Still from the movie Synapse

Interview: Kenlon Clark about his independent feature debut Synapse

Kenlon Clark’s debut feature Synapse is a noir‑scented near‑future story revolving around memory technology. After his family is murdered, agent Nathan Stafford (Adam Simon) wakes up alone in a room with a gun in his hand and no idea what has transpired. As he tries to hunt down the killers in the underworld of Los Angeles, a mysterious agency follows his every footstep. It all seems related to the hot commodity of saved memories, which has largely replaced drugs, and Nathan will go down a path that ultimately makes him question his identity.

I got in touch with Kenlon to talk about Synapse, independent film production, science fiction, and the implications of memory technology.

Markus Amalthea Magnuson: I want to start by asking you about your relation to science fiction in general. Synapse is not only your first feature film but your first science fiction film.

Kenlon Clark: Yes, that’s true. A few years ago, I won a screenplay contest, a sci‑fi script that I co‑wrote with Will Rubio called Forged. It dealt with genetic engineering, placing it in the real world. Similar to Synapse in that regard, setting it in our world but combined with some extreme science fiction concepts. Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game, came in second in this contest, which was pretty crazy for us. Science fiction has always been a big influence on me. I’m a comic book guy. Not exactly the same thing, but it involves sci‑fi concepts. When I was a kid, I was into Star Trek, the Next Generation era. I even went to a Star Trek convention.

Markus: About comic books, you draw too, and used to do animation?

Kenlon: I do. I wanted to become a comic book artist very early. I was reading comic books when I was seven or eight years old, and that was back in the day when your parents would drop you off at the comic shop for eight hours and be like, “We’ll pick you up later!” So I would go there, and I would read all the time.

In my family, in general, even going back to my grandparents, creativity has always been a big thing. We were very encouraged to draw and do stuff like that, my parents were very supportive, and there was always an avenue to express yourself. When I was in my early teens, it just shifted naturally over to filmmaking. I still do comic book artwork on my own and have used some for later projects, including some animation. It has been a lot of fun. In filmmaking, I storyboard everything in detail, so drawing has been a huge asset in that way too.

Markus: What would you say are some of the similarities and differences between comic books, drawing, and filmmaking? What’s the cross‑pollination between these things in terms of storytelling?

Kenlon: Different directors have different approaches. Some are probably less visual per se and more into the writing aspect. Writing is an important part for me, but I see film as a very visual medium, and comic books are too. One of the great things about comic books is that you’re getting these still frames, then your imagination does all the work in between the frames. Frank Miller talks about this. Like how in animation, you have keyframes, and all the frames between them happen in your head. So it helps to build that visual muscle. Then, of course, a big thing is expressive composition, depending on what kind of thing you’re shooting. If you’re just shooting two people in a room, you might not be looking for all the interesting, low angles. But if you’re doing a movie like Synapse, the type of framing you find in comic books is useful.

Markus: It’s definitely true some directors, more than others, look at film as primarily a visual medium.

Kenlon: Yeah. And people have their strengths and weaknesses as artists and filmmakers. Or, rather, areas they like to focus on. Filmmaking is a very hectic thing to try and engage with, so however much you want to lean into being Stanley Kubrick and have a perfect composition in everything, there’s always a ticking clock working behind you. With Synapse, I shot it myself while directing it, and I edited the film and served as producer. In the world of doing independent science fiction, you have to be willing and able to focus on a lot of things at the same time. That’s a very broad answer. But I think keeping focus in multiple areas is not a bad thing, at least having a general knowledge of writing, cinematography, editing, and so on, and working with actors and communicating succinctly and in a way that doesn’t get in their head. As a director working with actors, sometimes your job is not to talk too much, and I like to talk, so I have to control that impulse a bit and just make sure I’m giving them what they need and letting them fill in the rest – kind of like with the comic book frames.

Markus: The lead actor Adam Simon also wrote the screenplay. Did you know each other before this?

Kenlon: We had worked on different smaller things, and then we shot some test footage for another project. We just went out and shot a whole bunch of stuff and put it together, kind of a five‑minute visual reel, all of this in one day around LA. It got us thinking that if we could just repeat this for a few weeks, we could turn it into a feature film. We batted around ideas, and Synapse came out of that, and we went ahead and shot it. I have worked with Los Angeles Center Studios and Hollywood Locations over the years in downtown LA, and they came on as producers and helped provide locations. The movie was shot mainly in one building, probably 85% of it, but we obviously made it look like they were going all over LA.

