Director Eddie Arya comes out of the dark with a new sci-fi/thriller called Risen, where a race against time to save humanity is underway after a meteor strikes a small town and kills everything, making it uninhabitable. Actor Nicole Schalmo stars as the exo-biologist Lauren Stone who is called in to try to find the answers to the mysterious event.
Like a lot of sci-fi/thrillers, there are twists and turns and surprises, but this one is totally unexpected and puts the whole film in a new light. It’s suspenseful, with characters that have colorful and interesting personalities, and puts a spin on world-turning events. If you enjoy thrillers and race-against-time-to-save-humanity films, this one is definitely a film to add to your list.
Eddie Arya is a producer, screenwriter, and film director best known for his films The Navigator and The System. Nicole Schalmo is an actor, writer, and producer, who toured with Missoula Children’s Theater. After returning to NYC, she performed in independent films and series pilot projects.
Check out our interview below with both Eddie Arya and Nicole Schalmo!
The Knockturnal: Risen reminds me of the Broadway version of The Little Shop of Horrors, and – to avoid outright spoilers – if you know the ending of that one then you’ll know what I mean. What inspired you to make this film? Where there any specific sci-fi/thriller tropes or films that inspired you?
Eddie Arya: Movies are inspiring, and I think it’s safe to say that we all are influenced and inspired by the work of those we love, but my main inspiration for Risen really comes from the vastness of space, other planets, and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. It really fascinates me. I look up at the night sky and I see life! I see other civilizations out there somewhere in galaxies far beyond. At the same time, I can’t help but feel a little threatened. The space is a scary place and I actually have nightmares about planets colliding, or we’re being invaded by a much hostile species overnight and we can no longer breathe this air and we all suffocate. I wanted to make a movie about how the world could end according to my nightmares and it’s slightly different to other alien invasion movies. My true passion for storytelling and my obsession for science, space, and extraterrestrial life, Risen was a perfect movie to make. Once I started writing there was no going back.
The Knockturnal: Speaking of tropes, were there any that you wanted to avoid, or were there any that you included that you wanted to invert/twist?
Eddie Arya: I tried to avoid showing, monster-looking creatures killing people and showing a lot of gory stuff. I also avoid showing spaceships or a lot of apocalyptic scenes where the cities are now empty and abandoned, and there’s grass growing everywhere. People have seen enough of that in movies and I just didn’t see a need for it. There were a few tropes that I’ve avoided in Risen that you’d normally see in other movies.
The Knockturnal: Could you describe your writing process – did you have everything planned out from the beginning, start with the ending first, and work backward, or something else entirely?
Eddie Arya: After the initial concept, I normally collect around 70 ideas in my head, and then I write them on cards. I then create a mood board where I find similar images from Google, from other movie scenes or shows to match my cards, or I simply get a sketch artist to draw the 70 scenes for me and not just black and white but properly paint it with details. I print them all and attach them to either a wall or a big piece of board. I then move the images around and basically try to make sense out of my movie to make sure the story flows nicely. All those 70 ideas will start taking shape and I basically watch my entire film, scene by scene in that piece of board before getting into the traditional process of writing Loglines, treatments, character development, plot, and outline, and then finally, the first draft. If my movie doesn’t look good or make sense on that board, then I will keep replacing, removing, or adding more cards until it does. The mood board is also a great way of getting inspiration to keep moving forward with your project. It’s like a reminder, I’d wake up to it every morning and keep writing. This process really works for me. Music also plays a huge part in my writing process! I normally listen to other movie soundtracks and writing Risen, I was listening to Hans Zimmer’s “Aurora“. There’s something really dark and haunting about it.
The Knockturnal: Both of your other works, The Navigator and The System, are based more in real life that goes all sorts of wrong. Are there any themes, thematically or structurally, that you have in these works that also appear in Risen?
Eddie Arya: The actual meteorite explosion in Chelyabinsk Russia appears in Risen. It appears briefly and it’s a real video that I ended up licensing it to be used in Risen. Now, I wouldn’t say inspiration but the very initial idea kinda came from that.
The Knockturnal: For Nicole, how did knowing the twist in the film influence your performance? Did you know about the ending when starting production or did you not find out until later, and how did that affect your understanding of your character, Lauren Stone?
