A lifelong cinephile and graduate of Full Sail University’s film program, Aaron B. Koontz has wanted to be a filmmaker since he was a teenager. After being a producer at Universal Studios Florida and creating various short films, Koontz has finally written and directed a feature length film called Camera Obscura. Wanting to learn more about Koontz’s career and Camera Obscura, he allowed me to interview him for ScifiPulse.
You can learn more about Koontz by following him on twitter @AaronBKoontz and checking out his company’s homepage. And you can learn more about Camera Obscura on facebook and by following it on twitter @CamObscuraMovie.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some of the movies and shows that caused you to fall in love with filmmaking? On this note, was there a specific movie that you think pushed you into cinema production?
Aaron B. Koontz: So I grew up in a somewhat strict household and was limited on what I could watch. My grandmother though somehow got HBO for free so whenever I would go to her house I would bring with me a blank videotape and let it record overnight. This changed everything and really is what got me into horror, partially because it was my forbidden fruit, but also because it was just so much fun. As for specific examples Jaws, The Shining and even films like Big Trouble in Little China were hugely influential and definitely got me interested in filmmaking as a whole. But I think the films that really made me want to make movies myself were those I discovered in the late 90’s as an influential teenager: Rushmore, Fargo and Magnolia in particular.
Yanes: You went to Full Sail. How do you think that education uniquely prepared you for the challenges of film making?
Koontz: Full Sail was a really interesting experience for me. It’s the kind of school that you truly get what you put into it. I hear plenty of the detractors but I found it rewarding because I was this sponge soaking in everything I could. If you had a real interest in something they’d let you audit the labs over and over to get more familiar with the gear, or you could just get more real hands-on set experience with other shorts being made – which when I went there, were all 16 and 35mm.
But on the flip side of that you also can just coast by there and not really get much out of it. So the experiences for folks can be vastly different I’m sure. Whether or not it properly prepared me for filmmaking remains to be seen. I don’t really think anyone is ever truly prepared for this business.
Yanes: You live in Austin; a city of great food. If someone is visiting Austin, what is the one restaurant that they need to go to?
Koontz: The simple answer is Torchy’s. This insane taco joint that makes the best breakfast taco’s on the planet. But I’d also recommend driving about 30 minutes south to Lockhart, TX. A town with a Wal-Mart, a couple gas stations and 4 or 5 of the best BBQ places in the world. And I mean that literally, they were named this in a couple national magazines. Go to Blacks, get the Moist Brisket and realize that if there is a Heaven, this is what they’d serve.
Yanes: Now onto the focus of this interview, Camera Obscura. What was the inspiration for this film? Given how many ideas are out there to develop, what about Camera Obscura resonated with you?
Koontz: I’d seen and was familiar with the “Haunted Camera” trope in genre before but still believed there could be a good story there if we mixed in the right elements. I wanted something that felt high-concept in order to attract financiers but in its dark heart of hearts was really this misunderstood love letter to Giallo films like Deep Red and creepy psychological thrillers like Jacobs Ladder or Lost Highway.
So I began playing with this old mythology that taking a picture of someone could steal your soul but then, unearthed that with an unreliable narrator to keep an audience guessing. From there I got interested in PTSD and when a writing colleague mentioned the idea of a War Photographer it all clicked. I now had a framework that many would think was familiar but in the end gave me the freedom to make this weird Lynchian type thriller with gallows humor, that made an otherwise ordinary man do some pretty extraordinary things and that felt like a film I wanted to see.
Yanes: While watching the film I noticed that there are a lot of unusual camera angles and transition shots. What was the motivation behind these? Is there one that stands out the most to you?
Koontz: My DP (Chris Heinrich) and I talked a lot about framing this like a photographer would. About finding ways to make the film close in on you as we progress into the crazier sequences, much like Jack’s psyche. I am a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman, so longer takes are usually something I strive for whenever possible, I don’t think traditional coverage and cutting in for a close-up just because the book says you should is ideal. So yes, you’ll find a number of dutch angles for particular scenes but then also pretty meticulous symmetry in others.
My favorites though are really just the longer takes. The 360 shot with the weight bench was one but the long steadicam of Jack leaving the police station, where we go from inside to outside and then back inside, is one I am quite proud of. That took a lot of rehearsing to get right and I’m so glad we took the time to make that one happen.
Yanes: Despite the fact that the U.S. military still has ongoing operations in the Middle East, there isn’t a focus on people coming back from war with PTSD. So, what compelled you to have the main character of this film be a war photographer with PTSD?
Koontz: I remember watching a youtube video of this man who during a fit of road rage got out of his car and started attacking someone else. It was truly horrific and at the time people laughed it off. But then news came out that this individual was a War Vet who suffered from PTSD and he actually had no recollection of the incident. This was heartbreaking of course but also completely fascinating to me in that we truly know so little about the brain and how it works with folks like this. So I began to explore that idea which would allow me to create, as I mentioned above, this unreliable narrator and I knew this could potentially elevate this into a different kind of genre film.
Yanes: Specifically, how do you think Jack (fantastically played by Christopher Denham) having PTSD adds to Camera Obscura?
Koontz: Yes, Chris is truly amazing. He brought so much to not only the character but just the filmmaking process. As for his “illness,” it gives you as a story-teller this interesting world to explore where there are no right or wrong answers. Where you can say so much without actually saying anything at all. It gave the core framework of a story that allows us to separate and elevate the subject while allowing for my purposefully intended ambiguity.
Yanes: Many supernatural movies have stories of unusual activity taking place on set. Did anything unexplainable happen when filming Camera Obscura?
Koontz: I wish I could say we had some cool haunted moment that could give this some folklore but really the only unexplained happenings I can recall are when I would put down my tea and come back and it would magically be gone. So either this is a really bad tea-stealing ghost or someone just liked to keep the set clean. Either scenario isn’t too interesting I’m guessing.
Yanes: When people finish watching Camera Obscura, what do you hope they take away from the film?
Koontz: While the film may at first feel, and is deliberately so, a bit ambiguous I do want to stress that we took a lot of time to sprinkle in some Easter Egg’s and fun hints that if you are willing to dig deep enough, the answers to your questions are likely there. So my hope is that the film rewards you for that effort and can be explored on both a fun surface level but also perhaps a deeper thought provoking level. But right now I am just so damn happy to have folks watching this to be honest.
Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects you are working on that people can look forward to?
Koontz: So my next Writing/Directing effort is this script that I am super proud of, a Science Fiction Thriller called Dream Machine. I hope to go into production with that later this year. I also will be producing a couple other films for colleagues of mine, the first of which is the Action Survival Horror film Bar Fight and then a southern gothic mystery piece about a woman suffering from spontaneous combustion called Where the Red Fox Lies.
You can learn more about Koontz and Camera Obscura by following the director on twitter @AaronBKoontz and checking out his company’s homepage; and you can learn more about Camera Obscura on facebook and by following it on twitter @CamObscuraMovie.