Steven Soderbergh debuted his new supernatural thriller “Presence” Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival, and during the post-screening Q&A he opened up about how the film’s bold visual conceit contradicted his long-held belief about VR in narrative storytelling.
“Presence,” written by Soderbergh’s “Kimi” collaborator David Koepp and starring Lucy Liu and Chris Sullivan (who starred on Soderbergh’s series “The Knick”), is told from the point-of-view of a ghost – the film never breaks from that point of view and each scene is played out in one long, unbroken take.
The audience at the sold out premiere screening at the Library theater responded with audible gasps as the story unfolded. Not only is the conceit eerie and disquieting, but it also draws the viewer into the mystery (Who is this presence? What do they want?) in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if it had been shot any differently.
“I had real questions about the choice that was at the center of this, because I’ve been very vocal about the fact that VR, [first] person POV VR doesn’t work, is never going to work as a narrative,” Soderbergh said during the Q&A after the screening. “Nobody wants this thing on their head. They want to see a reverse angle of the protagonist with an emotion on their face experiencing the thing. I’ve been beating this drum for a long time – it’s never going to work.”
Of course, that all changed.
“The only way to do it was you never turn around,” Soderbergh continued. “It was really fun because there was no other plan. That’s it. You live or die by that.” While it seems like that was the only way the movie could be told, Soderbergh said, “I was thinking about my reaction as a viewer to a choice like that. Would I want that? How would I feel about that? But I felt there wasn’t another way to do it. There just wasn’t.”
Koepp was also in attendance at the Q&A and said Soderbergh tasked him with the basic setup of the story: it would be told from the point of view of the ghost, and would focus on “a really f–ked up family.”
The cast, who had just seen the film for the very first time, were nearly speechless. “I don’t have words,” Liu said. “My body is having reactions as if I wasn’t in the movie.”
Sullivan described the experience of making of “Presence” — which was shot in secret over 11 days in New Jersey — as something of a dance as Soderbergh operated the camera himself, as he does on all of his films. “The learning curve is very steep when we got to set to figure out how we were supposed to interact as actors with with the presence, played by Steven Soderbergh,” the “This Is Us” actor said.
The Oscar-winning “Ocean’s 11” and “Traffic” filmmaker is prone to experimentation, like shooting features on iPhones or self-releasing entire shows through his website, and “Presence” is another big stylistic swing that connects. Ironically, it’s not hard to imagine the film becoming a hit on VR headsets.
“Presence” is currently up for distribution, but if the premiere audience’s reaction was any indication this could be the next you-have-to-see-it-in-a-theater horror movie.
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