Markus: So you were part of developing the story already from the start?

Kenlon: Yes. We pitched concepts to each other, and we landed on Synapse, and then Adam would start working on pages and sending them to me. It was very fast, exactly how I would tell people not to do it. *laughs* From the time we talked about the idea to when we were shooting was less than three months. Writing the script, prepping and all that was an extraordinarily quick turnaround, in my opinion.

Markus: You have said that near‑future science fiction is interesting as a subject because it’s close to us, but also quite suitable for lower budget projects because most of the environments are similar. Synapse definitely has that quality, where there’s something very familiar about everything, and at the same time, there is something specifically very unfamiliar.

Kenlon: Yes, that’s pretty much exactly the approach that we wanted to take. I like the idea of peeking around the corner to the future because as much as I love space‑faring types of ideas, something is intriguing about seeing things that could be the next 10‑15 years. Going back to our childhood, the idea of “Oh, when you’re an adult, you’ll have a small pocket computer that you can watch movies on, and you can talk to anybody in the world, face to face” would be mindblowing just to think about. Yet here we are. So it’s fun to think about what could be those kinds of next things. Fun and frightening. I think that’s one of the things science fiction does really well. It allows you to explore the danger and dark side of ambition. Ambition is a great thing, but there’s always that playing with fire concept.

I’ll say one other thing too, in regards to that. A big movie for me as a kid, and I’m not sure if it qualifies as a sci‑fi film, was Face/Off. I remember reading about the film and that the original screenplay had taken place in the future, with flying cars and a much more extreme kind of world. I think it was John Woo who went, “Why don’t we just set this in our world?” and then you have these pockets of very advanced technology where things are happening that feel like centuries ahead of where we are. It was always inspiring that you can do an action/sci‑fi film combination and keep it approachable. Face/Off is not the only film that can claim that, of course. Inception is another good example of a movie that is very much in our world in the same sense.

I think the way to accomplish that is to focus more on the story and the characters, but give enough information on the science fiction aspects to make it believable, but not necessarily hinging your entire story on “Well, how exactly does this work?” Because if you can’t show it, you have to accept that the audience can understand the visual language of what you’re trying to do without needing a lengthy explanation. To use Inception as an example, he just shows the briefcase, and there’s an IV, and then they pass out. There isn’t some big sequence going, “You know, dream technology is about…” I mean, the first 90 minutes is expositional dialogue, but it’s focusing on the things Nolan wants rather than trying to establish how the technology logically works.

With Synapse, it was the same thing. The average person doesn’t really know how their iPhone works in terms of its mechanical aspects. Someone in the past seeing an iPhone would go, “Oh my gosh”, but to us, it’s just the world we live in. We accept we can do these things and don’t think about it. So Synapse is taking that same approach.

Markus: It relates to that old Arthur C. Clarke quote about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.

Kenlon: It’s exactly that. You’re trusting the audience to go along as long as you try to engage enough emotionally.

Markus: One of my favourite movies in that category is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which many people don’t think of as science fiction. Because it’s such a strong relationship drama at the core. But very central to its plot, after all, is that there’s a memory technology that lets you erase memories. It’s a symbolic thing in the movie, but still, it’s a sci‑fi element that moves the story forward, and I find that fascinating. It’s so “un‑sci‑fi” in all other regards.

Kenlon: That’s an amazing example. If you look at the production design as well, the computers are very rudimentary and so on. Even though it’s a very advanced technology, erasing memories, it looks like a dentist’s office. Fun little fact, I was in one of the test screening audiences for Eternal Sunshine way back in the day. I was a walking IMDb then, so I immediately recognised Charlie Kaufman when I left the theatre. All the executives were there, but I was in my early 20s and had no idea how things worked. So I just walked up to Kaufman and went, “Oh man, so great!” and so on and put my arm around him and went, “This guy, right? This guy is amazing!” and I wanted to say, “He’s gonna win an Oscar”, but I guess I didn’t want to jinx it, although I wish I had because he did win an Oscar. Later on, I did music videos for an EDM group called Above and Beyond. For one of the videos, we recreated Vertigo to dance music, and they loved that, so we went on a quest and did a number of films, like WALL‑E and Thelma & Louise. But one of the ones they asked for was Eternal Sunshine, so we had to find ways to recreate that. The song is called “Peace of Mind”, you can go look it up on YouTube.

