While waiting for tomorrow premiere of the movie Detroit Evolution, inspired by the videogame Detroit Become Human, we interviewed its director Michelle Iannantuono. Here’s what she told us about its production and her relationship with the amazing fans who supported it.
Detroit: Become Human came as a breath of fresh air for gamers all around the globe, expecially after Quantic’s not-so-good-as-hoped Beyond: Two Souls. Already from the launch trailer at E3 2016, it looked like a great piece of gaming and the actual product did not betray expectations. From a more technical point of view the fluid mechanics, the overhall spectacular graphic level and the possibility of seeing in a flowchart what you missed after each chapter made the game really enjoyable.
The fandom that was born out of it, on the other hand, was even better. It started a few days after day one – enough time for some players to finish the game – and grew exponentially day after day. Fanfictions, fanarts, fanvids, short movies and every thing you can imagine in a fandom: they have it. And now… even a 75 minutes long professional movie with an M/M relationship at its core. What a time to be a fan!
Our collaborator Sara Ferrari presented the movie on our site a couple of weeks ago. After that, we decided to interview its director, Michelle Innantuono – who is also the director of the short movie Detroit Awakening, that came before this longer project – and peek at the world on the other side of the camera, where the magic is created.
Detroit Evolution: the interview
Why did you decide to work on Detroit Awakening, first, and then on Detroit Evolution? What about the videogame Detroit Become Human caught your attention?
I have been a fan of Quantic Dream since 2014, when I first played “Heavy Rain”. I waited for Detroit with a lot of eagerness and was basically a day one buyer. I liked that it was about androids, but honestly, it could have been about anything – I really enjoy the studio’s work. And after finishing “Detroit Become Human”, I wanted more in a way I rarely do. I joined the fandom and quickly fell in love with the concept of Reed900.
Over time, I’ve found that fiction writing is a bit of a chore for me, and it’s difficult for me to make much of an impression as a fanfic writer. But film comes easy, and I’m really the only one doing it in any given fandom. So when I had the idea to do Detroit Awakening as a film instead of a fanfic, it took off from there. I scrounged together as much money as I could afford to throw at this vanity project and made it as fast as I could.
When we wrapped filming on Detroit Awakening, we were all like “oh man, we have to do another part to this, the story is just getting started. Maximilian has just gotten a handle on Nines, it can’t be over this soon!”. But it was all up to the fan response for Awakening. That was going to make or break the concept of a sequel happening, because I was out of money and couldn’t invest time into a project people didn’t yearn for. But the fans came out in an amazing way, and were begging for a sequel, offering to crowdfund it. I had to do the math on what would make that possible, but once I did, I launched Patreon and Twitch and other crowdfunding streams and…here we are.
From a short to a full-length movie: can you tell us more about the creative and production process of Detroit: Evolution?
I love making features. They’re my time to shine. My shorts either feel overloaded with information, or they feel empty, because the only way I know how to make a short is to 1) compress a feature into 15 minutes or 2) basically make something that’s just conceptual, and doesn’t have much sense of character or punchiness.
So, I try to do something feature lengthed whenever I have the resources to do so. I set a fundraising goal for Detroit Evolution that would allow me to make a ~45 minute movie. Luckily we surpassed our budget by over 200% and were able to make something 75 minutes long.
Detroit Awakening was a lot of compromise. It told a story that I could afford to tell at the time, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to say. I knew I wanted to do something longer, something more involved, and also, romantic. That third thing is definitely something I couldn’t do out the gate, for storytelling coherency reasons, and because I didn’t know how the fans would respond.
But by the time I had raised thousands for Detroit Evolution and was writing the script, all three were possible. Maximilian, as a gay man, was extremely supportive of the idea of it being an M/M romance – as were the fans, who I’d gotten to know a lot better at the time. I knew we had enough money to make a feature. And we had the money for stunts, a larger cast, and more production value.
A director is not a leader so much as she is a hostage negotiator. Her vision is the hostage, and every person on that set has to be constantly appealed to and negotiated with in order to make sure that vision stays alive.
From a production standpoint, Detroit Evolution is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Finding locations that would allow us to shoot there – even with budget and insurance – was so hard. It took me two months of writing emails. I wanted the locations to be more high quality and futuristic this time around, so it took 10x more work and a fifth of the budget.
The actual shoot week of DE was also pretty devastating to me. Everyone else seemed to have fun. For me, it was just nonstop stress. We shot a 71 page script over just seven days (and with only one day off). The production schedule was brutal. We managed to stay on time most days, miraculously. Most days wrapped in 12 or 13 hrs as planned. Everyone ate plenty and was allowed to get sleep (except me). But managing that many people, knowing that we only had one shot at it, making sure no one ever had to worry and that I would worry on behalf of them – it’s a lot.
A director is not a leader so much as she is a hostage negotiator. Her vision is the hostage, and every person on that set has to be constantly appealed to and negotiated with in order to make sure that vision stays alive. Anyone at any time can fall out of line and kill it. You have to put aside a lot of professional grief as well as personal issues sometimes for the good of the project.
