Susan Platt sits down with Lucia Helenka, British producer, director and filmmaker.
Lucia studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London, and went on to exhibit large-scale photography installations and films in galleries internationally. She was selected for the first Berlin Talent Campus, the Abbas Kiarostami workshop in London, and was also a member of Vauxhall’s VX Collective, celebrating young British Talent.
Set in contemporary London, her short film STEM is a biopunk drama that examines the phenomenon of biohacking and the new (r)evolutionary future it can lead to. Biohacking is happening from bedrooms, basements and home-made labs around the globe, many of these self-taught scientists being young people. Today all that’s needed to construct genes from scratch is a laptop, easily available gene sequence information and mail order synthetic DNA.
The film is scheduled to be released in 2017.
Hello and welcome, Lucia. Your short film, STEM, takes us into the world of a young biohacker and his desire to make the ordinary extraordinary. How did the idea for this unusual project come about?
I was working with my friend and artist Will Duke. We were looking to make a film together when he showed me the Glowing Plant Kickstarter project. It was a biohacking project that had captured the public’s imagination in a big way.
We researched the world of biohacking and discovered the process of re-programming life at a cellular level, just like a computer program. It’s mind blowing. Right now, bio scientists are making changes that would normally take thousands of years, if ever, to genetically evolve. We’re in the era of developmental biology, which means working with living organisms as matter. It’s without doubt going to be part of our evolution. It’s a rich subject and one that presents plenty of ethical issues. We knew we had found our subject matter for our film.
Our aim was and is to portray a sense of scale and detail to the practice of biohacking, to look at the way it reflects the current plight of society today, and the need to search for serious solutions to global problems. Our film aims to highlight both the concerns and opportunities that will become more and more relevant and available to the next generation, within a biohacking window. To look at the practice of DIY science within the near future.
Our film does not attempt to judge evolutionary intervention. The glowing plant represents a world of possibilities, both good and bad. I feel that we are often scared of change and yet we have already gone so far down the road of manipulating our environment that we need to constantly seek solutions to our man-made problems. We are caught between the fear of new technologies versus a misguided mass comfort in current practices and systems that will only lead to our demise, like fossil fuels.
The film also looks at the act of creation within science. By its very nature science is a series of repeated moments of failure, you almost need to occupy a space of obsessive single-mindedness to create something new. This resonated with me as an artist. The act of creation takes total dedication, often at a personal cost. Working with genetic code is in some ways the ultimate creation—manipulating the building blocks of life.
Science offers us a chance to look at our world afresh. We wanted to look at the space that is created, by both scientist and artist, at the intersections and edges of progress.
Images in this gallery courtesy of Minky Productions. “STEM” film set, Director Lucia Helenka DP Marcus Autelli, Actors Jim Liu & Petra Hajduk
The film relies heavily on the power of images and the impact of sound to tell the story, and there is little to no dialogue in it. Was this a deliberate decision from the get-go or did it come about during the script-writing process?
It was a deliberate decision that I felt would make this sci-fi short film more believable. The story is built of insular moments where the characters are not talking, and it feels normal and natural. The sound design sets the tone for the inner and outer world of the biohacker. The audience picks up on the wider story through audio clues that are carried into the apartment via the media, phone messages and on the airwaves, all around. Layers of spoken information, atmospherics and music builds, referring to our collective knowledge past and present—the clues my DIY scientist needs, if only he can filter through them! I was lucky to work with independent music artist Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu). His music sensibility is filmic and he got the project right away.
I would imagine that making a film about biohacking requires a great deal of preparation, diligence and patience to get the visuals right. Can you tell us a little bit about the challenges you’ve encountered while working on this project and how you tackled them?
