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FonePhace: a sci-fi flick about technology and human nature

Chicago-based filmmaker Jonathan Rivera’s sci fi drama FONEPHACE is that rare combination: an entertaining film that invites us to think, wonder, and maybe change our ways. The film, shot with an iPhone 4S, brings to live a future that is frighteningly close to present day life. In 10 minutes, the film—a nominee in the 2015 iPhone Film Festival—says more about technology and human nature than you might find in a thick book. Plus it delivers plenty of bitter-sweet laughter.

In the following interview, Rivera takes us behind the scenes of the making of his movie.

MMM: Where did you get the idea for FonePhace?
Rivera: I commute to work everyday on the Chicago L train.  On a typical day more than half of the riders are fully engrossed on their smartphones, e-readers, and tablets.  I am fascinated (and a little disturbed) by how this relatively new technology (portable computers) is overturning our culture and societal norms.  At the same time, I also wanted to comment on how the proliferation of such devices has turned a large portion of the workforce into 24-hour employees who are always on call and are expected to surrender ever more personal time for the job.

MMM: So your aim was to critique modern technology?
Rivera: On the surface I intended that FonePhace would be a commentary on the effect of smartphone technology on social interaction, as well as the intrusion of work into increased aspects of our personal lives.  However, the deeper premise I was attempting to convey was that when given the freedom to break out of the ordinary and do something extraordinary, most of us will pass up the opportunity and fall back on what we know because its comfortable.  I find this interesting because in most stories the protagonist breaks free from their boring lives to do something extraordinary.  As much as I love such a happy ending, I don’t think this is realistic.  I hope that my movies, such as FonePhace, reflect the reality of modern-day human ambition, even though the story is often surreal and quite odd.

MMM: What kind of scripting did you do? full script? shot list? storyboards? All of the above?
Rivera: When scripting I typically write a general outline of the story first and then list each descriptive shot in chronological order.

MMM:  Why did you decide to shoot your movie using a mobile device—rather than a traditional camera?
Rivera: I kind of fell into iPhone movie making on accident.  I purchased my first iPhone two years ago and was amazed by its video and editing capabilities.  I started experimenting with my phone and became very comfortable with it and liked the convenience of being able to edit video anywhere, even during my commute to work.  I also like how discreet a smartphone is as a camera.  Typically no one notices that you’re filming when out in public because smart phones are some commonplace now.

MMM: Can you tell us something about your casting process?
Rivera: The actors are all friends or friends of friends.  When I wrote the script I had Kathleen Van Tiem in mind when writing the character for Jo.  Everyone else volunteered for their parts after reading the script.

MMM: You play the lead character. What was it like directing yourself?
Rivera: It’s a real endurance test to keep up the energy level for the performance, while at the same time motivating the cast and staying on schedule.  Because I am lucky to work with so many talented and creative people, I tend to be more flexible in when directing.  Typically I will allow the actors to make changes to the dialogue or the specifics of the scene based on their own interpretation.  Often it much better than what I originally thought of while staying consistent with the overall theme and story of the film.

MMM:  How about the crew?
Rivera: Pretty much everyone who helped me make the movie are friends.  My friend Steve Hurovitz has worked with me on just about every film and has a good sense for the shot I’m looking for.  I am very grateful for the people I’ve worked with.  They’ve all been very enthusiastic and take the movie making process very seriously.  I guess the most important advice I have is not to waste your actors time.  I try to schedule each shot efficiently to reduce the amount of waiting around.

MMM:  Your movie has  wonderful locations—especially the office. Can you tell us how you found the key locations? any problems securing permissions?
Rivera: Unfortunately, I’m unable to divulge information about the office, but filming was done on a weekend to be minimally disruptive.
MMM: During the shoot or in post production, did you encounter any unexpected problems? If yes, could you say how you solve them—or solved the major problem? What would you do differently next time?
Rivera: Every time I make a movie there are always a few shots that don’t turn out quite the way I expected.  Fortunately, I’m able to fix most problems in editing.

MMM:  Is there gear that you’d recommend to other moviemakers?
Rivera:   iMovie has been my video editing app of choice.
MMM: Taking a step back, how did you develop your skills as a filmmaker?
Rivera:  I was quite involved in movie making as a teenager on an old Panasonic VHS shoulder camcorder.  When video switched to digital format I didn’t do any filming for several years.  I’ve been making films on my iPhone for over two years.  I also learned about directing and staging from several years of experience in community theater.

MMM: Can you give us a hint about your next production?
Rivera:  Ironically—given that I’m in the middle of a Q & A  with you—it will involve an interview that goes wrong in an unexpected way.  It will be sillier and more light hearted than FonePhace, although I can’t guarantee an happy ending.

MMM: What advice would you give to other filmmakers who want to make good mobile movies—or any movies?
Rivera: The technology is cheap, and you’re probably are carrying it in our pocket.  Be creative, express yourself, and make a movie!
MMM: How can people learn more about your work?
Rivera: My YouTube channel is youtube.com/OddMediaProductions and my Twitter handle is @OddMediaPro. I hope people will check out my latest film L-epathic:
MMM: Thanks for taking the time to share your work.
Rivera: I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts and expand on the ideas explored in my movie FonePhace.
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