Circle made its world premiere on May 28th at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) Uptown Cinema Seattle, Washington. I was in attendance for that premiere, and I witnessed as a crowd stuck around, undeterred by technical difficulty, fixated to a tense and thrilling film experience. Recently, I had to a chance to talk to the filmmakers behind the movie, Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione. You can read the interview below and see my review of their film here.
Teaira Lacson [AE]: Can you give us a little background on yourselves? Where did you grow up and how did you begin filmmaking? Did it all begin with The Vault?
Aaron: Well, I grew up in Los Angeles, and I went to school on the East Coast in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. I did some film classes there but nothing really too serious, and when I came back here, I was looking to do something on my own rather than try to just write a script and hope to the gods that someone would buy it. So I contacted a friend of mine who mutually was friends with Mario and he put us together and we kind of just shared ideas until we decided we wanted to work on something ourselves, actually produce a show on our own and that was The Vault.
Mario: For me, I grew up in the East Coast, and I always wanted to work in film. I went to Villanova University and they didn’t really have a big film program but they have some kind of interesting internships that were film-related and they did have…a summer internship out here in Los Angeles. I moved out here and then my friend…put us into contact. We just basically felt like the only way we were going to get noticed was by actually producing something ourselves but also producing something that was sustainable in such a way that if we didn’t noticed right away (because it’s tough to get eyes on a product when you put it out on YouTube for the first time) that it would be something we could sustain for a while and keep doing. We specifically chose The Vault because of how it was built and how it used a single set and we figured this would be our resume piece. We would do this and show people that you can do something cool with a single room and hopefully make our mark and open up the doors for future projects.
[AE]: When did the Circle story hit you, and where did you draw your ideas from?
Aaron: Well, definitely inspired by the classic film 12 Angry Men. Every year I watch that film as sort of a refresher on why I love movies and how you could do something to show something interesting and yet have such simple variables to work with. I always think it’s perfect writing. Taking that, which inspired The Vault, and in turn inspired Circle to get people into the same sort of situation and create a compelling situation out of what the context of the conversation is. Obviously, we wanted to take 12 Angry Men multiply it by four and try to make it a massive fifty person experience in a horror setting. That was sort of a challenge. But I definitely think 12 Angry Men is an inspiration of the idea that you can just take that simple thought of people having an interesting conversation and trying to create a scenario where that’s interesting to an audience for an hour and a half.
Mario: As The Vault progressed, we talked about how we wanted to do a film, but we were very aware of the way The Vault worked. There was literally just the two of us, with the exception of the actors; we did everything from build the set to run the equipment to do the lighting to the editing, the effects, the post–all of that stuff, we did, just the two of us. We were pretty aware that if we were going to do a film, it had to be something that if we couldn’t get other people on board to help produce, we could still try to pull it off ourselves. Aaron said to me, “Why don’t we do something with fifty people in a room and they’re voting which one of them deserved to get out?” It seemed very much like something we could handle if we couldn’t find anyone else. It also felt very much like a spiritual successor to The Vault in that it took a simple setting and the simple storytelling device and it had a lot of opportunity for interesting character interactions. Also, sci-fi, we wanted to stay in the speculative fiction arena and it felt like a good next step. We were looking to take a lot of what we learned on Vault and just make it more cinematic and also expand so that we had characters interacting. It just felt like a good next step but also something we could gain control over if it did come down to the two of us producing ourselves.
[AE]: Since the inception of The Vault, you’ve obviously worked with each other for a number of years. How do you maintain that work relationship?
Aaron: On Vault, there is no other crew; it’s the two of us. We’ve literally had to do every job ourselves between the two of us. It was good training for Circle, where we actually get to have a crew this time and we know what our strengths are. With Circle, that job was hard for one person to manage. Him and I started figuring out how to work together in an efficient way where we could actually get things done as fast as possible. It’s definitely been a learning experience to go from having the two of us do every job to now the two of us are in charge of a whole team. We have to get along so everyone can be on the same page.
