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Exclusive: The Basement Papers Director and Cinematographer Talk How To Bring Conflicting Scientists to Life

Updated: Feb 25

“Stranger than fiction”. When asking cinematographer Seth MacMillan about the concept behind The Basement Papers (a new short film that he recently worked on), these three words almost came out instinctively. There is no question that this short statement holds true for Oscar O’Reilly’s latest work as a director. Portrayed almost like underlings at the very bottom of an evil lord’s castle, actors Timothy Stanton and Ari Golin step into the role of two scientists named Roger Elory and Woods Mulligan. Instead of serving some long horned master with an intent for world domination (even though it’s arguably close enough), these two researchers are putting together statistical and fact finding summaries for Onnyx Oil in - you guessed it - a basement laboratory. The only issue here is that the younger and more ambitious Woods suddenly has a report in his hands that could change everything - that is, if the more seasoned Roger allows him to walk that path.


            Let’s go back in time for a moment and travel to the year 1979 where oil companies around the world are peacefully coasting on record breaking profits. With the help of a summer intern named Steve Knisely, the multinational oil and gas company known as Exxon could have easily been on a path of global awareness regarding the disastrous connection between fossil fuels and climate change. But alas, this fateful revelation was instead kept internal and researchers who participated in collecting these findings were fired and those who remained silent were rewarded. Using an isolated, cold environment and two people on the opposite sides of a corporate spectrum, director O’Reilly thought that this would be the perfect story to retell. Just recently, The Movie Nerds sat down with both director O’Reilly and cinematographer MacMillan to see what went into an intriguing short film like this one.


            In the twelve minute runtime that is the Basement Papers, audiences are met with two characters - Roger and Woods. They are the backbone to this story, showcasing the timeless clash between experience and innocence. But how does one go from a personal feud to fitting it within impending climate change? The Australian director explains that both of these important aspects stem from the same piece of paper that started it all. “I think it’s almost the egg and the chicken story, ya know? Ultimately,  it was the report initially that kind of framed everything that we did, at least story and writing wise . . . digging more into those Exxon documents and discovering that an intern wrote this particular report,” said O’Reilly. “[Cinematically], it was an angel and devil on the shoulder thing. On one hand, you had somebody who would write this report and then have enough strong will to be able to bring it forward. Then, have the devil think - how do I shut down this overzealous, overstepping employee that I’ve just brought in. O’Reilly also noted how a big part of this dynamic between Woods and Roger was inspired by the adage of Roger trying to break down Woods just as he was many years ago by Onnyx’s corruptive methods of discarding the truth.


            Not only do these two contrasting minds clash verbally but there is also a physical confrontation thrown in the mix. At that moment, the individual ethics as well as their true intentions come to the forefront. When Woods is about to make his way upstairs with his revelatory Roger decides to stop this from happening - with his hands (once his words don’t seem to work). Macmillan talks about the barriers that broke down in these moments: “The whole movie basically leads up to that moment. It becomes a question of survival for Roger because he’s worried about losing his job. I think it was clear we wanted to do something different. The first choice were handhelds as we would be a little bit loose and free but also as we found ourselves over in that corner - it just felt totally correct that Roger would be completely in shadow and that we could almost not see him.” He then broadened his statement to include how cinematography elevates the scene. “In my work you try to light an entire environment as opposed to just a little section of the set. Oftentimes you’ll tweak things but then usually if you’ve done it correctly - the moments in shadow on the set are exactly what you want.”


Speaking of influence, one of the numerous visual details within The Basement Papers that cannot be denied is the set decoration. From the many pieces of old school tech to the file cabinets that line the isolated sub-office, O’Reilly’s answer to how this all came to be may surprise some. “It’s actually a standing set in LA where ninety percent of the equipment stays there permanently. I actually found the location before I found the story. As I was doing research, I found images of  labs that quite closely resembled this one even though it’s more like an electronic shop from the 80’s. I really wanted to dig into the textures and the vibrant colors.” He then went deeper into what the set should truly mean to viewers. “Along with the locations of the parking structures, it all added to this sense of used but forgotten people and technology. At the same time, there was this strange kind of autonomy between this state of the art technology that they actually use to do this research with a place that was lost to time. So with the flickering lights and CCTV cameras, it needed to feel like it was of the time and certainly usable while also making it feel like no one else had ever been down there before.” In his conclusion, O’Reilly credits the entire creative team for really coming together to make the best visual possible.