Markus: Speaking about Synapse and its concepts, what were some contemporary phenomena that influenced the story? There’s a parallel made in the movie between these recorded experiences or memory plants, and drugs. I guess this also relates to hypermedia and our ongoing – I’d say – merger with technology. What currents in society did you pick up for Synapse?

Kenlon: Part of what is fascinating about this idea is social media, a vicarious experience where you live through other people’s lives. You see their Instagram stories, and you see their photos from Hawaii. They go to this and that. Essentially, you’re kind of weirdly downloading their memories into your brain because you’re seeing their point of view of what they were experiencing at the moment. It creates different reactions. Sometimes you go, “Wow, look at that!” but other times you’re more sad, like “I wish I were there”, depending on what’s going on in your life. Synapse is along those lines. How addictive living through other people could become. Frank in the film is an overgrown Peter Pan kind of character in the sense that he’s a little bit of a man‑child who doesn’t grapple with the challenges of addictions and those kinds of things, which has pretty tragic consequences. It’s about distraction and the inability to live your own life and face your responsibilities, instead choosing to live through other people. But I’m not necessarily expressing an opinion about social media. It’s like anything else, it’s a tool, and it’s contingent on how people use it and the responsibility they show. Obviously, it’s extremely beneficial for many people, for artists and others who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get their stuff out to where they wanted to. Instagram, if you’re an artist, is a tool to build a career. So I’m not casting judgment on social media, but it’s a classic case of just because we can do something, should we do it?

Markus: It seems like, with every new technology that shows up, someone manages to do something creative with it. Synapse has the concept of saved memories in a total immersion form. Do you see there being a creative outlet for that? Using that technology as an equivalent of making films? Many films that deal with similar things, like Strange Days, are often very dark. There’s not much exploration of the purely positive sides of those technologies. Almost all science fiction films are dystopian, in a sense, which when you start thinking about it is strange. If you look at Synapse from that perspective, do you see a near‑future where saved memories is a positive force?

Kenlon: I do. And it’s a great point. Filmmakers and storytellers often focus on where the conflict is, so science fiction leans into the more dystopian perspectives, a wielding the fire type of thing. But as we’ve seen, there are very positive aspects to technology, in that it benefits and helps people. I think of Fahrenheit 451 and how Ray Bradbury wrote it as an anti‑television book and warning that people would be so obsessed with TV that they wouldn’t want to read anymore. But at the same time, you see how there’s such a positive aspect in giving people opportunities to see things they wouldn’t have otherwise, even things like using the Oculus in certain therapies. Something like the technology in Synapse could be used therapeutically to help people work through their past and reconcile things that have happened. Someone could have a traumatic experience they didn’t want to talk about but was willing to share with another person, and that person was able to experience it from a third‑party perspective if you will. Think about how a trained therapist could use that to figure out how to deal with the situation. So you can definitely see how mental health, therapy, rehabilitation, all of those things could benefit from a memory‑sharing technology if wisely utilised. Maybe that’s going to be Synapse 2. *laughs*

Eternal Sunshine does a good job of showing both the positives and negatives of the technology, or maybe at least places a little less judgment on it. They keep erasing their relationship, but there’s a love that even the technology can’t reach, that tries to keep them closer together. My dad was a marriage and family counsellor, so I’m kind of familiar with a lot of this stuff, how people often would just like to erase or remove memories. But in many ways, memories teach us lessons and hopefully allow us to move past and live our lives in the present. Another point about living through technology, I might go back to a negative aspect here, is that we want to escape and step out of our world for a bit, but there’s something about living in the present that is very beneficial.

Markus: In Synapse, not much time is spent on the company behind the technology, I think deliberately so. What their intentions were, why they had to have this team of people tracking people down, the private regulation, and so on. It seems like a lot is going on, but we don’t know much about the origins. Did you have something in mind about where this is all coming from and where it’s going? Not that shows up in the movie, but that you had yourselves as a backdrop to work with?

