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Travis Milloy – interview

August 19, 2016

Filmmaker Travis Milloy talks all things Pandorum and Somnio.

chris soren kelly in somnio 2016

I recently had the great pleasure of sitting down with filmmaker Travis Milloy, via Skype, for an hour-long discussion on his twenty-plus year career as a working screenwriter in Hollywood; with particular emphasis on his experience as the writer     of Pandorum and his latest soon-to-be released directorial offering Somnio. We covered a lot of fascinating territory and I’m sure fans of Pandorum in particular, will be interested to hear Travis’ story concepts for spin-offs, prequels and sequels which were talked about prior to that film’s release.

(Just a quick word on spoilers. We do go into some detail regarding the ending of Pandorum. But our discussion of Somnio is spoiler free)

In anticipation of his new film finding a distributor, we began by discussing the audience reaction to the first public screening of Somnio earlier this year:

I tell ya, I was a little nervous about the movie. You never know what’s going to work and what’s not and until we showed it to the audience in Boston; that was the first time showing the movie actually to anyone. And I watched it with a crowd there and that was quite an experience. I mean it was amazing. I was really kind of nervous because I hadn’t really thought about it. I had no idea if people were going to accept this movie or if anybody was really going to get it or if they were going to get bored.   It was really electric. It was just fantastic watching it with an audience. And it really boosted my whole confidence level. Looking back, I was expecting to get negative feedback on certain aspects of the movie – but that didn’t happen.

I was interested to know what those particular aspects were which he felt might receive a negative response.

You know I think really it’s the first act that was what I was most concerned about. You never really know what you have on the page till when you shoot it. Well, when we got to shooting and when I did my first edit of the movie – it didn’t work. I followed the script and the movie didn’t work. Just as a writer you always have the tendency to need things to move faster than it may always appear. Originally the movie opened with a dream sequence with him waking in his apartment and we see him going through the whole routine. He goes to the coffee shop. He meets Gabby; the whole sequence and then he’s shot and he wakes up in the cell. But it was about a nine minute sequence, and and I was like, wow, I’m expecting the audience to be patient here in that first twenty minutes of the movie. I sense that this culture is very impatient. I think we live in a world where when you have Netflix and iTunes and things like that which you can turn off; you don’t really have a captive audience any more; where you get people in the theatre and you get them to commit to a movie. You really kinda’ gotta move things along and if people are not interested they will switch off or pick something else. So I was really concerned about the first twenty minutes.

One of the key aspects of Somnio which truly impressed me is the film’s editing,     of which no editor is credited. Prior to our conversation, I learned that it was Travis himself who edited the picture (on the very same laptop he used for the Skype call for this interview by the way). Travis elaborated on this process:

I had a really hard time in editing. It’s tough being the editor. I never planned on being the editor. But just because of money we didn’t really have any other options. So I did an assembly edit and I always assumed I would be able to hand it off to an editor and then they could fix all my junk. But it didn’t work out that way. So I just kept editing the film and in the back of my mind I always kept saying, ‘I have to be objective’,       I can’t fall into that first time director trap of ‘oh I like this shot just because it was difficult to do, or I wanna hold onto these things’, and I think that’s the first timer’s mistake and the movie is just too slow and it drags because we’re so attached to these shots. So I really tried to separate myself from the movie and just tried to focus on what helps propel the story and everything else can go. I went through about ten different versions and then I would show it to different people and they always thought it was fine and I said if I was watching this on Netflix I would stop it. I would probably not commit to ninety minutes of this movie. So that was my goal to make it interesting enough, engaging enough. Like, okay, where is this gonna go? And I think that I’ve succeeded enough at a certain level. But it still bothers me, that first half hour or so because I think there is a point in the movie about forty minutes in where things start to get interesting and that’s where I don’t worry as much. And the last act, I think works really well and it pays off the right way. You know, I could edit this thing till the cows come home. They have to take it away from me. Every time I watch it I still wanna do this and I wanna sharpen that and now when I watch it I think oh that could be quicker or I don’t need that line; I could take a few seconds here. But I just gotta calm down and just let the movie be the movie. It’s the same with writing scripts too. You can over fix it. Actually, I did get to a point where I was over-editing the movie. But I got to a spot where I was fairly happy with it. Then I was going in and I was chopping chunks. I took out entire scenes and then somebody watched it and said no, you’re over editing now. Now you’ve lost a certain amount of magic.       I mean it seems like a certain amount of patience with scenes is needed, letting scenes breathe and have a little room instead of bam bam bam bam – getting to the point. And so I had to back off. But I guess that’s the challenge of trying to find the right balance.

