Making of a Sentient

Matthieu Tondeur talks sci-fi and his latest short film.

Following up on his 2015 short 3 Men, director Matthieu Tondeur returns to explore the dark side of artificial intelligence with his latest film, Sentient. We talk with the Shanghai-based filmmaker about his love of sci-fi, the challenges of making Sentient a reality, and get a few tips on how to make the most of your production budget (when you don’t really have one).

Like your previous short film 3 Men, Sentient is yet another personal foray into sci-fi territory. What is it that interests you about this genre as a filmmaker?

Science-fiction is really what attracted me to filmmaking. I’m always wondering how we would behave if some unknown or surprising event occurred. Would we stay the same? Would we change for the better or for the worse? For this reason, I also like thrillers a lot. What would happen if something terrible happened to you? And, would it change your life forever?

When we see the sci-fi tag applied to Chinese films these days, it’s often mixed in with other genres (usually fantasy or comedy). Do you think there’s an audience out there in China for more ‘pure’ sci-fi films or do we still have a long way to go before that market has really developed?

First off, the Chinese audience is made up of 1.5 billion people. So, I don’t think anyone can tell me what they like for sure or not. But, I do think Chinese audiences love pure sci-fi. Interstellar and Inception got massive audiences in the cinema and fandom in China. Yet they don’t have any humor, Chinese references, or love interests… all the things Chinese studios think the audience is interested in.

The problem right now is that there might be a demand for this kind of movie but no one in China can deliver on it.

So, why don’t we see more of these films being made here?

The problem right now is that there might be a demand for this kind of movie but no one in China can deliver on it. The culture just isn’t ready and we’re not in a post-modern society yet. In a few more years, I believe we will have more and more Chinese artists passionate about and specializing in science-fiction. Then we will have better Chinese science-fiction movies.

Historically, the bar has been set quite high for films about artificial intelligence—not only do they have to tell a good story, but audiences typically expect them to make some kind of meaningful contribution to the discussion about A.I. and/or the relationship between humans and technology. What do you hope Sentient is able to contribute to this discussion?

Actually, Sentient is a bit of a satire of these movies. I don’t think the first A.I. would be a sexy robot that looks more real than a real woman. It doesn’t make sense to me and so I could never immerse myself in those kinds of movies, even the well-written ones. Instead, I really like movies such as The Forbin Project or Ghost in the Shell. They really show what the future could be like… and it’s way scarier.

In Focus: Robert (played by Salva Mendez) and Adam (the A.I.) exchange a bit of Q&A in Matthieu Tondeur’s short film Sentient.

How did the Sentient project first come about and what was it about the story that made you want to direct this film?

I was reading through an online writing prompt challenge forum and I found this little dialogue between Adam [the A.I.] and Robert [the scientist]. My first idea was to have Adam trapped in a secret or abandoned warehouse and basically have it tortured mentally by some sadistic scientists. The whole thing just grew from there.

Coming from a background in visual artistry, the prospect of directing a sci-fi film must be like discovering a goldmine of creative opportunity. What is the most exciting part for you about creating the on-screen look of a film like Sentient?

To be honest, when you’re actually making a film you don’t have time to really appreciate what you’re doing at that moment because you have to always think of what will happen next and what the next problem will be. Even if you live in the moment you’re never quite sure whether it will work or not.

When did production for the film take place and what was that process like?

We shot over five days last December. It was very cold and hard to shoot. We shot indoors in our office—which we transformed half of into Adam’s room. Other scenes on locations where hard to shoot as we didn’t have the budget to officially ‘book’ them. So, we had to shoot very fast and with a lot of uncertainty.

One place which stands out in the film is the exterior of the test facility—which from the air looks like a derelict factory or warehouse along the coast somewhere. How did you find this place?

A fellow filmmaker shot a music video there. He helped me with the address, but we couldn’t get inside. So, I decided that the only thing we could do was to get an aerial shot early in the morning. To make the audience believe we were inside, I found another abandoned facility that was quite similar, but on that morning we were also refused entrance as well. So, instead we shot the two scenes close to the sea nearby.

Behind-the-scenes: Constructing Adam and the Adam room for Matthieu Tondeur’s sci-fi short Sentient.

The test room where Adam is housed is also one of the primary settings for the film. What was the process like of imagining, designing, and constructing that set?

