SPIN STATE is a feature film due to hit the festival circuit this year, directed by Ross A Wilson and starring our 2018 acting award winner Jamie Robson. Weaving mystery with some science fiction trappings, I spoke to Ross and Jamie about the inspirations for the film, the main character Kline Dyson and working together on Ross’s first feature film, as the film moves through post-production.
Jim: To start off, tell us a bit about the film and how you came to make it.
Ross: So, the film is basically about a amnesiac private detective, who suffers a series of blackouts, finds himself waking up in places he’s never been before, but he can remember them and he feels has a connection to his forgotten past. Then he comes across a young woman who is investigating her husband, and the things that her husband is into seem to be related to his fugues, these blackouts. And so, then, the journey begins with them crossing the psychological landscape in order to try to and understand where he comes from. Is there a link? Is it kind of all in his mind? What are the psychological processes? Is it delusion? Is it reality?
And then, throwing in there some quantum physics without making the sci-fi side of it prominent. So, it’s not a sci-fi. It’s more a mystery psychological drama with a sci-fi edge. Jamie and I spoke about this before, kind of legitimising sci-fi in a way, making it something that’s less crazy and shocking and more incorporated into daily life, I guess, and using actual science as well.
Jim: So, I’ve heard you describe the film before as a post-modern sci-fi and you’ve spoken there about making the sci-fi elements less out there: how have you done that with this film? What role does the science part in the fiction play?
Ross: Less STAR TREK and more PI. So, really the science drives the plot. Kline, who’s the main character Jamie [Robson]’s playing, is following the science behind what’s led him to do what he’s doing, which is part of the mystery, and that’s why we used actual science to justify and legitimise that. There is a fantasy element, of course. It’s not real. I’ve had to take some leaps. But rather than being about gadgets and kind of, you know, laser swords and things like that, it’s just more melted into the background. Something along the lines of PI: there’s kind of a very harsh psychological edge to that, but the math in it is melted into the background as an integral part of it. I guess you could say the science is to this as well.
Jim: There are actual mathematical operations and scientific notation in the artwork I notice. Was it an important thing to get that sort of thing correct and not just to ‘look right’?
Ross: I think so, yeah. The science isn’t there because, you know, “science is fantastic”. It’s there because I’ve got a genuine interest in quantum physics. I recently went to a lecture in the Royal Institute about quantum loop gravity which are some of the newest ideas about how the structure of the universe is made. So, it really is a passion of mine. So, I can’t write an actual equation, but we did some research. We made sure that they were at least in the ballpark of what he’s talking about, and hopefully people will forgive us for probably getting masses of it wrong. But they are actually equations to do with the spin states of particles, which is where the film gets its title from.
There’s a guy, a scientist, called Jim Baggott who’s a bit probably more a science communicator now, but I actually went to a lecture of his and then afterwards went up to him and said, “Look, this is the idea I’ve got using spin states of particles” and he said, “Oh, that’s totally doable, and in fact, some people are actually looking at that now.” So, the end result of where that leads to might be a little bit more fantastical but it’s certainly rooted in that appreciation and love for science.
I’m really interested in how that can feel really fantastic when people talk about particles and quantum physics and things suddenly disappearing and probability, and that’s what we’re made of and the universe is made of. Do we need to talk about lightsabres and lasers when we have this, and this is really what we’re discovering now and facing now? I think it has really fundamental implications for the way we think about ourselves as well, as humans.
“Do we need to talk about lightsabres and lasers when we have this, and this is really what we’re discovering now and facing now? I think it has really fundamental implications for the way we think about ourselves as well, as humans.”
– Ross A Wilson, SPIN STATE director
And one of my favorite science communicators, Jacob Bronowski, who had done a great science series, used the uncertainty in quantum physics and related it to – because he was Jewish – the Nazi Holocaust because that was based on people having an absolute certainty about things and there’s a great moment in that when he knelt down in the ashes and said, “This is what the idea of certainty can do.” Science can say we can’t actually be certain about anything, because when we get down to the building blocks of everything, things literally start to disappear and we can’t tell where they are anymore.
Jim: I’ve done work underpinned by Bayes’ Theorem before and obviously it’s a mathematical theory and expression, but there’s quite an interesting philosophical point in it. If you strip away all the mathematical notation, essentially, it says you can’t really arrive at something which is 100% true. We can just improve our knowledge over time and become more certain about something, but you can never be fully certain. And, of course, finding a philosophical point in there isn’t too out there: philosophy and natural science, once upon a time, used to basically be the same thing.