travis milloy

While looking over Travis’ IMDb page, I was intrigued to find mention of a film from 1996 which he wrote and directed called Street Gun. As I was unfamiliar with this particular film, I asked Travis to give me the low down on this.

That was kinda my grad school. I was very young, very naïve. When I first started in the industry I did special effects, I did stunt work, I pretty much did everything and I worked in every department I could get into. I worked in the camera department, I worked in editing, in location scouting, you name it; I did the whole gamut. And then I said, you know what, I am going to make a movie. So everybody that I worked for and did favors for, helped me out. This very little film we shot in Minneapolis for about $100,000. It was my roommates that were in the film and we just went out and, only because I was naïve, we pulled it off. It is amazing because of how many camera set-ups we did and what we did for that amount of money. Looking back, I really didn’t put much into story, I didn’t put much into performance; like we had to get scenes in the can and move on, and it was just like I didn’t worry about that at all, we just had to finish these set-ups. So I look back at the film and, you know, I’m proud of the movie, but it was definitely my grad school.

Street Gun is not a very good movie, but we pulled off a lot of tough stuff with those constraints. The movie itself did really well financially. We made a profit after it was sold everywhere and we were over the moon and it’s what started my career; but only as a writer. And when I went to Hollywood and I sold it I met Jeff Robinov; an agent at ICM and he said I’ll represent you as a writer – but not as a director. And I was like ‘Huh, well, I’m not a writer’. And he said ‘Yeah, well you are now.’ And I was like, ‘okay’. So that’s how it all started. I didn’t intend on writing, but I started writing for him; I won a contract with Warner Brothers and I was thrown into the studio system   in my twenties. I was pretty naïve but I worked on a lot of big projects and I made     a good living. But none of the movies ever got produced. I kinda got burnt out because it wasn’t all that rewarding, since none of the films I was writing ever got made. I realized the politics of the system is so much about doing big budget films and all the moons have to align in order for them to even get made.

Out of exhaustion, really, I just stopped. I wanted to get back into production so I worked in TV; being a cameraman and all kinds of stuff. And while I was doing that I decided to write a script that I could shoot for nothing. So I was like ‘I’m not going to worry about the studios, I’m not going to worry about the demographics. I’m just going to write my own script’. And I wrote Pandorum, and then all of a sudden everyone was interested in the script and they wanted to make the movie and things just took off and I was like a lightbulb went off and I realized a huge part of the problem was that what I’d been doing was writing to make other people happy. I was writing for studio executives; I was trying to guess what other people would like. I wasn’t writing for myself. So when Pandorum took off I thought – hey wait a minute; every script I wrote I pretended like I was going to make the movie myself and all of a sudden I had real success. Every script I wrote after that was either getting purchased or was getting optioned. And all these people were interested in it. So it was kinda funny, because I’d write a movie and I’d go okay, I’m gonna make this movie and I’d go cast, scout locations, starting to put things together. And while I was doing that my agent would step in and say ‘Okay, not this one. I need to take this away from you because I have somebody really interested in this’. And so I’d go, okay, I’d start another project and I’d start writing that one and I’d do the same thing; okay, this is the movie I want to make. This is the movie. And I wrote six scripts that way. And each one of them was optioned and then I was really, like I can’t fake it anymore, I really want to write a movie I want to direct and then this is where Somnio came in.

