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Interview with ABI director Timothy Troy & screenwriter Dan McGuire

September 8, 2019

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director Timothy Troy (left) and screenwriter Dan McGuire (right) with their awards for “Abi”

 

Technology overtaking life as we know it has been a fear that writers have incorporated into their stories for some time now. The idea that something we rely on or use everyday for work or leisure to make life easier, working against us or replacing us has always been a plausibility. From traffic lights going haywire or elevators malfunctioning to Siri or Alexa backfiring on us, this idea of something man has created taking over has been an exhilarating, often horrifying, element in books, television and movies. It’s an element that’s front-and-center in the horror short film “Abi”, which finds director Timothy Troy and screenwriter Dan McGuire wasting no time getting to the threat of the story.

I first heard about “Abi” while interviewing actor Clare Cooney last year as she took a break on the set of the film. At the time, all I knew was that Cooney played the titular character and it was a sci-fi horror film being shot here in Chicago. I was immediately intrigued. Eventually, Cooney connected me with Troy and once his short was finished and ready for viewing, I was able to check it out and found myself quite impressed with all it accomplished during its almost ten minutes runtime.

The plot revolves around Vincent Forrester (Rom Barkhordar), a scientist who has created an organic computer with the help of two assistants, Julie (Emily Berman) and Abi (Clare Cooney), in hopes of benefiting mankind. When an aggressive virus infects the prototype bio-processing system, Vincent and Julie scramble to preserve their progress, but the virus has specific plans for Abi and infects her with its own agenda. This not only results in violent alterations as Abi lashes out in an effort to defend her own agenda, but also a revealing twist that possibly eludes to certain madness.

What transpires is something akin to a “Twilight Zone” or “Tales from the Darkside” episode, which is most definitely my jam. There were elements that reminded me of 90s b-movie sci-fi horror flicks such as “Hardware” and “Virus”, but what impressed me the most is with how the film’s foreboding mood and tone is suitably fits the story being told. Much of that has to do with Troy’s direction, but also screenwriter McGuire (who also serves as editor), both of whom provide the film with a captivating pace that pulls in the audience. Of course, it helps that they have a committed, talent cast to work with too. Barkhordar and Berman are a natural fit in the roles of two stressed-out characters who are under the wire, but it’s Cooney you can’t take your eyes off of, with her ominous glares and gradual intensity.

“Abi” winds up being one of those shorts I’d like to see extend into full-length feature and that’s not often how I feel about most of the shorts I see. At the same time, I was fully satisfied when it came to its supposed conclusion.

After playing some tag and shifting schedules, I recently had a chance to chat with Troy. It was originally intended to just be an interview with him, but I just so happened to fortuitously catch him over at McGuire’s residence. Therefore, I was pleased to find moments in the interview where McGuire chimed in with his perspective and take on how “Abi” was made and how it went from page to screen.

You can read our discussion below, but as for viewing “Abi”, the best thing to do is search “Abi short film” on Facebook. It’ll list where exactly the film has been (GenCon, GenreBlast & DragonCon) and where it’s heading (Reel Horror Fest on October 19th in Bloongindale, Illinois). The short just picked up Best Cinematography and Best FX awards, as well as the Directors Choice Directing award at this weekend’s Austin Revolution Film Festival (ARFF). You can find “Abi” next weekend at Atlanta Horror Film Festival next weekend and Gig Harbor Film Festival in Washington state at the end of the month. I have to say it’s been almost impossible to keep up with all the festival stops for this short and that’s a cool thing.

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: Hello there!

TIMOTHY TROY: Hi! So, what comes next? Is there a camera component too?

DJF: Nope. Just typing away. What this does is make it easier for me, so I don’t have to transcribe the interview, plus that way we both have a receipt. That is, if you’re okay with this.

TT: Nice! Well, Dan and I are both here. We’ll let you know if I hand the keyboard over to Dan. 🙂

DJF: Okay, this should be interesting…

TT: Again, sorry to spring that on you. It just so happened that I ended up being here with Dan tonight – it was the last chance we had to work on this new short film before a couple crazy weeks started.

DJF: No worries. Ironically, the first time I interviewed Clare was on the set of ABI, just like this…

TT: I remember her taking that interview, sitting in the corner of the set as we were setting up the last couple shots

DJF: It was a fun interview and I take it that it was a point during filming where she wasn’t really needed.

TT: Technically, I think she’d been wrapped from the shoot already, but she wanted to hang out and see the project through to its conclusion. Plus, we were all going to hang out after wrap. I took it as a good sign, that she was still having a good time enough to stay, even after we were done filming. I like the sets to be fun.

DJF: I see. So, does your friendship with Dan go way back? If so, how would you describe your friendship?

TT: WAY back. We met in college, when both of us were going to Columbia College in Chicago. A mutual friend was in the producing curriculum and she brought a script Dan had written (not “Abi”) to me for my directing class. The funny part is, we actually met in person the following weekend, on a completely unrelated basis, as we were both going on and gripping on a thesis film for someone else! We’ve been working together pretty much ever since. Dan’s edited all but a couple of the projects I’ve done, and everything I’ve done since I got serious about making films.

