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We are very pleased to announce the addition of a new member to The Fifth Sacred Thing production team, Eric Watson. Eric is a producer, writer, director, and committed environmental activist. His filmography includes several groundbreaking and critically acclaimed cinema classics including Pi, Requiem For A Dream, and The Fountain. After acting as a friend of the project for several years – advising, consulting, or just lending an experienced ear to help guide our process – it was an easy decision to integrate Eric more deeply into our production team. While we were in the process of re-imagining The Fifth Sacred Thing from a theatrical film to an episodic television series, Eric provided a much needed and fresh perspective that was just what we needed, even collaborating as co-writer with Starhawk on the screenplay for the series’ pilot episode, One Act of Courage. Our producer Paradox Pollack conducted the following interview with Eric to provide you a glimpse into his history and creative process as we welcome him into our family.
PP: I wanted to begin by asking you some questions about how you began your career as a writer/producer. So how did you get on that track in your life?
EW: I was a Pre-law student at San Francisco State and I wanted to be in one of the better departments in the school, and they had a Broadcast Department there — it was the second best in the country, but in order to get into the department, you had to take a set of courses and get a certain GPA, and one of the courses was a Production class. I took this Production class and I began to create things with other people. I was bitten by the bug of collaboration and never looked back.
PP: When you were moving into production what were some of your influences? What drew you into your initial work?
EW: In hindsight I was very lucky to have grown up in San Francisco where there were a lot of independent and foreign films playing all the time, in many theaters. It was a different world back then, and my mother’s partner took me to movies all the time. Like 2 times a week. I would see Kurosawa movies. I saw Repo man in the theater, I saw independent movies as they were back then. So I was constantly seeing and being exposed to mainstream movies, but then also all sorts of films, and I can see how much that influenced me and helped me out during that time and lay the bedrock of understanding the visual media. As I moved into my teen years, I began to get really curious about the concept of how to communicate one’s dreams beyond words. Since dreams are very visual, they are many things, but they are very visual and so I had the real desire to make images, so that other people can see them. So those are some of my influences.
PP: Thank you for that. So onward from when you first found production, what was the journey between these first moments to when you began working with Darren Aronofsky? How did that occur?
EW: I finished that degree and I moved to Los Angeles and got a job in television. I got a runner job and spent a year working and learning my way around here (L.A.), and then I applied to the American Film Institute — I got in and I went there. At the film institute Darren, Matthew Libatique, the DP we worked with a lot, and I were the youngest students there. We all grew up in urban environments. (We) really wanted to push the visual language in a way that we all agreed upon in this adventurous way. I think they were all there because Spike Lee was teaching there and DO THE RIGHT THING had come out the year before, and that was the first film that I had seen in a long time where I saw the visual language being pushed beyond the standard movies. With mainstream movies, there were some great films in the genre, but visually they weren’t doing much. They hadn’t been doing much since the 70s, and then you see this film come down, particularly DO THE RIGHT THING. Here is someone trying to play with this medium and do something new with it, and so we had a desire to build upon that language, to go further. We had cultural influences that were similar and we had mutual desires that were similar, so we start working together and collaborating. And (we) just got along on that level. That’s the shorthand.
PP: So, when you started working together with him what was your initial role?
EW: I was a Producer. At AFI you had to declare what you were before you got there. I read the brochure and the brochure said “Producer – takes an idea and brings them to completion” and I said I want to do that, I want to be involved in every aspect of creation. It was a little misleading, because when I got there I found myself, you know, making lasagnas for crews of 30 people and paying a lot of money to do it.
PP: Wait, doing what for 30 people?
EW: Making lasagna or something like that (laughs). So I was like, “Wait a minute, I’m paying a lot of money to be here.“
Despite that reality, I have always been a creative producer, that’s the best term for it, and Darren really saw that in me. So we collaborated on the creative level a lot in our working time together. The other aspects of the job I tolerated but the creative aspects are why I was really there. We made a short film together called Protozoa, which was also the name of the company that we founded. And then we got out of film school and we were both working making music videos and commercials and just trying to find our way, when Darren called me and said, “Let’s go. Let’s move to New York and make a movie.“
I said “No.”