Ross: That’s fantastic. And certain things like Isaac Newton by day discovering gravity, describing the the motion of the planets, and then, by night, a mystic. That co-existed in his mind quite happily. And I really find that interesting, when people define the border between reality and delusion, and there’s a lot of that in SPIN STATE.
And a lot of this stuff me and Jamie talk about now is, it’s kind of our interpretation of what’s happened since production and not when I was there actually writing it and that’s quite…that’s my favorite part of writing and creating is then you look back and you go, “This feels like there’s something else at work there,” and you’re discovering something that was already there, and you just stand back now and…
Jim: So, it starts with science and then moves into that rather than starting off as something fantastical and then trying to bolt some science on to the back of it?
Jamie: That ties amazingly with the boundary between fantasy and reality and also how I approached the role – as in, I wanted the majority of my work to be based on truth and then any embellishment of the character was on top. So, acting came second. It was experiential and then for the scene, I needed to act. So, that was just icing on the cake and so there was that constant sort of non-dualistic balancing between reality and delusion.
Ross: I mean, in that respect, what Jamie brought to that role, obviously the character is very well defined and crafted, and the dialogue and the subtext is all built in, but then Jamie comes along and literally, you know, bares his soul to that and brings this whole new level of openness and raw human experience to it and just elevates everything. I mean, let me coin the phrase kitchen-sink sci-fi.
Jim: I’ve spoken to [Jamie] before about how involved he can be with the films on a collaborative basis, how did you two come to work on this together?
Ross: I put a casting call out and we had, I think, three and half thousand people responded to it. So, I went through literally every single one of them, and once I passed the final…the next set of checks, they actually got emails as well, personalised emails. I feel like these are people and not products we’re talking about, and I feel like actors get a lot of from stick from the industry. But, yeah, Jamie sent in a self-tape. There was a bunch of people and then there was Jamie and it was…he’d had a set made. He’d been smoking. He’d caught the exact mood of the actual scene, and not only was the talent there and you immediately feel like you’re watching a film, but just the sort of the mood as well and that character that you’re looking for and it was just a no-brainer at that point. And I think the biggest thing there was a hesitation on was because he had a Scottish accent – that’s not a problem for me but it’s a problem for the plot of the film because if he’s trying to figure out where he’s from and he’s in London with a Scottish accent…
Jim: That’s maybe a hint!
Ross: Yeah. But that actually works into the plot of the film really nicely in the end and that was quite a nice little serendipitous moment.
Jim: Do you have an example of when the two of you brought your ideas together for the film or character?
Ross: I had some ideas for some of Jamie’s costume. Then Jamie comes in and he’s like, “Oh no, I like that one.” I bristled because it’s not something I’ve thought of, but I bounce off that idea and go back and forth, and…
Jamie: It’s much better than if I’d been left to my own devices, it wouldn’t have been as good as the two of us hashing it out. Giving myself things to play with and work with, textures, shapes, pockets, folds and layers so that I can highlight emotion – because for me, costume is so very important. I’ve never understood why some people are surprised when I want to go and spend the day with costume in pre-production.
I feel the word ‘method’ is widely misunderstood and grossly overused – I wouldn’t describe myself as a method actor, I worry that’s becoming a limiting description. I think I’ve devised something that’s personal, a process that’s my own. However, if there are elements of method, one of them is when I put the costume on I am the character. So, it’s very ritualistic, costume, very, very, very. I look at iconic silhouettes like Bruce Lee in the jumpsuit in ENTER THE DRAGON or De Niro in the Anorak in TAXI DRIVER or the knee-high boots for Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. These silhouettes are iconic, you can recognise them a mile away and that’s what I wanted for Kline.
“I look at iconic silhouettes like Bruce Lee in the jumpsuit in ENTER THE DRAGON or De Niro in the Anorak in TAXI DRIVER or the knee-high boots for Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. These silhouettes are iconic, you can recognise them a mile away and that’s what I wanted for Kline.”
– Jamie Robson, SPIN STATE lead actor
Ross: And I think, just to make it clear, that a huge part of that is Adam Dee, our costume designer who’s not the kind of person, who’ll just say, “Well no, this is really what he should be wearing because of X, Y, Z.” He sees what’s going on and he works with that and he’s got this overarching style that we’ve discussed, I’ve discussed with him and that we’ve arrived on. It’s all about narrowing options down to this coherent style and then I look at it now, it’s like it really has been a really important part of the world, but it’s not something you notice which is exactly what all those sorts of things should be.
Jim: The production stills have some striking locations, and your shorts have made excellent use of location also – was this an intention from the outset, to have these dramatic settings?
