Greetings valued Dan's Movie Report readers. In November of 2020 I had the opportunity to interview Melissa Mars for my site and found her to be quite engaging, a link to the interview is provided at the end of the interview. Recently, she has entered her short film 'The Last Touch' in several film festivals and has garnered awards and accolades. I catch up with Ms. Mars again and have a chat with her about 'The Last Touch' and her long-term plans for the film. Sit back, relax and get ready to take another trip to Mars with Melissa!
DMR: CHAT ABOUT HOW YOU CAME UP WITH THE CONCEPT FOR THE LAST TOUCH.
MM: “Our lust to go viral dehumanizes us...”, he said. It was February 2018. I had just moved to a frozen, wintry New York from sunny California and was sitting in my acting class, listening to the legendary Anthony Abeson talk to a bench full of my fellow actors, “... Now with that theme, create a movie. You can be a Writer, Director and/or Actor or all three.” That evening I returned home to my mess of unpacked boxes, feeling excited by the assignment to create my own movie. As I went through my pre-bed rituals - plugged in my phone to charge, set up my wake-up alarm, turned on sleep cycle to track the quality of my sleep – falling into the open arms of the Dream Lord, Morpheus, seemed unlikely. My mind was racing. I reached for my phone, feeling guilty for giving into the impulse to scroll through social media when I knew I should be sleeping. Setting my phone back on the bedside table, I tried playing a guided meditation. “Think of three things you are grateful for... let them fill your mind as you drift off...” I don’t think I ever actually fell asleep that night. As I lay in the dark, eyes wide open, mind working on overdrive, I was overwhelmed by visions. I stopped the guided meditation, staring at my phone. Scenes and images of a dark, dystopian world whirled around in my head; a world in which humans were ruled by their lust to go viral, a world in which our attachment to our devices stripped us of our humanity, a world in which our desire to connect virtually left us unable to connect physically. I did the only thing I could think of, I grabbed my smartphone and, sitting in the pitch black with the light of the screen illuminating my over-tired face, I typed the idea for the script that would later become 'The Last Touch'!
Above Photo: New Poster for 'The Last Touch' For promotional use only
DMR: CHAT ABOUT HOW LONG IT TOOK TO GET THE MOVIE ORGANIZED
MM: Ironically, it took the power of social media to give me the push I needed to take my concept and make it into a short film! I wrote a post on my blog that you can read for a full account, but for now I’ll focus on the highlights!
Social media can be overwhelming sometimes, but it can also be a powerful tool for finding connection and support! It can feel like you are on a deserted island, casting a message in a bottle out to sea; you don’t know if anyone will ever get it, but sometimes you’re lucky and not only does someone find the bottle and read the message, but they provide you the support you need and you find you are no longer alone. So, after my night of insomnia, during which I wrote the three-page script for what I originally called Touch Generation, I decided to post about my idea on social media. That was the first time I was sharing about my writing journey. When I finally clicked “post”, I was shaking and blushing. I felt both really shy and really bold, like I was exposing myself naked, revealing my hidden dreams for the first time, revealing what I do as an artist when I’m not in the spotlight and wondering if anyone would really care. I had no idea how much that one post would change everything. First, I was overwhelmed by the positive words of encouragement and support I received from my online community in general. Then, I received a message from a friend, Eric Mizrahi, who is a fantastic cinematographer and movie director in Israel, asking if he could read my short and wondering what I was planning to do with it. Despite the kind words of encouragement I had received, there was still a small voice in the back of my mind telling me I couldn’t possibly turn this idea into a “real” film. I had just moved to NY and still had very few connections, not to mention little-to-no budget as well as that nagging voice telling me this was “just” a project for a class, not something to take any further.
