It’s not easy being all alone in a new place, unable to speak the language, but as every refugee knows, sometimes there’s no choice. As the narration at the start of The Becomers informs us, the protagonist of this film has fled a dying world to seek a new life on Earth. They hope to reconnect with their lover and begin the process of assimilation, but first they will need to find a human body to inhabit – or, if necessary, several. Zach Clark’s cheery and occasionally grotesque science fiction comedy follows this character through a series of bodies, in the process finding out some unexpected things about humans and humanity. It’s screening as part of the 2023 Fantasia international Film Festival, and Zach and I met up to discuss the way it all came about.
“The big thing for me is that over the pandemic, I got really into Star Trek for the first time ever in my adult life,” he says. “It was all on Netflix. I randomly put on an episode of the original series after dinner one night and just had my mind blown by it. I've always loved The Twilight Zone and I've always loved old science fiction and horror movies, but Star Trek is, like, capital S, capital F, Science Fiction. And from a time before Star Wars, so it doesn't need space battles and stuff. It’s not really concerned with that. And it is so colourful and perverse and funny and smart and weird, and unafraid of being any of those things. I just devoured all of it, and then moved on to Next Generation, which I also love – but the original Star Trek was a really, really special experience during Covid.
“When this project came to me – the producers are Chicago-based and they put up most of the money for my last film, Little Sister – they just came to me and said, ‘We're looking to put together low budget genre movies that are shot in Chicago. Do you have any ideas?’ And this was the idea that I came up with. So I tried to make a big a science fiction movie in the style of what I had been fired up by recently, with the bright neon colours and all the weird alien technobabble. Whatever the aliens speak, it’s all very much just me trying to write Star Trek dialogue.
That's where the genre elements come from. I wrote the script in three weeks in February 2021, so here in the States, the insurrection had just happened, and we were still very much in the throes of the pandemic, so our lives felt like a science fiction movie at that point. I thought that these characters that you follow from body to body would be an interesting way to explore the different ways that that time affected us all at varying levels in different places in society.”
It’s all quite brightly coloured and playful, but very early on, there’s an incident involving a baby which will horrify some viewers. I ask if he worried about whether or not people would keep watching through that and he says, with remarkable sanguinity (and some laughter), that it’s probably better if they decide they hate the film early on than after they’ve watched it all and wasted 90 minutes. The idea for the scene in question had been in his head for a while, and he feels that it was important.
“Another thing I thought about the way Covid changed the world is that life as we knew it might not come back to the way it was, but that that is not inherently a negative thing. The movie is very human beings out, aliens in, you know?” The way that this baby and, later, another baby fit into the film helps to make that point, he explains.
I note that the aliens in the film refer to coming to Earth in pods. Is that an Invasion Of The Body Snatchers reference? Are we seeing a story of that type told from the invaders’ point of view?
“I've always loved both versions of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers,” he acknowledges. “When I came up with this idea, it was sort of intrinsic to the idea that we not be following a group of people and the tension is who is going to get snatched? I mean, that is basically the key premise to every other Body Snatchers movie that I've seen. You're like, ‘Oh, is so-and-so an alien now? I don't know.’ You never don’t know who the aliens are in this movie. What became interesting thing about that is the story then had to be, well, how are the bodies they snatched going to get them into trouble? What is the story of their journey through the bodies they take?
“There are flesh pods towards the end. That was not a spot on specific reference to Body Snatchers but those two films and the book, which I also think is really good, have always been inspirational to me. It's always, to me, more interesting to explore the story of the outsiders in any situation, and if you are a lone alien coming to Planet Earth, you are inherently the outsider. So yeah, telling the movie through their eyes became the trick to unlocking it.”
I tell him that I love the way that he worked with some familiar science fiction tropes. We're always seeing people learning language from television, but here the television mostly delivers adverts and political slogans, setting up a style of dialogue which then sets the aliens apart. He says that a lot of that was organic because he’s been consuming so much science fiction in the past few years, including all of the Dune books. We go on to discuss his approach to direction and I asked how he managed to keep the characters of the two aliens consistent when they’re played by a number of different people.
“We did have all the people who play the aliens come hang out with each other for a few hours,” he says. “I think it also helps that – and this wasn't even fully intentional, but the way the shoot was scheduled – each person got to do a scene with the previous actor playing the alien and then playing their normal self, before they then played the alien, if that makes sense...I also just would tell them to not rush anything, because that was a big thing in directing the alien performances. I’d say ‘No-one's in a hurry, take your time, feel free to leave pauses in the dialogue if you would like.’ And then a lot of the way that they speak it, like they'll say a couple of words and then pause, that manner of speaking where they're searching for the right way to say something or the right word, was written into the script.”
It’s usually really difficult to get enoug time for that kind of approach when shooting a low budget film, I note.
The Becomers poster
“Well, much like the writing of the movie, we shot very quickly. So the scriptwriting through wrapping principal photography – we shot for about 14 days, in 2021 – was three or four months. Honestly, a lot of it was just working based off of instinct. And then also, what I’ve found with basically every single movie I've ever made, you then come back later and reshoot some things that you maybe didn't have the time to get right the first time around, so we did come back about a year later and do some pick-ups.
“There are two main aliens there, as you know. There's adult aliens and there's baby aliens. So the adult aliens were designed by Brian Spears and Pete Gerner, who did special effects make-up for my last film, Little Sister. They did them based off of some drawings I had done because we shot in Chicago, and Brian and Pete are based in New York. The only person that I could get to them quickly to have their head moulded and cast to play the aliens was me, so that is me in special effects alien makeup in those scenes, and we shot those on their own deck. There's maybe three shots with those adult aliens in them, and they were all done in one day with nothing else in the schedule. The special effects make-up team and the camera crew were the only people there.
“The orifice stuff was done more on the fly. On the day, Catherine Woods, who was our designer and application person for that theme, put those on very quickly, and got everything up and running very fast. It took maybe an hour or so to get both of those actors into those prosthetics, and, you know, you just shoot that stuff enough times until you think you've got it together and hope for the best.
“The baby was designed by Ben Gojer, who is also a very talented special effects person, who did all the special effects for All Jacked Up And Full Of Worms that was at Fantasia last year. He’s from Chicago originally. And so he came out with the baby in his luggage. He made it in Los Angeles and flew out with it. Our producer, Joe [Swanberg] had space that he let us use where we put the lights up like we're at the parking lot to shoot the baby, and we framed the shot so that we could have people operating stuff and a table with all the goop and stuff on it.”
So what's it like being at Fantasia with this now?
“It's super exciting. I've always been very inspired by how far reaching Fantasia’s approach to genre film is. So, you know, a film like Skinamarink can appear there, and they also played my last movie, Little Sister, which is not a capital G genre movie but has elements to it that make it maybe genre-adjacent. So even the including of that movie in their line-up was an interesting choice. And, yeah, I am really excited to see what audiences think about this movie and how they react to it and what their takeaways are. It’s a small, strange thing that I have been working on more or less by myself for a while, so to go from my current experience with it, which is watching it again and again on my TV or my computer screen in my apartment by myself, to seeing it in a room with 100 or so people is, yeah, it's exciting. It's a little nerve-racking. But yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”