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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



Interview with Matthew Berg and Thomas Besançon for 'Aqua Rasa' (2017) and 'Accomplice' (2018)

Interview with Matthew Berg and Thomas Besançon for 'Aqua Rasa' (2017) and 'Accomplice' (2018)

Filmmaker Matthew Berg's debut Short 'Aqua Rasa' (2017) screened at the Palm Springs International Shortfest film market. Harry (played by Vincent Palmieri) is an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer's when visited by Asher (Calvin Devereaux), pretending to be a psychic to help bring back his memories. The youngest director with a film at the film market, Berg wrote, directed, produced and edited the film. Producer Thomas Besançon attended the festival with Berg to promote his upcoming work 'Accomplice' (2018).


I interviewed both Matthew and Thomas shortly after the festival. Here is what they had to say:


What inspired this story? Was it based on real events?

MATTHEW: Aqua Rasa was inspired by my grandmother’s neighbor Rita. When I was 8, she developed dementia. Of course I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but I did find it weird when Rita stopped recognizing me. One afternoon, she told me to stay at her house since her son would be home from school soon. Rita claimed we were the same age and we could play together. In reality, her son was fifty years old. Ever since, I wondered what happened every time she saw her son. Did she recognize him? This was the question that drove the inspiration for Aqua Rasa. The story is about a parent with dementia who not only doesn’t recognize their child now but neglected and failed to accept them before. The specific event which drove a stake in the father and son’s relationship was inspired by an incident in a friend’s life... When he was four, his father found out his neighbor had molested him. Throughout my friend’s entire life his father was prejudice toward him because he assumed he was gay.

MATTHEW CONT'D: Accomplice’s sci-fi elements are obviously not inspired by true events, however the underlying story is. Following my first surgery, I was constantly on opioids for the week following. Being doped up for that long disassociated me from reality and my own mind. I’d start speaking to myself like I was two different people. However, it also lead me to reflect on my life. I’d whisper confessions and admit things that I had been in self-denial about. Accomplice follows a man whose mind is inhabited by two different people following surgery. The new person in his head forces him to do an introspection on both their lives. It allows the protagonist to finally acknowledge his guilt the same way recovering from surgery had forced me to recognize my own...over way less dramatic things of course though.


What is the main message you hope audiences take away from the film?

MATTHEW: I hope people take away from Aqua Rasa that the notion “It’s never too late to change” is false. I don’t mean this negatively. If you’re looking to change for the better, do it now instead of later. Aqua Rasa follows a protagonist who desperately wants to change and be there for his son. However, he is at a point in his life where his circumstance has made that no longer possible. 

MATTHEW CONT'D: I hope audiences take two main messages away from Accomplice. The first, if you suppress guilt it will eat away at you and drive you insane. You must admit your wrong doings to yourself and try to reconcile. The second, and probably even more important in today's world, is empathizing with others can bring better understanding to ourselves. If we all learned from each other the world would be a better place. Although this second theme is not as obvious in the story especially since it ends on a somber note, the main character is punished because he does not accept this other person in his head. 


How did you go about casting the film?

THOMAS: For Accomplice, we are working closely with a consultant producer who is working at a talent management company to help us cast recognizable names. We also cast as the lead role, the main actor of Matthew’s previous film Aqua Rasa.

MATTHEW: I cast Aqua Rasa through Breakdown Express. Ironically, I was initially casting for a much earlier draft of Accomplice. However, because the restrictions USC had placed on the length of the project and my inability to find a hospital set with no budget, I ended up writing Aqua Rasa in two nights with the project already cast trying to fit the actors I had brought on for the initial draft of Accomplice into each role.  

MATTHEW CONT'D: For Accomplice, we have been casting a few different ways. I brought on Calvin Devereaux to be the lead because of my experience working with him on Aqua Rasa. We’ve also been looking for a couple real name actors through connections I’ve made. We actually have one already who’s highly likely to play the female lead and we’re just waiting on her to sign a letter of intent. For the rest of the cast, especially the character’s younger version, I will probably use breakdown express again. 


Where was it filmed?

MATTHEW: Aqua Rasa was filmed at Matthew’s parent’s house. Because the project was shot for a USC program, we basically only had a week for pre-production. Finding viable locations with no budget in that time became too daunting of a task especially when doing a last minute complete rewrite. We are currently still location scouting for Accomplice. My DP and I have been visiting beaches and forests to find good spots for the exteriors. We are currently waiting to see if we’ll be able to shoot in an actual hospital in Palm Springs. If not, we have some good stages in mind in Los Angeles. 


After making shorts, do you think you will go on to a feature?

THOMAS: Yes, producing shorts is a step towards making feature films. Starting with low budget going big budget short film is a way to gain experience and learn the twist and turns of production. That way we can be prepared to produce features.

MATTHEW: I will definitely go on to feature filmmaking. You can develop characters and dig into the story a whole lot more when you have two hours instead of under thirty minutes. A lot of people have a bias against longer films, but I personally love slower drawn out stories when they have great characters.  


Who have been your greatest inspirations in film?

THOMAS: My greatest inspirations in film are the work of other producers such as Brian Grazer, Jerry Bruckheimer, Arnon Milchan… I am looking up to be like them and achieve a similar career. The way they started and build up their success is what drives me every day to work with many talented directors and take initiative to write and start my production companies (One of them being B Minor Films that we started with Matthew). Another thing that inspires me in film is the passion of the audience and the emotions that the 7th art is generating, and I want to be part of this and create stories that put the public in awe or give them a laugh, a scare or a moment of reflection.

