In addition to it still operating for veterans, Hollywood’s American Legion Post 43 has a rich cinematic history, serving as a filming location for projects ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. Earlier this year, ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to visit another production on its grounds, the upcoming independent sci-fi tale Life Tracker.
Set in the near future, Life Tracker is told in a faux-documentary style, following an aspiring filmmaker, Dillon (Barry Finnegan), as he investigates a new technology from a company called Life Tracke that claims that it can use DNA to accurately predict the course of an individual’s life down to the smallest detail. As the word of Life Tracker spreads across the world, Dillion teams with his best friends, Scott (Matt Dallas) and Bell (Rebecca Marshall) to expand the scope of his film. The group soon learns, however, that their own personal readings jeopardize not just their friendship but the fate of the entire world.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Life Tracker writer/director Joe McClean to learn about the origins of the project, the unique style of the low budget production and the intense details that go into building a realistic sci-fi world.
Check out the full interview below and catch the Life Tracker trailer at the bottom of the page.
CS: Take me back to where this started for you.
Joe McLean: I was working on a whole different movie called “Viral.” It’s a psychological thriller that we’re producing, but the budget is too high for us at this point. We put it into casting with J.C. Cantu. He was doing casting at the time for a lot of Robert Rodriguez movies. Big, big stuff. He was going to a lot of actors for that one that were very happy with the script but, when I raised my hand as the director, it was like, “Okay. Well, if you get the money, let us know then. Right now we’re not interested. This doesn’t look like a go.” Finally, my lawyer was like, “Do you have anything else you can go out with now? A much smaller movie that you can do so that, the next time you have to raise your hand and say, ‘I’m the director of ‘Viral,’ you can be more confident.” I had been thinking about this idea for a long time. I wrote a screenplay ten years ago now about DNA. I actually got to talk with James Watson, who discovered DNA in the 1950’s. Watson and [Francis] Crick are the two guys in the history books. The science books. He helped me fall in love with that stuff. At first, I was only interested in helping my screenplay, but I got to talk with this world famous scientist. All of a sudden, I’m in love with DNA. This started to brood back then and when my attorney said we needed to move with something else I said, “Actually, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.” The problem was as to how we would take this giant concept — it’s essentially an end-of-the-world movie — that we’re shooting without the right kind of budget. I am an apartment manager in real life and I have access to the building I live in and the private swimming pool that goes with it. I’ve got a bunch of indie-style digital cameras already. I’ve got a bunch of talented friends so I was like, “All right! Let’s put together a movie!” We chose to do it in sort of a faux-doc style so that we didn’t have to worry about too much crazy equipment or camera cranes or shooting on too short a schedule. Everything is pretty much done. Action is called, we roll through an entire scene and that’s it. It’s rehearsed a lot like a play. I started writing the script in October or November of last year. We finished it on December 4th. The first cut was way too long. It was like 160 pages, the first draft, but people were encouraged to try and find something out of it. I think we did six weeks of rewrites and then a whole year to find money. It started out as, “Let’s just find money in our couch cushions” and it quickly became, “Well, if you’re interested in giving some money, maybe somebody else is interested.” It was, “All right. Let’s do a real business plan. Let’s bring in the attorneys.” It’s been really exciting. Apple has given us permission to use their products in the movie. It seems like people are more interested than I thought they were going to be from the start. It started as doing a smaller movie to get the bigger movie made and then this one became bigger than the one we were going for.
CS: You mention research. How scientific does “Life Tracker” get?