I told Eric I planned to film it myself, with my own camera and that it would most likely look like shit because I had no lights and cinematography is far from being my area of expertise. "What can I do?" Was Eric’s response when I told him my plans. I had no idea. Both of us had left our connections back in LA and came up short for contacts in NY. I was so humbled when Eric said he thought the idea at the core of my short 3-page script was so exciting, he would make it his personal mission to find me a cinematographer to work with in NY. His enthusiasm, support and his encouragement were unbelievable! He promised he would find someone and he did! Within a turbulent 48 hours, filled with emails, introductions, scheduling conflicts and a roller coaster ride of emotions, I was in contact with the amazing cinematographer, Yaniv Glaser, who had also just moved to NY and wanted to work on the project! In the course of two weeks, we met and started exchanging ideas about the mood of the film and the direction we would take with the limited materials we had available. With the huge help of James Kacey, my co-star, we went to stores get some lights for the décor, and I found the light in the shape of the “@” sign that would come to represent the core idea of the film. At the time I was not sure if it was going to be too much, or too tacky, but I took it and I’m glad I did! I really wanted the movie to be simple and quick to film; it took half a day to film it. Then the editing is what took me a long time. I love editing, but I’m not quick. Syncing the sound to the clips was tedious. Once this chore was done, I could finally get to the exciting part of putting it together. I got it all together in a couple of days, adding some music tracks from Hans Zimmer (Batman...) and Paesano (Daredevil) to give it some darker atmosphere. I showed it to my class as a rough first draft. When the viewing was over, they were all quiet for a minute, I was so anxious, then all I kept hearing was Black Mirror, Black Mirror. At the time, I have to admit, all I had watched was the first episode while I was having dinner one night and it had disgusted me so much that I had sworn off the show. So I wasn’t sure how to take the comparison, but the show was so successful I felt happy with the comparison. Haha! (Side note: it took me until the year after to finally watch the show and I have become a fan!)
After the positive feedback from my class, I started to look into festivals but quickly realized I needed original music, more edits, color correction, a poster... etc.; it was going to be a lot of work to get my short ready for submission to the festival circuit. I was overwhelmed with doubts and thought maybe I should just leave it alone. I accomplished the mission for class, and decided to keep it quiet as something I could show if someone asked. A few months later, during the summer, the idea came back. First it was just a tickle in the back of my mind, then an incessant scratching and then occupied my waking thoughts. The story wanted more than what I had given it. What if I developed it? A movie? A series? Something. I was not sure if the short film was a movie in itself but it could always serve as a proof of concept. I had a lot more explanation and exposition in the first edit. And I had never taken any screenwriting class.
In the summer of 2018, I decided to get into a class and learn the craft. All I had written in my whole career was short movies, short scripts for music videos, and songs. But I didn’t have the confidence to go further and didn’t think I had the chops. I took a class and armed with new knowledge and support I started brainstorming and expanding my idea for a pilot. I scribbled probably about 30/40 pages of stream of consciousness and ideas. James Kacey introduced me to Keith Armonaitis, a screenwriter he had worked with on the award-winning and heartbreaking short-movie Missed. I showed him the short and pitched him my idea; he was in! We started developing the series together early in 2019, one year after I had filmed the short and one year before the pandemic happened... I can’t tell you how freaked out I was when the pandemic hit. For months, I had been imagining a world where people couldn’t touch, imagining it as some dark dystopia that could only exist in nightmares, and then, out of nowhere, we were living it! It was one of the most terrifying times in my life. I had to take a break. I felt so overwhelmed. Before the pandemic I felt like I had all my life to develop the series because it was so far from reality, just a made-up vision of a dark future that would never be real, but in a blink I was behind the times. I returned to look at the short I had made for class and decided it was time to finish it and turn it into a real film.
I called Steve Sholtes, who I collaborated with previously on different soundtracks and a song picked up by Coca-Cola music. I sent him the rough edit of my film and he was in! He scored a “hauntingly beautiful soundtrack”;) and got two nominations at UVFF, (UK’s festival Unrestricted View Film Festival), one of which was for the soundtrack! After Steve said he was in, I re-edited the whole film, took out some parts and added a character that didn’t exist in the first script or even the first edit: the voice of Sweet Cherry Corporation. It changed the feeling of the film and took it up to a new level. So, to answer your question and to keep a long story long, it took two and a half years (with a long break in the middle) to take The Last Touch from those notes scribbled in my phone to the multiple award-winning short film that it is now!
Above Photo: Melissa Mars Award 2021, for 'The Last Touch' Used for promotional use only
DMR: CHAT ABOUT WORKING ON A SINGLE SET AND HOW YOU PLAYED FOR THE CAMERA AS AN ENTITY IN THE ROOM.
