J. Van Auken Interview

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC J. Van Auken Interview

J. Van Auken has been making movies his entire life. He was trained as a cinematographer at Columbia College Chicago, and recently signed to direct his first feature, due out in 2012. Until then he is in the midst of making his short film, The Last Cosmonaut.

The Last Cosmonaut is the story of the last secretly launched Soviet space pilot in 1958. His existence has never been acknowledged by the Russian government. Every record of his launch was destroyed. He was last detected by the Torre Bert observatory in February, 1961. It is believed he now stands as the first and only person to ever leave the solar system.

J. Van Auken hopes to raise the remaining half of budget in order to pay for costume rentals, set construction, food, equipment, and transportation. He is using crowd funding on Kickstarter.



I was lucky enough to chat to J. Van Auken, and below are the results.

What prompted you to come up with the idea for the film?

The Last Cosmonaut is part of a larger idea I’d written the screenplay for about a year ago. I had the idea when I read a series of articles about the soviet space program involving new information that had come forward since the collapse of the USSR. I find the whole era fascinating, and with so much information missing, it was a prime topic for dramatic license. I also love the idea of the first cosmonauts. They weren’t glamourized unless and until they succeeded, and they were doing something literally no one had ever done, and they were at no point expected to survive, yet did it anyway. It’s such a polar opposite of the way things were done in the U.S., it comes across as very macabre to me, which is a lot of what I enjoy in the material.

What were you doing before deciding to make The Last Cosmonaut?

Before TLC, I’d been working in development for a feature film I’ve signed on to direct, called Sanitarium. You’ll likely see more about it as the release approaches. I also went to college.

How is it all put together?

As a small side project, TLC is just the combined efforts of an amalgam of talented individuals I’m lucky to call my friends. The joke with every project I do is that it’s “just me and my buddies making a movie.” The caveat being that my friends all happen to be the best at what they do. You could say it came together after a short series of phone calls, each beginning with, “How’s your Friday look?”

Why are you using Kickstarter? How’s that going for you?

Kickstarter is an interesting new tool. For me, it’s not about the money, but rather making a project inherently more valuable. By that I mean that if a project is funded through, let’s say, 100 people over Kickstarter, then what you have isn’t just 100 people who like your movie. Rather you have 100 people with a vested interest in the success and popularity of your movie. You have a built in audience and fan base. Everyone likes feeling a part of something, and if it’s something they’re proud of, then they act as a de facto publicity department. They tell their friends, they share the link to their own IMDb page. Kickstarter is insurance against you sitting alone in the basement jacking off onto celluloid. You have a responsibility now, and a standard that potentially hundreds of people will hold you to. So far it’s been working very well for me. I have friends and strangers donating. I have people that want the film to get made, and have offered money to back that up. It’s great.

What would you like viewers to take from The Last Cosmonaut?

The Last Cosmonaut is a visual experience, absolutely. No spoken dialogue, no bullshit homages to directors every frat guy has posters of. It’s a short journey with a man we don’t get much time to know, told in a way we haven’t quite seen before. If you come away with something I’d like it to be an image that stuck in your head that makes you feel just that certain way. It’s more sensory than intellectual. You’ll feel.

Have you received feedback, ideas, etc on the Kickstarter website?

Most of the feedback I get is questions regarding the concept. The page has definitely opened a route to interacting with an audience, which is very strange for me to do before the film is even made. It’s good though. Very encouraging. If people are curious, it’s at least some indicator that the film is worth making.

How hard it is to have an independent film made today?

I only know from personal experience, but I can say that there are two kinds of independent film; the ‘fucking-around’ variety and the ‘not-fucking-around’ variety. Now, the FA kind of film is not particularly challenging. It carries it’s own set of problems, but it is free of the worries of real financing, distribution, marketing and all the other trappings of a NFA film. When you’re fucking around, you’re making a movie for yourself, usually from a first draft, and with an expected audience of you and your grandmother. They’re self-funded, usually aided by the aforementioned grandmother, and are devastatingly common, especially during one’s twenties. Every single short film ever not made by Pixar falls right in this category, TLC unfortunately among them.

Now, if you’re not fucking around, which I seldom do, you’re talking about a film with a reasonable budget for the material, actual financing from people who don’t call you snookums, and a distribution agreement. These are as difficult as ever, regardless of what proponents of digital technology would have you believe. More distribution avenues have definitely opened up in the last decade thanks to emerging technology, and as a result created a larger pool for content. The reality, however, is that the same rules apply now as have always applied to getting a film funded and exhibited. You have to have stars to get the money, and you need money to get the stars. Your script has to not suck to get any stars, unless you have a metric fuckton of money. Even if your script is great, no one will give you money unless you’ve already done this, and even if you have, it’s still unlikely. There is a very delicate and complicated dance you have to do, sometimes for years, just to advance one little step. I like to use the example of James Mangold when he wanted to make 3:10 To Yuma. At the time, no one wanted to give him the money, which was a conservative $30 million. Mind you, this is after Walk The Line, and he already had Russel Crowe and Christian Bale attached. Why wouldn’t they do it? Because at the time, no one wanted to do westerns. The consensus was that they were poison and couldn’t make money. It’s the seemingly incomprehensible things like that that make film so difficult to do. There’s never any set way of getting it done, and even when you think you’ve got it locked, the rug can be pulled out from under you for no good reason whatsoever. It’s a confusing and dangerous business. Fortunately I’m in love with it.

What are you hoping for when it’s out?

My only hope for the film is that it lives up to the expectations of the people who helped get it made.

Can you tell about any future projects?

My future projects include Sanitarium, which I’ve mentioned. Maybe within the decade TLC will become the full feature, Ghost in the Machine. I have a very specific slate of films I want to do in the coming years, and I’m in a unique position to accomplish them. Needless to say, I’m very excited to be doing this.

Any films you have seen that have left a lasting impression with you?

It’s funny the films I remember and the impressions they leave. Some for good reasons, some for bad. I remember seeing the midnight show of Inception. I didn’t cry in the theater, but I did on the drive home, right about when I could start breathing again. I later became very frustrated, thinking I’d never make a film that good. I felt the same way when the Tree Of Life trailer first played in front of the Black Swan midnight show. Both just floored me with images set to music. Very simple, but completely effective.

Anything you want to get off your chest right now?!

I just came back from a week and a half of meetings in LA to my home in Minnesota. In a single day I experienced a temperature shift of nearly 100 degrees. I kind of feel like Robert Patrick in T2, like I could splinter into tiny frozen cubes. It’s a nice state though.

Thanks Sir.


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

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