He said “Why not?”
And I said, “Because you’re my friend. If I make a movie with you, I don’t know that we will be friends anymore.” We agreed that if the friendship was ever in danger that we would stop the collaboration. That was the first agreement we made. He talked me into it. So I moved to New York City and we made a movie. We packed all of our stuff in the car and we drove to New York to move there, and on the way there, we started discussing the concepts that would become Pi.
PP: Nice. Pi had a lot of strong spiritual themes as well as The Fountain. What was the way you found those themes, and how would you speak about the themes of those films?
EW: One of the things we really connected upon was that we were both seekers — both trying to understand the world around us, whether it was through a political lens, a scientific lens or a spiritual lens. And Pi — one of the main themes of Pi for us was that these are all just human constructs. Religion… science… the financial markets. These are all just human constructs. Different ways of belief, but they’re all constructed by human beings and they are limited by that.
So essentially as a thing, in their essence they’re not very different from each other, and that was one of the themes for us… was that human beings, in their myopia, limit their understanding. Spiritually, it was about that as much as anything else. It was about one person’s struggle to break through that veil of our own ignorance, which was something that we were trying to do in our lives at that time, constantly, personally. So we decided to make a movie about it.
PP: When that had it’s success and you moved onto the next, do you feel like there was an evolution of that exploration between Pi and The Fountain?
EW: Yes there is definitely an evolution of that dialogue. If anything, a deeper understanding of the feminine began to creep into our male brains over the course of that time (laughs). Pi doesn’t have a lot of femininity within it, and The Fountain has a lot more. I would say that that would be the deepest evolution that happened. The themes are pretty similar. The struggle of the main characters are pretty similar, but the dimension added to this is that there is an essential female character, and not just that, but an essential female presence in the spiritual concept of it.
PP: Taking a leap from then until now, how do you feel like those themes and your way of working has evolved and carried over to your current work?
EW: Learning how to move as a progression into a deeper understanding of the feminine and a deeper understanding of the dynamic between the masculine and the feminine. What that means in my daily life. What that means in my writing. What that means in my characters. And that’s beyond just the male and female dynamics for the characters, but the deeper spiritual meaning and the power of the unity of those two concepts.
PP: Right now there seems to be the desire to get ideas into the world through the stream of different media. I’m curious about your feelings about the difference between documentaries and fictional films as idea carriers. There is statement-based fiction, and then documentaries. What is the your reflection on the strength of both and the difference between them?
EW: One of my primary mentors who is an acting teacher named Judith Weston, she always says that with fiction you can be more truthful.
PP: Please explain.
EW: Because you don’t have to lie — with fiction you don’t have to lie, and when you’re walking through the world you are constantly putting up an image of yourself to others.
But with acting, for instance, you can be truthful with your emotions because it’s not you — and because it’s not you, your ego is not in the way. You are allowed to just express that emotion toward a deeper sense of truth. I think fiction allows more provocative concepts to be pushed into the consciousness than non-fiction does. I think non-fiction forces us to look at the truth of what’s around us.
PP: In terms of bringing ethics into popular media, what’s your basic feeling about the difference between preaching to people and being able to get them to find the answers themselves?
EW: My essential philosophy in my life up to this point has been to gently provide them with the vehicles with which they can figure them out for themselves. My own learning has always been deeper if I learn the lesson by myself. You can tell me all day long what something is, but until I actually understand it through my own experience it doesn’t register the same way.
PP: Why did you choose to get involved in The Fifth Sacred Thing project?
EW: Science fiction has been a genre that I have been reading and watching since I was a child, and most of the science fiction media that we see that gets made into television or film is fairly… is essentially militaristic. I’m really happy with the genre that I see with Gravity and Interstellar — this type of metaphysical realism for lack of a better term. I’m happy with 2001, not just spaceships just blowing each other up.