Ross: A hundred percent, yeah. I knew when I was writing the script that the locations were probably going to be…they were characters to me. All locations are characters to me. And when I was writing the film, I knew they were going to be the most expensive part. They all go into influencing the story as well because it’s obviously your life that you are drawing from. And then there are some locations that really did exist and you can go and film in which we did, which had been almost lifelong dreams for me, but that’s definitely something that I paid a lot of attention to and we spent an awful lot of money on.
And it wasn’t just for production value. It’s like I say, it’s part of building the world, it’s part of setting the landscape, and they’re integral to the ideas behind the film. Because this is very much a psychological landscape and when that’s expressed in places that these characters are. So, yeah, it’s really central to the idea. I find a character and then my job is to make sure that emotional feeling and that landscape and that mood survives all the way to the edit.
And so there are pockets in that process where people can jump in and play and breathe life into it, but ultimately my main goal is to make sure that’s preserved. Because if that doesn’t work, then I probably wouldn’t bother making films because that’s really what I’m interested in.
Jim: That care for how character, and I mean that probably in the more general sense of a character, carries through into the film, that must also be comforting for you [Jamie] because you know it’s part of the process at every stage.
Jamie: The architectural symbolism in the film is a massive part of the psychological thread that goes through the whole story. I mean there are these examples of barriers and mirrors and mazes and prisons. There’s a house that felt like a prison, a location that felt like a maze, shiny objects that you can see your reflection, there’s these huge barriers and these are all representative of Kline’s journey, things he has to cross or reflect upon or consider. I think the locations just elevated Kline’s story and made it much easier for me because then it became partial reality. It was such an effecting experience to be in these places, to actually look and actually touch and actually explore because I was an awe of the place(s). I’m so excited to see it on the big screen. I may never work on a project again with the same amount of high quality locations – unless I do a James Bond film or similar. The film enjoys such a continuous array of wonderful locations, they’re incredible.
Jim: So, not to sound like a stalker, but I found a blog post you’d written about this idea that all films are based on true stories really, which I think is quite observant. Where the main inspirations for this, what was it that made you want to write this script?
Ross: I’m not entirely sure, but I think now I look at SPIN STATE it is quite personal in the sense I’ve always had a feeling of being sort of on the fringes. I moved around a lot when I was a kid. I was always the new kid in a new place, so you feel a little bit alienated, a little bit lost. Trying to make connections isn’t very easy. But also things like it’s strangely almost a metaphor for my relationship with film and being in the film industry in a way. Because you know, I’m that person who’s trying to find what it is that I want to do and how to do it.
Jamie: Ross was present very much in the macro and I was the same on the micro. So I actually went out of my way to almost forget the script because I thought, well you don’t know what’s going happen this afternoon. You don’t know. You might have a rough idea, but you don’t know the exact details of what’s going happen to you this afternoon and so neither would the character. I wanted to feel lost, like Kline.
Ross: Which is fascinating on set to actually see and to be with. There’s this almost invisible barrier and you are trying to preserve it all the time for Jamie to just exist as Kline.
Jamie: I don’t know if I am a method actor and, to repeat myself, it’s a word that’s broadly misused and misinterpreted, but one who maybe accepts that description is Daniel Day Lewis. There is a story, from when finishing LINCOLN, where Spielberg entered Daniel’s trailer on wrap day to discover that Day Lewis had discarded character, returning to himself and Spielberg broke down in tears, buckling at the knees, because he’d never meet his friend again – the person who he’d made this film with, had gone.
Ross: That actually kind of happened a little bit to us I think because I didn’t really sort of say goodbye to the real Kline that existed and then we had a wrap party and Jamie turned up and the hair was gone.
Jamie: Yeah, shaved. Nobody recognised me when I turned up.
Ross: And when I’m in the edit now, it’s almost not Jamie. Because it’s that different and the faces, the emotions and I can’t imagine any actual human being going through what this character has gone through.
Jamie: But he gave me a fantastic world to play in and that made a huge difference. The fact that I took the car home, the fact that I could wear my costume at night, stay in costume, go back to my flat.
Ross: And a lot of other things we probably shouldn’t talk about here but maybe will be talked about one day when some kind of legal time has passed. But yeah, I don’t think it ended for you, did it? Until it really ended, the film ended.
We’re very excited. We still need to finish the film. We still need to find some last funds. We’ve got some options for that coming through. But a lot of it is just on me now, making sure I’ve got a cut that I’m happy with, and that’s what I’m working towards.