McLean: It’s movie science. It’s absolutely movie science. There’s a real world company that’s looking at this with the question, “Can we look at your DNA and find out how long you’re going to live?” The company is called Life Length. They’re out of Spain. They study these things called Telomeres, which are endcaps to your chromosomes. Those things deteriorate. As soon as they spiral off, your DNA dematerializes and you die. It just opens one of those snake practical joke cans. They are giving you what’s basically a virtual age. They measure your Telomere and say, “We think your virtual age is 72.” Okay. Well, if my virtual age is 72 and I’m already 32, I’m probably getting pretty close to death.” They can’t predict to the day or something but we contacted the company and said, “We’re doing this movie. We know you can’t predict to the day or the minute. We’re trying to over-exaggerate it. Sort of in a “Minority Report” kind of way. You can’t tell when someone is going to commit a crime and arrest them ahead of time, but let’s look into that possible future so that we can show people there’s a slippery slope.” For us, if we can get that information and predict the future, what does that do for us? Is it good? Is it bad? We really do our best to show both sides of the scale. One side is, “Okay, if everybody in the world is getting this test and we can look at someone and say, ‘Oh, you’re going to have Alzheimer’s’ or ‘You’re going to break your bone when you’re 75.’ Or when you’re going to die.” We look a giant collection of data and say, “Everyone in this square five miles is dying, on average, ten years earlier than the national average. Is there something happening in that space? Is there a gas leak we don’t know about? Is there radiation that’s happening that we don’t know about? Can we fix it so that those people live longer?” It’s the same way that we use cell phones for traffic now. There are so many people on the road with cell phones now that we can watch and say, “Those roads are red now. Let’s avoid that street.” That’s all coming from a satellite. But then it also gets into religion. If it’s already written in stone that I’m going to die on a certain day or get very ill on a given day, do I have free will or not? We interview a priest in the movie and he explains the story of a dad offering his son a bowl of broccoli or a bowl of ice cream. Which one does he pick? He picks the ice cream. Now, did the boy have a choice? Of course he had a choice. But the father still knew which one he was going to pick before he did it. It really just opens up a huge can of worms. You make your decisions about whether or not you believe in this technology from the stories we tell in the movie.
CS: In this sci-fi world, is there an inciting incident that sets the whole Life Tracker off?
McLean: Well, the one plot of the movie is sort of the greater world. You and I can sit here as two people that don’t actually know anybody running for the Republican primaries, but we hear about them every day and we know about them. We see them on TV. They’re very much a part of our lives even though we’re not a part of theirs. This whole story is happening around these three lead characters. That’s part of their lives, but they’re not a part of its life. What happens is that our lead character is this down-and-out filmmaker not doing anything with himself. It’s very autobiographical. He’s an apartment manager in this building. I’m just using the set that I have available to me. He sees on the computer one morning that some company claims they can predict your future by looking at your DNA. He goes out in the street, but it’s the first time he’s picked up his camera in a long time. Everything is center-punched and overexposed. The camera is kind of crappy and it’s only shooting in SD. He takes it to his friend, who is a much better filmmaker. He’s been doing something with his film degree. He says, “I think I want to follow through on this documentary” and his friend is like, “I think it’s a really good idea. It sounds like a bulls–t story, but I really think you need to follow through with something. Let’s get it done because I think you’re in a slump. As we build through the story, these two friends start to document the story which builds from there. Finally, they get their blood tests done and they go to get the packets. They’re going to be able to see the future for the very first time. When they open up the packet — there are three of them. It’s Dylan, who is our lead character, Scott, his best friend who is a better filmmaker, and Scott’s girlfriend. They open up the packet and it says that the girl, Bell, is going to have three children and that the person who is going to be the father of her children has already had his print done. They’re just notified by number and, when they look at the number, it’s Dylan’s number and not Scott’s number. So at some point in the future, she’s going to have kids with the wrong guy. That’s where it gets exciting for me because nothing has physically changed. Scott and Bell are still in love. They’re still happy in a relationship, but a seed has been planted. It’s something that could be as valuable as a fortune cookie or a palm reading or a tarot card reading. You have no idea as to its validity. It just said that the other two people are going to have kids. But the seed is planted. You can’t get rid of it now. It’s like telling someone not to look down. Eventually, you’re going to want to know what the hell is down there. The seed is there and nothing has changed but you’ve changed. You start making changes in your own life and that flips your world upside down. If they hadn’t gotten their prints done, would this future have happened or not? It might have been the act of getting the future told that made the future happen.
CS: And they’re aware of this enough to make themselves part of their own documentary?
