Released in cinemas and Video On Demand on 21st March and DVD and Blu-Ray on 31st March, low-budget sci-fi thriller The Machine is a shot of adrenaline that mixes elements of Blade Runner, The Terminator and Frankenstein to produce a dark, original vision of the near future. We talked killer robots, Artificial Intelligence and My Fair Lady with producer John Giwa-Amu.

Congratulations on The Machine. Would you like to tell us a little bit about it?

John Giwa-Amu: It’s been a whirlwind. Our first feature was very small, it was £90,000, a little black comedy set in Wales and this was our next one and it was a huge step up and although it was a tiny budget for what we were trying to achieve – sci-fi, VFX and the rest of it – it was still big for us.

We wanted to make a sci-fi for a number of years. We were out in the cold as filmmakers after having won a bunch of awards for our first film, we had six BAFTA Cymru nomination, we won two, we played in Moscow’s Official Selection, we had a BIFA nomination for Caradog for Best New Director and we thought: “It’s going to be smooth sailing.” And of course it took us…in the end it was six years between that and the production of The Machine. A long time in the wilderness.

And it made us certain questions of ourselves: What are we doing wrong? Why can’t we get a film made? And the truth is, it’s really tough to get a film made, it’s tough to get it financed and it’s tough to get people to believe in you. So, from my point of view as a producer, I started thinking very closely about that but the core of us is creative and we started thinking: “Well, if we’re going to starve to death doing this, let’s at least starve to death doing something we really love!” And what we really love is movies like Blade Runner and the Fly and Alien and all the kinda classics everybody loves. And big action movies. I love going to the cinema to watch well-made action thrillers…sci-fi…District 9. Something with a subtext beneath it, something interesting, some meat on the bone. And we thought well let’s just try and do that. At the same time we happened to be working alongside this little guy we met called Jon Rennie. I say little guy, we were all so young when we met, it was about ten years ago now, and we saw each other at a film festival. We were making short films and he had made this little film about a robot floating around, following this guy around in a 3D environment and I looked at that ten years ago and thought: “No one is doing this without a budget. This guy is definitely someone to watch.”

So, through the course of the years we made a couple more shorts together and I always knew that Jon was very excited to make genre films as well, so the asset was the team rather than the money we had. Caradog was getting better and better as a storyteller as well. It just all began to coalesce. We were always bouncing ideas off each other creatively and the truth is we all love sci-fi. So Caradog decided to write a couple of sci-fi ideas and nothing was gelling…the ideas of robotics and futurism and Artificial Intelligence and where it’s going have been touched on many, many times and done really well so it’s kinda finding something new and original to say which Caradog managed to do. And then, a turning point was finding Frankenstein and reading that and seeing what Mary Shelley did with creation. What will new life become? What will they think of us? That’s when the project then began to evolve from something, practically, we thought we could pull off to something that was worth pulling off because it had a heart at the core of it. From that moment it was all there creatively.

Next was the financial journey, we went round and everybody was closing doors in our face for traditional finance. They didn’t believe we could do it on the budget, we were trying to make it for under £1million, they said: “It’s impossible, you can’t get your VFX for that price,” and we said: “Yes we can, here’s how we’re going to do it,” “We still don’t believe you!” Around that point the Film Agency for Wales gave us a little bit of money to do a test, to show we could do it, a little two or three minute test. That got shown in Berlin and attracted the Los Angeles-based sales company and they went to Cannes in the following May and secured almost half a million dollars in sales on the little promo we made. Running alongside that, over the course of about 10 to 12 months, myself and Caradog were going to these Angel investment seminars with around 100 to 120 people in a room who are high net worth who we would go in front of and pitch our film to, scratching together the train fare to tour around the country collecting chunks of money as we did it. Those two things were running parallel really, we had the trailer going and that was working really well and we had these chunks of money. And then a Swansea-based investor who lives in Dubai came in for a significant chunk of money and we were greenlit.

And then Toby and Caity knew it was real and came onboard, Caity had been in The Pact, we signed her contract literally just before that did £4million at the UK box office. I remember watching that movie and saying to Caradog and saying: “I think we should look at this girl very seriously. She can act and I think her movie is going to do really well. I think we should get her now before that happens.” So we entered into negotiations with her agent and fortunately she agreed to screentest for us because she loved the script and then we made her an offer and signed her just before the film became a hit at the UK box office. In the meantime we got Toby onboard who just had so much more weight and gravity than anyone else in the room when we were doing the auditions and he agreed to do it and that was a big deal, for a little movie having someone like Toby onboard, obviously he’s been a Bond villain, now he’s in this Michael Bay TV series which he actually got the job off doing a self tape during The Machine. One of our runners taped him, and it got sent off into the ether and he got the lead role in Black Sails.

