Self-engineered man: Maurice Haeems on Chimera (2018)

Self-engineered man: Maurice Haeems on Chimera first published in a shorter version by SciFiNow

The science fiction Chimera, which dramatises the ethical conundrums raised by advances in stem cell research, regenerative medicine, organ harvesting, gene editing, and genetic engineering, is gathering a slew of awards at festivals (including Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the Boston International Film Festival, Best Sci-Fi Feature at the Phoenix Film Festival and Best Costume and Best Production Design at the New York City Independent Film Festival). SciFiNow caught up with its first-time writer/director Maurice Haeems ahead of its UK première as the opening film of SCI-FI-LONDON 2018.  

Anton Bitel: You have previously worked in engineering, investment banking and as a computer software entrepreneur, which are hardly conventional pathways to filmmaking. How – and why – did you make the transition? And how much has your past informed your work as a filmmaker?

Maurice Haeems: I always loved writing. I always loved the American pop culture. I grew up on comic books. We did not have access to American cinema, we didn’t have access to American music or anything, but comic books were a big influence on me when I was 6, 7, 8, 10, you know, 12 years old. And then, as India opened up and as we allowed American films to come in, and I saw Star Wars, and it blew my mind about what could be done. I always wanted to be a writer, I always loved film, and I loved this whole stylised-reality sensibility of sci-fi. I had to take a conventional path because I didn’t have the courage to be an artist at that age, and I wanted to be financially secure, I knew that I had bills to pay. My engineering career brought me financial stability, and made it easy to find a job, blah blah blah – but I got bored. And that’s when I came to business school, I went to the US, I went to Wharton in Philadelphia – which unfortunately has got a bit of infamy now, because Donald Trump is one of our alums – but it was a great school, and after that I went onto investment banking, and worked in New York. Again I got bored. You know, all these people were starting these new dot com businesses, and I jumped into the fray. My belief was that it was an opportunity to change the way education was delivered over the internet. And my friend and partner Jay [Sitaram, producer of Chimera] started three companies sequentially. We had good exits with the first two companies and we still work at Praxis today.

Having done all these things, the feeling is that every 5 to 7 years I get bored with what I’m doing. That’s because I’ve always had this desire to create a space to be a writer and to be a filmmaker, and as I was approaching my late forties, I also had this sense that I was running out of time. So for my 48th birthday, my gift to myself that year was an eight-week screenwriting class. I went to this class, and everyone else there was in their early twenties, and I had my head of grey hair and my wrinkled face – but I enjoyed being with young people, it was a lot of fun. At the end of eight weeks, I had a first draft. It wasn’t very good, but I had a first draft. And when Christmas came around, my gift to myself – I like this idea of giving myself gifts – was a four-week film-making class. And so I did that, and I learned a little bit about camera, angles, sound, lighting – just enough to get me completely hooked. I then did a rewriting class at UCLA. I rewrote the script, it improved a little bit. I went around, and I was able to raise some money for the film – which I thought would be difficult. Partly what helped me is that I was not a traditional filmmaker. It was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people said, “Look, you don’t have the experience to pull this off.” On the other hand, I did have a track record of succeeding in other careers, and getting projects executed on time, returning money to investors – not just returning their money but, you know, delivering a profit for them. So I had some credibility that I was able to call upon. That was the area where people struggled quite significantly, but for me it was relatively easy. Things fell into place, and then the only thing holding me back was whether I had the courage and the conviction to move forward. And so it was now or never. I’d always said this was my dream. I’d already had three careers now, so I figured, one more. Let’s roll the dice. Here I am now. 

AB: This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I am simply assuming that Frankenstein, with its hubristic scientist and its harvested humans, is a key text for Chimera – but which films were your influences?

Maurice Haeems: You know, I love science fiction, they will always be my all-time favourites. I love everything that Stanley Kubrick has done. He’s a genius, there’s no question about that. His 2001: A Space Odyssey is my all-time favourite film. In Chimera, there’s a little toy the kids are playing with, which we made as ‘HAL’. As we trimmed the film down, every time a character mentioned the word HAL, it ended up on the cutting room floor, so in the final version of the film, the toy is unnamed – but it was an homage to 2001.

The Matrix is another film that I have probably watched 40, 50 times, and I could watch it countless more times and still enjoy it every time. And so we had the red pill and the blue pill. Every time he [Chimera‘s protagonist Quint] evokes his wife, he takes the red pill, and every time he evokes his children, he takes the blue pill. And those colours worked out, because she stands for life and even though she’s comatose, she appears to him in this red dress with this red makeup, and all the surroundings turn red when she shows up – and the kids being frozen, we used a blue theme for them. 

I love Solaris and Stalker. They both influenced this film, I think. Cronenberg’s work – The Fly, for example, is one of those paradigms out there for me. The film wasn’t so much influenced by Frankenstein, I think. If I want to take a book, it’s probably The Turn of the Screw. It hugely informed this film. All the names of characters are from there: Quint, and Jessie – she’s Jessel [in Henry James’ novella] – and Miles and Flora, etc. What I loved about that book is that it’s a story within a story within a story, where the Governess is an unreliable narrator, but enough of what she tells us allows us to piece together a story, which is subjective, which each reader can interpret in his or her own way. I was blown away by the skill of the writer in putting together that kind of a story, where it’s open to interpretation, but which works on every level, because you and I can take away two different storylines from it, when it still works for both of us. Chimera was probably in retrospect a little too ambitious for me to have taken on as a first feature, but that was my ideal goal to live up to.