Mario: For us, we approached it from the place of finding consensus. There would be a story idea or a look or something we disagree on; it’s just about going over it together and finding where can we meet in the middle on this. That’s how we approached Vault, how we approached Circle. Sometimes, our styles are identical and sometimes they are slightly different. I think it’s helpful a little bit, because you have an alternative perspective on it. If you really wanted to do something and someone goes, “Well, we can’t do that because of this,” it pushes you to think beyond your first instinct on certain things. But generally, it’s collaboration and consensus, just making sure that everyone is on board and everyone is happy with the product you picked. It’s just talking it through and finding something that works for everyone while maintaining the integrity of the piece. You don’t want change it too much. Then it becomes something else entirely.
[AE]: From The Vault to Circle, many directors who post their work on YouTube, they continue to share their stories via the YouTube platform. I can see Circle as being a whole new mini-series just like The Vault. What made you decide to step away from an online web series, create an independent film, and then screen it in theaters?
Aaron: The first thing is just the dream of making a movie. It’s one of those things on your life’s bucket list. I think doing The Vault, we were inspired by Lost and we were really into T.V. drama and doing a mystery we could have unfold over a long period of time. At the time, we only made one pilot, a ten minute episode, before we got the funding to make the rest. We got lucky when we put the episode out there and we got noticed by Mark Cuban from Shark Tank and he, very quickly, noticed The Vault and made a deal with us to help produce the rest of the show. After that, we always had in our minds: Okay, this show will be on YouTube. We don’t make a ton of money from the ads on a web-series. Maybe we could get someone, the right person, like Mark Cuban or someone else will see our show and give us a chance to do the next thing. I think a feature film, sort of the challenge of doing that, and seeing what that would be like, that would actually be in a theater with experience with an audience. When we did do that, the lightbulb went off, “Wow. This is what it could be like.” You work so hard on something and have that audience–they’re totally into the movie and they get it, and it becomes one of those really fulfilling experiences, I think that was the goal from the start to actually get to that point.
Mario: I think it’s dependent on the project. The thing with Vault is that it was always intended to be a serialized story. We didn’t have any television contacts so the place we were going to go was YouTube. We’d always talked about working in different mediums going from YouTube to T.V. to film. Film had always been the end-goal in all of our conversations about the future. In thinking about our next project, we should really try to step away from YouTube and try to do something that is a self-contained, feature-length story that we could do as as film. We just felt like it was the next logical step. It works better as a film in a theater versus if you were watching it serialized and maybe one person dies per episode or something like that.
[AE]: I was actually at the world premiere screening of Circle at the Seattle International Film Festival. Can you describe your state of mind just before the screening?
Mario: Anxious. [laughs] I think when you work on something, any project, and a feature film takes a long time. We shot it in January, and we were in editing and post and then we premiered. I think it was the end of May/early June; it gets to over a year later. You work on something for so long, you know it so intimately that it’s hard to step back and see it with fresh eyes and see it as an audience member sees it. I think there’s always the worry, I would assume this is what every other filmmaker would kind of say: you wonder if anyone is going to get it or like it, because you get it and you like it, because you’ve been living with this for two years, but how will fresh eyes see it? I think that’s always the concern when showing the piece to people. We had shown friends and family and the producers had done small screenings. We generally knew people were responding well to it, and it was a cool feeling. But there’s that anxiety of showing it to an audience in the theater for the first time and just being like, “I hope they think it’s as interesting as we do.”
Aaron: I had predetermined before the screening that I would not stay in there just because I always go to screenings where the director would go wait in the hallway. And I thought, “Yeah, I get it because you’ve seen the movie so many times you’re kind of just too anxious.” I decided I would do that. But then, when we’re in there, I told myself, “You know what? You’ve got to stand in here and experience. You worked hard to get here.” I think it would be cheating ourselves to not see it with the audience. Right from the start, a minute in, you can already tell; the first joke landed, the first uh-oh moment hit the audience and it was, “Okay, this is working.” And then it became a really…not only fun experience, but it was everything that got us here in the first place. You see it a hundred times by yourself or with the editor or with the sound guys. Now, you see it with people who’ve never seen any of it. I think that was, I don’t want to say a life-changing moment, but it was one of those things that you kind of dream about.
