Director Isaac Ezban beside the mirror portal in Parallel.
Parallel, directed by Isaac Ezban (2018). Photo.
Photo Courtesy of BRON Studios
Mexican filmmaker Isaac Ezban’s science fiction film Parallel screened at Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) in October 2018, after premiering at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival in May 2018. His two previous fantasy and science fiction films, The Incident (2014) and The Similars (2015), also screened at VIFF. The Incident is a claustrophobic story of uncanny entrapment in time and space from which there is only one escape—carrying on the curse. The Similars is a “dark and stormy night” horror pic of macabre identities. Parallel is his first English language film and was shot in Vancouver. It tells the story of four nerdy software developers who stumble upon a portal into parallel universes. Like Alice in Wonderland, they descend into a maddening world where their deepest selves are exposed.
George Melnyk interviews Ezban about Parallel (2018) and how working in Western Canada has impacted his career and his vision as a filmmaker.
GEORGE MELNYK: This is your first English-language film made in Canada by a Canadian studio (BRON) where you direct a script that is not your own. These are major changes from your previous two auteur films, made in Mexico in Spanish, under your own production and financing control. What prompted you to make this bold move?
ISAAC EZBAN: Indeed, this was a film of many first times: first time directing a film outside of Mexico, first time with a new crew, first time with a studio, first time directing in English, and first time with a script I didn't write. I can say all those “firsts” were definitely amazing experiences that helped me grow as a director, as a collaborator, and as a human being. After making my first two films, I really wanted to make a sci-fi film in English and I really wanted to make a film that I didn't write.
Of course, it had to be a script I still felt personally related to, and one that dealt with subjects I like. I read many, many scripts and then one night I read Parallel and I was like “Holy shit, I NEED to direct this movie!!!” I could have even written this movie myself! It had all the themes I liked, and for me it’s not even a sci-fi story, it’s more like a character drama with some hints of sci-fi… I always saw it as Flatliners meets The Social Network. That was my pitch to the producer. That is the film I set to make and I believe that is the film I have made. And I believe I learned a lot from it.
The tech team discovers the mirror is a portal.
Parallel, directed by Isaac Ezban (2018). Still.
Still Courtesy of BRON Studios
GM: Working in a studio system for the first time and with English-speaking actors and crews required adaptation on your part. How were you able to express your vision as a director in a strange environment?
IE: I did bring an Ezban way to shooting the movie. Cinematographically, I used my favorite camera angles, how the steady cam was incorporated, the lighting I like, certain lenses, colours, flares, and of course, my attraction to mirrors which I brought to the film. For me this is a character movie, and therefore a movie about actors. So I also really enjoyed working with our four lead actors, with whom I still keep up a very strong relationship. Working with the crew from Vancouver was also an amazing experience because I learned a lot from them. They are very experienced because in Vancouver they do a lot of movies and TV series. Making a film is, at the end of the day, a great example of team work, and that is how I see myself as a director, as part of the team.
GM: What did you learn about the Canadian Vancouver-based industry that you were not aware of? How different is its modus operandi from that of Mexico’s?
IE: I think the way to do movies is the same everywhere, but the difference lies in the speed with which crews shoot here: a lot of things get shot in Vancouver, a lot of movies and TV. In the industry LA is more like “the city where everything is thought” and Vancouver is more like “the city where everything is shot”, and that makes Vancouver a place that has very experienced crews.
I was worried when I saw I only had 23 days for the shoot. In Mexico it is usual to shoot your movie in 30 to 35 days. For example, my first film, The Incident, a super low budget movie cost $100,000 and was shot in 24 days. My second film, The Similars, had a larger budget of a million dollars and was shot in 30 days. But in Vancouver everything happens faster. There are fewer days but more money spent each day. The crew could be as many as 100 people, who are very well organized. The process moves fast with multiple cameras etc.
The ancient bride trapped on the escalator of eternal return in The Incident.
The Incident, directed by Isaac Ezban (2014). Still.