I was like, I want to write a self-contained script that I can make very inexpensively, one actor, one location, very self-contained. And that one I didn’t give to my agent, I’m not letting this one go no matter what and that’s how it all started. The other thing I did was; the problem with film making is you always try to wait until everything is perfect. Like the right timing, do we have enough money or do we have enough interest and then I’ll make the movie. And then, when you do that, before you know it five years have gone by and you haven’t done anything. So I committed to the project by renting a space. I rented a warehouse and I started building the set. And I knew if I was spending money there was no going back. So I rented this warehouse and I started building the set myself. It took a year to build this set. I built the set while I was writing the script, so I knew that by the time I got the script finished and the set was almost complete – I had no choice – I’d be a fool to give up on everything I’d built so far. I wanted to paint myself into a corner – so I’d force myself into making the movie.

travis milloy on the set of somnio

What was the inspiration behind the concept for Somnio? Where did the spark of the initial idea come from?

You know, I did see a news article about prisons becoming automated down in Florida. That was a spark that got me interested. They were cutting down on the number of guards they had so they would have remotely controlled gates and doors, and they automated this prison. And that got me thinking – what if there were no humans left running the prisons. In my original draft there were ten characters, both men and women and they were all on death row – so their executions were also automated. So I started writing that script. But then I was like, well, it was still a big script; it was a big set; ten actors. So I thought, one night, hey – what if I just did     one guy’s story. One guy, one cell and he never sees any guards or the warden or visitors – and that’s interesting. And so that’s kinda how it came to be.

chris soren kelly as frank in somnio 2016

As I mentioned in my review of Somnio, a big part of the success of the film is the outstanding central performance by Chris Soren Kelly, who, as it transpires was instrumental in getting the film made in the first place:

I don’t think I would have made the movie if I hadn’t have found him. When I was first putting the project together I knew I wanted to go very low budget, which meant I couldn’t have a name actor. So I was going to have to find an unknown who was really interesting. Chris has a certain dark edge to him, so he’s interesting to watch by himself. I met him while I was casting for another film and he just stuck out. He’s amazing. So when I was talking to him about Somnio, he was the one who said we should just go do it. So I said Yeah but would, you know, would you be part of it and he said ‘Oh absolutely’. So that’s what started the whole ball rolling. Once I had him that was a huge relief because, you know, ninety percent is casting. You get the right people in there and that can make it work and he was just wonderful to work with.

I pointed out the similarities I see between Pandorum and Somnio – in that they     are both stories told from the perspective of a character who awakens with no understanding of his surroundings and has to figure out how he got there. This then segued into a more specific discussion of Travis’ writing process and the challenge     of not preplanning where the story is going when embarking on the initial draft of a new screenplay:

I don’t like to know more than the protagonist. And I think with a lot of films I really want to like more make that mistake; where they’re too eager to show the antagonist’s side of the story. In certain movies it works, but certain thrillers; as soon as we know more than the main character, we’re waiting for him to catch up. I think you’ve lost a certain mystery there. So with both Pandorum and Somnio we never really know more than the main character as the story unfolds. Actually, I really didn’t realize the similarities; someone waking up in a strange place and then having to try to figure out what is going on – which both movies are like. That to me, that was a writer’s challenge. I got myself into the character’s position … What would I do? What would I say? And then that made it easier writing Pandorum. Actually, Pandorum was the first script I wrote without any structure or outline. I used to, you know, I used to do a three act structure and do an outline and a treatment and that kind of stuff, but I got kinda tired of that because it didn’t feel unique – it felt forced. So with Pandorum I sat down and wrote. I literally had no idea of where I was going with it. It was as if I was in that character and I would meet characters and then things would happen and every time I would get to a spot where I thought, okay, here we would expect this to happen so I would try to take a different direction. I basically went through the whole script this way and the funny thing was, I didn’t know how to end Pandorum. I literally wrote up to the point where they made it onto the ship’s bridge and then I had no idea what was going to happen. So I took my dog for a walk and we were out at night and my dog was drinking out of a puddle and I was looking up at the stars and I looked at the water and I go, well, that’s about as opposite as that and it’s the least most expected thing. And so I ran home and wrote the big underwater reveal and then realized – it still works. It worked with the rest of the story. So it was kinda one of those happy accidents. I did the same thing with Somnio. I had no idea where it was going to go and that’s generally how I write scripts now. I generally don’t do an outline. I just throw myself into it and start writing. The problem with that though, is you can easily get yourself trapped and you can’t finish it without fixing a bunch of stuff. It’s a risk I think is worth taking though. Because then it makes the twists in the story just feel more unique because you weren’t planning ahead.

