Going Out of Body with “haunt” and Director Lilian Mehrel

You know how sometimes you meet people and wonder where they have the time to make it all happen? In writer & director Lilian Mehrel’s case, she makes time. Ahead of the release of her second immersive film, haunt, we asked her how she made her latest project on a tight budget over a weekend while working on her MFA, what is next, and how to find the perfect shot in a gazebo.

Where did you find the time to make this film while still in school and where did the inspiration come from?

“haunt” director Lilian Mehrel.

It all began when I was still a thesis student at NYU Tisch Grad Film, and working as the Storyteller for the Portals Project. We collaborated with Within and connected the United Nations to a Syrian refugee camp through a live Portal, paired with a VR documentary set there. That was my first experience with VR, and the immersive storytelling potential struck me. I wanted to learn all about this new medium and tell a story that embraces everything VR has to offer.

So I reached out to the grad students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program — with their tech and my story powers combined, we brainstormed VR film ideas and created Invisible, which premiered in Toronto. To learn more about the medium, I asked to sit in on an ITP course that explored whether virtual reality could be directed (in exchange for writing the course blog). The more I learned, the more the question of presence in VR came up. So I created a story about presence: haunt. It premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival — as one of the first (if not the very first) live-action narrative virtual reality films.

Getting to share it with thousands of people at Tribeca was a rush of celebration. And it was a one-of-a-kind feedback experience for me as a director, as I watched person after person take off their VR headsets — some moved to tears — filled with questions about both the story and VR itself.

You said this was made on a shoestring budget and was that you we saw as the star of the film?

Lilian and cinematographer Jomo Fray rigging cameras while filming “haunt.”

We pulled haunt into existence out of sheer excitement. I shot it in one weekend, and stitched and edited the film the following week with the help of friends, with zero budget (I paid them in pizza.) Filmmakers are used to spending dawn till dusk on shoots.

My friend, Jomo Fray, is an ultra-talented cinematographer who borrowed a Freedom360 GoPro rig from school and ran around NYC and Brooklyn with me as we grabbed shots from Grand Central Station to a Greenpoint children’s library to a playground in Brighton Beach. We also tied cameras to a branch high up in a cherry tree, to get a shot exploding with blossoms.

And yes… that was me in the film. I acted in it with my partner Eric Beam, a lighting designer who built a star projector for the shoot and happens to be a natural star. He also composed and recorded all the music for the film in a day. My friends from ITP, Serena Parr and Jonathan Gallagher, sat with me in a tiny room at school for three days as we stitched footage together into 360 shots, composed of the angles from the 6 cameras. Matt Kulewicz sweetened the sound design, evoking subconscious feeling. And I cut the film overnight to make it to the Tribeca deadline.

Tell us about your most exciting story that came from making this film?

So much magic came from accidents and spontaneous saves. For a major shot of the film, we went to the beach looking for a sunset, but the sky was overcast and blue. In the distance, Jomo spotted a dark gazebo, which created visual ‘frames’ for the frameless 360 shot. In a panorama, it looks like strips of film floating in dark space. I layered falling stars over the shot, and it ended up looking like the stars were pouring out naturally from a galactic gazebo onto the beach. We wanted golden-hour, but we got starry-silvery cinematic gold instead.

What do you plan to do with your next project?

I won the Tribeca Film Institute All Access Interactive Prototype award and a Google JumpStart award to shoot a new VR project, and I have two in the works. One is Bright & Gifted, a dark comedy VR series about smart kids stuck in the worst high school in Miami (loosely inspired by own Miami public school education). The other is a multi-media interactive story experience inspired by my own hybrid Kurdish-Persian/German-Jewish family (a sequel of sorts to my book.)

Why do you think virtual reality is such a unique medium and why do you keep coming back to it as a storyteller?

I am a writer, director and artist drawn to multiple ways of creating: multi-media illustrated stories, fictional films inspired by real life, artful comedies, and now virtual reality. So often in my work, I’m trying to capture an indescribable feeling from life. I’m drawn to storytelling with VR because it feels surreal, like a dream or a memory. I loved how subtle a scene in VR can be — like a poetic wide shot, but in all directions. I was struck by how piercing eye contact felt in VR, how resonant place becomes — like in life, where place is so tied to memory and emotion. I love the freedom for the viewer to look wherever they want, and get a different experience depending on millions of factors. Even the limitations of cinematic VR were inspiring — like how looking down and not having a body could take on meaning when woven into a story.

Working with a new medium, I felt free and playful — and it led to completely fresh creations, like the fragmented memory scene. My approach to VR is to embrace the infinite possibilities: I try to create an overall feeling that connects varying individual experiences to the story, suspended in emotional air like music.

Check out more immersive content and news on the Jaunt Blog.