But even with movies like Interstellar, they are cautionary tales, but they don’t provide a lot of solution. They are just warnings, like “look what’s going on in the world — we can’t rely on technology”. It’s good that they’re being put into the mainstream and people are digesting it, but The Fifth Sacred Thing, the bulk of it at its heart and soul is in a potential solution, not necessarily an ideal solution, but “Here’s another way of being.” What would it look like? How would it actually work? Whether that world is going to be reality or not the fact that it’s being explored is a healthy inspiration.
PP: When we first spoke about your involvement, we were working on TFST as a film and you said, “I’m not interested. When you are willing to consider it as television I would love to be involved“, and I’m just really interested in your reflection on the relationship currently between film and television and why it is more appealing to be involved if it is a television show?
EW: Initially it was just the realities of the marketplace. I know the film business well enough to know what struggle it would take to make a film like that. The reality of financing it and what would have happened in the process. It was my belief that what it would have taken to get The Fifth Sacred Thing made into a film would have compromised it too much.
And I thought saw that this was a head-on collision between the ethics of the project and the people who make decisions in Hollywood. The chance of that protracted battle, there was a chance for it to result in it being what everybody wanted to be, but I had spent quite a bit of time working in that way and I recognize it was not going to be worth my time. In regards to the film industry, 21 out of 22 films made by one studio last year were all sequel tent-pole films. The percentage of sequel tent-pole sequels is so high that even taking a chance on a new tent pole is very, very, very, very low. And that’s just the reality of the film market. I’m aware of what’s going on in the film market, and I just didn’t see that this would be an easy one to get done. It’s what I do. Television on the other hand is entering its true Golden Age, it’s second golden age. Right now there are more and more and more outlets and more and more vehicles for people to arrive at their audience. When I was growing up television was seen artistically as a secondary medium to film. But I would say that it is no longer the case. I would say that it’s actually the other way around. The writing, directing, and acting currently is far superior. So it allows for a lot more. One of the things that Starhawk and I discovered in making the adaptation is that she had spent so much energy restricting her very large novel into a hundred some pages and she really felt like something was lost in the process. And in the palate of television where you can do 10-12 hours, and you can do multiple seasons — it opens up a whole world of actually diving in to The Fifth Sacred Thing’s world much more deeply. We could be more honest and true to the book. That was a kind of an obvious but pleasant surprise for us. We realized quite quickly this project is really ready for this — ripe for this medium. That was the bonus. What we realized in turning the film script back into television was that it had been put into too small of a box.
PP: Movies and all visual media have always had a strong influence on the people. What are the opportunities that are opening for the relationship between the people and the media in this coming age?
EW: Well, one thing is that the means of production have ended up in the hands of everybody. And also the distribution has ended up in the hands of everybody. That’s all due to evolution of technology. The cameras being cheaper, the editing software being cheaper, the internet allowing you to broadcast to the whole world from your home. That alone has shifted everything, and is going to continue to shift everything into what is essentially a dialogue between individuals. Maybe not a dialogue, maybe it’s just a bunch of monologues — I don’t know, but there is a major shift. What has happened is that there is a realization that if it is good media the people are going to watch it. There is such a massive amount of stuff out there that you can watch anything at any time, you can watch what you want to watch, what’s good for you. So the real positive is that there are all sorts of alternative content is getting out there. The negative is that nobody has any time to watch it anymore. So where’s it going? I’m not sure.
PP: What would you see as the way that you would like that concept to move forward?
EW: Ideally? By moving into fully interactive storytelling, where you can completely immerse yourself in another world and move through it and navigate it from a first person perspective.
PP: How do you see that in relation to The Fifth Sacred Thing?
EW: The Fifth Sacred Thing is a world. One of the wonderful things about science fiction is that it is a world’s creation, and one of things about television — if it’s done well, its good world creation. You are brought into another world — you are brought into another place. The Fifth Sacred Thing has a lot of possibilities, as it is first and foremost a world. To allow people to build their own characters in that world or their own modifications to the world — it’s a very open source world that I think provides a lot possibility for a character’s participation with the audience.
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