By Ray Pride
Murder, memory loss and grief for a dead mother are joined by “time anomalies” as the onslaught of challenges that must be met by physics student Cassie (Courtney Hope) in writer-director Kenneth Mader’s modestly scaled yet also wildly ambitious time-travel thriller “Displacement.” A couple of father figures enter, too, in the form of an estranged physicist father (Lou Richards), her own physics professor (Bruce Davison), as well as a mysterious woman called Dr. Miles (Sarah Douglas).
Mader makes his feature directorial debut (after a raft of shorts since the turn of the century) in a sorrow-filled but high-energy science fiction what-if story that packs much more in its running time than your usual low-budget thriller in the crowded modern marketplace.
You’re from Chicago. How did growing up here propel you toward the movies?
Yes, I was born and raised in Chicago. My dad bought me my first Super-8 film camera here, when I was eight years old. I’ve been making movies ever since. I did some time studying film at Columbia College, then started as a young production assistant on films like “Risky Business” and “The Killing Floor,” and produced my first feature film here. I love this city, and I’m glad to see production returning. I hope to shoot my next film here, a supernatural thriller called “Deep Focus,” which I wrote here with Chicago locations in mind.
There’s a lot of story and ideas packed into what might be looked upon as a genre vessel. Why the ambition to pack in so many elements? “Displacement,” in an interesting way, plays like, “if I’m going to make a movie, it’s going to have lots of movie…”
Yeah, I tend to write dense, ambitious ideas. It’s certainly a desire, as you say, to have lots of movie if I’m going to make one. It’s also my desire to challenge the audience and explore ideas that will make you think and ponder after the credits roll, since those are also the kinds of films I enjoy. That said, for me, “Displacement” is a personal story about regret and my lead character’s desire to fulfill her mother’s dying wish to see the ocean one last time. That happened to me when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and fell ill so quickly we were unable to fulfill that wish. So the time travel and physics aspects of the narrative were just a way into that story for me, the beating heart of the film.
I heard you spent about $350,000 on “Displacement.” With striking location work, and a focus largely on Hope’s performance, you seem to have made good choices on what constitutes “production value” on a lower budget.
That is actually not the final budget number—it went a bit higher—but yes, it was quite difficult. Given the personal nature of the story, I chose to finance it independently, via an initial Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, private investors, deferral deals and a not-insignificant amount of my own funds. We shot the film piecemeal over the course of two years, raising money as we went. I knew I wanted to maintain a high level of production value, which has become a kind of trademark of mine, so I designed it from the script stage with those things in mind.
What films or filmmakers would you measure “Displacement” against?
Certainly, classic time-travel tales like “Somewhere in Time” and “Back to the Future,” “Primer” and even the “Terminator” movies influenced this. As did Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” “Inception” and even “Interstellar” to a degree. I’ve always been a fan of science fiction and fascinated with real science, as well as non-linear storytelling and unraveling mysteries.
Courtney Hope gives her all, in all the twists… There’s a heightened, melodramatic quality a lot of contemporary filmmakers are afraid of, that it’s too, well, melodramatic. Do you have a taste for a more heightened acting style?
My goal with performance is always to make it as real and honest in the moment as possible and to create believable relationships between the characters. I don’t actually consider Courtney’s performance to be melodramatic per se. Fierce and emotional at times certainly, but there are levels of subtlety and nuance in her work that take it far beyond mere melodrama in my opinion. If there is a heightened acting style, I hope it’s motivated by intense internal emotional conflict along with the extreme external events her character is experiencing.
And what gave you the courage to have so much spoken technical language? When it works in movies, through performance—Michael Mann has always been one who enjoys the lingo of a trade—it rises above having to understand every turn of what’s being spoken.
It was a challenge and a risk to strike the right balance, but I was determined to get the science as accurate as possible within the context of the fictional narrative, and that required a certain amount of technical exposition. Plus, the physics aspect of the plot is driven by real science and quantum theory, so in order for it all to make some semblance of sense I needed to inject some of that “lingo of the trade.” I would certainly never compare my work to the genius of Michael Mann, but I hope we accomplished a similar feat in that the performances and emotional strength of the piece rises above the need to completely understand the physics, while at the same time paying homage to those who do.
“Displacement” opens Friday, May 12 at the Logan and on video-on-demand.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.