Since Travis Milloy “stumbled into his profession” of screenwriting, he has always “thrown as many balls in the air as he could.” “When I started, I was doing well, but nothing was getting produced, so I decided to just write my own script, and shoot it with my friends,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to appease anyone, and it worked.”
The experience taught him that if you “write what you believe in, you can be successful.”
“I started writing like that again, and that formula seemed to work,” he said. “I considered the budget, and kept the number of characters low. All of my scripts got purchased or optioned. I had about 12 scripts, and that happened five times. I was my own crazy process until my agent told me to stop.”
Audiences probably know Milloy best from his cult sci-fi horror film, Pandorum (2009), which starred Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid; Milloy served as executive producer and screenwriter; Christian Alvart directed. “Fans didn’t embrace Pandorum at first,” he said. “Some said it was too much like Event Horizon or Alien. One year later, someone wrote about another film, saying that “it’s no Pandorum.’ Christian and I are still big fans of each other, and I still work with the producing team from Pandorum.”
(For more about Milloy’s experiences making Pandorum, go to the FieldingonFilm article.)
As much as he enjoys writing, Milloy really loves being behind the camera. And yet, it’s been nearly 20 years since he made his first feature, Street Gun. That’s why he’s so excited to be in post-production on his indie sci-fi thriller Somnio. It tells the story of Frank Lerner, a man falsely arrested and thrown into an automated prison. He must outsmart the computer to escape and find his way to the outside world that may already be destroyed.
“I get an idea then I write the script from that,” he said.
His idea for Somnio concerned prisons of the future, and how they might become fully automated. Initially, he was going to have 12 characters – all on death row – who never saw another human, not even guards, and whose food and lights were being controlled by a computer. Of this scenario, he asked himself: What if all of that went wrong? What if the computer began executing people before their time? Eventually, Milloy decided to focus on one character, and stay in that one prison cell. The character doesn’t know what’s going on, just that he’s being interrogated every day, being forced to relive the day of his suspected crime until the evidence is found to convict or acquit him. Milloy thought of it as Inceptionesque or Groundhog Dayesque.
“It’s about artificial relationships, something we experience every day, with Facebook and Siri,” he said. “We text, Tweet, and send emails. What happens when we don’t have contact with people?”
For the most part, Frank interacts with the computer, and a woman, namedm Gabby, who he once met. “She’s imaginary, but part of the program,” he said. “If you were locked in a prison for years, how long will you last before going crazy?”
Milloy has worked within the studio system, knows it well, but wanted to avoid it while making Somnio.
“I didn’t want to give this to the development machine,” he said. “This one I didn’t give to my agent. I got really tired of that process. You are just circling the barn.”
Milloy explained that studios receive about 200,000 screenplays a year. “Anyone can write a script, but not everyone can write a good script. The studio’s job is to find one, in all of those, and agents help the flow. It’s so competitive. I was getting frustrated working in that machine. I asked myself: What excites me? I wanted to tell a story, and make a movie.”
The problem was: He didn’t have the money to make it. “I had nothing; the enemy is that I needed more money, but I know that if people see the train leaving the station, they want to jump on board.”
Milloy got busy. He rented an industrial space in Canoga Park, a suburb west of Los Angeles, and started building a set. “It took me one year to build with one power drill,” he said. “I used about 7,000 screws. Everyone thought I was crazy. I thought if I have this space and this set, I can get actors to come on the weekends to shoot. I had to pay rent every month – on a studio lot, it would have cost me five times that amount per week – so I was already invested in this.”
He was invested, but others were more wary. “There was a lot of hesitation,” he said. “People in business thought I was crazy. I did only private investors. I stayed out of the system. If you go with a studio, they tell you they need a star and a director with a proven track record. A relative gave me the first chunk of money to get things rolling. The second investor, I had never met before. He was a fan of Pandorum, and we had only emailed back and forth. I had never met him. He knew about Somnio, and said he would invest; that he would finance the rest of the film. I thought he was maybe a 14-year-old from Glendale and that it must be a joke.”
But it wasn’t. The British investor wired the money as promised and brought his entire family to California last August to visit the set to meet the cast and crew. “I never even talked to him before,” Milloy said. “He loved Pandorum.”
While the set was being built, everything else came together, specifically finding a cast and crew members. Two weeks into the shoot, Milloy said he stopped and looked at the footage. “I asked what was missing, so we shot more,” he said. “We went to other locations; El Mirage Dry Lake Bed in San Bernardino; a coffee shop in San Fernando, the Continental Divide in Colorado, downtown in Denver and L.A., and California City. Our ‘army” traveled around and we slowly got the pieces together.”
He began production in mid-June, and shot a total of 33 days.
“What helped the production was that I took the camera and did the B-roll myself,” he said. “I was in downtown in L.A. at 3 a.m., shooting without a permit, but I got some beautiful shots of the city streets. There wasn’t any cost but my Starbucks. It gave it a ‘huge’ feel. I did get yelled at a few times, though. I think I broke up a drug deal. I was driving in the back streets, and in one alley, two guys took off running.”
