Engaging in the science of science fiction with Taryn O'Neill
Taryn O'Neill is an actor who has featured in NCIS, Vegas and Lie to Me. She's also a writer, producer, a national medalist in ice dancing and one of the Scirens. She once wrote a digital series for Stan Lee and now, she's turned her hand to directing with her debut short film Live.
Phew, that is quite the resume. Before we get into your career, let’s start with your directorial debut, the brilliant sci-fi short Live, which you also write and star in. For those who haven’t seen it, can you explain the concept and how you came about the idea?
Thank you for your kind words, I’m so glad you enjoyed Live! The short looks at the near future of social media and influencer culture, when it becomes even more competitive to maintain subscribers, and future technology and artificial intelligence that disrupts the job market. In this future, one specific “livecaster” (who uses an A.I. camera system to livestream), has reached a crisis point where she has taken her “brand” to a place that has become destructive to her wellbeing.
She has a younger e-gamer boyfriend who has some rather unsavory ideas on how to fix the situation. It’s definitely a cautionary tale about how far one is willing to go for fans and whether society will be pushed in that direction because of technology.
I came up with the idea pretty spontaneously. I read and researched a lot in the science and technology field and thought about how new breakthroughs will affect our future; I guess you can call me a futurist. I wrote the short as a writing exercise, endeavoring to write a short piece contained in a single location with some sci-fi and action elements to it. I had an image of a woman waking up, her face bloodied and bruised, and my sub-conscious basically filled it in from there.
Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to direct Live and what was it like doing you first directing gig?
I didn’t plan on directing. But the directors I met with didn’t fully connect with the vision I had for the world, and I really wanted to create the look and the experience that I had in my head, so (with some nudging from a few talented friends) I took a leap of faith. The experience was incredible, overwhelming and terrifying at times, but incredible. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed taking a project from idea to final assembly; it used both my creative and business brain (I have a degree in Econ and spent my early years at the William Morris Agency).
And, as an actress, I’ve spent 15 years on set, acting on everything from a shoe string budget web series to a Michael Bay helmed commercial, so I’ve had a lot of exposure to different production types. The culmination of these experiences helped make my transition to directing an easier one, there wasn’t a lot on set that fazed me (I had a terrific DP, Arlene Muller). Post production, however, was a huge learning curve! I didn’t know what I didn’t know, especially around VFX design and colour. But because I was overseeing everything, I had to learn FAST. It was like film school condensed into four months!
What was it like directing and acting in the same film?
Directing yourself is not for the faint of heart. You have to switch mind sets constantly, because the mindset that benefits you as a director is not the same one that frees you up creatively as an actor.
Also, when you are not watching the monitor during takes, you miss seeing little unexpected nuances from the performances that may give you a new idea or moment. I had limited amount of time to watch playback, so often I could only make sure the framing and light was good and then repeat the take, based on how I felt as the actor.
Luckily my DP and I had a very specific shot list mapped out so we used our time as efficiently as possible. I also had my producer and an actress/director friend on set to give me feedback. I’m really proud of what I accomplished both as the actress and the director in Live but I don’t think I will endeavor to do both together again, at least not if I’m the lead and in every shot!
As Exit 6 Film Festival is all about short films, could you tell us you went about putting it all together – did you have to crowdfund, or did you have a producer and budget in place?
Short films are hard to fund! There aren’t a lot of opportunities to recoup your investment. Initially, I had a production company attached to produce and finance but that fell through. However, I had received such positive feedback on the script and felt really strongly about making it that I decided not only to direct it, but to self-fund it.
It’s always a scary choice to dig into your savings as an artist, you need that safety net for when jobs are scarce, but as I have a lot of other writing projects on the go, I felt Live could be a strong piece to introduce my work to the public as a sci-fi writer/creator.
After seeing the festival cut, Gunpowder and Sky’s sci-fi platform DUST expressed interest in premiering it on its channel. It was the perfect fit as its sci-fi fan community is stellar (pun intended).
How has the film festival circuit been for you?
We premiered at Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival where I won the Best Actor Award. We screened at Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho and at the SAG/AFTRA Foundation Event. We also have been playing at GeekFest Film Festival — a fantastic festival that screens its shorts around the country at regional Comic Cons.
There are a lot of festivals that Live didn’t get into, which is always disheartening, but I am truly grateful for the festivals that I have screened at and for all the audiences I have been able to share the film with — there are always passionate conversations about it afterwards. Those conversations have followed over to DUST’s YouTube channel. It’s pretty incredible the reaction Live gets.
Now that you’ve been behind the camera, is directing something you want to do more of?
Yes, I would love to direct more in the future. I would especially love to direct the feature version of LIVE that I am developing.
A feature version? Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
Sure, I built in subsequent storylines in the short film by referencing and building in different influencer jobs.
I’ve tried to lay the foundations of these characters in the short, but I didn’t originally have these characters in the first draft. I wanted to expand this world and because people responded so positively to the short I really tried to plant the seeds there.
It’s going to be like that Pulp Fiction multi-characterverse – people who all loosely affiliated will come crashing together. You have this connective web of an artificially intelligent camera system that they all use – it edits, colour corrects and puts a music track on whenever they are live.
The conflict is that the camera system starts to evolve outside of its programme – it actually starts to live stream people at their worst and not when they have actually articulated when they want to go live. It starts to pick and choose when it wants to. The major platforms algorithms are generated for profit and not human betterment, they are two completely different issues – for instance, my film (Live) on YouTube will link to bad things afterwards because of some of the content in the film – it picks out the violence, alcohol and suggestive comments and takes you down the dark rabbit hole.
That sounds great, but worryingly we’re not far off in real life from where your film is.