[AE]: I want to talk about the cast because they’re obviously a huge focus, with 50 bodies or 51 depending on how you look at it. They’re representative of various races, religions, financial status, education, heck even legal status. What was the casting process like? Did you have a set of guidelines for each member as to what you were looking for?
Mario: We had a character list for sure. We knew from the script, but also in developing it, we had a ton of characters. We had this whole list, and in writing the script, it was narrowed down to the fifty. Certain characters in the script are very broad, like a foreign woman for example, in the character script. A lot of those parts were open to a variety of different types of people and there were certain characters that had to be very specific like the African-American man. We went into the casting doing a variety of things.
Aaron: Part of the goal from the get-go was to create a big cross-section of humanity. We wanted to do something we knew, so we wrote an L.A. setting; you could go all over the place if you have people from all over the world. It’s one of those things where you try to touch on a lot of subjects, not just people. If you’re talking about race you obviously want people of different races in the circle. You think about the breakdown of fifty people and how it would actually be if you look at the population of Los Angeles, how many people are hispanic? That was the sort of thing we tried to keep in mind when we’re casting. When people come in for certain parts like, The Atheist, we didn’t have necessarily a race attached. That’s one of the things, where if someone was brought in there, we would try to diversify some of the parts in order to give a good cross-section of this city and of something that would relate to other audiences in other cities in other countries. They can kind of understand this is a diverse group of people and there are all these issues that are being touched on. Not just California-centric, L.A.-centric.
Mario: The whole point of having fifty people in a circle wasn’t to have fifty white people yell at each other. We wanted to showcase the broad diversity of L.A. but also the country and the world. Every step of the way, we were having this discussion what roles can we make more diverse? Are we covering the groups we feel need to be covered? Are we representing everyone well? That was definitely a discussion throughout casting.
[AE]: What are your thoughts on Hollywood’s “difficulty” in casting actors and actresses that accurately represent a race?
Mario: It’s maybe easy for me to say this as a newbie director, but it does suck. The one everyone always talks about is Avatar: The Last Airbender. The casting for that was so strange and white-washed. Since you’re using unknown actors, I don’t know why they couldn’t have been unknown actors of the correct nationality and ethnicities for those roles. I know there is some argument and discussion about how ethnicities play, not just in that degree… But to me, I would rather be the one casting correctly and casting for diverse background. More women, more people of color, different sexualities, that sort of thing. I’d rather be the person doing that and not having my movies be as big, than people defaulting to white because they’re afraid they’re not going to make enough money. Like I said, that’s easier to say because I’m not the one with money on the line. But it is pretty gross, and it is something that filmmakers in general need to be aware of. If there’s a role that you don’t specify a race, maybe you do specify a race that’s not white, specify a sexuality that’s not heterosexual. Writers and directors can add these things to their film description and maybe the studio ignores it, but you’ve done your part to suggest you go a different route with certain characters.
[AE]: By having the kid and the pregnant lady, it causes strain within the circle. When did you decide to include them? Because it was just a bunch of adults or teenagers it would be a straight out bloodbath, but by having them, it paused everyone’s thinking.
Aaron: For the film to be taken seriously, when we wrote the draft, we had people ask, “Are you sure you want to have a kid or a pregnant woman?” It’s a no-go area to a lot of people. I remember talking to a lot of people. There is nobody that is untouchable by tragedy. If you have more people who are sympathetic to the audience, it gives you an incentive to think: Here is the right answer to this. Obviously, one of the two–the pregnant woman or the kid–you feel by your own common sense/logic that one of those two should be the one to make it out. You can get to that answer with different moral questions in your mind, whether people are all equal or whether a pregnant woman counts as two people or how pregnant is she or how old is the kid? There is a lot of gray characters in this film where you go back and forth on whether you like them. With those two characters, you never question in your mind that they’re victims of all this, and you feel protective of them. The circle is caught up in the idea that other than these two people, what do the rest of us do? It becomes a question left in your mind: what if it becomes down to me and them? What am I going to do?
