androids rebelling against their human masters. That makes for great entertainment, but it clouds the issue and hyperbolizes the reality of it. In speaking with AI scientists, we sought to create a more nuanced portrayal of the spirit behind the conversations happening in research labs around the world today. So, I think ‘afraid’ may be a strong word. The primary feeling we hope audiences come away with in watching our film is a sense of cautious optimism towards new technologies and specifically AI… with an emphasis on cautious. Measure twice, cut once, as they say. My greater concern are market forces – a race to be first. This isn’t a technology where anyone should be cutting corners.

 

What for you is the way forward in the dependency of AI? 

NOAH: I am no scientist, so I’m glad there are organizations like the Future of Life Institute and others, whose mission in part is to develop ways to safeguard life amidst new technological challenges like AI. I’m encouraged that we’re beginning to have this conversation and I think we need to continue the dialogue on an international level. Cooperation and open lines of communication are key - we need to work together and share scientific discoveries as they are made so that we all benefit and no one is left behind along the way. Like with anything though, I don’t think we as a species should put all of our eggs in one basket. The Internet is a good reference – it has made our lives significantly more efficient, put an ocean of knowledge at our fingertips, and brought our collective thoughts and experiences closer together than ever before. In the process, I think it’s shifting our sense of what it actually means to be human and leaves us vulnerable in new ways. It’s up to us to be more conscious about that tradeoff.

MICHAEL KOEHLER (WRITER): If I may chime in, here, I worry it’s all too easy to glance over “optimism” in our “cautious optimism” refrain. And understandably so… Fear can be a natural reaction to things we don’t understand, right? Emerging technology obliges us to consider all associated dangers - that’s why “cautious” is so important to us! - but it also invites us to consider the potential good that could come from responsible development of, say, AI. Generally speaking, people already have a healthy fear of “our creations turning on us”. But we hope that people will become more open to considering the possibility that our creations may be able to help us, too. It’s an idea that underpins the feature I’m drafting currently - a sort of extension of the questions the short broaches - and is planted in the short itself as well... Like, what if our maverick team of scientists in Watch Room could “crack the code” to Friendly AI? So we’re very excited to try and surface the “optimism” in “cautious optimism” more, even as we keep “caution” in view.

 

The film is very well produced. Was it a significant budget and how did you go about financing?

NOAH: Thank you! Science Fiction – and anytime you have a specific vision for the world you’re building – requires a few more resources than perhaps a straight drama or comedy, certainly. But as a motley crew of indie filmmakers, we had to be quite creative with how we used those limited resources. We called in a TON of favors and had a lot of in-kind donations as well. As for the financing, we funded the majority of the film through Kickstarter, which was its own education!

 

You have significant talent in your film. How did you go about casting?

NOAH: We had a tremendous casting director by the name of Matthew Glasner, who I can’t speak highly enough of. He turned us onto Jacob Batalon and Alice Kremelberg, who played Bernie and Chloe. Otherwise I was already familiar with and a big fan of Mamoudou Athie and Natalie Paul’s work (who played Nate and Kate). Each of them was my first choice for their respective roles and fortunately for us, they were all enthusiastic about the script and came aboard!

 

How long did the film take you to make from writing to finish?

NOAH: Michael wrote the script in 2015, we built the team and raised money in 2016, shot it in 2017, finished post-production in 2018, and hit the festival circuit in 2019!

 

You have mainly focused on shorts thus far. Will you move into directing features? 

NOAH: That’s the plan! We’re several drafts into the feature that Michael alluded to before, which dives deeper into many of the questions that ‘Watch Room’ raises, and we’re also developing a couple of other features, including a magical realism tale about true love called ‘The Dirty Oyster’.

 

Your film has been on the festival circuit. How have people reacted to it?

NOAH: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. We put so much thought, care and years of our lives into making this film, and it has been incredible to find out that the film is resonating with people just as we had intended it. We’ve even had many people say they’d like a repeat viewing, which is exactly how the film was designed.

 

You won an award at Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF). How was that experience?

NOAH: Yes! It’s a bit surreal to be honest, especially at SIFF which had already held a special place in my filmmaking heart from my first short, Fortissimo. “Competitive Art” has always been a funny concept to me, but it does feel amazing to be recognized for something you’ve poured years of your life into. Especially by a jury as accomplished as the one at SIFF! And I love that the award itself doubles as a bottle of rosé – I look forward to sharing it with my team.

 

What will you be working on next?

NOAH: In addition to the features mentioned before, I’m also working on a children’s sci-fi series called Cypher, an unscripted competitive eating show called Food Day, and continuing to do commercial and music video work.

Interview with Director Noah Wagner for 'Watch Room' (2019)

See Noah's site here: https://www.noahwagner.com/

 

Interview by Vanessa McMahon

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