Kenlon: We explored it enough to establish our story. The movie almost takes place in real‑time and involves all these sequences from the past, so we looked at it almost like looking through a keyhole into this world. Trying to make a 90‑minute independent science fiction movie like this doesn’t leave much room going into the entire backstory. Like how the agency operates, what would make the government bring in the agency in the first place, or how the technology became, essentially, a drug culture. Things like that. It’s stuff that we would talk about, but at this point, it’s been so long since we shot the movie that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to say exactly what every part was in the backstory. But there was enough there to build a framework. In any agency, there would be good people and bad people. Let’s explore that idea, doing kind of a gritty cop film, like The French Connection or Narc, but instead of cocaine in a suitcase, it’s people’s memories. That was our initial approach. Then we built what we needed as a framework around it. But yeah, it raises many interesting questions about what else happens in this world and how this technology would affect other areas.

Markus: It’s a very high‑paced, on‑your‑edge type of movie. You mentioned it being almost in real‑time, but it deals with flashbacks and various memory mechanisms. We’re slightly confused sometimes, but then it’s wrapped up in the next scene, kind of a benign confusion kind of thing. It’s moving forward all the time, high‑powered.

Kenlon: What you’re saying is exactly what we were going for, and also the challenge of telling a story like this. It’s always a battle between how much information you give to an audience that lets them know enough to go, “OK, I’ll keep watching”, but also leaning into what’s around the corner. I think Tarantino talked about how a story should unravel, not just be dropped on you. We were very ambitious, and it required a lot of re‑editing and finding ways to make sure we were giving enough and the right information at each point. So you’ll have sequences where the characters get to talk, and they are discovering things along with the audience, but it was always a balance. We tried to do a kind of action movie that we love that feels very fast‑paced and constantly moving forward, like a rollercoaster, also adding a bit of mystery. That’s why we lean into some film noir aspects as well. Adam’s character wakes up with a gun in his hand, a John Doe kind of character waking up wondering how he got there, starting to figure things out. Memento is a big influence on the movie too, we weren’t looking just at action films, but all sorts of memory‑based movies. Philip K. Dick is a huge influence in terms of the world we were trying to create. We would reference him all the time.

Markus: I think about A Scanner Darkly, in terms of the technology, but also the theme of chasing someone that might be yourself in some weird way. “It looks like me, having done those things, but I’m chasing whoever did it, so it can’t be me.”

Kenlon: Yeah, we always leaned into that. At the beginning of the second act, they start to realise what’s really happening, and the characters are traumatised by this. Like I said before, memory sharing is normal in the movie, like our iPhones are normal, but what if your iPhone had made your identity completely confused? It would be very frightening, and we wanted to include that Philip K. Dick quality. By the way, when I’m making comparisons like that, I’m not at all putting our film on the level of Dick. He was a science fiction savant. So influential on so many people and thinking decades ahead of everyone.

Markus: There are many good sci‑fi authors, but so many filmmakers have adapted Dick’s work specifically. It seems like something about his ideas works really well in film and television for some reason, like with Stephen King and horror. It’s originally in written form, but there is something about it that translates to the screen. Maybe there are cinematic qualities in the stories already. I find it fascinating that some of Dick’s pretty advanced or complex ideas still work well in film – they almost shouldn’t in some cases. There are some other completely unfilmable authors because their ideas are too complex. Take someone like Ted Chiang. Arrival was a pretty good attempt, but with some of his stories, you almost can’t see how you would make a film out of them.

Kenlon: I think one of the things to isolate in Philip K. Dick’s work and why I think he works well in terms of translation is that the core idea of his stories is often the question of what is real. You have that in Blade Runner and Total Recall. They explore the concept of what is real, and movies themselves are leaning into that same idea, wanting you to suspend disbelief, and you get so into it that you forget you’re watching a movie. There’s a lot of complexity, nuance and layers to everything in his work, but there’s also this basic, kind of primal, question of reality. The Matrix is probably, in many ways, most famously influenced by Dick even though it’s not an adaptation, and there you see just how much fun you can play with this idea. On a side note, I have a nephew who’s really into filmmaking but never saw The Matrix. He’s around 21 and was like, “Yeah, I’ve heard of it”, and so two months ago, we sat down to watch it. It’s one of those things where he thought he knew it, but he had all these mind‑blowing moments and just went, “Wow, that’s amazing!”

Markus: I think it’s pretty shocking to both you and me that people haven’t seen The Matrix until you realise it’s kind of old now.

Kenlon: It’s aged incredibly well. I saw it in a theatre on the 20th anniversary, and it’s still so engaging even though I’ve seen it 50 times before. I think a lot of that is because of the question it poses: What if in your mind you could do all these things, that your mind is the thing that’s limiting you. There’s a great sense of empowerment in the film that, in 100 years, someone could watch and still find engaging. Then, obviously, it has kung fu and John Woo‑style gun sequences, and so on, it’s so smart.

