TYMPANUM PAYS HOMAGE TO SPEILBERGIAN SCIENCE FICTION
by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [July 3, 2013]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] Portals into other dimensions have long been a science fiction staple, the most famous version perhaps being Richard Matheson's "Little Girl Lost" for TV's Twilight Zone.
Now writer/director Jason Thomas Scott puts his own spin on this familiar concept, in his low-budget indie film, Tympanum (co-written with Shannon Corder).
In Tympanum a young couple move into a cramped home, one so small that their young daughter has to sleep in the living room. Wet poltergeist activity soon ensues. At first the couple suspect their daughter of playing pranks -- but then they discover a portal into an undersea world -- right inside their closet!
And apparently, someone -- or something -- emerges on occasion from that portal to explore their home.
Maron (the father, played by David Tenenbaum) sees a money-making opportunity and wants to keep the portal a secret -- at least until he can buy a deep sea diving suit, to enter and explore this strange realm.
Does this portal lead into some lake or ocean on Earth -- or on some distant planet?
"I love stories about normal people encountering abnormal things," said Scott to the Hollywood Investigator. "To take something as profound as extraterrestrial life but drop it somewhere mundane, like in your house, makes for great story-telling possibilities. I love The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. But features today, with all their effects and fast cuts, lack precision in their storytelling, and the layered sense of awe that can be achieved with that. Slow down. Let me enjoy the shots.
"I miss Steven Spielberg films of the 1980s, like E.T., Close Encounters, or Poltergeist, where these B-movie plots were wrapped around everyday suburbanites. The genre ideas felt more real because the people were relatable. I set out to emulate that, even in the tone and look of the picture. I out- right stole specific shots. Hopefully Steven's cool with that, since he's done it in his own films."
The title -- Tympanum -- will mean nothing to most people, impelling those who care to reach for a dictionary.
"The word has many meanings," said Scott. "It's a membrane, but also a drum-like torture device -- arguably, poor Maron is tortured [by his financial woes]. It's the word for the statuary space above formal entryways into important places -- I love how that conveys the idea of a staged world hovering over another. It's the word for eardrum in biology, and sound plays an important role as Maron encounters the painful wail of the wormhole-making machine. A tympanum can be a water wheel or sakia -- it's basically spilling and cycling water. But at its most basic definition, it can simply mean doorway.
"I've had arguments with filmmaking friends over the title. It's not marketable, they say. But I counter with Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, Ridley Scott's Prometheus. If they can get away with it, so can I. It's okay to have a weird title, if it relates to the story. People want to know what the title means, which leads to curiosity about the movie. Plus it looks cool on a poster.
Like many low-budget filmmakers, Scott shot his work in his own home. "I had moved into a new loft apartment in Studio City, and discovered a huge random closet under the stairs. It was so huge, it was like another world. Then it hit me; what if it was? So I wrote. The story grew longer. And since this was my first feature, and I had little money, I kept the story to three locations -- my own home, the beach, and a friend's house. We shot the beach scenes in Montana De Oro outside San Luis Obispo."
The beach location has some nice dunes and rocky promontories, not the sort that I've seen around southern California. Apparently, the area has not been so over-filmed, thus retaining an unfamiliar -- and hence, an "alien" -- ambiance. We could be on Earth, but maybe not. As for the creatures Maron encounters, I won't give any spoilers, but it's pretty decent effects work for a low budget film -- done by Cullen Wright.
"Cullen ended up my visual effects maestro," said Scott. "I was very specific and demanding in the look of 'September's Animals,' and Cullen worked tirelessly to build out their virtual armatures and then animate their interactions. I love hearing what people think they are. Everyone has their own interpretation."
Tympanum's dad and mom are played by Dave Tenenbaum and Nicol Zanzarella. The little girl was Bobbie Prewitt. "She came to me through a contact with a casting agency," said Scott. "She was my Drew Barrymore. She was such a trooper, [as in] the water discovery scene where she endured me pouring from a watering can over her head and getting the lighting right. Our only challenge was she was aging rapidly through the production. We had to cheat shots to make it appear she was still as short as when we started."
The film was shot on a Canon DSLR, using Zeiss lenses. "I love prime lenses, but the trick with DSLRs is not to blow the focus. We had to get the tape measure, plan all camera moves, block the actors. I'd be up early every day, or late every night, planning the shots for the next shoot, putting tape on the floor, sending reference photos to the crew.
"The other problem was I had a different camera operator nearly every week. These guys all had day jobs, and I couldn't always pay. And sometimes we only had access to a 5D, a 7D, or even a T2i. So getting all the footage to match was a challenge. Everyone wanted to light differently and had a different shooting style. I ended up shooting a lot of the film myself."
Tympanum was edited on Final Cut Pro. Scott says it cost "around $25,000. I spent my own money, so I would have final cut, final say about everything, and own the product. My day job is producing reality TV, so I was well paid enough to divert a bit toward the project over the course of two years. Not sure I want to do that again. My hope is someone sees Tympanum and decides I'm worthy of a check next time."
Scott never attended film school. "I went to a technical school and studied journalism. My film school was jumping off those tram tours at Hollywood backlots and watching productions during the 1990s, and watching movies on DVD with the audio commentaries on.
"I once jumped off at Paramount and saw JJ Abrams direct a scene for Felicity where Keri Russell just repeatedly came down some stairs and got in a cab. Then this security guard caught me and I pretended I worked there. As I walked away, he followed me all the way to this edit bay inside a random building. I pretended to cut some episode of Access Hollywood or something, and the guy thought I was legit and left me alone. You couldn't do that now after 9/11. You'd be shot.
Tympanum has no distribution so far. "It's hard to afford the festivals at $100 a shot. I held a private screening for cast, crew, and family on June 30, 2012 at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles. It's nice to know my mom likes my movie, but I'd love for it to find an audience.
Scott is currently "about halfway through" his second feature, Vista Point, about "a man who does some very bad things, but has a split personality, so he's not aware of them. When he discovers what he's done, he changes. It's really dark, which might make it hard to find an audience."