MATTHEW: My greatest inspiration has been life, honestly. I think the most powerful films are the ones that draw from real characters and themes. I only ever pick to do projects that relate to my life in some facet. If I didn’t, I think my stories would feel generic with no worldview. When speaking of the filmmakers that have inspired me, I would probably harp on some of the greats like Scorsese, Fellini, and Ingmar Bergman. Scorsese is my favorite to watch for his great characters, but I’d think I’d most like to make films like Fellini. He puts so much of his worldview into each on of his films. Fellini also combines psychological fantasy with realistic plots so well. Bergman, I just love how obsessed he is with character psychology and visual metaphors. His films, as well as Fellini’s, are just filled with motifs. As a director I’d like to instill that attention to detail in the mise-en-scene of my films. I believe each shot should have meaning. When it comes to writing, however, I’d probably have to say Robert McKee is the greatest influence on me. Although he has never had one of his scripts produced in Hollywood, he is famous for his workshops and his book on screenwriting simply titled Story. I took one of his seminars when I was fourteen and it changed my perspective on what great storytelling was. He believes that screenwriting is about form not formula as opposed to other screenwriting instructors like Blake Snyder. However, Snyder did give me my initial understanding on basic story structure.


How did you begin your career at such a young age?

THOMAS: I started in 2013 when I was 20 years old as a production assistant. I was part of a dance show and we decided to do a short film as an introduction to the show. The show was about robbers getting arrested by the police and sent to jail, we shot a short film about the heist. I was a production assistant but I was also a stunt. Indeed I was the driver and I had to skid the car. After that I kept having more gigs as a PA, script supervisor on set until I decided I wanted to be more in the business side.

MATTHEW: I always loved movies and always loved to tell stories. About the time I was four, I realized I couldn’t do anything else with my life besides maybe become a professional basketball player. But it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen when I was nine. When I was ten I started to take film more seriously: shooting projects on the Universal Backlot and taking six to eight hour a day classes on the weekends at the New York Film Academy. I just haven’t stopped chasing the dream since then. I did take a few years off from directing though to focus on developing my craft as a screenwriter and churn out a few feature screenplays.


You recently attended PS Shortfest. How was that experience?

THOMAS: The experience was great! I think that some people that I met there will have an impact on the rest of my career. I connected with a CAA sales agent, to a manager at Anonymous Content, to different producers and distributors who were interested in the vision we have for our future projects. Matthew and I were able to draw attention to our upcoming film 'Accomplice' especially from other production companies, PR Firms and festival programmers. It was also interesting to watch other people’s work, some of them were truly amazing and I am pretty sure some of the filmmakers who had their film played at the fest will have a very nice careers!

MATTHEW: Attending PS shortfest was great. I met a lot of great filmmakers there. It’s so cool to have a festival just dedicated to shorts. I’ve been to some of the other big festivals before and all everyone cares about are the features. It was also just fun. Parties at other festivals are usually just receptions but these were actual ones at clubs. It’s great being able to hang out and have fun with a community of young filmmakers. Also, the short films there were spectacular. They were both inspiring and daunting for me to watch. 


How did people react to the film?

MATTHEW: People have reacted pretty well to Aqua Rasa. Audience members have made comments about how powerful the dynamic is between the two leads and how well the film was shot. However, I can’t take most the credit for this. That goes to the two leads Vincent Palmieri and Calvin Devereaux as well as my superb DP Ivan Velasco. The story itself seemed to touch a lot of people. After I made the film I was sitting at Thanksgiving dinner with my cousin’s grandmother. She was telling me about how her father had sat across the table as close as we were then and asked to her face who she was. A lot of people had made similar comments to me about how they had similar situations with their own family members after watching the film. The one consistent negative reaction I got was a couple parts were a bit confusing. Part of this was on purpose because I wanted to put the audience in the protagonists shoes so they feel his confusion and only see bits and pieces of his past and present. However, I was probably too subtle in some parts.

MATTHEW CONT'D: Accomplice, although we haven’t started principal photography, it’s pitch and the script have been getting “woah” reactions. My one concern is that it may be too cerebral or confusing for some. I actually have a friend who doesn’t like reading or watching my short projects because he says they “fuck with his head too much”. If this ends up being the case we can always smooth it out in editing which is what I had to do for Aqua Rasa.


What are you working on next?

THOMAS: We are in the pre-production phase of our next short film 'Accomplice', Matthew is also developing different features that we will probably work on next year or in two years. I am also working on my own projects with another partner (named Alexander Menu), we have a short film called Sound of the Somme (we actually won two Best Screenplay awards) that we are going to shoot Belgium in 2019, and we also have couple of Intellectual Properties that we are working on and trying to option. Basically we are finishing our current short films before jumping into the “real” business with feature films and TV Series project.

MATTHEW: Well, our planned date to begin principal photography for Accomplice is the week of August 27th. Besides that, I am developing a couple feature projects with a buddy from WME. He’s actually the main reason why Accomplice is happening. I’m writing a low budget feature that we might end up doing with his friend’s Mexican production company and then also a crime film involving a high school football team for the future. Initially, we were going to try and make the latter happen first but would’ve been too expensive for a first feature since I want to direct.

Interview with Matthew Berg and Thomas Besançon for 'Aqua Rasa' (2017) and 'Accomplice' (2018) Filmmaker Matthew Berg

Interview with Matthew Berg and Thomas Besançon for 'Aqua Rasa' (2017) and 'Accomplice' (2018) Producer Thomas Besançon 


Interview by Vanessa McMahon


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