Mario: They were always in it and I think there was never of question of, “Oh, is this going too far?” To us, there was no question. They had to be in it. They had to be in real danger. Without saying what happens, it was always going to be: They’re in trouble. Do we as filmmakers have the guts to put them in real danger? We always wanted that to be a big question– if they were going to get out and if we really were going to go there.
[AE]: I felt like the kid and the pregnant lady were the people who I wanted if I was in the circle. There were also two men who were quite domineering and the feeling I got from people I was watching with. They also hated the these two men. The lawyer that had eight kids and the business shark. Why did you have two of them? I recently watched Exam and there’s always that tool of character. In The Vault, it was The King. Why did you involve these two characters? To play off each other? To speed up the elimination process?
Mario: The story, beyond the situation and being antagonistic, needed to be human. We’ve all met people who were instantly difficult. We’ve felt that people who were in a position of wealth might be more likely to be this way, especially the business guy who’s simultaneously being a jerk and talking about donating to charity. It’s tough to discuss how and why they survive; we felt like you couldn’t have fifty great people in a circle being nice to each other. We needed to have people who if they felt like they were in danger, they were going to lash out at each other and they were going to try to take each other down. That’s part of human nature and something we wanted to address. When people are backed into a corner, they do things to preserve themselves, even if it’s gross or morally questionable.
Aaron: There are villains, cliches, or “villains,” people who are keeping their intentions to themselves. Voting is a very private thing in the circle, you don’t know who is voting for who. Some of the people that are more outspoken about it are not necessarily the worst people. There are people who are outwardly saying all the right things, but when they’re voting, you kind of gain a sense of how they are by how the eliminations are happening. A lot of people are on the side of the outwardly evil people and a lot of people feel like they’re not telling the truth, saying things people want to hear. With these two guys, that are a little bit more classic bad guys, some of their points are reasonable to the point you’re thinking, “Maybe they’re not as bad. Maybe we’re judging them, too.”
Mario: They do articulate some of the more distasteful point of views. You might hear, currently in the news with gay marriage, his points, are points that people make all the time. He does it in a gross way and you sort of hate him. But it is a point of view that people have. We wanted to give voice to even the more gross opinions and having these villainous characters gave us the opportunity.
[AE]: Is there a character that you identify with or a character your projected yourself onto?
Mario: For me, the two are the Asian kid, Lawrence Kao, and the Atheist, Rene Heger. I liked them because of their cynicism and skepticism about everything that was happening. The Asian kid says more than once to accept their place, there’s no getting out of this. I liked the fact the two of them are not always looking at the bright side. They’re saying, “This is the situation. We need to accept this.” I felt Lawrence says a couple things in the film that I think, audience-wise, in reading it, would be something that would occur to me. I like having characters that address the audience’s feelings so that they audience feels heard. If there’s a moment where you know the audience is thinking this. It’s that moment where they know we’re not avoiding it, we’re covering it. Skepticism was important to show the audience we were thinking of different points of views. I am a little cynical and dark so I think those two.
Aaron: For me, it’s the One-Armed Man played by Zach Rukavina. He has one scene where is one of the “good-guys” in the film. He’s one of the people trying to help the situation, but he also has an opinion from the very early on that basically everyone in the circle should step forward except the pregnant woman. That’s the right answer, and we should just do it. For me, feeling like there is a solution to the puzzle and we don’t need to drag this out. Let’s just do the thing that makes the most sense. I would like to think if I’m in the circle, I would come to that conclusion: There’s no beating this. Let’s get to the points.