 

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Rom Barkhordar and Emily Berman filming “Abi: (photo credit: Corey Gilbert)

 

 

DJF: Ah, so a mutual friend kind of indirectly introduced you to each other?

TT: Yes. And then we ended up working on a shoot together almost immediately afterwards.

DJF: Dan edits too? That makes sense, since students wear different hats in film school. When you two started working together, what was it like? Did you notice right away that it would be a simpatico working relationship?

TT: Dan makes his living as an editor. He’s been writing off and on for years.
We got along very well pretty much right from the start. There’s a lot of banter and fun in the friendship, which makes it easier when it comes time to discuss things creatively. If the tension gets high about a decision, which is thankfully rare, we can fall back to that friendly tone and cut through the awkwardness a little.

DJF: Do you have the same sensibilities and interests when it comes to filmmaking? I’m always interested in filmmaking partnerships and how they develop, work and grow.

TT: Similar, but not the same.

DAN MCGUIRE: We like the same genres, but generally value different aspects of storytelling.

TT: I think we’re just different enough in our approach that we aren’t always coming at things from the same angle, but we are trying to arrive at the same goal. If that makes sense.

DJF: It does. Do you find that those different aspects balance each other out, or at least offers another perspective to learn from?

TT: For sure. I think the push and pull is what makes for better projects. We took almost a year working on the script for “Abi”, because every rewrite would open up new avenues that we had to explore.

DJF: I always wonder when I’m watching a short, if it started out as a short or if it was, say, feature-length and it got pruned down to a certain aspect of the story or a summation of the story. Since the script was being worked on for a while, what kind of trajectory did it have?

TT: Getting the tone right, and getting all of the moving parts of the story to fit together were the major hurdles there. Well, there’s definitely the germ of a feature somewhere there.

DM: It started as the concept for a feature, but it was first presented as a short.

TT: I’m generally a little hesitant to make a short as a demo reel for a feature. I try to make sure my short films tell complete stories on their own. But there’s a lot of world left to explore in the Abi concept, and we’d love to expand it, given the chance.

 

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Timothy Troy directing Clare Cooney and Rom Barkhordar on the set of “Abi”

 

 

DJF: And when it was presented to you, was a runtime mentioned, suggested or that’s something that was arrived at later?

TT: We had a page count at first, and we tried to tighten the story anywhere we could. The shorter a film is, the easier it is to program, which was a factor in our thinking, but it all came back to the story in the end. We wanted to tell the story the best we could, and take all the fat out as mercilessly as we could. Everything in the script needed a reason to be there, and preferably two or three. And we were pleasantly surprised when the film came in under the page count (generally the rule of thumb is a minute to a page). I think the final script was 13 pages…? Something like that.

DJF: I feel that “Abi” is one of those shorts that piques your curiosity and is self-sufficient, but it definitely left a certain amount of curiosity in me when it was over.

TT: That’s great! That’s exactly the feeling we want to go for. I feel like there’s a lot of potential in the concept of an AI-virus that can infect humans. It can go in a lot of different, scary directions, while still having a lot of relevance to what’s going on with social media and technology in general right now.

DJF: Oh, I agree. To be honest, I had to watch it about three times to REALLY catch on with all of what was being done.

TT: Ha ha! I’m just glad it was enjoyable enough the first time that you wanted to watch it two more times! More seriously, though, it moves fast. There’s a lot of information presented to the audience, but we thought it was important that we trust them to go along for the ride with us.

DJF: Let’s talk about casting. Who did you know all along would be the most important character to cast?

TT: Hmm. We expected Abi to be the toughest to cast, because it was such a fine line of tone to walk, but Clare came in and nailed it pretty much from the first audition.

DM: Vincent ended up being the toughest to cast because there were nuances in the character that we hadn’t anticipated even while writing the script.

 

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Clare Cooney as Abi in “Abi”

 

 

DJF: I think with Clare, it’s all in the glances and the body language. I noticed it in “Runner” and in this short as well.

TT: She has just phenomenal control of everything she does, and she incorporates notes really well. It was a lot of fun working with her on this. She’s such a good storyteller on her own, I think it helps her “get” characters that much faster.

DJF: I’m curious, how much did you tell the other actors what was going to happen in the story? Did you withhold anything in order to elicit a certain reaction or understanding, or did everyone have access to the entire story and what they didn’t know was how you were going to pull it off?

TT: Everyone in the cast knew the whole story. I’m not saying that I would never take that kind of approach with directing, but it’s not the kind of technique that I’m drawn to. And with this project especially, we had to keep everyone in the know. There’s enough twists and turns to the story that every line can take on a different meaning depending on the delivery, so we had to be very careful about that. Having everyone be on the same page regarding where we were in the story, and what character knows what at any given time, was the only way I think we kept ourselves from going crazy!

DJF: That makes sense. Did Dan always have the horror genre in mind for this story? Was it simply the best atmosphere and tone to tell it in?

