Nicole Perlman might be best known as the sci-fi-loving screenwriter who brought the Guardians of the Galaxy into the MCU. She's gone on to contribute to genre scripts like Captain Marvel and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu. Now Perlman is striking out with her first directorial effort, a fascinating and female-fronted dystopian drama called The Slows.
Set in a bleak future where humanity has brought its natural environment to the brink of ruin, the short film centers on a journalist who steps out of the comfort of her high-tech society to investigate the titular band of rebels who choose a hard life without electricity or mind-bending medical advances so they might preserve one particular element of human nature. Based on a short story by Gail Hareven, The Slows explores that heady paradox of science fiction, which revels in science yet fears how its advancements might threaten our humanity.
Ahead of the short film's world premiere at Fantastic Fest, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with Perlman, who charted her journey as its helmer and shared why she chose to make her directorial debut outside of the Hollywood studio system.
"I've had some incredible opportunities," Perlman said, reflecting on her years in Hollywood as a screenwriter, script doctor, and story consultant. "But the one that has really been the most emotionally fulfilling has been Cinereach, which is an independent film company in New York. They asked to meet with me. It was right at the peak of the insanity with the Marvel films. I was like, 'Why do they want to meet with me?' They said, 'Oh, you know, we just think you're interesting.' I went in and I talked to them and I loved them. I immediately fell in love with how kind and warm and supportive they were."
"They didn't want to talk at all about comic book movies," Perlman recalled. "They said, 'Is there anything that you've always wanted to do?' I thought, 'Well, actually, yeah. There's this short story in The New Yorker that probably doesn't have a commercial home in Hollywood. I've never tried to pitch it because I'm so afraid of what might happen if I do.'"
"I want it to be something about themes that are on some level universal but also very deeply personal to what I was going through at the time in terms of sort of trying to decide about motherhood," Perlman said of adapting Hareven's short story. "All of these questions that everybody I knew were dealing with on some level but weren't making it into a film. If I could find a way to do this as grounded science fiction film with a lot of world-building, that would be my dream."
Cinereach's team asked if she'd want to direct her adapted script, and Perlman said, "I wouldn't want anybody else to direct it. Of course, I want to direct it. And that was that!" They urged her to apply to a directing fellowship and asked her what else she wanted from this venture. She wanted to have a better understanding of acting "to make sure that I can really make the most of this experience." Cinereach set her up with classes. They asked who she might want as a mentor, then introduced her to Andrew Thomas Huang, the visionary director behind music videos like Bjork's "Black Lake," "Family," and "The Gate."
"He was the most wonderful person," Perlman said. "He invited me to be on set for a Bjork music video he was directing, which was super cool. He really gave an enormous amount of advice about some of the trippier visual aesthetics of the film. That was the kind of thing that Cinereach did. A lot of it was introducing me to incredible allies, women in film who were very inspirational to me. That was part of the magic of this process."
"I spent a year—while I was still doing my screenwriting Hollywood job—just getting into the trenches and working on developing visual language and reacquainting myself with directing skills," she added. "At the end of that I got a big grant to make this film, which was amazing, because I was getting offers from more established Hollywood entities to do the film as well."
But Perlman didn't want a studio involved with The Slows. "[Studios] wanted it as a proof of concept for a blockbuster," she told us. "My feeling was I could take this big check and make a movie that would already be compromising from the beginning to make sure that I was going to hit certain box-office numbers. Or I could go with Cinereach, who was 100% about supporting not just the film but also this as a stepping stone in my creative career. I wanted to do the version [of The Slows] that would allow me to take risks and say things that were a little bit controversial or things that were very true to my heart and my experience of being a creative person and a woman."
Perlman explained that the "proof of concept" angle meant that Hollywood producers were essentially asking her to make a sort-of sales pitch for a could-be feature-length film. "These proof-of-concept films, they can be wonderful in their own right," she noted. "But it's very much about hitting certain marks of 'Is this a movie that's going to appeal to a wide enough range? Are the set pieces going to be potentially big enough?'"
Which is not to say Perlman doesn't have an eye to turning The Slows into a bigger production. "I definitely do [have an interest in expanding the short's story]," she said. "I feel almost like this is a prequel or prologue to a larger story that is sort of Children of Men in scope and in tone. But I wanted the short film to be something I didn't have to do any real creative compromising on. That's one of the benefits of a short film. The monetary risk is lower and so there's more of an opportunity to do things that are risky."
"Cinereach was 100% supportive," Perlman declared. "I ended up having the most amazing creative experience of my life so far."
Following its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, The Slows will make its NY premiere at the New York Film Festival this weekend.