And Caity got Arrow. Her character’s a real hit. She was in Lady Gaga’s backing band and Avril Lavigne as well and she had her own band and toured Germany and the UK, she was in Europe a lot, and she’s a breakdancer and she can do headspins.

She’s certainly very athletic in The Machine.

Yeah, you forget when you’re watching her act and she’s giving an amazing performance and suddenly a button clicks in your head and you think: “She can fight! Make her fight and do dancing and stuff!” She’s there doing like a naked backflip in this aircraft hanger with water all over the floor…She’s hardcore! Caity’s awesome, she’s an amazing sport. She’s a beautiful girl but not prissy in any way, very diligent in her performance. I sound like I’m arse-kissing but she’s a pleasure to work with, she’s a good girl.

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The core of the film is the relationship between her and Toby and the chemistry between them.

We really fought for rehearsal time for them. They both came and rehearsed for 10 days beforehand, they really worked hard with Caradog and that chemistry kind of came. I found it really fascinating to watch and obviously it’s in both of their interests for that chemistry to work. We took them for a meal when Caity first came over and you could see them start playing off one another. We’ve got to believe that these two people have this magnetic pull between them and you could see that happening naturally but also coaxing it out of one another and I found that really fascinating.

You mentioned Frankenstein, The Machine feels part of a vibrant tradition of British sci-fi, things like A For Andromeda and Quatermass, there was definite echoes of those films, but I also saw My Fair Lady in a weird way.

I love that film!

My Fair Lady meets The Terminator

You’ve uncovered my dark secret! All I wanted was to remake My Fair Lady with a robot! Genuinely, My Fair Lady is one of my favourite films, it’s a beautiful amazing film. It’s a good analogy that I’d never thought of before, that’s really interesting.

The best sci-fi, it may be set in the future with robots, but the best sci-fi is about right now. The Machine asks some pretty pertinent questions about our society, our morality, how we treat our soldiers and what it means to be human.

Caradog’s always looking for those questions that we find uncomfortable as human beings, he’s always looking to ask those questions and to try and answer them and, of course, the more uncomfortable the question is, the harder it is to answer. He’s not afraid of that.

Pooneh Hajimohammedi plays Suri, one of the damaged soldiers who’s the villain’s right hand.

Pooneh’s quite a famous Iranian actress, very well known in Iran. The language the implanted soldiers speak is loosely based on Farsi. Caradog very much wanted a language where…we started basically telling the soldiers to speak a language to each other that they made up and they were speaking some weird flob-bi-di-dob language that sounded ridiculous because there was no emotional context or meaning to what they were saying so Caradog searched through a few languages and realised that the best way was to have them saying real words from a language not many people would know in the UK. So we changed that a bit and digitised it further to that, so Pooneh was talking to the soldiers, telling them what to say, telling them what they were saying and, of course, the mechanics of the language were foreign to them but the emotion behind it and the meaning wasn’t so they understood what they were saying and I think that really comes across in what they’re doing. It doesn’t sound like complete gobbledygook. There’s something beneath it and they believe what they’re saying as opposed to just reading some nonsense someone’s made up.

The film’s done well at film festivals and won several awards, it won Best UK Feature at Raindance.

We were all in as you say as a poker player. We didn’t have any chips left and if we didn’t win that hand, we were going home. If we still had a home to go to. Going from literally hanging off the edge of a cliff to being recognised and having opportunities presented to us again has been an incredible thing and I’m endlessly grateful for that. We’ve worked our asses off to get it and we’ve risked everything to get it but sometimes it pulls off and I’m just very thankful for that because otherwise I’d have been working in Sainsbury’s. I don’t know what would have happened.

What’s next for you after The Machine?

Well most of the team; myself, Caradog, the VFX team, the composer, are moving on to a horror movie together which has just come back from Berlin with Content, the company who sold The Machine for us and they’ve just sold half a million dollars of this film and we’re looking to shoot that in September. We’re making a really terrifying, creepy British horror movie. A supernatural horror. Horror movie conjures up images of Cabin Fever or that horrible one where people get tortured and that’s not what we’re interested in. It’s a supernatural, eerie, piece of horror, a ghost story.

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