If you love indie sci-fi in the style of PRIMER, then here’s a film you need to check out. Already playing in L.A. and scheduled for wider distribution September 13 and VOD September 24 is the sci-fi tinged thriller EMPATHY, INC., the tale of a virtual reality company that isn’t actually selling what it advertises. Created by writer Mark Leidner, director Yedidya Gorsetman, and producer Josh Itzkowitz, EMPATHY, INC. is getting strong buzz from the likes of Variety and the A.V. Club.
The premise is a great fit for today’s angel investor, tech-heavy world. When hotshot venture capitalist Joel has a multimillion-dollar deal go up in smoke, he and his actress wife Jessica are forced to start from scratch. Joel reconnects with an old friend Nicolaus and his business partner Lester, who are seeking investors in a new technology known as Xtreme Virtual Reality, which places users in the lives of the less fortunate. Joel gets the startup its funds but soon discovers that the tech’s creators have far more sinister uses in store for their creation and that the reality it provides its customers isn’t virtual.
Director Yedidya Gorsetman joined RECURSOR to talk more about EMPATHY, INC. and the process of indie filmmaking.
RECURSOR: How did you become interested in filmmaking?
GORSETMAN: As a kid, I was obsessed with movies, very typical of people who end up in this field. My parents bought me a camera as a way for me to experiment. I made little videos with friends. I would just edit in-camera. I would shoot, and then I would just start the next shot in the middle of it all.
Out of college, my producing partner Josh Itzkowitz, writer Mark Leidner and I created a small film (JAMMED) to see what we could do.
What inspired EMPATHY, INC.?
From the beginning, we were interested in telling a big story, something that would be really fun. We’re huge fans of Cameron and Spielberg, these big, exciting shows.
But we were working with the resources we had, so we asked ourselves, “What story can we tell (on a budget)?” We were looking to explore deeper themes, the things you often see in independent films, but something also that would be easy, something that wouldn’t be a high bar of entry.
That led us to sci-fi. We love films like PI, PRIMER, and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. We thought having a sci-fi story in the world of indie film would just be fun.
Tell us about the process of creating the film.
EMPATHY, INC. is our second film. Mark, Josh and I had been involved in each other’s projects to varying degrees. Over the years, we took the lessons we were accumulating and have tried to apply it all to EMPATHY, INC.
What we did in terms of writing was change our process. Before, we would write a script, show it to people, take half a year to get it to a finished product. Then we’d get a month in and realize parts of the story didn’t feel right, felt untrue; it was not a novel idea or something like that.
So, we took a step back and decided to focus on the concept first. We made it our mission to take time and just work on our concept, sending each other ideas, and talking about it. Over time, our ideas became more sophisticated, complex, and interesting.
How did you approach doing an indie sci-fi film?
One of the big things about our film is that there’s a lot going on with the performances. That’s something Mark spent a lot of time on; he was interested in the idea of actors playing multiple people. If you have a good actor, this is a “free” thing that has a lot of payoff.
To make this work, early on, we decided we wanted to work with an experienced casting director, Harley Kaplan. The benefit is that casting directors have very deep relationships; they get to see performances all day long. It saves you a lot of time and opens up a lot of doors. Harley was really excited to work on this. We got to meet some amazing New York talent, and benefited from theater actors who are fantastic and really well trained.
What challenges did you face making an indie film, and how did you tackle them?
There were a lot of challenges. It just takes a very long time to make a film. We had a lot of experience in terms of making low budget movies, and our experience from that has been to prep—as much prep as possible. We created very detailed schedules, storyboarded everything, and even did four months of pre-production, which is uncommon for films of our size.
Even though we planned so much, when it came to the edit, it exploded and became a year and a half. It was something we hadn’t anticipated. We felt we could do better if we continued to take time with it.
You played the film at festivals before going to theaters and VOD. What has that been like?
EMPATHY, INC. opened at Cinepocalypse, which was a great way to enter the genre market. It’s a joy to make a film. Then there’s the joy of being in an audience with people. It’s always really nice.
Now, we’ve opened in L.A. and we’ll be in theaters in New York, Philadelphia, and a couple of other cities. It’s really exciting. Then it’ll be on VOD later in the month.
What are you working on next?
We have a couple of new ideas we’re working with. We like the sci-fi space and its ability to touch on societal themes. We’re fans of BLACK MIRROR and stuff like that.
To keep up with us, check out @Empathymovie on Facebook and Twitter, and feel free to contact us. We’re always responding and excited to connect to anyone who’s interested.