AB: I understand also that parts of your story were inspired by personal events in your life. Could you tell me a little about those.

Maurice Haeems: Yeah, there were three things. There is a genetic heart condition which just now has been diagnosed in my wife’s family. She lost two of her siblings to this condition – it was diagnosed only after that. About four or five years ago, when this was diagnosed, we were told that my kids – I have three kids – each one has a 50% chance of inheriting this genetic condition. So that gave us a little bit of a shock. I dropped biology when I was 15 years old. I didn’t like it, that was my least favourite science. And suddenly, five years ago, I had to understand what the doctors were telling me. I needed to have the sort of academic underpinning which I completely lacked, so I had to go back and open up some biology textbooks, and reread them. That was the stage of my life when I was about 45, so this happened, to make me want to keep up with biology. As I discovered more things about genetics I started looking at what can be done, and looking deeper into genetics, I started reading about research.

A year or so later, the daughter of a very close friend of mine had liver disease. She was on the waiting list for a liver transplant, and she had the liver transplant, and she had a second liver transplant, but she eventually succumbed to her disease. I researched what was happening in the world of organ transplanting, organ harvesting. There are so many people around the world that have organs that fail, you know. What can hard science do for them? I started looking into that whole world.

The third thing that happened, seven years ago, was that my nephew – the little boy that you might have seen in the film, he’s in the dream sequence and then again at the end – he’s a leukaemia survivor, and as he was going through a five- or six-year treatment for leukaemia, we looked into stem cells, bone marrow, all of that. So I got a lot of science research under my belt because of these events in my life. These are the kinds of things that, if they happen to people, they go out and make a drama, a melodramatic film about this – but for me, I couldn’t make a drama that would do justice to what had happened, to the emotional trauma that the people involved in these events face. So I took this whole experience and I completely transformed it into this fake, novel-esque stylised reality. It’s happening, it’s related to the real – but it’s a reality that operates under a slightly different set of rules. I told an unrelated story, but that draws upon those experiences.   

AB: Part of Quint’s tragedy is that the more he endeavours to keep his family together, the more he pushes them away. It is difficult, at various points in Chimera, to tell whether Quint’s children are actually present, or just voices in his head, like that of his comatose wife. I guess what I am saying is that it was not entirely clear at which point Quint’s children were put by him into deep freeze – whether it was before, or during, the events of the film. Was their ambiguous status a way of expressing Quint’s distance from the reality of his children and their actual needs, as he pursues a chimerical image of them?

Maurice Haeems: One of the things that I wanted to explore in the film was Quint’s relationship with his kids: how Quint evolves as a father through this, not just how he’s solving the medical puzzle. And so we’ve mixed fantasy, flashback and fact – they’re intermingled, and there are clues, if you watch closely enough – 

AB: Yes, the colour coding that you mentioned earlier.

Maurice Haeems: Yes exactly, this colour coding. The kids, for example, quote Beckett. You won’t expect a 10- or 12-year old to know that, but we see [Quint’s] wife in another scene quote Beckett, so we know this is happening in his head. So is he transferring some of his own thoughts and just playing it back through his memory of them. So those are the kinds of questions where, if someone’s paying attention, I think the clues are there, the Easter eggs are buried. For someone who’s taking a quick overview, the story still comes together because we do see him – even if it’s just in his mind – transforming and trying to mend the relationship with his kids and become a better father. But yes, every time he takes what he believes are steps to save them, he is in fact pushing them further away, and the chasm between him as a father and his kids keeps widening. What he wants more than anything is to hold onto his family, which has been destroyed. And there are also implications about some decisions that he might have taken prior to the film that caused there to be a split within his family. But that’s implied, it’s never spelt out – but I think there’s enough there if someone pays attention. The clues are there. I think the sci-fi audience love a brain twister. And even if you don’t answer the questions of what happened exactly when, the story still works. 

AB: Chimera explores a near future of stem cell research, xenotransplantation,  cryptobiosis and genetic hybridisation. How important was it for you to stay close in your imaginative extrapolations to where science is already currently headed?

Maurice Haeems: One of the things that frustrates me from science fiction is we watch, for example, faster-than-light travel, and it’s just assumed that it exists. For me there’s a very cool story that could be told about the attempt, maybe the first success, at that science. And that’s why, for example, The Fly is so compelling, because that is the first time that event is taking place, the first time someone is exploring teleportation. So what I attempted with Chimera is, I took all these different areas of science, and I really went as far as I could, I looked up what other scientists – people at universities, labs – seeing what is currently going on, and then where might this go within 20 or 50 years from now. I didn’t want to go too far out. If there was somebody working in a clandestine lab, and he was, let’s say 10 or 20 years ahead of what everybody else was doing, what might he do? And if the technology were to be misused – or I won’t say ‘misused’, but used for a personal endeavour as opposed to being exposed to the scientific community and done with complete transparency and peer-reviewed and all of those things – but if it was done in this clandestine way and only used for personal objectives, how might somebody use or misuse or – you know, what could happen? And oftentimes for big scientific breakthroughs, there is a single scientist who – Marie Curie, famously – you know, they might test it on themselves or make big personal sacrifices or there’s a big personal factor in place – and that is what I wanted to explore.

