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“It’s Alive!” : Puzzlehead Director James Bai on Identity Politics, Frankenstein, & Robot Love

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“It’s Alive!” : Puzzlehead Director James Bai on Identity Politics, Frankenstein, & Robot Love

Writer-director James Bai’s Puzzlehead which shows this week at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater, proves that ingenuity is currency. Elegantly photographed on Super 16mm on depopulated Brooklyn streets, this poverty-row sci-fi thriller about an android and his creator in a plague-ridden city casts an eerie spell. The magic lies not in the film’s sparing but effective use of digital effects and prosthetic makeup, but in Bai’s elliptical script and direction and the cast’s stripped-down performances, which recall the anesthetized deadpan vibe of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. (To read my New York Press review of Puzzlehead click here.) It’s not a crash-and-burn action picture or a gory shocker; rather, it’s an unsettling psychological drama, scored with a mournful harpsichord, that reimagines Frankenstein as an existential potboiler about a coldly patriarchial scientist who invents monstrous-yet-childlike servant and heir named Puzzlehead. (Both Walter and Puzzlehead are played by Stephen Galaida, pictured above, at the right Hammer-horror-film pitch.)

Bai, 40, was born in Columbia, Missouri and raised in southern California. He studied business marketing in college and played guitar in rock bands. After whiling away the hours at an accounting job by devising an animated short on Post-It notes, Bai attended Columbia University’s School of Film at the urging of his filmmaker brother, Stephen, an NYU film student (and future “Puzzlehead” coproducer). Bai’s studies yielded several award-winning student shorts. “Puzzlehead” is his first feature. He lives in Westchester, N.Y., with his wife and one-year-old son.

Which came first, the science fiction or the plot?

The plot. I knew the movie had sci-fi elements, but I didn’t start promoting it as a sci-fi movie until it went on the festival circuit. I saw it as a psychological thriller. I saw it as a drama, actually.

Did you think of it as a Frankenstein movie from the beginning?

Not at the beginning. When I was first writing it, I was actually dealing with my identity issues as a Korean-American, and wanting to reflect that dichotomy of this Americanized personality that I have, and the Korean personality that I wasn’t sure existed. In philosophizing about this, I came to the conclusion that my Korean-American identity was a creation that eventually took the place of whatever identity was there beforehand, if there was one. I didn’t want to do a James Bai, you know, biopic, a Saturday afternoon, Korean-kid-growing-up-in-America kind of thing. That felt too goofy to me. I wanted to something where I could have characters that personified these sides of me and illustrated the conflict between them. I had this image, almost kind of a dream, about a robot, and a man that looked just like him. I wrote the first act of the screenplay as part of a requirement for a writing class at Columbia graduate film school, during my second year. I actually didn’t finish it. I had an incomplete all the way through to my last semester. I had to finish it to graduate, so I did finish the first act, and then I graduated, and I was lost. Once I was out of school, I had no structure in my life. I had no idea what to do, so I went to Alaska, and I started continuing to write the screenplay. They had a great public library up there, so I read a lot of books, drank a lot of beer, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and taught myself how to play the piano at a church nearby. I was renting a room in a house, and I would play my CD in the room, memorize the music—I was learning Bach—and then I’d go to the church and try to figure out how to play it. Sometimes I’d forget as soon as I got there. It was a very laborious process, but these were the things I was doing. And it was in Alaska that I read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

It’s wonderful that you first read that book in Alaska, because if I remember correctly, the story actually begins on an ice floe.

I didn’t even think of that. The reason I read it was because I realized, “There is no way I can make this movie without knowing what’s in the original book.” I had heard that the various movies were not exactly like the book, but I didn’t know in what way. When I read Mary Shelley’s book, I was blown away not just by how different it was from all the movies, but also by how good the book was.

Did you think about casting the movie with Asian actors?

Yeah. That was the original idea. I auditioned Daniel Dae-Kim, who’s now on “Lost,” and Lucy Lui, both of whom are quite famous now, though at the time they were undiscovered. But I was struggling with the idea of having Asian actors in this particular film. Most minority filmmakers have this feeling of wanting to uplift the race by putting people on the silver screen. I wanted to contribute to that, too, but because there are so few characters in the movie, I felt that casting it all Asian would lead audiences to read a fairly narrow racial-political message into the movie.

Were you concerned that if you cast it that way, suddenly the movie would just be about you?

Too much about me. And also it would have naturally led people to wrong conclusions, like, “Is he trying to say that being Asian-American is an alienating experience?” Or, “Is he saying being Asian turns you into a robot man, or makes you inhuman?” I didn’t want them to go down those roads. And there were even more racial-political issues that have to do with specific elements in the story. For instance, Walter’s relationship with Julia [the deli clerk who comes between creator and creature, played by Robbie Shapiro, left] would have been construed as a comment on the patriarchal way that Asian men treat women or something. I just wanted people to be able to connect with the story without having to dig past that stuff….[But] what I’ve been realizing, as I show this movie and talk about it, is that even though this is a deeply personal film for me, my experiences are not just my experiences, you know? They are things that everyone experiences to some degree, and based on your own life, your own viewpoint, there are a variety of ways you can interpret the story and characters. After a certain point I started to realize, “Well, I guess this is a universal theme. Everybody has to construct an identity, everyone has to define himself in opposition to someone or something, everyone has to go out and face the world.”

Was there a conscious aesthetic strategy from the beginning that’s reflected in the finished film? Or was the aesthetic determined by your resources, by your situation as you shot?

