I had the pleasure of speaking to the imaginative, talented, and creative Carl Strathie about his debut feature film, Solis. It tells the poignant story of Troy Holloway (Steven Ogg), a man trapped in an escape pod hurling closer to the sun whilst he suffers the physical, and in turn psychological distress accompanying a fight for survival. Strathie’s sharp use of colour and symbolic layering make it a journey worth seeing.
Natali: What drew you to tell this story in particular?
Carl Strathie: We wanted to tell a story of a person on their own in the wilderness; man-versus-nature, finding himself. I always wanted to tell that story, but I didn’t know it was in space until I came out with this idea of coming up with a really cheap film, that Solis was born. The cheapest place to film was space because it’s just green screen. Solis doesn’t have to be set in space; in can be in the woods or on a life raft at sea, but that was the birth of it.
N: The grandeur of space is beautifully captured in the film but at the same time has a minimalist feel to it as the CGI is less obvious. What techniques did you use to create the shots?
CS: From the get-go, I didn’t want the film to have a modern feel. Films like Gravity and The Martian have that; the best technology is used. I wanted our film to look like it was made in the 90s and still look good. I wanted to shoot on celluloid film; we mostly shot digitally but added a film grain. Even though we were set in space, I wanted us to avoid CGI and be as practical as we could. The sparks in the film and steam-bursts are real and we had real spark-triggers on set. Steven was amongst all the chaos - the set shook and everything. When it came to space, we tried doing it practically, using a black sheet with lights but it looked terrible; like 60s Star Trek, so we thought, ok, we must use CGI for space. I wanted something to be real, so the escape pod is actually a miniature, but we didn’t have the money to make the macro-details. We had the positioning of the pod and they put it into a CGI space, masking the escape pod digitally, adding more details. The escape pods and crafts are 50% real/miniature and 50% CGI. But space is complete CGI. It was great shooting miniatures, I didn’t want to go complete CGI because I think sometimes people can tell.
N: Solis carries distinctive sci-fi tropes; how would you say it contributes to the genre?
CS: I think a film can be really good when the emotion, concept and heart of the film doesn’t revolve around sci-fi but is just set in a sci-fi world. Take Alien, it doesn’t even have to be set in space. Solis doesn’t have to be sci-fi, it could be a survival film set in a sci-fi world. I think that could enhance the genre. In the same way, sci-fi enhanced Solis because Holloway’s environment is fantastical. Instead of a life-raft sinking, Holloway is hurling towards the sun; it’s more cinematic and exciting. Escapism, I suppose, to get away from normal stuff.
N: How did sci-fi escapism become a vehicle through which Holloway could explore, and perhaps survive his own grief?
CS: One way I saw it was Holloway was dead all along. The pod is the life-support in his consciousness, Roberts is the divine voice talking to him from his bedside, and the sun is the imagery in his head. When you watch the film, you can hear a life-support breathing machine added for texture and maybe symbolism. For me, the sci-fi escape pod represents Holloway’s grief; he’s hurling towards self-destruction and doom. It’s not his fault, things in life happen to people. Survival depends on how you handle them. Holloway could have gotten out of that situation easily had he acted sooner, but there’s always someone there to help him. If you open your eyes, there is always someone who can help you. For Holloway, that’s Roberts, and it turns out she’s been through worse. My favourite scene was when he tells her he had a son, just before the debris comes through and he has to get into his suit. It was a one-take shot because we were running out of time. The pods were always down, and we had to move the lights in conjunction to the camera, ensuring we didn’t get a shadow because the light was coming from the front, and the camera was always in front of him. I thought it wouldn’t work, but because we were so pressed for time, we took a risk and turned out perfectly. The light is on him; it’s warm and he’s talking to Roberts. When she says, “tell me about yourself”, it’s the perfect opportunity for him to tell her why he’s been acting this way; why he doesn’t want to survive. He had a son and died, and says, “I’ve got nothing to live for”. As he thinks this, the light pulls away, the set goes blue and cold, and the pod drones a bit. We wanted his emotional state to affect the pod’s stability.
N: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
CS: Nothing is out of your reach. It might sound a bit cheap, but I speak to young filmmakers at festivals asking for advice and tell them that we literally just approached Steven. We are not a big company; our office was our bedroom. We had part-time jobs, just normal people cleaning toilets, trying to get a film made. Obviously, you need the script but firstly you must believe that you can do it. There will be nos but there could be a yes with someone and that could be all it takes.