We learned everything we could from the internet before shooting. We bought the gene sequencing software and spoke to scientists working in this field. Even though our film is set in the near future, we made sure our DIY lab and biohacking techniques were based on the reality of what’s possible today. We later met up with Antony Evans from the Glowing Plant project who was happy to help and answer my questions. He also supported us with our own Indiegogo campaign. I later attended a synbio (synthetic biology) conference to meet and speak to scientists about what they think the future holds and where the challenges lie—to hear how they speak, the language they use.
Assuming that glowing seeds and plants are not your filmmaker’s standard characters, how did you choose the specimens to tell your story? Can you tell us a bit about STEM’s organic protagonists and if you used special techniques to film them?
As my character searches for the perfect seed in my film, so my own interest and knowledge about seeds grew with this project! Seeds are amazing! Each one is perfectly designed and incredibly detailed, especially when viewed under an electromagnetic microscope. Working with artist Rob Kesseler, I was able to photograph seeds at 200,000X magnification—it’s really incredible what can be seen, —the images are totally sci-fi. Rob Kesseler has created a book called Seeds and it was after viewing this that I wanted to bring these unseen details into my film. For example, unseen with the naked eye, some seeds have an interlocking textured skin that allows them to expand as they swell, a genius design!
Obviously, the metaphor of the seed is relevant in my film. The idea of who plants a seed in our minds—the effort it takes to grow an idea into a successful product or project. And perhaps going on from that, the possibilities that arise out of being able to affect that growth process.
Apart from making a short film about biohacking, many pieces of your body of work with your company, Minky Productions, carry strong messages or focus on current social themes (e.g. the animated Know Your Rights series for the charity Just for Kids Law, the UNICEF UK ‘Beat Disease’ commercials with Richard Ayoade interviewing Andy Murray and Liam Payne. What is the impetus behind your choice to accept or decline a project?
I love filmmaking, and all aspects of it. It is important for me to be continuously engaged in that process. It is all about flexing the creative muscle. I love being able to take an idea or brief and make it resonate with the intended audience. And if the films can then become a resource to help people, even better. It’s great when they get millions of hits as did the UNICEF clips, thanks to the involvement of Liam from One Direction!
Your projects often take you to extraordinary locations: filming for Letters Live events has taken place in the Grand Temple of London’s Freemasons’ Hall, also in Brixton Prison, last year. Can you tell us how you experience the connection between those places and the stories that unfold in them?
All these locations and the insights I get into new social groups often feed back into my work. Most locations are self-contained micro worlds with their own systems and order within the communities they house. From Freemasons to ‘lifers’, it’s all fertile soil for the development of both scripts and characters.
Female directors and producers are still scarce in the film and TV industry. How do you experience this in your work-life? What would your advice be to a young female filmmaker?
I think I chose to be an independent filmmaker for that very reason. I preferred to lead my own projects and find my own way on smaller-scale productions so that I could have creative control and do things my way. It allowed me to work continuously as a producer-director. The loss for film is that loads of excellent films or story angles are not being made. Even though there are some great female screenwriters and producers, it’s still shockingly light on female directors in Hollywood. Of course, I think it is something that is at least being acknowledged and spoken about a bit more and hopefully that will influence the investors. It ultimately comes down to that: who they want to invest in.
What are you currently working on, and what are your next projects?
I am working on a number of feature-length script ideas. Even though they are all very different, I recently realised they all deal with layers of conversations, deviations and imaginations (or hallucinations) on the natural world.
One is taking the premise of STEM further, this time with dialogue and a whole tower block of characters. It is a bit like the film Delicatessen mixed with Quadrophenia set in a Ballardian near future where it’s harder to make your mark or find any space in an overly owned and patented world. It’s about youth rebellion as led by a new generation.
And finally, the Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?
My favourite work of fiction is The Lover by Marguerite Duras. Her writing is so distilled, so pure. I have always loved that book, she is my favourite writer.
One of my first short films was a short story she wrote called ‘Hanoi’. I was very lucky to get Catherine Deneuve to read the narration for me. She read it perfectly.
You can read more about the STEM project here: www.indiegogo.com/projects/stem