McLean: Exactly. Their friendship explodes and blows up and they fight and get all confused. There’s a really nice love triangle between the three of them and eventually Dylan’s all alone again. When the documentary builds up, he goes to AFI and borrows a camera. Then he’s got a little bit better production value. Then the documentary picks up enough steam that he wins this grant for documentary filmmakers. Now he’s got enough money to buy really great equipment and top-of-the-line stuff. He’s got lights now and the movie gets better as we go along. Then, at the end, he’s got confidence. He’s grown from this schlubby guy who doesn’t really shave and wears crappy clothes to this really put-together guy who’s all alone because his whole world has crashed around him. Then he decides, “If I’m doing this documentary, I’ve got to dive all the way in.” He flies to Spokane, Washington where the COO of this company, Life Tracker, is. Something happens there that makes the plot spiral out of control. Everyone gets their death dates in the whole world and, as it gets popular, they see that everyone’s death date in the entire world is June 8, 2015. For some reason, this test has revealed that everybody in the world is going to die on the same day. That makes the company look bogus. It sort of causes a little havoc and the Attorney General of the United States — who is actually played by Jay Thomas — comes out and says that two big predictions have been made. One, everybody is going to die. He’s like, “Come on guys. Don’t fall for that.” But there’s another prediction that I’m going to use to prove that the other one is bullshit. That’s that everyone in Belfast, Ireland is predicted to die a whole year earlier than that. We’re going to send all of our troops and all of our aides to Belfast. We’re going to be there like Y2K. After December 31, 1999, we woke up the next day and our computers had not turned their backs on us overnight. The world did not stop or crumble. When everyone in Belfast wakes up the day after their death-date is predicted, they can be confident in thinking that they can all settle down because the worldwide death date is not true. So the movie needs to end on that day, either showing that the prediction was false and looking at how everything has changed over the course of the story or the world needs to just be gone. It’s really great because I’ll come around the corner and find the crew or talk with the actors and they’ll be talking about the world of the movie. “Would you do the Life Tracker test? What if you had kids? Would you make them do it?” If you’re worried about your kids going off to college and you find out that they’re not going to die until they’re 80, you don’t have to worry because you know they’re going to be okay. Everybody is looking at this from every angle. It’s kind of fun.
CS: Can you tell me a little bit about your own background in the industry?
McLean: It’s actually a little crazy. There’s like 14 people in the cast and crew that went to the same high school as me in Phoenix. I started as an actor and I went with a Shakespeare performance scholarship to Southern Utah University. They have a big Shakespeare festival out there. After a year, I decided the town was too small and I went to New York for a little bit. I did some national touring for children’s theater and whatnot. Then I did a stint in London at the Royal National Theater studying as an actor there. After that, I wound up back in New York with all this actor training and two or three years of on the road experience. I just didn’t like it anymore. Having all this education and waiting for someone else to tell me when I was allowed to get to work was just depressing. I heard Tom Hanks say on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” one time, it’s really hard when you’ve got all this training and suddenly your whole life depends on getting a callback for a Dannon yogurt commercial. It’s like, “Great. It doesn’t matter how many degrees I have. Today, if I don’t read a line about yogurt correctly, my career is over.” So I started writing screenplays. Right off the bat, I got really excited about the one where I got to talk to James Watson. Then people started hiring me to write their independent stuff. Nothing that has ever been produced, but at least I was getting a paycheck. After that, I moved out to LA thinking, “Lemme try to make them myself then.” I was in the same boat as being an actor where I couldn’t work unless they cast me. I thought it was going to be easy but you still need to find a producer who’s going to do it. You need to be the one man show or it’s not going to happen. In that entire frame of time, my uncle, who lives in New Jersey, said, “All right. You went off to acting school. Now I’m going to teach you to be a real man. You’ll be a carpenter.” So on and off for eight years I was on the construction site with a hammer and nails. That gave me a great lead on coming out here. I was just looking for handyman jobs. I was living in Malibu at the time and I was just on Craigslist everyday looking for anyone who needed an air conditioner put in or shelves put up. I found an apartment complex that was like, “Well, we need a handyman.” When I started off, they gave me an apartment and I had all my bills paid. I was a handyman for three buildings. Then that eventually rolled into me being a manager of a building and slowly but surely giving up the handyman responsibilities. Now it’s the perfect world for someone who’s a starving artist. I don’t have any bills to pay. Free rent. In the first week of the month, I have to collect some checks, deposit them and write some receipts for the bank and maybe field some phone calls if someone’s sink gets clogged up. The rest of the time I don’t have to worry about waiting tables or picking up side jobs or catering or anything like that. I’m not hungry. I’m fine and I can concentrate on the writing.
CS: Do you get to act as well in this?
McLean: I actually shot a cameo today. I actually have no desire to act anymore at all. It’s totally gone. I didn’t really do a lot of film acting but you always hear doing theater that actors aren’t supposed to give other actors notes. That was always in my brain as an actor thinking, “If that guy would just do this, that would allow me to do this.” But you can’t go up to him and tell him what his choices are supposed to be. But as I director I can get everyone to do what I want them to do as far as the story is concerned. It feels better where I’m at now.
CS: I imagine it must be somewhat fun to shoot the scenes where it’s intentionally bad filmmaking.