pandorum bower in cryo

As it turns out, Pandorum was almost made as a small independent film with Travis at the helm:

I wrote Pandorum with a notion of no-one ever reading it. And I was actually preparing to make that film; shooting it as a low budget movie. In fact I was actually location scouting; we were going to shoot it in this old abandoned paper mill, when my agent called and said, ‘Stop what you’re doing, I have somebody interested in the script’. And I’d heard this before, like, I’d say ‘Yeah yeah, I’m gonna keep making this movie. You let me know how it goes’. And then, when Impact Pictures got involved, he said ‘No – you really have to stop making your little movie, coz these guys really wanna make it’. And I said, like, all right all right.

I mentioned that I had listened to the director’s commentary track with Christian Alvart, where he talked about his collaboration with Travis on the screenplay             for Pandorum. Apparently their working together was heralded by a strange synchronicity:

You know, I learnt a lot from Christian. He’s German and he has a different sensibility. But I really learnt a lot from him. And it was really wild because he was coincidently writing an almost identical script before he was hired! He was writing his own script and our first ten pages were, like, identical. It was bizarre. It was, like, wow it was really similar – but he had ideas about bringing it to another level. Mine was more of a genre film. More of an Escape From New York in space. Originally it was a prisoner ship with 60,000 inmates being sent to a prison and Bower wakes up. Well everyone in the story was a prisoner, so it was more of a thriller. Less of a monster movie. Anyway, then Christian came in and said he had this idea about deep space travel; colonizing a planet and losing our own planet and it really just gave it a whole new spirit and took it to the next level. So we sat and we worked together a few times. Originally we sat in an office in Los Angeles and literally sat laptop to laptop talking about ideas; merging these two scripts into one. Which was great! He was a lot of fun to work with. And then he went off and he did another film. He got Case 39. So Pandorum kinda came to a halt for a while and then it fired back up again and then I went to Berlin when they were filming, and was rewriting scenes along the way. But it was a great experience; amazing experience to see a film at that level. I mean, you know, I was blown away because I’d seen so many movies fail. Getting a script made at a larger budget level is really a one in a million thing; all the moons have to be aligned for that to work. But to see that happen was a massive thrill.

pandorum cast

Pandorum has garnered a considerable fan base since its release in 2009 and I’m aware there is a ‘Fans for Pandorum Sequel’ Facebook group calling for another movie, so I was curious to know if there was always a sequel in mind.

Yeah, we talked about it. And we obviously prepared ourselves. So while we were     in production we talked about, if the movie is successful, what these other movies might be. So I definitely had ideas. We basically outlined a prequel which would show the launch of the ship; dealing with a whole new group of characters and the whole backstory of the Gallo/Payton character; him growing up on the ship and becoming     a self-proclaimed king; becoming an old man; going from a young officer to Dennis Quaid and then putting himself to sleep. And then a sequel was gonna be Bower and Nadia’s life on the new planet; dealing with their arrival which basically picked up right where Pandorum ended. They come to the surface and begin exploring the planet, only to find that civilizations already exist there; warring with one another. Actually it was a cool idea. It was just because of the box office it didn’t work out. But the story was that, I didn’t know if it was going to be Bower or if it was going a different character, whatever, but this character finds these two tribes at war and one tribe is   a little more tech; it has more technology and weaponry and the other tribe is a little more primal, more spiritual. So it’s kind of like a Native Americans versus Europeans type scenario and this character throws himself into the middle of this war; only to realize that both these tribes are direct descendants from survivors of the Elysium from seven hundred years ago; the ship that crashed. Some people escaped to the surface and they grew over seven hundred years into this society, and the reason why there is a war going on is because of their skewed sense of religion which they learned from Payton. There was a lot of mythology to explore and it all tied back to the origins of Pandorum. So it was a really cool idea and I wrote out these story concepts, but then it never came to be because of the poor box office. But a few of the fans have talked about it and have asked me to write it out as a book or as a graphic novel. So I thought about that and it might be something cool to do down     the road.