MM: Working on a single set was both easy and challenging. Easy because we didn’t have to move and change locations. Once we set up in that bedroom, we were there for the whole shoot. Challenging because we didn’t have many alternatives. We couldn’t really move things around due to the size of the bed and the bedroom. Yaniv Glaser did an amazing job working with what we had and creating a clinical, dark, isolated atmosphere with the lights and framing. The other challenge was playing a role both in front of and behind the camera. It was a small and limited crew so the three of us wore several hats and had to trust each other wholeheartedly. Yaniv and I had many discussions before the shoot. He tested lights, moods and shots; it was so inspiring to collaborate with him. Once we were on set and the shots locked, I felt confident putting my full trust in Yaniv’s expertise and we moved quickly from one scene to the next. I didn’t check on the monitor every take, just the first one of every new scene. I trusted both him and my co-star James Kacey, with whom I had worked on multiple other projects before, that I could have felt comfortable leaving him alone for his own takes! We wanted to have the shot in the bedroom to show the extreme emotional distance between the characters. The bedroom is the place where we are often at our most intimate, our most vulnerable, where we open ourselves up emotionally and physically with our partners. Having the camera so close to these two people who are so emotionally distant from each other in such an intimate setting helped to really show that they had replaced each other with their devices and drive home the sense of an emotional and physical connection that had been lost. They are being watched, being filmed in this most intimate of places but they don’t even notice or care, they are consumed by their devices. The trickiest part was the last scene.
Above Image- Melissa Mars as 'Clea' on set of 'The Last Touch' Used for promotional use only all rights reserved image not modified.
There was a long duo-logue (not dialogue, but duo-logue, I don’t know if that term exists, if not, I’m making it up to describe the sort of monologue cut and shared between the two characters) that James and I shared. We had to keep going, keep the pace up as if it was one person talking. Then we had to be perfectly synchronized for the prayer at the end; it took patience! It is interesting how much editing is close to the writing or rewriting experience; cutting, piecing together all the parts. I actually ended up cutting out the duo-logue after all was said and done; it was too much telling and not showing. I was hesitant to cut the scene because it was the only one in the whole short during which the two main characters look at each other. In the end, I made the choice of not having any eye contact between the couple. For me, it was the metaphor of the touch. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, as some people believe, then a look could be as powerful as a touch. If I allowed the characters to share that look within the intimate setting of the bedroom, it would be as dangerous as touching and would have taken away from the feeling of an impenetrable barrier (represented by the “@” sign) between them. It took a lot out of me to sacrifice that moment, and make the choice to show no emotional or physical contact with each other in the whole movie (besides the accidental touch). I’m actually very “touched” lol and impressed when some viewers at festivals notice the absence of eye contact and tell me how powerful and unnerving they find it.
Above Photo: James Kacey as Cain in 'The Last Touch', all rights reserved, image not monetized
DMR: DISCUSS IDEAS GOING FORWARD WITH THE FILM, EXPANDING TO A FEATURE OR A SERIES.
MM: I’m actually expanding the short film in two different directions. I’ve been working on prose that started out as a dark short story but that has since grown to a full-length novel, haha. The story and the characters keep expanding on their own, torturing me because it’s hard to keep a handle on it. And, like I mentioned earlier, I’m also expanding the idea for a series and co-writing the pilot which we started working on in 2019, developing a fascinating world. When the pandemic hit, I almost had a breakdown thinking we had to drop it, reality became too close to what was supposed to be our fantasy of a dark dystopia. The reactions and feedback I got from festivals on the short movie, unanimously asking for more, comparing it to Black Mirror and 1984, gave me so much more confidence and a drive to continue with this project! :P
DMR: WHAT ARE SOME LONG-TERM GOALS FROM DOING THIS SHORT FILM, MORE DIRECTING IN THE FUTURE?
MM: I actually love directing specific projects that I have a complete vision for. But there are also scripts I write that I’d rather have someone else direct because I have no idea how to make them as exciting as they are in my mind’s eye. I was very proud that the award-winning and super talented director, Marco Bottiglieri, took on one of my scripts – Better Late Than Never- to direct it. I’m always excited to collaborate and have other artists bring their vision to my stories. But I do have some other projects I would love to direct, especially in Algeria, in the North of Africa. My mom is from there. That country is a beauty that is untapped and not explored enough at the international level and I would love to share that with the world. I’m actually co-writing an adventure/drama movie with my mom, lyricist and writer Lilas Klif, a project I am really excited about. Everything is a process. My main goal is to stay focused and move forward to complete one project at a time. I am so excited to see where each unique experience takes me!
Thank you for taking some time to discuss 'The Last Touch', looking forward to more in the future.
For further information on 'The Last touch': www.lasttouchmovie.com
Melissa Mars Official Website: www.melissamars.com
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