There is a huge part of it that was consciously determined beforehand and then executed to various degrees. The cinematographer, the production designer and I would go to the Frick museum on many occasions and look at Rembrandts and Vermeers to work out the color palette and the lighting. But a lot of things did come about because of the budget. We couldn’t afford to have nonstop visually composited shots because we didn’t have the money. We had to be judicious. I ended up having just 15 digital effects shots in the film.

Talk about the point-of-view shots that show us what the creature sees. You have some pretty grainy video in there at the beginning, but as it goes on, the image gains resolution, right?

I wanted to communicate Puzzlehead’s mental development through his point-of-view. So throughout the first act of the film, the visual quality of his point-of-view goes from scratchy black-and-white to out-of-focus black-and-white to color video, and then ultimately becomes Super 16mm film. The final format symbolizes that his point-of-view on the world is on par with that of a human. Hopefully it’s a subtle change as the movie goes on. But we wanted people to notice the low quality of the point-of-view shots at the very beginning of the story, so we shot those early images on very low quality video—Hi-8, actually—and then we pumped it through a cheap black-and-white TV and cranked the VHF knob to make it look all scraggly. Then we took a film camera and filmed that image off the TV, to give Puzzlehead’s POV a really rough starting point.

You have a lot of very dramatically important moments in the movie that are conveyed not in wide master shots, but in a series of quickly edited, very tight inserts, almost a rebus-like series of images. It often seems that when the emotions inherent to the story are theoretically at their peak, that’s when the movie turns most abstract and mathematical. For example, a suicide attempt is conveyed through three tight shots: a razor on the edge of a sink, a closeup of the face of the person lying in the tub, and a shot of legs in water just before it turns bloody.

Throughout the movie, I tried to employ a lot of different syntactical methods: parallel action, master shot sequence, slow disclosure. The bathroom sequence was inspired by Psycho the way Hitchcock took the most important sequence in the movie and fragmented it.

Describe the difficulties of shooting a movie with no budget where one actor plays two characters that appear together in the same scenes all through the story.

First of all, because of the low budget, we had a very limited number of effects shots where one actor could be composited [twice] into the same frame. There are only two or three shots in the movie where you see both characters together at the same time. There was also another problem, which is that Walter has a beard through much of the film and then shaves it off. We had to do all the shots where Walter has a beard, then have him shave it off and do all the shots where he doesn’t have a beard…It’s very difficult to shoot a story like this on a low budget because usually when you shoot a scene, you light the whole scene, you shoot everything you need, and then you’re done with it. In this movie, we shot some scenes, then came back weeks later and re-lit the same scene to get the rest of what we needed. That adds a tremendous amount of production time, simply because of having to return to the same location and set up lights again. The gaffer had to draw plots to remember where all the lights were so that when we cut all the shots together at the end, the lighting throughout the scene would be consistent. Some days the conversations were like, “Okay, we had a C-stand two feet from this wall, and another one three feet from this wall, six feet high, with a 2K light pointed down at a 35 degree angle.” We’d have to map all that out so we could re-create it.

Then, once were done with all that, because we were so poor we didn’t have the money to pay for a video tap and couldn’t check our work on the set [or go back and look at what we’d shot earlier], I’d have to work through the scenes shot by shot with the actor, and say, “Okay…When you were playing the other guy three weeks ago, did you say this particular line this way, or that way?”

So you’ve got a movie here that’s a combination of fetishistic planning—

Compulsive, I would call it—

—but then there’s also an enormous element of just, risk, where you just sort of had to forge ahead and hope that things would work.

Every time the editor and I rough-cut a scene and it worked, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had no idea if any of the scenes with Walter and Puzzlehead would cut together until we got to the editing room. There was just no way to know.

Were there any previous works of science fiction or fantasy that influenced this movie?

The Twilight Zone is pretty much the number one thing that influenced the film. Not just the visuals, but the tone, the sense of it being set in no time, no place. I grew up watching tons of “Twilight Zone” episodes, and a lot of them had robots. I was particularly thinking of the one where the guy has a daughter who’s very upset about the fact that he has all these robot servants, and wants them out of her life because she feels they’re bad, and then he shuts down his robots and she figures out that she, too, is a robot, and then he makes her their maid.

Many of the “Twilight Zone” episodes were presented as myths or parables of some sort. Was that also an influence on the tone?

On the tone, the story, everything, yeah.

Are you a fan of Blade Runner or A.I.?

When I was working on the first act of the screenplay, I was aware of the fact that Kubrick was making a movie called, A.I. And I almost thought about not making this movie, because I figured there was no chance that James Bai and “Puzzlehead” could have an impact in the same world with Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. Then Kubrick passed away, which was very much of a bummer for me because he’s a huge influence, easily one of my favorite filmmakers. But I moved ahead. Then somewhere in the middle of postproduction, I found out that Steven Spielberg had taken over for Kubrick. I was afraid to see the film because I was afraid I’d be disheartened and think there was no point to my movie. [But] after I saw it, I thought there was still some room left. For me, Terminator, Terminator 2, Blade Runner and A.I. were all influences on the film. They’re very different movies, but the common thread is that you have androids that look like people and have their own personalities. I lifted a lot of stuff from those movies. “Puzzlehead” is standing on the foundation of all the other android sci-fi movies that came before.

In all the times you’ve watched your own movie, have you ever thought about the parallels between creating a movie and creating a monster? I mean, it occurred to me that the scene in “Puzzlehead” where the father sends the son out into the dangerous world on his own for the first time—

It is very much like that. In fact, it’s the same thing. You create something, and once you’re done with it, you have very little control over what it’s going to do. But you care about it the same way you care about a child, or anything you preciously created.