Student Film: Exploring the Cambridge scene with Mark Danciger

Jack Whitehead 15 February 2016

Jack Whitehead sits down with Mark Danciger to chat about his experience on the film scene in Cambridge. Mark’s latest directing venture – the short film Tacyhon – is currently in post-production, and is scheduled to be released at the start of Easter Term, once it has been submitted for film festivals.

So what is Tachyon actually about?

So it’s a short science fiction film; sci-fi with more of the emphasis on the ‘sci’ than on the ‘fi’. It’s about a scientist, Emily Lewis, who tries to create a machine that can send messages back in time. The film takes place over the fifteen minutes of the first test of the machine, and she invites an amateur filmmaker called Paul to document the first trial. And then things start to go wrong.

Why did you decide to make this film?

So I was at hall in college with some random people, and one of them was a physicist. For some reason we started having a conversation about relativity, and he started explaining it to me with chips and ketchup. Eventually we got onto the theory of tachyonic particles [hypothetical particles that always move faster than light], which would allow the possibility of things travelling back in time. After doing some research I found out that Einstein had proposed a very similar device to the one in the film, called the ‘tachyonic antitelephone’. Then I decided to write a script about what would actually happen if one of these machines existed.

What films influenced you?

Oh there were tons. The main influence was this film called Primer (2004) which was made on an extremely low budget of about $7000. It’s a time travel art-house film about these people who create a machine to send humans back in time. Shane Carruth, the director, studied theoretical physics just so that the film would be accurate. Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) was a big influence on the production design as well.

What did you learn, or are still learning, from this project?

Time management definitely. We didn’t really have enough time for the speed we were working, particularly on the first day. We were lucky to have an assistant director who kept us moving on though. A lesson learnt from post would be ‘get more coverage’. The editor had to work round stuff and cut lines just because we didn’t get quite enough coverage of certain bits of dialogue.

What was the most enjoyable part of being on set?

The actors were incredible, and very nice to work with. They never complained or moaned. We rehearsed for quite a few weeks before we shot, which is quite unusual for films, but that meant we were very prepared on set. The other great experience was working with the camera: we were very lucky that RED leant us one of their cameras to shoot with, cameras that have been used professionally to shoot films like The Hobbit (2012).

What about the least enjoyable thing?

Lack of sleep during the shoot. I was on set for seven days: three days of get-in, three days of production, and a day of get out, and I basically didn’t sleep. There was one night where I had half an hour dosing on a sofa that was part of the set. You have to sacrifice your mental and physical health for a bit. You forget about all of that when the cameras are rolling though, and it’s incredible. You either forget or you just drink enough Red Bull so you don’t feel it.

So why do you make movies?

It’s what I’ve wanted to do for a long time. When I was twelve my mum got me a mini DV camera and I started making movies with my friends, playing LOTR characters in my garden. I made a film as part of my application to Cambridge actually, and when I got here I just started making more. From a personal perspective, I like making movies because I like creating little worlds. The idea that film is set in an abstract reality, and yet that reality has a tangibility, more so than something like literature – that for me is fantastic.

What would you say is the most important thing for a director to be able to do?

It’s a very varied role. For me it’s getting a sense of an overview of the whole thing. It can be easy to focus on just one character, or one line of dialogue, or one scene, but one of the most important things is to be able to link it all together, to see how everything interacts. Directing isn’t localised; the director has to do everything.

What advice would you give other students trying to get into student film?

Join Cinecam! I’m co-president of the University’s film making society and it’s growing quickly. We have loads of great events: speakers, workshops etc., but its main function is as a contact and support network. There are loads of members with varying levels of experience, so there’s always someone willing to help. This is more generally true as well: students don’t have the money to employ huge crews, so having a contact network is fundamental for making anything. Filmmaking isn’t a solo game.

When will we be able to see Tachyon?

We're hoping it’ll be finished within the month, although it won’t be available for public release until it has been submitted for festivals. Then there will hopefully be a public screening at the start of Easter Term.

And finally, what’s next?

Well I’m working on a few scripts at the moment, nothing concrete but there’s one feature that I’m writing. For now I’m focussing on my degree for a bit before I graduate, and then after that I’ll look into getting some funding to get some other projects off the ground. We’ll see where that goes!