But obviously it’s rewarding when you see it finished and when you see the fans react. That shoot was hard. But I get to have fun in post, while everyone else had to wait lol. I don’t always love making movies, but I love having made them. There’s nothing quite like seeing an audience react and resonate with what you’ve made.
In Twitter, fans mentioned trailer-scenes inspired by fanarts. I wonder: how much influence did fans’ artistic productions and fans’ tropes in relation to Gavin/RK900 have for the development of the movie?
I would say there was immense influence from Reed900 Fandom at large. Gavin and Nines are very shaped by fanon, so it’s pretty impossible not to be inspired by what has come before. Gavin is in the game and does have a canon personality, but a lot of folks relate to a version of him that is softer, more broken, more redemptive than what we saw in the canon.
I think Gavin represents a person who fans can project onto if they have self sabotaging behaviors they can’t help, personal traumas they’re trying to overcome, or if they just want to be loved in spite of their struggles. Nines is almost entirely a fandom creation – even down to the name “Nines.” The white motorcycle jacket that Nines wears in DE emerged in a lot of art and fanfics before it. And a lot of the backstory and lore of both characters is familiar to the fandom.
Detroit Evolution still has a lot of original ideas, especially in terms of its A-plot – the detective story and central mystery. I also think leaning heavily into Nines being asexual is a bit unique for us – Reed900 can often be a very sexually charged ship. But I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and force people to get used to an unusual interpretation of the characters. If we’re going to put all this money and effort into a Reed900 film, it’s going to be a version of Reed900 that feels familiar and beloved by the largest number of fans. It’s got to bring to life a version of these characters that people are yearning to see. It’s got to be a thing people want to exist.
Fans have already started creating fanarts inspired by your movie and noticing aspects (like the height difference of your actors) that are going to feed the discussion and inspire whole new fanworks. What are the most interesting responses that you received to the trailers from the fan community and what are you expecting from the movie?
Ah, it’s so different every single time I put something out. With Detroit Awakening, it was the fan art, because we never expected to get THAT much art.
I think one of my favorite, most unexpected fanworks so far for Detroit Evolution has been the person who did nail art inspired by the film. Nail art! Doing complex nail painting is about my only non-monetized side hobby, so I found that absolutely incredible.
When I released the first trailer, I was most surprised by the amount of Youtube engagement I got. It was the fastest growing video I’ve ever had. Lots and lots of comments. I’m not sure what magical algorithm I tapped into, but that was really amazing.
With the second trailer, it was the theories! The Discord went crazy for about five days with fan theories, non stop. They hyper analyzed our movie the way you see people on Reddit hyper analyzing the Black Widow trailer or something! A lot more speculative fanfiction cropped up from the second trailer, and we’ve never really had a lot of fanfic in Octopunk fandom, so that was a delightful surprise. And someone did a trailer reaction video on Youtube for that one as well, which was a first for us. All of that is the first time I’ve really felt close to having a Hollywood production or something, because people are really, really invested in seeing the film.
I never know what to expect looking forward though. Everyone could hate it! Everyone could love it but feel like it was so complete that they’re not compelled to make art or write fic about it anymore. Or maybe they’ll love it but still want to see more, and they’ll express themselves through their mediums. We could have 5000 views on opening day, or we could have 30,000. You just never know with Youtube and social media. DBH fandom has become a lot quieter since last year, too. The fact that anyone at all is still interested in these two characters is a real blessing.
If we’re going to put all this money and effort into a Reed900 film, it’s going to be a version of Reed900 that feels familiar and beloved by the largest number of fans. It’s got to bring to life a version of these characters that people are yearning to see.
What’s your opinion about fans and fans’ productions, in general?
Fans shape the “vibe” of a fandom, for sure. I’ve been in a lot of fandoms and they’ve all felt different due to the prevailing demographics of the people who were drawn to them.
I’ve learned a lot from my fans that has influenced how I have led our community. For instance, the need for translated subtitles on our films, so our international fans can enjoy our work in their native languages. They also showed me the need to stream at a variety of times on Twitch to offer streams for every time zone. They’ve vastly shaped how I decided to run my Discord server, as their needs continuously arise and I incorporate the good ideas and ignore the ones that I feel don’t serve us.
And the fans have done a great job of supporting each others’ art, of being there for each other in times of stress, or in moderating each others behavior. No one has really tried to do anything really edgy or inappropriate, such as drawing erotic art of Maximilian or something, because I think they know the other fans would call them out for it and not endorse that sort of behavior. And that comes from respect, I think, which I’m really humble to have earned from them.
I also like to set a culture where people can have bad days – you don’t have to be vapidly positive all the time – while also adhering to the Whedon rule of “don’t be a dick.” Some content creators put themselves in a pickle by saying “everyone is welcome! We exist for everybody!” but I’m not afraid to say that hateful, intolerant, or creepy/predatory people are not welcome, and I’m not going to turn the other cheek to folks like that being hostile or making the community uncomfortable.