DM: I started writing it as a straight sci-fi film. The story played out in almost the exact same way, though not with nearly as much detail and nuance as the final product contains. But, it was really Tim that saw it leaning toward horror and drove us to go in that direction. I actually fought him on some of the more grotesque details (such as the design of the computer system), but he was able to turn me around. The horror tone really serves the story well in ways that I hadn’t considered.”

DJF: There’s definitely great visual choices going on. Was there anything else that you hadn’t considered in the page-to-screen process that you were pleasantly surprised by in the final outcome?

TT: There’s things that came together as we started to bring in the crew, for sure. Our production designer, Colin Bach, brought a lot of ideas to the table, and as we built out the production design, it informed other areas of the film as well. Using the color red as a motif started forming pretty early on, and suddenly we were incorporating it everywhere from Vincent’s tie to the lighting to the part of the school we shot in. It really became part of the look of the entire film.

DJF: I was wondering if the use of red was in the script.

DM: Not at all. In fact, as I was originally writing, I believe I had a more sickly or green color scheme in mind. It’s actually hard to remember now, because the red color has become such an integral part of the film’s DNA.

DJF: Interesting. One movie I thought of while watching “Abi” was a sci-fi horror film called “Hardware” from 1990. Have either of you seen it?

TT: Can’t say I have (neither has Dan), but we’re both adding it to our lists. Our influences were movies like “The Terminator”, “Jurassic Park”, “The Matrix”, and a lot of David Cronenberg.

DM: The feature version would be quite “Videodromey”.

DJF: Well, you should seek out that film by Richard Stanley. It’s the epitome of a midnight cult movie and has elements of tech taking over as well.

TT: The same Richard Stanley that’s making the “Color out of Space” movie with Nicolas Cage?

DJF: Correct.

TT: You had my interest, now you have my attention.

 

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No cure for the Virus of “Abi”

 

 

DJF: You touched a bit on the production design and while the story takes place in one location, I take it that probably wasn’t the case with the actual shoot. Was there more than one location?

TT: There were two locations. We shot the first half of the film in Whitney Young High School, which is actually where I graduated from. It was cool to be back there, running around with a film crew. The other half was shot in a working server room, which the owner Brian Armstrong was absolutely awesome about letting us work in.

DJF: Did you have to create duplicate servers or was Brian cool with you “getting creative” with what he provided?

TT: He had an open rack in the server room that we pretty much could install anything we needed into. We couldn’t turn the rest of the servers off, obviously, but we were able to put some dressing on them to make it look more haphazard and “homegrown”. And he let us drape our latex goop all over the outside of the server racks to imply the biological component of the computer Vincent creates as well.

DJF: I’ve lost track of how many festivals ABI has played at and awards it’s won! Help me out. What’s the tally?

TT: So far we’ve been accepted to over a dozen, including the ones we’re playing this weekend and next (GenreBlast, DragonCon, Austin Revolution Film Festival). We’ve picked up 2nd Place Sci-Fi at the International Horror Hotel and Best Screenplay and Audience Choice for Best USA Short at the 307 Film Festival. We’re nominated for a number of more awards this weekend and next and we’ve still got a lot more submissions out, so we’re hoping that its run will continue well into next year

DJF: Has such a response and reception surprised you both? I mean, you never know how an audience will respond to it.

TT: We’re both very humbled and happy with the response its gotten, and we’re kind of always surprised when a film does well. As you say, you never know how audiences will respond, especially to a story as complex as “Abi”. But we’re very grateful for the response its received.

DJF: Can you hint at what you guys are working on right now?

TT: Sure. The new film is called “Empty”. I’ve been describing it as a futuristic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. It’s about a couple whose marriage is on its last legs and the ways that technology can affect and distance us from each other. (Dan didn’t write this one, a friend of mine named Blake Armstrong did, but he’s been editing it, and is always a great sounding board for my projects from beginning to end). We’re also working on developing a couple of features. That’s the next big goal on the horizon for us, trying to get a feature put together. It’s an adventure neither of us have undertaken yet, but a challenge we’re both really looking forward to.

DJF: Well, it’s been great talking with you. Take care and I hope to meet up with you both in person soon!

TT: We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about the film, and that we were both here to talk! “Abi” has meant a lot to both of us, so it’s great that we were both here.

 

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SPECIAL SHOUT-OUT: In a follow-up email after this interview, Troy made sure to mention another key player in making “Abi” happen…

“Here’s a group shot of us (above) with our producer, Corey Gilbert, of p3mediaworks. Somehow he never came up yesterday, but I’d love if you could mention him as well. He was definitely an integral part of the film, from the very first moments. It was actually him who was reading with Clare when she auditioned, and after her very first run through, he immediately looked at Dan and I like “that’s your girl!” Corey kept everything organized and handled a lot of the logistics, and on a project as complex as “Abi”, you really need someone like that on the team. Plus his fantastic facilities at p3mediaworks were a lifesaver, making it so much easier to hold auditions, shoot tests, and meet with crew.”

 

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