Other Worlds Austin Interview: 'Apt 3D' Filmmakers/Stars

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Zack Imbrogno and Maxxe Sternbaum

The Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival closed out its inaugural event with the world premiere of Apt 3D, a psychological thriller set in New York in the dead of winter. Newly transplanted couple Erin (Maxxe Sternbaum) and Ben (Zack Imbrogno) struggle with new confining environs, unsure of what is imaginary and what may be real -- and whether their neighbors are the source of the enigma.

Battling fears and their own concerns they might be imagining things, the couple's relationship starts to fracture. However, as they look further into what happened to Ben's sister, the apartment's previous resident, they begin to wonder if the other residents of this complex might have it out for them.

I met with the lead actors the day after the screening to talk about Apt 3D -- in addition to starring in this film, Imbrogno wrote and co-directed and Sternbaum edited. They spoke about the writing process as well as the challenges of making their first feature film, as well as how the film reflected their own time in New York City.

Slackerwood: Can you talk about the writing process for Apt 3D?

Zack Imbrogno: This film came about as another film was falling out of development that we had. Jordan [co-writer Jordan Lewis] -- who plays Chris in the film -- and I had sort of been developing bigger high-profile scripts that we thought "Hey! We'll just go out there and find money for." As that came to pass, we shifted money into a larger project that was helmed by someone else -- Zach Wigon's The Heart Machine, which went to SXSW this year.

We still wanted to do something of our own, so we looked around at some of the resources that we had. We were kind of the nerds in a small Southern town in Georgia, and sort of grew up on The X-Files. We made Godzilla movies at age 6, so we knew something was there. Actually living down at the seaport at the time which was already a very quiet and shadowy part of Manhattan.

After Hurricane Sandy came and wiped out the area while we were in pre-production, it became even more so the case. Definitely living in an apartment building where you are hearing all sorts of mysterious sounds all the time if you are someone who already has a bit of imagination, that's another thing that you can take. So a lot of the different elements which intersect in the film came out very organically.

Our challenge was finding a way to meld these different kinds of tensions into a throughline. Different kinds of ideas and experiences that you could fit into one little apartment -- it was sort of a claustrophobic process of writing the script because you want it to be creative as you can but you have these limitations, yet that pushes your creativity even further.

Still Photo from Apt 3D

For a city that’s so large, New York City is a bit insular, which you demonstrated in Apt 3D.

Sternbaum: Especially in the winter. Even if you do have somebody you know, or friends -- if they live more than a block or two away from you, it’s a journey in the middle of winter, especially if you don’t want to pay for a cab. In our neighborhood it was kind of hard to find cabs. We had to walk a couple blocks -- I mean like, ten.

Imbrogno: It can feel like a very lonely city. Even though you know there are people around you at all given times, they’re not necessarily your friends. You don’t necessarily even want to run into them -- even in your own apartment building.

In fact it’s the people you live next door who you pass by and don’t know what to say. There’s a strange tension. Especially when you go from hearing the sounds that you hear in a building and wondering, "Who are these people?"

There is something very isolating about New York, which is ironic because there are so many people.

Sternbaum: It’s a walking city, nobody has cars. You would think that you might just run into someone, and say, "Hey, how are you doing?" No -- people are just heads down and getting to where they ar going.

Can you talk about how Hurricane Sandy impacted your film production?

Imbrogno: There’s a good and a bad to everything, I guess. In this case it was much more bad than good.

We were living down there at the seaport when we got the warning to evacuate. We left for about ten days, which is what everyone was doing – evacuating to friends places or into a hotel.

We saw our block under six feet of water the night of the storm, so it was very surreal. Who would ever imagine that a hurricane would hit New York. We came back and found our neighborhood devastated and in ruins. At that point, we’re not even thinking about the film. I was in the middle of writing the script, but one of the changes that actually happened in the script is that we had written scenes going up and down the elevator. Well no more elevator. It actually pushed us more into to the stairs which I think for the story was a good thing.

