Looking Beyond Eyes: An Interview with Aaron B. Koontz
Schedules can be hectic. My flight back to Los Angeles from a wedding in New York and director Aaron B. Koontz’s packed press schedule meant that we couldn’t talk directly. But our good friends at the Katrina Wan Press Agency had our backs. Samantha Arevalo and Camelia Adibi forwarded my questions to Aaron so the Cinephellas community could get some insight into his artistic process, being a first-time director, and why he wanted to tackle Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the new film Camera Obscura. I’d like to thank Samantha, Camelia, and Aaron for taking time out of their busy schedules, and I hope Aaron’s answers get you as hyped for the movie as I am.
You can check out Camera Obscura when it hits theaters on June 9th and when it comes to VOD and Digital HD on June 13th. The film was co-written by Aaron and Cameron Burns. It stars Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson, Noah Segan. I give Camera Obscura 4 out of 5 hairpieces for shining light on the misunderstood issue of PTSD through the creative outlet of paranormal activity. It’s also a great time for anyone with an interest in photography and the constant desire to capture a perfect moment in time.
CMR: The majority of your credits up to this point have been in the role of producer. What was it like transitioning into your directorial debut and how did your background give you a fresh approach to directing Camera Obscura?
ABK: It’s interesting you point that out because it wasn’t by design. My goal was simply to wear as many hats as I could, in as many areas as I could, to best prepare myself as a filmmaker and director. And over the years as I have started to better learn how to utilize those now worn hats, I find myself helping others out when and where I can, and many times that leads to a Producing type position. That experience definitely helped shape me as a director but I don’t know if the approach was necessarily “fresh” as, to be honest, I really just tried to emulate everything I could from P.T.A. and Fincher commentary tracks. Which may sound like a joke, but is sadly the truth.
CMR: You also wrote the movie with Cameron Burns. How would you describe your collaborative relationship?
ABK: Every writing partnership is different it seems. For me, there are a few key elements to make this successful: 1) it is important to have a long-standing relationship where you know each other well. 2) You have to be able to “fight” and take those punches on the chin and not personally and 3) You have to be different.
ABK: I have known Cameron for going on 15 years now. The first pages of what eventually became this film were written 8+ years ago. It took some time for us to find our cadence but when we did it really clicked. Typically this would involve Cameron coming to my place where we would discuss high level thoughts with whatever project we may be working on that week and then also leave time to discuss the news (truth really is stranger than fiction) and new ideas. We like to do heavy outlining first and then will commonly trade scenes until a first draft is finished. It’s a process that definitely works for us with 5 shorts, and 5 features written in the last 5 years.
CMR: What are the major artistic influences that helped you create the visual style of the film?
ABK: There were a number of heavy players here for me cinematically, most notably JACOBS LADDER, LOST HIGHWAY and even some Giallo films like DEEP RED. But when my DP Chris Heinrich and I got together we found ourselves regular referencing David Fincher and that gritty lived in environment where the sky is always overcast and the colors are this muted green against very deep blacks. Because Jack, our protagonist, was a photographer, we also wanted to utilize this everywhere we could. So the framing many times was set-up like a still photographer would. Even our color palette was heavily influenced by actual war photography. My Production designer, Max Nalevanksy, used real war journalism photos to help influence everything the lens sees, from costumes to set dressing.
CMR: Researching the films you’ve worked on exposes an interest in characters that long to discover their identities. “Sarah” in Starry Eyes, “Woman” in Honor Student, and now “Jack” in Camera Obscura all want to find a way to understand the lives they’ve been thrust into. What is it that draws you to these kinds of stories?
ABK: I love that you picked up on that. I got involved with Starry Eyes, largely because of the script and this factor. There is something that will always be fascinating to me about the misrepresentation of people. And I think this day and age of social media it only enhances that more, with us utilizing this as a mechanism to project to the world the life we want everyone to think we are living, regardless of the mess that may be behind the door.
CMR: I remember going to the mall as a teenager and just people watching. But I would take this further and narrate in my head what I thought their world was like and make up their profession, home life and even favorite song, just by watching them walk into a Specs Music (back when we still had that store). It was an interesting, and maybe a little weird, exercise but it started to make me wonder, even at a very young age what my life would be narrated as if I saw myself, and would I like what I had to say. So the stories now that I navigate to are those people still trying to find themselves or struggling to understand the realities of their life while still projecting something different. Flawed and morally conflicted characters, will always be something I enjoy in the movies I watch and are especially present in the movies I make.
CMR: Camera Obscura explores the impact of PTSD as the result of war. What drew you to exploring that issue in particular?
ABK: A colleague of mine, which actually was Dennis Widmyer of Starry Eyes, suggested to me the concept of a War Photographer early in the draft phase of this script. And during the research of this, I found myself regularly tormented by the realities of what these folks photographed. This quickly lead to the realization of if this was tough for me, what must this have been like for them, and that was when I learned more about PTSD and how this is so much more than just a military condition. I read about stories of folks blacking out and doing some pretty outrageous things with absolutely no recollection of it. This element, although frightening, was exciting to explore as a writer because it allows you levity to work and create the ultimate unreliable narrator.
CMR: Since 9/11 American military forces have been overextended in several conflicts, making PTSD a major problem for our veterans. Still, though, PTSD is a mental health condition that goes largely misunderstood. How does your film spread awareness about PTSD to help close that gap?
ABK: Wow, I wish I could say that I think this will help in even the most minuscule of ways but I don’t know that I shined a heavy of enough light on this for those to truly take notice. I will say though, that if this can get some skeptic of my film out there to research this, simply because he wants to debunk things found in the film, only to learn how on so many levels this could actually be true. Well if that happened, then that could be an avenue I would be proud of, as it could and would educate a few folks on the sheer gravity of this debilitating illness.
CMR: Though the modern term “camera obscura” dates back to 1604, its elements can be traced back to prehistoric cave paintings. In other words, humans have been interested in how the distance between what our eyes see and what our minds interpret. How does that narrative device help us rethink our relationship to paranormal activity?
ABK: There is something beautiful to me about the photographic process as a whole. And in particular, how through the manipulation of light and how other very simple in camera techniques, can so greatly alter what we see through a lens, compared to what is finally developed. This is why I think we have seen so many films with this trope of a haunted camera or haunted photography. The idea of seeing apparitions in developed photos is as old as photography itself. So narratively it is fun to explore and gives you a beautiful piece of celluloid to play with, but ultimately, as a skeptic, I don’t know that know that there is any kind of true connection there. But it sure is fun to think about and explore.
CMR: What advice would you give to young filmmakers just beginning their careers?
ABK: Make stuff. That’s it really. Don’t get caught up in what you should be doing or how good someone else’s piece of art is. I guarantee you that if you dig deep enough, they made something pretty crappy too. We all did. But the key is to just learn from that and keep going. Push yourself to try a different technique, a different genre, style etc. Just don’t stop because the results aren’t coming fast enough or because your “friend” thinks this is a waste of your time. Real friends encourage you. They inspire you. Find those friends and make stuff every chance you get. And soon enough you will find your voice, and then you will find your audience.