            With this story taking place within a bubble of corporate greed, MacMillan and O’Reilly both agreed on a distinctive blue and green coating to cover almost everything that is held in that bygone, unremembered laboratory. MacMillan states that this was to emphasize not only the crumbling integrity but also the poisoning spirit of the oil company. “It was clear that the movie was about corporate greed and the poisoning of the earth by these corporations and so I felt like we had to do something visually to bring that into the space. I always also try to start from a place of reality - what this place might have actually felt like if you were in a fluorescently lit basement in the 1970’s. That type of blue/green cyan fluorescent lighting seemed correct for the period and also it conveyed the right sense of decay - and it gave this like noxious sense to the basement that I really dug. We kind of pushed even more into post and color grading . . I felt like the cool hues that we used really helped to create this mood of being forgotten, of being at the bottom of the totem pole, being in sub basement 100.”


            As previously mentioned, the origins of The Basement Papers sync with an actual intern’s lost report from 1979 about the effect that fossil fuels were going to have on earth in the future. Asking the director about this, it was revealed that he had uncovered a lot more to this riveting scandal than meets the eye. “At the time, oil companies were at the forefront of climate research. None of the research that they conducted was ever released publicly, though. It was all only distributed internally. By the late 80’s unfortunately, almost all of the funding for climate research had dried up - there was nothing left. They then spent far more on spreading doubt - creating doubt on their own scientist’s research. O’Reilly goes on to connect this to his own interest on the topic. “I think for me that just kind of highlights what Exxon wanted to know about climate issues - not in any sense of altruism or greater good, but to see how it impacted their business. That’s why they kept it internal. It just so happened that there was an intern (among these top scientists) at Exxon in 1979 who was tasked with writing this report. He was actually a scientist for decades afterwards too.”


With all of this backstory and pre-production growth fostering the creation of The Basement Papers, MacMillan then went on to tell how he initially became involved with making of this short film. “It was an amazing story and I also found it unsurprising even though I didn’t know the plot ahead of time. There is a pattern that seemingly gets repeated by massive corporations and it continues still today. If anything, the urgency of stories around climate change is heightened now compared to when the reports first came out. I, like a lot of people, feel pretty powerless to do much about it. This movie felt like one that was really worth telling compared to a lot of the scripts that get sent my way which have limited bearing on the real world. This one felt like it had a lot to say about what’s been going on for decades.” The cinematographer also makes a note that besides a work making you feel excited or interested, as long as it is on the right side of history - you should absolutely exercise your own voice.


Going from the beginnings of his collaboration with O’Reilly to the on-set work of The Basement Papers, MacMillan then talked about what was needed to bring forth a 1970’s definitive feel. “On a small budget, the choice of actually shooting on film is off the table, but we live in a time where there’s a lot of other things you can do to make an image feel aged and nostalgic. So, we shot on a new digital cinema camera with funky lenses from the 60’s and 70’s that have a lot of character. A lot of the aberration and artifact in the lenses lends itself to feeling like these are of the time that our story takes place in. Once shot and captured, then you have another litany of choices of how you can process the images. Softness, grain and all kinds of stuff to increase the sense of periodness. Since those are some of things you can control, we tried to have it be a little more subtle in that regard.”


Lastly, while O’Reilly does admit that The Basement Papers is not available publicly as of yet, he is optimistic towards it’s entrance into film festivals around the world as well as possibly acquiring an online distributor. “I’m just hoping that it eventually connects with a program or so that it can connect with an audience. I mean, this is a film that we wanted to make feel exciting and engaging and important and powerful all at the same time. You can do these types of stories incredibly dry and we wanted to avoid that but also create awareness for this unsurprising yet somewhat unreal story. Watch this space.”


Crowd funding for The Basement Papers was successfully completed on June 5th, 2023.




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