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EXCLUSIVE: The Studio On Mars Debuts DisCONNECT On Cellar Door [Interview + Film]

We’re very excited to be premiering DisCONNECT, the latest short film from Cleveland production company, The Studio on Mars. The film tackles the subject of social media, and how it affects us in our daily lives. For those seeking a deeper conversation about its theme, the discussion below is a great companion to the film. We spoke with the film’s director Justin Buckner about how the film came together, his studio, and the Cleveland film scene.

Why did you want to make a film about social media? Where did the idea come from?

It’s something that has been bouncing around in my head for a while. I had been reading these great articles on the psychology of social media and thought that it was an interesting topic for a short film. I wanted to call attention to and poke fun at the often absurd relationship we have with sites like Facebook. I was looking for a way to structure my story around that theme when I read a short article published in The New Yorker last year called “What Happens When you Deactivate Facebook.” It really inspired me. I loved the idea of juxtaposing a bad break-up with deactivating a Facebook account, so I took that idea and ran with it.

What are your thoughts about social media? How often do you use it? Do you think it’s gotten out of hand?

For me, it’s definitely a love/hate relationship. I actually canceled my personal Facebook account back in January. At the time I was calling it “research” for the film. But I haven’t gone back to it since. I still have The Studio on Mars page, though. If you’re any sort of struggling artist, you almost need to have Facebook as a networking and promotional tool. It’s hard to reach people as an independent artist, so it’s a necessary evil in that regard. Which makes it really tough to walk away completely. I think that’s the main theme in DisCONNECT. Sites like Facebook can be seductive and people can become obsessed. It’s important to remember there’s a great big world out there beyond the computer screen.

Things like Facebook were created to keep people more connected and make new friends. But when you have 500 friends and really only know a small fraction of them in real life, do you think it just creates a false reality?

It’s hard to say categorically if it’s a false reality. Some people are very careful about who they “friend” on Facebook. But to other people, Facebook has kind of become their soapbox. It’s an opportunity to post and share things with as many people as possible. It can be an avenue for dissent, humor, pity, empathy, self-promotion, etc. I guess it just depends what you want to get out of the technology. I am more curious about how many of those 500 friends are actually reading my posts and acknowledging the content. It’s pretty hard to cut through the noise on the typical Facebook feed. It’s like you’re hanging out at a party and everyone is screaming so loud you can’t really make sense of any of the conversations.

Some psychologists say social media causes more depression and anxiety because people constantly see what is going on in the lives of their “friends” through pictures and status updates, and then feel that they aren’t as cool or successful as them. Of course, on the flip side, people can also be creating a false image of themselves. What are your thoughts on all that? Is social media healthy?

I think people are starting to become more aware of this issue. It really creates this need to post constant awesomeness to your status or risk getting lost in the noise. It’s positive reinforcement when you get a “like” or a “share.” That feeling of peer approval becomes addictive. And then you start to chase that feeling over and over again. So, of course, you will need to up the ante with each new post. It’s gotta be something good in order to capture attention. Or, it’s gotta be something real bad, that gets plenty of attention too. Sometimes I see these insane Facebook rants, or people have Twitter fights, or trolls destroy people in the comments section of a blog, all to elicit a reaction. It can get pretty crazy. So in that aspect it isn’t healthy. But, comparatively, there are plenty of even-keeled people out there who don’t get bogged down in all that madness.

What are some positive things that social media can do? What are it’s biggest strengths? What good has it done for you?

As an artist, it’s one of the best ways to reach an audience. It’s a direct link to fans, artists, and industry professionals. It’s truly made the audience accessible to the artist and vice versa. When you do have friends/fans that engage you and your work meaningfully on social media it is very rewarding. For film specifically, I think direct-to-online releasing is the next big thing. VOD [Video On Demand] is already a huge platform for feature films, but short films and small-time filmmakers are getting more and more attention, thanks to blogs and social media sites. People are getting turned on to all kinds of no-name filmmakers because a friend shared a link on Facebook, or a trailer popped up on a Reddit thread. It has eliminated so many of the barriers that independents used to.

How long did it take to shoot the film, and where was it filmed?

I spent February in pre-production working with the actors on the script and their roles. Then I spent some time doing test shoots, playing around with the lighting to get it just right. We shot it in two weekends in March. I had to shoot the footage that played on the computer first so I could play it back in real-time when we were shooting all the other scenes. All of the stuff with Agata (she played “The Facebook Siren”) was shot in an office where I built a small black-box sound stage. Then the rest was actually shot at my house. I loved the way the light came through that window in my dining room and thought it would be a perfect opportunity to utilize the space.

Who are the actors in the film? Where did they come from? What made you cast them for the roles?

Agata Stasiak played the role of “Facebook Siren” and Chris Ross played the role of “Facebook User” – both are from Cleveland. Agata is a model and actress who has worked with me on several projects. When I started writing the script, I knew I wanted her for the role. She could pull off the right attitude to make that character something special. I saw Chris Ross act in a few other local films and I really wanted to work with him. He has a great presence on screen and is a consummate professional. It’s a tricky role because his character has no dialogue. He had to convey everything through facial expressions and actions. But, Chris has a lot of improv training along with his acting chops so he was right at home with the part. To both their credit, when we discussed adding the dance scene they took it upon themselves to take a waltz class to prepare for the scene. Both actors really dedicated themselves and I am grateful to have had them involved. Also, [I] gottarecognize my crew, Rob Motoc and Gina Nemecek. From rigging lights and cameras, to holding booms and picking up food for the cast, they were essential to getting this film made.

Tell us about The Studio on Mars. What prompted you to start the company?

I have been a lifelong fan of movies, but before I started making movies, I was a musician. That lead to me making several music videos for various bands I was in. I enjoyed that, and from there I started to really get into filmmaking. I made my first short film about two years ago and I just kind of kept going. I have made several more short films since then. Pretty soon opportunities came along to do event videography and shoot commercials and promo videos for companies. That kind of lead to me working freelance and doing more professional video work on top of my personal projects. Studio on Mars was born out of all that. I don’t really have any formal training (I went to business school), but I have just taught myself and worked hard to get better with each project.

What are your thoughts on the film scene in Cleveland? Do you think there’s a lot of talent here? What makes Cleveland a good city to make movies in?

I absolutely love Cleveland, both as a resident and filmmaker. This city has got a ton of creative-types and it’s wholly inclusive and supportive. When I started out I was (and still am) learning. I have met and worked with many talented people in CLE who have taught me a lot about filmmaking, and I am a better filmmaker and artist because of it. People are hungry to make movies here. You don’t have to go far to find people eager to lend a hand to a project in front or behind the camera.

What’s your next film going to be about? When can we expect it?

I just finished a video art installation for Ingenuity Fest. It premiered at Bal Ingenieux and I think they plan to release it in a few other venues too. I am also working with Ingenuity on a series of short-form documentaries that will focus on some of the best Cleveland-based performance artists. I think Ingenuity plans to start releasing some of that footage towards the end of the summer and then do a big premiere screening of the final product at this year’s Ingenuity Fest.

You can find out more about Justin and The Studio on Mars at www.thestudioonmars.com.

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Eddie Fleisher

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