Still Courtesy of Red Elephant Films
I would say 23 days in Vancouver is equal to 40 days in Mexico. In Mexico, things move slower. For example, you might start shooting two hours after everyone gets to the set, but in Vancouver you start within the first hour. Curiously, every day in my Mexico shoot I felt I needed more time, while in Vancouver I hardly ever felt that. The fact that we had to work faster definitely help me grow and improve as a director, mostly in the way in which I make choices, because making a film is all about making choices, and the faster you make good choices, the better and more productive director you are.
GM: Let’s turn to the film itself. In an interview at the film’s premiere you talked about Parallel as a mix of the classic and the contemporary.1The story of a tech start-up group is certainly contemporary, but what is it about the film that is “classic”?
IE: On one side of things, it’s a classic story of playing with the fire from the gods, meaning a classic story of someone finding an opportunity to have a certain magical advantage that then turns against that person because of his or her own ambition. It’s a classic fable in which characters find a magical window (or a camera that tells the future, or a machine that stops time, or whatever) and use it for their own benefit until their own ambition betrays them.
My grandmother told me a fable about a poor couple that finds a fairy who grants them three wishes, and they end up even worse off than before. That kind of story is classic, universal, and an ancient part of human storytelling. At the same time, the film is a completely modern story taking place in the world of social media, apps, entrepreneurs, technology, start-ups, and young people who all want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. It’s a film about the classic meeting the modern.
GM: In one way or another the idea of parallel universes that anyone of us may inhabit at different times, because there are multiple expressions of ourselves, is a feature in all of your films. This idea can be played out in various ways. In The Incident, it had a magic-realist aspect tied to a curse that trapped people in zones without hope of escape. In The Similars, it had a different kind of entrapment—one in which differing identities blended between bodies creating a disquieting unity. The same eventually happens in Parallel. Why this pessimism?
IE: The ending of my three films are all pessimistic in the same way, although I like to use another word… enigmatic. They leave you thinking, that something is unresolved, that someone is cheated. I believe few stories deserve or work better with a happy ending and I still haven't come up with one yet.
Parallel has a lighter tone. It’s a more “fun” movie, but I do believe that in its ending things are as enigmatic as in my other movies (and the ending was one of the things I changed from the original script). Parallel universes, doppelgängers, and parallel personalities are definitely an obsession of mine that I want to keep exploring. I don't know why I'm so interested in this subject. Perhaps is comes from how strongly I feel myself that I have multiple identities and roles—belonging to a small Jewish minority in a Catholic country like Mexico, being both an artist and a businessman (I co-own a pop-up drive-in movie business in Mexico City), and I am a father who has to balance international travel and work with being the father of a baby girl that I miss terribly whenever I am away.
Looking into the transforming mirror in The Similars.
The Similars, directed by Isaac Ezban (2015). Still.
Still Courtesy of Red Elephant Films
GM: The mirror is important in Parallel because it is the portal to other universes. But you also use mirrors in your earlier films to convey human identity issues. What is it about the mirror motif that appeals to you?
IE: Well as I mentioned, I seem to be obsessed with the subject of other identities, other universes, parallel universes, doppelgängers, etc. The mirror is simply the best visual way to convey these topics. In a mirror, you literally see yourself. In Parallel, the production designer and I tried to make a big deal out of mirrors and not just the main mirror they use to travel to other universes. In many scenes we see our characters through a mirror, and every time we see a character from a B world in the A world he is shot through a mirror.
In The Similars, I also used a sequence with mirrors in the bathroom of the bus station, because a mirror is a place where you see yourself as another self. It’s my way of “reflecting” on identity. What would happen if one day the self you see in the mirror comes out of the mirror and exchanges places with you, which is something I suggest in Parallel. Early on I had the idea that I might shoot every take in the film through a mirror, but then it would not have been a character-driven film. Besides, it was technically hard to achieve. Still, it was a cool idea.