Yes, it blurs the line and takes the control of what we see and what we do away from us if we’re constantly being monitored and that monitoring is being monetised. Our social media economy has become is a surveillance economy.
I have a pretty clear vision on how I’d like to shoot it. Dust, the company that released the short, has an option on the feature.
As well as your film, I’ve seen some recent excellent short films directed by women and there were plenty of mainstream movies directed by women that were sadly overlooked at awards season. How do we change this, or is change happening, all be it slowly?
Change is happening. I see it happening on a public front, where audiences are becoming aware of the lack of female filmmakers (thanks to data released by places like USC’S Annenberg School of Communications) and are demanding more gender balance in front of and behind the camera.
It’s happening because of initiatives put forth by the studios, whether it be a women directors program or the 4% Challenge, and it’s also coming from more support within the female filmmaker community. It has always been an ‘old boys club’ here in Hollywood, I’ve see it personally. Famous directors have traditionally mentored young male directors who remind them of themselves. Thus, the more women can come together and support each other, and mentor the next generation, the better female representation in Hollywood will be.
As an actor, what do you look for in a project before you commit to the role?
In a perfect world, I look for a role that challenges me creatively and elevates the female archetype. I turned down a lot of auditions when I was younger to play the “pretty girl” in a horror movie. I embrace intelligent, badass characters who aren’t defined by their relationship (ie. the mom, the girlfriend). I also look to play women in STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) professions. 90 plus percent of the time men play these characters, but we need balanced representation here as well. A nuclear physicist or a computer scientist shouldn’t always be some male nerd with glasses and a lab coat on.
You are a huge sci-fi fan aren’t you? Can you tell us about some of the sci-fi events and projects you’ve been involved in?
I love sci-fi! It’s an incredible genre that speaks to both the brain and the heart.
My first sci-fi project was a digital series called After Judgment (which I co-produced and acted in). It was a 16 episode series that was shot on a shoestring budget yet was nominated for multiple Streamy Awards alongside Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. I wrote a sci-fi action series for Stan Lee about Supermodels with superpowers. It was a blast, but unfortunately was never produced, though its teaser trailer premiered at San Diego Comic Con.
Speaking of which, I’ve been a panelist on a number of different Comic Con panels and events. I’ve acted in a lot of different sci-fi digital series, including Blake Calhoun’s Continuum where I voiced the ship’s computer.
On the subject of science, you are also one of the Scirens (along with Gia Mora and Tamara Krinsky). Your purpose is to champion science through entertainment. So, how did this come about?
Scirens (Screen Sirens for Science) initially came about because of a blog post I wrote on the need for public science literacy after Bill Nye the Science Guy debated Creationist Ken Ham.
The public support of Ham was frightening to me; how could we tackle issues of climate change and technological disruptions if people won’t embrace basic scientific facts and rational, critical thinking? I posited that entertainment was the best Trojan Horse for STEM literacy (through story) and that actresses would be the least likely but highly effective ambassadors.
We had a few additional founding members, but ultimately Tamara, Gia and I coalesced. We started social media channels where we share our enthusiasm over science infused content and amplify the work of science journalists and communicators.
What are the Scirens up to at the moment?
We often wish we could clone each other as there is so much Scirens work we want to be doing! Tamara is hosting the Science Channel series Tomorrow’s World Today and Gia has been busy shooting a feature film. Currently, we are polishing up a few scripts we have co-written which are infused with science and STEM characters. An early draft of one of them was a semi-finalist at the NYTVFest. We can’t wait to share them once they’re finished.
Is Hollywood doing a good enough job getting science out in the mainstream?
I think they are talking a good talk, I think the general public now realise the importance of STEM and that to transition into this next century we need a basic understanding of it, have to support it and that we’re not going to survive the climate apocalypse if we don’t understand it.
Has Hollywood actually implemented it? No. I think if it’s easy, they will. From my experience with the Scirens we’ve pitched a number of unscripted shows which we would host and you’ll get the “oh you know what, it’s really hard to sell science, especially female science hosts” and we’re like, “wait, you just said how important women in STEM are” and they go “oh well, you know it’s the numbers actually” – it all comes down to numbers. Science is tricky to commodify.
Carl Zimmer (science writer) had written a tweet about how he just uses the tip of the iceberg. He may have an entire iceberg of scientific research that he wants to reference and bring to light, but knowing an audience and general cognition of scientific literacy you just have to use the tip of the iceberg, so I’ve really just tried to incorporate that into my scripts, because I think I used to prove that I’m really smart in science and look at all the stuff I know and have incorporated into my story and isn’t it cool, but now I’m no, how do I serve an audience? How do I inspire curiosity and critical thinking? You take the audience out of the traditional ways of thinking. How can you tweak that curiosity button?
When I was younger, I was on set and bored and so decided to write this Wonder Woman take off – I thought, why does Wonder Woman keep failing as a feature film (this was before the awesome Patty Jenkins version), so I decided to do my own take on Wonder Woman and did a deep dive into genetics and to what an Amazon bloodline look like and how it would be different and suddenly I deviated to neuroscience and then this whole world opened up and I thought, this is amazing, why aren’t we talking about all this stuff? And it all started for me from there.
So, all started from Wonder Woman? Brilliant. Can you tell us about any of your future projects coming up?
I am excited to be attached to direct a fantasy action feature film that shoots in the New Year. And I am taking meetings on my other sci-fi scripts. Fingers crossed that we can make the feature version of LIVE because I really love where the story goes.
My focus right now is getting all my sci-fi writing projects off the ground and set up with production companies. (If I can ultimately direct or act in them, even better!) And of course, my other focus is prepping for the film I’m attached to direct. I’m a ‘Buffy’ fanatic so I’m excited to tackle a project in the fantasy action genre.
You can follow Taryn on Twitter: @TarynOneill