AB: Quint is working on big ideas, but on a very small scale. He’s running a kind of cottage lab, it’s his own private lab, and he’s using his family as part of his experimentation. And in an odd kind of way – although this is in no way meant invidiously – that was also what you were doing when you worked on Chimera. You’re making a film on what I understand is quite a low budget, in a restricted setting, and indeed you have one of your own children – and your nephew as well – appearing in the film. How conscious were you of the notion that your own rôle in the laboratory of cinema parallels Quint’s rôle within the film’s story?

Maurice Haeems: You know, I did not think of it then, but now that you mention it, I see it, and you’re right. Absolutely, I’m taking my own child, who’s in the film, and my business partner and very dear friend Jay – his daughter, his little girl, is in the film. My three kids were my screenplay draft reading committee, if you will. My other son and daughter, who you don’t see in the film, they were on the set, they helped me with the editing process. Very much so, I used them as my proxy for the audience, I’d say, “What do you think of this?” I experimented – in that sense – with them. Of course it’s not like what Quint does. Hopefully I did not put my kids in harm’s way…

AB: I’m really not suggesting that. Let’s put this another way. Was it interesting for you, through the medium of fiction, to explore – as a father – a bad father? I don’t want to oversimplify the characterisation of Quint, but at some basic level, he is obviously a bad father.

Maurice Haeems: What I wanted to explore was this belief that many parents have, that, “I know what’s best for my child.” And the way that eventually, he hears voices, or it might be the voice in his head, saying, “Shouldn’t you love them before you lose them forever?” I think in the end good parenting comes from not necessarily believing that you know what’s best for them, but just loving them, even when they’re doing things that you may not necessarily agree with, which you might think are going to lead to bad outcomes for them, but you are still supporting them still loving them, and you’re just there for them. I think that is what Quint struggles with, and I think that is what most parents struggle with. We’ve dramatised it, you know, exponentially – it’s an extreme high-stakes film – but oftentimes your kid might say, “I don’t want to do this,” – and you know, or you feel like you know, that it’s good for them to do this, and many parents have a tough time, including myself, sitting back and saying, “You do what you think is right.” 

AB: Although Chimera is full of hard science, its preoccupations are markedly ethical. What was your approach to keeping Quint sympathetic even after he has crossed so many moral lines?

Maurice Haeems: One of the things I wanted to look at was how the audience would react when you meet a character and he’s presented to you as your protagonist, and the protagonist does something wrong. What I wanted to play with here is if he incrementally starts taking steps, and we see him pushed into a corner to take a step where it’s kind of wrong, but it’s a small wrong step, and then it’s a slightly bigger wrong step, and then a bigger wrong step. How far do we keep rooting for that protagonist? His intentions are always noble, he always wants to save his children, he never is a bully or violent, he doesn’t swear. We don’t see him at any point do something that would make us feel he’s a bad guy. But some of his actions, if you look at them in isolation, you’d be horrified. What I wanted to see was how far can we go with that, while the audience still likes him, is still rooting for him and still wants him to succeed. Human beings have this loyalty, and once we become loyal to a character in a film, then they’ll see it through, which is very interesting.  

AB: What’s next?

Maurice Haeems: I’m struggling with that, quite honestly. I’ve written a script called The Archetype. It’s a completely different story from Chimera, but it explores similar themes and ideas of transhumanism and what’s next for us as a race. But I’m debating whether that typecasts me into this narrow space of – I don’t know what you call this, hard sci-fi genre, whatever genre you call Chimera. I’ve been sent a couple of other scripts that I am looking at, that I might do before The Archetype, but I really love The Archetype, I’ve written it, I’m very enthusiastic about this kind of strand of science fiction. I want to do more. I’m not sure what I want to do next. I’ve been advised to look at something outside of the genre.

AB: You might be happy to be typecast.

Maurice Haeems: That’s what I’ve been thinking about. What I’ve been advised is to separate my writing from my directing – and to look at opportunities to direct other people’s scripts. Which I love. I like reading scripts. I’ve read some scripts which friends have wanted to produce and direct – I think they were great. I gave notes when I could be helpful. I’d love maybe to direct someone else’s script, and I keep reading my own, and maybe my next project after that, maybe I’ll come back to my sci-fi roots, because there’s so much to explore in sci-fi. I mean, apart from explaining where we might go, what’s more interesting is how we might human beings react to these discoveries or these changes or just technology. If you could do anything, for example, gene editing, if you were able to go into a living human being and tweak his genes to increase his resistance to a disease, what else would you tweak his – or her – genes to achieve? So those kinds of ideas, I think, are fascinating to explore through cinema. That’s when I’m most excited.

© Anton Bitel