Phoenix Film Festival Interview: ‘Listening’ Director Khalil Sullins

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One of the standout offerings from the 2015 Phoenix Film Festival was Khalil Sullin’s sci-fi drama Listening, which explores the moral and ethical issues that arise when two grad students invent a new technology that opens the doors to telepathy. Beautifully shot and meticulously paced, it heralds the arrival of a new voice in the realm of sci-fi cinema.

The film also earned Sullins a Best Director award from this year’s festival, a prestigious honor in its own right, but especially impressive when taking into account that Listening is his debut feature. Before the awards ceremony, we managed to catch up with Sullins at the Phoenix Film Festival to chat about his work on the film.

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Listening has a very distinct look, with several different color palettes being used. What was the inspiration behind the visual style?

We had an amazing cinematographer, his name is Blake McClure – he shoots a show called Drunk History on Comedy Central, and he’s super talented. I think if the movie looks and sounds great, it’s because we hired really talented people and gave them what they needed to do their jobs well.

As far as the color palettes, in general – David, the main character, is a computer programmer. We think of him as someone that sort of compartmentalizes his life, so we came up with five visual worlds. It’s a common device in sci-fi storytelling to use color to help transport the audience to a different world – you play with color to get the audience into this different reality.

So when David is in the garage world, it’s very green, with kinetic camera movement. That’s where he’s creative, working on this new technology – he’s in his element. But it’s also lit a little bit like a horror movie, because what they’re doing is kind of dangerous.

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It’s very ominous.

Exactly! And then his home world, it’s these lifeless violets, and the camera never moves – that reflects his relationship with his wife and daughter. The outside world is always bright yellows, with lens flares and voyeuristic camera movements – I wanted that to feel like when you come out of a movie theater after a matinée, where the sun hurts your eyes and it’s a bit uncomfortable.

David is someone who is very comfortable in front of his computer, or in his garage, but the outside world is very uncomfortable for him. The CIA world is very red, white, and blue, but it’s desaturated and the camera movements are very robotic. And then the Cambodia world is natural hues, and slow, meditative pans and tilts.

Did you actually shoot in Cambodia?

Yeah, absolutely. We had about 35 locations around the globe. Most of that was in LA, and then we went to D.C.,  and then to Cambodia. It was about six weeks of prep in Cambodia for one week of shooting, and it was about 10 different locations around the country that we stitched together to look like one place.

The LA shoot was about six weeks, and then we did one day in D.C. about a week after that. And then four or five months later was Cambodia.

Where did the idea for this story come from?

Well, the first seed of an idea was “what if someone invented telepathy?” I’m a big comic book fan, so I liked the idea of taking something fantastic like that, and seeing how real we could make it. I was kind of surprised, when I did the research, to see how close we are to this already existing. All the science in the movie either currently exists, or is theoretically possible.

So I wanted to make it as believable as possible, and to even give it a sort of retro feeling – like maybe this already happened. All the technology is kind of old and clunky, especially in the garage – it sort of advances as the movie goes on, but I wanted it to feel as authentic as possible so that people buy into it, and then buy into the characters and the relationships.

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Speaking of the characters and their relationships – one of the characters goes through a somewhat villainous turn, but it almost feels like he’s not really supposed to be a “villain” in the typical sense. Did you want that to be a little ambiguous?

Yeah, totally. One of the themes of the movie is about good intentions and good actions, or bad intentions and bad actions. We have to be doing the right thing, but also for the right reasons. You could have the best intentions, but if you’re doing the wrong thing then it’s not going to end up well. Or if you’re doing the right thing, but your intentions aren’t great, that’s also not going to end well.

So none of the characters every fully line that up, which is why things end up the way they do, without giving too much away.

Going back to the science – did you have a consultant on the film, someone you could run your ideas by to make sure they were in line with the technology that’s currently being developed?

Yeah, I had a few friends that are scientists and doctors, and I would run ideas past them. And the first two or three months when I was writing, it was all research. I sort of theorized taking these two different fields of research – brain computer interfaces and nanotechnology – and I was like “okay, what if we combine these two things?”

I was thinking it would make sense in movie logic, but would probably never work in the real world. And then a few months after we were finished shooting, my brother sent me an article from MIT Technology Review, and scientists had done exactly that. They’ve actually invented these nanotube transistors and they’ve injected into the brains of lab rats. It’s kind of crazy.

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In the realm of science fiction, there are so many things that feel derivative of other works, but this idea feels like it’s something we haven’t really seen before. What was the evolution of that idea as you began developing it?

With Listening in particular, I wanted to explore our relationship with communication technology, on a personal level, but also a societal level and a government level and a global level – all the implications of what rapidly advancing communication technology means. For me, the best movies work on multiple levels. They can be fun and entertaining, but they can also be emotionally satisfying and intellectually stimulating.

So I really wanted to explore some issues that I don’t fully understand the answers to. When I’m working a movie, I’m dedicating three to five years of my life to a topic, so I like to tackle something that I don’t fully understand yet. I don’t know the answers to all the questions raised in the film, but I can tell you the answer isn’t to blow up the internet or whatever. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – these things aren’t going away, so we have to learn to live in this world.

The challenges that we face today are different than the challenges our parents faced, and will be different than challenges our children face, just by nature of the advancement of communication technology. So I think it’s important not to unplug or completely shun technology, but to be mindful of how we use it, and about the thoughts we put out there into the world.

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For more information on Listening, including screening dates and locations, check out the official website at ListeningMovie.com

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