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“The Alchemist’s Letter” – Interview with Writer/Director Carlos Andre Stevens

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Out there is an alchemist  – or rather, there was, but now all that remains are his memories and his son. A new short is set to hit this year’s coming festival rounds from the talented vision of award-winning writer/director Carlos Andre Stevens of HouseSpecial (formerly Laika/house). Apart from his work in commercials you may also know Carlos for his student Academy Award-nominated short Toumai back in 2008. Five years on, Carlos is bringing us his new short The Alchemist’s Letter, produced by a team of artists from acclaimed stop motion studio Laika (The Boxtrolls, ParaNorman); This was in fact the very last project made out of the studio’s former shorts division Laika/house. The film will feature the voices of two-time Academy Award nominee John Hurt (Hercules, Alien, V for Vendetta, Elephant Man) and up-and comer-Eloise Webb (who also appears in Disney’s live-action Cinderella).

The official synopsis reads:

When Veridian, an estranged young man, receives his late alchemist father Nicholas’ inheritance (voice of Academy Award nominated John Hurt), he is exposed to the ill-fated reality that his father built a tumultuous gold-making machine powered by his own memories. The film takes viewers on an enchanted journey through the vessels of the machine in exploration of the contents of the alchemist’s most precious memories, all in an attempt to give Veridian one last life lesson and save his relationship with his daughter (voice Eloise Webb) from following down the same fateful path.

The film promises to be both visually and emotionally captivating. A tremendous amount of work, time and passion has gone into this film and its 355 Kickstarter backers who helped the project reach its modest funding goal back in December are doubtless excited to see it in all its glory. Skwigly managed to get a quick word with Carlos to give us some insight on what to expect from this lovingly-created film.

Where did your original idea for the film come from?
The original idea for the film came from a combination of experiences and observations. The subject matter of the film surrounding alchemical magic is somewhat of a reflection of my personal life and family, we have a particular affinity for thinking about the universe in enchanting ways. The story is a response to my career and many of the individuals I’ve worked with over the years.
I don’t personally have children yet, but I am a son and empathise with my parents’ goals in life; They worked their hardest to make sure my sister and I had everything we needed to succeed intellectually, emotionally and financially. On the other hand, many of my close colleagues have children, and every day I’m subject to the constant struggle they all deal with regarding their professional careers and how it affects their personal and family relationships. I can’t tell you the amount of times my friends have told me I need a better work/life balance. The amount of time spent at the office or chasing particular career dreams surely has the ability to deplete the memories gained with loved ones. The ironic thing is how much time I spent making this film, but of course the message is well worth the sacrifice.
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Can you tell us a little more about HouseSpecial and your work there?
HouseSpecial is a spin-off of the former commercial division of LAIKA, Laika/house. I currently hold a commercial directorship at HouseSpecial, I have a variety of clients through their studio. Many of the artists from Laika/house now work there.
How did you find yourself in the position to be able to make this film? And how did you get so many talented people on board?
When I first starting writing the script for this film I had no idea how I would eventually make it. I had just moved to New York City and began directing for Logan Media’s brand new east coast office. For two years I worked nights and weekends developing the story and designing the world. I got some wonderful support from a few of my close friends who helped me with the design, some of the preliminary characters and models. I put together enough material that I could show a proof of concept to potential investors. I remember having a conversation with my mom and explaining to her that I felt like I was going nowhere because I had no way to make it. Her advice was quite simple, she told me to stop worrying about how I was going to make it, and instead to focus all of my intentions on knowing it will be made. A few weeks later I was approached by acclaimed stop motion studio LAIKA, they were seeking a director to move to Portland, Oregon and work out of their commercial division Laika/house. I showed EP of Laika/house Lourri Hammack my materials and shortly after made an agreement with them that they would produce the short film. I was now part of a team of incredibly talented artists all working together to make this dream come true. As far as the remarkable voice talents of John Hurt and Eloise Webb as well as the musicians involved, those came to be through remarkable sets of circumstances and getting more and more people to believe in finishing the film as well as it deserved.
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Are you nervous about the reaction to the film, both from fellow animators but also the general public?
As an artist and human being my goal is for people to be affected by my work, whether it be that they have an emotional response, or feel they’ve seen something unique. I truly hope that people love the film and I believe I’ve done everything within my power to give people something that they will enjoy, both by the critique of artists and the enjoyment of the everyday viewer. I know everyone has different tastes and it’s impossible to please every single human on this planet, I’ll be overjoyed if I get through to a decent amount of them.
If you’re able to tell me, what is your favourite moment within the film?
It’s very difficult for me to pinpoint one particular moment in the film I love the most, although I do think the memory modules all turned out wonderfully. It was a big challenge to creatively and technically solve how to accomplish some of those moments. I couldn’t be more proud of the way we realised the alchemist’s device.
Were there any new challenges you found when creating a short film after working in commercials?
There were several fundamental challenges I dealt with creating this short film after working in commercials. Advertising rarely deals with true emotional behavior, especially some of the darker emotions like sadness, regret and abandonment, it’s not something most advertisers want associated with their products. What this means is that the team of artists, myself included had to discover what specific nuances conveyed those emotions we rarely get to exercise. Another challenge is the storytelling format and conditions. Not all commercials tell stories, but the ones that do tell them in seconds. Our routine is telling stories in short amounts of time and breaking that routine was a task for everyone involved.
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This is your second short film, however your last was back in 2008; How has the added addition of much higher production values affected your directing/storytelling?
Having higher production values gave me the freedom direct with a free imagination. I can’t tell you how liberating it is to know you can accomplish whatever you can imagine. It might be the most remarkable feeling in the world next to love. This is also a testament to the team that worked with me on the project, they were capable of turning imagination into something we can all share.
What is your plan of action to get the film seen (and do you know where the first screening will be)?
A few of us, including one of the producers on the film Catherine Yi and our PR Jeanine Takala, are working day and night doing everything we can to spread the word about this film. We know how important social marketing is and we hope people see as much potential in the film as we do and help us spread the word!
At this point, our main focus is a festival run followed by an online release that hopefully attracts viral viewership. We intend to premier at Cannes in May of 2015 pending an invitation and then Annecy shortly thereafter, also pending an invitation. We will be overjoyed if the film makes its way to an Oscar nomination next spring and we believe it’s in the realm of possibility.
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You can check out the film’s official site here or follow them on Twitter and Facebook to be kept up-to-date on the most recent screenings and success stories from the film. 

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