In “The Last Known Good State,” engineers mingle with a female robot; they blow up stars; they fall in love.
The film, the brainchild of writer and director Alexander Berman ’10, is now in post-production, being edited in Berman’s scattered, near-apocalyptic basement office where working all night seems ordinary, an affect of the setting. Berman prefers it this way. He’ll edit — “binge” — until sunrise, before “purging for days.” Metaphors are, after all, the lifeblood of a filmmaker.
The film is Berman’s thesis for the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES). It is not his first film, but is the final one he’ll create at Harvard. And he wants to go out with a bang.
“I wanted to do something you’ve never seen before,” he said, “and something that I may never get a chance to do again when I graduate.” In one of the film’s sequences, his star-struck engineer caresses his lovely blonde mate of artificial intelligence. She’s more Brigitte Bardot than R2-D2, and wearing pasties.
“It’s sci-fi, so scantily clad is normal,” said Berman.
Shooting over 10 days in the Carpenter Center, Berman secured two grants from VES and the Harvard College Research Program that afforded him a budget for an elaborate production. Though only 15-20 minutes long, the film is enriched by a litany of special effects and a set that could modestly be described as mind-blowing.
For instance, imagine tents — used as futuristic office cubicles — that are projected with astral visualizations to create a sensory 3D experience.
“In a 20-minute film, if you want people to experience something intellectually and emotionally,” he said, “you have to strike them with an image, because otherwise it feels like minimalism.”
For Berman’s involved and visually arresting projections, he contacted the Alliances Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes at the University of Chicago, which maps 3-D images of supernovae. He solicited the help of production designer Amy Davis, A.L.B. ’10, and Tomasz Mloduchowski, a special effects engineer, from Blattaria Design and Effects Ltd., whom Berman put in charge of special effects. Berman’s brother, Benjamin ’12, an animator also in VES, and director of photography Andrew Wesman ’10 are lending their skills to add more layers of artistry to this uniquely cool senior film.
Berman, who has long been interested in technology, said, “The idea for this film went through a lot of iterations.” But he dubbed it, above all else, a love story. “Looking at all these boy-meets-girl, twenty-something films, the farthest thing from those is a sci-fi.”
But doing the farthest thing is what Berman does best. He intended to go to law school but during his first semester at Harvard knew he wanted to pursue film. “I’m interested in politics and social issues but wanted to explore those issues instead through art.”
After his change of heart, Berman embarked to, of all places, Siberia. His parents are Russian, and although Berman was born in the United States he knew he wanted to make a documentary there. The film was supposed to be about Siberian ecology and volcanoes. As Berman traveled from Alaska to Siberia, he found himself ironically “hopping on a plane chartered by Wall Street execs going trout fishing there.”
When Berman finally arrived, the Russians he met wanted bribes for information, and Berman quickly realized he would go broke trying to make the movie he’d set out to film. So he chartered a cab to a remote part of Siberia, accompanied by his crew of brother and mother, who served as his translator. “I knew one name in this ethnic group of reindeer herders,” he recalled. “The guy’s name was Nikolai.”
Against the odds, they found him. “He showed me around this village of aboriginal Siberians, closely related to Canadian Inuits,” Berman said. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these people went through a gut-wrenching time. Cultural subsidies created everything for them, and when that went away there was no economy.”
Berman wanted a hopeful note, though, and centered his new film on the village’s makeshift shipping industry. “They take decommissioned Soviet tanks, all-terrain tanks, and run them up and down the Kamchatka peninsula to feed the villages that are most remote.”
The result was “Songs from the Tundra,” which Berman screened internationally and which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Provincetown International Film Festival.
He hopes to show “The Last Known Good State” in similar fashion, starting with the VES’s annual screening each April. But now, while he edits, he’s planning for his departure from Harvard and “trying to get some money together to go back to Siberia. I have a really great story to tell there, and that’s my most developed project.”
He’s also writing a feature-length script based on “The Last Known Good State,” a project special to Berman for another reason. At the end of the film, artificial intelligence takes the engineer back to his college dormitory to before, Berman said, “he got on this very corporate career path.”
“It was a script that became personal because I’m leaving Harvard and people from Harvard go on to do very high-profile, very well-paid, very successful jobs. But it’s so hard to live up to the variety and the intensity that you have here, and I wanted the character to experience that as well.”
Berman is entertaining thoughts of where he might go next. He could stay in Boston, or possibly head for Los Angeles, even New York. Anywhere, just as long as he has film.
“All my films are about frontiers,” he said. “In ‘The Last Known Good State,’ it’s a romantic frontier — how does one love a machine? — and a scientific frontier, which is blowing up these stars. Film’s ability to interrogate that frontier and bring that to people, I think it’s the most exciting thing.”