In terms of other ways that it created a sort of aesthetic for the film, you actually walk past all the buidlings on the street when they’re all shut down and boarded off. It became a part of the film, and giving the film an extra level of extra darkness.

And isolation -- there weren't a lot of people walking around down there. We shot this three months after Sandy, and it was dead.

Tell me a little about how you developed the visual and auditory effects.

Imbrogno: The sound is something that we knew would be a big part of it from the beginning. It's something that on a low budget, was one of the biggest parts of effects that we knew that we could do. I remember when I first really came into doing something with sound was when I saw The Hurt Locker. I heard an interview with the director about how they used sound. They used these helicopter noises in almost a rhythmic way. It was almost like the soundtrack was the effects. I thought that was an interesting way to look at sound.

We tried to do something similar here, where the soundtrack is almost its own soundscape of these sort of noises and create different characters out of the noises. Like the sound the air conditioner vent makes is almost its own little demon, the sounds that you hear in the hall. I try to give them places to recur, and kind of pace them out rhythmically to help transfer us. It's an apartment but we wanted it to feel at times like they were in a spaceship. The sound became a huge part of the aesthetic of transforming their environment into this really terrifying place.

The visuals -- we tried to keep them to a minimum, they're there but obviously on a low budget there's only so much that you can do. We tried to execute them fairly simply. In terms of the co-director Horst Dieter Baum, he was great about making sure that everything was set up on set so that it would translate into whatever visual we wanted to do in post. I think that helped it seem more grounded and real as well.

What I found interesting about the visual effects was determining whether it was hallucinatatory or real. Was that intentional?

Imbrogno: It definitely was. We wanted to have a lot of different layers in terms of our story, so that the viewer has to figure that out for themself and piece out the mystery. Even myself, I get to the end and think, "It could've been this, it could've been that." Of course I have my own conspiracy theory about how the movie ends, but the effects were something that you actually could interpret several different ways.

In the beginning, I think it is more psychological. By the time that both characters start to experience them, they start to feel a bit more real. By the end, you still have to wonder what it is that they were seeing.

Can you share some lessons learned?

Sternbaum: Way more time spent in pre-production, especially because we had so much to think about in our day-to-day life that we sort of had to put on pause. I wish that we had thought ahead about how we would feed everybody, and maybe putting in orders the week before. Just having everything done, because that was the thing on a day-to-day business.

Imbrogno: Planning and figuring out ways up front to save yourself both time and money. Having an extra hand on deck really made a difference. The first week we were minus one of our eventual crew. When we hired them, things went a lot faster and saved us more time -- and probably more money in the end. Don't try and go so conservative on your spending upfront that you end up costing yourself more.

What would you like the audience to come away with from Apt 3D?

I think the film definitely in terms of the general viewer gives them some thrills and chills. For people that are watching the film as far as potential filmmakers, I hope that it inspires them to go out and make their first film. This is very much the story, this film is also our first film. I can tell you that every challenge you imagine can be there, but you can do it -- you can make it happen.

We were very thrilled and fortunate to premiere at Other Worlds Austin, they were so great to us.

Your film can find its home, if you want to put in the time and work for it. It was hard, very difficult but worth it.

Watch a scene from Apt 3D below:

Apt 3D is crowdfunding through Friday, December 19, to raise funds for distribution and final color correction. Visit their Indiegogo campaign here.

[Photo credit: "Zack Imbrogno and Maxxe Sternbaum" by Debbie Cerda, for use with attribution]

Saw the film at Other Worlds

Saw the film at Other Worlds Austin. Really enjoyed the development of the story and characters. Chills in the end when they find out, or think they find out what's going on. Purely vulnerable as they are driven away, believing that their enigmatic neighbor is helping them escape. Awesome, first film or tenth!! Can't wait to see what's next from these two.