Carlos Ferrer’s incarnations ran wild during the six years he performed virtually every facet, except acting, in making the thriller “Retina”: The producer in him worried about cost overruns; his inner special effects persona loved explosions; his sound editor fixated on footsteps; his composer mingled violins and cellos; his scriptwriter fretted over pacing; his cinematographer summoned shadows; and his director roamed the streets of New York plotting a terrorist attack.
A one-man, movie-making posse, Ferrer is proof that the collaborative nature of filmmaking is, at least in certain circles, being redefined by obsessive savants.
Much of the technical work on “Retina,” a tale about mind control and the disquiet of living in post-9/11, was done in a New York apartment on a mixer, a surround sound system, a piano, four monitors and two Mac Pros loaded with special effects and other software packages.
“It wasn’t about ego,” said Ferrer, the son of hairdressers who made his first feature, a murder mystery “with no nudity,” when he was 16. “It was about collaboration. I’ve worked as a director with different teams, but there was always this wall. I realized I could be a more powerful director if I could speak their languages.”
Doing everything himself slowed the process but deepened Ferrer’s understanding of the alchemy of filmmaking. Special effects were time-consuming: three months of work for every 15 seconds of on-screen mayhem. Composing a 50-minute score propelled the story line and required intimate tension between woodwinds, brass and strings. But sound mixing, from a gunshot to a distant siren, was the most exacting and unforgiving.
“I have the most respect for the sound editor,” said Ferrer, an idiosyncratic 29-year-old who as a child was riveted by a suspension of disbelief while watching Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” “People will forgive you for a bad-quality picture with a glitch or a scratch, but they won’t forget bad sound. It’s so closely connected to our senses. It adds a level of realism. It’s delicate, and you have to have a good ear.”
Technology is allowing even moderately talented cinephiles to make their own passable movies. But it is propelling a cadre of skilled, multitasking independent filmmakers to shrink budgets and expand dimensions in polished, visceral movies that a decade ago would have been impossible.
The visual effects and cinematography in low-budget films, such as Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters,” which was shot for about $500,000, unfold with virtuosity and intensity. In Ferrer’s “Retina,” fireballs bloom, buildings crumble and the Statue of Liberty collapses in an eerily choreographed ballet that looks as if it cost millions more than the $200,000 Ferrer raised from friends, family and investors.
“It’s pretty exciting for filmmakers and consumers,” said Janet Brown, chief executive of FilmBuff, a New York-based distribution company specializing in independent filmmakers. While technology is improving production, she said, the rise of nontraditional distribution models, such as video on demand, is giving independent filmmakers more control to be creative and target specific audiences. “The dynamics of change are so fast right now,” she added. “It’s definitely easier to make a film but just as hard as ever to tell a good story.”
“Retina” has the narrative flaws of a film trying to do too much. Tension builds, but plot lines grow murky at times, lending confusion over the tale of a woman in the grip of a terrorist network. But the overall production is clever and sleek, creating a foreboding metropolis, much of it drawn from Ferrer’s memory as a boy in New York watching the World Trade Center fall and living through the aftermath. Mace Neufeld, producer of films made from Tom Clancy novels and last year’s “The Equalizer” starring Denzel Washington, said he was struck by Ferrer’s wide-ranging proficiency.
“I was amazed,” said Neufeld, who more than a decade ago, after receiving a VHS copy of Ferrer’s first film, wrote the young director an encouraging note. “There’s a scene in ‘Retina’ when you see New York from the air, so I asked him if he flew the helicopter too.... He said the only thing he didn’t do was the makeup and flying the helicopter.”
Ferrer is shopping “Retina” for a distributor. The film has been screened in New York and Los Angeles and has been viewed by marketers, the United Talent Agency and other firms. It is competing for attention in a Hollywood rapt with comic book heroes and projects anchored to bankable stars. But there have been notable successes for filmmakers like Ferrer: Shane Carruth’s debut, “Primer,” which was made for about $7,000 and grossed more than $424,000 at the box office, won the 2004 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival.
His second feature, “Upstream Color,” is broadly about a mind-control substance drawn from larvae that live in orchids. In addition to writing, directing and starring, Carruth filmed, edited and wrote the score to the film.
“I have never run into another director like Carlos,” said Lindsay Goranson, the star of “Retina.” She plays a woman who joins a medical trial to relieve anxiety but instead is unknowingly injected with a microchip that will program her for a militant attack. “He’s really specific about what he wants.... It makes sense that he’d take on something this big to learn every part of the puzzle to make a better puzzle.”
Much of the puzzle was pieced together on the streets of New York and in a small studio in his father’s Manhattan apartment.
“I was in some ways a little over my head,” said Ferrer, whose first feature, “Scallop Pond,” a thriller set in the Hamptons, won best student feature at the Long Island Film Festival. “I worked on ‘Retina’ with a two-person crew. Guerrilla shooting. It looked ridiculous half the time, but it’s not about what’s happening behind the camera. We had to pick up location sound, but … every element and sound in a frame has to be re-recorded.”
At times, one voice inside him would contradict another.
“It was schizophrenic,” he said, adding that his composer self was proud of the score but that his director self demanded it be quieted in certain scenes. “I fought with myself and kept changing thoughts on what the most important parts of a movie were.”
This inner chorus of competing voices often left him detached from the larger world.
“I dedicated every hour of every day to do this,” he said, adding that Goranson and his assistants, including a boom operator, would act as sounding boards. “There was sacrifice. I lost friendships. You see other people progress with their lives, and there you are doing this one thing. It’s emotionally hard because you feel you’ve lost support.”
During production, Ferrer was often reminded of 9/11. His studio in his father’s 32nd-floor apartment looks south to where the Twin Towers once stood. He was in his eighth-grade Spanish class at the Churchill School and Center in Manhattan on the day of the attacks.
“No one knew what happened,” he said. “The teachers brought us into the basement. We listened to the radio to get an idea of what was going on.” One of the students was taken away; his parents worked in the towers.
Ferrer said he remembers how clear the sky was that day and how the TV glowed with the endless repetition of the planes hitting the buildings. The final minutes of his movie are an attempt to infuse a reverence into what had happened.
“It changed the city,” he said. “I felt this constant sense of fear that it could happen again. The nightmare of it. The special effects at the end of the film were very emotional. They looked really cool. But there was nothing cool about it [9/11]. It wasn’t in slow motion. It was fast and terrifying. It wasn’t about spectacle. I toned the special effects down. I didn’t want them to be too much.”