The other idea was telling another story that happened on the ship around the same time as the Bower story was going on. We’d have another group of characters on a completely different adventure happening at the same time – they would see Bower and Nadia go by when they’re hiding out; so we’d see these two stories are happening simultaneously. And when Payton floods the ship at the end – that would be part of the story as well. So there are these different story lines and battles going on within this huge ship at the same time. I talked with Christian about that and, if you remember, Bower finds this guy Cooper stuck in the vent, dead. I said to Christian; you know, the sequel could be about Cooper; the third guy when Bower wakes up. In Pandorum it’s Bower, Payton and Cooper, and the Cooper pod is empty. I go, what if we have a sequel where that character, Cooper, sees Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid and crawls out and he goes on his own adventure; this whole new thing; a whole other story prior to Bower and Payton waking up. And Christian said yeah that’s a cool idea, but I just want a dead guy in the vent (laughs).

As a side note, Pandorum started out as a very different story idea. When I was in college, I worked as a ground marshall at an airport in Minneapolis. And one day a plane arrived which was a real life Con-Air plane. It was a US Marshall 727 which carried convicted criminals for trials or relocation or whatever. I mean, this plane had chains; they chained all these guys in their seats and I thought that’s really cool. So I started writing a movie about this plane being hijacked while in flight and while I was writing it the movie Con-Air came out. And I was like, naw, I can’t do that anymore. So I left it on the shelf for years and finally pulled it out one day and thought, well, I could change it to a spaceship with prisoners. And so the idea got new life put back into it.

We finished up our conversation with me asking Travis about his hopes for Somnio, his upcoming plans for the future and what his advice to screenwriters starting out might be:

You know, you can’t expect every film to be a huge hit. I just hope Somnio finds its audience. I never assumed it would make a lot of money; I just hope it finds an audience and a fan base and that’s all I can hope for. If it does well, fantastic. I’d love to give the investors their money back and have that to be able to show we can make a movie that makes money. Obviously it gives us a start for the next one, but I’m not interested in going too high of a budget level. I mean, some filmmakers just want to go and become a Gareth Edwards or a JJ or get to do those huge films. But those big studio films really don’t interest me at all. I’d rather stay low budget; there’s just more freedom; you can make bolder choices and take more risks. I know how the name game works in Hollywood; how you chase after name actors and it’s just, uughh, its such a rat race and I’m just not interested in doing that. But what I am interested in is making films outside of California, coz we’ve seen California in so many different ways. It’s just fun to explore different film communities like Denver and Boston and, you know, just to go someplace else. It’s just a lot more exciting, you know, and people are a lot more accepting if you go to a different city. If you shoot in Los Angeles, nobody’s going to do you any favors, so I’d rather just go someplace else. Actually, I want to shoot my next film in Denver coz it’s a really cool city and I work with a post house there that’s just fantastic. They did all the post for Somnio in Denver.

And my big advice that I always give to other writers is don’t hang your hat on one particular project; keep writing because your writing will always get better. I mean, it’s so heartbreaking to see young writers where they work so hard on this one big high-concept project and that’s all they work on, like, just this one thing. You gotta just keep going. You gotta keep writing multiple projects because its going to break your heart regardless. I have probably about ten different projects that are out there; all at different stages of development or preproduction; Exit 147 with director Mike Figgis. Another project with Walter Hill, a script called Monstrum. So yeah, a whole bunch     of projects, all different types of movies, different directors, different production companies, so hopefully one will go sooner or later. So yeah, just multiple projects. That’s my best advice.

A big thank you to Travis for taking the time to talk with me. As previously mentioned, he’s currently in the process of shopping Somnio around to prospective distributors, so for updates on future theatrical screenings, please visit the official website here:

Like the facebook page here:

Check out the Internet Movie Database entry here:

And join the ‘Fans for PANDORUM Sequel’ facebook group here:

article copyright © 2016 Gregory Moss

Not to be reprinted either in part or in whole without prior permission of the author.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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