Control was not the usual kind of film I get to dive into with the people behind it; so I knew that my interview with director James Mark, just a couple of days before its premiere, would give me plenty of new insights. Control is a science-fiction film that looks like an escape room thriller on the surface, but there is plenty to think about underneath that too.
We started by discussing something I’d read in the press information; that this is “the first Canadian sci-fi thriller to use real-time virtual production tools.” “That must have been an old press release,” James said, “because there are lots of companies that use real-time virtual production, and we only really used that in a small segment of the film. Originally, we were going to use it for a good chunk, but that ended up getting shelved. Basically, there are different immersion rooms that shoot onto LED screens instead of green screens, and the original idea was to shoot the entire set of the room she is trapped in on that screen, but we ended up building the set instead.”
James’ career had focused on fight choreography for a long time; this film focused more on intellect than action and I asked whether that was a sign of maturity, or if it was simply time for a change. “I just wanted to try something a little bit different,” said James. “We were working to a budget, and in the past, I found that action scenes are quite costly and time-consuming, and we often tried to do more than what the schedule allows for. So on this one, I wanted to focus more on a story that was story-driven, character-driven, and could allow for a nice kinetic scene at the end for a crescendo or a set-piece, so to speak.”
James wrote Control with Matthew Nayman, who he had worked with before, so I asked how that partnership worked. “I’ve worked with Matt a few times now,” said James. “He originally came on and edited a script I had before, then we wrote a number together. We’re good friends by now: we sit down together and do passes back and forth, and it’s pretty much fifty-fifty on the screenplay itself. It’s nice working with someone like-minded: he’s a big sci-fi buff and he brings a lot in that regard.”
My teenage kid, who had caught the screener with me, popped their head round and asked something too close to a spoiler for me to repeat here. “Oh, we left that open for a potential sequel,” teased James… and then I managed to take back control of my own for a little longer, asking where the idea for the story had come from.
“It was my idea originally,” said James. “It was a little bit different at first to what we ended up with, and then Matt and I spun off from that. We wanted to do a single-location movie, and a movie with telekinesis, but different from your sort of traditional superhero story where you know, the heroine destroys everyone with their powers. Instead, we wanted something about learning to control telekinesis and then using that as an ongoing theme in the film.”
When I watched Control as part of the FrightFest programme, I had been expecting more of a horror film, but that aspect only really became apparent towards the end. I asked James where he felt it fitted in terms of genre. “I think it’s more of a sci-fi-psychodrama-thriller. It’s not an action film, but it’s definitely something that makes you think and has a nice twist that keeps you guessing.”
On the topic of the ending, I had to ask whether James was concerned it might divide the audience. “I think it will,” James admitted, “and that’s kind of the fun part of showing it to my peers and my close circle here, when we take part in ongoing debates about whether they liked or not, and why.”
Control is definitely thought-provoking, and James had mentioned the potential to do something more with it. “You never know,” he said. “There’s maybe a world to explore there. Is she the only one going through these tests? Who is this company? For the purpose of this film, we wanted to focus on her personal journey and basically her choices that she makes at the end of the film. I know it’s not exactly traditional, but I’m a believer that not every ending has to be a happy ending, and this one is a little bittersweet.”
I wondered whether the two writers had intended a message to their audience in Control; perhaps about grief, or unhealthy relationships. “I think it’s just pretty self-explanatory with the title. It’s about self-control and our ability to control how experiences in our lives affect us and how we are able to move forward or not, based on our decisions.”
Sara Mitich (who played the central character, Eileen) was terrific, and her central role in the family unit worked particularly well. I asked James what the process was like of finding three actors that fitted together as a family like that. “Sarah is a pretty well-known actress here in Toronto and she’s obviously on the Star Trek Discovery show as well, so we’ve known about her for some time, and we were excited that she was keen to join the film. And George [George Tchortov, who played Eileen’s husband Roger] is someone I’ve worked with a few times before and really wanted him for this role, as it’s different from the roles he’s been in before (I put him in sort of a hero role previously). Those were choices, and [Evie Loiselle, who played Eve] their daughter was a cast, a find.”
George’s character must have been a tricky one to write, strong without being too dominant a figure in the story. “Yes, it was a little delicate, in dealing with the subject matter,” agreed James. “It was written a little different at first, but we felt it was coming on a bit too strong in the rehearsal process, so we brought it back in a bit and tried to make him something more of a tool to help Eileen (not to give too much away), rather than being a menacing presence in every scene. We didn’t want to go into that sort of a movie.” His character was needed, I think; the pacing of the film would have been quite different if Eileen had been utterly alone.
Personally, I enjoyed the simplicity of Control’s story. I asked James if any particular films had inspired him in its making. “I’m a big fan of the film Cube and a lot of single-location movies, and that’s what I wanted to try as a director because they’re much more challenging: you need to think about every scene and make sure you can keep the audience engaged from location to location because it all looks the same and got the same people in it. So, when I made the decision to make something that wasn’t so action-heavy, that’s what I was focusing on.”
The world premiere of Control was due at Arrow Video FrightFest just a couple of days after this interview; I wished James the best for its reception and asked what he is working on next. “I was on set yesterday for a film I’m producing called Kindred; and I’m currently in prep for my next movie which just got green-lit, called Fight Another Day. It’s a big sci-fi action movie, about a cop from the ’80s who is brought into a future world and forced to fight warriors from different time periods.” That sounded exactly like the kind of thing my teenager would like, and indeed I couldn’t stop them jumping in again: they were full of questions about time-travel principles James would apply, and philosophical considerations… “I think I should hire him to write my next film!” laughed James, and I couldn’t have been prouder.