McLean: It is. It’s very limited for Jeremy, the DP. It’s his job to make everything look pretty. He’ll have a really beautiful shallow depth-of-field shot. Everything is beautiful and I’ll have to say, “That’s way too good-looking! Make it flat and put a big shadow on the wall. You can play with pretty stuff later in the movie.” The very first day of shooting we had to shoot the COO of Life Tracker doing a video for his website explaining that they’re about to release this print technology. He’s supposed to have shot that himself with his own little staff. It’s supposed to be a very terrible YouTube video. In the same day we reset and did something in that same office where Anderson Cooper’s team is coming in to do an interview with him. In the same day he got to play with shooting the same kind of interview in both a terrible version and one that’s supposed to have been done with a professional crew. Thank god that happened on the first day because I think it helped him to trust that we were going to do both sides and it’s not going to be s–t movie all the way through.
CS: Seeing as it’s a faux documentary, how much are you experimenting with improv?
McLean: We’ve done a lot of improv. As a director, I think of everyone else as being an expert in their own field. All I have to do is to make sure that everyone is working together to tell the story. In the same way that I think that Jeremy is responsible for the cinematography — if it doesn’t work for the story, we’ll talk. For example, earlier today he said he didn’t like the location in the other room and waned to shoot in this giant auditorium. We tried it, but quickly realized that, since it was just a quarter of the way through the film, these guys don’t have access to this stuff yet. It didn’t work with the story so we went to the smaller room. I feel the same way about the actors. They are the experts on their own characters. If they come to me and say, “This isn’t working for me anymore,” then we’ll do a full rewrite that day. I’m not worried or one of those directors who goes, “You didn’t say ‘um’ or ‘ah’ in the right place.” We shot a bunch of street scenes out by the Arclight today. They’re out on the street asking people what they think about the death dates and this technology. One of the people we’ve got in for three or four lines added a throwback to “Ghostbusters” about “cats and dogs living together. Mass hysteria!” She threw it in and looked at me like, “Can I do that?” I was like, “You can keep the line, but don’t look at me when you’re delivering it!”
CS: Tell me a little bit about the casting and how it came together.
McLean: We were working with J.C. Cantu, the casting director. He was doing “Viral” for us, which was the original bigger movie. He had heard about this one because I had been talking about it for a year. Eventually, I was at his place for dinner and he said, “Alright. I’m just going to ask you. Why have you not asked me to cast this movie yet?” The reason was because I didn’t want to insult him. Our budget is so much smaller than what he’s used to. He’s a big dog working with A-list actors and I’m not. I’m not there yet. I didn’t want to say, “Hey, can you help me out on this? I don’t have the money to pay you.” He read the script. We negotiated a deal. He started casting everybody. The guy playing the lead villain is somebody that I went to high school with. I’ve known him for 15 or 16 years, Barry Finnegan. We already have a working relationship together. The funny thing is that the second male lead, Scott, is played by Matt Dallas. J.C. was sending me an e-mail every morning about the auditions for Scott from the previous day. I got the e-mail and I looked through it and found a couple that I thought would be good for callbacks. I sent J.C. an e-mail saying, “These are the two that I’d like to see called back.” Almost immediately after I sent that e-mail, I got a response that said, “Wait. Hold everything. Wait until you see the people we’re uploading today. There’s this guy named Matt Dallas, who you might recognize from TV. He’s amazing and he’s my favorite for the role.” Matt Dallas went to the same high school as us. The year that I was a freshman in college, Matt was a freshman in high school. So we missed each other by three months in that world. But it was like, “Really? That seems a little too coincidental.” Then with me and Barry, who plays Dylan, and Matt, it was just sort of like, “Who else do we know?” There’s a couple scenes with big groups of friends in the movie and we just brought in our group of friends. That was awesome, too, because it was all these people catching up on years of not having seen each other.
CS: How big is the cast beyond the leads?
McClean: 59 or 60. Because it’s documentary style, we have a lot of people who are just in a scene or two. There’s three big scenes with street interviews, so those are quick one-liners.
CS: What has been the biggest surprise for you as a new filmmaker?
McClean: I’m just glad to see it come together. I’ve been fighting a lot of people. We’ve got this guy, Tommy Aagaard, who is our editor. He worked on “Transformers” and “Thor” and now he’s doing “The Avengers.” He’s doing our film as a side project. There is a belief — and I get it — that says, “Let’s capture everything as good as it can be. The highest quality picture, the best sound and the best lighting we can get. Then, if we want it dirty, we can make it dirty in post.” I feel like you can always tell if something has been faked. People are looking at me funny when I say, “Look. The first camera that they own is actually going to be a crappy standard definition camera.” We’re really shooting SD and I think it’s going to save time later because the image is already going to look different. That’s been fun. Everybody is sort of thinking, “Is this a really expensive science experiment? Is this going to work or is this going to look bad?” I have all the confidence in the world.