Sci-fi short film director talks cloning, neural imprints and full circle technology

Restitution, an award-winning short sci-fi film, has impressed audiences and judges alike with its oddly normal yet chilling portrayal of the future. It paints a reality where utterly futuristic technologies are just another part of the everyday, and looks at the potential for cloning with very human eyes.

We caught up with writer and director Justin O’Neal Miller to find out more about his motives for making the film.

What made you decide to make a film with these themes?

Around the time my second son was born, I had a dream that my wife had cloned our oldest son. It happened in this really nonchalant way: there he was, no explanation.At first, I only wanted to recreate that feeling of confusion and betrayal, it was the most disorienting dream I can vividly remember.

I woke up with all these questions, but later realized that they were all rooted in human rights and personal identity. I was probably dealing with the creation of a second son, asking rhetorical questions like “where DO they come from?”, wondering what makes them “them”, and being scared about dividing the love you have. Of course, having four children now, I know it doesn’t work that way.There’s not a capacity on love. There’s no overflow valve. There’s always room for more.

Do you anticipate the future you’ve presented becoming reality?

There are at least two cinematic conceits in the cloning technology depicted. The first is an aged clone technology, where a clone is created of the same age as the cloned, which would have to be explained with accelerated aging.

The other conceit is a neural imprint, where the clone seems to have the same personality as the cloned. I wanted to depict tiny differences in the personalities of the boys (both performed by The Walking Dead’s Luke Donaldson), and I imagine that their personalities would continue to diverge, but jt was important that the boys be largely indistinguishable at this early stage of cloning.Of these two conceits, accelerated (and then decelerated) aging seems the most achievable, at the moment, but I don’t think that either is scientifically impossible.

Those two issues aside, I do think that human cloning is on the horizon. In the film, it needed to be absorbed into the medical-industrial complex; something readily available, especially for the affluent.

The film takes place relatively early in the full implementation of human cloning, particularly before the rights of the cloned have been defined. In the extreme long-run, whether it be absorbed into legitimate medical practice, or manifesting exclusively in the black market, full human cloning will exist.

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Your film touches upon the moral questions of life-extension and genetic engineering – how much of an impact can you see these technologies having on humanity?

It’s hard not to reference Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca when thinking about genetic engineering and eugenics in storytelling. I think there will always be political and idealogical advocates of eugenics, even if it is unconscious. We really do live in a society where the educated can (and often do) choose not to procreate.

Add that to our increased life expectancy, high unemployment and automated job replacement, and I think that we will begin to see very real, and very scary, arguments in favor of genetic social engineering, even in places like the US and UK. Equality is such an important tenet of democracy, but so often that good moral intention has unintended consequences.

The Kurt Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron” is a beautiful and terrifying analogy of legalized equality. Personal identity is one of the defining characteristics of our humanity, and creating a culture of equal opportunity is extremely difficult in a world where everyone is born under different circumstances and with different biological constitution.

Restitution also features some very cool representations of future computing technology – why did you decide to take this hidden-in-plain-sight approach?

I am very interested in familiar representations of the future. Our thoughts about the future are inevitably painted with our deepest hopes and fears, while our memories of the past with nostalgia and regret.

When telling stories it is very easy to caricature those ideas, especially for cinematic effect, but as I turned 30 years old, I remember thinking: nothing’s really changed all that much, has it? So much recent investment has been in the digital sphere, that we don’t really have some of groundbreaking physical progress other generations might have seen.

That resulted in this realization I had the other day that nothing in my home couldn’t have been there five years ago. The only exceptions were gadgets, computers and screens. I began to thinking about something I started calling “full circle” technology, where technology gets pushed so far in one application that it comes back around to resemble the process it originally replaced.

This is particularly true in the arts and word processing. Everything right now is about touch technology, but losing that tactile, haptic feedback can be detrimental to the creative process. My background in architecture made me think about the way simple things like the depth of a pencil line and working in scale (as opposed to the scale-less design space in Computer Aided Drafting) can fundamentally alter the nature of design.

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How did you go about creating the effect of digital paper?

I was also the visual effects supervisor on the short and the digital paper VFX are much more straightforward than you might think. I designed the 3D shapes and animations in an application called Rhinoceros before we shot, then had small, numbered reference points drawn on the physical for the actor to hit. Those marks were painted out and the 3D animations were composited in Nuke onto the paper within the frame.

The timing was the hardest part. I spent a lot of sleepless nights on that scene, usually after working a 14 hour day on “42 – The Jackie Robinson Story”, but it was important to me that the viewer be able to move forward comfortable in the fact that this story was set in the future.

You’ve taken Restitution to many film festivals – how have people reacted to it?

We’ve had a very positive reaction to the film at festivals. It really is designed for a social viewing and for multiple viewings, which was a big lesson to learn, because that isn’t something you can really bank on anymore, let alone in a short film.

I think that great short films ask questions and promote dialogue, but the “big” reveal at the end can slip right by if you aren’t looking for it. It is embedded in an already emotional scene and we’ve had the most success in audiences when people start whispering and gasping, and this ripple effect happens across the theater. It’s really kind of amazing to see.

I’ve always felt that an audience will respect a film that respects their intelligence and that has been very true in this instance.

Has making the film changed your view of the future?

I am a huge fan of sci-fi and try to keep up with future trends, but creating a story set in the future is definitely a thought experiment all its own. This may have been the first time that I was really able to sink into my own version of the future and create a mythology around a specific set of parameters.

I am also a student of history, and reaching into the past, as well as the future, one thing that struck me while making this film is the consistency of the human condition. Despite a definitive increase in the standard of living, we are essentially the same creatures, doing the same things to each other; finding and losing love, hating and forgiving, procrastinating and struggling in the pursuit of happiness.

Those experiences and feelings help define us as human beings and as individuals, but it is more and more apparent that every technological and societal progress is not an end in itself, but a repetitive process and a tool that can enable or oppress.

Do you plan to make more films about the future? Are you planning to make a feature-length film?

Absolutely. I have two short films in active pre-production and one of them is set in the future. I have one feature film in development that is set in the distant future and at least three features and two series set in the near and not-so-distant futures.

Restitution in itself is something of a prologue for a larger story. I want to tell all kinds of stories, but I think that looking into the future gives the storyteller a unique distance from which to observe the present. That feels like an indispensable tool to me.


To see our review of Restitution, check out the new issue of Factor magazine. Images courtesy of Restitution