And on top of that, you just can’t be all things to all people. I operate in a somewhat narrow window – a Venn Diagram of “films about LGBT stuff” and “films related to video games” and my work is always in one circle, or the other, or both. Since Octopunk has a really concrete identity, it’s easy for folks to immediately resonate and hop aboard, or realize really quickly that I don’t have much they care for.
I was amazed by the choice of actors for this movie. They are absolutely perfect and fans adore them. How did you all worked on their characters?
Chris had never even played DBH when we shot, and wasn’t familiar with Gavin at all. And when Maximilian played Nines in Detroit Awakening, he was new to this world back then. Pretty much everything they learned about Reed900, they learned from me and my screenplays. Although, Maximilian has become a fan of the game and of Reed900 through this process.
Filmmaking is my profession, so I put talent, skill, and professionalism above all other things when I choose my collaborators. That is more valuable to me than whether someone is already a fan, or whether someone is familiar with the source material. Source material and canon can be taught – you can’t make them be more talented or professional (or, at least I don’t have time to help them do that!).
What I do love is helping people get their foot in the door and giving them a platform – people like Maximilian or Tiare Solis (who plays Tina Chen’s wife Valerie), who haven’t done much film work before. But Tiare and Maximilian are still experienced professionals. Maximilian has done loads of theater. Tiare works in the acting industry as an audition coach. They needed someone to give them a spotlight and a chance to shine, but they were not learning on the job.
Author note: Maximilian Koger shared with us his own answer to this question and this is what he told us:
“We already had a really solid foundation of who Nines was from working on Detroit Awakening. Michelle helped develop him further with me. We would chat constantly on Instagram about everything from his wardrobe to his mindest a year after the events of the first movie, and navigating the romantic direction we wanted to take with the film.
We have so many incredible fans out there with deeply detailed mindsets as far as who Nines is. Being a fan film, we walked a tightrope of what we personally and creatively needed to reflect in the film balanced with the very clear fan inspired shots and ideas.
Those would give it a very personal relevance to the incredible people that funded the project. Nines is a character that has become more of a feeling in my bones as opposed to a character study.
We have a fully realized being who has discovered a new life’s purpose that goes against his programming, but being awoken in Awakening gave him freedom.
We grappled with the anxiety of discovering his new identity in the first film, and in this film we get to see the evolution of Nines a year later. He’s settled more into his relationship with Gavin Reed and is now navigating brand new circumstances: his growing affection for Gavin and his duty to keep Detroit from a growing threat.
For me, personally, the greatest challenge for this role was knowing everything that needed to come across, but making it translate to film through acting. There is such a playground for subtlety in the medium of film. Most of my experience is with the stage, so I had to maintain the same impulses and hyperfocus required by theater, but display it in ways that don’t take you out of the film.Maximilian Koger
I’m playing a character that should pass for human, but you have to know parts of the performance must read programmed, in a sense. On top of that, accounting for the lighting, how it’s hitting me and my costars, etc, ensure that the image you’re seeing in the movie is working in harmony with my performance. The collaboration of every single cast and crew member is essential. The sets and lighting are characters of their own. One of my biggest hopes is that if people rewatch the movie, they’ll find a new subtle moment that they missed previously. There’s a myriad of fun in the details.”
Derivative works are complicated ones: sometimes the authors encourage them and sometimes they make things very difficult. Did you receive acknowledgments of some kind by those involved in Detroit Become Human? For example, from Bryan Dechart/Connor, who is a very active twitcher?
We received mass acknowledgement from the creative team with our first film, Detroit Awakening. Bryan and Amelia, Neil Newbon, Ben, composer Nima Fakhrara, and David Cage himself all commented upon it in some way or acknowledged it. Far as I know, no one from the cast or crew has acknowledged Detroit Evolution. But no one has gotten in our way or tried to stop it, haha, so I guess that’s good.
The New York premiere of the movie had to be postponed, due to the difficult situation we are all going through. Can you tell us more about your future plans for the movie?
Well, I’ve postponed and reconfigured our New York event for August, where we’ll still be screening Detroit Evolution and hopefully some shorts as well.
As a fan film, Detroit Evolution would have a difficult time being screened at festivals – a lot of festivals don’t really know what to do with fan films, and some of them don’t like screening films that are already available online. However, I do have some great connections with festivals from my tour of Livescream, my first feature-lengthed film. A couple festivals have asked me to submit DE, so we’ll see what happens. I am sure I will screen at a couple (assuming the virus doesn’t knock all of them down for a year).
Detroit Evolution will premiere on Youtube tomorrow at 11AM EDT (in Italy: ore 17.00!), streaming in real time and with a live chat. After that time, the movie will be available as a regular Youtube video.
At the end of this interview, we would like to thank Michelle and Maximilian for all they shared with us… and, with them, all the people that supported this project and made it happen.
Fans, they get the job done.
(Do you get that reference?)