Another time, he was trying to get a shot of a train coming toward the camera. It was 4 a.m. Everything was lined up perfectly, when the conductor stopped the train to yell that he was too close to the tracks.
He started editing in October.
What inspired Milloy to do this project himself? He said he was working on another film – he was a writer on the project – and they were shooting a scene that involved a female with a gun next to a building. “They had 60 crew members, a helicopter, a camera operator, and me,” he said. “I looked around and thought ‘Wait, this is all we need: a camera and an actor. You aren’t even using all of this. You don’t need 12 trucks and a helicopter.’ It was a light bulb moment. We had a four- to five-person crew on Somnio.”
Because of the way the script is written – the lead actor is talking to a computer 70 percent of the time – Milloy knew he needed to find someone really great. And he found that person in Christopher Soren Kelly. “I met him at a casting session in Denver in 2008,” he said. “He is incredible. He really stood out and remained on my mind. He does gritty, abstract indies. He moved to L.A., and we met for coffee. I pitched Somnio, and he said we should just go and make it. Once he committed to the film, I knew it could work.”
He had a more difficult time casting Gabby. “After viewing hundreds of video submissions for the role, we brought in 100 actresses,” he said. “We then narrowed the list to a short five, with callbacks reading with Chris. Cassandra Clark was the obvious choice due to her natural ability and girl-next-door charm. She was perfect; a breath of fresh air.”
For the voice of the computer, Howard, Milloy was looking for something reminiscent of HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I listened to hundreds of voices, but couldn’t find one that worked,” he said. “Jessie D. Arrow came on as a friend; he read the part off-camera. While I was editing, I got used to his voice. Laurie (Sheldon, his wife) suggested since the chemistry was already established on set between Howard and Frank, why not ADR Jessie? I agreed, and by using filters, got exactly what I was looking for.”
The last major role is Fletcher May, a prisoner who is in the cell next to Frank’s. “The story has this Count of Monte Cristo thing to it,” he said. “I shot around that part. I tried to get some names – Ron Perlman … I reached out to Norman Reedus, he agreed, but when I talked to his agent it was a different story. There were problems because this was non-union. I eventually cast a stage actor (Cajardo Lindsey), who I had also met in Denver at the casting session in 2008.”
Originally, Milloy was going to shoot the Fletcher scenes in Denver, but by chance, Lindsey was coming to L.A. for a four-day trip, and was available for a few hours on a Saturday, Milloy said. “A quick trip to Home Depot, and the cell was recreated in our living room; he crushed it.”
Because of his budget, Milloy had to wear many hats. He’s the writer, producer, director, editor, and set designer and builder, but he said, he’s reticent to let his name dominate the credits. “It seems pompous,” he joked. “Yeah, I catered too.”
Sheldon, too, had to perform a variety of tasks. She was producer, accountant, casting director, production coordinator, location manager, and wardrobe. In fact, she created the stunt suit in which Frank is suspended. “Thank goodness for liquid stitch and the hot glue gun,” she said. “I failed Home Ed in school.”
Somnio was really a grassroots production. Sheldon called in favors from Tom Duffield, production designer, who most recent credit is Lone Survivor; and from Diamond Farnsworth, stunt coordinator. “When you are doing an indie film, people get passionate about it,” Milloy said. “It’s like stone soup. People came and were advisers. They lent a hand.”
For post, he turned to David Emerich at Post Modern Company in Denver. He’s doing some CGI and color correction. For music, he is relying on Jacob Yoffee. “He is on his way,” Milloy said. (According to Yoffee’s official site, he formed OtherWorld Trailer Music with a mixing engineer and has worked on trailer campaigns for Star Wars: The Force Awakens; The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and The Chronicles of Riddick.)
Even though the Sundance Film Festival is “super competitive,” Milloy submitted his film; taking his wife’s advice that all they would lose was their submission fee. It wasn’t accepted. SXSW, which is a “better fit” for Somnio, will announce if it will accept the sci-fi indie by Feb. 12. Because Germany has a hardcore sci-fi film fandom, Milloy will submit, in late December, to the Berlin International Film Festival.
“I want it to do well, but I want people to like the film,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a good, strong film. I’ve shown it to a few other people, and they have been really positive.”
The lesson Milloy would like to impart to other filmmakers: “Even if you shoot with your iPhone; even if your budget is $100 or $1,000 … continue to shoot. If it’s good stuff, flies will gather. You have to keep improving. I’m a Minnesota guy who is kind of wishy washy, but if you believe in yourself, people will follow you. Be confident. Get what you want without pissing off too many people, and be receptive to ideas but know what you want.”
Although Milloy isn’t directing them, he does have several scripts in various stages of development, including the cop drama Exit 147, and the bank heist drama No Prior History. For the former, Mike Figgis was to direct Nicolas Cage in the lead, but the actor had to drop out. Production is still expected to begin in early 2016. The latter film is based off of the novel, Outsourced, and will be produced by the team behind Pandorum. Liev Schreiber is attached to the project. According to IMDB, one other screenplay, Line of Sight, is also in development.