Nicole Schalmo: I knew the ending of the film, twist included before we started filming. That knowledge helped me to better understand the layers of what Lauren was feeling in certain scenes. After finding those layers, my focus quickly shifted to balancing my own inner monologue of, “No Spoilers! No Spoilers! No Spoilers!” and being in the moment with Lauren and getting the work in. I am very excited for everyone to see the film so I can finally share! Until then… No Spoilers!
The Knockturnal: How did you prepare to get into the mindset of Lauren? Was there anything specific that you did to help you – research, reading, etc.?
Nicole Schalmo: After reading that Lauren is an astrobiologist, I knew right away that I wanted to learn as much as possible about astrobiology and other related fields. I trusted that having this basic knowledge would lay a strong enough foundation to allow me to be fully present in each scene and not question my instincts as Lauren. My sister also happens to be a scientist. Her focus is mainly in biology and ecology but we had a lot of fun bouncing ideas around before I started filming. In addition, I attended the World Science Festival where one of the speakers said that science is not about finding “the” truth but more truth. That stuck with me throughout filming. Last but not least, I made my own “Dr. Lauren Stone” playlist with a little bit of Nirvana, a little bit of Bon Iver… Each day I could be found on set, headphones in, trusting the foundation I had formed with my research and using the music to layer in whatever emotional context Lauren needed that day.
The Knockturnal: Do you enjoy thrillers/sci-fi, and have you done anything in this genre before, or was it an entirely new experience for you?
Nicole Schalmo: I have always loved a good sci-fi/thriller but have never had the opportunity to work on one until now! It was wonderful to see Lauren, this strong female lead with real depth and a backstory which plays a huge role in the film. The experience was entirely new but also a lot of fun, even on the harder days.
The Knockturnal: How was your experience on this production? Were you excited, nervous, thrilled, etc.?
Nicole Schalmo: I was… all of those feelings all at the same time! I was very excited to be working on a film of this scale and also nervous to step into the shoes of Dr. Lauren Stone. After my first day on set, I was thrilled to discover that we all very quickly became one big family, telling this story together. Eddie was especially helpful throughout production in clearly communicating his vision. Since he also wrote the script, he would often ask if I thought Lauren would say a certain line or if I felt it would be different. Those collaborative moments instantly took me out of my overthinking logic brain and put me in that moment. Lauren was choosing to use these words. I was able to trust that and go for it.
The Knockturnal: How was it to be able to work in-person again during Covid-19? What were the difficulties that you both faced while working on this production?
Eddie Arya: Yes, we were faced with a lot of difficulties and challenges, shooting in the minus 40 degree freezing conditions in Alberta, Canada, but It was a lovely town called “Airdrie” and the people were just so kind and supportive. We came back to Sydney, and we were faced with a new challenge of being in a complete lockdown due to Covid. I only had a few scenes to shoot but instead, I had to think outside the box and put my editing skills to the test and finish the film without people and without leaving the house.
Nicole Schalmo: I was fortunate enough to have wrapped all of my scenes in February of 2020. At that time, Covid-19 wasn’t as big a concern in North America. However, by the time I returned to New York City things were starting to become very real and scary. It was especially scary for me because my immune system was compromised at the time. The main difficulty I faced during filming was my own personal health. In May of 2018 I was diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent surgery to have the tumor removed. I was very fortunate to not have any lasting physical effects, but I had just finished chemo before flying to film my last scenes. I was exhausted and weak, but Eddie and the entire Risen cast and crew supported me every step of the way. It’s surreal to be sitting here now, remembering that journey.
The Knockturnal: Is there anything that either of you would like the audience to take away from the film, other than the unexpected ending?
Eddie Arya: The message is that don’t take it for granted. Respect and love it. Respect and love anything that grows on it, and all the other 8.7 million species that lives on it. We could lose this planet just like that! We’ve been transforming its natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plants and animal species are now at risk of extinction. The Earth is our cherished home, and we are responsible for this planet and its future.
Nicole Schalmo: Along with the unexpected ending, I hope the audience will allow themselves to enjoy the beauty layered within the suspense. I think another thing that will resonate is Lauren’s struggle connecting with people in her life. We all yearn to feel connected to something.
Risen will be in select theaters and on demand on August, 20th, 2021.