Exploring similar paranormal territory as FX's Legion and Netflix's own Stranger Things, first-time directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal have struck gold by having their micro-budget sci-fi thriller, Prodigy, picked up by Netflix — and the creators are ecstatic to know their carefully crafted debut feature will be seen by a much wider audience than film fests.
SYFY WIRE caught up with the co-director, and also has an exclusive clip to debut.
Shot in two weeks in an abandoned animal shelter in Riverside, California, for mere $50,000, Prodigy follows the relationship between a dangerous telekinetic girl named Ellie (Savannah Liles) and a psychiatrist (Richard Neil), who is reluctantly recruited by a secret government agency to try and make a deep connection with the little monster before she's dissected to learn the mysteries of her frightening brain.
Under the watchful eyes of the black site's operatives, the pair engages in a chess-like game of discovery that provides some genuinely intimate moments derived from a smart script and convincing performances by the entire cast. For a first feature, there's a confident sense of their craft on display in this unraveling mystery, whose practical special effects rival those of million-dollar CGI productions.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Haughey on the challenges and rewards of being under the wide wings of Netflix, working with his actors to create tension and believability, and his excitement over his and Vidar's first feature reaching a more expansive audience.
First, here's the exclusive clip from the film ahead of its big Netflix premiere on August 22.
Can you give us a quick rundown of what viewers can expect from Prodigy's intense performances?
Prodigy is a hybrid of so many genres. At its core, the film is about how deeply we hide our true selves from the world, and the resolve required to dig someone out of that hole when they don't wish to be found.
Richard Neil steps into the role of James Fonda, the embattled psychologist. We wanted Fonda to come off as a modern-day Atticus Finch, and Richard brought that quiet calm and inner strength to the role in spades.
Young Savannah Liles overwhelmed audiences at film festivals and online in the titular role of the troubled genius, Ellie. It's an incredibly difficult role for a performer of that age. We knew we would have something unique if we could nail this character, and Savannah made that possible.
Why did you and Brian choose this story, and what were your goals for your debut feature?
Brian and I met at film school more than a decade ago, and we quickly realized we had very similar sensibilities. We put our heads together and set the limitations we would need to execute this project the way we knew how: single location, limited characters, practical action. Once we knew our parameters, we started cooking up ideas, eventually settling on a logline Brian had won a contest with back at school.
Professionally, it is incredibly beneficial to have a successful feature film under your belt. On this film, we hit all the benchmarks you aim for with an independent release. We were invited to solid film festivals, acquired distribution, made our investors their money back, and now we have landed in the best possible place for exposure: Netflix.
How did Prodigy journey from film fests to Netflix and how is that a game-changer?
We got interest from a handful of solid distributors, only one of which we had heard of: Gravitas Ventures. The offers were comparable, so we went with the household name.
To be fair, every distributor told us pretty much the same thing: they would get the movie up on all the big platforms (iTunes, Amazon, Google, etc.) for us, but it would be on us to get the word out about the release. We didn't have any money for marketing, so I targeted sites with huge social media followings. We gained our best traction within online horror and sci-fi communities. They totally embraced the film, and posted about it with reckless abandon.
The reason Netflix is such a game-changer for us is that it legitimizes the film in so many peoples eyes. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands more people will watch our little movie because they trust the brand.
How did you go about weaving in the special effects and original music into Prodigy's delicate narrative?
We shot in an old, abandoned animal shelter in Riverside — which has an amazing film commission. They helped us find the location, and basically gave us the keys and said "go nuts." We were able to build our entire set into an old activity room, and string rails up through the ceiling panels — which were used to string up pulleys for all our floating/moving objects.
The music was another meticulous process. We worked with an incredibly talented composer Brian and I met at school, named Igor Nemirovsky. Much of the score would need to be subtle enough to play under the dialogue-heavy scenes, yet we still wanted to establish recurring themes for the important characters and story beats.
Under the dialogue scenes, we drew inspiration from the scores of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (especially Social Network and Gone Girl). However, if you listen carefully, you can definitely hear a little Blade Runner (Igor's favorite film) sneak its way in.
What are the challenges of shooting low-budget features in today's digital environment?
My strongest recommendation to anyone looking to make feature would be to surround yourself with a strong team of people you trust to handle the inevitable day to day catastrophes of a set -- it will save you a lot of hair pulling, I assure you.
The market has become so oversaturated with content, it is difficult to capture people's attention in a meaningful way. We were lucky to be able to capitalize on the genre elements of our story -- as unsettling, powerful little girls have a place in the current cultural zeitgeist. We trusted our instincts and crafted a movie we knew people would respond to. Netflix feels like a perfect conclusion to the wild ride that was Prodigy.