GM: I do not consider you making classic big-budget sci-fi films in the same way someone like James Cameron does. Your first two films blended several genres, making them hard to categorize. They were low-budget and had a strong B-movie sensibility, making them a bit bizarre, other worldly, and tinged with pulp fiction. The Twilight Zone television (1959-1964) is the closest I can think of as inspirational for your film style. How does Parallel, with its mainstream storyline, multi-million dollar budget, and studio support, fit with your earlier films? Is it a departure or a continuation?
IE: I like to think of it as a continuation, even though it has a more commercial story and production values. At the same time, it’s not like a super commercial or super mainstream movie. If you compare it to my previous films it is definitely the most commercial film I have made to date, but if you see the film itself, you’ll feel its retro vibe and its B-movie sensibility (in a lesser way, as it’s a studio film). I believe it definitely has a Twilight Zone vibe. It would make perfect sense if someone would say “This is Isaac Ezban making a movie in English, which is a little more commercial and mainstream.” I intend to keep growing that way in the near future.
GM: I have always found your imagination to be in sympathy with the unexpected and the strange. For example, the other day I was driving down a street in Calgary where I live and stopped at a red light. In front of me was an SUV with the same license plate number as my SUV, except for the last number that was one less than mine. In other words, it was the plate issued just prior to mine. I thought my seeing this license plate was a one in a billion. But what if the number had been the same and the vehicle looked just like mine? How would I have reacted? And what would you do cinematically if the numbers and the SUV were both the same?
IE: I love this question! If the numbers of the plate were exactly the same, I wouldn't focus on the plate or the car, I would focus on the person who is driving it… I would try to get a good look at him… If the person is also me, then, holy shit, I have found my doppelgänger! I wouldn't speak to him. Instead I would try following him and seeing where he takes me to or what he does. I would try to see what I can learn from him, in which ways this doppelgänger is better than me, and in which ways I'm better.
Also, I would be very curious to see what he does, the kind of people he gets together with, what kind of job does he have. Does he share the same wife as me? Is he also a filmmaker? I would have a glimpse into what my life could have been if I would have made different choices. After that, I would just go home and try to locate him on the next day (already knowing where he lives or works) and each day see what I can learn from this person and apply it to my life. I would never approach him, so that he would never know I exist, and I could always have some kind of advantage over him.
GM: The website Fantasia reviewed Parallel. It described you as “toying with the what-ifs of science fiction in a much more esoteric way than your typical director.”2Since you are not a “typical director”, what kind of movies are you planning for the future?
IE: I want to keep making movies wherever I can tell my stories, or the stories I'm excited about. That can be in Mexico or the US or Canada. Anywhere I can tell my stories, I am willing to go. I admire directors that have done that. For example, Guillermo Del Toro is one of my heroes and not only because he's Mexican. Yes, he works in Hollywood, and yes, he has made blockbusters, and yes, he has won Oscars, but he made his two masterpieces in Spain: The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. I want to do movies anywhere I can. Right now, I have two horror movies in development in Mexico; a sci-fi movie and a horror movie in development in the US; and I am writing another sci-fi script that could happen anywhere.
I'm open to possibilities and to whatever happens. I have a team in LA that works with me (an agent and a manager) who I'm very happy with, and Mexico also has a great industry, government funds, and tax credits. They are two very different industries and I want to take the best of both. Perhaps any movies I make in Mexico can help me do something more personal, more unique, while movies in the US can help me to shape a better career, make more commercial movies, and make a living out of my craft. Eventually, I believe that both will collide and I will be able to do what I want, where I want… but that’s many years down the line. I’m not in a rush.
George Melnyk interviewed Isaac Ezban in Mexico City via email in November 2018.
Watch a clip from Parallel here: https://bit.ly/2sMxhnb
George Melnyk is a retired film prof from the University of Calgary. He has written and edited almost 30 books, a half-dozen on Canadian film. He is also a journalist who publishes on-line, blogs on film, and appears in print mags. You can find out more at www.georgemelnyk.com