Inspired by science

Eliza McNitt on Jessica Chastain, Darren Aronofsky and her VR experience Spheres

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Spheres director Eliza McNitt: "I wanted Jessica Chastain to be in our first episode, the episode about the black holes. And then once we created that episode, it was so clear that I wanted Patti Smith, who to me is the mother of the universe."
Spheres director Eliza McNitt: "I wanted Jessica Chastain to be in our first episode, the episode about the black holes. And then once we created that episode, it was so clear that I wanted Patti Smith, who to me is the mother of the universe." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the press preview for the VR experience Spheres, executive produced by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, produced by Jess Engel, Arnaud Colinart, and Dylan Golden with a score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, the writer/director Eliza McNitt shared with me why she chose The Duffer Brothers Stranger Things' Millie Bobby Brown, Ridley Scott's Martian and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar star Jessica Chastain and Patti Smith.

Eliza McNitt with Anne-Katrin Titze: "I've always grown up with the voices of incredible pioneers like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking who taught me about science."
Eliza McNitt with Anne-Katrin Titze: "I've always grown up with the voices of incredible pioneers like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking who taught me about science." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

We spoke about how her Fistful of Stars lead to a Protozoa Pictures meeting, Aronofsky's Mother! (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem), Craig Henighan's (Black Swan, Noah, Alfonso Cuarón's ROMA) sound design, and the creation of the three chapters of Spheres, that is currently showing in a custom-designed screening room at Rockefeller Center off Fifth Avenue on West 48th Street.

Spheres won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Virtual Reality Immersive Story at the 2018 Venice Film Festival.

Chapter I: Chorus Of The Cosmos, narrated by Millie Bobby Brown had its world première in Venice with the complete series.

Chapter II: Songs Of Spacetime, narrated by Jessica Chastain was the initial chapter of Spheres and was first viewed by the public at last year's Sundance Film Festival.

Chapter III: Pale Blue Dot, narrated by Patti Smith, premièred at the 17th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Touch the stars, tumble into a black hole, and sway to the music of the universe at Eliza McNitt's stellar VR installation, which will take you out of the snowy, chilly, early-months-of-the-year New York present (it runs through March 3) and deposit you heavenwards. For 45 minutes total, the dimensions of time and place hang suspended, as you grapple around the planets and make them sing to you.

Spheres - A VR Journey Through the Cosmos
Spheres - A VR Journey Through the Cosmos Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The final chapter is by far the most urgent and comes with a warning. After the previous episodes' flights of fancy, we end up with our own planet - little, lovable Earth - as it goes through a transformation. All the oceans disappear and the surface turns into a terra-cotta-tinted crust. We witness the end of life as we know it from outside. Are we onlooker or creator? When in doubt, there's always Patti Smith to consult about power and about people.

Eliza expressed her childhood admiration for Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking and that she is "deeply inspired by science and translating stories about science into storytelling."

Anne-Katrin Titze: You chose three female voices to narrate Spheres. Was that clear from the start for you?

Eliza McNitt: Yeah, I've always grown up with the voices of incredible pioneers like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking who taught me about science. And as a young woman who loved the sciences, I really wanted to create an experience that represented three different generations of women who spoke about science and the universe.

AKT: The ages represent that we are growing up with them? This is the order to experience the three parts?

EM: Exactly, yeah.

AKT: How did you get them interested? Are they all interested in science?

EM: Yeah, Jessica Chastain is very interested in science and the cosmos and from the beginning of this project I wanted her to be involved.

AKT: So the middle one came first?

Lee Lawrie's Atlas at Rockefeller Center holding the heavens
Lee Lawrie's Atlas at Rockefeller Center holding the heavens Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

EM: Yes. Everything was made out of order. The order was: Chapter II, Chapter III, and then Chapter I. It was like Star Wars.

AKT: That makes perfect sense.

EM: I wanted Jessica Chastain to be in our first episode, the episode about the black holes. And then once we created that episode, it was so clear that I wanted Patti Smith, who to me is the mother of the universe.

AKT: Mother of the sounds of the universe, too!

EM: Exactly. And the sounds of the universe - to be the voice of that final episode. And then Millie Bobby Brown represents a generation, the voice of the youth right now especially. And so I really wanted her to be a part of this experience.

AKT: I had forgotten until just now, that the last time I spoke with Jessica Chastain was over tea about The Martian.

EM: Jessica Chastain was in The Martian. And also Interstellar, in which black holes play very prominent themes. You know, she's probably one of the only actors who's ever had that experience of what it would be like to see a black hole. So I really wanted her to be a part of this.

AKT: And Patti Smith, she has of course at the end of the third episode the most powerful message. This is where everything leads, if we don't take care of our earth. That's what you want people to come away with, isn't it?

EM: Yeah, you know, this whole series is about us. It's about going out. You leave earth to travel to the darkest edges of the universe in order to look back at our planet and understand how precious it is. So that for me was the most important part of the series.

Spheres at Rockefeller Center on 48th Street
Spheres at Rockefeller Center on 48th Street Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Being at Rockefeller Center, how does that feel?

EM: It's an amazing opportunity to be here. This is an iconic New York City destination with so much history. And even my 101-year-old grandfather had an office here at Rock Center. So for me it holds special meaning because he's the reason why I'm so inspired by science.

AKT: And we are getting a chance to hold the earth in our hands!

EM: That's right. Like Atlas you get to hold the earth in your hands.

AKT: Exactly. We become Atlas. How did your collaboration with Darren Aronofsky come about?

EM: So, I am deeply inspired by science and translating stories about science into storytelling. I was translating experiences about science into storytelling. And at Protozoa, they are so deeply invested in supporting creators who are speaking about science and art.

And I was very lucky that one of the producers at Protozoa, named Dylan Golden, read an article online about my previous work, Fistful Of Stars, and he brought me in for a meeting. And I told him, you know, I'm working on this VR experience.

Eliza McNitt on Spheres, Darren Aronofsky and Protozoa Pictures: "I had no clue that this was tapping into so many of the themes that they feel so passionately about."
Eliza McNitt on Spheres, Darren Aronofsky and Protozoa Pictures: "I had no clue that this was tapping into so many of the themes that they feel so passionately about." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

It's about the planet earth and the fragility of our planet. And at the time they were working on Mother! but I had no idea what Mother! was about. Nothing had been released.

AKT: We all know now!

EM: I had no clue that this was tapping into so many of the themes that they feel so passionately about. So I was really lucky and very honoured to have the opportunity to work with such masters of cinema, like Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel - they both went to Harvard and studied science.

AKT: Now we have gone full circle at Rockefeller Center with Mother [Earth] and the female voices.

EM: That's right!

The Spheres series, presented by Oculus Studios and Protozoa Pictures at Rockefeller Center, will allow seven viewers at a time to experience the 45-minute film on an Oculus Rift headset through March 3.

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