Markus: I think it’s always so impressive when someone manages to combine quite heavy philosophy with full‑on super‑entertaining, classic cinema with all the visuals and action. It rarely happens. Minority Report would be another example, which happens to originate in Philip K. Dick too. It combines a compelling, advanced, and quite disturbing idea, with something that is also just a thriller and works exceptionally well as such.

Kenlon: Yes! And what you just said literally defines what stories I want to tell. Some people want high concept, and some might want something to think about. There’s room for both in filmmaking; why not merge the two and surprise both audiences.

Markus: What other projects are on your radar? In terms of things that might happen soon, and maybe more interesting, the bigger ideas you would want to be working on someday.

Kenlon: Right now, I’m working on a television series with Adi Shankar, who produced Dredd and other movies. I had won a writer’s contest he ran a few years back with a short film that I wrote about Mr Rogers as a Navy Seal. I had a lot of momentum at the time and was winning these contests, which is extraordinarily difficult and disappointing in most cases, but I had a nice streak. So I won this contest and got a budget to shoot it. (It’s on YouTube.) Much like with Synapse, I handled many parts of that film. This led to Adi and me developing our friendship and working relationship, so I’ve been working, in various capacities, on his new television series, which will be announced soon. That show has been my main focus for the past two years. Even when the pandemic hit, we kept working on it remotely. It’s an incredible show, unlike anything you have ever seen before. It leans into some familiar concepts popular today, but visually, all the rules are thrown out the window.

Going back to comic books. When I was ten, I made my first movie. It was a Spider‑Man movie with a home video camera. In high school, I won a scholarship based on a whiteboard animation I made that was a superhero‑based thing, and I did a final project in film school that was a superhero film too. This was in 2000 at the cusp of the superhero renaissance, and a deluge of comic book content came out around that time. I said that if I don’t make a superhero film, I don’t know if I could live with myself. People talk about superhero exhaustion, but I don’t get it. No, not me; give me more. So I’d love to do some superhero stuff and comic book‑related projects.

I have a few other scripts, one of which is Forged that I mentioned before. It’s a philosophical approach to science fiction like we have talked about, mixed with mystery and some action and characters making big, human choices.

Following up with Kenlon Clark in September, a few months after the initial interview in May, work is ongoing with the new television show. Details are still under wrap, but hopefully, there will be some announcements soon. Synapse is now finally being released and having had some time and space to wind down, Kenlon reflects on the production.

Markus: What has happened in the world of Synapse since we last talked?

Kenlon: It’s finally going out to different territories and markets, and that’s really exciting. When you make an independent film, there’s a lot of risks. I talked to Adi [Shankar] about this, about making something with whatever resources you have at your disposal. Filmmakers sometimes say, “I only had a piece of paper and a camera!” but in fact, there’s often one thing that stands out as a big advantage. For me, it was that I have a great relationship with Hollywood Locations and Los Angeles Center Studios. So even though the narrative of “I had nothing” wasn’t far off, thankfully, I had some generous access to locations.

Besides the public aspects of the film in the months since we shot it, it’s also been about the emotional journey of completing an independent project and everything that goes into it. What I’d like to say about producing an independent film is that two big things are on your side, even though it doesn’t feel like it. The first is the willingness to take a risk. The other thing is work. Nothing can stop you from working, and if you keep at it, you can walk out with something you’re proud of.

Even though we shot Synapse quite a while ago, watching it recently while making deliverables for the distribution company, I still really loved the movie. Sometimes you make something, and you look back on it five years later and go, “Meh”. But with Synapse, I felt like that was a deeply passionate endeavour. If you come at it from that angle, it will hold up for you because you will know you were giving it everything.

Trying to keep the interview at least somewhat geared towards Synapse and its ideas, lengthy parts of my conversations with Kenlon Clark were omitted this time. We’ve talked about Dune and how Denis Villeneuve manages to hypnotise, why Paul Verhoeven is the master of ambiguity, what Reminiscence has to say about memory tech, and maybe most important, why Martin Campbell deserves to be worshipped. No doubt, Kenlon Clark is intensely passionate about science fiction and has no shortage of ideas. Stay tuned.

Kenlon Clark is repped by Le’Ander Nicholson at Believeland.

Synapse premieres on VOD in the US on September 7, 2021.

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