[AE]: Are there some things that you would have liked to see in the film that didn’t make it to the final cut?
[Mario]: The first cut of the film was about 105 or 110 minutes. The thing is, it is a long script, there is a lot we cover. I think, in terms of cutting it down, to a place that felt rhythmically right, it’s down to 85 minutes. We definitely cut a lot out, we cut some good topical points that were tangential to what was happening. You have to be very careful about cutting. We lost a line and moments more than we lost anything significant to the plot.
[Aaron]: I would say when we wrote, there were certain scenes where there was a lot dialogue and they went deep into the subject matter. There is one conversation about religion where they talk about suicide and whether or not you’ll get into heaven if you’ve killed yourself. It’s one of those things where it throws off the equation. If we sacrifice ourself by basically stepping off the circle and choose to be the next person to go, now people are afraid to do it because of these reasons some people might find ridiculous or actually buy into. Anything that went too far into one topic, we got the highlights to keep the movie flowing and keep it within our runtime limitations. Once you’ve watched it enough times, you almost forget a lot of the things that things that ended up being there and those that were not. It doesn’t actually stick out, like, “Oh! There’s a hole there.”
[AE]: What sort of things did you learn from this project? The positives and the negatives.
Mario: Oh God, it was the first time working with a crew. The first day we shot chronologically. The first day was all of our crew, all of our producers, fifty actors, stunt team, everyone on the set at once. It was like jumping into a fire. Super stressful. As it went on, we got more and more organized. Our days were thirteen page days which is unheard of for a feature film, most of them it’s four or five pages. We shot for ten days. It was really insane but forced us to get organized and be concise in the language we used throughout the film and cut down our shot lists. It was definitely stressful, crazy. You lose some stuff because you’re under a time crunch, but what you gain in experience is valuable.
Aaron: Going into it, we really prepared. We had every single shot storyboarded. It was one of those things where you think, “It’s good to be prepared, but we had not been so prepared to shoot thirteen pages in the time crunch we were in. The first day you have no idea what to expect. You’re just hoping everyone shows up. One of the things I remember on day one, we have our 12-year-old actress, who might be 10, or who is now 12. On day one, since it’s a circle, you can’t just have someone who’s not there, they all have to be there a lot of the time. We had already known the child-actor hours you were allowed to have. On day one, there was miscommunication and we found out we had a lot less hours with her. How do we get through all of these shots? It was a constant thing, constantly being thrown into different challenges as you go through production. When we’re doing our show, if we have a problem, it’s no big deal. We come back to it, we’ll do it the next day or figure out a way to make it work. With this, you can’t. There’s no room for error. It was a stressful situation, but there was some excitement to that. Some people love that. I was talking to one of the editors who said, “I love when things go wrong, and you have to solve it.” I don’t.
Mario: There’s a bit of an adrenaline, but when it’s over, you’re, “Oh, thank God that’s over.” It’s the stress of issues that come up. When we got into our groove, it was fun. Setting up the shots, doing all that stuff. I don’t know if anyone is really prepared for their first day of shooting a feature film, but coming from a world we controlled everything, it was shell-shocked, the benefit of that is you adapt or die. And we adapted. Now we’re better filmmakers for it. Coming off of that, five pages a day is going to feel like a luxury.
[AE]: What’s next for Circle? Are there any upcoming shows where people can catch a screening?
Mario: We’re going to be at Comic-Con, and we’re going to be doing a screening down there in San Diego. I’m not really sure. There are some festivals I think the film would be at home in. I think it’s just a matter of trying to show the film to a variety of audiences and get the film out there. It’s one of those things we’re learning in this introduction to the independent film world. Once the film is done, it’s just about getting it out there and getting people to take notice of it. We had done similar things with YouTube with The Vault, but with this independent film, it’s much bigger, much larger in scope to get the film in front of as many people as possible. I think that’s where we are right now, more festivals. Hopefully find a home for it somewhere so that everyone can see it.