Peter Bishai is an award-winning director who gained acclaim for his 2011 film Colors of Heaven, which depicted the true story of a South African teen forced into a struggle with apartheid for many years. The film earned two South African Academy Awards and was selected among various film festivals all over the world. His latest film, Rapid Eye Movement, was released last month by Vertical Entertainment.
World Film Geek had the chance via e-mail to interview Bishai about his latest film.
What inspired you to write and direct Rapid Eye Movement?
The story was inspired by a real DJ named Peter Tripp who did a sleep deprivation Wake-A-Thon in Times Square in 1959. A lot of what our hero in the film goes through comes from what Peter Tripp actually experienced. The Times Square setting had so many visual possibilities that I was keen to capture. I was very eager to shoot the whole thing on location and make an iconic New York movie. Amazingly, the city gave us permission to build a set in Times Square and film the whole thing there, which was unprecedented, it’s never been done before.
The film was a tour de force performance for Francois Arnaud, who plays the long-suffering Rick, who goes into further madness and troubles. What was it like working with him on the set?
Very collaborative. He’s a very committed actor who insists on getting the emotional reality of a scene right and won’t let it go until it is right. He had to perform an extremely wide range of emotions in the midst of thousands of people and he always kept it authentic. One thing that was very important for him were the makeup effects that were instrumental in conveying how many days he was supposed to be awake. He always insisted on checking that every shadow or change in the complexion was totally accurate to conveying the amount of sleep deprivation his character was experiencing.
The film mentioned spinal muscular atrophy, which is a genetic disorder, and the reason why Rick is doing the sleep deprivation stunt to begin with. What inspired you to bring this to the film?
Ironically, our journey as writers to arrive at Spinal Muscular Atrophy was not unlike the way Rick selects it in the movie – he was looking for what would be most dramatic to pull the heartstrings of his audience. Dramatically, we wanted a disease that was life-threatening to children, didn’t yet have a cure and wasn’t as well-known as other diseases. Our research led us to SMA and then very quickly we learned how significant an issue it is for so many families. In the film, Rick journeys from using SMA as a publicity stunt to genuinely caring about children with the disease and I took the same journey too.
The scenes involving the mantis as a conscience especially brought an unexpected comic element. Why use a praying mantis for these scenes?
Many people who experience sleep deprivation often talk about seeing insects swirling in their vision, so that was the starting point. In the script, it was actually written as a locust, because we associate locusts with biblical plagues and I wanted Rick to feel that he was going through a plague-like spiritual torment, which is really him wrestling with his own doubts and fears. But a locust doesn’t animate very well, unlike a praying mantis which has these long, sinewy appendages that move in conjunction with its voice. It’s interesting how ideas evolve from one thing to something quite different in the end. But what was critical for me was to make these scenes as humorous as possible, because let’s face it, people act really crazy when they lose enough sleep.
Browning is truly an evil man. While Rick is already contending with the effects of his lack of sleep, Browning plays this cat-and-mouse game with him forcing him to raise five million or he will die. He’s also quite a mystery. And David Rhodes did a heck of a job on the film as the psychotic caller. What was he like on the set?
I had cast David in my first film, The Dueling Accountant, so he and I have a great working relationship. He invests his own personal emotions in a character probably more than any actor I know. He arrives on set each day with those intense emotions already bubbling to the surface because he has a gigantic beating heart and he has prepared himself so extensively. He always tried to make Browning as vulnerable as possible. For example, when we first see him, he is partially masked before killing his first victim and instead of threatening eyes peering through the mask, he made them look sad and a little teary. That clues us in to the fact that his evil is motivated by his own pain, which we discover later on how deep that pain really is. He came up with an entire backstory for his character and created some dialogue for the final confrontation that was mesmerizing and did me a great service. Amazing actor.
Finally, what can we fans expect next from you?
I’m working on a romantic adventure that is set again in New York about a relationship between a teenage girl and a mysterious cat burglar. I’m also developing a comedy thriller set in Egypt. Stay tuned!
A Special Thank You goes out to Wendy Shepherd at Studio Matrix and Peter Bishai for making this interview possible. Check out Rapid Eye Movement on Demand and Digital. For more information on Peter Bishai, go to his official website at PeterBishai.com. For more information on Spinal Muscular Atrophy, please go to CureSMA.org.