The main inspiration for the Adam room is the M.U.T.H.E.R. room from Alien. I liked the white design with the curved walls and blinking LEDs. As an homage I planned to have these LEDs as well but we were too far behind on the schedule. We shot in our office. I decided to use some columns to hide the square aspect of the office. With the help of a factory we know, we also constructed the fake walls and flooring.

Was there ever a moment when you were putting it all together where you thought, “This isn’t going to work”?

I only began to think that the Adam room would work after we put the last small screw on it. Only then we looked at it and I said, “OK, now it looks like the Adam room I envisioned in my head three months ago”. But, then, after that you still have all the hard work of post-production and going through all that doubt again. Finally, the real moment is when you screen your film to other people and see how they react. It’s really a long and hard process, but there’s also a lot of satisfaction at the end.

Don’t just spend money on camera gear and expensive lighting. You don’t need high-resolution to shoot a headshot close-up.

A project like this can also place a lot of demand on the design team to make things look realistic and believable. Especially when you’re working with a limited budget, is there any advice you could offer to other filmmakers about how to ensure that you get the most bang for your buck (in terms of on-screen production value)?

As far as production design goes, try to gather a motivated team to work together. 3 Men and Sentient were both done on very small budgets. But, even though their budgets were tiny, it was still a budget. For both films, we spent the money on production design for props and sets mainly. Don’t just spend money on camera gear and expensive lighting. You don’t need high-resolution to shoot a headshot close-up.

The film doesn’t explicitly state that it is set in China, but Chinese actors play a significant role in the story and Mandarin is spoken by a number of characters throughout the film. Was it always the intention to bring in to the film Chinese elements for creative purposes or was this done more for practical reasons?

As a European, I’ve always thought that Asia would play a bigger part in the future. I originally wanted more Chinese actors and more scenes in Chinese. But, it’s very hard to get Chinese actors—even the bad ones or the students—to participate into a short film without a fee. This also is a very big problem that young Chinese directors are facing I believe.

Do you think that challenge extends to other positions in terms of trying to line up crew for personal or self-funded projects like this?

I know a lot of behind-the-scenes crew people that are Chinese and very professional. They are willing to work on their free time. But, regarding actors it’s another story. On this shoot, we ended up asking one of my actors to speak in Chinese—he actually can’t speak Chinese at all—so it sounds a bit off. But, I really wanted to push the use of Chinese language as we are in China and the story is happening in China.

Cast and crew (from left-to-right): Gert Kombate, Matthieu Tondeur, Salva Mendez, Elle, Keith Shillitoe, and Jose Quero assemble on the set of the Adam room.

You’ve talked elsewhere about the fact that you regularly work with an international cast and crew—the UK, France, Spain, the USA, China, the Netherlands, and Togo are all represented on the Sentient production alone. What do you feel you gain from bringing together a group of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures to work on your projects?

I would say that we all united around the fact that we like art and creating something new. So at the end of the day no one cares which language we talk. I didn’t want to have so many nationalities to begin with. But, the fact is the people that participated all wanted to do something creative and participate in the project.

Ultimately, what was the biggest challenge in putting a project like this together?

Keeping motivated even through the biggest difficulties—which are basically every day for this kind of short film—not giving up, and being patient.

Are there any plans to expand this project into a feature film in the future?

Not Sentient, but I’ve always wanted to expand on The Forbin Project universe with a vicious A.I. trying to take over the world for his own good.

What other projects do you have in the works and what should we look forward to seeing next?

We are working on two feature projects now. I can’t say too much about it, but the genre will be sci-fi thriller with more tension and horror elements!

Sentient premiered earlier this month with a couple of screenings in Shanghai. If you weren’t able to catch it there, you’ll have to wait for it to hit the film festival circuit later this year to see it for yourself. In the meantime, you can check out more of Matthieu Tondeur’s work here or watch the Sentient trailer below (VPN required) or on Youku here.

Finally, a big shout out to Gabriel Shaui Bancaud at Mirage Makers for helping to make this interview possible.

Michael Thede

Michael Thede

Founder & Contributor

Michael Thede is a Canadian writer and editor. He studied Film & Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and is a graduate of the Writing for Film & TV program at Vancouver Film School. He is currently based in Shanghai, where he is also the founder and organizer of the Shanghai Screenwriters Workshop. WeChat: michaelthede78

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